Sara Sutton Fell launched FlexJobs.com in 2007 at a time when her own work situation was in flux. She’d already launched and sold her first job-search company and was later laid off as she was about to give birth to her first child. Trying to manage that work/life balance sparked an idea: a website that offered real opportunities for a career that didn’t involve long commutes, a rigid schedule, and gave leeway for dealing with families on the move. Sutton Fell runs the FlexJobs.com out of her own house in Boulder, Colo., but there’s no “company home office.” All of FlexJobs’ 24 team members telecommute, too.
EM: You founded your first company during a summer break from college. What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs—and in particular young women—now?
SSF: The first big piece of advice is to be realistic about the opportunity. Really research it and do your due diligence. For me, entrepreneurship is passion-based. It’s an idea that I can’t get out of my head or I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it. For me, that’s the “tell.” This is something that I’ve got to explore. And when you go through that exploration process, that’s when you’re being realistic. You flush out the idea, the opportunity, and look at the competition. You also need to be honest with yourself about what it will take. And you may not know [that]—there’s no way to know until you do it. A lot of it will be hard work, determination, and sticking it through some rough patches.
For women, one of the biggest challenges is finding mentors or people to really talk with about it. The biggest lesson I learned when my first company ended, that I carried very firmly into this next company, is having the confidence to listen to my woman’s intuition. A lot of people will tell you that you should be doing it a different way, or better, or that it’s already been done. Those are the naysayers trying to direct your ship. It is very important to listen to your gut.
EM: You manage your staff of 24 employees remotely. When you have a meeting, what's your standard for how remote workers should participate?
SSF: It varies. We have a management call once a week. There are eight of us on that call and it is interactive. We make sure everyone’s there—we take roll call (laughs). For calls with fewer participants, it’s definitely nice to be able to engage and collaborate and be a bit more casual about the whole process. But I actually do make a point of asking friendly questions about people. For example, one of our team members just moved from Atlanta to Texas and of course I asked, “How’d the move go?” “Are you settled?” Things like that, because especially being remote, it’s very important to make those friendly, personal connections. These are people—they have lives. They’re not just a staffer. And if you’re in an office, that happens more naturally because you’re standing in an elevator together or in the kitchen making coffee. So I do make an effort during meetings to do that.
We also do a lot of screen sharing, so that, say, everyone can see my screen. The challenge is having the technology that’s working for you.
EM: How do you foster teamwork among remote employees?
SSF: We have individual team meetings for the writers, or researchers, or the marketing team. Those are opportunities to be a bit chattier sometimes, but also to collaborate and to brainstorm.
I do have a ringing endorsement for Yammer.com. It’s kind of like a Facebook for companies—you can invite people who are tied to your domain and it enables a chat. But you can also create separate groups—for example, we have a researchers’ group. They’re on at all different times, in different time zones, including one in Europe. We have people looking for jobs all of the time. And if someone runs into a problem or has a question, they can chat about it on Yammer and someone will respond. You can leave a window open on your screen, or you get an email saying you have a new message. It’s actually a really interesting and dynamic environment for people who, in many cases in our company, haven’t met in person, to work together. And it’s really intimate, like in an office, where you can poke your head in and say, “Can I ask you a quick question?”
EM: How do you hire? What questions do you ask and what traits do you seek?
SSF: In a remote environment, it’s even more critical to hire people who care passionately about the company and the job. I want people who aren’t going to look at this as just a job—they actually believe in what we’re doing. They tell their friends about it. Even if they weren’t on our team, they’d be telling their friends about it.
In terms of skills and traits that I look for, proactive communication is probably the top of the list. I want someone who isn’t afraid to ask questions, who’s not afraid to say, “Hey, I don’t understand this. Can you explain it to me?” That’s one of the challenges of working remotely. You can’t look over and see that somebody’s face looks frustrated. Instead, you do need to rely on that level of honest communication.
Self-discipline is also important. I look for people who are organized and self-motivated. But I also want to hire people who are going to be satisfied with this work environment, because working remotely 100 percent of the time is not for everybody. If you’re someone who derives some of your social life from work, for example, working remotely might be pretty difficult for you. A lot of the people on our team have pretty darn busy lives outside of work. And they’re looking for that remote job to help them juggle that busy life. I’ve found that by offering them that flexibility, we get such an exchange of loyalty, passion, drive, and focus when they are working.
EM: Telecommuting/work-from-home situations seem to be exploding for a variety of reasons—greener commuting, work hours that can shift by time zone, popularity with people with young kids. What do you tell a small business owner who's on the fence about trusting an employee who's out of their line of sight?
SSF: Go with your comfort level. Employers can put certain metrics in place. So, if it’s a new hire, you’ll have to look at what the role is, what you want this person to do, and what pieces of the puzzle can be done remotely. Then decide how you are going to measure their success. Is it the number of leads they get that day? Is it things on a to-do list that they can cross off? Whatever it is, what are the metrics that you’re really looking for them to accomplish? And try to make them as measurable as possible so that at the end of the week you can come up with a tally that shows how successful they’ve been.
I also recommend putting into place a regular check-in. I like weekly check-ins. When we’re training someone, we usually do two or three check-ins the first week, just to open the door to building that relationship and really encourage them to ask questions and make sure they’ve got it down.
EM: Any traditions that are unique to a virtual office setup? What do you do, say, for the end of the year festivities or birthdays?
SSF: It can be tough. It’s something that is important to me—to create an environment where we are supportive of each other and we somehow celebrate together. Some of our team members are in Colorado, so historically we’ve had a Colorado holiday lunch and this summer we may try to do a barbecue.
We do have an open policy that if one person is in another team member’s town, then, of course, on the company dime they can go out to lunch, or drinks, or whatever it is to meet each other.
It’s trying to be human—sending flowers when someone is sick, or a birthday gift, or just doing the things that you’d do in an office environment. You just have to take an extra step to make that happen.