The global pandemic forced many businesses to adapt a work-from-home model for their employees for perhaps the first time, yet some companies have been operating remotely intentionally for years and finding great success with this approach.
Which begs the question: Is remote work the way of the future? Further, how can businesses overcome the challenges of keeping employees engaged and connected, even while remote?
To explore these questions, we sat down with Jason Hennessey, an internationally-recognized SEO expert who founded Hennessey Digital in 2015, a remote-first agency specializing in digital marketing and SEO that has since grown into a business valued at over $10 million with over 120 global employees. He’ll share what inspired him to build a remote workforce from the start as well as his strategy for fostering strong internal communication, even without face-to-face interaction.
Thanks for listening in to episode 3 of Smart Route. I’m your host Courtney Tyson. We’re joined by Jason Hennessey, CEO of Hennessey Digital, a long time client and partner of CallTrackingMetrics. And we’re going to be talking to Jason about empowering remote employees. Thank you, Jason, for being here,
(Jason) I’m honored to be on the podcast and to be episode number three
(Courtney) It’s a good number, right? So I want to start by sharing a little bit about you with our audience. So Jason is an internationally recognized SEO expert, speaker, and business executive. His ethos of educate and empower has earned him a reputation for excellence in search marketing in the legal industry. He is a serial entrepreneur having founded and sold multiple businesses, successful businesses. In 2015 he founded Hennessey Digital. It grew from a small consulting firm into a business valued at over $10 million. And you have over 120 employees.
(Jason) Yes. And it’s a decentralized business, which will get interesting for this podcast. And it was intentional on why we did it that way too.
And we’re excited to learn more about why. So as I mentioned earlier, our topic today is empowering remote employees. So CallTrackingMetrics, we felt it was really important to highlight this as an episode seeing as COVID dramatically shifted the typical office work environment. AndI immediately thought of you, Jason, as our team talked about what we wanted our listeners to get out of this episode knowing that your team is, and has been a hundred percent remote even way before COVID forced businesses all over the world to go remote.
(Courtney) And it’s personal to me speaking with you, right? Because I’ve had the pleasure of supporting your team here at CallTrackingMetrics for over two and a half years, and your team just consistently impresses me with their camaraderie, their teamwork, their success all while working remotely all over the country. I mean, I know some of the team members haven’t even met in person and I absolutely credit that to, to your leadership and everything that you’ve done. So,
Well, thank you. I would love to take the credit, but it’s truly a team effort for sure. And some of the people that you deal with on a regular basis are just amazing people from walks of life, all areas of the world and and you know, they are a really remarkable team that does you know, some, some pretty advanced things. So that’s pretty cool.
Yeah. I’ve definitely been able to build some great friendships even with your team. So definitely value that. So let’s dive right in. I have a couple questions for you. Now what inspired you to build a remote first workforce for the agency?
Yeah, just to kind of be candid, so I had an agency before I started Hennessey Digital and it was ever spark interactive. We were based out of Atlanta. And that was an agency that was a growing agency, you know, but we had a really nice office. It was right in the middle of an area called Sandy Springs and the king queen building, with high rent and high overhead. And, you know, but the challenges with that was that we had to recruit from a talent pool of people that live within like a 10 or 15 mile radius of the office. And in the world ofdigital marketing. And what we do specifically, which is SEO search engine optimization, you really don’t have that large of a talent pool within a 15 mile radius of our office.
It’s one of those things that they don’t really even teach at college. Right. So even the talent pool United States and globally is not even that big, it’s getting bigger. But anyway, that was just the challenge that we faced. And so when I sold my interest in that company back in 2015, and then I started my other agency right away I said, I’m going to do this differently. I’m going to be based here in LA. I was living in LA, I moved out here so that my son can pursue an acting career. And so I was out here and I’m like, why limit myself to getting an office in LA and this has be the worst place, right. To kind of build an office, with taxes and things like that. And so I just said, I’m going to make it more of a decentralized business. And we’re going to recruit the top talent regardless of where they are,knowing that it was going to be harder to kind of build a remote culture. Right. That’s one of the things that becomes a little bit more challenging is the culture part of it. But as far as the talent pool and the recruiting pool,it’s been a successful ride and we’re continuing to get stronger.
You’re definitely a true pioneer, right. And I think we’re seeing so many businesses now shift to that mindset when it comes to hiring employees even here at CallTrackingMetrics, we’ve definitely started hiring folks all over the country, as opposed to just in our little bubble that’s Annapolis, Baltimore and DC. So I imagine that you’re probably getting a lot of hits from your network asking for how you did it.
