Posts Tagged In Search of Excellence

Coffee Klatch

coffee_cupDrive the length and breadth of Silicon Valley, and you’ll see lots of office buildings, homes to the biggest names in technology. Some are fantastic campuses, like the Googleplex. Some are garden variety leased office space. So what do they actually manufacture in these hi-tech HQs?


Bold, medium roast, espresso, latte, caf, de-caf, you name it. Silicon Valley makes really good coffee. But do they make anything else?

Well sure, they make software and design hardware, but in the 21st century, do you really need office buildings to do that? What is truly gained by requiring employees to devote an average of 2 hours each day to commute to a central location? Is the cost in opportunity, rent, and the associated expenses of maintaining an office offset by a boost in productivity and revenue that makes it all worthwhile?

No. There is compelling data that suggests the opposite, that traditional offices are far more expensive and less productive than their alternative: virtual officing. Yet, in the 21st century, businesses nonetheless cling to 19th century office practices. That businesses are slow to adopt new technology is not in itself unusual. Over time, the adoption of advancements like the telephone, voice mail, fax, email, the internet, software-as-a-service, virtual meetings, voice-over-IP telephony, web 2.0, social networking, viral marketing, etc, have been impeded by the previous generation’s management best practices. In the particular case of virtual officing, there is a strong visceral force at work against it – managers are simply uncomfortable with it and are willing to pay a very steep price to keep their bricks & mortar.

Nevertheless, the sober realities of this economy are forcing many businesses to consider creative options to keep the lights on and the doors open – even if keeping the doors open requires closing the doors. Virtual office service reported a 41% increase in virtual office inquires in June 2009 as compared with the previous year. These businesses are finding that gains in productivity and opportunity cost are as great as 200% over their traditional counterparts, enabling them to not only weather the downturn, but prosper as well.

In a 2006 pilot project, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) sent 4 employees home 4 days a week to gauge the potential benefits of virtual officing. The results were astonishing. The AHCCCS found that the number of claims processed by their virtual employees grew from an average of 2,101 claims medically reviewed per month to a seven month average of 4,700 claims medically reviewed per month! The authors of the report acknowledged how fantastic these gains might appear: “These numbers may seem incredible, but private sector firms like AT&T have reported increases in productivity of 75%!”

Additionally, the AHCCCS found that by offering telecommuting services to these four subjects, it saved each individual an average of $7,000 per year in vehicle costs. It also found substantial quantifiable benefit to the community as well – a total savings of $15,764.83 from commute-associated costs, such as traffic services, roadway land value, roadway costs, and crash damages. Finally, though not specifically addressed in the study, in can be reasonably assumed that the project yielded a compelling green dividend in the form of reduced CO2 emissions.

Given the potentially spectacular gains in productivity and cost savings, why aren’t captains of industry abandoning their corporate coffee clutches with greater, well, abandon?

Though virtual officing offers a relatively cheap and easy way to realize extraordinary efficiency and productivity gains, it is often dismissed due to management’s visceral discomfort with the notion of a company without walls and visible people. Managers don’t like it but, in my experience, they can rarely backup their feelings with rationale. At the top of the list of management excuses is that virtual employees can’t be supervised. This begs the question: “why would you want to hire employees that require supervision?”


Though many companies are being driven to virtual officing by today’s tough economy, many believe the trend toward virtual officing will persist beyond the great recession.

One of these is j2 Global Communications’ CEO Hemi Zucker, who has presided over the company’s year over year growth in the outsourced fax, voice and email services categories, such as eFax.

Mr. Zucker summed it up this way: “businesses that have seized on technology advances have demonstrated a decisive advantage over their traditional competitors.”

Perhaps General George Patton said it best when he declared “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” Though his words were intended more for the Maginot Line than the Googleplex, they are still relevant over 65 years later, as there has never been a time when the when economic necessity and the tremendous capacity of virtual technology have had greater convergence. Those who choose to surrender their forts of industry today may well prove tomorrow’s corporate titans.

Note: this article is also available on San Francisco Chronicle’s “City Brights”

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A Virtual Office and No Need for VCs

This is Part 2 of my podcast interview with ZDNet’s Phil Wainewright. In it, I discuss our  virtual office and other lean & mean business practices that enabled gwabbit to achieve profitability within 6 months of launch in a major recession with $0 venture capital. You can hear the podcast at

The transcript of the interview appears below:


PW: Todd, we talk a lot about software as a service here on the Connected Web and one of the things, of course, with Gwabbit is that you don’t provide it as a service — because that doesn’t make sense for something which actually runs in the inbox client. It has to be there on the client to do its job. It would run in the cloud, obviously, if the client was running in the cloud — if, for instance, you were working with Gmail. And we were talking also about the potential to aggregate contact information in the cloud, with these Gwabbit clients reporting back to a sort of Gwabbit cloud, which I thought was a very interesting idea.

