How to Run A Virtual Business, and Serve Clients Nationwide, from a Small Town in Northern Michigan
When my wife and I started fantasizing about moving to Traverse City, a small town on shores of Lake Michigan, we kept bumping up against a brick wall: We could live there, but how could we make a living? Big problem. We could never get past the fantasy phase if we couldn’t figure out how to make a buck.
It’s a problem that many people face when looking to start over in a small town, particularly one that is a popular vacation spot. Real estate prices are high, but there aren’t as many high paying jobs available as there are in high population centers of business and commerce.
Our situation was a bit different — we didn’t have jobs, but we had a business. And our business had a building, employees who all lived in metro Detroit, and clients primarily located in Southeast Michigan. It wasn’t realistic to think that we could pick up our business and move it to Traverse City, keep our employees and clients, and maintain — let alone grow — our income.
Or so we thought.
We often get asked about how we overcame one of the biggest challenges we faced in making our move to Traverse City — namely, how we moved our business, too. So we decided to write about our experience, and share some tips and insights about how to build a flexible business that you can operate from anywhere.
Have you ever thought about starting a business from home, or transforming an existing “bricks and mortar” business into a virtual one? Hopefully you can learn from some of the things we did right — and wrong — along the way.
Our business, Harrington, is a brand strategy and design agency that specializes in providing creative solutions for sophisticated professional services firms such as law, consulting and accounting firms. I do brand strategy work and write for clients, and Heather is our creative director. We have a team of designers and account executives who work for us as full-time employees, and we have a network of back-end website developers that we work with.
We get hired by firms interested in re-branding, and a typical engagement involves developing a brand strategy, a new brand identity (often including a new logo and tagline), and designing and developing a new website. We also produce lots of content and thought leadership pertaining to professional services marketing and business development through our agency blog: Simply Stated.
A Virtual Solution
Not content to be geographically inhibited by our business, in 2014 we set about to come up with a solution that would allow us live where we wanted but not give up our livelihood and start over. We started considering the feasibility and viability of operating virtually.
A virtual business is one where employees are dispersed and work remotely — from home or wherever they happen to be at any given moment — using digital tools to communicate and collaborate with each other and clients.
We immediately recognized some of the obvious benefits, including cost savings on rent, utilities and maintenance, as well as time savings from the lack of office upkeep and commuting.
Those benefits were nice, but ancillary. For us it all came down to flexibility; if we could pull this off we could eliminate the biggest obstacle keeping us from moving to Traverse City.
But it wasn’t a slam dunk decision free from risk. For one, we didn’t know how our employees would react. Sure, working from home sounds great, but it’s not for everyone. It takes discipline and it can be lonely at times. Nor did we know how clients would take it. Most of the collaboration we do with clients is done digitally, and when we do meet face to face it’s often at the client’s office, but most of our clients are large firms and we weren’t sure how they would react to our transition to a virtual environment.
There are always risks, though, and we’re always up for a challenge. So we decided to go for it.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
— Mark Twain
Here’s what we did, as well as some lessons we learned about what works — and doesn’t — about taking a business virtual.
The Virtual Model
Not every business can be run virtually. Those that can are typically technologically-oriented service providers. Think consulting — IT, marketing, design, web development and insurance to name a few. If lots of face time is required with clients or customers, or if employees need to be located in a physical location to get their work done, it’s probably not going to work.
In our business, almost everything we do with clients is done in a virtual environment, with one exception. At the outset of some engagements I need to travel to a client’s location in order to meet with its professionals in order to conduct interviews and due diligence as part of our brand strategy process. For example, we work with an international consulting firm headquartered on the east coast and I traveled to a couple of the client’s major offices in order to conduct fact gathering and brainstorming sessions. It would have been difficult if not impossible to conduct this work virtually.
But that’s not always the case. We recently worked with a law firm headquartered in San Francisco and all of the fact gathering was done virtually via conference calls and video chats. In both cases, however, once the initial brand strategy was complete, all subsequent work, including brand and website design, was done without another face to face meeting.
The point is that, even with a virtual business, you can’t work in your slippers all of the time. Just most of the time.
Niche to Go Virtual
One of the problems we faced when we decided to go virtual was the fact that, while we were operating out of our physical location in metro Detroit, most of our clients were based within 90 miles of us. Our market was local.
With proximity came the expectation that we would be able to meet frequently and without much advance notice. Obviously that wasn’t going to work if we picked up and moved 250 miles away to Traverse City. So we had to recalibrate our thinking and strategy, and decrease our dependence on “local” work. Easier said than done for a small business.
What we decided to do was to stop thinking small and start marketing ourselves as a national service provider. But we couldn’t just market as a generalist marketing and design agency and expect to compete for work in major cities around the country. We had to specialize.
That’s because these days clients are not looking for service providers with general expertise, they are looking for specialists in narrow fields. For example, if your energy company is facing a lawsuit that could lead to its bankruptcy, you find the best lawyer that specializes in energy industry litigation — wherever he or she may be — not the guy down the street who takes on whatever work comes in the door. If you’re dealing with a potentially life threatening heart issue, you don’t seek treatment from your general practitioner family doctor, you get on a plane to see the top cardiac specialist in the country.
