On a recent episode of CMO Convo, we were joined by Liam Martin, CMO and Co-Founder of Time Doctor, to discuss the future of remote working, what it means to CMOs, and what they need to build a successful remote marketing team.
You can find the full episode and more right here, but if you want to read what we discussed, read on.
Liam's background and role at Time Doctor
There's been a lot of talk about how to lead remote marketing teams during the pandemic, but with the signs pointing to remote marketing being a continued thing, we're going to have to start thinking more about how you actually build that team from scratch.
But before we get started with that, could you introduce yourself to our readers, go into a bit of your professional background, how you reached your current position?
So I'm co-founder of a time tracking app for remote teams called TimeDoctor.com, we've been running that business for about 10 years. It is a tool that helps facilitate remote work. Our mission statement, actually as a company is that we want to help facilitate the transition of the world to remote work.
We also run a conference called Running Remote, which we started about four years ago, which is all about building and scaling remote teams. Whether you're a founder or even in the executive team of a remote organization, we really try to arm you with all of the tactics you need to be able to not just hire a virtual assistant, but actually build multibillion-dollar tech companies, fundamentally through the things that we teach there.
We'll assume you practice what you preach running a remote team and that's how you operate. Do you approach that with a certain philosophy?
Yeah, we have almost 150 team members in 43 different countries all over the world, we have never had an office, nor do we ever want to have an office. If I ever say that I got one, I've probably sold out, someone offered me a ridiculous amount of money to be able to get an office.
Because we believe that actually just helps not only employees, but employers work better in their jobs. We've been doing this, as I said, for 10 years, I've actually been working remotely for the past 15 years. Obviously, over the last year and a half, there have been some changes inside of remote work.
In February of 2020, 4.6% of the US workforce was working remotely and by the end of March, it was 46% of the workforce working remotely. So it was a complete shift. And the other thing that's really interesting is that number has actually remained relatively stable.
We're at about 40% right now in the United States. It does not look like that's going to change in a significant way. When we've been polling our customers, we found about 50% of them say they're going to stay remote, 40% are going to go hybrid and 10% are going to go back to the office.
Hybrid, you don't really know what that mix is going to be. But worst case, at least 50% of the people that were thrown into remote work during the pandemic are going to stay there. So this is going to have huge implications for the world. But more specifically for marketing. You're going to have to learn how to be able to build a remote team effectively.
Remote work is here to stay
Definitely. So you're saying the switch to remote work is here to stay. It's not something that's going to go away, it's not something that's just a flash in the pan response to the pandemic. In some respects, it's more of an acceleration of trends that were already happening, we were moving towards this kind of model already.
You know Brian Armstrong, does that name ring a bell?
He's the CEO and founder of Coinbase, which is a company that is a crypto wallet. It recently just went public a few weeks ago at $141 billion. They entered number 89 on the S&P 500. And for the first time in the history of the SEC, they have been allowed to state that their headquarters is nowhere. When they were asked why they stated that anything else would be a lie.
I actually think these aren't going to be changes, these are new tactics, I think that we're seeing a tide change right now. I'll put it on your podcast right now, I think within the next five years, the majority, more than 50% of tech IPOs, will be remote-first, because it's a Model T moment, it's a Model T rolling off the production line versus a horse and buggy type of situation.
It's more efficient for the employees, it's more efficient for the employers, you're removing one of the largest line items on your P&L which is your actual office space. And the big fear was collaboration and productivity would drop. If anything, they've improved during this time. So I think it's a complete game changer and if you're not understanding this shift, then you're going to be left behind.
What is it about remote work that encourages that increased efficiency as opposed to being in the office? The biggest fear was that without supervision, without a manager present, people were just going to goof off and not get the work done. What is it that has allowed people to be so efficient in switching to remote work?
Number one is they actually can now goof off and this wasn't a bad thing. That's the thing that a lot of people don't really understand is people are actually spending more time quote, unquote, working. But when you look at their workday, it's not continuous work.