(Jason) Right. Yeah.
So let’s talk a little bit about the culture. What is the culture like at Hennessey being that everyone is remote?
Yeah. So the culture has been good, but it continues to get better and better and better. As we get a little bit more deliberate about making our culture better. In fact, on our blog post recently, our director of communications, Liz just published an article about all of the lessons that we learned by trying to recruit a top talent. And kind of giving them everything that they wanted. And at the end of the day, they still rejected our offer. And it was like a hit to the gut. And so this was something that I reached out to, I’ve got an executive coach, his name is Cameron Herold. He wrote a couple of good business books for those that might follow him. And I said, I’m a little upset because we offered this individual, you know, everything that they wanted, they were going to be perfect for us. And we went through this whole process and it was months in the making and that come to the finish line. They said that they decided to go somewhere else. And he’s like, well, don’t take it personally. He goes, At the end of the day, their talent magnet was just stronger than your talent magnet. Right. And
As simplified as he made that sound, it really is that simple. And then he started asking us like, well, how much PTO do you offer? And we said two weeks. And he said, he put his laptop down and he’s like, I wouldn’t even let my son work for you with the two week kind of PTO. You got to give people more PTO time. Right. And then he started asking us all these other questions. And so we then started to kind of make our benefit package a little bit better. Right. And and, and then from there, then we brought in director of our learning and development, right. So we’ve got a whole team now that does just learning and development. We’re trained people and we onboard people a different way. And, you know, then we brought in a director of people success and, and her whole job is to make sure that people are successful in the roles that we bring in.
And so we just got a lot of, a little bit more strategic about it. And the culture just continues to evolve and it just gets better and better and better over time. So now, you know, we’re in a much better place than we were when we first started in there may have been just me and like two other people, you know, at the agency when I was first started. But over time, you know, it’s, it’s a matter of the more profitable that we become, the more that we can give back to our employees. So. Sure.
And I think outside of that, to your, your employees just all have different personalities that all kind of fit so well together, right? Like I’ve, I have weekly calls with them where it’s, you know, four or sometimes six of us on a call and, you know, they’ll, they’ll have little inside jokes with one another and it’s, it’s cool to see that even though they may have never met in person, right. They still know each other on a, on a different level, right. On a level that maybe you would know someone when working in an office. So I’m sure you get plenty of resources to them to be able to kind of get to know each other in that way, which I think true to, or to really helps build that, that culture.
So let’s talk a little bit about COVID and what the experience was like for you and your employees when COVID hit, did much change in your day to day?
Believe it or not, for us, it was pretty much business as usual. And I think we were fortunate with that regard because for our clients, that wasn’t the case. We do a lot of work with attorneys and they’ve got call centers and they got to figure out how do they get people set up with laptops at home and getting office phones rerouted. And I mean, it was just a nightmare for certain clients. But for us, it wasn’t really so much on our side that it kind of changed, but supporting our clients really is where we had to step in and teach some of our clients, like some of the strategies that we use for having a remote workforce and getting clients that have never heard of zoom set up with zoom and, you know, even creating we’ve even went so far as creating like nice backgrounds for them to use that were branded right on zoom calls, like, you know, really kind of helping support our clients to be successful.
So for us, it was really business as usual. There was some clients that were concerned that pulled, you know, some budget back just because of uncertainty. Luckily we work in a field where it really didn’t have as big of an impact to our clients as say, if we worked exclusively with restaurants or, you know hospitality, right. You know that would have had a bigger impact to us financially. But being that we work with lawyers and you know people were still kind of out and about and, you know, getting injured or, you know, you’re dealing with crimes or whatever other, you know, legal practices that we help. You know it, it, it really didn’t kind of affect us too much financially.
It’s interesting because, you know, not having a tackle going remote, allowed your team to focus on, you know, the larger issues at hand or concerns that your clients had. And I think it really was like a blessing in disguise for you, right? Like who knew that one day this pandemic would hit and being remote would have so many more benefits than we initially thought, or you initially thought. Right. I completely
(Jason) Agree. It’s a new world. And I guess I predicted the future a little bit, I guess, if you will, when I decided to kind of build the business this way.
That’s for sure. So the next question is around communication. And I think that every business, this is really a sticking point with them. I mean, we’re technically a communications company, right. And we struggle with communication internally, whether it’s, you know, when we’re all at the office or we’re all working from home. And I talked a little bit about how your employees really have this closeness with one another. But they all are on the same page too, when it comes to things that are going on at the company initiatives that, that you’re rolling out and so on and focusing on how do you stay connected with your team? And, you know, in what ways do you offer visibility into what’s going on across the different teams and projects?
