Tips For Scaling Customer Success

If you’re building a startup, you’re probably wondering how to start and scale customer success (CS). While the first step is to hire the right first customer success lead, the next step is scaling customer success to increase the impact and turn CS into a profit center that increases revenue. Here are my top tips to help you scale customer success at your startup. Hopefully, your first CS hire has already created a culture of operational excellence and started accelerating your one-to-many strategy, as most of my tips for scaling customer success rely heavily on customer success ops.

Meet customers where they are.

Scaling customer success means you’ll need to make it more effective and efficient. At Liquid, we’ve found that it’s imperative to meet customers where they are and where they prefer to engage. While some customers enjoy talking to a customer success manager, others prefer to get help on their own online. Some users prefer emailing, while others like chat. Some prefer personalized meetings, while others find more value in attending group office hours or webinars. Offering one-to-many experiences increases CS productivity — but more importantly, offering a multitude of options allows your customers to get help in ways that they perceive to be most valuable and efficient. Add new initiatives prudently; do so only when you have confidence that it fills a need. In addition, you should be analyzing the metrics of each new initiative to assess effectiveness. Experiment and iterate.

Build a knowledge base.

At Liquid, we recently released a customer-facing knowledge base (KB) based on customer requests for a dedicated help center to help themselves and to direct their additional users to train themselves up. Since its launch, KB usage has grown rapidly while also decreasing the volume of communications from customers. To be clear, our KB doesn’t prevent users from contacting humans — it simply helps users help themselves before asking for help.

When building out your KB, start with the most complex features and sticking points — get feedback from CSMs and support staff about what needs to be covered. As new support requests come in, support staff should create new KB articles. Similarly, as new features get released, work with your product team to add new KB articles at each release. Always include images and videos to be inclusive of different learning preferences. Don’t wait to put out your KB; in my experience, it’s better to put out a 60% completed solution and iterate and add to it.

Lastly, look at KB metrics to gather additional insight. For example, what are people clicking on? This might give you insight into problem areas. Who is looking? A customer with lots of KB views might need extra attention; a customer with a sudden drop in views might be at risk of churning out. What are people searching for? Repeat searches might mean your product team needs to resolve some underlying issues.

Create (and automate) repeatable systems and processes.

Scaling customer success also means dealing with an increasing number of customers. To manage volume, you need repeatable systems and processes. Operationalizing processes by creating playbooks and other documentation helps your team provide consistent service quickly and efficiently. When done properly, this also allows you to provide pooled CS where customers are not assigned a single CSM but instead get help from whoever is available. Start working on this early and iterate often.

As you work on this, also segment your customers and determine how your approach will differ for each segment. For some companies, it may make sense to segment by account value but for others, segmenting by behavior may be more suitable. Growth potential should also be considered in segmentation, along with other factors specific to your industry, company and product.

Another way to improve the efficiency of your CS department is to take your repeatable processes and systems one step further and automate where possible. Be strategic in your use of automation. At Liquid, we use Zapier to automate a few customer success emails and have a few other automations to provide more value to our customers at scale.

Separate customer support and customer success.

While customer success is meant to be proactive, customer support or customer service is reactive by nature. When the same team members manage both support/service and success, the most urgent requests (typically service requests) get worked on first. Unfortunately, this means the proactive work — of managing customer health and actively reaching out to customers who may be at risk of churning — sometimes falls lower down the list. In addition, the skills needed for customer service are different from those for customer success. From my experience, companies achieve better results when separating the reactive customer service team from the proactive customer success team early on.

Know when to grow your customer success team.

Dave Blake, CEO of Client Success, has some great tips on when to add additional staff to your customer success team. Specifically, he recommends looking at three factors:

• Annual Contract Value (ACV) Target Per CSM: Each CSM should be handling about $2 million in ACV.

• Product Complexity: The more complex your product, the fewer accounts each CSM can handle.

• Volume Of Customers Per CSM: Each CSM can generally only create meaningful relationships with about 50 customers (sometimes a bit more if automation is used).

Assess these factors against your own product to determine when it’s time to grow your customer success team. I’ve found that about 30 customers is the sweet spot — with automation required to manage more than that.

