Episode 49: How Do We Get Out of This Cage?

Episode 49: How Do We Get Out of This Cage?

Guests:

Karen Clark Cole is co-founder and CEO of Blink.

William Vanderbloemen is founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Laura Zander is co-founder and CEO of Jimmy Beans Wool.

Producer:

Jess Thoubboron is founder of Blank Word Productions.

Episode Highlights:

Laura Zander: “That’s this cage that we’re in. What the hell do you do?”

Laura Zander: “We’ve tried hiring college students. We’ve tried hiring $150,000-a-year people from Stanford. We’ve tried everything in between.”

William Vanderbloemen: “It has to do with Founder’s Syndrome. Can founders really let go? Everyone says they can, and a staggering percentage cannot.”

Karen Clark Cole: “You don’t think about it as dumping your crap on somebody else. You have to think about it as empowering others to take on new responsibilities.”

Full Episode Transcript:

Loren Feldman:
Welcome, Karen, William, and Laura. Laura, I’d like to start with you. I understand you have an important job opening. If I’m not mistaken, you’re looking to replace your husband.

Laura Zander:
Yeah, I am. God, if there’s a rich single man out there who would like an 11-year-old kid…

Karen Clark Cole:
I get him first.

Loren Feldman:
William, in your experience, how long does a husband search usually take?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, if you’re willing to go the mail-order route, we can get it done pretty quick.

Laura Zander:
Perfect, perfect.

Loren Feldman:
In all seriousness, your husband is your co-founder, and I guess, kind of the Chief Technology Officer at Jimmy Beans Wool. Is that right?

Laura Zander:
Yeah, he’s the Everything Technology Officer. But yes, we’ve been in business 19 years. He started full-time 17 years ago, and he has built pretty much every piece of software that we use.

Karen Clark Cole:
From scratch, Laura?

Laura Zander:
From scratch, yeah. So it’s all zeros and ones. It’s all like ASP.NET, JavaScript, VB.

Karen Clark Cole:
I just have to ask: Are there no systems out there you could have used? You had to make them?

Laura Zander:
Not 19 years ago, no.

Karen Clark Cole:
Oh, wow.

Laura Zander:
No, and that was actually our big, huge competitive advantage. I mean, sure, we probably could have spent $200,000 at the time. I mean, there was no Shopify. We started years before Facebook started.

Loren Feldman:
And also, you guys were both coders who made your living doing this.

Laura Zander:
Yes, so we started it with an inventory management system that linked to a website, which was the e-commerce [site]. Plus we had a point-of-sale system because we had a retail store. We had this platform that Doug built and then just expanded and expanded it. We’re in the yarn industry, and so we have all these interesting little things. It’s not apparel where you sell one t-shirt and one size. You sell two hanks of yarn if somebody is going to make a scarf. You sell three hanks of the same color if somebody is going to make this.

There are some complexities inherent to the industry that we’re in that make it so that you can’t just buy off-the-shelf software. Or you could, and then you could customize it, and that’s something that we need to think about. Now we have this 19-year-old legacy system that Doug has built, added on to. He’s invented some things, if you will, before things were available, like subscriptions. I don’t know what that subscription platform is, but he built a subscription platform for us before you could go buy one somewhere so that we could run subscriptions.

All of that said, he has built it, he maintains it. He maintains AWS for us. He maintains our phone system. He has two college-aged women who help him and he is training and teaching. Over the last 10 years, maybe 12 years, we’ve tried hiring. We’ve tried hiring college students. We’ve tried hiring $150,000-a-year people from Stanford. We’ve tried everything in-between. We’ve probably hired 15 people over the last 10 years.

Loren Feldman:
Wow.

Karen Clark Cole:
All to try to replace Doug, or to do different things?

Laura Zander:
He’s a bright guy, and he’s a creative. He designs our house. He’s an architect. He was a technical architect in the Bay Area before we started this. In an ideal world, he would have a team underneath him with somebody who managed the team, and he could do the new creations, and he could create new technologies. That’s what he’s uniquely talented at. Or he could just walk away. If we found somebody to replace him today, he’d get on his mountain bike and ride into the sunset and be very happy.

Loren Feldman:
I think you told us previously that his dream is to be a house husband.

