In the last four years as a remote agency founder, I've spent dozens of hours attempting to perfect the First Page brand: our values, vision, mission, website copy, service offerings, etc. I have worked hard to be able to say, "We are this type of inbound marketing agency who delivers this in this way," and then put in place the standards and processes to make sure we're communicating this clearly to clients and achieving this vision.
But, none of that foundational work matters if the people working for First Page don't align with what I envision. You can dream up the most pie-in-the-sky, beautifully run company in the world, but if the people working for you don't stand for the values or produce the work you intend, your clients won't feel that vision. So in 2019, it was my mission as a founder to understand how to hire better so that the people behind my brand are my brand. I'll tell you below what I did wrong in previous years leading a remote company, and the things I changed in 2020 to improve our remote hiring practices.
One of the hardest things about hiring is making sure you have someone's "butt in the proverbial seat" before the previous person leaves so that training and transition can happen without a hiccup felt by the client. Oftentimes, I was rushing and choosing someone quickly so we didn't have to have a gap in "business as usual" tasks that needed to be completed every week for our clients. This is a huge challenge. To me, one of the biggest. How do you ensure you're spending enough time to find and hire the right person and also ensure that client work gets done while you hire?
I didn't want to rush hiring, so that meant I needed a surplus of candidates to choose from. Once I clearly defined the services we offered and the "levels" at First Page, I knew who I would need to replace for what channels and roles. So, I started to keep a database of all the people that reach out to me when we're not hiring so that I can look into those people when I need to hire. I use HubSpot's CRM to do this in the following way:
Tagged candidates with the Lifecycle Stage "Other" so that they didn't fall into my sales/lead pipeline
Created Custom "Lead Status" fields for every channel candidate, such as "SEO Candidate" or "Social Media Candidate"
Turned on the HubSpot Gmail extension so that every time someone emails me, I can save them in my CRM and open the CRM to tag them quickly with their Other Lifecycle Stage and Lead Status
Additionally, I create all of our hiring job descriptions and job posts within two tools: LinkedIn and Upwork. These tools save the history of candidates who apply for jobs, making it easy for me to tap into it in the future. For instance, if I put up a job description to hire a Content Expert and I need to replace that person 1–2 years later, I can look at the people who previously applied that I already vetted and were a close runner-up in my hiring cycle.
Finally, I talk to my local networks. I trust personal hiring recommendations more than anything. To fuel more of those, I offer the people who work for First Page a $500 Airbnb gift card for hiring referrals (if the person gets hired for a role that is 40+ hours a month). And I also post in my private industry Facebook groups, Slack channels, and social media accounts to get the word out.
These practices have helped me (slowly) build a pool of candidates to pluck from when we need to get the ball rolling on a new contractor quickly to ensure I'm not stuck doing the entire soup-to-nuts hiring process within two weeks.
When I first started hiring for my company, I was open to anyone and everyone with the right marketing background. If they were brand new to working remotely, great! "It's a wonderful way to live, and you'll figure it out!" was my take. Wrong. There's an incredible amount of people who can't seem to get the hang of remote work: they sit around in their pajamas all day, feeling like a zombie, and they don't know what to do without the constant office chatter and group lunches to boost their social life. That's completely okay, but that doesn't work if you're working for me.
It became really clear that the best remote workers are the ones who know how to do it — those who have already figured out their routine and groove, have systems outside of work to socialize, and those who thrive off the freedom this style of work offers. I simply do not want to hire new remote workers, so I've started asking in interviews for them to tell me:
Their remote work history
The future of their career and where they wanted to take themselves
Their remote work routine
And honestly, I immediately move people to my “no” group if they tell me they are just getting started with remote work.
Previously, I spent way too much time analyzing someone's work history, LinkedIn profile, and experience than the actual work they created. I also simply "trusted" too much. I am not someone who has ever fibbed about my work experience. I've heard of it happening on resumes, but it just seemed far-fetched to me. It's not. There's a lot of people who have worked in the roles they said they did but didn't actually learn anything, people who exaggerated their role or title, and people who have not actually worked for all the places and jobs they've listed.
I've hired people who clearly showed once they were actually doing the work that they really didn't know what they were doing. [Psst. This is one of my very favorite lessons that I took from the book "Remote: Office Not Required." When you're remote, the work speaks for itself, and it becomes really clear who is and is not doing their best work (or any work at all)].
Taking the advice from "Remote: Office Not Required," we started requiring the final two candidates to complete a piece of work for us that showed off their marketing knowledge. (And we pay for the hours that it takes the candidates to complete this work). For example, I had two candidates for our Content Expert role both give me a brief "2020 Plan" for our client on what they'd do to grow traffic/revenue. Then, I hired the person who produced the best plan that showed knowledge that aligned most with our growth marketing philosophy.
