What if you didn’t have to come in to the office anymore? How would that change your company’s culture? Bryan Miles, author of Virtual Culture and co-CEO of BELAY, knows it changes everything for the better.
BELAY has more than 600 team members all working from home remotely. Even though they don’t have a central office, BELAY was awarded the number one spot in Entrepreneur Magazine’s rankings for best company culture. In this episode, you’ll learn why the current way of work could put your company out of business, and how to successfully transition to a virtual culture.
2010 was an interesting year for me.
At the time, I was working for a church construction company—a family owned, 40 year old company—and I was actually on their leadership team. I managed a group of 10 guys that worked to sell construction for churches around the United States. My last name wasn’t the last name of the owner, so I knew that I capped out in my role at that time.
I was 35, and I also had two young kids with my wife. They were two and five at the time, and I was easily traveling six to eight flights a week.
“I was exhausted.”
As much as I loved what I did and the contribution I had made over 17 years working there, I hated it and just felt like I needed to make a change.
I started reading a random book, but it really had an impact on me—Made in America. It’s Sam Walton’s story about how he created Walmart. What hit me is that he started Walmart in his late 30s.
I thought, man, if I just did something, at least I could say I got it started before Sam Walton.
I didn’t have any illusions of having the behemoth that Walmart is, but I just thought, I really want to try being an entrepreneur. It had always been in my belly to do something like that.
A Family Endeavor
Bryan Miles: That spring, my wife was working for a rather large company—a Fortune 10 called McKesson. She had been there for 10 years as a project manager, and I think she started to see that her next move there as well was going to be lateral.
As I shared with her my heart to maybe take a risk, surprisingly, she said, I want to do this with you.
At the time, she really valued stability. We had young kids, and the notion of risk connected to starting to something is a big conversation.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that type of talent wants to come work with me?'”
I just didn’t assume that she was going to jump ship with me. And I felt like we also needed her income.
By summer time, we had to figure this out. We needed to do some due diligence. We need to ask some really smart people that we know are successful in business, have sold businesses and done well for themselves.
Keep in mind, this was 2010, on the end of the great recession. Unemployment’s in the high nines. This is not the time that people naturally would say, “Yeah, go leave your nice job and start something.” But our advisors said it made sense.
One in particular, I was in a marina in Seattle and I’d flown to see him. Within 15 minutes of sitting down, he said, “You need to leave your company and start this company right now.”
That was the push I needed.
“On October 1st of 2010, my wife and I walked in to our very stable jobs, within hour of each other, and gave our notices.”
Charlie Hoehn: Wow, how did that feel?
Bryan Miles: It was electrifying for me. It was a mix of emotion because I really loved what I did, and I know that Shannon really enjoyed her employer. We gave pretty big notices because we figured, if this thing didn’t work, we wanted to come back to our jobs. It was bittersweet.
There was a lot of emotion wrapped up in it, but I also felt like it was the right time. December 1st, 2010, was the first day on our payroll together. In that month, we signed our first four contracts and started to build some crazy momentum. It was quite a ride.
In 2011, we had our Oprah moment.
Michael Hyatt basically tweeted that he was looking for a virtual assistant, and I was on vacation with my family. One of our clients texted me and said, “You need to get on twitter right now and try to engage with Mike.”
“About two hours later, he asked me for a contract.”
For him to tweet the next morning that he was going with this company was cool. But it ruined my vacation, because my inbox filled up with sales leads.
It was awesome. I sat there looking at the Tetons for a week straight on thirty-minute sales calls. Call after call after call thanks to Mike Hyatt.
Those early days were hard, and I’m really proud of where our organization’s come in those seven years.
“We paid a lot of stupid tax, and we’ve done a lot of things really well too.”
We proved ourselves, and we’ve been pretty picky about the types of customers we want. Not everybody gets to be our customer. We could probably could have grown a lot quicker, but we felt like the responsible way to manage relationships is make sure you’re picking the right clients and you’re guiding them to success.
That’s what we’ve been able to do, and that same approach still happens today in our sales cycles.
Growing a Company Without Walls
Charlie Hoehn: What did your earliest days of your company actually look like? Was it just you and Shannon as the only two full time employees?
Bryan Miles: We were the first full time employees for about the first year. However, we figured out that this model made sense based on the example that I had had before we started BELAY.
I had worked with person named Tricia, my virtual assistant. She lived in Charlotte and I lived in North Carolina, and I worked with her for seven years as she helped me manage my sales team.
