Flexibility at work is the new standard and remote teams are not going away. You have likely been talking about keeping a strong remote culture over the last few months. It is a challenge that many leaders face and requires new thinking. A strong remote culture will allow you to keep your people connected and appreciated through this phase of work. Today’s guest is Ryan Malone, Co-Founder & CEO at SmartBug Media. Inc Magazine ranked his company #2638 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. SmartBug Media is the Intelligent Inbound marketing agency that assists businesses in growing revenue. Ryan and I talk about what it takes to create a strong remote culture. We talked about the challenges of working remotely and keeping the culture aligned. Discover the principles that allow you to have a strong remote culture.
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Ryan Malone: The Transcript
About: Ryan Malone spent the early part of his career in technology marketing with Seagate and running marketing for two technology startups. He learned how positioning, creative, systems, process, distribution, and strong partnerships impacted revenue on a large scale. He launched many products during that time, launched products en masse to large OEMs and grew several distribution relationships.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
[00:00:00] Ryan Malone: At the end of the day, you know what you need to do. You’re a grownup. You know, there’s this idea of work-life balance, which I think is a bit of a farce. It’s this idea that you go to work for eight hours a day and that’s your work part. And then when you’re exhausted, you go home and you have your family part, which is your balance.
[00:00:13] And it never seemed to jive. I think what people have found interesting about us is we try to think of work-life integration, which is that you have a fixed number of hours that you’re available during that. And on Tuesday, you might want to spend your high-energy hours training for a triathlon. And on Thursday you might want to spend your higher-end showers having clients call and giving people the autonomy to make that decision about how they spend their high and low energy time is something that’s really been important to us as a company.
[00:00:38] I think it’s resonated with a lot of people.
[00:00:40] Gene Hammett: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest growing privately held companies. I am the. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth.
[00:00:56] Are you ready to grow? Many people see challenges with remote [00:01:00] cultures, and I understand it because there are a lot of complexities and a lot of things that are we’re missing when we’re not faced with. The small little conversations on the side, the groups to lunch, or maybe it’s just other things where people are able to see what other people are doing and what they’re wearing and who they are when we don’t have that.
[00:01:19] It’s harder to build the kind of culture we want. Well, is that true or is that a story you’ve made up? Because today we’re going to look at a strong remote culture. What are the key elements of strong remote culture is through the eyes of someone who’s been remote for the entirety of the entire company was about 12 years.
[00:01:35] Our special guest today is Ryan Malone. He’s a co-founder of smart bug media. They were number 2,638 on the Inc list in 2020. And they’ve continued to grow through acquisitions and through other things that keep them abreast of. Really happening with their smart remote culture. We look at some of the specific things that you can be doing inside of your culture.
[00:01:53] There are some ideas in here that you can actually steal ethically and apply them today. And they cost you nothing, but they would [00:02:00] help you create the kind of culture you want. Now it takes great leadership to create this culture. You have to be intentional, you have to be effective. And I want to make sure that you understand, I can support you to be the best leader you can be.
[00:02:12] If you want to Uplevel your leadership skills, you want to change the way you listen, your leadership presence, the communication delegation, the way you align culture, the way you talk about strategy and vision, mission, how you use those things. There’s a lot of complexity inside of leadership. I’d love to help you do that.
[00:02:29] I’m an executive coach to fast growth companies, but you don’t have to be on the Inc list. You have to be driven. You have to want to be a better leader. If you want to be an extraordinary leader, I want to talk to you about what the next step is. You have to remove some things. You have to unlearn some things.
[00:02:42] And that’s really important for us to have this. I can get to the heart of it in a few minutes, but typically I give you as much time as I can to help you really see what’s next. If you want to schedule a call, just go to genehammett.com and click on schedule your call. And I would love to get to know you and help you create that plan to be the best leader you can be.
[00:03:05] Ryan Malone: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:03:07] Gene Hammett: Let our audience know a little bit about you and what we’re talking about today, but I would love for you to tell us about the company. So tell us about, yeah,
[00:03:13] Ryan Malone: so we are an intelligent inbound marketing agency. We’re the highest-rated HubSpot partner in the world. We help companies grow their revenue by using digital channels, content, marketing, PR, web development, and, and things of that.