But one of the things that I think is quite prevalent these days is that when software companies are getting established, this ability to reach volume very quickly is very front of mind. Now, you’ve taken, not a novel approach, but one that is a little bit out-of-fashion with your product, because you charge for it, I believe?

TM: Yes, we actually charge money for our product, which is apparently an extraordinary, or novel, concept within the industry.

Do you ever meet people who try and talk you out of doing it that way?

Oh yes, absolutely. And I’ll just tell you a quick story. When we introduced the product at the Demo conference in March, a VC walked up to me and, without introducing himself, he just got in my face and said ‘Where do you get off charging 19.95 for your product?’ And I was really taken aback. I mean I did —

These VCs are quite parsimonious, aren’t they? They don’t like to pay $20 for a software product.

[laughs] Well, I think that this really had less to do with the pricing of our product. I think it had more to do with trying to get a pantsload response out of some young hungry entrepreneur. I’m neither young or hungry and so I didn’t give him the response I think he was looking for. So instead I just replied to him, ‘I’m not looking for money.’

His response was interesting. He literally took a step back. It was as though somebody had sucker-punched him. And then he started making some small talk and — I think he was looking for his own exit strategy — and then he just walked off.

So what is your model? What’s your — the strategy you’ve got for growing the business?

You know the — our model is pretty fundamental. We make a product. It costs us money to make the product. We charge money for it. We believe that the pricing of the product is commensurate with the value that we’re offering to the market — and fortunately, we’re finding that, in fact, appears to be the case.

So in terms of growing the business, our plan is to fund the growth of the business out of the operations. And so far, that appears to be coming to pass.

So how are you managing to keep your costs down?

Well, that raises another very interesting point. We have taken, I think, a very different approach than the norm on Silicon Valley, where I think that normally what you do is you go out and you raise a bunch of venture capital and then you spend it. And I think that there’s a tendency to promote waste in that kind of model.

What we’re doing instead is, we’re growing the company organically. And the way that we keep our cost under control — or the principal way that we do it — is through virtual officing. And this is something that I picked up through my previous company, which I sold last year. That company and this one are 100% virtual offices. So there’s no bricks-and-mortar whatsoever.

So everyone works from home and you don’t even have a reception desk with a receptionist and a meeting room somewhere?

Exactly right. It’s 100% virtual. It’s interesting. I think that when I tell most people about virtual officing, their comeback is, ‘Well, you must save a lot of money in rent.’ And certainly, that’s a benefit, but I would say that it’s not in my top ten list of benefits for virtual officing.

The great big benefit for virtual officing is really productivity. So we find that we’re about twice as productive as a traditional office. And what we have found by looking at other companies and organizations that have attempted virtual officing, they’re reporting similar kinds of numbers.

For example, I’m writing an op-ed piece right now. And in the course of doing this research, I came upon a study from an Arizona healthcare co-operative. They sent four employees home for seven months, and what they found was that these employees — they would normally produce, or process, 2,100 healthcare claims — and while they were virtual officing, they actually produced 4,700 healthcare claims. So they more than doubled the number of healthcare claims that they processed.

And they couldn’t believe those numbers. So they actually went out and they started studying other companies and organizations that had done the same thing, and they were reporting similar kinds of numbers. For example, AT&T did a pilot study and they actually found productivity boosts of about 75%.

But why is that? What are people — how are people able to find so much more time, or work so much faster, just through being at home?

It comes from a variety of sources, I think. One is that certainly, they’re not wasting time in commute — and then the preparation for commuting, getting ready for work — which can easily chew up a couple of hours each day. You find that virtual employees tend to spend more time on the job, simply because it’s convenient to do that. So they might tend to start work a little earlier. They might tend to work a little bit later.

Virtual employees typically do not have nearly as many distractions. So they don’t have people dropping into the office to chat. They don’t have as many watercooler conversations. They tend to have fewer meetings, and the meetings that they have tend to be more productive; they don’t tend to last as long, they tend to get over much more quickly than in the traditional office.

So added up, it makes a tremendous gain overall in productivity and a huge savings in opportunity cost. My company could not be profitable at this point, if we were running a traditional office.

And do think the model scales? Do you think you can become a big company and still operate virtually rather than needing to bring people in to some kind of location?

Yes. And my experience with my prior company, WebFeat, suggests that the model does scale. We were not a huge company. At the time that I sold the company, I think that we had about 40 employees. I saw no reason at the time that the company could not scale to 100 or 1,000 employees. And it’s interesting you bring that up, because that’s one of the chief complaints or arguments against virtual officing that I get, that, ‘Well, it just can’t scale.’ But I just don’t see it. I haven’t seen any reason why the model can’t scale into a large company.

