Running a service-based business remotely can be a difficult prospect, but PodKick found an ingenious way to do it. The company has been running their operations remotely for years and have been successful in the podcast production scene. In this episode, Ben Baker interviews Spencer Shaw, the CEO of PodKick. Spencer talks about setting up a remote business, what he has learned from the experience and what tools work for remote businesses. He also discusses the hiring process, choosing the right people and what kind of employees he wants on his team.
Thank you for being such wonderful readers week after week. Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your social media posts. Thank you guys for giving me your ideas about what you like and what you don't like. I love that you're there every single week. I have Spencer Shaw from PodKick. Let's talk about how to run a successful service-based business remotely. Spencer, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
You are the Gypsy CEO.
I like that phrase. That's pretty interesting.
We're going to get you a bandana and some tambourines or something like that. Every time I talk to you, you are somewhere else in the world. Full disclosure, you came back from how long in Mexico?You have to start and be clear on what it is you're trying to accomplish. Be clear with the team and yourself. Click To Tweet
I was there for several months and then other parts of the world before that. It was good.
Let's give people a little idea about who you are, what is PodKick, what type of business are you, and then let's get into it. Being able to run a service-based business successfully remotely, there are challenges and there are amazing opportunities in doing this. Let people find out a little bit more about you and then let's get into this.
A bit of my background, I've been an entrepreneur my entire business career. I've never had a corporate job. I don't understand the corporate world from the employee's side of things. As far as a business and what I've done, I had a restaurant early on in my career. I ran that for several years and sold that company. I had a real estate investment firm. I've got a publishing and software company. I've done a lot of different things and it's the things that I enjoy. I've been fortunate enough to have a few exits. I've had a lot of failures. I've had a few that are still hanging in and having fun with.
If we didn't have our failures, we wouldn't have our successes. I always look at and sit there and say, “If I'm not failing every once in a while, I'm not pushing hard enough.” I look at it and say, “Every entrepreneur that tells me that everything is hunky-dory and everything is successful is probably playing it too safe.”
That's a good assessment.
Let's get into the fact that you guys help run podcasts for the legal industry and a couple of different other industries. Tell me a little bit more about what are the services that you provide your customers in terms of the podcast industry. Let's talk about the fact that your employees are across the state, across the country, internationally. You travel regularly. Let's get into the challenges and opportunities of being able to run a company that way.
To unpack and set the stage of what we do, we are a podcast production company and a podcasting network. There are two sides to that. The production side is that we produce podcasts for specific industries. We only do B2B stuff. We don't do anything in the entertainment or comedy industry. There are specific reasons why we don't go in there. We may get to it. We've focused a lot on industries that we know we can make a significant impact on. What it looks like for our customers is that they have a conversation. It could be internally or it can be them interviewing guests. They send us audio or video files. From there, we run with it. Our team has developed a pretty solid process that we go through and we edit the audio and video. We write a summary of the episodes, create custom artwork, and lots of bells and whistles, and then syndicate the shows.
From the client-side, they look at it and they go, “This is cool. I recorded something and upload and then I forget about it.” It's a lot of moving parts and pieces for us. On the network side, we own and grow those shows. We’ve been intentional at specific tasks or things that we'll do and then things that we won’t do. That's where many service-based businesses can get off track. You start to get some success or revenue and then a client will like that you've delivered on time and then they'll say, “By the way, can you also do this? Can you also do this?” That's where a lot of service businesses go foul because they get spread too thin. We've made sure not to do that. I'm not saying we did that perfectly because as we did grow, we said, “Maybe we'll try this.” We realized that the metrics, the revenue, margins aren't good enough, or the headaches are too much that we're like, “No, we're not going to do that.” That's our business.
It's important because you found your wheelhouse, “This is what we do. We work with B2B companies and we work with them in these two different ways.” That's good because when you do that, you can build the systems and processes that you need to be able to do well. I remember when I first started this podcast years ago, I did everything myself. I found the guests, I recorded it, I edited it, and I did the show notes. We uploaded it and make sure that it went out on the RSS feed, and made sure that Spotify and those people got the materials, made sure that the graphics were done in that social media. It got to be a lot.