[00:03:27] Gene Hammett: Love it HubSpot has made a real splash in what they’re doing with their technologies, but beyond that, are you familiar with some of the things they do inside their culture that makes them really stand out?
[00:03:38] Ryan Malone: I think that’s what I always tell when I talked to HubSpot executives that I’ve never met a Hubspotter that that was a jerk. And I think the, one of the things they do hiring wise as they just hire a really solid. And it’s really clear that every one of those people is valued at their company.
[00:03:50] Gene Hammett: Now I gave a speech and I saw a HubSpot person talk about the culture and talk about the business that they’re in.
[00:03:56] And he had mentioned the fact that I used to actually talk about [00:04:00] this quite a bit, but I don’t anymore, but they actually made everyone a designated insider. Are you familiar with that? What they did. I won’t go too much into it here because maybe they don’t donate anymore. But at one point in time, they went public.
[00:04:10] And when you go public, you’re not really allowed to share secrets across the company. And they really value transparency across the culture. And they said, well, we’ve got a solution for that. We’ll make every person a designated insider, and they carry that on for many years. So I’m not sure if it’s still going or not.
[00:04:25] But today we came here to talk about culture and why that really is important for a growing company. So when you think about culture, what do you think makes us a strong.
[00:04:34] Ryan Malone: You know, I think for us we’ve always been remote. So for us, you know, we had this premise that you should be able to have a challenging career with people.
[00:04:43] You have this deep intellectual respect for, but at the same time, have the flexibility to do the things that matter in your life, which are memories, the creation of memories. So for us the culture is the glue and arguably it’s the only glue. I think an in-person company. Other pieces of things that hold people together, but in a remote [00:05:00] company culture and the people are, are fundamentally the glue that keeps everything again.
[00:05:03] Gene Hammett: Well, you know, a lot of companies have struggled with the remote workforce and I think a lot of companies like you who went remote first, you know, thought about what’s the big deal. I think if you could probably have some empathy for people who weren’t remote and all of a sudden they were thrown into.
[00:05:17] We’re a year and a half into this right now. We’re still in flux in many places. And employees really love the remote aspect. Many times. They really love the flexibility. I’m sure there’s other things they love. What are you seeing across your organization? What people love about remote for
[00:05:31] Ryan Malone: us? It’s autonomy and independence.
[00:05:33] So we, you know, at the end of the day, you know what you need to do. You’re a grownup. You know, and there’s this idea of work-life balance, which I think is a bit of a farce. It’s this idea that you go to work for eight hours a day and that’s your work part. And then when you’re exhausted, you go home and you have your family part, which is your balance.
[00:05:48] And it never seemed to jive. I think what people have found interesting about us is we try to think of work-life integration, which is that you have a fixed number of hours that you’re available during. And on [00:06:00] Tuesday, you might want to spend your high-energy hour training for a triathlon. And on Thursday you might want to spend your high energy hours having a client call and giving people the autonomy to make that decision about how they spend their high and low energy time is something that’s really been important to us as a company.
[00:06:13] I think it’s resonated with a lot of people.
[00:06:15] Gene Hammett: I talked to CEO’s about energy and what time they are at their highest, most creative. Is that kind of what you’re looking at, but you’re looking at it across the organization. Every employee has that same, you know, what time they do their best work.
[00:06:27] Ryan Malone: Yeah. And I think if you look at we’re a professional services company, so there’s, there’s client calls and there’s things like that are, they’re kind of the intersection of everything.
[00:06:35] But at the end of the day, you know what I want to get out of my day, that’s important to me, not just from a work perspective, but personally, and what you do or completely. And as long as we touch in the middle for the client obligation and the team obligation that we have, I really don’t care when you do your work and you might decide that it’s important for you to see your grandma or train for a race or whatever.
[00:06:55] And that might be where you want to block out your time. First, we always encourage people to do that, and you may have a totally [00:07:00] different schedule. And so I think giving, assuming that you’re hiring good people and you trust them to do the work that they’ve signed on to do, then the rest of it is really easy because they get to choose their own adventure.
