There’s no perfect way to run a remote company, and it certainly becomes more difficult when working offsite may have never been in your business plan. The current global pandemic has disrupted the way business is done and placed a spotlight on the gaps in business operations and digital infrastructure. Therefore, it’s now important for businesses to start thinking more strategically about advancing their technological and digital capabilities as a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’.
Back in 2008, the world was experiencing the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, which eventually left a massive crater in the material, emotional and financial global landscape. In the midst of this, Brevard Nelson and Chike Farrell hatched a plan to disrupt the communications field and challenge the “boxed in mindset” of their clients with their own “left brain/right brain” methodology in the best way possible.
This was also a period of economic uncertainty much like the current COVID-19 pandemic, where one would think it would be the worst time to start a business, but it may have been one of the best times.
At the time, Chike was working for Microsoft and Brevard was studying for his Masters in the United Kingdom. They both shared a passion for technology and marketing and were going to build a business that would aggregate content for Caribbean people and be built by Caribbean people.
The vision was to be the “Yahoo” for regional users and the diaspora across the globe.
In a traditional office setting, it’s easy to communicate with people, including non-verbally. You walk into a room and pick up on everyone’s energy purely based on body language. But you don’t have this luxury with a remote team as you have to rely on other cues in lieu of non-verbal communication. That’s why you need to be purposeful, explicit, and proactive with every call, e-mail and message.
When Caribbean Ideas (CI) was born, applications like MSN Messenger and Skype were popular platforms for communicating online. “At that time, we were communicating with developers all over the world, in Asia, Europe and Latin America.” Brevard recalled. “The internet, mobile and computer processing speeds were not what we are accustomed to nowadays, but this technology opened a portal for us with many possibilities, he reminisced.
The mobile phone penetration rate was just beginning to climb, and with the very competitive telecommunications landscape offering attractive packages for consumers, both founders saw the importance of understanding and leveraging technology to communicate effectively. Brevard recalled, “We saw what happened to consumer consumption and demand in global markets because of changes in these variables, so we planned ahead.”
Prior to 2012, there was no brick and mortar office space, so the production team worked remotely. Without a permanent physical space, the team would meet using various online platforms and rent a co-working space if a physical meeting with a team or client was necessary.
Building a business and leading a team working remotely requires a different mindset, and what Chike and Brevard learned for sure was to always over-communicate. They both made certain the team stayed in touch with each other, way beyond what was necessary sometimes, just to get the job done.
Culture is just like a product; you have to iterate and improve. As the world changes, you change, your customers change, and you need to evaluate whether the team you’ve built is happy and set up for success.
You want a buzz of collaboration, you want ideas and banter flowing, a lively exchange of questions and feedback. Where creative teams in traditional spaces could meet and exchange ideas over coffee, meetings were held online using tools like GoTo Meeting and Skype while Basecamp allowed the team to work better together, managing the production of jobs.
Customers are usually the ones behind the decisions to adopt or reject new technologies or new products. It was, therefore, no small feat when CI chose to introduce a slice of the digital and social media marketing pie to potential clients who were accustomed to using traditional marketing methods. Understandably, there was hesitation. Potential clients didn’t understand the digital landscape and the lack of usable data or a proven history also made broaching new territory difficult.
Needless to say, the lack of initial ‘buy-in’ was not a deterrent, echoed in Brevard’s summation of the planned strategy growing forward, “We needed to help people ascend the learning curve. We needed to help grow the pie versus sitting in a corner and fighting for a slice!”
And grow the pie they did!
Disruptive start-ups enter markets not by stealing customers from incumbents, but by focusing on a select few customer activities. CI identified learning and networking as the activity that would benefit both their employees and clients. It was a healthy move to get staff up and out of their homes, interacting with others and well, networking.
Successful growth is dictated by benefits accrued to the customer, and CI offered customer-side strategies, offering clients an opportunity to build community, exchange ideas and source talent.
Enter what was then called the Caribbean Networking Professionals Nights.
