16 May 2012

Transitions and New Opportunities

By the time you read this, I will no longer be working for Internet Marketing Ninjas (my last day was May 15th). It’s an odd thing for me to write. I was on top of the world last December when I spoke to IMN CEO Jim Boykin on the phone. After post-PubCon introductions, he and I exchanged many fast and furious emails, discussing the possibility of me joining his team, of becoming a real SEO Ninja. Before I knew it, it was a mere two days after New Year’s and I was standing in bitter, 6 degree winter weather outside of the Ninjas offices in Clifton Park, New York, just a few miles north of Albany. It was shockingly cold for this Pacific Northwest guy, but the reception I got just moments later was amazingly warm.

Jim and his team were so generously welcoming – I felt like visiting royalty, even though I was sure I didn’t deserve it. Despite how busy he was, Jim and I sat down and had long talks every day about his plans for the business, what my contributions would be, and where I fit in to the scheme. We all dreamt big, and it was an exciting time. And just a few days after that, I was back in my home office in Woodinville, WA, pounding on the keyboard, developing new blog posts and conducting mini site reviews for IMN clients. You see, I could not relocate, despite Jim’s request that I do so.


Remote employment

Unfortunately, the transient nature of my visit to Upstate New York was the Achilles Heel of our arrangement. I remember a series of tweets by Wil Reynolds early in my tenure with IMN in which Wil ranted about the impossibility of success with hiring remote workers. I remember that Ian Lurie chimed in with concurrence. I respect both of those guys enormously for who they are and what they’ve accomplished in this field, but I was personally offended by their statements. I wanted to say, “Hey, guys, what about me? I was a remote worker for Bing during my last two years there and was highly productive and professional! And better yet, I now work for Jim Boykin, who’s willing to take a chance on me as a remote worker!”

I never sent those reply tweets, of course. I realized that when I was young in my immediate post-collegiate career, I probably would not have been the productive and disciplined remote worker that I am today (and it seems that many SEO agencies are quite heavily dependent upon youthful talent, although that may just be the emerging curmudgeon in me speaking). Make no mistake, I still bristle at the generalizations made by Wil. At a minimum, I would have corrected him by saying he’d not YET worked with anyone who could be successful working remotely. After all, he’d never hired me! Same goes for Ian! :-)

But I soon came to realize that establishing a successful, remote work relationship is a two-way street. It’s not solely the responsibility of the remote worker to make it work (although I do believe the lion’s share of the responsibility does fall on the remote worker). To truly make the situation work, the company office also has to actively accommodate the relationship, keeping the remote worker informed of office doings, maintaining regular communications and conveying the wishes and needs of top management across a variety of channels on a constant, ongoing basis. That’s a big commitment on the part of management (perhaps that challenge is the problem Wil & Ian were alluding to).


Logistics, logistics, logistics

Some company cultures work just fine across digital communication mediums (especially email and conference call meetings), whereas others really only thrive with interpersonal, verbal, face-to-face communications (such as hallway conversations and impromptu meetings). Ultimately, while I loved the arrangement, my remote work status with IMN didn’t meet the needs of their top management. There were no performance problems, no professionalism or productivity issues, or anything of the like with regard to my work. And that’s not just me talking. That’s what I was told. What we had were challenges with logistics. Plain, old-fashioned logistics. Simply put, I wasn’t there to participate in the office activities, and that meant my remote role wasn’t a comfortable fit for the IMN team – that’s all.

And truth be told, I understand Jim’s position on the matter. It’s his business, and he is free to run it in whichever fashion is most advantageous for him and his team. Frankly, if I were Jim, I’m not sure I would have taken the chance to hire me, sight unseen, the way he did. I think he showed amazing courage and resolve in attempting to make this remote, cross-continent relationship work. He had never previously met me, and yet, on reputation alone (and an interesting interview), he was willing to give it a try. I simply can’t argue with Jim’s difficult decision for us to part ways. We definitely had something really good, but it wasn’t ultimately what he wanted or needed, so we both are moving on.

In the last six months, I have learned so much more about the business (especially from the agency perspective), met some incredibly smart and talented co-workers, been exposed to some fascinating client situations, heard about some amazing plans, and I am still enthralled with Jim and his amazing company. I consider myself more than lucky to have had this opportunity to meet, work with, and learn from so many brilliant people, starting with Jim himself and going down the line. He is a force to be reckoned with in this business, and I see big things for him and his dedicated team.

Note that I still am a true believer of remote working. I agree that it takes the right person to make it a successful opportunity, but it also takes commitment on the part of the team to integrate the remote people into the business. The Internet offers so much in the way of technology for advancing the cause of interactive communications. In fields where specialized, talented individuals are not easily found, businesses that embrace the Internet to find and work with remote talent will have an edge over their competition. Not everyone you need to hire lives close by!

Perhaps in 2012 we are still not ready to accept the challenges that remote workers entail, and I imagine that the challenges can be especially hard for smaller companies due to limited resources. But as we advance deeper in the 21st century, with traffic choking our cities, the cost of living rising in urban areas, and the quality of life of workers fading as they face longer work days compounded with ever-longer commute times, something has to break. The companies who can figure out how to attract and retain key, qualified talent who are not local and are unable to relocate will have an edge. I remain hopeful that remote work is not dead, that in fact it is the true wave of the future. We just need a few more baby steps to get there.


Next steps

Don’t worry about me. I’ve already landed on my feet with a new role (my streak of very good luck continues!), with this one being MUCH closer to home (if you want to know more, start following my LinkedIn profile in the next month or so). I know I will be of much greater value to my new team thanks to the experiences I had with Internet Marketing Ninjas. Of course, I’ll continue blogging at Search Engine Land, resume my blogging for my own blog, The SEO Ace, and perhaps meet some of you SEOs local to me at the monthly Seattle SEO Network meet-ups.

So, I move forward with transitions and new opportunities. So does Jim and his team. It’s been a great ride, folks. I hope to see my Ninja colleagues at industry events. I’ll be speaking at SMX Advanced in Seattle in June, attending MozCon in Seattle in July, and speaking again at PubCon Las Vegas in October. Let’s keep in touch, OK? Thanks for everything!