It's not a nine to five drudge. It is probably a nine to six, or it's an eight to eight, workday. But inside that, you do a lot of living. Maybe you take a two-hour lunch break, and you go for a walk with your wife and your daughter as an example.
Or maybe it is you take the afternoon off to be able to watch a movie and then you go back to work after the fact. Work and life are now going to co-mingle in somewhat of a more complicated way, but actually, a way that's more productive for the individual employee.
Now, that's kind of more for the employee side, organizationally, the biggest thing that you actually really need to figure out is working from home and remote work does not actually just mean recreating the office. It's a very, very different process. And it boils down to what basically a lot of people in the industry have coined is asynchronous communication philosophy.
Can you expand on what that means, asynchronous communication?
Sure. So Netflix is asynchronous and television is synchronous. There is a premise inside of offices, or what we like to call "on-premise teams" that collaboration is a good thing and the more you collaborate, the better your business will be. Remote teams see that as a broken premise because we can have à la carte synchronous communication.
Whereas on-premise teams spend an hour, every single employee spends an hour and a half driving to a single location. And then once you're in that single location, you can annoy your co-workers and distract them from their deep work and core focus throughout the workday.
Remote teams have a completely different philosophy towards this: if you adopt asynchronous communication philosophy, which effectively means collaboration synchronously, ie, talking on a zoom call, or a phone call, or immediately responding to a Slack message is actually disruptive towards the output of every individual employee.
So it's every individual employee's responsibility to minimize collaboration and minimize synchronous communication as much as possible, in order to allow everyone to actually be much more productive throughout their workday.
There's a tonne of implications that work into this. The biggest one, and I know there's probably a lot of CMOs and VPs of marketing that are listening to this type of podcast, is a lot of the managerial level is now redundant unfortunately because of asynchronous communication philosophy.
The vast majority of that communication really wasn't needed in the first place. So a lot of those people are probably not going to have jobs, but long term, you build hyper-growth companies, and we're seeing this like in instances of Coinbase, or Shopify, or even Facebook, that are all adopting this philosophy on mass.
Organizational frameworks for remote work
Removing that kind of managerial role requires a very different structure to a business, to a marketing team, both on a micro-scale and on a macro-scale. What does an organization need to have in place to be able to implement these kinds of structures? What do they need to do first in order to get things rolling?
Let me just even touch on meetings. Probably the way that you would do a meeting on average is, when you're in an office is everyone would come into that office, someone would have a presentation, you'd have eight people watching that presentation for 45 minutes, then maybe you would have questions afterward, and maybe someone else goes up and does another presentation.
Remote meetings are different, asynchronous remote meetings, rather, are very different. All meetings must be recorded through video. You can use a tool like Loom or Vidyard, as an example. You do the entire presentation on video, you post it into a project management tool like Asana, you identify the clear outcomes from that particular presentation and what issues you have that are connected to that particular presentation.
Then everyone watches the video asynchronously, meaning they can watch it in their own time and then they comment asynchronously. So they put down comments and then when you come to a conclusion, with regards to any extenuating issues that are in that particular meeting, you put that back up into the actual issues list itself.
So you say, "Here are the issues that we had based on this video presentation, here is the conclusion" and you conclude that task. If you can't conclude that task, then you jump on to a synchronous meeting, like a Zoom call, you only bring the people in that need to be in that meeting. If you don't need to be in the meeting, don't come to the meeting. And you address that issue and only that issue.
When you've concluded it, you put that back up on the dock, you've concluded the issue and that's the way asynchronous meetings work inside of remote teams. This is very, very different from what I understand most synchronous teams meet. Again, I've never really worked in an office before, but from what I understand, they take a lot of time, and they're super boring.
They do indeed. Many of our team work remote at the moment so there's no casting any aspersions on the rest of the team or anything when we say that. But from previous experience, so much of your day is taken up by meetings that could easily be done through an email or a Slack message even.
So having that kind of system codified, built into how you run the marketing team would require a complete change of thinking in how you lead that team, though, and how you manage that team.