Yeah. so, you know, we use certain tools, right? So obviously, you know, we’ve got zoom accounts we’re, we are a slack organization. We rely heavily on slack. That’s where, you know, most of the the daily communication amongst teams happens you know, we’ve got slack channels for just about every single project and client, and whoever’s responsible for certain aspects of that client are kind of in that slack channel. So I’d like to say that we kind of over communicate which is a good thing in the world that we’re in. And, you know, and, and we’ve got a good amount of comradery with each other, right. You know, we do miss out on not having the ping pong table and the water cooler and, you know beer Fridays. Right. You know, like we, we don’t have that luxury you know, but you know, we make up for that, you know, with some of the things that we do you know, from a cultural perspective you know, some of the things that we do, you know, so like every time we actually have a recognition cha channel on our slack, right.
And so we’ve got four core values, right. That our company kind of operates on. And so anytime somebody sees somebody kind of like living one of the core values, whether it’s personally or professionally, you know, we recognize that your job is to recognize them. And what happens is it shows up in the slack channel and then everybody usually likes and puts the heart emojis and stuff. And so it’s great to kind of see people publicly recognizing each other. And so every time you get recognition, then you end up getting a an opportunity to kind of spin your, we do this spinning wheel every two weeks where we give away things. So, you know, I think people have a lot of respect towards each other, and everybody is always willing to kind of step up and help in need, you know, there’s crisises that happen over the weekend and, you know, we’ve got a channel and there’s usually somebody on staff to kind of monitor that. And, you know, you see people jumping in on a Sunday to kind of help if there’s any type of an issue. So, you know, I think it really comes down to you know, living the core values that we, you know, we, we, we developed as an organization and it wasn’t top down, it was more bottom up the core values that we’ve developed. And and just having respect
Now, I didn’t hear email, I’m assuming you guys don’t rely heavily on email then for communication.
Well, we do. You know, email is probably the worst way to get in touch with me personally, but slack is usually like, it’s an instant and you can tag somebody and you can send a file it’s organized, you can search for things. Things get lost in email. You know, sometimes clients communicate via email and that’s perfectly fine, but we’ve got it set up so that if somebody sends a support ticket in via email, it kind of gets added to a slack channel. And then it goes into, we use a sauna as our project management. Cool.
Okay. So you give your clients access to the slack channel and then as well as the, as well as the sauna, is that right?
Yeah, we don’t know. So they don’t have direct access to slack or a sauna, but what they do have access to is email. So we have like a support at email and anytime like a client, like emails us with a support ticket, it automatically kind of goes into our system.
I see. I’d love to get your perspective on zoom. Do you encourage your employees and clients to use video when, on zoom?
Yeah. That’s, that’s been amazing. You know because, you know, back in the day, like when I was just getting started out in digital marketing, I had a I think it was like free conference call.com was the site. And so you get like a free phone number and you have your own number and then you have to put in your six digit code. And so whenever you want to set up a call with a client, you have to give them the six digit code. Right. And so it was just all kind of like, it was like a party line, like a conference line. Right. but with that, you couldn’t really, you know, share your screen. You had to kind of talk through things. And in hindsight, looking back, I wonder how I even operated that way, because it’s hard enough to kinda do ex SEO, but explaining SEO without any visual clues is super hard.
Right. And so I, I really questioned how I did that. It’s like thinking back to like when I was in high school and not having a phone. Right. How did you call your mom to pick you up at the mall? Right. You know, like how, how did that even happen? Right. There’s no beepers, no phones. Like, what did you do? You know what I mean? You had to like find a payphone. Right. So it’s so funny to kind of go back and think about how life was, but that was only like five, six years ago. Right. But zoom has just been amazing. We use it for sales calls. We use it for account management calls. Heck we even use it for calls with you and, you know, and our partnerships and stuff. Amazing. Yeah.
I think for me too, it’s been a great way to kind of build that personal relationship with, with your employees. Right. As opposed to just communicating via email we have a weekly call set up where we actually get to see one another and talk to one another about work about life. And I think that that definitely builds on the partnership that, or helped us to build on the partnership that we’ve created. So, yeah, absolutely. So thinking ahead, what tips would you give other business owners looking to looking forward to a post COVID world is of course remote work is the way of the future. Are you going to write a book about all of this, right.