These nights allowed CI to get direct feedback from the market they wanted to own and also positioned them as thought leaders in the digital space. This led to the expansion from those networking nights to hosting the first ever digital conference in the region, the Caribbean Digital Expo back in 2011.
How do we help connect leaders of Caribbean organisations with cutting edge thinking on how digital technology (web and mobile specifically) can be used to drive positive business and marketing results?
Brevard reflects, “We simply decided to be bold. We started CI as a two-man remote company, and we were a team of six by the start of our conference series.”
While regular team meetings were done online, event planning meetings were held at Chike’s home (fondly renamed ‘Event Central’) where the team gathered to stuff event folders and sync Excel sheets. They used their existing networks and the same channels they advised clients to use like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to scout for speakers and pitch spots for the event. Speakers were offered an opportunity to speak in exchange for a vacation in Trinidad and Tobago; and it worked!
The Caribbean Digital Expo series was a resounding success, connecting attendees with speakers from Facebook, YouTube, MTV, The Washington Post, TechCrunch, Travelocity, and many, many other business leaders who eventually became an integral part of CI’s virtual Rolodex.
The MobiWorld Caribbean conference, which was also a success, was hosted in 2012 and focused on helping marketing professionals and executives appreciate the power of mobile and help train local developers in the coding workshops.
Always ahead of the curve, CI saw on a global scale, there was rapid mobile tech adoption yet locally the markets were slowly inching along. Looking out to the future, they knew it was only a matter of time before the local markets caught up.
To speed things along, CI saw MobiWorld Caribbean as being the place where customers could learn on the fly how to leverage mobile technologies to market their brands but also a place where developers could build their skills to support the growing market for mobile app development.
The events were coordinated in a newly found office space, becoming the perfect hub for set up and logistics. Though they changed the physical space, according to Brevard, “What did not change was the method for sourcing speakers and marketing the event.”
Event websites were created, landing pages were A/B tested, ads were run on social media and Google and digital ads were bought on both local and regional websites.
Prior to launch, speakers were briefed using GoTo Meeting and Skype and in addition to Basecamp, CI added Office 365 and SharePoint allowing the team to easily retrieve, search, archive, track, and manage all event related documents.
The expositions collectively brought together an amazing talent of digital intelligentsia including Facebook’s head of Agency Marketing, YouTube’s, Head of Video Strategy, Americas, TechCrunch’ East Coast Editor, Managing Director, RIM/BlackBerry, Caribbean & North Latin America, Director of Innovation & Analytics from Travelocity, one of New York’s top 25 top tech founders, the CIO of New York City, and many others also sharing the stage with lots of local and regional thought leaders.
Customer-Focused Growth is Key
Potential clients both regionally and internationally were now sitting up and paying attention to CI.
One such client was the Ministry of Planning Trinidad and Tobago, who hired CI to plan, execute and host a conference and a road show for students to understand that their career choices weren’t limited to being doctors and lawyers. Rather, there were myriad career opportunities on the digital landscape including video game design, social media marketing, graphic design, web application development and web analytics specialisation.
Right after this, both Brevard and Chike made a wise move to step back and review the landscape, consider possibilities and identify possible gaps to close within the digital marketing space. What surfaced during this short period of observation was the need to educate the marketing and communication practitioners in the industry.
There were many attempts to do this in the past by competitors, but they never pulled it off, and CI was able to step in with the Marketing and Innovation Expo (MIX) in 2014 to meet that need. Still only seven years old, CI pulled this off using one external event manager and operating out of an office on McDonald Street.
The marketing tactics CI used for this event, drove the team to incorporate new digital elements like an interactive, pop-up mailer and press ads seeded with Augmented Reality technology.
The MIX series of presentations was inspired by Game of Thrones, where a parallel was drawn between the battle for Kings Landing and the fight among brands for customer loyalty, and centred on the question, “Do you have what it takes to conquer the customer kingdom?” The answers were revealed through topics on digital habits and practices, loyalty programmes, the power of gamification, eCommerce and real-time marketing.
