Best Practices for Managing Your Distributed Team — #CreativeTribes AMA with DevriX’s Mario Peshev
Earlier this year, #CreativeTribes hosted an AMA Live Chat with Mario Peshev, founder and CEO of DevriX, a distributed agency of 25 people delivering high-end WordPress solutions and growth strategy for fast-paced startups and SMEs. Based in Sofia, Bulgaria, Mario is, like all of our AMA presenters, a member of the #CreativeTribes Slack community.
Mario got his start as a tech engineer turned manager and business owner, who’s gained a multitude of skills along the way. Besides being founder of DevriX, he also heads both its business and technical development departments. And he consults, part-time, for hundreds of multinational companies, startups, and foundations. Mario has also delivered more than 10,000 hours of training for educational institutions and organizations such as CERN, VMware, and SAP Labs.
In short, Mario knows his stuff. And in this article we’re going to give readers the skinny on all that he shared with us during his #CreativeTribes AMA Live Chat.
On the advantages of a distributed, or remote, team
There are several advantages.
Working across different time zones allows for serving different clients. Hiring remotely is handy for finding experts who are not available regionally, or whenever working in a metropolitan city with a number of competitors.
Moreover, it teaches a working model that allows for more efficient work when communicating and coordinating requirements with customers. If you’re used to working at the office, your clients are rarely around you, and your work habits may be more “black box” than what a customer wants to see.
Additionally, being used to working with a remote team makes freelance involvement more natural.
On handling communications across time zones
We have team members in time zones ranging from GMT-5 to GMT+8. We practice agile, which means that our standard sprints are one or two weeks long, which makes it essential for people to communicate with one another. Additionally, we have clients from California to Europe to Thailand. Being able to allocate resources across time zones is crucial, and also allows our local folk to work flexible hours — such as starting as early as 6 a.m. or taking a midday nap, and handling evening business hours.
Work requirements are designed to make our team effective, while keeping our communications concise. We have kickoffs for projects, weekly meetings (about an hour and a half), and the rest is handled by different team members, interacting through Asana for project management and HipChat for touching base.
On DevriX’s roots as a distributed team
I started as a freelancer and hired an assistant and a few freelancers to help, so the idea was to be remote from the get-go. I used to work in an environment that was really inefficient — gathering people at the office working on different projects across time zones, and wasting three hours a day commuting.
So being remote was an integral part of DevriX from the very beginning.
On DevriX’s remote team management stack
Asana and HipChat are our main tools, together with the Google stack — email, and Google Docs and Calendar, which we use for documentation, client communications, and schedules/milestones. Other than that we’re fairly open, even toward our dev team, which uses Macs, Linux and Windows machines, and various server setups.
We try to keep software to a minimum — fewer places to look at when the work starts.
On how DevriX’s processes have evolved over time
Our work processes evolved across a two-person team which grew to six folk, then 12, 18, 20 and, now, 25. With time, we had to calibrate project ownership and communication between team members, while reducing management overhead. Additionally, we had to increase the amount of documentation for onboarding new team members and provide an onboarding plan which included training projects, test assignments, and joining ongoing projects (which wasn’t a problem when we first started).
On client and remote team member communications
It depends on the amount of work, but we generally update clients 1 to 2 times a week. Even if it’s an incomplete update, it’s still something that helps to keep the client apprised of the various content production activities.
We also have freelance writers who report back every couple of days — and we have access to a shared Google Drive folder where updates are visible, including Docs revisions and the like. We’re not overzealous, but we want to be sure that progress is made; and, if there are any questions, we can chime in and assist accordingly.
On outsourcing vs. hiring new team members
We outsource in different countries with different payment expectations. Hiring in the US or Western Europe requires a specific commitment towards a given project, or an activity that we know would be rewarding, etc. So, we usually hire people in sales/marketing roles that we need active work on, or experts in a specific development niche. However, outsourcing to Eastern Europe or Asia lowers the costs. We can, thereby, provide more actual hours for QA, research, or other activities that we charge less for but which are of immense help for the more expensive employees.