Scaling customer success will allow you to deliver more value to your customers, keep them happy and ultimately get them to grow their business with you. Whether you start with operationalizing processes, adding automations, building out a knowledge base, or separating customer service from customer success, be sure to meet customers where they are. Deliver more value in their preferred channels and your customers will eagerly turn into advocates, referring new customers.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

How To Give Feedback To Freelancers, Contractors, And Remote Workers

Communication is key to building strong working relationships, whether with employees or with freelancers. While most organizations have built-in methods and procedures for giving feedback to employees, such as regular 1:1 meetings, I’ve found that many companies lack processes for giving feedback to freelancers, contractors, or other members of their virtual talent bench. Given that working with freelancers tends to be temporary, it’s too easy to skip over providing feedback to your liquid workforce.

Understand When To Give Feedback

During each project, review the scope of work frequently to make sure milestones are met. If your freelancers or consultants are falling flat, say so. Most freelancers crave feedback, as they know feedback helps them improve their work product and increases the likelihood of a successful outcome for both parties. If they’re providing valuable contributions, be sure to thank them.

At the end of each project, spend some time going over what went well during the engagement and also what could have been improved. These retrospective meetings help ensure future engagements run smoothly.

Whenever possible, critique in private and praise in public. No one likes to be publicly called out for failures or mistakes. Critique publicly, and you’re likely to be met with defensiveness. This should go without saying, but if you’re in a bad mood, give yourself some time to clear your head — when giving feedback while upset, your tone will likely make more of an impact than the actual content of the message.

Set Expectations

The first step in giving feedback to your freelancers, contractors, and other remote workers is setting expectations. Make sure you’ve got a clear scope of work with detailed milestones and timelines. The scope should be detailed enough so that all parties understand what is expected and when items are due.

Once you’re ready to give feedback, Daniel Coyle, author of several books on talent, suggests starting each feedback conversation with one magical 19-word phrase: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.”

This statement helps your freelancers, contractors, and virtual talent bench — and even your employees — feel valued and connected to your business.

Skip The Compliment Sandwich

In my career advising startup founders and small business owners, I’ve known all too many managers whose preferred method of providing feedback was the compliment sandwich. This is when you sandwich a negative piece of feedback between two positive pieces. The idea is that you don’t want to get anyone down and that focusing on the positive helps blunt the negative.

I’ve found that the feedback sandwich both undermines the constructive (negative) feedback being conveyed while also making people suspicious of positive feedback. Instead, follow these steps to give clear, concise, specific, and constructive feedback after asking for permission.

Ask For Permission

Before you start with Coyle’s magical 19 words, ask for permission to have a feedback conversation. This can, and should, be as simple as asking a question like: Do you have 20 minutes to talk about X? If the answer is yes, then you can move on to those magical 19 words. If the answer is no, then ask when a good time to talk about X is and schedule a time on the calendar. Asking for permission allows the person to prepare mentally for receiving feedback, making the conversation more likely to lead to actionable results.

Start With Statements, Then Ask Questions

Start by stating what you observed, what impact it did or could have, and then ask questions. Try to be objective and refrain from judging or inferring what happened, giving the freelancer, consultant, or contractor time and space to explain. For example: I noticed X, and that could have impacted Y, and I was hoping you could give me your thoughts. This framing can help you uncover additional issues that you may have overlooked. In addition, asking questions can encourage self-reflection — allowing the freelancer, consultant, or contractor to come up with creative solutions for addressing your concerns. Make sure you listen to what they have to say.

Be Specific And Clear

Be specific with your critique as well as your praise. The more specific your feedback, the more likely it is to be actionable and useful. Aim for concise clarity — using too many words to blunt the emotional impact of negative feedback will make your message fuzzy. Be intentional with your words and tone. Avoid overgeneralizing, being judgmental, or making assumptions about intent. When providing negative feedback, make sure the conversation ends with clearly defined next steps for improvement — this is what separates criticism from constructive feedback.

Don’t shy away from giving negative feedback, but strive to give positive feedback more often. Increasing the ratio of positive to negative feedback creates a culture where feedback is valued, not feared. When giving positive feedback, do so with explicit information about what was done well — this helps to reinforce positive behavior. In contrast, vague positive feedback simply makes the receiver feel good.

