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“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Laura Spawn CEO of Virtual Vocations

Before bringing on team members, have clearly written goals and definitions of your company culture and structure. As we grew and brought on more people, our goal was simple: bring people the largest database of telecommute job listings that were screened and legitimate. But we did not stop to think about what the “culture” of […]


Before bringing on team members, have clearly written goals and definitions of your company culture and structure. As we grew and brought on more people, our goal was simple: bring people the largest database of telecommute job listings that were screened and legitimate. But we did not stop to think about what the “culture” of our company or management structure would be as it grew. Over the years, we have had to backtrack here and there, adjusting positions, departments, and expectations, because our thought processes in these areas were not outlined to begin with for our team members to understand and refer to. This especially impacted our various team members understanding of work expectations, hours, and availability; we eventually had to pin down some set guidelines in each area for uniformity.


I had the pleasure to interview Laura Spawn. Laura is the CEO and co-founder of Virtual Vocations. Alongside her brother, Laura founded Virtual Vocations in February 2007 with one goal in mind: connecting job-seekers with legitimate telecommute job openings. Laura has nearly two decades of experience working from home and spends her days overseeing Virtual Vocations’ team of more than 50 remote employees and contractors, who together have helped more than two million job-seekers over the last 12 years. Laura is a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council and holds a bachelor’s degree in public agency service management from Northern Arizona University. She lives in Oregon with her husband, three children, and two dogs, Ivy and Jilly.


Thank you so much for joining us Laura. What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?

I can’t say that I was ever really “attracted” to the position of CEO. As my business grew over the years, I found myself in the role as a natural evolution of the structure of our company. Today, I look at myself more as a business owner — part of a great team of people all working together to fulfill the same goals I had in mind when I first started my business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Ten years ago, when we had only been up and running for a couple of years, I was doing some research online when I came across a website that looked exactly like ours! I signed up, became a member, and found it had all of our researched job listings and all the exact same information — down to the “About Us” page and Terms of Use. After doing a little digging, I found out that it was put up by one of our current contracted team members, who was duplicating our entire business trying to make it their own! Needless to say, the contract was terminated.

Sadly, that was my first, but not the last experience with plagiarism. It was interesting and eye-opening, however; I’m not a web developer, so I had no idea that front-end code could be easily copied in that way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There’s a lot to learn as an all-in-one business owner and CEO. After my business had been incorporated for several years, I received a call from the State informing me that we had delinquent forms. I called back and they very nicely walked me through filling out four years’ worth of quarterly reporting forms — 16 of them! (Even though we had nothing to report!)

I learned from that experience to do my research on what paperwork was going to be required as the business grew and expanded, and to use professionals who know about legal and government requirements. Thank goodness for kind people who understand business owners who are learning on the job!

Specifically, what is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

My day-to-day tasks involve a lot of connection building and coordinating between our internal team for projects, business operations, and general communication, and between outside businesses we partner with to provide services to our job-seekers. It also requires a lot of administrative work and paperwork for everything from filing corporate documents and talking with the accountant to updating payment information for business services we utilize.

I originally envisioned that in this role, I’d continue to be involved with the daily grind and the details of the processes that affect the main service our business provides — namely, researching remote jobs and companies. However, as we have grown, I’ve found that my time is mainly taken up by high-level communications and coordination between all the moving parts of the business.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I don’t know that my advice is exclusive to women, but I would encourage business leaders to consider learning about various communication styles in order to better understand and lead others, especially if you’re working remotely and using online mediums like video chat and text-based messages. Communicating effectively can be difficult to begin with — add in personality differences in communication, and communicating via video and text, with today’s always connected world, and a lot can be misunderstood.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Managing a large team requires managing your own time very well. You can easily be pulled in many different directions with a lot of people coming to you for feedback on a daily — even hourly — basis. To help with this, empower your top team members to make decisions without your direct input, then go over those decisions later in scheduled meetings. You can also consider having “office hours” — a time when team members can “drop in” to talk, or, in my case, chat on Slack or a video call to discuss questions and concerns.

Who inspired/inspires you and why?