Laura Zander:
His dream his whole life was to be a stay-at-home dad with no kids, and then I got pregnant. So we have the kid. [Laughter] But one of our employees, at one point, described it very well—Doug has built a cage around himself, and we need to figure out how to get him out of that cage, because the system can’t survive without him.

Loren Feldman:
What’s gone wrong with those 15 hires? Is there a common thread?

Laura Zander:
That’s a great question, and I wish that I understood. It’s a really great question. I don’t know if it’s our expectations. Obviously, it’s that we didn’t hire well. That’s a big part of it. I do get feedback. Doug is really, really, really—

Karen Clark Cole:
Are all of them no longer with you, Laura? Sorry to interrupt.

Laura Zander:
Well, I mean, we have two right now. For a couple years, he had a team of two women who worked for him who he trained from the ground up. They were a magical duo. They worked really, really well together. The one woman—she was a college student—could have replaced him at some point. But she wanted to go to a bigger company, so she left after a couple years, and she went to Hamilton Robotics or some place like that. She wanted to work on spaceships. So, there’s that.

I think part of it is us just not hiring very well and probably not training or not communicating. I don’t know. The feedback I’m getting is that he’s extremely, extremely patient and extremely good at teaching people. But what happens is, when you hire somebody who’s 100 grand or 150 grand, he has really high expectations and gets frustrated really easily when those expectations are not met. We hired a guy who had been a CTO or a director of engineering at a local Reno company. He came in, and the guy made mistakes all over the place, and Doug just has no tolerance for that. He’s a very good programmer. So the guy made mistakes, wouldn’t own up to them, didn’t have the skill-set that we thought he had. And that’s why, I think part of it is the hiring and the expectations.

Loren Feldman:
So what approach are you taking now? What exactly are you looking for? And how are you trying to find it?

Laura Zander:
I am a little paralyzed right this second. I have so much on my plate with the Texas business and trying to get that going, that I’ve actually just been kind of ruminating on it for the last couple of weeks.

Karen Clark Cole:
But even then—William, tell me if I’m totally wrong here—you find somebody and it’s not guaranteed they’re going to work out.

Laura Zander:
Exactly, exactly.

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, if you hire the right search firm, they guarantee their work for at least a year, if not two.

Laura Zander:
Yeah.

Karen Clark Cole:
Laura, have you tried try-before-you-buy? We’ve done this in the past with three of our current C-level positions. One of them had a consulting firm that we worked with for several years and then actually bought them so that she could come in-house. Another one was our chief cultural officer and our chief financial officer. He had just finished a big gig and was out consulting as a consulting CFO, and so we worked with him for probably a year. We didn’t really need a full-time one at the time, and so it was good for all of us, and then we just realized, “Hey, this is working out great.” And then he came in as an employee. And then another one, our COO actually came through an acquisition, but he was only on for the transition at the beginning, because his role wasn’t in the new company. So he went away for six months, and then he actually came back, and we meanwhile had to fire somebody in that position. Then he filled it and it’s been great.

The try-before-you-buy—for a decent amount of time, one or two or three years—has worked the best for us out of all those different types of things. I think if you’re hiring somebody who has a lot of experience for a lot of money, you should expect everything from them.

Loren Feldman:
Karen, can you do that with a position like this? I mean, the people who have these skills are in such high demand right now.

Karen Clark Cole:
For a CTO position?

Loren Feldman:
Yeah.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, I think so. There are loads of people who are out there doing contract work, because it is in such high demand. Finding that fit is not super easy either, but at least there’s less heartache and less expenses when you can just say, “This is a six-month contract.” Then you try it, and then you’re done, and then there’s no commitment. You don’t have to fire anybody. There’s no big, cultural downfall after they leave. If you’re really trying to find the best fit, that’s kind of—in my opinion—the only way to do it. When somebody is at that high of a level in the company, they really have a big impact.

William Vanderbloemen:
So I completely disagree with you, Karen.

Karen Clark Cole:
[Laughter] Good.

William Vanderbloemen:
One hundred percent.

Karen Clark Cole:
I’m just telling you what’s worked well for us.