Ask For Feedback

If you don’t ask for feedback, you’re unlikely to get it. Don’t forget to also ask for feedback from your freelancers, consultants, and independent contractors. Being external to your organization gives them a valuable vantage point. Their outside perspective can help them notice things that employees might miss. In addition, working with many clients means that your liquid workforce may have gleaned insights from working with similar organizations. Prioritize asking for feedback, as this builds the relationships you have with your virtual talent bench. When they start to see you as a partner — and not just a client — they’ll be more likely to make time for your projects.

Create A Culture Of Feedback

Providing candid, thoughtful, and positive feedback is essential to building strong relationships. Plus, having two-way feedback loops builds trust. Creating a culture of feedback generates a high-performing culture, boosting your team’s performance.

Start taking your relationships with freelancers, contractors, and remote workers to the next level.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Hiring Your Startup’s First Customer Success Lead

Customer success (CS) is one of the most critical functions of a startup, especially a business-to-business (B2B) software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup. Your startup’s success depends on educating and keeping customers — exactly what CS professionals are equipped to do. Moreover, when your CS team does its job well, customers turn into advocates, each referring new customers to your business.

If you have the budget, you’ll want to hire someone who has scaled CS at a company similar to yours (in terms of product, sales model, implementation strategy, expansion strategy, etc), from your company’s stage all the way through the initial public offering (IPO). In truth, it’s easier to find a needle in a haystack than to find this mythical ideal hire.

Instead, let’s focus on finding you the best first customer success hire for your startup, starting with the basics.

Generalists: At early-stage startups, you need a jack-of-all-trades who can do whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed. You need someone adaptable and resilient to put out fires while thinking strategically and working proactively. You need someone who can build relationships with customers while also analyzing customer data and trends, turn customer thoughts into focused feedback for the product, scale support, and much more. As your CS department grows, you’ll want folks to specialize: dedicated onboarding specialists, expansion specialists, customer success managers (CSMs) for different customer segments, etc. But at an early-stage startup, hire a generalist.

Coachable, Lifelong Learners: When you work in customer success, you’re constantly learning on your feet. You’ve got to be naturally curious about customers and your product. At an early-stage startup, you must experiment and try different tactics, particularly while working toward finding product-market fit. In addition to hiring for lifelong learners, I recommend hiring for coachability to ensure you hire someone who can grow with your company.

Emotional Intelligence: Every successful CS leader I’ve known exhibits strong emotional intelligence; this is no surprise, given how important it is for CS to have empathy and be able to control their emotions and read customers’ emotions. Since CS often manages angry customers, I also recommend hiring for mindfulness. The ability to stay intentionally focused without passing judgment helps ensure appropriate reactions to defuse charged situations.

Leadership: Your first CS hire won’t be your last. Hire someone who can lead your future CS department — a leader with grace and compassion. Speaking of leading a department, you’ll need your CS lead to have a documentation-first mindset to take what they do, turn it into scaleable processes and teach that to others.

Now that we’ve established the overall traits, let’s go over some factors to keep in mind as you hire your first CS lead.

Product

How complicated is your product? Is specialized knowledge required to understand your product? At Liquid, I’ve found that while no specific expertise is necessary, experience with how businesses contract with freelancers and vendors makes the steep product learning curve much more manageable.

Market

Do your customers speak their own lingo? For example, many of our customers are finance leaders, so it’s beneficial to hire folks knowledgeable about accounting as it pertains to working with contractors and vendors. However, since operations leaders also use our product, finance and bookkeeping expertise are purely optional. Additionally, since many of our customers are agencies or social enterprises, it’d be helpful to hire folks with backgrounds in those industries.

Sales And Pricing Model

Very expensive products with a high-touch sales model will probably require high-touch customer success. “Freemium” products relying on product-led growth, self-service education, and low-touch sales will likely require someone who can more quickly operationalize and scale CS.

Implementation Strategy

How complicated is your product implementation? How quickly do customers see value? Is onboarding straightforward and the same for everyone, or does it vary depending on the specific needs/circumstances of each customer? If it varies, you’ll need someone who asks the right questions to craft customized onboarding/implementation plans for customers. In this case, look for past experience in consulting (or a consultative mindset).