[00:07:10] Gene Hammett: We came here to talk about a strong remote culture. And you know, a lot of people want to know what are we doing to create the bond and connections across relationships, what we see inside your organization?
[00:07:22] Ryan Malone: The first thing is transparency. So at the end of the day, we always found that the more information we can share specifically the rationale for why we make certain decisions.
[00:07:32] It doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to like them, but they can at least empathize with them. And in a remote company, you don’t have the. Cooler talk to get the Y just kind of passively through your day. And so you really have to be deliberate and you also have to be deliberate about what we call listening sessions.
[00:07:46] You fundamentally have to pick up the phone and say, what can smart bug do better than you have to listen? And we created a program happy to hop into. About that stuff. But I think those two things, and then some other strategies [00:08:00] that we have are, are really important for the foundation, because sometimes when things get tough, you need to know that you, that people trust you and that they trust the fact that you’re making the best decision in the interest of the company.
[00:08:11] Gene Hammett: Yeah, transparency is something I talked about when I brought up HubSpot and that’s one reason why I brought it up. Cause it’s a great example of the openness of conversations. And a lot of people think that is about the financials or the, the sales numbers or profitability, and that is included into it.
[00:08:27] But I think transparency is really another side to it is the conversations we have feedback we’re willing to give and accept from others. Would you say you guys have that kind of transparent?
[00:08:37] Ryan Malone: Yeah, I think that, yeah, what you, what you listed are certainly some of it, I think some of it is also a vulnerability.
[00:08:43] Like, you know, if you look at you know, we’re 102 hundred people, if you count both the companies we have, but 135 of smart bug. And so I think being vulnerable and understanding what you don’t know, it’s okay to somebody to tell somebody, you don’t know the answer to some. But it’s also okay to communicate and [00:09:00] make sure that people are aware that you have a process for understanding something that you don’t know.
[00:09:04] And so in addition to finance stuff and all the other kinds of transparency things, I think it’s really, it’s, it’s eye-opening to us when people can have an honest conversation about something they know when they don’t know, and they know that together, you’re going to work on figuring
[00:09:15] Gene Hammett: it out. Ryan just said, it’s okay.
[00:09:18] Not to know the answer. I think a lot of leaders believe that we must know that. I’m not sure if this comes directly from the top within your organization, or if it’s just something that’s showing up in the middle of the organization, if your company is growing, then you probably have managers that are afraid to say that they don’t know the answer because it makes them look bad.
[00:09:36] It makes them look like they don’t know what they’re doing. And the reality is what we need inside of our cultures is leaders that are strong and confident and willing to say, I don’t know that. But we can figure this out. We can move forward. A lot of us went through the COVID time, not knowing how to move forward, but we did figure it out.
[00:09:55] I think a lot of the resilience inside of our organizations are really important. It’s okay. [00:10:00] Not to know the answer. And that starts with you. You’ve got to lead by example. It’s okay for you to say, I don’t know the answer. I’m repeating this multiple times because it’s very important concept to understand that being the CEO or the founder, or being the leader in charge of a team, it’s okay to not know the answer back.
[00:10:15] Right. When you think about your own leadership of, you know, a strong remote culture, what has had to change over the last 18 months
[00:10:22] Ryan Malone: for us? Not a ton over the last 18 months, because we’ve been doing remote for gosh, 12 years. What I think changes just in general is the normal ebb and flow of life.
[00:10:32] So we have always had. Position of, you know, if your kid walks in the room, I want to meet them. And if you have stuff on your desk, I want to know what it is. Like, for example, you’ve got a saints helmet, but you’re from Georgia. So we didn’t get a chance to talk about that yet, but I want to know. And so but I think that, especially when COVID came, like, there’s just a lot of stuff you got.
[00:10:51] It’s a, COVID like people, I think when you’re remote and you don’t have a chance to talk to people all the time, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt and know that they have other external [00:11:00] things that are pressuring them in their life. And sometimes, you know, you just got to tell people to go home.
