Mid-Market Heroes: Why -- And How -- One Brick-And-Mortar Business Went Virtual

Innovations International, a 25-year-old consulting firm, traded its physical offices for doing business entirely on the Internet. Is it the right move for your business?

Fredric Paul, Contributor

August 18, 2009

3 Min Read

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Soft Power
Despite the importance of technological solutions to the transition, however, Guillory says that "soft things were as important if not more important than the technology." He identifies four key social factors:

  1. "The kind of work we do is all about mindshare, we're not building widgets" so we're not tied to a physical location.

  2. We go to our clients, they don't come to us.

  3. Three of the five principals had already worked together for a while.

  4. The entire staff was self managed. "You have to have confident that people will execute," Guillory says, even when you're not standing over their shoulder.

Unexpected Surprises
Guillory is very pleased with how the transition worked out, but some things were not expected.

For one thing, the work-life balance equation tips both ways. While employees can now be home when needed, they also have a different attitude about work. "It's always there," Guillory says, and people can create whenever they're ready. While they're not "expected" to do work on weekends and after hours, many do. Flexibility is important, Guillory says, "but you still have to get things done."

After initially struggling with the technology, the company now has whole different mindset about the power of the Web and Web 2.0 applications, he says, and has begun putting its content on the Web for free. The company is now using Elance to bring in new, more affordable contractors. "That's been a great boon for us," Guillory says, especially on less subjective tasks as opposed to highly creative endeavors like book covers.

Challenges Remained
Even with the technology tools and cultural advantages, Guillory acknowledges, there were some challenges to the transition:

  • Some people expressed an initial resistance to the collaboration technology.

  • Social adjustments. "When you're not around people any more," Guillory says, "you need to make an effort to interact with adults."

  • Physical adjustments. Employees didn't realize the impact of the physical changes in their lifestyles. They weren't moving around as much and some started to gain weight. "You need to set specific times to take walks or go on breaks," Guillory advises.

  • The creative process can be difficult. Guillory says he still hasn't found the perfect solution to "recreating the energy you get by being in the same room with somebody" working on a creative project.

The key to this kind of move Guillory says, is "active listening." Innovations International has a 9 a.m. conference call meeting every morning "religiously," and Guillory listens carefully for anything "underneath" the conversaton that he needs to be concerned about. It's a bit of intuition, he says, but if he detects anything he'll talk to the individuals offline as quickly as possible.

Like most good things in business, moving a company from brick-and-mortar to the Internet it requires the right technology and the right business skills. If you can pull it off, though, Innovations International's experience demonstrates the potential for your company to gain significant competitive advantages.

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See more columns by Fredric Paul

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