When you sit there and go, you're putting out a show a week and it is. It's every Wednesday at 10:00 AM, the show is out. If you're sitting there going, “Maybe I have to find the guests and record it,” that's doable in a week. If all of a sudden, you're having to do everything else that goes with it, you can run it a foul, and all of a sudden, you run out of time because you're trying to run a business while you're doing your podcast. Relying on companies like yours to be able to take over and do what you do well makes things far easier for anybody in the podcast industry.
I recommend every single podcaster, when you're first starting, do it yourself for six months. Understand what it takes, the challenges, the timelines, what needs to be done, and then move over to service. You then can talk intelligently to the service and say, “This is what I want.” You have realistic expectations about what can be done, what can't be done, what you would like to have done, and be able to work with them to be able to make sure that things happen in a more elevated way. It’s important to, first of all, stay in your wheelhouse. The second is to realize that there are people out there that do things better than you do in certain areas and either rely on them or refer work to them at whatever.
There’s a guy named Dan Sullivan. He's got a company called Strategic Coach. He uses the phrase, “Who not how.” Too often, people get stuck where they’re trying to figure out how to do everything. It's good to have a base knowledge and understanding and have a conversation with a technical expert. A basic level is great, but do I need to know how to program everything in Python and what all the bits and pieces are? To give context, we're not just a podcasting company, but we're a technology company because I have a software background. We've developed our artificial intelligence that runs with our company. I know enough language to have communication and that's about it but I'm not a developer.
You know enough to be dangerous. I can sit there and talk to the techie guys and go, “This is what I'd like.” I understand when they say, “We can't do this because of this.” To sit down there and code, I'm years away from my best coding days. I get exactly what you're saying.
Let's get into the fact that you have a company with a lot of moving parts. You have editors, graphic designers, people that will handle social media, a PR team, and a tech team. These people are all over the place. You readily admit that you have a home office. There is a mothership but it's a mothership that's in the shared space and people can use it as they want. Most of your staff work remotely. It has worked for your team and it worked for you guys for years. This is not a COVID-19 experience. This is something you've been doing for years.
This entire company has been virtual. We met as an entire team a couple of times for video and photoshoots. We hired a videography team to come in and interview us and create our typical corporate type of stuff. That's when we meet. In the past, I've met other team members outside the country. We flew down to Colombia to meet up with team members. We flew them in so we can all enjoy and have a fun time of vacation mixed with work. It was great.
When you take them into consideration, the fact that you guys were remote from day one, you built a purposely remote company. What was the impetus to do that right away? What was the thought process when you were starting this company from scratch? You had to say, “I want my company to be X and this is why.”
The reason why is I had brick-and-mortar businesses before. In my early twenties, I had brick-and-mortar businesses. In the late twenties, I still had brick and mortar. I owned a real estate brokerage and a real estate investment firm. That was a location that we had to be in and people could meet us there. I remember having the thought, “There's got to be a new paradigm. There's a way to approach this.” In 2005 or so, I started running Yahoo ads and Google ads. I realized that a lot of those leads didn't need to meet with people.
We started investing outside of the state that we lived in and I said, “That's great.” I saw the potential of the Internet and what that could be. I knew I wanted to start another company that would not lock me down. Every other company after that has been virtual. I've been doing this for over a decade. I'm not going to say I won't do a location that has to be brick and mortar but I won't be the one that has to be there. I may have a company like that but I'm not going to be the one that is there.
Let's get into this in terms of building out the technology. Technology is what allows you to be this way. It allows you to be the Gypsy King. It allows you to go spend several months a year at a time with your family in Mexico, Hawaii, Southeast Asia, or wherever you decide that you're going to make a home for several months. How did you go about deciding the type of technology that you would use to be able to make sure that there were cohesive communication, processes and procedures were able to do that there was great handoff within the company itself? Everybody had an understanding of what was next. What happened next? How we were able to work together to make sure that the end customer was successful?
I'm going to give credit where credit's due on a lot of this. Many of these pieces I learned from a guy named Ari Meisel. He's got a company called Less Doing. You have to start and be clear on what it is you're trying to accomplish. Be clear with the team and yourself. What are the emergencies that are going to happen in business? For us, an emergency means that the bank account was hacked. That's pretty much it. There can be some other semi emergencies but normal day-to-day stuff should never be emergencies and then use Zoom.
