Navigating the Remote Workforce: Ron Callis of One Firefly On Strategies for Growing a Geographically Dispersed Organization

An Interview With Rachel Kline

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine

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Reinforce your mission, vision, and values every day, in everything you do. Your company values should directly correlate with how your team acts toward each other, clients, and other stakeholders. Success stories that align with core values should be called out and acknowledged.

An increasing number of organizations are tapping into the global talent market and building semi or fully-remote workforces distributed far and wide. While harnessing diverse talent can be a boon for innovation, this operational model is not without its challenges. In this series we ask seasoned HR and operations professionals and leaders about what it takes to run a geographically dispersed organization. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ron Callis, CEO of One Firefly.

Ron Callis Jr is the CEO and founder of One Firefly, LLC, an award-winning and Inc. 5000 recognized marketing agency. With over 20 years of experience in the field, he has built a reputation for helping custom electronics businesses grow and succeed through innovative marketing strategies and top-notch website design. Ron is a well-known speaker at industry events, a regular contributor to industry publications, and host of the AV and integration-focused podcast, Automation Unplugged. He’s been a Certified CEDIA Instructor since 2010, a past elected member of Crestron’s Advisory Board, and he currently serves on the Azione Unlimited Advisory Board. In 2021, he was recognized as a CE Pro Masters due to his contributions to the custom electronics industry. Ron is also a fellow with the Birthing of Giants Organization. He obtained his Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Tech in 2000. He currently resides in Tamarac, FL, with his wife (Danielle) and his son (Max).

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Before we drive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Well, this may be a surprise twist coming from someone who works in sales and marketing, but I actually went to school for engineering. I graduated from Virginia Tech with a mechanical engineering degree. After school, I fell into the custom electronics industry quite by chance — I was interested in sales and marketing, so I took a sales job at Lutron Electronics, one of the biggest manufacturers in the smart tech space. From there, I took another sales job at Crestron, another giant manufacturer. I was very good at sales, but I also had that entrepreneurial itch that I couldn’t ignore.

I founded One Firefly (then called Firefly Design Group) in 2007, with the purpose of helping technology integrators in the custom electronics space grow. At the time, I was selling design and documentation services. The Great Recession hit almost immediately after I opened my doors, and surviving those first few years was a challenge beyond anything I’d faced up until then. But chaos also unearths new opportunities, and one of those was the opportunity to pivot into marketing services, which the industry desperately needed (and still does!).

In 2015, Firefly Design Group completed the rebranding into One Firefly, a full-service marketing agency for web design, digital marketing, video, and branding. Our vertical specialization in the custom electronics space has allowed us to deeply understand our customers and landscape, and as a result, we’ve thrived over the years. We’ve made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in the U.S. for the past four years (since 2020), and we’re on track to grow again this year.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This probably isn’t a “funny” mistake, but it was certainly memorable. Back when I was a young entrepreneur, I thought I knew it all already, and I liked to talk more than I liked to listen. In this story, I was working with a potential new client to quote them a scope of work for marketing services. And one of the first things this company needed was a new logo. Their current logo was not good. I won’t describe it, but it was actually a little off-putting.

My mistake was jumping right into my critique of the logo, and all the ways I thought it was terrible, when I met with the client. No tact, all blunt, brutal honesty. And then when the client had a chance to respond, I learned that the current logo had immense personal and sentimental meaning not only to him, but to his family. Needless to say, I didn’t win his business.

I did learn a valuable lesson about leading with grace and empathy. I learned how to ask questions first, and better understand the “why” behind my customers and their choices before diving head first into my own opinions and recommendations. I lost a sale from this interaction, but I am a better person today because of it. So, in the end, I won something of much greater value.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My wife, Danielle. The amount of faith she had in me when I left my cushy sales jobs to start my own business — she not only supported me when I made that decision, but encouraged me to make the leap in the first place. We did it together. And then when Firefly Design Group opened, she not only worked in her own job, but came into the office afterward to manage the finances and wear countless other hats here, helping me do what needed to get done. I was grateful then, and I’m grateful now, for all the love and support she’s poured into me and One Firefly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A lot of my favorite life lesson quotes come from Alex Hormozi. One that particularly resonates from him is: “If you can wait 90 days for a result, you can win. If you can wait a year, you can win big. If you can wait a decade, you can be the best. If you can wait a lifetime, you can change the world.”