So Todd, one final piece of advice for our listeners. If there was one thing that you could pass on about how the Web is changing business, especially the software business, what would you say?

Well, I think that the biggest thing that I would recommend to entrepreneurs and to business people is — as we’ve seen in recent years — circling back to the revenue model. In recent years, I think that advertising has borne the burden for revenue in the software business. And I’m not quite sure where that changed, in time. Back when I got started in the industry — and this is in the prehistoric days, back in the Comdex era — it wasn’t something that you thought twice about. You made a software product and you charged for it.

Yeah. I think, to be fair, advertising — in the Web 2.0 space and the start-up space, people have been attracted by it. But I think the companies that are more in the business space tend to look to more traditional mechanisms. But I think — I would certainly concur with you that — now that we’ve got to an era where people are thinking more carefully about the value for money that they’re getting and the reliability of the products that they’re using, then they’re looking for products where they hand over an amount of money and they get a contracted amount of value back.

Yes. And circling back to your question and any advice that I could offer. I think that the advice would be, when making decisions about a revenue model, I would encourage business people to evaluate the revenue model based on what is appropriate for the product or service in the market — as opposed to being swept up in the inertia of whatever happens to be fashionable at the time. I think that, certainly, an advertising revenue model makes sense for certain kinds of products and services. But at the end of the day, it’s simply another option in the revenue matrix that is available to business people. It may be appropriate for some products but it’s not appropriate for others.

And in any event, I think that it would make good sense for business people to make evaluations based on what’s best for their product and services, as opposed to what happens to be trendy or in vogue at the time.

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I Haven’t Grown Accustomed to Your Face

myfairladyI rarely meet people before I hire them.


The reason why I lead off this installment of Virtuality with this particular factoid is because, in some 12 years of virtual officing, this is the one that has consistently drawn the greatest surprise from others. Actually, I would never have given my blind recruiting a second thought if not for the shock and awe reaction I typically receive in response to this particular revelation.

Why do I pass on face interviews? I think the better question is: “why conduct face interviews?” My rationale is this: if the employee is not going to have a public face, what do I care what they look like? My primary interest is in results. If an unattractive person gets the job done, that’s terrific. In 12 years of virtual officing, I can say with confidence that there is no correlation between looks and job performance.

Of course, there’s much more to our virtual recruiting practices than what doesn’t meet the eye.

For example, we not only don’t care what our employees look like; we don’t care where they live either. When we recruit new employees, we don’t constrain our net to a particular area, we draw from the entire 50 states. This enables us to search for talent in less competitive places, which substantially drives down our payroll expense, while driving up our retention. For example, we have successfully recruited from small college towns with little local industry. Graduates may love the town, but may find the local pickings slim. They’re often willing to give up some premium in compensation in order to enjoy college town life rather than pick up and move to the big city and swim with the sharks.

Another factoid: I never look at a software developer’s resume until they’ve passed a test.

When we place a job ad for a software developer, it’s not unusual for us to receive hundreds of applications. Over time, I found that there tended to be an inverse relationship between a software developer’s job-hunting skills and their development skills. The slicker the resume and the smoother the interview, the worse the code. After getting burned a few times, I asked my developers to assemble a test to probe the skill sets we needed from our recruits. Our job ads informed prospective employees that their applications would be screened by test results. Overnight, our world changed for the better. From the hundreds of respondents that applied, only a dozen or so would bother to take the test. From that number, only 3 or 4 would deliver satisfactory results. Suddenly, instead of spending dozens of hours vetting resumes only to be disappointed with the eventual hires, I might spend 30 minutes reviewing resumes, another hour or so in interviews, and I was almost always happy with the new additions to our team.  It’s worth noting again that I have never met a software developer before hiring them.

Job jumpers need not apply

Early in my virtual management career, I was confounded at the number of resumes I received from job hunters who, although relatively young, had already had scores of jobs on their CV. It was rare for these people to last a year at a job, yet it did not seem to be a particular impediment to their career. People kept hiring these job jumpers despite the long odds against them being around to celebrate a single anniversary. Why invest in someone who is going to leave, either voluntarily or involuntarily?

Then it finally dawned on me: the people who are hiring them are job jumpers too!

These managers may rationalize their hiring behavior – perhaps they actually believe that those who exhibit loyalty and longevity are complacent or even lazy, when the reality can usually be filed under one of the following categories:

  • The employee left voluntarily for a better opportunity – i.e. a shortcut to better compensation and status
  •  The employee left voluntarily because he/she just didn’t like the job
  •  The employee left involuntarily because he/she did not perform well on the job

Which of these would you prefer as your dream employee?