She didn’t miss a beat. I saw her maybe six to eight times a year, but for the most part it was virtual. Pretty much any other leader that’s on the go could have a person like a Tricia on their team.
That’s where the model for us popped up. We knew that the virtual assistant thing was out there, but I had practical experience, and I could talk about it because I had already been doing it for seven years. It was really easy for me to create content around it, because I knew exactly what it meant to work with a virtual assistant.
Tricia was basically our third team member, if you will, and I could only afford her for five hours a week when we got first started.
“We decided we were going to try and fund this on our own. We bankrupted our 401(k)s and used all the money to start a company.”
Tricia stayed at my old job while she helped us for five hours on the side, and then that grew to more as the demand got bigger and bigger.
Shannon was the first relationship manager in our business, helping onboard clients, do the bookkeeping, and you know, wearing 85 hats. I was the sales guy, trying to close deals and hunt for business.
Then Tricia came on as our first official employee, and today, she’s actually the COO of our business. She reports to Shannon and I, and we’re co-CEOs.
Charlie Hoehn: At what point did you feel like “Okay, we’ve got this down, we can scale this up now?”
Bryan Miles: I’ll let you know when I get there.
It’s a daily fight. I mean, the truth is, we’re not a software company. There are days I wish we were, but people are the ones who execute on behalf of clients. And people come with their own fair share of issues and problems and opportunities.
“Scaling people is not easy.”
We’ve kind of gotten to a place where we said, “Scale is a nice word.” You know, appropriate levels of growth, working with people is the right way to approach this.
There are ways to scale our business, but we don’t look at it maybe necessarily the same way a SAS company would, or a venture capital would. We look at scaling based on the relationships we can impact and how that ties back to our mission.
Why Virtual Culture?
Charlie Hoehn: What made you really want to write this? What were you trying to accomplish?
Bryan Miles: Every single sales call, when someone calls in and wants to know more about our business, the first question they ask is literally this: “How does this thing work?”
Everybody’s intrigued by it, and people have kind of adopted it at certain stages. They’re looking at how they scale the administrative side of their business.
I’m also having phone calls with large corporations that they’re wrestling through trying to attract leaders who don’t want to come into their office. You’ve got this dilemma that’s happening both at a small business level and at an enterprise level.
“Organizations can’t continue to sustain all these crazy office spaces for people that don’t want to come in.”
They also are demanding flexibility. About a decade ago, when you said, “I want more workplace flexibility, I want to work from home,” there was this assumption, this dogma that said, “You’re lazy.”
It’s not true, it’s just not. There’s got to be a change here.
We have great clients and great leaders doing some amazing things in this world, and they want to have a virtual assistant or a virtual bookkeeper or a virtual web master, a virtual writer. They don’t want people in an office.
Every day, I’m presented with all these people that want a virtual model because it makes sense for them to have more agility and more autonomy in their day to day.
“The old-school office and cubicles are finally starting to collapse.”
What caused us to kind of get into this position where we built huge office spaces with cubicles in them? Why do people drive and commute and go into places that they can’t stand?
That’s kind of the reason for the book. It’s a culmination of experiences I’ve had over 17 years in this business and where I see the workplace headed.
More people would thrive in a virtual or flexible workplace environment and you would see greater results if you adopted a virtual model.
Virtual Culture is Here to Stay
Charlie Hoehn: What is it that you really want people to remember from this episode?
Bryan Miles: It’s twofold. First, owners of businesses or large organizations or really anybody that desires to kind of go build and be part and have an office, they need to acknowledge that the industrial age is over. It’s gone.
The industrial age basically represented control over your employees to have a very productive output.
If you go back and look at the time of Henry Ford or anybody building something on assembly line, you put all your people on a line, then you wrapped your managers around them.
If you think about today’s office space environment, what do you do? You put all your workers in the middle, you put them in cubicles, and you wrap your managers around them. That’s what pretty much every single office space in the United States looks like in some way, shape or form.
While we’re becoming more virtual than we realize, owners of businesses and leaders of large corporations need to see that. It’s happening. It’s breaking down.
“If grandma can FaceTime her grand kids and have a meaningful connection with them, then there’s no reason that can’t translate to the workplace.”
That’s the first big idea for people to consider when they read the book. The second one is if you’re an employee and you hunger to have greater workplace flexibility, you’ve got to do some things. You’ve got to start to state your why publicly.
It’s got to also have a meaningful result for the employer. It can’t just be because you want to have less commute or you want to have flexibility to help out with the kids at home or whatever.
Those things are nice, and they’re a benefit, but you’ve also got to translate the why to the result for the employer. There are plenty of those to be given the book as well.