At Liquid, we’ve found that implementation can differ quite a bit between customers depending on a variety of factors — including whether the main users have finance or operations backgrounds, whether they use work orders, how much they care about compliance, whether they are moving from existing tools versus hiring their first freelancer, how many vendors they have, and whether they think of their vendors as a virtual talent bench — but not so much so that custom onboarding plans are needed for each customer. In our case, CS needs to provide high-touch customized onboarding when appropriate, while also operationalizing, scaling, and improving onboarding in general.

Expansion Strategy

What does expansion mean to your company? Is it about selling more licenses? Selling on professional services? Upselling on additional features or higher-level plans? Different expansion strategies require different skill sets. No matter what the expansion strategy, I recommend hiring someone data-savvy enough to segment customers appropriately to identify and pursue potential expansion opportunities.

Company Structure

Who will your first CS hire report to? While I recommend having a customer success lead report to the CEO, I’ve also seen a CS lead report to the chief operating officer (COO), head of sales, and even the chief of staff. No matter how you decide to structure your organization, be intentional about this. Where CS sits in your company says a lot to your employees (and to your customers) about how you view your customers. Choose thoughtfully.

Don’t Delay Hiring Your First Customer Success Lead

As I said at the start, customer success is one of the most important pieces to building a successful company. It’s never too early to hire your first CS lead.

And once your CS lead has created repeatable processes and you’re ready to scale, empower that person to hire a team. I’ve found that non-traditional backgrounds like hospitality, retail, and education lay an excellent foundation of soft skills for CS excellence. If you have the time and resources to train someone (and a product that doesn’t require subject matter expertise), you’re likely to get excellent value hiring folks new to the technology industry.

Are you ready to start building your customer success department?

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an entrepreneurship and small business consultant and a co-founder and partner of Lau Labs. She loves to read. Since 2010, she has been focused on “solving” the “problem” of ambitious, educated, talented women and men “opting out” of the traditional workforce for personal reasons. In 2015, she joined forces with two other MIT alumnae to start FlexTeam — a mission-based micro-consulting firm that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors and their most requested projects are market research / analysis, competitor research, financial models / analysis, and business strategy. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.

Let’s Go Liquid: One Million Liquid Businesses

www.goliquid.io

Today, we launched a new website for Liquid, the operating system for agile businesses. I’m so excited to share what we’ve been working on, and so proud of how far we’ve come from when we first started our consulting firm together many years ago.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts on our vision for Liquid and the future of work, how we got here, and why I believe we’re building something important.

Shifting from role-based work to project-based work

For years, I had seen my friends — fellow MIT alums — leaving their careers behind because they couldn’t find a way to make work fit into their lives. Whether it was making more time for their children or parents (or not wanting to be tied to a job and an office), highly educated women were leaving the workforce in droves. I had long found project-based work to be a means of finding work-life fit and I wanted to build a way to make it easier for anyone to do project-based work. And as a long-time consultant, I had seen for myself how tapping into on-demand talent enable businesses to scale quickly and efficiently. I realized project-based work was a win-win for all parties involved.

Project-based work and the future of work

I’ve been a big proponent of project-based work as a critical component of the future of work. Project-based work allows small business owners, entrepreneurs, creators, and enterprises to grow and scale their businesses while also expanding opportunities to bring in diverse talent. Working with on-demand talent is a good business decision for agile businesses. On the talent side, project-based work is a means to find work-life fit, particularly for lifelong learners eager to strengthen and develop their capabilities.

Starting FlexTeam

It was with that goal in mind that I co-founded FlexTeam — we wanted to build a world where previously sidelined professionals could engage in challenging, meaningful work when it fit into their lives. In addition, we envisioned a world where anyone could build an agile business, bringing on just-in-time talent to complete only the specific work that needed to be done.

Building FlexTeam’s platform

As we built FlexTeam, we initially used half a dozen different platforms to get signatures, manage contracts, agree to scopes of work, make payments, etc. We realized a tech platform was needed to manage this. Bringing on a CTO, we built an operating system for our modern consulting firm. Our proprietary platform allowed us to vet, onboard, manage, and pay FlexTeam’s consultants, while also enabling our clients to approve scopes of work, communicate with our team, and make payments.