After hiring someone at First Page, we onboarded them completely to our internal processes. Our onboarding task list in Asana was over 20–30 individual tasks...add them to our website, introduce them to client(s), add them to our onboarding guide, provide them with all logins, send them 30 documents to read about the background of our clients' business, pay for their new email, pay for their Slack seat, etc.
If we discovered quickly (within 1–2 months) that they weren't a cultural fit, they didn't actually know how to do the work, or that remote work wasn't for them, all of this onboarding work would have to be unraveled, only to be done again for the next person. We're simply too small to invest that type of work into people who are not a fit for our company.
Now, every new employee at First Page starts with a 60-day "trial period" where we do a lightweight, partial onboarding. We don't introduce them to clients if they're not an absolutely necessary client-facing role. We keep them as Slack DM (single-channel guest) only, and we put them on one Asana board instead of access to the whole pie. We also say that this trial period is to figure out if First Page and our processes/culture is a fit for them. Really both parties need to be happy with their work environment to succeed; it's not just about us deciding if the employee is a fit for First Page.
This, coupled with the aforementioned approach to asking for the final two candidates to complete a short assignment, requires a lot more work in your hiring process. It requires you to think ahead on what project would best unveil candidates’ experience and knowledge, and then what “mini project” could they complete in 60 days that would further this insight, but also be beneficial to the agency if they didn’t work out, but the project was completed. We think about these two things with every new hire.
This is a difficult nut to crack for every company — hiring for culture. If culture is an important piece to your company (and I hope it is because remote culture is a HUGE part of building a remote company), it's vital to get this right. I made some mistakes. (Hiring an incorrect cultural fit is also something that can be caught if you're using the tactic I outlined above for the 60-day trial.) But, I put some extra steps in place to ensure we're getting this correct before people start working for us.
Previously, all hiring was done by me. I would do a round of one-hour interviews with my final 3–4 candidates, choose two, and then move those people to the "proof of work" stage. Now, I've worked on building out our interview process to include more people internally so I can focus on the cultural fit. At First Page, we have "Experts" (the highest level internally), and each channel has an Expert, such as SEO Expert and Content Expert. I now lean on my Experts to do the knowledge-based interview. They know the most about their channels, so they're going to be the best person to determine if the candidate's history or experience is up-to-snuff. Then, I have them pass on their top two candidates to me to do a culture interview only. In our cultural interview, I just want to chat with the candidate to get a sense of who they are, what they've done in life, and what makes them tick (along with a few other "culturally centered" questions).
Another piece I put in place: there is a wonderful new "video round" in LinkedIn's hiring app that we leveraged when looking for a recent Expert hire, and it really helped me hone in on who was the best fit for the role when I could see them explaining their work over video (before we ever even interviewed them). For that, we used more hard-hitting questions such as, "Tell us about a time you failed to deliver results — what was the project, what was the goal, what was the outcome, and what did you did after?" This is more of a knowledge-based question, and going forward, I think I'll add a cultural question too. I am constantly working on improving our hiring practices.
Finally, I took a look at how our contracts and the communication around our contract was attracting the right person (or not). Previously, we focused on "hours" for a contract. And a lot of times, this meant people were sending me emails about going over by 3–5 hours. Instead, I realized that I wanted a "get the job done no matter what" attitude. My solution was to offer a HIGHER retainer amount than I thought they needed to get the job done, with the expectation that hours would move up or down sometimes within that retainer. This has led to an "all hands in" type of attitude, and that has gotten us to a much better place with the type of people who work for First Page.
This is a tough one for me to personally admit "out loud" on the internet. But it's the biggest challenge I've faced as a founder. I want to be friends with my employees; I just do. We're small. Most people I follow on Instagram (which really helps me to "get to know" my remote employees), and they follow me back. I like to spend my one-on-one meetings each month catching up on life and talking about things outside of work. I like to laugh and be silly and make crass jokes at our monthly check-in meetings. And, because of that, I have some really great personal relationships with those who work for First Page. But this has become really troublesome when employees start to not produce the work I expect, not work as much as they're being paid for, or fall short on our company values (like respecting people's time by not canceling meetings, hitting deadlines, etc.).
I still haven't entirely perfected this one and that's the beauty of being a founder — you're always learning and you still have gaps to fill. But, I learned a big lesson here more than once: when you see performance slip, it's likely for a reason. That person is just as checked out as you feel they are, and they are likely feeling just as stuck with leaving as you are with asking them to leave. So, it's best just to hit those hard conversations head-on and give a trial period to fix things. And if they're not fixed, find someone new. There are a ton of people who are DYING to have a full-time remote job. Every time I went through a tough phase like this with an employee and had to let them go, the new person blew my mind with how wonderful they were. So sometimes "fresh" is the best way to go.
Are you interested in melding remote company founder minds with Jeanna? She loves to meet with other agency owners, and you can schedule a time to chat. Are you interested in getting a job at First Page? Even better — we'd love to hear from you. Send us your resume and a video about why you belong on our completely remote marketing team.