Skills for remote CMOs
But what about CMOs who have already developed their skills to run an in-person marketing team? Are they going to have to completely relearn how to do their job to build and run a remote team?
They will, they'll have to adapt very quickly, or they will no longer be in the job. I think this is, as I said, a Model T moment, this is a more efficient way to be able to extract labor and increase revenue inside of your company. So you'll be left behind if you can't adapt to this new model.
Going back to our previous point, I love that there are a tonne of employees that could not requisition a paperclip inside of the company. And yet, they can convince eight, six-figure employees to sit in the meeting for three hours.
Whenever I'm in one of those things I literally look at the amount that I'm paying for everyone to be able to jump on that Zoom call, and I just run the ticker in my own head. I think to myself, wow, this hour and a half meeting cost me $8,000. What am I doing here? This is ridiculous.
This needs to stop fundamentally. There's a really great blog post about how Elon Musk runs meetings and I think it's his third golden rule, which is if a meeting isn't valuable to you walk out of it immediately. You don't even need to actually excuse yourself, just leave the meeting. I think that's a fantastic rule not only for office work but also for remote-first teams.
If you don't need to be there, get back to doing your deep work. What are the outputs, particularly inside of a marketing team, that are going to produce higher returns? It is putting in a tracking pixel, it is writing copy, it is you know optimizing a web page, it is writing a blog post.
These are the things that make you more money inside of your business. And if you're not maximizing the amount of time that your people are executing on that particular task, you will be pushed out by competitors that are more efficient than you.
Fair enough. It's adapt or survive, survival of the fittest, which often happens in the wake of these big changes in working habits. There were plenty of CMOs who weren't willing to adapt to understanding social media or even digital marketing and they've sort of gone the way of the dinosaur.
So is that literally what it is? Are all CMOs going to have to be remote working CMOs now or are there still going to be certain companies that can be resistant to that?
I think there probably will be certain companies that are going to be resistant to that. I do however think, at least in the tech world, I would estimate right now about 86% of developers are currently remote. It's the vast majority of that industry.
I don't know the numbers exactly for marketing but I would assume it's the majority at this point, are currently remote. And they were the minority pre-pandemic. But the ability to be able to hire labor, regardless of space or time is such a huge leveler that companies can use to be able to basically produce higher returns.
It's not an issue of, well, I like the office or I like collaboration, it's an issue of, well, there's an arms race here and I really can't compete against these other companies that are just able to, let's say, pump out twice as many blog posts per month than I do on the same amount of money.
That inevitably results in that marketing department being left behind. I wish I could say something different. I mean, the silver lining here is that a lot of this stuff is still relatively new. I think that this reorganization is still going to take another 18 months before it's really in the main mainstream because post-COVID a lot of the reorganization is going to happen where some people are gonna go back to the office, some people are not going to go back to the office, and they're going to test out all of these things.
But 18 months later, I see probably in the marketing realm more than 80% of all marketers working remotely. So you have to be good at it in order to be able to execute on the next decade of marketing, in my opinion.
Remote work tech stacks
You touched a bit on the tech that you need to have to be able to make this system work. Do you want to expand a little more on what the ideal tech stack needs to look like for people who are setting up a remote marketing team? You mentioned Asana and project management boards, but what is the ideal tech stack that you need for this?
So we could go into this in a pretty deep way, let me just get a little bit more specific and talk about my SEO team. We have a metric that we've developed internally called cumulative domain authority, which effectively allows our different linkers to be measured very quantifiably as to their effectiveness inside of the team. So domain authority goes from zero to 100, 100 would be like Google, and zero would be a brand new website.
Instead of just getting backlinks, which is a pretty bad measure because you go after backlinks that are not that important. Instead, what we do is measure the importance of each website that you acquire.
So if I got a Forbes article, which I think we just did yesterday, it's a domain authority of 93. And then our website has a domain authority of 79. If you got those two backlinks, you would have 79 plus 93 and that would be your cumulative score moving forward, and we comp out based on that.