William Vanderbloemen:
Okay, well, then let me let me edit the comment. I don’t disagree that that’s your experience. I don’t think it’s repeatable for everybody. In fact, I’d say more often than not, it’s not repeatable, particularly in this sector. It’s the hottest sector there is right now. The supply/demand of people who are out there who can do the work versus people who are realizing they need this kind of work done—there’s just a huge gap. The people who are good at it know it, and so the ones who do contract labor don’t want to chain themselves to one company because they can move and float around. In my experience, the people who have decided that the gig economy and the contract labor way is their way, they do great work, but they make horrible permanent employees. In my experience, this is why I started our business—to try and reduce the heartache.

Karen Clark Cole:
Do you think that’s just this field in particular, William? The tech job?

William Vanderbloemen:
No, no, I think it’s all things. Hiring is a venture into the unknown. People don’t really think that way unless you point it out, but I’ve never had anybody disagree with me. When you add a new person to your team, you’re taking a great gamble, even if you know them personally. Adding a person changes the equation, right?

Laura Zander:
It’s an arranged marriage, right?

William Vanderbloemen:
Right, so when you think about a venture into the unknown, what is the most primal human fear? It’s the unknown. You get a three-year-old, what do they want at night? “Can you leave the light on in the hall? I don’t like the unknown.” As a pastor in my previous career, I’ve buried a lot of people, and even the ones who were solid in their faith were scared of death, because it’s the unknown.

When you’re going into hiring, whether you realize it or not, you’re venturing into the unknown. The human propensity is always to look for some known entity during this venture. And that turns into, “My friend told me about a guy who’d be great.” Or, “I used a contract person for a while, and they’d be awesome.” And whether people realize it or not, having something that you quote “know” mitigates this innate fear that’s in hiring and this venture into the unknown. I think, a whole lot of times, you just need a third set of eyes. You need some professional opinion. You need someone who can turn on a light for you, and I think that goes across all sectors.

Now, within the job market, I don’t know a sector that’s hurting more—except maybe chief nursing officers. There’s a staggering need for that, and not a great supply chain coming. But this sort of role that your husband’s played… the supply/demand is just way off. You’ve got to have somebody help you. The real question, Laura, the hard question—love you—but if you asked me to do the search, I’d say, “You know, I’m gonna have to sit down with you and your husband for a long time and visit before I decide whether or not I’ll do the search.”

Laura Zander:
I’m so aware of that.

Loren Feldman:
Why is that? What do you want to know?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, just imagine a superstar singer, a woman who seems to keep dating and breaking up and writing songs about how awful the boyfriend was, and they keep getting with the wrong guy. Eventually you’ve got to go, “Hmm, maybe it’s not the guy.”

Laura Zander:
One hundred percent. Absolutely, one hundred percent. And that’s why I’m a little paralyzed. I don’t know if paralyzed is the right word, but…

William Vanderbloemen:
And Laura, just to put a finer point on it so people think I’m not just the crabby guy on the call today—it has nothing to do with you as a person. It has to do with Founder’s Syndrome. Can founders really let go? And that’s a very real question to ask. Everyone says they can, and a staggering percentage cannot. We’ve just learned to ask some real careful questions, and we’ve told some folks, “I just don’t think we’re the best fit for you.”

Laura Zander:
That’s a really, really great point. It’s been very interesting and illuminating—educational, I guess—for me, because Doug and I, when we started, let’s say we had three people. When he started full-time, we probably had two employees or something like that. I have grown my team to 80 people. He has grown his team to two people. I have watched myself go through this Founder Syndrome, think I’m letting go, but realize now that, five years ago, I wasn’t letting go. Because now I have let go in some areas, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what it feels like. Okay, maybe they’re not doing it the way I would have done it if I did it.” I’m constantly checking myself on that, and so now I’m able to kind of watch him and see where he is and is not letting things go. And so 100 percent, absolutely, totally agree. That’s this cage that we’re in. What the hell do you do? Like, if he dies, we get a couple million bucks. And I’m like, “Maybe then I can pay somebody a million bucks a year even if they don’t want to do it forever…”

Loren Feldman:
This podcast just became evidence.

Laura Zander:
Yeah, well, what’s the out? What are our options? Do I believe that there is one person in the U.S., or maybe two or three, who would like to live in Tahoe and would like to build a team and would like to work—that all of these things kind of come together? Sure. There might be two people in the whole country.