It depends on the type of business you create. You can have a business where it's yourself or you can have a business with lots of different team members. You can get as complicated or as simple as you'd like. There has to be a place where the team members or yourself know what's happening and how things are moving along. That's a project management tool. The one that we like is Trello. We have used everything out there. We've used Airtable, Basecamp, and Asana. You name it. We've used every single thing out there. I find that to be the best for us. That needs to be a place where the entire team can communicate. You have to build in redundancies and have that transparency in place so that if someone were to be removed from the company, let’s say they get in an accident and they've gone the next day, everyone has to know what's going on. That's first and foremost.
Next, going in line with the emergency side of things, rarely should things be emergencies in the business. Yes, there's urgent stuff but if you're communicating clearly, you have the expectations, you know how tasks are moving along, there's no need for phone calls. There's not a need for lots of text messages or stuff like that. You have to have a communication platform. For us, we choose to use a tool called Voxer and it's like a walkie talkie and we use Slack. On all of our communication, if I send one of our team members a message right now, it doesn't mean that they have to respond in 60 seconds. They could respond later, today, or tomorrow.
Do you set an expectation of your messages needs to be responded to within 24 hours? Is there a level of expectation when you send a message?If someone makes excuses or they're not doing what they're supposed to, you have to address it. Click To Tweet
Depending on the team member. Within certain fields of operation, yes. That’s where it comes into the organization and orchestration of all of that. I'm not involved with the operations. I was years ago but I'm not anymore. An operations director may have to go through and connect with someone on the team. As they're working through, they may need to get information quicker, especially working with developers and others like that. We make sure to set up clear rules of engagement before we hire. That's in the onboarding process.
We don't have a lot of synchronous meetings where people have to jump on Zoom calls or things that are going to require a person's full attention. Because of that, there's also that understanding that if it happens to be a team member in a non-technical or non-somewhat urgent, getting back later in the day is fine. When it's all hands-on and we're working through a new tech rollout or whatever that be, the operations would say, “We're going to be all hands on deck today. I’m going to throw in your messages.” Let's make sure we get through that.
Do you have a 911 level of communication? For me, it's text. If you need to get in touch with me and you need to get in touch with me now, text me.
It's a text and phone call.
There's, “My phone is ringing. Something's wrong.”
It never happened. I hope that it never does. We have that and the entire team knows that as well.
It's setting those levels of expectation. I remember years ago, sitting in on a board meeting with a guy by the name of Christian Cudicini. Christian’s attitude was, “Twice a year, I go away for three weeks. I bring my cell phone with me and that phone better not ring unless I need to get on a plane and come home.” He says, “I trust you as an organization. I trust you as people. Our expectations, our culture, our purpose, are solid. You guys know what to do and you know how to do it.” He says, “The only reason to pick up a phone and call me is if all of a sudden the plant burns down and I need to come home for whatever particular reason, the bank account gets hacked and I'm the only person that can that can deal with that.” It's a matter of setting those expectations and also hiring people that you trust and giving them the tools to be successful.
You mentioned people that you trust. I love our team. They're amazing. We've got team members that have been with us for half a decade. I was talking with one of our guys and he's like, “I remember work anniversary came up. It was 5 or 6 years ago.” I'm like, “I can't believe that the time has gone that fast.” It's amazing.
Let's talk about hiring people. You've told me that you're not involved in a lot of the day-to-day stuff. You're not involved in the tech stuff. You are more focused on growing the business, the big picture type of stuff. How do you make sure that you are getting the right people hired and that the culture of the organization is perpetuated to make sure that when you're not around, everybody knows what the vision of the company is, what's expected of them? Also, how you want your customer's taken care of and know that they're going to go out and do it day in and day out.
It's hiring the right people in the interview process and making sure that they have the right mindset. We're not going to hire anyone that is a victim. We're not going to hire anyone that is negative and anyone that's going to be difficult to work with. They simply aren't a fit. I have to give credit to where it is and our Director of Operations, Jenna Redden, she's been phenomenal. She handles our hiring. I'll give you a great example. One of our PR members on the team and she's our senior member and she's transitioning out of the company. She ended up getting her dream job for a large organization. She's had a headhunter trying to get her in for years and years. They finally reached out and she's going through that transition. We've had to hire additional people.
