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The How-Tos of Virtual Teams (a la Giba Group)

I was honored to be a panelist with three very talented and professional creative business owners in Boston on May 15  at the 2014 How Design Live Creative Freelancer Conference. The panel addressed the joys and challenges of virtual teams to an audience of my peers; creative business owners like me and a smattering of really talented soloprenuers. I’ve included my presentation here, just in case someone listening to the presentation didn’t take notes. Or you overslept and missed it.

You can also download the session handout here.

The Panel

Julie Lang, Principal, Julie Lang D+AD
Elke Giba, Owner and Creative Director, Giba Group (That’s me.)
Damien Golden, Founder and Creative Director , iKANDE Advertising
Stephanie Helline, Owner and Creative Director , Strategic Design Studio

My Bit

I’m Elke Giba, creative director and owner of Giba Group Marketing & Design, a virtual creative agency that develops communication plans and online environments for clients primarily in design+build industries and health care markets. We help clients conquer their fear of technology and use it effectively as a communication channel. Giba Group is also a certified woman-owned enterprise, so talk to me if you’re thinking about getting certified.

I launched my firm in 2011 with the idea that it would be a virtual team from the very beginning and named it that way: I’m the Giba and here’s my group. Because I came into this part of my career directly from the corporate world, I brought a collaborative team experience into my work already. Collaboration is where I work best, as opposed to working solo. I know I’m better when I work with others. The solutions are better and the service is stellar.

IMG_0268A little about my office set up — I have an office in an executive suite building and I keep regular work hours there. Aside from my Chief Furry Officer, Bailey, who comes to the office from time to time all of my team members are virtual. Some are local, others work in different time zones. I usually act as the project manager or creative director, and then delegate to the group to get projects completed. The Group includes three writers, four graphic designers, a couple of web developers, a hand full of photographers (subject matter experts) and a mentor who has run her own virtual PR firm for nearly 20 years. I’m looking for a responsive HTML email designer and I’m entertaining the idea of having an intern this summer to help with administrative tasks.

I define virtual teams simply as collaboration of creative independent professionals. I would guess that none of us in this room like having a BOSS, which is why we’re independent in the first place. But collectively, we don’t function well as a group when we’re like an amoeba floating around without direction. Someone needs to be comfortable taking the lead role and organizing the team. Often times that’s me.

I started dreaming about having my own business and what it would look like almost two years before I made the leap. I spent some time asking questions of others on how to run it. I liked the idea of a big business where my earning potential was greater, but I really don’t want to manage employees again.

My strengths are conceptualization, project management and details. I’m willing to interact with the clients more often than many of my colleagues, and they are often grateful to have someone else manage that. For instance I’ve been working with a local creative on a new proposal and I set up an appointment for us to go the client office for the initial meeting. If I heard it twice, I heard it four or five times that she NEVER goes to client offices. But clients want to see who you are and who they will be working with. I think making that effort and being physical to them helped us win the business.

The Group is half of who I am, so I talk about it a lot. My team members are featured on the website, and I talk about them to clients all the time. I sell the virtual team concept to prospective clients for a few reasons:

  1. It can be more cost effective for the client than hiring a full time creative, or even engaging a fully staffed agency. Many of my clients are looking for a long term engagement to assist with their messaging and communications instead of singular projects. They may be deciding to add onto their internal staff, or outsource that task. I don’t carry a lot of overhead with employees that aren’t relevant to the project, which can inflate client costs. For instance, I don’t have to keep a web designer fed even when the Group is working on a print project. Teams change according to the project and that gives me flexibility and ultimately benefits my clients.
  2. I find that talking about my business as a virtual agency to potential clients can help overcome any their preconceived ideas that I’m just one woman in an office with her dog working in her blue jeans. Most clients are jealous of that office set up, but I also find that some corporate clients don’t really relate to that image at all. They don’t understand it and it’s unsettling to them. My business acts like theirs, and that’s all they really care about.
  3. Working with these incredibly talented creatives makes a completed project even better than what I could complete on my own. Just finding these resources can be an obstacle for clients – it can be overwhelming to find “the right” person to complete a creative project, but I come resource ready and can just plug in the right person for the job. Clients are relieved and grateful that the Group makes it that easy.

A few of my team members (primarily the writers) want and need to have direct contact with the clients and I’m perfectly willing to share that stage. It can really make the creative process productive. Of course, you need to know who your partners are and make sure that line of communication supports the client relationship instead of opening you, your company, and your reputation, to vulnerabilities.

That’s where vetting potential partners is an important part of creating successful virtual team. I treat that process like a job interview. And it needs to be a good fit for the team, and the client. If you win the business, then the client is expecting you to participate. Your reputation is at stake and your partner is an ambassador for your reputation. Damien shared some great questions to ask of your potential trusted partners and those are great ways to make sure it’s a fit. It really comes down to this: I need to know what you expect from this relationship, and you need to know what I expect. That starts and ends with clear and consistent communication about expectations, milestones and our mutual end goal – to earn money.

The downside to virtual teams is when your partners is unable to complete the tasks, for what ever reason. When that happens, you have to be able to step back and ask yourself, “What’s the best thing for my clients and my business?” Look, life gets in the way sometimes. It’s good to be flexible and gracious (you’ll need that grace back one day, trust me.) But our business is about production, and if your team doesn’t produce you have to be ready to have the tough conversations. It’s important to give my client the best work we could produce.

My email signature includes the words, “At Your Service”. I believe that service sets my firm apart from ones that offer similar services at the same price. If I can find others to collaborate with who share that same value of service, I’m always going to have happy clients who smile when they write the checks.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dear Elka,
    I am so glad to read your bit on the virtual teams. It was a session I missed but marked to listen on the MP3 recordings. I work in a similar situation but struggle with the Me vs We and explaining the virtual office to my clients. Thank you for your insight.

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