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Keys to Managing a Virtual Publishing Company

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Little Pickle Press is an award-winning publisher of children’s media entering its fifth year. Based in San Francisco, we have five employees, 40 independent contractors, and four strategic partners located throughout the world. Unlike Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO who decided to make all its telecommuters work in the office, we operate as a virtual company.

When people learn that, they most often respond by saying something like, “Wow, that must be really challenging.” My reaction is that nothing worthwhile is ever easy and that there are many advantages to operating a growth-stage company virtually. They include:

  • low overhead
  • being able to engage the best talent irrespective of geography
  • being able to offer flexible schedules for parents and other people with
  • competing commitments
  • stakeholder satisfaction

As a triple bottom line business (we honor people, planet, and profit), we believe that there is much more to value creation than merely profit. Our virtual structure positions us well to serve not only our economic goals, but also our ecological and social goals in a manner that creates shared value with all of our stakeholders, including our employees, contractors, partners, and investors.

So, how do you manage the complexities of a virtual organization? Here is how Little Pickle Press does it. I think you will find that some of these principles apply equally well to businesses housed in physical buildings.

Have a weekly all-hands meeting/call. We run our company by “getting on the same ‘screen’” on Tuesdays. Our local team members come to my home, and our geographically dispersed team members participate by phone.

In advance of the meeting, we circulate our individual reports of activities for the prior and upcoming weeks. Everyone participating in the meeting/call is asked to review everyone’s reports ahead of time so that the dialog is as productive and efficient as possible.

The meeting/call always gives rise to needs to “take matters offline,” so team members schedule follow-up calls and meetings to brainstorm or manage projects. We invite our partners and independent contractors to attend relevant meetings/calls, and sometimes we invite them just so they can gain a better sense of our brand and what matters most to us. Attending makes them feel like valued members of our team and empowers them to serve our needs better.

Foster a corporate culture where mistakes are OK. At David Mathison’s recent inaugural Chief Digital Officer Summit, Jason Seiken, founder of PBS Digital Studios, said, “If you don’t fail enough, you are not taking enough risks.” I tell my team this all the time.

The latest neuroscience teaches us that we learn best from our mistakes. I believe that fostering a corporate culture that encourages creative thinking and problem solving helps make us innovative and dynamic, just as our open-ended corporate structure does. When team members know that mistakes are part of learning and growing professionally, then magical things start to happen.

Use the phone or FaceTime or Skype more and email less. Email is great . . . until it’s not. There are so many opportunities to mis-communicate through email. It is woefully inadequate for communicating tone, context, motivation, and the like. Accordingly, I encourage our team members to pick up the phone or use FaceTime or Skype. They let us convey meaning to one another much more effectively and accurately.

Create opportunities to see team members face to face. Since we don’t have to fund a physical office, our travel budget is relatively robust. I plan trips to relevant conferences in places where distant team members live and attend those functions with them. For local team members, I encourage face-to-face lunches or meetings over walks.

There is nothing quite like navigating a challenge with a team member while taking a walk together. Try it. I bet you’ll find it to be a powerful, and healthy, tool for business productivity.

Vet issues early and often. With no doors to close for private conversations, we need to address obstacles with one another virtually. I encourage my team members to do this sooner rather than later so that problems don’t escalate.

It is easy, and potentially off-putting, to fire off an email ranting about your frustrations. It is far more constructive to pick up the phone and express your concerns, listen to the response, and work together toward a resolution.

Take the time to get to know your team. We do not have a “water cooler,” so we need other means to get to know one another. I encourage our team members to invest time in getting to know one another better, as it will inevitably be time well spent.

Getting to know colleagues gives you a deeper appreciation of their strengths and where they could use help. You learn the kinds of projects they would enjoy and those they wouldn’t. You learn what matters most to them, and that helps you serve their higher purpose and make their work meaningful.

Encourage learning and find opportunities to train team members. The fact that we don’t see one another in person every day is not an obstacle to training our team members or encouraging them to learn.

We participate in online Webinars offered by IBPA, HubSpot, Pipeline Deals, and others.

We send team members to relevant industry conferences and events, such as the IBPA Publishing University, SCBWI conferences, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the Boston Book Festival, the LA Times Festival of Books, the Orange County Children’s Book Festival, Book Expo America, Digital Book World conferences, Tools of Change conferences, and the Alt Design Summit, to name a few.

We encourage team members to seek relevant opportunities to learn in their respective domains and geographical areas. For example, our principal designer just attended a local letterpress workshop in anticipation of one of our upcoming projects.

By learning, we grow—as individuals and as an organization.

Use cloud computing solutions. We manage all our business functions in the cloud. For everything from accounting to customer relationship and pipeline management to project management, we use collaborative computing solutions that are easily accessible in a heterogeneous computing environment.

With 24 × 7 access to the systems and data we need to do our jobs, our business transcends geographies and time zones.

Think big. A virtual organization can have substantial size and impact. We have built our company so it will scale, with systems and processes in place for becoming a substantial organization in terms of revenue and positive impact on our constituents and the world.

I like to tell my team, “Dream it. Live it.” I encourage them to swing for the fence; and I smile when they hit the ball out of the park.

Follow the Golden Rule. Above all else, it’s important to treat others the way we like to be treated, whether we’re interacting virtually or otherwise. If you are polite, kind, compassionate, patient, receptive, and grateful to your team members and customers, you are most likely to receive the same positive and constructive energy, as well as favorable results, in return.

By following the Golden Rule, we have created an accountable and fair work environment where our team members not only feel seen and respected but also can thrive, and a corporate culture that makes our customers feel appreciated—even when colleagues and customers are far away.

Rana DiOrioRana DiOrio is Founder and Chief Executive Pickle of Little Pickle Press, which she reports is dedicated to helping parents and educators cultivate conscious, responsible little people by stimulating explorations of the meaningful topics of their generation through a variety of media, technologies, and techniques. To learn more: Twitter @ranadiorio and Little Pickle Press @LPP_Media.

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