Annie, who's on our team, went through and helped through the interview process. She did that with Jenna to make sure that they're a fit. That's important because Annie had that PR experience beyond what both Jenna and I have. She was able to sit on those interviews and give insights that we didn't have. Jenna has the actual community and the way that we feel in the culture and put that in place. Secondly, we won't tolerate anything that's going to cause problems or disruption. If someone's negative, we're going to address it. It doesn't happen. If someone makes excuses or they're not doing what they're supposed to, we're going to address it. If they're not a fit, if they're toxic, we're not going to tolerate it at all. We're going to transition them out.
The helpful thing is we're always trying to do what's best for our team. We work with this philosophy of we're always trying to replace people up. My role is working on developing technology that will replace the humans that are inside the business so that they can then replace up to be doing something better. If they happen to be in the weeds, in the trenches on doing something and I've developed the technology, let's help them so they become project managers. Let's help them so that they can level up. That also increases their income. It's a win-win on all sides.
You're hiring people not only for a job but you're hiring them with the potential that you're realizing that, as the company grows, there's an opportunity for them to grow within the company.
100%, all the time.
How do you perpetuate that culture? You fully admit that you, as a group, do not get together regularly. You're not in the same room. You don’t have the regular retreats. You don't have the coffee and the pizza or the team-building exercises, those types of things. How do you maintain the culture as you grow as an organization? That's a challenge that most companies have and the fact that because you are remote and you're in a different country a lot of the time, people are not physically seeing you. They don't have the idea and emulate what you're doing. How do you perpetuate your culture and your purpose within the company?
I like the way that you're positioning that. I'm taking the time to articulate why. One of our core foundations and beliefs is freedom and autonomy. That's the reason I created the business in this way. Frankly, that's the type of people that we work with. The culture also goes with the client-side. If anyone's toxic or it's a message that is totally out of alignment with how we operate as people, we're not going to work with them.
Are you talking about clients?
On the client-side, we won't do it. On the team side, freedom is the biggest. By having clarity at the beginning, knowing that these are the emergencies for the team members, and understanding how we communicate. Each person having their freedom and their ability to grow and to operate. Maybe it's due to the nature of our organization since we're not hundreds and hundreds of people. I don't think that it's necessary to have retreats. I don't think it's necessary to play games and do all these other things. At the end of the day, your life should not be your job or your work. You use that time in your work to hone in your craft, to do good work, to do hard work, to focus, to grow, but that shouldn't be your life.
Where a lot of companies get messed up is that they want to turn this fun ping pong culture, this coffee culture, and make it a person's life. They justify that by, “It's going to be fun at work and because of that, you can grind it out for 12 or 14 hours a day.” No. I don't believe that. It's been long-standing with our team. Unless there's something specific we're working on, we have the conversation, “You can do the work at 2:00 AM or 2:00 PM. I don't care. You have to meet the deadlines and then make sure you communicate with us.” That's important.
The other thing that is contrary to what has been said in the world today is there are no quotas or things that we're trying to do to virtue signal. For us, it's not about where someone lives, what someone looks like, or anything of that nature. We're hiring the best people. We're hiring people that want that freedom. On large organizations, when they do virtue signal or when they try and make it like, “The cool new family that you're going to join.” You strip people's freedoms and that's a disservice. I never want to do that.
From what I'm hearing from you, it's an entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial spirit that you're trying to create. You're giving people the freedom to sit there and say, “We need you to get this work done. We don't care if you do it on the beach. We don't care if you do it at 2:00 AM. We don't care if you do it on the weekend and take Wednesday, Thursday off as long as it gets done in the time that the customer needs it done and in terms of their expectations.” We've set a set of expectations for our clients, “Your shows will be ready in two weeks. From the minute you give us stuff, it's going to be done in two weeks.” As long as those deadlines are met, it's up to your employees to make sure the work gets done and they're not impeding any of the other staff on your team. The word that comes to my mind is trust. Trust of you, trust of each other, the clients trusting you that things are going to get done. How do you make sure that the level of trust is maintained and grows within the company because that's what allows you to be the Gypsy CEO?
