If you’ve been thinking about starting a remote agency, there’s no better time.
Remote work is enjoying a moment in the sun in 2021, necessitated by the pandemic — and it’s more than temporary. Businesses around the world discovered that a work from home arrangement doesn’t limit collaboration or achieving goals.
When it comes to running any kind of agency, virtual is the name of the game. An office-less agency gets rid of unnecessary overhead. Not only that, but going totally virtual provides access to a worldwide talent pool while you build a client base from anywhere.
If you operate 100% remote, it doesn’t matter where people live and it barely matters what time zone they’re in. All of your systems, processes, projects, and more are totally accessible online. It’s a powerful setup that maximizes agency profit and productivity.
So, let’s dive into what it means to operate a remote agency and how it’s different than a traditional office-based company. This article will also give you the steps to get started, essential tools, and strategies you need to succeed.
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What is a Remote Agency?
A remote agency is simply one that has no physical office space. Instead of a traditional office building or leased space, everyone works remotely. Remote workers may work from co-working spaces, coffee shops, their homes, you name it.
A Future Workforce Report from Upwork paints this picture of remote work:
- 41.8% of employees in the U.S. are still working fully remote
- 56.8% of team members are at least partially remote
- 68% of people in charge (managers) say that remote work is getting easier to facilitate
- 26.7% of the workforce will be fully remote in 2021
- By 2025, as many as 36.2 million employees in the U.S. will be fully, permanently remote
This setup isn’t quite plug and play. There are some infrastructure elements that have to be intact for a remote agency to work, namely:
- Project management software and tools.
- Communication mechanisms: video calls, messaging, email, etc.
- Shared software and files for doing the actual work.
Other elements, like payroll software or time tracking, are things you’d have to implement even if you had a physical office. While remote agencies are increasingly common, there are both pros and cons to running one.
Benefits of Running a Remote Agency
Let’s start with the positive. There are a ton of benefits to running a remote agency.
People are willing to work remotely. And the ROI is indisputable. Work from home employees provide these significant benefits:
- Real estate savings: Offices save as much as $7k/year per employee when workers don’t occupy office space.
- Productivity: There is a documented 5%-7% increase in productivity when people work from home. That could amount to a few grand per employee in money-making activities (that would otherwise be spent in “downtime” at the office).
- Lower turnover: People who work from home are often happier and more content, which means they stick around longer.
Those are just the cost-savings for companies. Remote workers themselves save money on everything from discretionaries like lunches and dry cleaning to commuting. Plus, they get time back that they can call their own. Lots of wins.
Here are some more pros:
Wider Access to Talented Workers
Remote agencies get their pick of the litter, so to speak. When you don’t have to cover relocation costs, or hire only the graphic designer down the street, your agency has access to anyone anywhere in the world. This means you can often hire people who are more qualified or experienced.
Scaling an agency means increased income and impact. And it may be easier if you are all remote. In a remote setting, it’s easier to hire part-time or ad hoc freelance talent. This reduces margins and maximizes the output of each worker.
There is less risk when you’re not maintaining an expensive lease or shelling out for work-related expenses.
Work Life Balance
The elusive pursuit of not working 24/7 is appealing. A remote agency may be able to deliver it, or at least get you closer to the goal of a work life balance. Leadership and employees alike get a little time back when they don’t have to go into the office.
Plus, everyone may be able to set up a schedule or work hours that suit them better.
Of course, it’s not all roses.
Challenges of Running a Remote Agency
If you are running an agency, you’re already entrepreneurially minded. And you understand that there are both risks and rewards to these kinds of operations. Here are some of the cons of running a remote agency:
Just because you are a business leader and agency owner doesn’t mean you are tech savvy. And managing a remote agency requires everyone to use several software systems.
This can get cumbersome, as you endlessly pursue the perfect project management tool or struggle with customer service for your payroll software.
A remote agency may give you access to global talent, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s work ethic or work flow is the same. When you’re matching up time zones and work arrangements, it may feel great to offer your people that flexibility.
But what happens when a PM is on a dodgy internet connection because they’re working by the beach?
Managing people, when you don’t have the opportunity to walk into their office, is a different situation that requires different skills.
Efficiency and Follow Through
Even though the data indicates that remote workers are more productive, that doesn’t mean that projects are handled the same way. A serious amount of thought has to go into processes and accountability for remote employees.
Establishing touchpoints or benchmarks, and then having a system for communicating those, is key to getting work done in a predictable, efficient way. That requires a lot of management, at least at first.
How to Start a Remote Agency
In many ways, how to start an agency is the same whether you will have physical offices or not. You have to go into it with the same mindset and treat it like a real business from the start.