Going Liquid

Liquid @ Techstars LA

FlexTeam grew to over 700+ independent contractors working on strategy projects with hundreds of clients, from SMBs to Fortune 500 companies. But we realized that to accelerate our vision for the future — to help more businesses Go Liquid — we needed to reduce the friction for every business to work with on-demand talent.

We saw several main trends: workforce was becoming more flexible and global and agile companies succeed by tapping into the best non full-time workers. But working with on-demand talent can be really difficult because it’s not a regular recurring expense like payroll — and there are additional compliance issues and challenges with controlling costs / work.

So we created and spun out Liquid — joined Techstars LA, and raised venture capital. Today, the Liquid platform streamlines the way a business’ finance, operations and talent management teams work with its vendor and supplier networks in the U.S. and abroad. We simplify contracting and global payments while ensuring financial controls and compliance.

The Future of Work

It’s widely accepted that COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to the future of work. In 2020 alone, wages and workforce participation of independent workers rose by 33%. In 2021, we’ve seen the “ Great Resignation” / “ Big Quit” — which has led to further growth in the percentage of independent workers — and businesses becoming more comfortable with remote work, asynchronous work, hybrid work, and project-based work.

While others talk about the future of work being remote, I believe it’s much bigger than that. The future of work is about everyone and every business working together in a way that works for all parties involved. It’s a distributed hybrid world where some folks will remain employees, but more and more people will become independent contractors — some working through agencies, and others working directly with companies (with some growing to build their own agency and hiring their own subcontractors). The companies that thrive in the future of work are those that Go Liquid, embracing on-demand talent and virtual talent benches.

Liquid and the Future of Work

At Liquid, we are building the operating system for agile businesses to enable everyone and every business to succeed in the future of work — project-centric contracting, work orders, purchase orders, and payments for agile businesses and their global vendor networks. In addition, our platform allows businesses to quickly understand and control their variable non-employee costs. We want to help every company Go Liquid, and we want to make it easier for people to Go Liquid.

Every day, I wake up excited to build Liquid because I know we are changing how work gets done; we are building the future of work. I love our hectic startup life (for example, I previously led Marketing for Liquid on an interim basis) but I primarily spend my days leading Customer Experience and Customer Success at Liquid. With a consulting background and experience as a trusted advisor, I’m thrilled to be building this critical (and growing) department. I love partnering with startup founders, finance leaders, HR leaders, COOs, Chiefs of Staff, and other operations leaders to help them scale their businesses while saving them (and their teams) time and money. It’s been a joy to connect with our customers and ensure they are getting exactly what they need from our platform. I’ve seen our customers take their businesses from idea to Series A and from seed to Series B — and I love knowing that our platform has supported their rapid agile growth.

Today, hundreds of businesses spanning marketing agencies, startups, production companies, social enterprises, and SMBs are using our platform. These businesses use Liquid to contract, onboard, manage, and pay their on-demand talent and vendors in the U.S. and in 175+ countries across the globe. Thousands more are #GoingLiquid and engaging the liquid workforce in ever growing numbers. In just the last year, Liquid has securely processed millions of dollars in global payments. Our customers love our platform, rave about our helpful customer support team, and rely on Liquid on a daily basis. Liquid is becoming the operating system for agile businesses.

And we’re just getting started.

If you’re as excited as I am about what we’re building and our vision for the future, read more from our CEO. Then, visit our new website (www.goliquid.io) to learn more about Going Liquid or subscribe to our newsletter to follow our journey.

Are you ready to Go Liquid?


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.


FlexTeam  is  a mission-based micro-consulting firm, co-founded by Yolanda Lau in 2015, that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors. FlexTeam’s most requested projects are competitor / market research, financial models, and investor decks. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.

Best Practices For Manager/Employee 1:1 Meetings

As more companies switch to remote work, it becomes ever more critical to intentionally connect with our co-workers and employees. While we are all trying to clear our calendars, scheduling weekly one-to-one meetings with every direct report continues to be essential. Even when working with the freelancers and contractors who comprise the liquid workforce, I have found that one-to-one meetings are crucial to a successful working relationship. Consistently great one-to-one meetings are the secret to improving team performance, morale, and company culture.