Half of our staff are employees. Another 35 percent work full-time through Upwork or other outsourcing channels. And about 15 percent are part-timers or contractors.
On finding quality outsourced help
This depends on where you outsource to. For example, we’ve had success with the Philippines, since there are plenty of folk with C1 English as compared to other countries where the English language is a second-class citizen. We perform different assessments for our employees whenever good command of English is required (P.S. English is not an official language here in Bulgaria.)
The Philippines are also more cost-effective than Western Europe/US.
I understand higher cost of living, but that doesn’t justify my paying three times more and overcharging my clients if there are equally qualified alternatives. That’s not always the case, but it’s something that we keep in mind at all times.
I’ve had a number of colleagues who moved permanently to Asia who were able to build startups at a lower cost and succeed easily.
On key benefits, and challenges, of having a distributed team
In terms of benefits — finding talent. Sofia has a population of about 2 million people, and large offices where VMware, SAP, HP and others are hiring all the time. Job-hopping is standard practice, and finding talent is extremely hard.
We’re working with several experts living in villages of 800 to 1,000 people who can’t work on-site, and are looking for awesome remote opportunities (which the majority of companies don’t allow right now).
In terms of challenges, company culture is a notable one. Onboarding and initial training takes a while, and communication may be more demanding.
But it’s worth it at the end of the day.
Oh, by the way, one of the benefits of a remote team is being able to work anywhere. I’m in a hookah bar with three of my colleagues at the moment! So I can work from home, a coffee shop, while traveling, etc. — as can my team members.
On DevriX’s client base and typical fees
Most of our clients are US-based, some with offices in Europe as well.
We charge between $70 and $120 per hour, so it’s a fairly competitive rate as compared to US/Western Europe.
We have discounts for some clients going down to $55/hour, but that’s usually for 70-hour/month contracts for at least a year ahead. Other than that, we have several $100/hour contracts for 100-hour retainers at the moment.
Usually SaaS development is something that requires unique expertise, and we excel at it. We have a contract for $55/hour for 120 hours per month, so it costs as much as a full-time developer in San Francisco — but we provide a full team, including creatives, marketers, and so on, which provides additional benefit beyond our broad expertise.
On annual remote team get-togethers
This represents a $50K investment, based on our calculations, which is something that we’re not ready to put in effect yet on an annual basis. In addition to a week off for everyone, which adds up to a lot of costs, there’s the risk of losing ongoing clients.
We do meet at some events though, which is a different thing — some team members gather at WordCamps, which we pay for. But they’re usually local (to some extent).
On how DevriX promotes their services
We focus on inbound marketing — crafting good content, creating landing pages, SEO, backlinks, and guest posting activities. The other aspect is sponsoring events and speaking at some. This brings some promotion traffic plus testifies to our commitment to WordPress. Also, here’s a 2,200-word reply I wrote on Quora which explains our sales/bizdev process.
On client and team call/update frequency
We have a monthly call with most clients; some we talk with weekly. Plus comments in Asana for progress or new ideas.
I also keep in close touch with my team as work quality is important, and I strive to teach them everything I know that’s applicable to their work.
On DevriX’s use of Slack, HipChat and Telegram for internal and external communications
We don’t like Slack for several reasons — part of that is personal (I met them in San Francisco a few years ago and didn’t like the culture a lot), but mostly because many of our team members use Linux, and Slack didn’t work on Linux until recently.
We have certain integrations that work flawlessly with HipChat, and it’s cross-platform, which helps us utilize it better.
But we do use Slack for a couple of high-profile clients that share some feedback there, or we can join their internal discussions (while keeping the rest on our end).
I’ve been using Telegram since late 2016. Part of my team is on Telegram — mostly my VAs and some of my content writers. What I like about Telegram is the flexible notifications, and the ability to record audio messages. When I’m on the road and need to send over some feedback, I can record a memo while driving and send the feedback straight away instead of delaying it for 2-3 hours.
But Telegram lacks the tech integrations with GitHub, Bitbucket, and other continuous integration tools that we work with, so it isn’t suitable for the dev team.