Loren Feldman:
Why do you say that? I have a hard time believing that. It seems to me, under the right circumstances, going to work for a growing company in an attractive area, having the opportunity to build your own thing and take charge, that seems like an interesting challenge that you ought to be able to find more than one or two people interested in taking on. Am I wrong?

Laura Zander:
Maybe?

Loren Feldman:
Karen? William?

Karen Clark Cole:
No, I agree with you. I think it sounds good. I’ll do it. [Laughter]

Laura Zander:
Maybe, maybe. I just think about Google’s down the street and Facebook’s down the street. We’re kind of sandwiched between San Francisco and Portland and Seattle. I get the lifestyle of living in Tahoe and having some freedom. I had always thought maybe if you’ve got a couple small kids and you want to slow down, and you want to have more of a “lifestyle job,” as opposed to going and working for one of these big things…

Karen Clark Cole:
What about a young whippersnapper out of college? She’s super smart, but doesn’t have the high salary and the high experience. Is that a bad idea William, Laura?

Laura Zander:
We would love that. But how do you find somebody like that who doesn’t go to San Francisco when that’s just a couple miles away?

Loren Feldman:
Also, isn’t that person going to be a little ways away from really being able to take over from Doug? I mean, what’s his timeline?

Laura Zander:
Maybe. If he found somebody smart enough… Again, we did have somebody. He did find somebody who was just in college, just started computer science, and she was a genius.
They communicated really well. It worked really well. She just didn’t want to work for a yarn company for the rest of her life.

Karen Clark Cole:
Can you just go hire that? I always like it when I get a persona around the kind of person we’re trying to find.

Laura Zander:
Yes, and that’s what we did.

Karen Clark Cole:
And what if your expectation is not, “It’s a lifelong commitment,” but it’s more of a two- and three-year commitment?

Laura Zander:
Totally, and we hired two of them in December. One of them is still with us. One of them didn’t work out, didn’t know as much, didn’t have the level that we had expected. He’s very much into, “I will teach you,” and just finding somebody who is intelligent and is curious. We’ve tried that a few times.

Loren Feldman:
William, getting back to your thoughts about whether this is a search you would be willing to take on. I’m curious if you have any suggestions for how Laura and Doug would think about what’s gone wrong in the past, why they’ve been through so many people, and what they need to do differently to put themselves in a position to hire the right person.

William Vanderbloemen:
This is so armchair quarterback, which is dangerous stuff. I don’t know the situation, and there are no cookie-cutter answers for high-level hiring. There just aren’t. You’re talking about extremely talented people who have founded a company and done amazing work. You’re talking about a growing organization that’s changing every day, and you’re talking about trying to find a unicorn.

Laura’s right. The geographic piece is not a small piece in the puzzle, so I don’t want to come off as, “Here are the six easy steps to solving Laura’s problem.” Because there are not. I think you’re asking the right questions, Laura, and the questions that I’m impressed with [are], “What does he want to do? Is he ready to let go?” If you haven’t read The Founder’s Syndrome, you should get a copy of it, read it, and then just take a long, long look in the mirror.

And then Loren, I’m gonna sound like, “All I have is a hammer, so everything looks like a nail,” but I think they need to hire an executive search firm—not a placement firm, not a headhunter—a high-level, go ahead and invest the money. If you tell Doug, “Doug, for this dollar figure, we can solve this problem for good,” I don’t think you’d blink. Now, finding the right firm is what I think you need to be really careful about, because there’s no barrier for entry into search. You just hang a shingle and say, “I do search.” And it could be snake oil salesmen. It could be the best in the world. I tried to equip Laura with some questions to ask as she’s looking at firms that specialize in tech.

Loren Feldman:
What are those questions?

William Vanderbloemen:1
What’s your fee structure? If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it sounds expensive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Is it, “You only have to pay me when I find your person”? Oh, that sounds good. Most of the economy works on a pay-upon-delivery transaction. But what you want in this search is a partner who is interested in making sure this gets solved—not a competitor.

So if it’s, “You only have to pay me when I find your guy or gal or whatever,” what happens when you, Laura, run across a great 21 Hats listener who says, “I’d like to be considered,” and you put the name that you found in front of your search consultant? I don’t care how good they are. The human heart is a deceiver above all things. If it’s me and I only get paid if I find your person, and you bring me somebody who I did not find, I’m going to have a bias against them. I can’t not. No one’s that objective.

