We interviewed Ryan Malone from SmartBug Media to find out more about his stringent onboarding process and how it helps his company to thrive with a remote team.
Our interview begins with Ryan explaining how seeing a friend miss a special family occasion for work was a defining moment. A simple 10-minute phone call would have prevented the need for the fateful business trip, which would later inspire the remote structure of Ryan’s own company.
I was newly married myself and wanting to have kids, I didn’t want to do anything like that, not to myself or the people I worked with,” Ryan recalls. “No-one wants to miss those once in a lifetime opportunities, whether it’s making final memories with a grandma, training for a triathlon or spending quality time with young family. I really believe we shouldn’t have to sacrifice those moments to do good work.
Launched in 2007, SmartBug Media is a completely virtual company with a distributed team of 27 full time employees and 25 contractors located across North America and now entering into Europe. Hiring remotely gives SmartBug Media access to the best people regardless of where they live, while traditional marketing agencies are limited to the best applicants in a 20-mile radius.
Rather than replicate the traditional marketing agency in a virtual setting, Ryan set out to reverse the industry’s shortcomings, something he knew all too well from his career in product marketing and management.
We often hired agencies when I was on the client side, and when it worked out well it was allegedly due to the agency’s process. When it went poorly, somehow it was because we didn’t give them what they needed. As I peeled back the layers, I discovered it was nearly always the same situation. The senior partner sells the agency, leaves and the juniors do the work – people who haven’t launched a product or worked on a P&L, or presented to a group of investors on what went wrong. A dirty secret in the agency world is the heavy reliance on intern labour and having resources work on tasks they are not qualified to be working on, he said.
Determined not to make the same mistakes, Ryan developed a stringent hiring policy and onboarding process, which he admits might appear ‘backwards’ to some companies. But it’s been crucial to SmartBug Media’s success as a leading inbound marketing specialist and lead generator.
Our people are more senior, they have marketing experience and experience using our key software like HubSpot, and generally they have some exposure to remote work.
Ryan, who lives in Orange County, California, conducts the initial screening call to determine if an applicant is the right cultural fit for the company. The process involves a crowd-sourced reference check early on, with previous employers and clients asked if they would re-hire the applicant along with commentary on various key candidate attributes. If the candidate moves to the next stage, they’ll have one-hour video interviews with up to four different members of the SmartBug Media team. Then, there may be an offer of employment, or, if there are several suitable applicants for one role, some might be placed on a waiting list and revisited at the next opening. All new recruits have a 30-minute introductory call with every other team member.
Then they get to work. Consulting teams are structured in pods, consisting of a team leader, senior and junior consultant, and group members are rotated, giving everyone a chance to work and collaborate with different people. The result is a high performing, happy and successful workforce with a below 10% churn rate, almost unheard of in the agency world.
SmartBug Media is now one of only 10 HubSpot Diamond Partner Agencies in the world, and the company’s growth has nearly doubled annually for five consecutive years – achievements Ryan attributes largely to smart hiring and a focus on efficiency and quality. Simple but effective processes, KPIs and shared accountability also keep the team on track, while staying connected with software programs like Teamwork, Zoom and Google Apps.
We also have a good time, like team trips to Newport Beach and Vegas where we combine work and fun. Because everyone works together, we already feel like we know each other, so it works well.
With a strong team in place, and growing, Ryan has found his own new niche in developing systems to effectively manage his remote team, keeping people connected across different time zones and countries, and helping them perfect the balance of autonomy and collaboration.