But inside of that platform, we literally just have a Google Sheets Doc, we have our own internal CRM that we use for our linkers, which is HubSpot. We do outreach through SalesLoft for getting those links. We are constantly optimizing those outbound campaigns we're running to be able to build those relationships to build those links.
All of that stuff is reported back to me inside of HubSpot and actually exported every month in a Google Doc so that I know who the comp inside of that organization is. And then for the actual preparation of those keywords as well, we use tools like AHrefs, for a lot of the link building that we go after and identifying which link opportunities we want to crack after. So each department is really different, they require a different technology stack.
But fundamentally, if you were just starting from zero, I'm hopeful that if you're a CMO right now you have some type of project management system in place, that would probably be the base level one. Some form of communication, both synchronous and asynchronous so that would be something like email or Slack would be more asynchronous, and something like Zoom would be synchronous. That's about it.
Well, Time Doctor and you need to be able to have a tool in place to actually measure the accountability of the amount of time that you're putting in on a particular task so that you can work against that efficiency and figure out who are your best linkers and who are not your best linkers and how to coach them up.
It's likely as we move forward as well, there's going to be more and more systems designed bespoke for remote teams as well. Do you know of anything that's coming up like that?
There's a lot of tools that are popping up in that space and I think we're going to see a lot more of them in the next year or two.
Funnily enough, actually, one of my friends, Andreas Klinger, who was the CTO of Product Hunt, he spoke at Running Remote about two and a half years ago, did a fantastic presentation - you could check it out at youtube.com/runningremote, we have all of our talks up there for free - about building Product Hunt on 20 developers and remotely and it was a fantastic, fantastic talk.
But after the fact, he said, "Well, you know, I wish that there was a fund just for remote work tools". And we said, "Well, you should start something like this, you've got Product Hunt behind you, you can definitely" and he's like "Ah, no one would give us money."
Within minutes, he had hundreds of 1000s of dollars that people were willing to commit to the project. That turned into Remote First Capital and I'm an LP in that fund and I've got to tell you, it is one of the best funds I've ever seen, not been involved in, but ever seen.
Because remote work tools are just completely exploding right now. I mean, Zoom is one of those things that's at the tip of the iceberg. There are so many different project management systems, so many task management systems, even a little-known piece of technology that you really need is something called an employer of record system.
So if you want to hire people that are not inside of the country in which your corporation resides, you need an employer record company to actually cover you legally so that the employee can work legally inside of that country and be an employee.
There are billions and billions of dollars being turned over in those businesses right now. And there are dozens of those companies that have just popped up quite literally in the last year, and they've all raised 50, 100, 150 million dollars in series A's. So the space is completely exploding right now, if I was going to start a new product, it would definitely be in the remote workspace.
Remote team building
If you've seen the writing's on the wall, it makes sense definitely to go that way. So that's the tech that you need in place, what about the people?
What do you need in terms of skill sets, personality traits, for your remote marketing team? Are you going to have to hire differently to build a remote team than a an on-site team?
To a degree, Yes. What do you think the biggest psychometric factor is towards successful remote hire? I'd love to hear your perspective on it.
The assumed thing would be the ability to work independently, without too much supervision. But then you get asked those questions when you're hiring for a role when you're working on-site as well. Is it more of a factor in that respect?
When many people are hired for a job before they're often asked, "How do you feel about working independently?" And you always say, "Yes, of course, I'm happy with that". But they're not expecting you to just go off and do all your work on your own when you're in an office. Whereas remotely you are expected to pretty much do that.
Yeah, I have a thesis statement. I have a little document that I have. It's a one-pager and everyone that's my direct report gets this when they start working with me, and it's titled, "Blueprint to Liam and his weird little quirks".
There's a whole bunch of very real things in that document. It's not made out to make me look great. It's actually made out to make me look very real and a lot of those things, I wouldn't necessarily admit to people, the first hour that I'm talking to them. But I went up to three of my closest friends and I said, "What would you tell someone that's just about to work for me what to do to be able to get the most out of me?"