I started my own business not knowing if it would succeed. One Firefly (then called Firefly Design Group) opened in late 2007, months before one of the worst recessions we’ve faced swept through the U.S. So there was quite a bit stacked against me from the get-go. But through agile thinking, and a growth mindset, and a ton of sheer grit, perseverance, and discipline, I started to build this company into something special. I put my services out there, and I made it through the first 90 days. And I went back to the drawing table more times than I can count, and refined my offerings, and made it through the first year. Today, One Firefly has been in business for well over ten years, and we are the best marketing agency in the custom integration space. And now? Well, now we’re just working on changing the world.

Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to be more humble and listen more often. Be a better active listener. The older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know, and how much I still have to learn — and the irony is that when I was younger, I thought I knew it all. And I know now that I likely would have accomplished more faster if I had slowed down, practiced more humbleness, and practiced more active listening. And another thing I would tell my younger self is to say thank you more often — I would thank all the people who supported me unconditionally and enabled me to get to where I am today.

Let’s now move to the central part of our interview. What are your “Top Five Strategies for Growing a Geographically Dispersed Organization”?

1. Develop a solid hiring practice. At One Firefly, we follow principles from Brad Smart’s Topgrading and Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s A-Method Hiring to clearly define roles and responsibilities within the organization, key performance indicators by role, accountabilities by role, and best-fit employee profiles for each position. We cast the widest possible net (i.e. — planet earth) to recruit, which increases the statistical likelihood of finding the right matches. And then we follow a very thorough filtering process to bring talent onto the team.

2. Develop a clearly defined mission, vision, and set of values. Make sure everyone knows what you stand for, what you’re trying to accomplish in the world, and who you’re trying to help. A clear company vision and values is a magnet that draws in the right people who are aligned with your values and buy into your vision. And equally, it appropriately deters people who may be a good technical fit, but don’t align with your values. Growing a successful company is as much about who you don’t hire as who you do.

3. Reinforce your mission, vision, and values every day, in everything you do. Your company values should directly correlate with how your team acts toward each other, clients, and other stakeholders. Success stories that align with core values should be called out and acknowledged. We use a tool called Motivosity to give “core value kudos” to team members who live out our values in interactions with other team members and clients.

4. Set clear rules of engagement around communication. Really think through your protocols and policies around all types of communication your team is having. Here, we have camera-on and camera-off rules for video meetings. We have rules for updating your here or away status in Slack, email, and calendar. We have a Slack architecture with corresponding rules for what communications should go into company-wide channels vs. client channels vs. direct messages. And we have protocols for when to escalate communications from Slack into email, phone calls, or video calls. We take communication very seriously — “Speak Up” is one of our five core values. And we practice building good communication habits and speaking up daily with all types of news — good news, bad news, or no news.

5. Develop robust project management. We couldn’t have gone remote if we hadn’t built out a process and product management system. We spent a lot of time defining every step of our process, from sales through onboarding through task production and deployment. And one of the protocols we implemented around project management was time tracking. We determined the time allocation every task should take based on real use cases and regular feedback from the team. Then we’ve been diligent about enforcing time tracking by all staff members across the board. At any point, our team members can see a real-time status update on where a task or project is along the timeline. By building out every single project in a dedicated project environment, then tracking project completion against time, we’ve set up a system with built-in oversight, which means our managers don’t need to micromanage individuals working at home. Our people are able to work autonomously.

Tell us a bit about your workforce, where are your people based?

We have Fireflies dispersed all across North America. Additionally, we have a large — and growing — team based in Mexico. And the fact that we’re completely virtual allows for a freedom of travel among our team.

Why did you decide on a remote model, how has it benefited your organization?

We made the decision to take One Firefly virtual in the fall of 2015 — several years ahead of the proliferation of remote and hybrid companies we see today. At that point, we’d been in business for eight years, operating out of an office space in Hollywood, FL. And right around this time, our leadership team started noticing a few things. One — while our office space was very nice, it felt more like it was about vanity vs. function. Because none of our customers ever came to the office. They were all scattered around North America. Two — we were having difficulty hiring because we were restricted to South Florida. And none of our staff even lived in Hollywood, most were located in Miami or Palm Beach, then commuting up to two hours a day to get to and from the office. And three — our office was expensive. The space alone was almost a six-figure burden on the company in terms of fixed expenses.