[00:11:04] You just got to tell people to, to relax and take a day off. And you just have to give people some slack because everybody’s out there doing their best. And, and ultimately some days you just need a little bit of a break.
[00:11:14] Gene Hammett: All of this Ryan you’ve been talking about, you know, how to create a strong call. A strong remote culture specifically, when you think about moving forward or looking at what you’re doing, are you guys planning to do anything different as you continue to grow?
[00:11:28] Ryan Malone: We had to reinvent ourselves about every 18 months. So I always tell people that we should be building. The systems that are capable for a company twice our size, because if you wait too long to build them, then you’re kind of in crunch time. And when you’re remote, sometimes the signals don’t come up as much as you want them to as if you were in an office.
[00:11:48] But we look at the way that we structure our work. There’s four phases of work. There’s the planning phase. There’s the people phase. There’s the production phase, which is effectively the equipment. Manufacturing and then in the measurement [00:12:00] phase. And so we look at like how we structure the work, how we structure our teams.
[00:12:03] And we’re constantly trying to figure that out because for us, the handoff is really important. It’s kind of like the Olympics, the U S lost the Olympics. Not because we weren’t the fastest, but because of the handoff of the Baton and the relay race was bad. So if you don’t do the handoff right, then the rest of it doesn’t matter.
[00:12:17] And so it’s really important to rethink that handoff as much as you need
[00:12:20] Gene Hammett: to. I want to make sure we put a spotlight on build systems for a company twice. Now that seems really logical in some senses. And maybe it seems like overkill, but here’s the thing. A lot of fast-growth companies are really imploding because they’re, they don’t have the systems to handle the level of growth and demand they have for their product.
[00:12:39] It’s a good problem to have, but you want to make sure you’re the intentional leader that you’re actually looking at systems and make sure that they are able to withstand the level of growth. And if you’re always building for twice your size, it’s a pretty good way to make sure you’re staying ahead.
[00:12:54] Because as you continue to grow continuously, look, and improve things, to make sure that they’re not going to break [00:13:00] under the pressure of the demand of this. Now, this is a great problem to have you as a leader, want to make sure that you’re intentional cross this and you align others to be intentional and make sure this is a priority.
[00:13:10] As you continue to grow back to rhyme, what will you see unique inside your organization? Anything that you guys do that you feel like is different? Your peers.
[00:13:18] Ryan Malone: Yeah, sure. So we we have a program called healthy, smart bug. It came from this idea that as a parent, I know your dad. I teach my kids that my job as a parent is to keep them happy, healthy, safe, and resilient until they’re old enough to do it on their own.
[00:13:29] And so if I look at them, how does that translate? One day we were talking and somebody was like, Hey Ryan, you always say this about your kids. What about smart bug? They’re kind of your kid. And then they were right. And so happy is happy clients and engaged employees. Healthy is healthy financial sound.
[00:13:45] Decision-making safe as like calculated risk-taking and resilient is, you know, sometimes life just throw something out to you and you have to have the space mentally and physically to be. To handle it. So we wrap a whole bunch of things, those listening sessions and other things [00:14:00] around healthy, smart bug.
[00:14:01] And that’s how we measure ourselves. We ask our team what they can do to make smart bug healthier. We picked different things to ask them about, and then we report back to them on what we’ve enhanced based on that feedback. That’s one thing, another thing that maybe if I, can you mind if I touch a little bit about the difference between like in-office kind of sticky points and remote sticky points?
[00:14:18] I think that might be useful. Yeah. So if you work in a normal physical. And say you’re with a bunch of marketers or a bunch of accountants, you’re going to go to lunch with the accountants or the marketers. You’re going to go to lunch with your tribe. You’re going to go to happy hour. If your tribe you’re going to do all those things in a remote model, you don’t have that because everybody’s everywhere.
[00:14:33] So we created these things called get to know you calls. And in the beginning, when we were smaller, everybody had to do a, get to know you call us everybody at the company. There are 20 minutes. The only rule is you can’t talk about work and it’s designed to create these connection points. So when you get to them, Because you figure out who the coffee aficionados are, who likes bourbon, who likes sports, who likes to read, and those become your departments.
