How workplace technology can transform the small business

Nic Blair built a successful startup with a virtual office of just five staff dotted around Australia and overseas. With next to no overheads, the company has already turned over $1.6 million revenue.

After eight failed startups, 27-year-old Nic Blair turned things around with two successful businesses — Search Factory and Brus Media.

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Nic Blair Image: Brus Media

Search Factory started out from his parents' house, and, in just three years, the company has grown to 27 full-time staff members who operate from two offices in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley, with an annual turnover of more than AU$2 million.

Two years ago, Blair took the learnings from Search Factory and founded his second successful venture, Brus Media — a mobile advertising network focused on the growth and monetisation of mobile apps through cost-per-install advertising.

The business consists of just five geographically dispersed staff located in China, Philippines, Perth, Brisbane, and Northern Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Blair said that the decision to adopt a virtual office model for Brus Media over the traditional office setup of Search Factory was necessary in order to effectively service the global client base.

"Flexibility is dependent on the nature of the business. For Search Factory, we deal directly with Australian-based clients that we have regular communication with and need to be available when they wish to speak with us. So it does not lend itself to a great deal of flexibility for any staff that are managing clients.

"For Brus Media, however, we deal with our global client base completely through online communication methods, which means that we can have complete flexibility and a global team."

Blair said that the virtual team relies on two methods of communication: Email through Google Apps, and Skype.

"Skype allows us to have group video calls, and also chat messages between team members, while email communication is used for any other group discussions. We also conduct presentations for clients through either Google Hangouts or Skype video calls."

According to Blair, putting all of the day-to-day operations in the cloud is the first step in keeping geographically dispersed staff functioning as one cohesive unit.

"Brus Media runs almost completely on cloud-based technologies, including Dropbox for storage, Google Apps for email and calendar, Skype for voice/video conferencing, Xero for accounting, Spotify for music, Office365 for documents, Adobe Creative Cloud for design, and HasOffers for management of reporting and campaign tracking," he explained.

"This means that every aspect of our business is cross-device compatible, and can be worked on from any device in any location. This is just as relevant to working between countries as it is to transitioning seamlessly from your office computer to your home computer, with no issues such as emails or data stored on a different computer's hard drive.

"The other benefit as a business is that solutions such as Office365 and Adobe Creative Cloud are actually cheaper than their desktop-based equivalents," he added.

Blair said that using cloud-based technologies like HasOffers to monitor performance has also played a crucial role in managing a global team.

"It essentially tracks the results and activity of each team member, removing most issues surrounding a global team. It provides solid transparency on performance, and ultimately allows us to determine the effectiveness and profitability of a staff member.

"We have team members also add a weekly update at the end of each week into a Google Drive spreadsheet, which allows us to understand the key things they have been working on and potential upcoming opportunities.

"Dropbox allows us to store documents easily in folders for the company, so things such as contracts and insertion orders are easily accessible for any client without needing us to email them back and forth between our team members.

"Team members in Brus Media are measured directly on performance, as opposed to tracking their hours, which allows us to be more flexible than if we were to monitor an individual's hours worked."

While Brus Media has always operated in a cloud-based environment, Blair is acutely aware of the time and resource challenges in transitioning older systems and processes. He recalls the migration process that Search Factory went through in replacing the company's "traditional" accounting operation with cloud-enabled services, which extended to the deployment of new job management tools. The company even went as far as handing out subscriptions to music-streaming services to counter the distraction-filled nature of modern open-plan offices.

"We can attach financial reporting to individual clients, which is insight that would be a very manual process in the past. Client handovers and project management between teams is now centralised and streamlined. Team members also used to be distracted often by conversations around them in our open-plan office, Spotify provided the opportunity to plug in and remove yourself from the surrounding environment."

Blair said that while technology has the potential to transform any business, doing as much homework in advance will save plenty of headaches down the road.

"Evaluate the cost of the solutions you are looking at based on scalability as your team grows. It might grow faster than you think, and some solutions that are based on cost per user can end up being quite expensive if you have a team of 25 or 50 users that you need to be using it," he said.

"Also look at which technology solutions can integrate with each other. Many cloud-based solutions have direct plugin integrations with each other, so it's important to use technologies that work together. Of the solutions we currently use, PayPal and Commonwealth Bank integrate directly to Xero, which integrates with Zoho, which also integrates with Google Apps.

"You end up with a connected suite of tools that can pass valuable information between each other and improve your business intelligence."

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