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Business, Virtually

Putting together a core team for your company can be challenging, but doing it virtually presents additional situations that need to be managed. We spoke with several business owners about how they assembled their virtual company and how they make it work as well and got input from an expert on working virtually.

Kathy Day is a public relations expert in Anchorage, Alaska who started her business, Kathy Day Public Relations (KDPR), as a sole practitioner seven years ago. But, things began to change last year. Today, her company is called KDPR Virtual.

"I found myself needing more specialties than just public relations, and it made sense to bring in the right people for each job," explains Day. "I also saw that we could all get more work if we teamed up instead of trying to find work on our own."

Her virtual team now consists of two PR specialists, two graphic designers, a videographer, a photographer, a media buyer and an Internet/Web specialist; all located in her town but not working in her office. She says she picked her team members because they were both talented in their field and people she had worked with before and could trust.

Day's team members work together primarily through email while coming together for project meetings. The team also has a monthly lunch for information sharing and team building.

Running a virtual company has meant more out of pocket expenses so she is working to manage the change in her cash flow. She's also learning to balance the work she can give to her virtual team.

"Virtual team members are not like employees, so sometimes they just aren't able to take on projects or jump in when I really need them to because of other commitments," says Day.

With her virtual team in place, Day says she can concentrate more on new business development and networking.

An extended trip to Kenya prompted Jaya Schillinger, president of Inspiration, Inc., a coaching and consulting firm for holistic businesses, to hire a virtual assistant and to begin running her business online. While she is based in the Bay Area, she works with a medical spa consultant in Orlando, Florida; a yoga and fitness business coach in Albuquerque, NM; a spa consultant and a retail sales trainer, both in Santa Fe, NM; and a financial consultant in Seattle, WA. Even her graphic designer, accountant and bookkeepers are in different locations, the latter working from India.

Her virtual team needs to be working on PC compatible computers to work within her virtual office system, a hosted version of Microsoft Exchange Server that allows team members to view each other's calendars, share contacts and assign tasks.

Says Schillinger, "The biggest challenge was in setting up our system in the first place. My assistant and I had to create a whole series of procedures for assigning responsibility and workflow. There aren't books (that we've seen) on how to do what we've done, so we created our own."

Other tools Schillinger and her team use to stay connected include Yahoo Messenger for instant messaging. She also uses a service called Ring Central to provide an 800 number system that routes calls and faxes to the appropriate team member's phone or fax machine.

When Kimberly Martinez started her business with a business partner, both were in different cities. The Sarasota, Florida-based CEO of Bonitas International LLC, creator of BooJeeBeads´┐Ż, recruited her first hire, a woman in Cleveland.

The company creates beaded ID necklaces and retractable badge jewelry for people who wear employee id badges. Customer service and distribution takes place in the Cleveland area, the company's national sales manager is in Milwaukee, the design studio is in Cincinnati, the account manager works from Atlanta, the import manage is in Los Angeles, and her Web sales fulfillment manager, her father , travels between Sarasota in the winter and Cleveland in the summer.

" We find people we love who bring unique talents and gifts and we snap them up regardless of where they live. They have to be assertive enough to be able to make their needs known," says Martinez, who describes her virtual company's workflow as "assembly line" where each step takes place in a different location, from receiving and entering orders to packing and shipping.

Says Martinez, "The greatest challenges are creating a sense of team, overcoming the communication challenges and, most importantly, to be able to change our mindset from a 'garage start up' to that of an established multimillion dollar enterprise. The latter is surprisingly difficult to do when don't see a lot of signs of visible change or increased activity in your own work environment!"

To stay in touch, the team meets virtually through video conferencing once a week as well as an annual in-person meeting with outside facilitators to help with team building. They also use Yahoo Groups to communicate information and foster a sense of community.

In terms of advice for starting a virtual business, Diana Ennen, co-author of the book "Working Virtually," says before you start a virtual business, you should determine your needs and goals. She also suggests writing down specific skills you'll need from someone on your virtual team.

"If you initially spend time considering this and plan it out, then you will be better equipped to find the perfect match for your needs and goals," says Ennen.

Martinez says you need to be very strategic in recreating ways for your team to feel connected.

"You need to be constantly in touch with your people to make sure you understand how they are feeling and to build the kind of trust where your team can speak their truth. Otherwise, it just won't work."

Advises Schillinger, "If you're missing the feeling of people working around you in an office, just take your laptop down to a nice café with Wi-Fi. If your whole company is set up to run virtually, you'll still be communicating with your team all day long."

Day's says to make sure everyone on the virtual team is committed and can handle the work professionally. "A bad team member can damage your personal reputation."

Says Ennen, "Dependability is important. This has to be emphasized in the beginning and stressed throughout the working relationship. Things definitely can come up, however, you need to be able to count on your team the same as if they were in the same room with you."

Adds Day, "Don't set up a virtual company unless you want to work really hard, even when it's inconvenient. If no one else on the team can do the work, it will be up to you to get it finished on time and on budget."

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