[00:14:54] If you will, that you might’ve had, if you were at a normal office and they also become your support systems. So [00:15:00] if everybody does these get to know you, because pretty soon you have these very passionate, vibrant tribes of people that have different. And they accelerate, onboarding, they accelerate kind of safe feedback.
[00:15:10] They accelerate friendships. That’s proved to be a really powerful thing for us and taking somebody that doesn’t know anybody to somebody who knows a good amount of people in a very quick kind of comfortable way.
[00:15:21] Gene Hammett: So a new employee coming in, are they expected to do the
[00:15:25] Ryan Malone: same? Yeah, so they have to go now that we’re bigger.
[00:15:28] The first thing they do, all of our leadership team reach out to them first because we want to make sure they know that they’re valued because they are, they’re the most valuable thing that’s happened to us that particular day. And then they do get to know your calls with all the people on their direct team.
[00:15:41] Most importantly, we give people the time and space to be able to do those, get to know you calls as they meet people. So we encourage people. If you’re on a call with somebody you don’t know to follow up with them after that call and have it get to know you call. And we’ve had people that become friends and travel around the world.
[00:16:00] Gene Hammett: I love the story of, you know, really creating place where people get to do it. And it’s more natural. It’s not something, it doesn’t feel like it’s too forced. You’re just encouraging it.
[00:16:10] Ryan Malone: Yeah. And it’s great because people, they get to talk about something they’re comfortable with, with people that share an interest and so their guards down. And I think it just, it’s so much better than that. Let’s go out to lunch with the department thing that you usually do when you start with somebody.
[00:16:23] And so it’s worked out really well.
[00:16:25] Gene Hammett: Love all that Ryan, I’m kind of curious about your own journey of leadership. What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made that you could share with us.
[00:16:32] Ryan Malone: Oh, man. I think every, every fast-growth entrepreneur has that one, it’s letting go a little bit. I think, you know, when you start a company, like a lot of people on your podcast have, or they’re in that phase where they’ve started a new group, you’ve oftentimes done everything.
[00:16:45] And so you’ve figured out a way that you do it. And so I think Waiting. I waited a little bit too long to delegate more things than I wanted to, which probably hurt us in the beginning. But it’s a lesson that you think about every day when you take on a new responsibility. So in the long run, I think that that was a good [00:17:00] lesson to learn.
[00:17:00] But it did cause a little bit of pain in the beginning. Imagine you can relate. I
[00:17:05] Gene Hammett: can relate to that myself personally, but I can also relate to it for my clients. It is something letting go is one of the hardest thing to do, especially founders, founders have this it’s my baby. I want to do during a certain way and whatnot.
[00:17:17] When you were able to overcome. W what was the, what was a real catalyst
[00:17:22] Ryan Malone: behind that? The real catalyst was we did like some really deep reflection to figure out. Cause at the time when I started smart buck, I had never run a pro services agency. I came up through tech marketing and stuff like that.
[00:17:34] And so I knew where there’s some things that we did really well, that we worried about. And shouldn’t, and there were some things probably that we didn’t even know we weren’t doing well. So when we did that reflection, All roads ran through me. And I think that that’s really common in small businesses.
[00:17:48] And so, but it, but it wasn’t easy to, just to kind of delegate responsibilities. I think learning how to delegate and delegating things to somebody with a vision and the constraints that they have to work with and then letting them run it. [00:18:00] I think really was the game changer because you already feel like as a company, you hire smart, driven people and you can really mitigate the risk if you give them a bit of a vision and some, some guardrails as they move forward so that when they come back, that there’s a high probability that they’ve solved the problem that they need to solve.
[00:18:15] Gene Hammett: You know, we’re here talking about a smart remote culture. Actually, we’re here to talk about strong remote cultures and. We haven’t talked about one thing that we always talk about in cultures and that’s core values. How much emphasis do you guys put on the core values?
[00:18:29] Ryan Malone: We put a lot, so one of our interviews is designated purely to values assessment.