Inspiration for me, both personal and professional, has come from thought leaders in mindfulness and simplicity, like Leo Babauta, Joshua Becker, and Courtney Carver. Each of them own, or have owned, a business, yet they are experts at keeping things simplified and mindful in their day-to-day lives and their business operations. I love Courtney Carver’s mantra: Less is more!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have to attribute a large amount of success to my business partner and brother, Adam Stevenson, who handles all the programming and maintenance for Virtual Vocations. Without his initial excitement for web development, coupled with my desire to work from home 12 years ago so I could take care of my children, Virtual Vocations would never have become what it is today! Adam could have chosen many different avenues with which to take his developing skills, but he chose to partner with me and help bring about my personal goals for my family, and I’m so grateful for that.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I would like to think that my success can be found in the people who have used our service and found remote jobs that have improved their work-life balance and their overall quality of life. I am especially excited every day at the fact that through my own desire to start this company, we’ve made it possible for 50+ people to work remotely, as well. Telecommuting has always been extremely important to me and my family and our goals; I’m just happy to be able to help others do the same.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Haha, only five?

1. Starting a business is difficult and time consuming. You will be stressed and tired, many times, but excited and filled with adrenaline, too. When my brother and I first started Virtual Vocations, we regularly stayed up until 2 a.m. working on all areas of the business, from marketing to development to just talking about how to keep growing. The excitement we felt at that time about launching the business was a lot of fun — and a lot of work. Eventually, we had to learn to slow down and pace ourselves as we realized that with a growing business, there is always work to be done, always something to worry about, and never enough time to do it all — especially with young families. It has been a journey to learn to balance the excitement and stress, especially as it has evolved to the daily demands of running a business with a larger team.

2. Before bringing on team members, have clearly written goals and definitions of your company culture and structure. As we grew and brought on more people, our goal was simple: bring people the largest database of telecommute job listings that were screened and legitimate. But we did not stop to think about what the “culture” of our company or management structure would be as it grew. Over the years, we have had to backtrack here and there, adjusting positions, departments, and expectations, because our thought processes in these areas were not outlined to begin with for our team members to understand and refer to. This especially impacted our various team members understanding of work expectations, hours, and availability; we eventually had to pin down some set guidelines in each area for uniformity.

3. Adopt an early financial plan, laying out your goals for profit margins and expenses in your core areas of operation, so you can see how your business evolves and where spending is increasing. It’s important to grow at a sustainable pace in business. It can be exciting once you begin making money to open the flood gates and spend all of it on new development, marketing, team member benefits, and more — and you should definitely put money back into growing your business. But be careful to lay out the budget you’d like to spend in your core areas, and what your profit margin goal is as well; that way, over the years as costs increase and fluctuate, you can easily detect areas that may be increasing too quickly or areas that have not had any money put back into them to help them grow. Growing at a set sustainable pace gives greater financial security and control over business operations.

4. Structure your days and weeks. Guard your time and don’t allow other people’s schedules to dictate yours. When I first started my business, it was just me and my brother, so we were either available or we weren’t. Now that we have 50+ people on the team, it is absolutely necessary that I structure my daily time and have specific times that I am available for managers; otherwise, it can end up being a never-ending barrage of questions and comments all day that keep me from focusing on any one task. This has been a hard lesson for me, as I like to always be available to my team, but in doing so, I’ve found I can also become overwhelmed with tasks that don’t get done — or only get done with half of my attention, which is not done well.

5. Realize that having a business will infringe on your personal life, and it will be hard to separate the two at times. Owning a business is going to be a family affair. Make sure your partner is supportive before you begin and understands that there will be many times you may have to dedicate some personal time to work; they may have to increase their contributions to the household and pick up the slack for you. If your kids are young, they can “grow into” what it means when they know their parent has to “work on the business;” if they are older, enlist their help for ideas, or ask them what they think about something in regard to the business to help them feel like you aren’t sacrificing so much of the time you would have had with them and that they are part of it. Inevitably, there have been times when my family has felt the business has taken priority over them, and at times, that’s really been true. I strive to keep a tight schedule, so they know that when I am around, I am there for them and they have my full attention.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would encourage a six-hour workday, broken up into shorter “sprints,” with a focus on measuring productivity levels and output, rather than time spent in the office or online. I find that even during my most focused days, I can get about six hours of excellent work in before my mind starts wandering off and productivity slows way down.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Somewhere between right and wrong, there is a field, I will meet you there.” — Rumi

This quote has been one of my favorites for years now. It reminds me that whether I am facing something like business development decisions or a conversation in my personal life, there should always be room to realize my way of thinking may not be completely correct, and there is always room for compromise on ideas, whether it is on how an area of the business should be run, or what my daily schedule should be to accommodate my family’s needs.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I mentioned them before, but I’m a huge fan of Joshua Becker, Leo Babauta, and Courtney Carver!

— — — — — —

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke

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