Sprints. Even online it is possible to have a culture of sprints where everybody reports what they are working on during any given day in the morning and gives an update on progress in the afternoon. This allows everybody else in the company to know where things stand, and it also reduces any interruptions caused in asking ‘where are you on X project?’
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray Blakney.
Ray Blakney is the CEO and founder of Podcast Hawk, a SaaS product that helps people get booked on podcasts. Ray is also the CEO and co-founder of Live Lingua, a renowned online language learning platform. An award-winning Filipino-American entrepreneur, speaker, and podcaster, Ray builds and helps others build 6- and 7-figure businesses on a bootstrap budget using SEO.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
“While it seems normal to me, I have been told that my backstory is anything but. I was born in the Philippines to a Filipina mother and an American father (but my American father grew up in Rhodesia). At the age of one, we moved to Turkey, where I spent most of the next 15 years of my life. At 15, I got sent to a boarding school in the US (since the US school in Turkey did not have the last two years of high school). I completed high school and went to university in the US, where I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Engineering. After college, I spent about five years working in Silicon Valley and for Fortune 500 companies as a software engineer. When I turned 26, I had a quarter-life crisis where I saw myself sitting in a cubicle and writing code for the next 40 years. It was not the life I wanted to live. Within a few days of this epiphany, I had applied to join the US Peace Corps as a volunteer. Within three months, I had quit my almost-6-figure job, sold my condo and all my worldly possessions, and was on a plane to Mexico where I would help indigenous communities in the south of the country.
While in Mexico, I met my wife and after I completed my two years in the Peace Corps, we decided to try our hand at a business together. Our first business was a chain of language schools in Mexico, which we sold in 2012. As part of our language schools, we had online classes — which we started offering in 2009 to help our business survive during the Mexican Swine flu crisis — and we kept that portion of the business. The online portion grew into what is today Live Lingua.
Now, the backstory of Podcast Hawk is simple: the podcast industry and listenership have been growing by leaps and bounds each year. Appearing as a guest on podcasts is taking the place of what appearing on radio shows used to be.
Unfortunately, I found through personal experience that there was no easy way to find podcasts to pitch and appear as a guest on. Searching on Google does not work and finding shows on iTunes to pitch was even more difficult. That was how the idea for Podcast Hawk was born. We have created the world’s first high-level search engine that allows you to do a custom search on 1.25 million podcasts (with new shows added weekly).
Do you want to find podcasts about ‘mindset’ with at least 10 episodes that have an average of 4-star reviews or higher, and that have released a new episode in the last 30 days? Finding that on Google would take days or weeks. With Podcast Hawk, we can find them for you in seconds.
Then in the current beta version, we give you their emails, websites, and social media information so you can send them a custom pitch right away. All in a few clicks. In the final version, we will even send the pitch emails to you. The vision of this SaaS product is to help great guests find podcasts that can share their message, but also help podcasters find fantastic guests.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
“Getting to the level I am now at. When I started out as an entrepreneur — with my wife — our goal was not to build the next Facebook or Google. It was just to be able to pay our rent and put food on the table. It has been a hard journey, and we were hardly an overnight success; it took me 7 years to get to 7-figures of gross sales, but even that was faster and more than I had ever dreamed of. The interesting part is that I had no idea I had been ‘successful’ until about 8 years into my journey when I went to my first business conference. I arrived assuming I would have the smallest business in the room and that everybody there would be much more knowledgeable than me. While the latter part could have been true, the former was definitely not. Over the course of the conference, I found out I literally had built the biggest business out of the 100 people there. That started a journey of making a mind-shift that I am still working on today.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“My favorite quote is:
‘If they were to write a book about your life, would anybody want to read it?’ — Unknown
This was the quote that caused me to quit my almost-6-figure salary job as a software engineer and set off on that path that made me a location-independent entrepreneur. I pictured myself sitting in a cubicle writing code for the next 30 years and realized I did not want my life’s book to be about that.”
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?
“That one is easy: my wife. She has been not only my life-partner but also my business partner for the last 12 years and counting. Without her, there would have been multiple times I would have wanted to give up and just get a job that paid me every month.
One incident that really stands out to me was when we were starting out. This is what led to the revelation of taking a rest vacation every six months. My idea of how to run a business was, sadly, from movies and what I heard on TV. I thought that to start a successful business, it was all about hustling for years until you finally get your big break, make lots of money, and can enjoy the rest of your life.
So, for the first three years, I never took a day off and I even worked most weekends. By the end of that time, I was burned out and did not want to work. My wife saw this, and without even telling me, she booked one week in an all-inclusive resort. I told her I did not want to go, but she had already paid.
The first night we got there, I slept for 14 hours. I did not even realize how stressed and tired I was. By the end of the week, I felt like a new person. Without this intervention, I don’t think I would have reached where I am today.”
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
“For us, the pandemic did not change the way we worked very much. We are an online company and, as such, have had our entire team working remotely from day one. What is missed is the annual get-together with key staff at retreats. These retreats not only helped the team members bond on a deeper level than they can do online, but also they allowed for the more spontaneous generation of ideas that don’t really happen in the online space. Some of the best initiatives in our company are created when our team is physically together.”