This was a crucial time for CI. Coming out of the conference scene, potential clients wanted to have a conversation, even though CI approached them three years prior for business. Up till then, CI was operating as an online site and content producer, while everyone worked remotely and communicated virtually. CI quickly evolved into a digital marketing agency helping clients with digital strategy and execution.
When customers asked to meet, however, they expected to meet in an office and since the team was growing, CI made the decision to get an office space on McDonald Street in Woodbrook.
This was not going to be just a digital marketing agency. This agency was going to shatter the Caribbean stereotype envisaged by many globally, of rum and Coke-drinking, Mai Tai-sipping and beach-going.
Brevard wanted this agency to be seen and considered seriously with the ability to be the best on a global stage.
The agency decision also meant the people were going to transition from working remotely to now working in an office.
By late 2015, there was a lot of noise in the market space around push versus pull marketing, and what marketers were doing to create relevant content to connect and convert customers.
CI was coordinating it all, using digital tools, working with freelancers and other remote production teams and selling digital solutions to their clients.
This made for agile operations. If necessary, CI could easily pivot in order to seize a new business opportunity or adapt to a change in the market.
With an eye focused on the future, the team at CI could easily spot new business opportunities, which not only helped the company but additionally, helped boost customer business. CI has always played a global game, never wanting to be confined by the borders of Trinidad and Tobago.
“There was a significant opportunity to get retainer clients for business and evolve into a full service integrated marketing agency. Not just digital marketing services but integrated with TV, press and radio,” Brevard said. “In some instances if the clients weren’t open-minded to the full-service integrated approach, we preferred to walk away from the business.” Having made that pivot to a full service integrated agency, CI started onboarding clients like the Compressed National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago (CNGC) and Coors Light; clients who were confident enough to give us the ‘keys to the car’.
According to Chike, “Our evolved business model was also part of our evolved thinking around our digital products, and the way we were seeing brand messages being consumed. We don’t live in an online or offline world. We just live in a world. I think this was hugely relevant to us turning the ship around and trying to deliver a single marketing and advertising approach that tackled the consumers on every channel.”
The projects CI worked on throughout its lifetime have been diverse, including some tech solutions. In 2011, CI solved a ‘Mas band leader’s problem of finding different ways to engage their patrons, and an application was built for a new Carnival band launch designed for the Young, Upwardly Mobile Adult (YUMA) masquerader. The app gave women the option to virtually try on a headpiece, using augmented reality to see how they looked. Keep in mind this was long before Pokémon Go (which used the similar technology) became a global phenomenon and certainly a precursor to the now popular AR filters.
Xbox wanted to explore support for a new advertising and marketing campaign using Twitter as the core channel. The mechanics were simple, any user on Twitter who tagged the brand Xbox was reviewed. A profile was then selected by the US Agency team who then commissioned a custom piece celebrating the user.
CI used an online platform to receive briefs and upload questions and content to the US Agency team. Once the brief was received and reviewed by the internal team, the designer assigned then reviewed the user’s profile on Twitter, referenced a photo of the user and re-created an Xbox styled visual. This was uploaded via the digital platform for review, feedback and approval. Keep in mind, the process had to be done within 24 hours once the graphic was approved by the US team.
Chike, who was living in Seattle by this time, connected with former colleagues at Microsoft who were looking to outsource the project to India or China. Recognising they would be faced with time zone and language barrier challenges; he pitched the benefits of working with CI. “We’re in the Caribbean, we speak English, we are in a relatively good time zone, and our exchange rate is competitive.”
Microsoft agreed, and together using Trello, the two teams collaborated, easily seeing where the Xbox sub-projects were at any given time, who was working on what, what was being worked on and where everything was in the entire process.
The success of this project confirmed for the team at CI that:
Caribbean Ideas has since evolved and is now known as Caribbean Ideas Synapse (CIS). Their systematic approach to solving client problems is unbeatable using both right and left brain attributes to produce solutions.
The world’s most successful companies, Baidu, Amazon and Alibaba for example, are always thinking ahead to disrupt before being disrupted.