From the team members, “It’s doing what we say we're going to do.” That's the biggest thing for us and that goes on with clients. Once you have that expectation of, “This is the due date and we're always going to deliver.” It could be even with a team member, “I'm going to do X.” You always have to do it. That is, first and foremost, where you have to be. The second is that clear communication. There are different roles. A person running operations is going to be taking on or juggling more things than someone that is working in one capacity in the business. That’s a tough balance to not get spread too thin. When a person does get spread too thin, you sit there and say, “Well what's going on?” Having clear communication and working through that is vitally important.You use that time in your work to hone in your craft, to do good work, to do hard work, to focus, to grow, but that shouldn't be your life. Click To Tweet
I rail against the 360, the yearly formalized review process. I honestly don't think that it does a lot of good. How do you make sure that your employees know regularly that they're ticking the boxes, they're doing the right things, they're meeting expectations, and they're doing the things that need to be done to be able to make sure that the customers are succeeding and the company succeeding?
That goes into play when you hire someone with the expectations. If someone's hourly, it's lean out at the beginning, “Here's how we do the pay raises, they're going to be every 6 to 9 months. It's going to be X of a pay raise. For us to do that, it's going to look like your role and position will be this. If we need to accelerate that, you're probably going to need to be doing Y.” It’s clear. Beyond that, it's looking at the team. We do a few things that are probably different than most organizations. We support the team members to grow. We'll offer to pay for them to go through Six Sigma Training so they can get certified. We will find courses out there and they'll say, “This is a good course. It could help.” We'll go buy the course so they can have access to it.
There are other things like for example, our Director of Ops, she's working miracles and there's more that we can do to help her. We've hired an executive assistant that will be helping her. It's proactively looking at things and giving them the support. All of our team members, if they have an idea of a project or if they need an assistant, they can hire a virtual assistant or anyone to go and support them. Any tool out there that helps, we’ll go pay for it because we want them to be happier. It's going to increase our productivity as a company and it's going to increase the profit that we make.
We're getting to the end of this. I want to ask you two questions before I let you go. The first question is, what do you know now that you didn't know when you started this company that would make it much easier for you to build the company remotely and be successful as you are?
Hiring the right people and the right positions is the most important thing. When we grew is when we had a good operations director and that was several years ago. That caused us to have a growth bump. When we hired a sales team, that caused us to have a growth bump. Essentially, the less that I do, the more the company makes because I don't get in the weeds. I can get hyper-focused in a good way and I can get distracted in a bad way. I find it best for me to say, “This is an assumption that I have. We should run with this. We’ll see if it's worth it. If it is, that's great. If it's not, that's wonderful.” I should not be running operations. That’s detrimental to the company.
It's like me running accounting. I'm fine looking at the GLs. I can read the spreadsheets. I can do all that stuff but you don't want me preparing them and getting stuff ready for the taxman. It’s not a good use of my time. I get that. With that being said, here's the last question and I ask this of every single person as they leave my show. When you leave a meeting and you get in your car to drive away or you go and sit on a beach with a Mai Tai or whatever you're going to do, what's the one thing you want people to be thinking about you and PodKick when you're not in the room?
We are saving people's time and giving them more autonomy. That truly is the reason for the things that we do. Freedom is that important to me. I emphasize that for both the team members and for the clients that we work with. We want to be respectful of keeping our commitments and we also want them to be respectful of the way that we work.
Spencer, it has been a great podcast. I love listening to you. I love the viewpoint and how you built this company. You inspire me and I'm sure you inspire a lot of people who are going to read this because there's a lot of gold in there. It's going to allow CEOs to go out there and do the things that they should be doing and letting the team do what they should be doing and realizing where you add value and where other people add more value. Thank you for being such an amazing guest.
Thanks, man. Appreciate it.
Host of the "Business Growth Podcast" and founder of http://www.podkick.com, where we have over 800,000+ listeners/month in our network. Experienced in podcasting, SaaS, team building and advising startups.
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