And so that was the result of that document. And at the bottom of it, I have my thesis statement towards work at least remotely, which is, "Don't ask me what to do. Tell me what you did." That's a core tenet for me.
But the most important psychometric factor that defines success inside of a remote work relationship is introversion. The more introverted you are, usually, the more successful you are inside remote teams.
Extroverted people can absolutely succeed inside of extroverted teams, but they need another outlet that's not just their work life, they need la co-working space, or they need to go to a coffee shop or anything else that just allows them to interact with people. Because hen they don't have that, they just feel like they're getting strangled, emotionally, and they really need access to those other types of people.
I can tell you, there have been people, and this was way back in the day because we couldn't even do it legally today from an infosec perspective, there are people that worked in the company for us for years, we never met them in person, we never did a video call with them, we never did an audio call with them, they could have been a bot and they were fantastic developers, or fantastic customer support people, because they were just really good at their job and they were very introverted, and they didn't want to interact with people one on one.
Not to say development or customer service don't require creative skills, but one of the big things about creativity, at least in the marketing space in many marketer's experience is those shared ideas. You need to be able to get together and hammer out some ideas sometimes for campaigns, how does that work within a remote team and particularly with a team built of introverts?
So when we communicate asynchronously, it allows introverted peoples' thoughtfulness to be an asset and not a liability. That's what's really important to be able to understand when you look at remote work relationships. Because you have the loudest voice, or you're the most charismatic does not necessarily mean you have the right answer to the problem, or your solution is the best solution.
A lot of the time it's the quiet introverted people that never really had a chance in a synchronous environment to be able to provide their input because they were never given the time for their thoughtfulness to really develop and for them to provide a really great answer to a problem.
And so when we see people collaborating asynchronously, we do see those magical moments come out where the person that wouldn't necessarily speak up in a big huge meeting will actually write out a text message or write out an email that's just the perfect solution to the problem.
But with that said, it's also important to recognize, and to your point, marketing teams do need more synchronous time than a developer or customer support rep. We just try to make sure that we keep that very methodological.
So we have predefined times that you meet, we don't just ping someone and say, "Hey, can you," we like to call those people Slack sunshines, the people that always want to just ping you and it's like, "Hey, do you have five minutes?" "No, I don't have five minutes. I need to do this podcast or I need to write this blog post or I need to" insert whatever, which is the actual thing that I need you throughout my workday.
"Let's predefine a top time that we can all come together and collaborate synchronously so that we can maximize efficiency throughout the entire team". These little pings, they're absolutely disruptive towards peoples' focus in their workday, and that's the thing that you need to have a little bit more of a rein on it, if you're going to be successful remotely.
Remote inter-departmental collaboration
So that's the marketing team itself, but one of the biggest issues that's reoccurring in conversations with CMOs is aligning other departments, getting other departments on board, and working cohesively. Is remote working an extra step to getting that in place?
It might be a bit easier to collaborate when you can just go down the hallway and talk to your CFO or your head of sales or something like that, in order to get people on board with a marketing campaign. Whereas having people in separate buildings, is that going to further the divide between departments, or is there a way of working around that?
It is more difficult, for sure to be able to get everyone on the same page. From a leadership perspective, it's a lot more difficult to be able to make that happen. With that said, however, it also allows for everyone to be heard equally, going back to the loudest voice wins type of argument, this is not necessarily something that you want inside of an organization. Just because someone is very charismatic doesn't necessarily mean that they have good ideas.
So when we look at trying to convince everyone to get onto the same page, a lot of the times we'll even just do surveys, we'll just chat with people and we'll send out a really good... I usually have a one-on-one cadence with people, which is, do you want me to bug you more or less? And that's a really good measure for me to be able to figure out okay does this person need more feedback from me or less feedback?
But the way that we implement this all is through a relatively complicated amount of process documentation. And the bigger your organization gets, the more process documentation you have inside of your organization. However, inside remote teams, you need to have process documentation almost from day one.