At the same time, we felt like internet speeds and cloud services were far enough along that our team could function fully remotely. We were confident we could operate our servers out of the cloud and move to video conferencing software for meetings and communication. We started out using what’s now considered old-school video conferencing — GoTo Meeting and Skype.

We officially closed the office in 2015 when our lease ended, and started seeing the benefits of remote work immediately. The business became more profitable by cutting a hefty overhead expense. We were able to start hiring nationally and internationally, and bring amazing new talent on the team. Our staff reclaimed a lot of their personal time not having to commute. And we don’t just talk about work/life balance, we’ve made it easier to achieve with benefits like no commute and flex-time opportunities. The results have been measurable: quarter over quarter, our eNPS score always comes in above 50, and consistently lands in the 60s and 70s. That is exceptional and rare. And while the average attrition rate for marketing agencies is around 30%, our rate is less than 15% annually.

We’ve built a strong virtual culture that gives our team the connections they desire and the face-to-face interactions they miss about the office. Holding in-person team events is built into our culture at the foundational level — in January 2020, we met as a team in New York City, in 2022 it was Dallas, TX, and this year (2023), we spent a week together in Denver, CO. We’ve set up non-work related Slack channels for our team to come together over books, movies, fitness, nature, travel, food, and so many other hobbies and interests. We hold quarterly virtual events like trivia, and we provide departments with funds to organize virtual or in-person events for their teams. Through platforms like Slack, we celebrate each others’ wins and personal achievements, and we know what’s going on in each others’ lives, even if we don’t meet face-to-face every day.

I also believe that a virtual environment helps level the playing field better for diverse personality types. The fact is, different people thrive in different types of environments. And in an office environment, extroverted individuals are often seen as performing better and having faster career growth, even if that’s not the full reality. But at One Firefly, our virtual environment creates a better balance for letting diversified personalities have space to speak. Our team has more control over the levels of socialness and interaction they have, and the freedom to carve out time during the day to work in silence or take a mental break. In an office setting, sometimes it’s hard to speak up over the loudest people in the room. But in virtual settings, personalities who thrive sharing ideas via the written word or smaller group discussions, and those who feel less intimidated speaking to a camera rather than a full room, have the chance to move into the center of conversations and shine. Meritocracy is the goal at One Firefly, and I truly believe we get closer to it every day here.

What are the main challenges of operating a remote workforce and what strategies do you use to overcome them?

At any company, mine included, you end up with a diverse range of personality types that make up your team. People with different levels of required autonomy, different levels of extroversion and introversion, different levels of interest in being social or not. And in order to make sure everyone on your team can operate from home, you have to be extremely, extremely diligent about setting, training, and enforcing effective communication protocols and standards. Because if — as an organization and as individuals — you aren’t great at communication, then the cracks start to form and sometimes people slip through them. You may end up with team members who feel like they’re in an environment where they’re not seen or heard, bullied, overwhelmed, overworked…..these types of communication breakdowns are incredibly disruptive to a business. When everyone is virtual, “reading the room” isn’t possible — people must be diligently trained and encouraged to speak up and communicate frequently to ensure their needs, and the company’s needs, and our clients’ needs, are being met.

Another challenge we’ve made great strides to overcome at One Firefly is siloing. I think siloing is a risk in any company, whether you’re in an office or not, but it can be enhanced in a virtual environment. I’ll give you an example from One Firefly history — we used to operate our digital marketing department almost entirely independently from our web design department. Project management standards were completely different, and great ideas weren’t being shared cross-departmentally. Plus, people weren’t getting the upward mobility and opportunities to gain new skills in different segments of the business, or interact with team members in other departments. We’ve since changed our organizational structure to prevent that type of extreme siloing from happening again. Today, we implement a lot of cross-functional meeting types, along with processes that are dependent on cross-departmental collaboration. And it’s amazing how we’re seeing ideas and processes that were invented in one department now being shared and used in other departments.

Which tools do you utilize to help run a remote company?