[00:18:36] We believe that the values that we have are really important to us in terms of delivering good client work with people that you. And so we look for examples of those types of values and the people that we hire, because we know if they don’t have them that they’re not going to fit here. It doesn’t mean they’re not a great person.
[00:18:49] They’re just not going to fit here. One of the values, that’s not like a core value, but something we look for that might be useful for people that are trying to build remote is that it is really hard. If you’re trying to build a remote [00:19:00] company to not hire somebody who is participatory in the culture and other.
[00:19:04] If you’re remote and you’re super, super quiet and you don’t want to chip in and whatever your little way is, it’s really, really hard. And so we look for people that you can be shy, but you still in your own communicative style need to be able to continue contribute to our culture. And I think that’s a sticky.
[00:19:20] Gene Hammett: We’ve been talking about the strong remote culture. I want to give you a chance. Is there anything we missed that you want to make sure we put? I
[00:19:28] Ryan Malone: think the biggest thing is that you have to do, you have to do remote first. So there’s a lot of talk about hybrid and not hybrid and every flavor of it.
[00:19:37] But if you’re going to build a strong remote culture, you have to design for the weakest link. And if the weakest link is the office room where everybody’s on a conference call and the remote team is honestly. It’s the five minute chitchat that happens before a meeting that really is the soul of your company.
[00:19:51] So I strongly encourage, even if you do remote but, or if you do hybrid, sorry that everybody be on a conference call this idea. You don’t [00:20:00] necessarily need to be in a conference room, sitting there with people, but have everybody be on a conference call. So that five minutes is the same for everybody. I think that goes a long way for people that I would share.
[00:20:09] And then the other thing. I say that, try to find something that’s associated with your brand, that you can do. That’s unique. Like we have this event called SmartBook Palooza, which we take our team to a five-star resort somewhere. And the whole idea is to associate like your brand with this great experience that people otherwise wouldn’t have had with the types of friendships that they’re going to build, that they don’t see all the time.
[00:20:30] And that like physical connection with people occasionally is really the fuel that gets you through the next year.
[00:20:35] Gene Hammett: I love all of that. I got a question though, before we closeout. The five minute chit-chats are you doing that across? Most meetings are all meetings where it’s sort of a personal conversation before we dive into
[00:20:46] Ryan Malone: work.
[00:20:46] They just happen. I mean, it’s kind of like ours was right. Like I think they just happen. And when you have people that that work with people that they like and have clients that they like and customers that they like, you, you start to become part of people’s lives and it’s just natural. I think the difference is.
[00:20:59] [00:21:00] Most meetings will tell you be there sharply right on time. And we’re going to start the meeting. We say either sharply or right on time. So you can have a couple laughs and then we’ll start the meeting in five minutes. I think that that goes a long way.
[00:21:10] Gene Hammett: Yeah. I love it, Ryan. Thanks for being here.
Ryan Malone: Yeah, my pleasure.
[00:21:13] Thanks for having me wrap up here. Here’s what I take away from today’s conversation. You know, creating a strong remote culture takes a lot of. One of the things that you want to be intentional about is transparency. We talked about inside this and I really think that a lot of leaders are resisting that at some level, there’s a transparency line and going to be careful where you draw that line, because it does matter if you want to create a great culture, you want to also we’re really focused on the core values of our company.
[00:21:38] It’s, it’s something that really will help you create those boundaries become a better leader because you can enforce those things and others can enforce them. Hiring is one of the biggest things I’ve seen where this comes into play is making sure you’re interviewing people based on core values, and that will help you create the culture you want.
[00:21:54] When you think about your own leadership. And are you really curious about what’s next for you? Well, I have [00:22:00] a special process. I walked my leaders through. I can actually do this for you in a few minutes, but I can help you figure out the blind spots that are getting in your way. Ryan talked about. Not letting go some point in time, that was a blind spot.
[00:22:10] You didn’t see it as being a problem, but it was, he realized he had to overcome that. Well, I share this with you, but this, I want to help you be the leader that your team deserves. Just go to genehammett.com. Schedule your call. I’d love to help you be that leader. When you think of bros and you think of leadership, they can grow think tank as always with courage.
[00:22:25] We’ll see you next time.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
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