8 March 2019 | By Sarah Bentley Community

Succeeding in business, virtually

Sarah Bentley, Northamptonshire’s Business Woman of the Year, has set up two virtual businesses over the past three years. Here are her tips for how to do it

As any start-up knows, keeping costs to a minimum is vital to give your business the best chance of success. It’s why I chose to run both my businesses from a modest home office in Northampton – but employ a team working all over the country.

Upkeep Training is a specialist provider of repairs and maintenance training to local authorities and the housing sector. The Learning Network is an apprenticeship consultancy and resource business helping companies make the most of their apprenticeship levy.

And with both businesses thriving, I wanted to share my seven steps to successfully setting up and running a virtual business:

1. Do your homework

Not every company can operate without premises. It depends on the nature of the business. It’s also got to work for you. Will you be happy working and leading a team remotely? If you think you might struggle, then your team will too. They will be looking to you to lead by example.

2. Employ the right-minded people

As my businesses have grown I’ve needed to build teams of people to sell, administer and deliver courses and to provide expert apprenticeship consultancy. My advice here is to spend time making sure you employ and work with people with the mindset, discipline and can-do attitude to work from home.

3. Let the specialists do their thing

When I started my first business, Upkeep Training, it was just me. I quickly realised that I needed help. While it can feel expensive to buy in professional or expert services I believe that the cost of not doing it is even greater.

Remember why you set the business up – which element of that excites you most and what you are good at. Once you are clear of the role you have in the company, then you know where you need to bring in experts to fill the gaps.

In addition to my ‘employed team’, I contract with an accountant, solicitor, IT support company, marketing consultant, virtual PA, graphic designer, materials printing/distribution and storage provider, and a business mentor.

4. Maximise the use of technology

I’m not very technology minded but I have embraced it over the past couple of years. For accounting we use the cloud-based system Xero. We use Dropbox for Business to securely store and access our shared files; hubspot to manage our CRM, Slack to keep everyone engaged and connected, freeing up emails for mainly customer engagement, Mailchimp to engage with customers, and a VOIP phone system so that we never miss a call. We have also recently invested in a new Learner Management System too so that we can create personalised learning packages for our delegates on Upkeep courses, and Tidio allows us to answer questions in real time from potential customers.

5. Set very clear expectations

It’s imperative that your team know what is expected of them. When you’re managing a remote office then you have no choice but to measure people’s performance based on outcomes, not input.

You should also be clear about what you expect from yourself. I recently heard the phrase that in the early months and years of setting up a business many entrepreneurs are guilty of self-exploitation – the many hours you put in for very little return. Working alone adds to this. Without someone you trust to sound out about your challenges or how to prioritise your time, it’s hard to know when to switch off. I found having a business mentor really kept me focused on the stuff that mattered.

6. Love your team

With a remote team it’s more important than ever to have the human touch. Getting on the phone and speaking to them keeps people motivated and small issues tend not to morph into big problems. We have a calendar of structured catch up calls and reviews, supplemented by face-to-face meetings and performance reviews. Every six months everyone gets together for a business update.

You have a duty of care to the people working for you within their homes, as much as if you were all in the same office, so make sure you know your responsibilities as an employer for their health and safety and wellbeing. Carry out risk assessments and speak with them about the importance of them taking regular breaks and going out for fresh air. And most importantly tell your team when they do something well.

7. Keep things simple

Managing a remote business means you have to keep things simple. We haven’t got it perfect yet but we are constantly asking ourselves if we can cut out unnecessary duplication. I encourage a culture whereby people can openly suggest new ways of doing things and are empowered to try new things.

Complexity leads to things getting missed and delays in delivering great customers service, and the cost of that to my businesses is too much to risk.

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