Having the right technology stack is critical for running a successful remote organization, and we’ve certainly experimented with our fair share of tools and platforms over the years. First, every remote organization needs robust CRM and project management platforms — we use the Zoho One suite of services for both. For video conferencing, we primarily use Google Meet, but also keep Zoom as a back-up. Redundancy is important when video calls become your primary method for meeting with people. If one platform is having technical difficulties, or a client has trouble accessing a specific platform, we need a back-up on hand to ensure meetings move forward smoothly. The Google Workspace suite of tools — Docs, Sheets, Slides, and so on — is our hub for collaborative thinking, planning, and working. Slack is our main communication platform, both for work-related matters and non-work related communications that keep our team feeling connected during the day.

Another area we’ve put significant time and effort into finding the right tools for is password protection and security. Our team is in and out of so many platforms that protecting password data is crucial. We use 1Password to store all our important account and log-in information. And our Google Workspace is managed by One Firefly — we require everyone to use their One Firefly email addresses for everything, ensuring that we can reclaim accounts, documents, and other company materials when people leave the organization.

What strategies do you use to find, attract, and hire remote talent?

This is a hot topic for One Firefly right now — we recently launched a new hiring and recruiting service called Amplify People designed to help AV and technology companies in our channel recruit and hire great talent. And one of the many, many reasons we decided to venture into the hiring game is because we’ve spent years developing and refining our hiring processes and methodologies internally. After we went remote in 2015, it became clear very quickly that we now had the widest pool possible from which to recruit and hire, and we needed to come up with clear, defined processes to get the right people into the right seats. We have a unique culture, and at the time we had a unique work environment — virtual was not the norm back then.

We’ve spent years researching best practices and fine-tuning our internal process. We use several best-practice methodologies, including Topgrading strategies from Brad Smart, and the A-Method for Hiring from Geoff Smart and Randy Street. For every position, we cast the widest net possible for applicants, then use the strategies above, along with in-depth and skill interviews, to filter candidates and find the right-fit people.

Another strategy we deploy is leveraging our website for recruitment. Our website targets two audiences: customers and recruits. In fact, 50% of our website traffic comes from recruits, so we’ve fine-tuned the messaging on specific pages of our site to speak directly to job seekers. We make a strong effort to showcase our team, our culture, and our benefits.

I think the results speak for themselves — our employee attrition rate is less than 15% YOY, and part of that is attributed to knowing who we are and who we’re looking for, then putting the processes in place to find those people and hire the right fit the first time around.

What are your 3 main tips for leaders who want to build a geographically dispersed workforce?

OK, my first tip is to develop a detailed and comprehensive organizational and accountability chart for the company. Create detailed job descriptions, define key performance metrics for each job role, and clearly identify the personality types that would thrive within each position. Then cast the widest net possible for recruits, and slowly home in on the right-fit people based on your rock-solid and clearly defined org chart.

Second is to develop robust onboarding for new hires. At minimum, a 60-day onramp. At One Firefly, our standard onramp is 90 days, during which time we provide training and resources to help new team members understand our industry, the One Firefly culture, and their specific job responsibilities. We do that to position our people for success. That’s a core tenant of One Firefly: we want to give every person who joins us the best possible chance to succeed. And that’s part of why our attrition rate is so good — our people generally feel prepared and supported by the time they fully ramp up into their new role.

And third….don’t forget to consider tax laws. Yeah, I know, that’s a boring tip, but the details matter here. If you have a remote workforce, you have an obligation as a company to consider state and income tax laws, and how they’ll affect both your employees and your business. Run everything through a CPA to get a full understanding of what it means to hire in certain states or countries.

We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.

I would love to have a private lunch with Neil deGrasse Tyson. My whole family loves science, and my son and I enjoy doing science experiments together. I spent six years from 2013 to 2019 as a robotics youth mentor. And my son is a smart, smart kid — he competes at the state level in science fairs. Neil deGrasse Tyson is such a great communicator and educator, and he makes complex and intimidating subjects understandable and fun for the masses. I really respect and admire that — the best type of educator nurtures real passion and excitement in what some would consider “boring” topics. He’s inspiring the future science leaders of tomorrow, and I like that he uses his talents for good, not evil. He would be a really fun and fascinating lunch companion.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I host a podcast, Automation Unplugged — you can subscribe here. And you can follow me on LinkedIn. And for those of you interested in learning more about One Firefly and what we do, check out our website!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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