Of course, there are some notable differences, like building a remote team and collaborating in a virtual environment. These differences are where the benefits of a remote agency really come into play.
If you want to start a remote agency, here’s how to do it.
Define the Business
Providing digital services through an agency is a smart evolution from working solo as a freelancer or consultant. A remote agency gives you a scalable business, not limited by your own personal hours.
But it requires a new mindset, and there is an immediate pitfall: namely, you may not look at it as a real business. You may not put enough thought into how you will charge enough to pay for other people to do the work (while still getting paid yourself).
The first step to establishing any business is to define your services and create a plan for providing, marketing, and getting paid for those services — so that it’s profitable.
This may seem ridiculously simplistic, but you’d be surprised how many people launch an agency without a clear understanding of the numbers. They splash out on a fancy new website, hiring a team, and buying software subscriptions before they have a plan for revenue.
It needs to be immensely clear, from the get-go, where clients will come from, how much you will charge, and how much you will spend on labor, marketing, etc. This plan will impact every other decision you make.
Secondarily, it may also be tempting to look at a remote agency as a side hustle. Even if it starts out this way, running a successful agency is a full time gig that requires many people working together.
Anything you are selling will need development, improvement, monitoring, and marketing. A lot of wheels are in motion here. The infrastructure elements you need to build specifically if you are going remote are:
- Digital property — your website.
- Online presence, including social platforms and external marketing avenues.
- Software systems for managing projects, communicating, billing, payroll, managing contacts, calendaring and more.
There will be many other infrastructure elements specifically related to the nature of your agency. For instance, a digital marketing agency will need protocol for client ad management; a graphic design agency will need software for those tasks; an accounting agency will need cloud accounting software, etc.
The possibilities are endless, but you get the idea that these infrastructure decisions have to precede hiring or getting clients.
Hire Your First Team Members
You should already know your numbers. This means you know what revenue can be allocated for employee pay. It’s important, at this step, to prioritize staff, so you don’t fall into the trap of doing everything yourself — working in your agency instead of working on growing your agency.
Of course, your earliest hires may have to wear a few hats. Many agencies start with outsourced labor from freelance sites. But is Fiverr worth it in the long-term? While you can quickly get a job done, you will eventually need to hire full-time people who want to grow with your agency.
If you are pre-revenue, you need to see every team member in terms of how they make you money. But you can’t just hire salespeople — and in the early stages, you might be the only salesperson needed.
Consider the full lifecycle of a client in your system and which tasks you must hire for. Get qualified candidates, fully vet them and develop onboarding materials that acclimate them to your vision and goals.
Get Your First Clients
Often, hiring and client acquisition can happen in tandem or in quick succession. Obviously, the more paying clients you have, the more staff you can afford to hire.
The balance of this equation is going to differ depending on your clients’ lifetime value and a few other factors. It’s important to understand early on where your clients will come from and how you can secure them.
Start by trying a few strategies to get your first clients. Once you see which methods get the best results, focus your efforts on those.
Those are the basic steps to start a remote agency — define your business parameters, build some infrastructure, get a team in place, and sign your first clients.
From there it’s a matter of fine-tuning all your processes, like learning how to write a great business proposals and following a smooth client onboarding system. Developing strong, repeatable systems and processes will help you deliver results for your clients as you grow and scale.
Tips for Running a Remote Agency
Plenty of remote agencies make money and operate without a hitch. The ones that do this have put in some hard work and applied advice like this:
Keep an Eye on the Bottom Line
When you are scaling a remote agency, it is essential to keep an eye on money. For some agency owners, this is obvious and an obsessive point of focus. But others get caught up in the operations and forget to focus on revenue streams and goals.
Make targets. Hit them. If you don’t, regroup and restructure.
Especially in the first five years of running a remote agency, you will need to make constant adjustments to your process, staffing, and offerings to stay in the black.
Create a Positive Remote Agency Culture
It’s important that you don’t look at this as a counterpoint to the first piece of advice. Developing a culture for your agency isn’t at odds with making money. In fact, culture is an important part of your profit.
People shop for brands they like. The best talent (especially in creative industries) is attracted to a healthy team culture. You will get more from people if you treat them well and let them enjoy their lives.
Good communication and a supportive work culture contribute to higher engagement and productivity. You will create more satisfaction and commitment when your team actually feels like a team — remote work can feel lonely.
However, if you start micromanaging or dictating, you’ll probably lose workers. After all, part of the benefit of being remote is that people have more autonomy.
Institute a Chain of Command
Just because you’re trading GIFs on Slack and cultivating a winning team culture doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a chain of command. In fact, unless you want to bottleneck, you must have an established order for decision-making, workflow, and approvals.