I’d say it needs to be a retained fee, and I think they need to guarantee their work. Our guarantee would be, “This person is going to be here in 12 months, and if they’re not, we’ll come back and do the whole thing again for free. And there’s no expiration date on that. The second time? Do it again. Third time? Do it again.” That needs to be: no questions asked. We do it if the person dies. We do it if they decide they don’t want to be there anymore, or if you fire them or whatever. If they have that kind of guarantee, then they’re serious about their work. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but they’re serious about their work.

Loren Feldman:
How does that strike you, Laura?

Laura Zander:
That sounds amazing. William, I like the way that you put it, that, “Okay, if we could solve this problem by investing whatever that dollar value is, would we solve it?” So, yeah, that reframes it.

Karen Clark Cole:
How important is it that they’re actually in Tahoe, Reno, versus just coming occasionally and working remotely? Because that may help also, right?

Laura Zander:
Yeah, that’s a great point. I don’t think that it’s critical. I think that, maybe five years ago, we thought it was.

Loren Feldman:
Five months ago.

Laura Zander:
Yeah. I don’t think it’s critical. The other thing that we haven’t even talked about is: Maybe this isn’t the right solution. Maybe the solution is that we need to—and we did try this a couple years ago—maybe we just need to go to a new platform. Maybe we need to move everything to Shopify, and then hire a firm that can manage our site.

Loren Feldman:
That’s an interesting question.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, that’s going up a level.

Laura Zander:
Yeah.

Loren Feldman:
I know a lot of people are very happy with Shopify.

Laura Zander:
Yeah, I mean, we use it on the Madelinetosh side, and then we have a staff who can manage the site themselves. But Doug’s issue with that, or his concern is: We’ve got 19 years of rankings and pages, and the system that he built is pretty phenomenal. It’s very intricate, very, very good, and very specific to what we’re doing. Is that a competitive advantage of ours? And it is, in some ways. If we have the people to manage it, it’s a competitive advantage. It’s not a competitive advantage in that we’re beholden to basically one person to manage it all.

Loren Feldman:
The key question there is whether you can preserve the SEO value you’ve developed over 19 years when you move to a new platform, and I would think it would be fairly easy to get an answer to that question.

Laura Zander:
And I think the answer—my understanding, and it may be different—the last time we talked about it, the answer is no.

Loren Feldman:
Wow.

Laura Zander:
So, that’s very risky.

Loren Feldman:
That’s a big cost.

Laura Zander:
Yeah, again, we’re in a cage. What do you do? We’ve lost money the last few years, so we didn’t even have the money to be able to afford somebody for $200,000 a year, or a recruiter, or whatever. We’ve made some adjustments, and now we should be able to do that, which changes things, but it’s a little scary. What if you hire somebody super huge, and all of a sudden, everything tanks?

Loren Feldman:
I’m getting the sense we’re not going to solve this problem today.

Laura Zander:
Dammit!

Loren Feldman:
I think it may be something we come back to. We tried, Laura.

Laura Zander:
It’s really helpful.

Loren Feldman:
I’d like to pick up on something that Karen raised, which is the issue of working remotely. Karen, how are you thinking about that these days? How’s it working with Blink?

Karen Clark Cole:
I know what I think, which is different than a lot of our employees apparently.

Loren Feldman:
How so?

Karen Clark Cole:
I think we’re all going to come back to the offices in some capacity, so the heads-down work will happen at home a lot more than before, which I think is great—for me included. But then we’ll come to the offices for collaboration, for client meetings. Our business is a little bit unique, in that we have physical research labs in our actual offices. These are places where end users come in and they test hardware and software, and we observe them, and then we do analysis and come up with recommendations for how our clients can improve the product or the service. That requires actual physical space.

Loren Feldman:
I want to hear about the part where you and your employees look at this differently.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, I’m getting to that. We’ve been spending a lot of time and energy and actual real money hiring consultants to come up with ideas to make the space map to what I just described. But what’s come up at the same time recently is employees wanting, “Oh, I don’t need to be in this really expensive city anymore to do my job. I can go be in Hawaii for months on end, or I can go to Reno, or to the middle of some remote place and still do my work, as long as I have an Internet connection.”