That said, its desktop application for Linux is brilliant — that’s uncommon since Linux isn’t as widely used. It’s a great app. I try to convert more of my team members, but it’s all about the users and who else they can interact with (the reason we use Skype a lot for most of our clients).
On the accounting/bookkeeping challenges involved in running a remote team
That’s a painful subject — a very problematic but real one!
The local team members we hire through our Bulgarian company. Some of our team members also have companies so that they can invoice us. Many of our members are through Upwork, mainly for the invoicing feature. Some I pay personally through PayPal which is a problem, but legal (it just appears as if my salary is quite ridiculous, but we don’t have a good alternative there yet).
I use Google Sheets, as ridiculous as it may sound. I have a template for invoices where I only fill in the date and any changes in the amount of hours, for example.
I also have a spreadsheet with employees and their salaries. Accounting pays the local salaries monthly, and Upwork takes care of weekly payments, so it’s mostly cash or PayPal for the other team members.
On DevriX’s recruitment process
Some team members want to move to a village far away from the city, or to Asia, and we can arrange that easily without firing them.
We only hire two percent of all applicants. We got featured in this Forbes article that lists 125 remote companies. This drove a lot of traffic — and submissions — to us. Additionally, we have several other jobs open at all times.
But work quality is hard to find — together with a “good bang for the buck”.
I recently did a salary requirements analysis of some of our incoming applications, and it turned out that the average requirement was $4,000 a month. And that’s outside of the US and Western Europe.
On content writers and content
We have people in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, although we also use three freelancers from the US with competitive packages. They create everything from standard articles to landing page copy, and from ebooks to white papers, research studies, content add-ons, etc.
Content is a favorite topic of mine as we focus on inbound marketing, and I blog and guest post quite a lot.
On Quora as a viable channel to spread word of DevriX
I’d say no, but there are several caveats to my answer. I’ve received a couple of quotes in Forbes and Inc. based on my replies in Quora. A lot of journalists follow Quora for insight and ideas, so it’s a good channel for promotion per se. Additionally, I’ve been a top writer in a category twice, which brings some traffic.
But I do like Quora and I grow my network there.
The more you write, the more your exposure grows. Moreover, I pitch my Quora content for some guest posts every now and then — especially popular ones since they serve as a testimonial for the quality of my writing.
On the effectiveness of other marketing channels
I also write for industry magazines and blogs.
We’ve onboarded three of our clients thanks to two guest posts of mine. They managed to gather the audience that we needed, and it was a good match — which turned out to be very rewarding, including landing Audi as a client.
Additionally, prospects do background research and stumble upon these guest posts, which serve as additional proof of our reputation and reliability.
I’ve also tried Medium, but it has a specific business model that doesn’t work for us — it’s mostly based on contacts and peers in Medium or being a natural influencer. Same for LinkedIn Pulse.
Our blogs work far better for what we do.
On DevriX’s projected growth plans
I don’t know really — it’s fairly dynamic.
We want to put more time into interviewing marketers. We’d like to develop better outreach models to attract quality influencers and partners, and build more partnerships that would increase the suite of services that we offer, and allow for bundling some together at competitive rates.
Additionally, our inbound marketing leads prospects to retainer agreements; and the more guaranteed hours we have every month, the more we can keep hiring and growing.
At the end of the day, we want to provide a complete package of business development, design and software development, lead generation, content marketing strategy, server scalability, partnership outreach, etc.
We love coding, but if it can’t bring users, it isn’t as helpful — except for established corporations and enterprises. So, we want to help our accounts grow, and keep working with them for as long as possible.
Most of our clients need development, but then it turns out that their design is horrible, and needs user experience (UX) and conversion rate optimization (CRO) work. Their sites are slow, which leads to server management work. When we’re done, SEO does the rest, grows the traffic, brings more customers who want more features, we continue with design and dev, and proceed with finding more avenues for monetization and business process optimization.
In short, one thing leads to another, and then cycles back on itself.
If you found this AMA with Mario Peshev as invaluable as we who participated in it did — and would like to tap into game-changing expertise like this in real-time, as well as ask your own questions — be sure to join our #CreativeTribes Slack community.