Friday, October 27, 2017

Setting up and Launching a Remote Office

In the early days of my career I was responsible for setting up an operation in a different city. It was a great opportunity for me and something that I really wanted to succeed in, however looking back on that person with the experience I now have. Well, lets just say that I was very lucky that I didn't fall completely flat on my face!

The City

As a native Torontonian (that's what people in Toronto, Canada call themselves for my International readers!), I'd visited Montreal a couple of times and had always enjoyed spending time there, so when my boss asked me to set up a new office in that city I thought it was a great idea! I mean, how hard could it be?

Well, it was 1998 or 1999, and while I was working for an Internet company, the many conveniences we've all come to expect and enjoy had yet to be invented or for that matter even thought of! Websites like Yelp! and Foursquare didn't exist and while the multiple listing service (MLS) was there, it was really only useful for residential properties and in most cases you needed a realtor to provide the information.

I didn't know how to promote my company - we were established in Toronto but no one outside of that city had heard of us. I didn't know where to open the office - downtown would be great but the rents would be a lot higher than out of town, but how much higher? I didn't know how to get new customers or even hire staff for that office.

The Marketing

Knowing what I didn't know (which is I've found the first step!), I decided that I couldn't do it all by myself. I'd need help. Local help. So I started interviewing marketing companies that could help me with two of the things on my list - promoting the company I worked for and finding new customers.

Fortunately I was able to find a small bouteque agency that was priced right and seemed to have all of the appropriate credentials. I didn't interview three different firms though or get competitive quotes (mistake #1?), but they seemed to know their stuff!

Over the course of the next 2-3 months, we were communicating back and forth about radio spots, billboards, print advertising, product pricing and other minutae relevant to launching in a new location. Again they seemed to ask all of the right questions so I thought I was onto a winner.

The Hiring and Staffing 

While the marketing piece was going on, I started looking for office space and staff to work in the office. Based on the model we had in Toronto, we'd need a local manager and customer service/technical support staff that could both resolve issues and perform administrative and billing functions in French and English.

Monster.com had launched and was used quite extensively in Canada around that timeframe so the interviewing process began in earnest.  Fortunately it was very buyount job market so getting some good quality candidates was fairly straightforward. The local MGR however - well that one took a while and although I ended up putting someone in place he wasn't my first choice (mistake #2).



Now vs. Then

Looking back, I think I did the best that I could with the tools I had available at the time. Money was tight so my budgets were definitely constrained. Everything was moving extremely quickly and change was happening at an ever increasing pace.

Comparing the piecemeal strategy of those years with the way I've setup two new locations over the previous 2 years is very much night and day. Part of that of course is my seniority now and my ability to talk to people and leaders that are higher up the food chain. People that can actually negotiate based on the potential upside that they can see. The other part of course is the confidence I've gained in doing this a couple of times now and knowing some of the potential pitfalls inherent in having remote staff and operations.

You see, while the Montreal operation was successful both of my mistakes ended up coming back to bite me. My manager choice - well, without local oversight, he turned out to be a bit of a dictator and was making the office environment toxic for the other staff. He had to go and I had to find someone else. My first mistake though - the marketing company - was probably the bigger one. While the comminucation and interaction had seemed positive and enthusiastic they didn't actually end up producing anything of real worth. Sadly, they actually ended up going out of business themselves before we'd launched which set us back several months.

What could I have done?

Hindsight is always 20-20 isn't it? With the tools and information available to us today, most of my requirements could have been dealt with, without even leaving my office. I would have been able to search and get reviews on other companies that had done the same things. I would have been able to pick and choose marketing companies and been able to interview them remotely only after shortlisting them based on reviews and feedback from clients. I would have been able to evaluate property prices and rental costs remotely and conducted interviews remotely. Would I have had to go to Montreal at all? Yes, probably, but for different reasons - more along the lines of ensuring things are moving smoothly vs. setting up.

Things have definitely changed in only a few short years - I'm fortuntate that the mistakes I made early in my career helped me to learn how not to do things and I've taken that knowledge and applied it. I wonder what mistakes await the next generation though? I'm sure they are going to be doozies!
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Setting up and Launching a Remote Office

In the early days of my career I was responsible for setting up an operation in a different city. It was a great opportunity for me and some...