And so I think what that’s done is, it’s allowed people to see the world differently, which I think is really cool. But what they’re doing now is asking us, “Hey, I’m thinking about going home to Minnesota. And I know we don’t have an office there, but we’ve proven that we can all work remotely. Can I move?” My answer immediately is, “No, we don’t have an office there, so we can’t support you.” You can go to any of the states where we have offices—and there’s four of them—which I think it’s fabulous to offer that to an employee. At least, when we first started doing that, it was a real benefit.

Loren Feldman:
They just have to move to the same state? It doesn’t matter if they’re in the same city?

Karen Clark Cole:
Well, they need to be connected to an office. This is my view of it. So in San Francisco, for example, a lot of people in recent months have moved out of the city. They can still come in, but it’ll be a much longer commute, and so as long as they’re willing to come in a couple of days a week, or as needed, then it’s fine. They can spend less time in the office. That’s okay. But now we’re getting people requesting to move to not only different cities where we have offices, but different states, and in one case, a different country. And I have a list of about 30 problems with that. [Laughter]

The reason why it should be considered is—there’s two on my list—star employees who have busted it and done excellent work for years who are really dedicated. Those people are hard to find, as we’ve just talked about, and so we don’t want to lose them. But the cons are so extreme and go all the way through to things like, “Okay, so if we let somebody live in a state where we don’t have an office, then we have to set up a whole new filing system.” We’ve got to do a business license, gotta have state taxes, city taxes, unemployment. We have to learn new HR regulations. We have to learn new business regulations in those states and those cities. Unemployment insurance to pay, we have to set up a policy in that state. There are filings for quarterly annual taxes, state taxes, city taxes—it goes on and on.

The problem with it is it’s just a constant flurry of paperwork that needs to be read, figured out when it’s happening, and then dealt with. And I kind of think, “Okay, well, this is a product of success, in that if our employees think that we’re so big that we can handle this, no problem, that’s kind of good. But at the same time, we’re really not big enough to manage that level of complexity in our finance side.” Larger companies have a whole team dedicated to handling this multi-state employment thing, and we just don’t have that. We have one person who deals with the five or the four states that we’re in currently, and that’s a lot of work. And it sort of comes down to, while that’s a nice idea, we’re just not that big of a company at this stage. So, maybe in the future.

Laura Zander:
Just out of curiosity, have you ever asked anybody, “Okay, how much of a pay cut are you willing to take if you want to move to Minnesota? The cost of living is 37 percent less, so are you willing to take a 37-percent pay cut?”

Karen Clark Cole:
No, I hadn’t even thought of that. Good one. I’ll add that to my list.

Laura Zander:
Number 31, yeah.

Loren Feldman:
Karen, where’s your head? Are you thinking of drawing a line in the sand on this one?

Karen Clark Cole:
I already have, and then I’m continually getting pushback. I had a meeting with my executives, we made a decision, which was loosening it a little bit, which is to say, “Okay, it’s not ideal, but if it’s a star employee, X amount of tenure, and we don’t want to lose them, as long as they’re in a state where we’re already doing business—we don’t have to do any of that long list—then we can consider it, and so that was a change already.

Because for us, we can’t go virtual. We have to have these physical spaces because of our research labs. Clients love coming to our offices. They are beautiful. We have spent boatloads of money making them a cultural attraction. I don’t want to run a virtual company. I’m just not interested in doing that, at this stage in my career. And the problem is our neighbors—the Facebooks and the Twitters, and the Microsofts—Twitter’s just said, “You never have to come back.” Microsoft: “Not for a year.” Facebook: “You don’t ever have to come.” So we’re up against that.

Loren Feldman:
William, have you seen this kind of issue either at your place or your clients?

William Vanderbloemen:
Everywhere, everywhere, and I have run a virtual company. I’ve run a completely on-site, must-live-here, work-here, show-up-here, company. Now I run something in-between, and part of that is COVID, but I will probably be some form of hybrid going forward. I think that Karen’s hitting on such a good point: The kind of work that a company is doing sort of sets the standard for how much of it has to be done under the same roof. I’d love to see Ford Motor Company put a car together with virtual offices. Not gonna happen, right? We use basically a bank of virtual receptionists, and you’re assigned a team of five or six that learn enough about your business to be able to navigate incoming calls and make us sound like we have this full-time receptionist sitting at the desk all the time without having to pay for it. That can totally be done virtually! It’s completely virtual work. And by the way, if you’re interviewing people who are going to be completely virtual, you can do the interviewing virtually. But if you’re going to have them under your roof, you’d better get face-to-face with them before you hire them.

