A Virtual, Distributed Agency Workforce: How 341 Studios Makes it Happen

By | July 23, 2012
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More agencies, particularly in web design, are moving toward a distributed workforce model, in which workers collaborate together remotely. According to a Mashable article by Brian Casel (@CasJam), distributed workforces are attractive because they provide:

  • Low overhead, as you don’t have to maintain a central office location
  • Happier, more productive workers due to increased schedule flexibility and independence
  • Unlimited talent pool; you are not restricted to a particular geographic region
  • A way to scale services without a large upfront investment

To learn more about managing a distributed workforce, and associated benefits and drawbacks, we spoke with Felicia Rubinstein (@341studios), principal and founding partner at 341 Studios. Felicia and her partner Gretchen Bruno have managed a team of virtual, independent contractors to staff client projects and campaigns for the past 13 years.

The 341 Studios Story

341 Studios was launched in 1999, as a way for Felicia and Gretchen to work from home when their children were young. To start, the agency drew on a combination of Felicia’s corporate sales and management experience (she was a former business development executive at Apple), and Gretchen’s background as a designer at Scholastic magazines.

In the early going, the pair was doing almost everything themselves, and business centered mainly on graphic design work. Then, the Internet hit. To capitalize on opportunities, Felicia and Gretchen took classes in web design, and found some programmers and designers to join their team.

Today, they staff 16 professionals and affiliated specialty partners—all of whom are independent contractors. While 341 Studios is the main source of the contractors’ businesses, each have their own contacts as well.

Together, 341 Studios professionals have a range of expertise, spanning design, web, copywriting, branding and more. Although they have a different model and processes, they remain competitive with large New York agencies nearby.

So, How Does it Work?

341 Studios hires 1099 workers, or independent contractors, for all its projects.  Aside from Felicia and Gretchen, it does not have any full-time employees on staff.

Essentially, contractors keep the company in the loop about their availability, and then projects and accounts are staffed on an at-need basis.

That said, several contractors have a committed amount of time that they are guaranteed work from 341 Studios. For example, they will get paid for 16 hours per week, whether they work it or not. This gives 341 Studios the reassurance that support will always be there when required. If there isn’t enough paid work to go around, these individuals are assigned agency-specific work to fill their time (for example—designing the company’s holiday card).

While a virtual office location is available for meetings, the workforce is completely remote. All processes are managed online to allow for easy collaboration across distances. As long as they have the Internet, they can work. Technologies used include GoToMeeting, iChat, Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, Box and Dropbox, among others.

Contractors often communicate directly with clients. However, Felicia and Gretchen are the gatekeepers, and ultimately have final say and responsibility for projects. In addition, all contractors know each other, and work together, to create a real team environment. While dispersed, each project really is a united effort between multiple contractors.

Clients are billed on a per project basis, and campaign costs are estimated based on the duration of the engagement. Contractors then track their time in Basecamp for reimbursement, and bill 341 Studios.

The Upside and Challenge to a Virtual Workforce

The main benefit of a virtual workforce is the flexibility it provides. For example, Felicia likes to work in the morning, and Gretchen in the evening. With their model, they have the independence to work when it makes sense for them, as opposed to standard 8 a.m.-5 p.m. workdays, everyday. This is attractive to many of their contractors, a handful of whom are moms too.

One of the biggest challenges to a virtual workforce is maintaining a strong company culture. 341 Studios has tackled this by bringing the group together for parties, roundtables, award banquets and more to spend quality face time together. (Note: All contractors live within a couple hours of each other, making this possible.)

The company also makes it a point to celebrate the good and wins together, and truly appreciate one another.

Closing Thought

On starting her own business, Felicia says: “I used to work in corporate (GE and Apple). During that time, I never worked as hard as having my own business. At the same time, it [starting a business] has been the most rewarding experience.”

Do you have a virtual workforce? What challenges and success have you seen? Share your stories below.