Well, as we all know expect the unexpectedChange is a constant, right. It’s, when you kind of got everything, I’ll figure it out. Something completely out of the blue kind of happens. Right. And so, while I don’t know, or think that we’ll hopefully ever see another pandemic in our lifetime, but, you know, there is a chance, right. You know, I think the only way that you can really be prepared is to have systems and processes in place for just about everything. Knowing that, you know, there’s times where you, even, if you do have an office where there’s times where you might not be able to work from the office, like right now, and, and in the Southeast, you know, there’s a gas shortage.
Right. You know, people can’t drive right now because like, you know, there’s an issue with, you know, the gas, you know, coming through to the gas stations. I’m not sure if you’re following this right now for you guys. Right. Like, you can’t expect that. Right. So, like, what happens? Like people can’t get to work. You might not be able to get gas for a couple of days. I hope that’s not the case. I hope they get this all figured out quickly. But it’s just, you gotta, you always have to try to, you know, prepare and expect the unexpected. Like, my son just started driving. And you know, that’s a real scary situation when you got a 16 year old that gets their license. You have concerns when they’re five and seven about bumping their head and whatnot.
But when you give them keys to her car, right. In LA of all places and they start driving, you know, so one of the things that I said to my son is, and this is something that I live my life. You always expect the unexpected, right? Like, as you’re driving through a neighborhood, you always want to think that there’s going to be a little kid that’s on a bicycle. That’s just going to kind of roll out or a dog that out of a backyard that comes running in the street, right. That’s going to happen. Well, probably isn’t going to happen, but if you’re thinking that’s going to happen, you’re going to be a little bit more careful about how you drive in a neighborhood. You’re not going to come speeding around the corners. When you have that mentality. And so you’re just living a life where you’re kind of trying to predict the future and expect the unexpected.
That’s really great advice. Definitely something we all have to think about now, you know, whether it be in the business world or personally something, everyone to have on their minds. So have you been hearing from a lot of folks in your network looking for tips and advice as to how to navigate this new world?
Yeah. You know it’s not normal. We’ve got certain clients that are still getting adapted to it. There’s even funny videos that are being shared aboutpeople attending court via zoom. There’s the one guy that had a, he was a cat, right. I mean, that’s just what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of good resources. People will probably be writing books on this now. There’s articles that I read about adapting to “the new normal,” you know, some people are still more concerned and not leaving the house yet. Others are living their life and kind of going to conferences again. Right. And so I think it’s going to take a little bit more time. In fact, where I live in California, we’re still kind of shut down, I’d say like 50%, so it’s not really back to normal yet, but I think over time we live through some real radical change. And it kind of forced businesses to adapt to the change.
(Courtney) Yeah. It’s been an interesting year and a few months that’s for sure.
Well, Jason you know, you’re definitely one of the most innovative and understanding leaders that I’ve had the opportunity to work with and speak with. I think the experiences that you’ve shared today are invaluable and same with the advice too, definitely gonna help today’s leaders as they navigate the post COVID work world. And just thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s been a pleasure.
Well, I’m a huge fan of CallTrackingMetrics. I’ve always used you guys. Just the fact that you guys actually reach out and set up a call with our team to continuously try to improve both sides, right. You guys have made changes globally to satisfy a little problem that we face, right. Which then helps all of your clients. So you, as far as being innovative, I push that right back to you guys as well. And thank you for all that you guys do and continue to do. It’s a wonderful tool, and I’m honored to be on this podcast with you.
Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure working with your team. And just before we go, can you tell our audience anything about anything new, exciting, new, and exciting you have going on or where they can learn more about you and your company?
Yeah. you know, for those that are listening that do work in the legal field you know, I just wrote a book comes out in July, it’s called law firm SEO. That’s kind of my area of, corporate core competency. So that comes out in July. And then the other thing is the whole podcasting world. I just built a studio in Hollywood, California, it’s called Hennessey Studios, and I will be doing more podcasting myself. This is a great way to communicate and I’m excited by it. It’s going to be a fun new journey.
(Courtney) Well, good luck. I look forward to the book, looking at that. I look forward to future podcasts and continuing the relationship. So on behalf of CallTrackingMetrics, thank you for your longstanding partnership. Again, you guys have just been great advocates of ours and a delight to work with, and we really value the relationship and we look forward to continuing it.
(Jason) I appreciate the opportunity to be on the show. Thank you so much.
(Courtney) Thank you, Jason. And thanks to our audience as well for listening in.