Loren Feldman:
Have you dealt with people who want to live in different states or different countries?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yes.

Loren Feldman:
And how have you responded?

William Vanderbloemen:
I haven’t dealt with the country piece yet for my business, but people who want to live in different places. I have a relative who’s a partner at a very well-thought-of management consulting firm. Years ago, she told me, “We advise our clients to leave 10 percent of your workforce available for living wherever, because you will find— every now and then—the person who is just amazing but cannot move.” And for us, one of those was a guy who had started a church, grown it to a really nice size in Eldorado Hills—not too far from you, Laura—and he was ready to step away from that, but he had a lot of gas left in the tank, and all of his grandchildren lived on the block he lived on. He was not leaving there. Like, that was not an option. But he was good enough and exactly what we needed at the time enough that we said, “Okay, that works.”

I’m learning to steer away from all the categorical imperatives of “always” and “must” and “never,” and go a little more case-by-case. It does come with a cost, though, and it’s exactly what Karen said. He was an employee in the state of California, and that’s a whole different host of issues and taxes than working in Texas. I don’t love it, but I’m learning that, if you’re gonna die on that hill, you might win the battle and lose the war.

Loren Feldman:
Have you found any useful hacks for dealing with that bureaucratic piece of having people in different states?

William Vanderbloemen:
No. I mean, at the time, we were using Insperity, which used to be “administaff”—kind of the largest PEO company that there is. That’s supposed to be why you’re paying them an upcharge, is to make that stuff go away. But no, it was always a nightmare.

Loren Feldman:
Karen, have you actually lost people yet over this issue?

Karen Clark Cole:
No, not yet. But we will lose them. I think that’s the reality.

Laura Zander:
Interesting, but if you were a retailer, let’s say, and it’s just so obvious that you have to be in person, you would lose them if they left anyway, right? I mean, if somebody is going to move, they’re gonna move.

William Vanderbloemen:
Good point. Totally agree with you, Laura. And Karen, I don’t know your business, but our central nervous system is still a show-up-at-the-office-and-be-here and you-must-live-in-Houston. What I’ve discovered for where I am right now, is that central nervous system is way more productive if they’re in the same building. Maybe I’ll lose a person here or there, but the productivity I gain by keeping people together outweighs the loss of the one person.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, and for us, it’s the collaborative nature of it—coming together and brainstorming. And the clients want to come and be with us. I’m like, “Yeah, we can make an exception,” but then all of a sudden, the exception becomes the rule. And then everybody wants to do it, and then, “Why did that person get to and not me?” That’s what I’m afraid of.

Laura Zander:
That’s exhausting.

Karen Clark Cole:
Because I don’t want to have a ghost town. We have a problem already, in that our offices are too big for the reality of the future, which is people in the office less often. We have to grow quickly to fill those offices because there’s a cultural shift when you have an empty office. It’s bad for the culture. If it’s full and buzzing, that’s good. You get energy from that. I’m already worried about that part of it. And then they’re also wildly expensive to have these offices, and so we need them full of billing people. All of a sudden, nobody wants to work in the office, so why don’t we close the office? But then our whole business blows up. So, it’s complicated.

Loren Feldman:
So that’s two problems that we haven’t solved today. I’d like to try for one more in the little bit of time we have left. I’ve got a question for you guys, and that is this: What do you do, personally, when your to-do list just seems endless? You have that feeling that you could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you still wouldn’t finish the list, and the days fly by. Especially during the pandemic, if you’re working from home, it’s hard to know when to turn it off. It’s hard to stop. It just keeps going. I’m asking for a friend. Can anybody relate to this?

Laura Zander:
Yeah, I can. I’ll tell you what my experience has been this last year, and it’s that I work 24/7. I know that the list, although it feels like it’s endless, it’s not. I’m actually in a period right now, for the first time in about probably 16 months, where I can breathe, and I’m taking walks with the dogs.

Loren Feldman:
How’d you get there? What changed?

Laura Zander:
I worked 24/7 until the work was done.

Loren Feldman:
That’s not what I wanted to hear.