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
“For us, it is simple: time zones. We have team members in the US, Europe, and Asia, and sometimes communicating with other team members can take longer than is ideal since they may be asleep when you need to contact them. This is not something that cannot be overcome with planning, but it is a challenge nonetheless.”
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
“Here is what you need to know:
1) Make clear rules on how to contact each team member. Nothing is more disruptive to work than getting bothered by a Slack or Discord chat in the middle of deep work. Each team member should have clear rules as to when that kind of interruption is warranted and when just sending an email so the person can answer when they are done is the best option.
2) Sprints. Even online it is possible to have a culture of sprints where everybody reports what they are working on during any given day in the morning and gives an update on progress in the afternoon. This allows everybody else in the company to know where things stand, and it also reduces any interruptions caused in asking ‘where are you on X project?’
3) Use project management software. This is a higher-level method than the daily sprints, but it allows everybody in the team or company to know how everything is going. While it is not directly communicating with each other, it helps the team run effectively.
4) Weekly group calls via Zoom. Even if all the other communication lines are working perfectly, conduct in-person calls with the team to go over important details face to face (or at least screen to screen).
5) Be patient when somebody does not answer you right away. When working in the same office, we are used to being able to walk over and get answers to our questions right away. This can lead to frustration when working virtually and you send somebody a message on Slack and they don’t answer right away. The key is to be patient — they may be helping their child with homework or maybe they are simply taking a break.“
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
“As I mentioned previously, we have been a virtual company and working from home for over 12 years. The big change was not in our staff being home; it was in their children being home with them. It is not unusual now for a child to interrupt a call — mine included — or for us to have kids in the back doing homework on the only other computer in the house while we chat. The ‘benefit’ of the pandemic in this sense is that we are all going through the same thing, so most of the time everybody is very patient with a family interruption as we are all in the same boat.”
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
“Effective internal communication is vital for remote teams because it helps them connect and work better together. One key way to help facilitate internal communication is by providing channels for staff to have non-work related conversations. This may be counter-intuitive, but by creating these channels (special forums, Slack channels, virtual pizza nights, etc.), we have found that people feel more comfortable around each other. That means they are not just co-workers but also friends who support each other. As a result, the work communication becomes much smoother across the company.”
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
“This would be a system that would automatically detect when the person is in deep work and blocks out all external communication methods until they are done. This would cut down on distractions, which would in turn increase productivity and reduce frustration for the staff.”
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
“The short answer is no. That is not to say we do not have a need for Unified Communication; it is just that we needed it before the pandemic as well. While there are plenty of great tools out there to facilitate virtual communication, the ability to integrate them — while it does exist — is not always great. Tying our project management software (Notion) into Slack, which then communicates with our custom CRM works, but it is not always elegant and user friendly. “
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
“VR is the one that I am the most excited about. I have had the opportunity to play with VR in the travel and entertainment space and the immersion aspect was much more than I expected. This can potentially help eliminate any feeling of distance between team members if it can be made less bulky and more cost-effective.”
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
“I consider myself a tech optimist, so I am not overly concerned with technological changes. The only thing that may cause concern is that many of these advances seem to be leading us to become even more sedentary beings and this, in turn, may have negative health effects on society if it keeps moving in that direction.”
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
“Not really. As an online business, we had almost all of these things in place already. The only difference on our end is that we have seen a big growth in customers in our business due to the effects of the pandemic, which has caused us to double down on many of the tools we used.”
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
“My go-to ‘tool’ for giving criticism is to start by asking them questions about what I am going to give the criticism on. This builds the context and helps me get a better understanding, from their perspective, of what is going on. I can then start giving the criticism with more nuance, as I am able to tailor it to how they perceive things.”
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
“Create virtual events that are not work-related for you and your team to do together. This can be anything from having pizza lunch together (virtually where the company sends everybody a pizza in their home) or even game time for team members to play board or computer games together.”
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. 🙂
“Free co-working spaces for aspiring entrepreneurs in developing and 3rd world countries. There are many aspiring entrepreneurs around the world that have the potential to build a successful online business. I am not necessarily talking about the next Facebook or Amazon, as that is not a reasonable bar for most people. Successful in many parts of the world would be a business that brings in 500 dollars — 1000 dollars US of profit each month.
This may not sound like a lot to somebody in a developed country, but in many parts of the world, including the Philippines where I was born, that would take you from poverty to middle-upper class. These free co-working spaces would operate a social enterprise, not a charity. They would offer workspaces, Internet access, computers, and even seminars and training to aspiring entrepreneurs, all free of charge.
The way money would be brought in, so the co-working spaces can continue operating, would be that they would gain a share in each company started by people who work in the co-working space. If done right, this global network of free co-working spaces could own shares in hundreds if not thousands of micro online businesses, which then would allow them to continue to operate for free to help each subsequent generation start an online business and take themselves out of poverty.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.