“It’s about the results that the business can experience when you trust people to execute on the job.”
Now, there are some places where you actually have to go in to work somewhere. You can’t virtually serve food to people. There are plenty of applications where you have to be on site to work. But more and more, virtual remote is doable thanks to technology.
I’m also talking to the employee. How do they win, what do they need asked, what plan are they going to build to help their employers be more comfortable with this?
It’s our attempt to basically give a playbook—not the playbook but a playbook—on how we’ve operated as a business for seven years, all on a virtual capacity without an office.
I have zero interest in ever walking back in an office unless it’s to go meet somebody and sell them something.
Benefits for Employees and Employers Alike
Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the hidden benefits to the employer for switching over to this model?
You can’t dismiss the real estate and the cost associated with it. That’s a huge one. In fact, on virtualculturebook.com, which is our landing page for this book, there’s a calculator. You can actually calculate the savings there from a real estate standpoint if you want.
“When you allow an employee who has been working in office to go home, even if it’s one day a week to start, you’re signaling to them that you really do trust them.”
That you don’t have to be in the office to see them get something done on your behalf.
As long as they’re producing the result and they’re an adult and you hire them to be an adult and to do the things that they promise they would do, you’re basically transferring trust to them.
When that employee has trust and they believe that they’re trusted and they’re connected to the why of an organization, the return back in loyalty and productivity and effort is just amazing.
I’ve witnessed it. I mean, I’ve basically have ruined 60 people for their next job. That’s on purpose. We want people ruined when they come work here.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, tell me a story about how you ruined somebody?
Bryan Miles: When you give them the ability to work from home after they’ve had a commute, maybe two hours a day. I’m thinking of a person that’s actually in the marketing team right now. Their commute was one hour each way, every day, Monday to Friday, they went to a job, they sat in a cubicle of a large corporation, and they did their job. But at the end of the day, they’d get home after 7:00 at night like, “Why am I doing this?”
“I have no flexibility in my day, I can’t do the things I need to do.”
Take away that commute, then couple it with benefits and a meaningful why, and you pour into them in terms of camaraderie and culture. You set them up for failure anywhere else. They’ve been able to work from home, a place of meeting, they’re paid well, and the benefits are great.
“You’ve effectively ruined somebody from leaving you. That’s a great way to manage employee turnaround.”
You’ve got to also be a great leader worth following too. That’s something that we really impress on our leadership team that you’ve got to be worth following. You’re responsible for the vision of this business as much as I am.
Instilling a Better Culture
Charlie Hoehn: How can businesses get better and level up to where you guys are?
Bryan Miles: One of the things we realized—I mentioned this in the book—back in 2012, we were in an event in Tucson, Arizona, actually listening to Dave Ramsey talk about his HR policies and the things that he has inside of his business, which is huge right now.
I think he’s got 600-plus employees in Nashville. They’re growing leaps and bounds. But back then, they were growing quick too, and one of the things that he said stood out to me.
He said, “We don’t allow people to gossip in our company. They’re fired if they gossip.”
“It was like a gong in my ears. Do you know how easy it would be to gossip in a virtually-run company?”
So we decided that we needed to create a new gossip policy inside our business. It’s kind of harsh, but it protects against the people that want to take sideways energy and wreck everybody else’s life inside our company. Over the course of so many years, we had to let go of two people because of it—and they were good people, but you can’t gossip.
Charlie Hoehn: Can you break down what might be in a grey area of gossip when talking about your co-workers?
Bryan Miles: We define it this way: “Gossip is taking your problem to somebody that can do nothing about it.” How we train on that is, this is how you handle a problem you have in our company. You take it up. You don’t take it sideways, or worse, you don’t take it down, because you’re basically taking problems to people that can do nothing about it and then you poison their waters.
Nothing frankly pisses me off more than when someone does that in our business.
I am fine with saying “I’ve got a problem. We need to work through this as a team. Let’s bring in everybody to solve the problem and let’s hear some solutions.”
“It’s a different thing when you are saying it to poison waters.”
I’ve been part of companies that pass for gossip that has just gone wild, and I hated it. We wanted to create a company that we want to be a part of, so gossip has no place here.
It’s in the employee handbook, and they test out of it. We just make it really clear: “You gossip, you’re gone. This is the only warning, and here’s what happens on the other side of that.” When you enforce it and you prove to people that you will live up to it, on the other side of it is a place where people don’t gossip.