We knew we needed to specialize. The problem was that we were providing marketing and design services to a wide range of clients in disparate industries. We were generalists.
But in looking at our client mix, it became clear that a heavy concentration of our work was in professional services. We liked the work that we were doing for these clients, and we were good at it. So we re-tooled our focus and our own brand strategy and started pursuing work in this niche, with a heavy emphasis on targeting law firms.
Soon we started getting requests from large firms across the country. Michigan is still an important market for us, but now the majority of our clients are in markets like Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco. These clients don’t care where we’re located — they just care that we specialize in solving the types of business problems they face. In fact, many of them appreciate the fact that we operate with low overhead from a small town in Michigan because it allows them to receive high-end work product at reasonable rates relative to our competitors in, for example, Manhattan or Los Angeles.
The lesson here is that if you want to start a virtual business in a small town, you have to think big. And to think big you need to carve a niche for your business. Specialize in a narrow domain and you can compete for clients anywhere.
It’s not as hard as it might seem. Within a year of adjusting our strategy we had developed an active national client base. You just need to be strategic and go for it. Start with a simple analysis.
For most virtual businesses, potential areas of expertise to pursue can be identified at the intersection of interests, experience, and market opportunities. So ask yourself three questions:
1. What type of work do I like to do?
2. What type of work am I good at?
3. What opportunities exist in the marketplace? In other words, are people buying what I’d like to sell?
If you can determine what you like to do, what you’re good at and where market opportunities exist, and then find some commonality among them, you’ll be in good shape when it comes to carving out a niche for your virtual business.
To operate virtually, you’ll have to be very comfortable and adept at leveraging technology to run your business. Fortunately, all the tools you need are prevalent, easy to use, and affordable. Cloud computing has made it all possible. Here’s what we use and recommend:
Email and Calendar. We use Google Apps for our email and calendar. It’s cheap, reliable and easy to use.
Collaboration. For intra-office collaboration among employees, we use Skype. It’s free and since we use the on-screen video, it allows us to see each other which helps us stay connected in a virtual environment (and also forces us to shower and get out of our pajamas before work!). For client collaboration we use UberConference for video conferencing, conference calls and screen sharing.
Project Management. We’ve used different tools, but probably like Basecamp best. It’s simple and intuitive and allows for lots of collaboration with clients.
Server. We use Google Drive as a virtual cloud server to store and back-up all of our files. It’s affordable and reliable and provides us with unlimited storage which is important since many of the design files we work with are very large.
Software. We license the Adobe suite of design software. It’s expensive, but is cloud-based so we never have to worry about upgrading to the latest version and dealing with DVDs. We use Google Docs, which is free, for all word processing needs.
Note-Taking. Evernote is our go-to note-taking and idea collaboration tool. The basic version is free.
Phones. We’ve used a remote answering service in the past, but we’re transitioning to Grasshopper, which is a virtual phone system and costs about $25 per month.
File Sharing. When files are too big to email, we use Dropbox or WeTransfer.
With the exception of Adobe software — which, if you don’t run a design oriented business, you don’t need — our total monthly expense for these virtual tools is around $100. And the productivity gains we realize are far greater.
How to Pick a Small Town to Go Virtual
There are many reasons why we decided to move to Traverse City — the outdoors, the food, the culture and the people among them. But near the top of the list is that it’s a great place to run a business — particularly a virtual business. Here are a couple of reasons why:
First, while the premise of a virtual business is that you operate in a virtual environment, there will come times when you still need to meet with clients face to face. So you still need to be able to get places. About a week after we moved here I received a call from the marketing director at a major international law firm headquartered in Chicago. She wanted me to be in Chicago later that week for a meeting about a new project. The timing wasn’t ideal, but it was an opportunity we didn’t want to pass up. Fortunately Traverse City has a great airport and direct flights to Chicago. I was able to leave first thing in the morning, be in Chicago for a 10 a.m. meeting, and be back in Traverse City in time for dinner. If you’re going to operate a virtual business from a small town, make sure it has a good airport nearby.
Second, the core of our team consists of full-time employees, we rely on a number of freelance and contract workers to fill in gaps. Traverse City is brimming with creative and tech talent. And while we work with our teams virtually, it’s nice to be able to sit down with someone over a cup of coffee and look him or her in the eye before engaging them to do work.
Running a virtual business comes with its own set of unique challenges. But, in our experience, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. It’s nice to work with colleagues in person, but on balance we’d rather our team — and ourselves — have more family time than time at desks or in the car commuting. Sure, we still work hard, but we can do so more on our own schedule and be more spontaneous with our days. After all, that’s the whole point when you live somewhere great like Traverse City.
Connect With Me! Check out my blog Life and Whim where you’ll find more commentary about living, and running a virtual business that serves clients nationwide, from a small town in Northern Michigan. If you’re interested in learning more about our brand strategy and design agency, Harrington, check out our website. Finally, I have a new book coming out this spring called One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice that teaches lawyers and other professionals how to develop a profitable practice through creative differentiation. My publisher is taking taking pre-orders now! Check it out at www.oneofakindlawyer.com. You can find me on Twitter at @harringj75.