Through online collaboration, it’s easier than ever for small businesses to expand by adding remote workers rather than renting expensive office space. Without the benefit of face-to-face meetings, however, communication may be challenging. Tim Eisenhauer, co-founder and president of Axero Solutions, knows this well. His co-founder and business partner, Vivek Thakur, is based in New Delhi while Eisenhauer works from the United States. The business has no central office and its employees and contractors (about 20 in all) are scattered around the country and around the globe. To improve the flow of information among its own remote staff, the software company created Communifire, a software platform for internal and external collaboration.
Axero was founded to develop large software projects for big companies. When the small business began inviting its customers onto the remote collaboration platform they created, the customers started asking for copies of the program to use with their own employees. The founders realized that they had come up with a marketable product and they began to offer their collaboration software to other businesses. The development and refinement of the platform has been collaborative and need-driven, says Eisenhauer: “Pretty much every single feature over these eight years has been requested by a customer and is easy to turn on and off.”
There is a wide array of software that can enable you to create a virtual workspace shared by remote employees. Some offer a free service with a paid upgrade option; others charge monthly fees at either a flat rate or per user. Per user charges are generally in the $5 to $10 range and monthly flat fees can start as low as $15. Eisenhauer has five tips to guide you in selecting and successfully implementing a collaboration platform.
1. Know Your Why
“I think collaboration software can help any business. The first step is to understand why you need it,” Eisenhauer says. A collaboration platform can help you share files and documents with remote workers, contractors, and clients (Google Drive, Dropbox), provide a central space to send messages or manage projects (Asana, Yammer), and hold virtual meetings (WebEx, GoToMeeting). Some platforms, such as WorkEtc, Basecamp, and Communifire, offer a suite of functionalities. Eisenhauer recommends getting clear about the workflow issues that you want to solve with collaboration software and making sure the platform you choose includes the features that are important to you.
2. Determine Your Transparency Level
One of the great benefits of remote collaboration software, according the Eisenhauer, is that team members and customers can easily see what each person is working on. Most platforms will allow you to set the level of transparency you feel comfortable with. “We here at Axero pretty much default to open. Everyone here can see everything,” he says. This includes sales figures and individual salaries. “We’ve just found it a lot easier just to be straight up and honest with everybody,” he says. He feels the benefits of transparency outweigh any downsides, noting, “People are more willing to ask questions. They feel better about their jobs.” On the flip side, platforms that allow you to set permission levels are a great way to bring in customers and contractors and give them access to just the information they need in order to work with you.
3. Think About Your Future
If you are planning to grow your small business into a bigger business, Eisenhauer suggests thinking about what features might help you collaborate with a larger staff in the future. He has seen startups try to cobble together multiple collaboration apps as the company grows but notes that a multi-function platform may provide more seamless integration of documents, messaging, project management, etc. “You can put everything in one place and then you can just keep referring to it [as you grow],” he says.
4. Go All In With Your New Platform
Once you choose a platform, arrange for a free trial. If that goes well, your challenge will be getting your customers and remote workers to use the new software. Eisenhauer recommends placing key information and documents into the systems right away. “Instead of emailing the team, send a message through the system,” he says. “You want to make that collaboration space valuable, so people have to go there.” He adds, “Our customers that do this right from the beginning are the most successful.”
5. Embrace the Change
Eisenhauer says that using a remote collaboration platform has helped his small business to function well for almost a decade and he encourages entrepreneurs who want to work remotely with employees or customers to consider adopting this type of software. “Start slow but start now,” he says. “If you think you need it, you probably do.” If you’re not a technical person, don’t let that stop you, he says, because “with the systems that are out there now, anyone that has ever used social media will likely have little barrier to entry.” He adds, “When you have this software in place, it can be a beautiful thing. It can make your business a lot more efficient.”