Six Secrets to Building a Thriving Virtual Company
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Celia Leber, J.D., thought she’d become a mechanical engineer. Then she got a taste of the patent process after she invented an adhesive, so she decided to become a patent attorney instead. After working in the high-pressure world at big intellectual property (IP) law firms for 22 years, Celia decided to start a company that lived out her own values. She founded Leber IP Law in 2012 as a fully virtual company.
As the rest of the world is trying to figure out how to operate remotely and virtually during the coronavirus outbreak, Leber IP Law has been operating this way from the beginning. This week we launched their new website.
Leber IP Law has been a fantastic first major client for me, because I’ve learned how I want my own company, Fertile Ground Communications, to grow and prosper. Starting as a sole proprietorship, now Leber IP Law is a flourishing, woman-owned firm with 12 employees in Boston, New York, Seattle, Idaho, Maine, and Ottawa, Canada.
Celia and her team have mastered these six secrets to building a thriving virtual company:
1. Express clear guiding values and build a strong culture
When I interviewed Celia about her underlying guiding values, she responded clearly without missing a beat. She founded her company to provide exceptional service to her clients…applying the best of what she experienced at a large firm, while being more nimble, entrepreneurial, and better adapted to work with clients as a team. I found these strong guiding values to be reiterated repeatedly as I interviewed team members and read client testimonials. Articulating your clear guiding values is a vital first step to creating a strong culture.
Celia’s strong values are evident in the company she has built.
“Even though we’re far apart, I work more closely with the attorneys now than I ever did with attorneys and agents who were in the same building as me,” said Camille Girard, a paralegal based in Ottawa, Canada. “Everyone cooperates and works well together. It’s a very friendly atmosphere.”
2. Create a vibrant website
To reach clients virtually, a vibrant website that expresses your company culture, guiding principles, and unique value proposition is essential. In revamping Leber IP Law’s online presence, we wanted to demonstrate their team’s down-to-earth, approachable style; outstanding technical experience; and stellar client service. And more than anything, we wanted to differentiate Leber IP Law from other legal firms. We did this by describing the firm’s strong employee culture and dedication to stellar client service. Through story-driven employee bios, we highlighted team members’ commitment to the firm, advanced technical expertise, and passion for their work.
Several themes emerged:
Leber clients appreciate the personalized service they receive, as evident in client testimonials.
The firm has grown steadily over the years, providing ever-expanding services and team qualifications. In the time since we began and published the website, the firm added two more employees.
Leber’s employees all love the great outdoors. I enjoyed collecting their fun photos and describing what they do in their spare time.
The refreshed site reflects the vibrancy and accessibility of this growing IP law firm. For remote, virtual operations, a vibrant online presence draws in clients and potential new employees, letting them know what it will feel like to work with the company.
3. Hire highly qualified, experienced, and independent staff (and contractors)
When I managed a large publications group for 13 years, I learned that not every person is well suited for remote work. Teleworkers must be highly organized, responsible, and comfortable working independently, while also knowing when to collaborate with team members or ask for help. Ideally, they require little to no supervision. Excellent communication and prioritization skills are paramount. As author Brigitte Hyacinth says, “If you want performance at scale, select the right people, provide them the tools and support, and give them room to get the job done.”
That’s what Celia has done in hiring attorneys and paralegals who are professional and technically proficient (many of them hold master’s degrees and PhDs in addition to law degrees), but also approachable, respectful, and kind. Throughout my interviews, I found that Leber team members truly enjoy working together and some of them even run races together.
“I wanted to hire good people I would enjoy working with,” Celia said, “and felt I could count on day-to-day and in a pinch.”
In addition to exemplary staff, Celia also hires contractors who are of the same caliber and commitment as her employees. It also helps that the outsourced help operates well in virtual mode. “I recall working with Dana, our CPA, early on,” said Dave Robertson. “She was working from an RV in Yellowstone.”
“To be virtual and nimble, our outside help needs to be flexible, responsive, and approachable,” said Robertson. “Our ability to accommodate clients depends on that.
Fertile Ground Communications got our website content right by working with each member of our firm to capture the spirit and technical competence of Leber IP Law. That’s the hard work of a creative website.”
When you work virtually, business owners need to be able to trust their staff completely. The best way to do that is to hire the right people and provide them the support they need.
4. Invest in advanced processes and tools to make online collaboration easy
My previous employer, which had an IT team of four to six, got infiltrated through phishing and online embezzlement. Given their antiquated IT systems and resistance to embracing technology like online collaboration and cloud-based systems, it wasn’t a huge surprise.
