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Andrew Suzuka of Otamot: Five Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Remote Team

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better.  What is your “backstory”?  I’m the founder of Otamot Foods, which creates nutritious versions of everyday foods. Inspired by my daughter’s picky eating habits, I originally began whipping up my […]

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  • Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better.  What is your “backstory”? 

I’m the founder of Otamot Foods, which creates nutritious versions of everyday foods. Inspired by my daughter’s picky eating habits, I originally began whipping up my first product, a super tomato sauce that looked and tasted like a traditional pizza or pasta sauce, and made sure it packed a seriously nutritious punch by incorporating ten vegetables, cooked precisely to preserve their essential vitamins and nutrients. Our first product line, veggie-loaded organic tomato sauces, launched in 2019 and is now carried nationally by Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme Market, and many others.

  • Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Early on, I was asked to sell Otamot on QVC, which is a TV shopping channel I used to joke with my best friend about because his mom loved it. Our third show performed so badly (they use SPM, sales per minute, as the sole measure of success) that they were not going to have me on again. However, I was relentless and convinced them to give me another shot. Thankfully, our fourth show beat expectations, so I was invited on a fifth time where we sold 20,000 jars of Otamot in 8-minutes! It was a total mind-trip.

  • 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?

During our first production run, I drove up to our factory in Vermont with plans to load my Subaru with about 1,000 jars of Otamot to take home. For some reason, I thought I could fit 150+ cases of sauce in my backseat. I encountered two problems. One: I still had two car seats in the backseat that I forgot to remove, and two: 1,000 jars of sauce not only wouldn’t fit, but it would have weighed more than the weight of the car. I learned pretty quickly that freight companies are better at transporting product than me.

  • What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

It starts with hiring for passion. If someone is passionate about your product, your mission, and building something great together, they will love what they do. If someone loves what they do, they will thrive, and their risk of burnout will be low. Just remind them to take a vacation once in a while if you see them being overly dedicated.

  • Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing s. remote teams?

I have about 20 years of experience managing remote teams.

  • Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

Relationships; Being a great manager means having great working relationships with your team, which is challenging when you can’t simply grab a lunch or a beer with them. I once hired someone who I interviewed over a call, and never went on video. It was nearly impossible to try and build a relationship with just a voice, so that didn’t last too long.

Trust; You cannot manage a remote team when you have trust issues. My former CEO asked to install software that would allow him to see what people were working on 24/7. First, I didn’t care what they did in their personal time. Second, people need their personal space, and not just outside of work hours. We quickly shot down that idea before triggering a mass exodus.

Intuition; Sometimes you get a bad apple, it’s life. My mantra is “trust but verify” and I had a hunch that one of my employees was not working as much as they claimed. During one day that seemed to take them longer than it should have to complete a task, I checked their Facebook page and found him posting pictures from the beach with his girlfriend. That was his last day.

Culture; This is one of the hardest things to build remotely. I once tried to have my team play an online version of Scrabble as a team-building exercise. The issue was not everyone spoke fluent English, and also people just thought it was pretty lame. 

Kids and Pets; Remote workers have their own challenges, like caring for their kids and pets while working from home. There was a group Zoom we were on, and the person’s dog in the background kept walking in circles, sniffing and doing more circles. Finally, the dog let his presence be known by leaving a gift for his owner. We all just broke out laughing…as it might go down in history as one of the most memorable Zoom moments ever.

  • Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? 

Relationships; Ensure the people you hire are OK using video, as voice-only relationships will never foster great relationships.

Trust; Get comfortable knowing while some people will take advantage of you, the trusted ones will prevail.

Intuition; Trust your gut. If you really feel that someone is simply collecting a check, find ways to validate your concern.

Culture; Don’t play online games with your team to build culture. Instead, dedicate time weekly for a group chat, and ask engaging questions to learn something new about each person. 

Kids and Pets; Ask your team if there are any times that are tougher for them to meet during the day, and avoid scheduling meetings during those times. And take your dogs for walks more often. 

  • Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I’ve been told that I don’t always come across well over email. I’ve learned that constructive feedback is best delivered live, but when written communication is required, be direct while being empathetic. Most are under more stress at work and home, so coming from an understanding point-of-view will increase your chance of that person pivoting their behavior for the better.

  • Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic? Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely? 

When starting remotely, it’s easy to Zoom everything while getting less actual work done. Avoid required daily Zoom meetings, and give your team breathing room, so that they can learn and adapt to the new ways of working, and figure out what works best for them. 

  • What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together? 

Everyone needs to get from A to B. Your job isn’t to tell them what exact path to take, only to be there in case they get lost along the way.

  • 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. 🙂

Mom Mondays. Too often we forget about the person who delivered us here, the reason we have a birthday to celebrate. Once a year, we celebrate Mother’s Day, but 365 days a year, she took care of us. Mom Mondays would be a great movement to inspire people to take 5-minutes out of the 1,440 minutes in a day to simply call and say hi to your mom (or another loved one). It will be the brightest 5-minutes out of the 10,080 minutes in a week.

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

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Life is full of surprises – embrace those moments of uncertainty. When I launched my first startup, I had no real plan, no real understanding of if or how things would work. However, I always believed in myself and my ability to see my way through any situation.

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