From its inception, CI seemed to know this intuitively. The company started out being 100% virtual up until 2012. Even after that, it was one of the first companies, in Trinidad and Tobago to develop a work from home policy replicating some of what was already being implemented at Google, Apple and Microsoft. The intention was to remain agile and compete globally.
At its present home on Wainwright Street, St. Clair, Port of Spain, CIS is an amalgam of old world and new. In fact the frame of the staircase that takes you from the ground floor to the first, is from the Whitehall office of the Prime Minister, and was actually discarded during the building’s renovation.
The feel is minimalist with a function for each space, from eating, meeting, project work and relaxation. The latter comes in the form of a basket-woven swing on the sunny second floor deck, where employees have the option to literally take a breather when needed. Indeed, the shared deck spaces offers a look out onto other offices nearby, softened by a garden below filled with tropical plants and flowers.
What can we learn from CIS on how to disrupt before being disrupted?
From start-up to present day, this company has used a variety of tools:
Think also about their approach to the Xbox project:
Adopt a test and learn mindset: Run the experiment for yourself using your team, whether it’s a policy or testing new tools for collaboration. Think about the implementation of the work from home policy.
Virtual businesses are ideal for start-ups: With low overhead costs, little investment requirements and low startup costs. This is how CI, two guys pursuing one dream, shattered the stereotype of “the Caribbean way of doing business” and became the impact catalyst for Caribbean businesses to perform at their best in the global arena.
Remain agile so you can pivot: Only hire as your need for certain skills arise. Remember, you can always outsource for projects (as Microsoft did with the Xbox promotion). The larger you are the more flatfooted you become and less likely to adapt to change quickly.
Just do it: Most times we get caught up in analysis paralysis and we don’t take the action that would lead to success. Challenge the status quo. In doing so, your world and the world in general will move forward. There would be no CIS today if Brevard and Chike didn’t ‘just do it’ back in 2008.
Human capital is a tremendous resource: The calibre of your people needs to be considered as the number one factor if you want to be well-prepared to face marketplace disruptions. Are you spending time thinking about new skills, and the new roles required for your business to navigate to the future? In order for CIS to claim full-service agency status they needed to bring in a creative director, manager, and designer to get them up to speed.
Become future ready: Have you equipped yourself with the hardware and software to succeed in a sustainable manner? How much “future tense” thinking is there in your management conversations?
Preparing your business for the post COVID-19 economy is crucial. The pandemic has forced most businesses to shift to a remote workforce model that follows social distancing guidelines. In addition to the lessons outlined above, the global health crisis has also changed the rules for all businesses across all markets.
Data analytics is key and will accelerate as companies are pressed to make decisions that will affect their viability. Using data analytics will inform future intelligent and effective business decisions. It will increase efficiency and help reveal important business opportunities. You may feel comfortable dealing with short-term trends and decisions now, but it’s the longer-term analyses that will prepare you for the future.
Internally, it means reimagining leadership structures, ideally by evolving from hierarchical to networks of highly empowered teams driven by a new model of management.
A remote workforce will be the new normal, and although this means a more challenging model for security and following compliance guidelines, developing appropriate employee management techniques, organisations will be better prepared for future unexpected events.
Before the pandemic, most businesses were still relying on physical trips to do their banking. In a post COVID-19 -economy, many companies may find it useful to use a service like Republic Automatic Clearing House or ACH, an electronic payment system that allows you to transfer money between accounts in 24 hours.
As a business you can use it to make electronic payments such as salaries, dividends, insurance claims. Additionally you can use it to manage your cash. It is one of the most convenient, reliable and secure ways to move funds.
They say hindsight is always 20/20, but for CIS, the company already saw their business future. Unlike other companies, CIS was not forced to become virtual and agile as a result of a disruption. Rather, the forward thinking and strategic choices Brevard and Chike made prepared them for everything they encountered on the journey to becoming industry disruptors.
In order to future-proof your own business, consider allocating resources to build a team that focuses on the ‘what-if’, and then defines, creates and delivers a strategy to help your company pivot quickly every single time your business is disrupted. That way, when another global crises strikes, you too will be ahead of the game.