So all of the processes, operations, procedures, the discussion that I just told you about cumulative domain authority, that's like a 30-page guide with video tutorials and all that kind of stuff. So that a brand new employee can come into the organization, and can be trained up on how to be a really good linker without necessarily having a manager there to be able to teach them synchronously.
That's another big, huge leveler that allows you to push ahead of a lot of other companies in general, because the actual company is the manager, the company is the training tool, it's not necessarily the individual. And we have the same thing with regards to everyone getting on the same page, a lot of the time we'll do that asynchronously and if there are issues that pop up, then we jump on synchronously to be able to discuss them.
We actually only really talk synchronously, when it's an important emotional issue that we need to address. That's probably about 80% of the communication that happens inside of our organization simply because everything else is handled by the company itself.
The role of management to remote workers
So it's only the conversations that need to be conversations, is that what you’re saying?
Only important conversations: "How are you?" "How are you feeling?" "You're stressed out?" "Why are you stressed out?" "How can I help you?" "Am I being annoying?" "Do you want more feedback from me?"
These are the only things that a manager should really be focusing on because everything else inside of a remote-first asynchronous organization is quantified, measured, and measurable by everyone inside of the organization.
Even right now, inside of Time Doctor, I'm currently tracking podcast as my task and anyone in the company can see exactly what I'm working on right now, which is a podcast. And if they want to talk to me, obviously they shouldn't because I'm currently working on this podcast with you, which is a synchronous form of work that I need to do.
And it's a bad idea for me to be pinged by other people to say, "Hey, can you help me with this or that?". So it's really important to just reserve synchronous time for stuff that's really important and that boils down to the vast majority of the time, employees are not concerned... it's not the teaching, it's not like, "Hey, I've got to really master this tactic, or I've got to really figure this out on social media, or I've got to figure out this Facebook ad".
The vast majority of the time when an employee is not performing, it's something connected to their mindset. That's the only thing that we really address in meetings.
It gives people the independence to do their work but then providing a support system to help them do their work. The manager's role, it's not telling them what to do, it's helping them do their job.
We use the word autonomy, remote teams are some of the most autonomous workers you'll ever meet because they just have the freedom to do what they want to do, with the caveat of there are very clear KPIs, quantitative measures that are being deployed that you must meet.
But how you want to get to that target, that's really up to you. We have all of this fantastic training that's been battle-tested, that you can use. But if you can actually innovate that process itself, share it with other team members, we'd love to be able to see it so that we can create a better mousetrap.
But the one thing that you shouldn't be doing is sitting and watching a presentation synchronously when, honestly, I could watch this at 2X and get exactly the same amount of information.
Developing a remote working process doc
One last thing, where do you go to develop this process doc you mentioned you should have from day one. Because you've had years of experience with remote working to build up your knowledge of how to make it work, and how to establish something like that.
What about someone who is stepping into a CMO role for the first time and being told "we need a remote team set up", where do they go around creating this process doc? Where can they find the information for what they need to do?
It's going to be incredibly easy, go to about.gitlab.com/handbook/. That is the largest open-source remote work repository on the face of the planet. I think it's 8,000 pages. And Dimitri, who is the CTO and Co-Founder of GitLab encourages you to steal all of it.
So all of their marketing strategies are in there, it's all entirely open source. Another funny side point on that, GitLab ended up sponsoring Running Remote a few years ago, and they open-sourced everything, including their emails. So if you just type into Google "GitLab Running Remote sponsorship emails", you'll actually see all of the emails that we had, and the negotiation on the sponsorship dollars that went back and forth.
Now they're a little bit extreme, they open source everything inside of the organization because they feel that everyone that works inside of their company should be able to have access to anything else inside of the company. It's a concept called radical transparency, which we also like to follow as well.
But about.gitlab.com/handbook/ it's all there, steal it, repurpose it for yourself, and then at least you're at kind of like your beta version of your process document.
Another really great tool that you might want to check out is trainual.com. That's a process document tool that will allow you to be able to build these processes on a platform. But if you don't want to pay for something like Trainual, Google Docs is great.