This can be done in a gracious, healthy way that doesn’t give corporate refugees PTSD. But, it should be implemented and enforced. It’s the only way that your agency will increase its profit margin and the only way that you will grow.
Similar to having a chain of command, it’s important that remote agencies have clearly defined roles. In the early days of launching an agency, everyone does everything. That should be temporary.
In an intensely competitive world of online businesses, you must be better than your competitors. This is only achievable if you offer something better, which is of course accomplished by highly skilled workers.
While some people (like PMs) can continue to be generalists, you should always be looking for specialists who are truly experts and have a clearly defined role to play.
When you run a remote agency with workers from around the world, communication can devolve to the lowest common denominator. While you don’t have to mandate daily stand-ups, you should have regularly scheduled meetings that encourage cross-departmental collaboration.
People will work better when they weigh in on what’s going on in other departments. They will also feel more bought in if they’re allowed to make important decisions and shape the agency’s success.
Set Goals for Your Agency
Finally, set goals around all sorts of outcomes. Your goals should be clearly articulated and measurable. As an agency owner, you want to set goals for revenue and growth.
Encourage individual teams and team members to set their own goals. Everyone should feel they have targets to hit, which will accelerate the pace of progress and give a great opportunity for celebration.
The Best Tools for Running a Remote Agency
Of course, the day in, day out of running an agency is accomplished by implementing the right tools and services. For a remote agency, software is indispensable. And the right software can make all of the difference.
Just ask anyone who’s been using a clunky software for any length of time. It matters very much that what you use is effective, efficient, and easy to learn. Having an accessible customer service team or troubleshooting channels helps, too.
Here are some of the most popular software systems for remote agencies, and what they do:
Comprehensive Office Software and File-Sharing
Remote agencies need all the general office software and file sharing capabilities as any other business. If you’ve worked for a more traditional agency, you may be used to software installed on desktops, like Outlook for email or Excel for spreadsheets.
Fortunately, you don’t have to buy expensive software or hire an IT department to have a basic office software suite for a remote agency. You can set up a cloud-based system fairly easily that will scale with your team:
Google Workspace, formerly called G-Suite, offers cloud-based software solutions that are perfect for office-less companies. The cost is on a per-user basis, so when you make a new hire, you can simply set them up with a corporate email and give them access to any folders they need.
The tools include email (Gmail), word processing (Google Docs), spreadsheets (Google Sheets), presentations (google Slides), messaging (Gchat), cloud storage (Google Drive), and tons more.
Of course, it’s by Google so it integrates easily with a lot of other systems.
Messaging and Meeting Apps
When the team is spread out, messaging apps are super important. You can’t have in-person meetings or swing by someone’s office to ask a question. These apps will save you from endless email chains.
Depending on just how global your team is, you may use free or paid versions of the following:
This popular messaging app integrates with G-Suite and other tools, and can be organized by creating channels for different teams or projects. It’s mostly used for text-based chat, but you can also use it for making calls to team-members
The most popular tool of 2020, Zoom has calendar integrations and is popular for its multi-user, screen-sharing video calls.
Project Management Tools for Remote Agencies
Perhaps the most important category of software is project management tools. These can make or break efficiency and communication. Some of the most popular are:
Organized by team, project, and task, Asana is great for managing work and keeping everyone on the same page. If your agency collaborates with clients on some aspects of the work, you can invite them into certain projects or tasks, keeping communications and client approvals all in one place.
With the higher-priced plans, you can access enhanced reporting and manage your team members’ workload to avoid burnout. Asana integrates with a lot of other software, including time-trackers, invoicing, and much more.
This one is an oldie in the project management space, but it’s well-liked for remote teams. BC is also organized by teams and projects. Each project can be subdivided into tasks with tagging, chats, pings, and timesheet integrations.
Set up in a “bulletin board” style, Trello is a visual organizer that allows a lot of flexibility in setup. You create boards and then individual line items within those, which can be further divided into dated tasks with checklists, etc.
Trello is a nice tool for planning out projects and collaborating with distributed teams, but you may find it’s not as flexible when your agency grows beyond a few clients.
While most of these systems will have scheduling features built in, some remote agencies like to use Calendly or other automated scheduling software as well. This can save a lot of time going back and forth on email to schedule meetings with clients or sales leads.
Is This the Year to Start Your Remote Agency?
Remote agencies are here to stay. If you provide any kind of digital services, from bookkeeping, to web design to public relations, it’s the way to go.
Start attracting higher-paying clients, without the huge up-front investment of physical offices and the limitations of local hiring.
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