Of course, there are situations where things just don’t work out – the company downsized, the job was a bad fit, etc. However, if I see a consistent pattern of short-lived job experiences, it instantly hoists a big red flag for me. It costs money to recruit and train. Moreover, there is enormous opportunity cost associated with the organization trusting an employee to be on the job and supporting their proportionate weight of the company workload. It is extremely disruptive to an organization (and, therefore, costly) to replace an employee in midstream.

No adult supervision required

As I’ve written previously, one of the principal objections to the virtual office is management’s inability to physically supervise employees. My response to this is: why would you want to hire an employee that requires supervision?


Professionals will deliver professional results without the additional overhead of constant supervision. If you treat employees like children, you can expect childish behavior in return.

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Virtuality — Part 2: Strategy and Technics

Virtuality part 2: Strategy and Technics

gettysburg “Muzzle-loading weapons sound awful primitive. They didn’t seem primitive to them. They were a new kind of infantry rifle that is deadly at 200 yards. That was a tremendous step forward. And the tactics were based on the old musket, which was accurate at about 60 feet. And they lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved against a position, and got blown down because they were using tactics with these very modern weapons. They were using the old-style tactics with very modern weapons. A few of the men realized that, Bedford Forrest for instance. He would never make a frontal attack on anything with this new weapon in their hands. But too many of them, including Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, followed the old tactics against these modern weapons. That’s why the casualties. There were 1,095,000 casualties in the Civil War. If today you had that same ratio, you’d have something like 10 million casualties, to give you some idea of what happened.”

- Shelby Foote, Civil War Historian

“They were using the old-style tactics with very modern weapons.” History has demonstrated again and again that military strategy and tactics lag the available technology. This is also true in business, where the adoption of advancements like the telephone, fax, email, the internet, software-as-a-service, virtual meetings, voice-over-IP telephony, web 2.0, social networking, viral marketing, etc, have been impeded by the previous generation’s management best practices.

As was the case with previous generations, today’s managers encumbered by yesterday’s vision face an insurmountable competitive disadvantage from those embracing the current technologies and practices available to them. At WebFeat, we were able to defeat companies as much as 100 times our size, simply because we were much more efficient and more productive than our bigger, slower, traditional adversaries. How was this possible?

Two words: opportunity cost.

When I attempt to recount the benefits of the virtual office to a stranger, I invariably am (preemptively) told that office rental is the #1 advantage. While office rent might make my top 100 list of reasons to go virtual, it is far from #1. Number 1 is the cost-effectiveness of my work force. Our virtual office easily yielded double the productivity of our traditional competitors. How?


This may not seem like a lot, but it adds up:


27.5 years lost in a 100 person organization. That’s the equivalent of 27.5 extra people!

In addition, in my own experience, I found that my virtual employees tended to work longer hours than those in traditional offices. Typically, this ranged from 20% to 30% more than traditional employee office hours. Apparently this was attributable to two factors:

1. Virtual employees tend to make less of a distinction between work time and personal time than traditional employees, and…

2. It appears I am a hard task master

Whatever the reason, in our 100 - employee hypothetical company, this would add an additional 20 - 30 years annually, bringing the total to 47.5 - 57.5 years of additional productivity — a virtual company is 47.5% - 57.5% more productive than traditional companies.

But wait, there’s more!

While at work, my virtual employees tended to accomplish more than their traditional counterparts. This was due to a number of factors, including:

We held only a fraction of the number of meetings held by traditional companies

When we did hold meetings, they tended to be more productive — why?

Because most of our meetings were held via teleconference, the attendees tended to find silence or “dead air” to be uncomfortable. Consequently, our meetings tended to be short, and they followed classic successful meeting techniques, namely:

  • An agenda was published prior to the meeting, informing attendees what to be prepared to discuss
  • Brief minutes were taken, with action items captured, as well as persons responsible and deadlines
  • If follow-up meetings were required, these action items fed into the subsequent meeting

The bottom line is that we didn’t hold very many meetings, and we got a lot done in the meetings we did hold. Additionally, because our meetings produced cogent sets of action items, the work resulting from our meetings tended to yield better results

Finally, no one “dropped in” to our virtual offices to chat. Granted, some of our more gossipy employees made effective use of online chat, but they had little time to waste at the virtual water cooler. The moral of the story is that the success of the virtual office, as well as the traditional kind, is determined largely by the effectiveness of the management team. However, an effective team in a traditional office will be no match for an effective management team in a virtual office.

While it is difficult to gauge the amount of time consumed in useless meetings and water cooler gossip, consider that if it averages only 1 hour per day per employee, our virtual productivity edge over traditional offices grows to 60% - 70%! How many employees do you know that give up a mere hour each day in meetings and gossip?

Clearly, I’m not talking about moving the corporate performance needle a couple of percentage points. I am talking about a great big game-changing, Earth-moving, paradigm-shifting fundamental makeover that can enable your business to not only weather the current storm, but enable it to prosper and handily crush its competition.

More to come in part 3…

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