Virtual companies must invest in advanced IT processes and tools to protect their clients and employees, especially in the highly confidential realm of protecting intellectual property.
Secure, cloud-based document management systems ease online collaboration. Leber IP Law’s secure e-mail, voice mail, voice-over-IP systems allow employees to communicate with clients and foreign associates worldwide. Their secure, cloud-based document management systems are managed by certified technicians and protected by malicious software filtering tools.
“It pays off to invest in the technology needed to do this right,” according to Celia Leber. “It can be a fairly costly endeavor, but it is worth it to provide the necessary security and facilitate communication and collaboration.”
Dave Robertson, J.D., applies his engineering software and computer engineering expertise to oversee Leber IP Law’s information technology security. Attorneys and paralegals are trained in avoiding malicious communications and safeguarding client-confidential information. Remote firms must make all reasonable efforts to protect client-confidential information, as Leber IP Law does.
5. Attract clients who are comfortable working remotely
During this COVID-19 pandemic, times are changing. People have had to get used to working remotely, and I suspect new habits will emerge when people return to their offices. But it hasn’t always been this way.
I went from working in a huge global firm where the majority of people were teleworking and we regularly used Skype and videoconferencing, to a small firm where face time was valued and teleworking and virtual communications tools were far less common. I started a trend there, working from home one day a week. But when my colleagues also began having work-from-home days, architects and engineers would drop by and act disappointed that they couldn’t have face-to-face conversations.
To be successful as a virtual firm, it helps to have tech-savvy clients who are also comfortable working remotely. Leber IP Law’s clients are innovators, inventors, and tech-savvy companies from North America and countries around the world. Almost all communication takes place by phone or video, email, or in the cloud. Virtual firms must put their clients at ease by making communication and collaboration just as easy as if everyone worked in the same room.
6. Be an outstanding and communicative leader
To thrive and flourish, virtual companies must have excellent, highly engaged leaders who show appreciation for their employees.
“From the way we integrate and involve our paralegals to the way we communicate with others, we put people first in everything we do,” said Celia Leber. “We appreciate each team member’s contribution to the successful outcomes achieved for our clients.”
My first step in kicking off the website project was to interview Celia about her vision for starting the firm, approaches to hiring, reflections on clients, and company culture. At the end of the interview, she suggested I ask her team members the same questions. That’s the way you engage your employees and create a positive culture, by providing plentiful opportunities for input and collaboration.
Celia espouses a hands-off style of management, trusting that everyone will get their jobs done and ask for help when they need it, while also giving each other the benefit of the doubt when mistakes occur. She also tries to make sure everyone gets the training and mentoring they need. She emphasizes to new hires that their firm culture is based on respect, teamwork, and thoughtfulness, a rare cultural attribute in the competitive legal field.
“Celia really sets an appreciative, positive tone for the firm,” said patent attorney Carol Egner, Ph.D., J.D.
Throughout the employee bios, you’ll see Leber IP Law employees express appreciation for the company culture Celia has cultivated.
Another theme emerged in Leber IP Law’s team: in addition to feeling supported, they were grateful to be able to achieve a work-life balance often hard to find in law. Many of them told me how less billable hour pressure and the ability to work from home make it easier to flex their time around volunteering, outdoor activities, parenting, or other activities.
For example, Narendra Vaish, Ph.D., J.D. is a highly accomplished drug discovery and biotechnology scientist and named inventor in 150+ patent filings. He’s happy at Leber IP Law because he gets to do intellectually stimulating work while still being available to spend time with his kids. He also gets to avoid the long Seattle commutes.
Employees AND Companies Benefit from Virtual Working
During this period of more teleworking than ever imagined, companies are already seeing the great benefits like lower overhead, lower turnover, higher productivity, and no commute. According to Global Workplace Analytics, “70 percent of employees rate the ability to telecommute as somewhat to extremely important for choosing their next job,” and 37 percent of employees would take a 10 percent pay cut for the ability to telecommute.
Employers are going to experience more pressure than ever to continue virtual, remote work environments. They would be wise to look to companies like Leber IP Law to learn how they too can thrive as virtual, remote employers and service providers.
As I look ahead to building Fertile Ground Communications, I’ll continue to feel grateful that I got to work with the wise, talented professionals at Leber IP Law as one of my first clients. I plan to use them as a model for the way I will build my own virtual firm.
Contact me for more information about building or revamping your website or advancing your marketing communications. Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business, dedicated to creating a kinder, more sustainable, and just world. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more compassionate world.