They actually take their problems up to their managers, and if they can’t take it to their manager, they can take it to somebody else that’s up in their work chart. So we have made that clear, too, that if you are uncomfortable bringing this up to your manager. Or you can have a safe harbor conversation with our HR folks that will be handled utmost confidence and concern and care.
And I’ve heard stories inside our business where someone has been borderline like, “Gosh I know what you are telling me. I really think you need to take this up.”
“That’s the kind of culture that our company has been fortunate enough to create.”
People that come in from corporate America and become our employees, in the first couple of weeks they are like, “What’s wrong with everybody? Everybody is so nice, everybody likes being here.”
Just being really clear on how you won’t tolerate it is very helpful in an organization. I’m not the genius that decided that gossip shouldn’t be part of this—it’s Dave Ramsey.
BELAY’s Unique Rule for the Virtual Workspace
Charlie Hoehn: What else is your business doing differently?
Bryan Miles: We have also decided that conflict is going to happen whether you are in an office or in a virtual setting, so we’ve created some conflict norms that we have taught to our employees.
We call it the TSA rule. So if you see something, you’ve got to say something.
Charlie: TSA as in travel security?
Bryan Miles: That’s right, so there’s no frisking. That’s like the preface to an HR violation.
But the TSA rule is simple: when you see something you have the responsibility to say something. If you’re in line or at an airport, you saw a strange looking package and no one around it, you have an obligation as a citizen of our country to say something.
That’s true in our business as well.
“If you know there’s something that could be wrong with it, even if it ends up being nothing, you’ve got to say something.”
There are times when you’ve got to say that thing in a meeting. We have taught our team that it’s okay to appropriately do that.
Charlie Hoehn: Do you have to continually reinforce it on an ongoing basis? How do you get them to actually do it?
Bryan Miles: They’re trained on it. We have an employee training program, so we make them aware of it, and then we have to reinforced it at times.
We’re the best business when we cover our blind spots. We’re the best business when everybody raises a hand and says, “Hey I see an issue here, let’s fix it.”
We’ve just done our best to reinforce it, to encourage it, promote it, and talk about it so that people feel comfortable doing that. We have employees that come in gun shy. They maybe have been part of that crappy work environment or maybe they didn’t like their last boss or their last job.
We have that coached into people. Give your employees permission to do them.
Charlie Hoehn: What are the big myths around virtual culture?
Bryan Miles: One of the biggest that always has irritated me is that you can’t be a real company if you don’t have an office.
I am hearing that less and less.
“Very large organizations that have been brick and mortar are knocking over the walls and sending people home.”
And that is happening more and more.
I give a really great example in the book of an organization that is based in Nashville called LifeWay. Four years ago, their CEO stood up in front of their employees and said, “Here’s the deal. Within four years, 75 percent of our workforce inside of our company of our 5600 employees will be working from home.”
We see other large corporations doing that, and then I talk to startups all the time. They’re like, “Man I am never going in an office. I don’t see the need. We could get so much done, we could be productive, we could have a good healthy work environment, but we don’t need an office.” We encourage them with that. So that’s the first one, it’s you’re not a legitimate organization if you don’t have an office. That’s just crap.
Charlie Hoehn: So what have you personally witnessed in people you’ve worked with in their productivity levels?
Bryan Miles: It’s the best sales pitch I have ever given, but it’s the truth. When we replace somebody in an admin or a project management capacity that’s been working on site for a corporation, say 30 to 35 hours a week. We’ve replaced them with about a 15 hour a week virtual assistant. While that claim sounds impossible, I can back it up over and over again now, because we’ve figured out companies just pay a lot for culture.
“Companies pay for a lot of people to come into an office and sit there and do nothing, surf the web, go to useless meetings.”
When a person that’s a great quality person and a results-oriented person goes home, they’re focused, the productivity on what they can produce in a short period of time is amazing.
My favorite is when you hear a leader, say, “Yeah, you know I’ve got to get to the house so I can actually get some work done.” And then they don’t let their employees do it. It cracks me up.
The assumption that you get more work done at the office is false. It’s false. It’s false.
The Future is Virtual
Charlie Hoehn: Do you have any other favorite success stories or transformations that you’ve seen that hammer this point home, that virtual culture is here to stay?
Bryan Miles: A guy based in St. Louis has become a friend of mine, but when I first met him a few years back, he was just simply a prospect calling and asking questions about our business.
He was, I would say, a one-man band. He was doing well—he had authored a book and he consults with business on how-to, specific on sales teams to help cold-calling, have a better relationship with sales people and so forth.