Laura Zander:
I built the house, and now we can stand under it, and the rain is off of us, and I can take a little bit of a break. There’s still lots of stuff to do, but none of it is as urgent as it was. I just had to get through it.

Loren Feldman:
Karen, William, I suspect you’re in different places in the evolution of your businesses, but have there been times in the past when you felt that way?

William Vanderbloemen:
How about all of the last 12 months? Loren, back when we partnered together at Forbes, I think one of the most popular columns I ever wrote was, “There Is No Work-Life Balance.” For me, it’s been a myth. “I’m just going to turn it off at five.” I’ve got a pastor friend who’s like, “I just don’t take any calls after 4pm. That is sacred time. And if the number one donor in our church called me at 4:01pm, I wouldn’t return the call.” Well, the dirty little secret nobody knows is he is the number one donor in the church, so he’s not going to call himself.

I think most of us, it’s just praying for wisdom to know when you have to get things done, and when you don’t. Because there are seasons where you’re in the middle of building a house and a rainstorm’s coming, and you’d better get the roof. You’ve gotta get it done. It’s just got to happen. And then you’ve got to have the discernment to know when to shut it off.

For me, a lot of what I’m trying to learn lately is the proactive, rather than the reactive. You start businesses all proactive, and then it gets busy, and it’s all reactive. “Business is coming in. We’ve got to deal with it.” I’m moving to a different stage, as you mentioned in the question, Loren. I can’t remember—one of you probably knows—management consulting was basically born by a guy giving business advice to a great bank, and told the owner of the bank: “You and your management team, write down six things you want to accomplish this day that will help the business move forward. Just six, no more, no less. Just mark those off the list, and do it every workday, and watch what happens.” It is amazing what that small discipline will do. Before anything else, either at the end of the day today for tomorrow, or at the very beginning of tomorrow before I see my phone, if I’ll do that exercise, I find that I have a better handle on my proactive throttle of when to turn it off and on.

Loren Feldman:
How about you Karen. How do you think about it?

Karen Clark Cole:
Well, first off, when you said you’re in a different phase in your business than Laura, as if it’s all gone away, it’s always the same. There’s always more to do than you have time to do. Particularly, we all have kids, so if you’re a parent, and then you’ve got—in my case—130 extra kids in the company, it feels like it never ends. But for me, there are the three main buckets, which is constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing, like every day. My job is to be constantly evaluating those priorities and what’s at the top, and it’s always changing, and that’s the fluidity of the business. At work, I do that, but in my life as well. It’s just constantly like, “Okay, what is at the top?” Where will there be repercussions if it doesn’t get done? Which leads to outsourcing.

I try to offload and outsource anything possible, and that is a real shift to get to that stage. I know that, for small business owners, they have a really hard time with this in the business. You need to start doing it in the business and then apply it to your whole life. I’m always asking myself and the people who are reporting to me, “What can somebody else do? And what’s the best use of your time?” I make sure whatever I’m doing that only I can do, and if I think somebody else can do it—maybe not the way I would, but that’s okay, it can still get done—you don’t think about it as dumping your crap on somebody else. You have to think about it as empowering others to take on new responsibilities.

It may be something that they are really good at, like wired for it. They’re super-efficient, and they love it, versus me. I’m not wired for it. I hate the level of detail, like email, for example, kills me. And so if somebody else can do that for me and actually enjoy it and get satisfaction and feel responsibility for doing that, and I can pay them for it, and then I can go free up my time to do the heavy lifting that only I can do, in terms of running the company, that’s a good solution for everybody. But it takes a really long time to get to the point where you’re willing to hand stuff off.

Then I added this new thing recently that’s been working great with working at home, because it’s hard to know when the day ends, because there’s not people leaving to clue me in, like, “Oh, it’s the end of the day. People are leaving.” That kind of is a trigger for me. I put a hold on my calendar for Monday to Friday that says, “Stop working, start dinner, get out of the office.” It’s actually helped, because I have an hour reminder. So I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got one hour left, I’m going to go go go.”

Loren Feldman:
Well, I’d really like to keep talking with you guys, but I’ve got this to-do list that I gotta get to right now. As always, my thanks to Karen Clark Cole, William Vanderbloemen, and Laura Zander. Thanks for sharing everybody.

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