All these best practices around sales, and basically he hadn’t made a shingle as a consultant. He didn’t want to create a company. He didn’t want to have employees, and he just didn’t want to do that stuff. So he needed help, as most leaders do. They’ve hit the lid of their personal capacity and need help if they are going to get past what they are only able to do themselves.
Four or five years ago, I said, “Look, there’s a way to do this where you don’t have to have an office, where you can have people that will come alongside you and help you and care about what you’re doing. But you don’t have to do it in the way that you’ve seen it in all of these big companies over the years.”
He trusted me, and on the other side of that, he still has a virtual team, he still has no office, and he’s tripled in revenue.
That’s one story of one small business owner that’s done really well for himself.
In the book, we talk more about LifeWay, a very large organization, several decades old as a company, with 5600 employees and a ton of money in revenue.
“They just realized that they were sitting on 1.1 million square feet of real estate in downtown Nashville.”
Seriously, 1.1 million square feet. So they go, “Wow this real estate is worth something.” So they basically sold off the lion share of it to developers and whatnot, and then about two city blocks away, they’ve built a 250,000 square foot facility for employees that really did have to still come to the office.
This is not like, “Let’s flip and switch, let’s do this.” It was thoughtful, it was careful, it was dreamed about and designed. That migration over a four-year period translated to an organization that’s ready for the next season ahead, with people that are committed and agile and very happy with where they work.
Big and small that are making this transition. I am proud in both of those cases to have had a front row seat with our company.
Charlie Hoehn: Where do you see things heading way down the line?
Bryan Miles: I see technology having a huge role in this. Just 15 years ago, we couldn’t have the company we have now. So I can only surmise that that is going to continue to have iterations that are going to impact the workplace for years to come.
If people are shedding office space, you’re going to have big old carcasses of buildings out there that need to be repurposed.
I think that’s an opportunity for somebody that’s listening.To get ahead of that wave and say, “How could we repurpose this for a greater good with all of this amazing office space that really won’t be office space anymore?”
I also think that technology is going to have a huge impact on that, and I think that the things that technology solves today are only going to get more enhanced.
“Those easy tasks of today? Technology is going to solve them.”
We’re going to be able to basically deal with bigger, more complex problems as a society, especially in our jobs. We are going to hire people that are adapted to staying ahead of technology not being replaced by a robot.
Connect with Bryan Miles
Charlie Hoehn: What is your challenge to our listeners?
Bryan Miles: Let’s say you are an employee and you’re in a commute right now. Maybe you are listening to this in your car, going to a job that you don’t really like, and you’re going to sit in a cubicle for the next eight hours. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing that?”
If you’re compelled enough, if it’s a good paycheck—well, there are plenty of great companies out there with good paychecks that allow you to work from home, and they are increasing all the more.
My encouragement would be if you want to stay in that job and you want to have an impact in that company that you are a part of and they mandate that you come into an office every day, start to build a plan for how you could talk to the leaders in your business about workplace flexibility. What that means, why it would be of benefit to them in terms of productivity and happier employees and employee engagement.
Start to formulate a plan. Take a baby step in that direction of sharing the idea of what this means to the benefit of the business. Because at the end of the day, businesses need to produce results and profits.
“‘Hey, if you didn’t have so much expensive real estate, hey if you had a more effective, more productive workforce, if you had more engaged employees, would that be the result you’re looking for?'”
Crack a door, you know?
Give them the opportunity to think on that and camp out on that as a leadership team and give them the opportunity to wrestle with this. I think on the other side of that, you’ll find that there are some employers are going to loosen their grip and say, “Okay cool, here’s your chance. Go work from home.”
“Maybe one day a week to start, and maybe it goes from there, but build a plan.”
If you’re stuck in that commute right now, just try one thing: build a plan to talk to the leaders of your organization about workplace flexibility, about converting their business to being more virtual.
Charlie Hoehn: Where can people get those resources and where they can connect with you and follow you?
Bryan Miles: There are resources at virtualculturebook.com. Some resources are there for you to wrestle through, as a leader or as an owner of a business. But there’s also some very practical things there too that we’ve used as tools over the years.
We’re on Facebook, and then of course, our book is available on Amazon. We also have an audio book as well that I’ve recorded. So if you like my voice, you can hear me talk to you as I read the whole book to you.
Bottom line, I’m grateful that you would consider our organization as a potential guide for what we’ve done over seven years to create a meaningful company that all gets it done without an office.
I hope that that inspires folks, and I hope it challenges leaders that there’s a way coming that they need to be prepared for.