Emotionally intelligent managers know that people need to feel cared for and valued — people are happiest when they are learning, working on challenging projects, given room to make decisions, and encouraged to use their judgment to do their job. Your goal in one-to-one meetings is to discover how your direct reports are feeling and growing so that you can improve how you coach/mentor/sponsor/support them.

Managers should have a weekly one-to-one scheduled with each direct report. It is understandable if it needs to be rescheduled in a specific week, or if it doesn’t happen from time to time. But in my experience, managers should aim to have one-to-one meetings at least three out of every four weeks. It’s important to have regular check-ins to prevent larger issues from festering, allow for immediate and regular feedback and promote open communication.

Structure And Prompts

Start your one-to-ones with open-ended questions to help you understand how employees are doing, what is on their minds and how you might be able to help.

Check in on the employee’s current progress. Are there big or small successes to celebrate? How is progress tracking versus goals? What resources does the employee need? Ongoing reviews of progress ensure that nothing on a performance review comes as a surprise.

Every few weeks, be sure to dedicate some time to discuss long-term goals and ambitions. For example, ask employees what they view as the next step in their career path and how they see themselves in their roles. This helps you develop your people so that you can promote from within.

Here are some questions you may want to incorporate into your one-to-one agendas. These questions can help you understand how employees are motivated by their work, self-assess their skills, and view their control over their work.

1. Prompts To Understand Purpose/Relatedness

  • What are you most proud of?
  • Where do you see your job linked to our company’s goals?
  • When have your contributions to our company’s overall goals inspired you?
  • What can I do to make you feel that your work is meaningful and crucial to our company’s overall goals?
  • What feedback is the most meaningful/impactful that you have received?
  • What challenges/barriers are you facing, and how can I help remove them?
  • What part of your daily activities do you feel wastes your time?

2. Prompts To Grow Mastery/Competence

  • What is something you learned this week?
  • If you reflect on one piece of work product, where are you most proud of that work?
  • What is something you will do differently next time?
  • If you were to critique a recent project you completed, what grade would you give yourself? Why?
  • Are you celebrating the things you did well?
  • Are you avoiding anything you didn’t do well?
  • How can you become even better at…?
  • What can I, as a leader, do to help you to become even better?

3. Prompts To Support Autonomy

  • Do you have enough space to perform?
  • Are you able to make decisions that help use your experience and move your work forward?
  • Are you able to use your experience/expertise to help the company make good decisions?
  • Do you have the right level of influence to feel you are having an impact/adding value?
  • Are there things we should change so you feel like you have more ownership of your work?
  • What types of decisions do you feel comfortable making yourself? When do you hesitate to decide on your own?

As you start to wrap up your one-to-ones, make sure to ask questions that confirm any discussed actions and identify follow-ups for the next meeting. For example:

  • What are you committing to between now and the next time we meet?
  • What can I help you with between now and the next time we meet?
  • Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to discuss next time?

As a manager, it’s your job to create environments and conditions that put employees where their intrinsic motivations are and let them be productive. Committing to regular weekly one-to-one meetings — with employees as well as freelancers — will help you develop your workforce and support their success. Investing this time in discussions with your employees will not only enable them to achieve their goals but is also essential for you to be successful as a leader and manager of people.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Professional Development Tips For Startup Founders

I’ve spent my career advising startup founders and founding companies myself. When you work in a big corporate structure, there are many structured professional development opportunities. When you’re a founder, you have to create your own professional development opportunities and prioritize those against building your company.

Here are my tips for professional development for startup founders.

Join a community of peer founders.

Entrepreneurship can be lonely. Finding and joining a program for founders at your stage is a straightforward way to find peer founders. Two organizations that I can personally recommend starting with are All Raise and On Deck, which run programs for founders at various stages. All Raise runs a seed bootcamp and a post-seed to Series A program, and On Deck runs a founder fellowship and a scale fellowship. (Full disclosure: I am an inaugural member of All Raise’s Visionary Voices Speaker Bureau and am an inaugural fellow in On Deck’s Fintech Fellowship and in On Deck’s Customer Success Fellowship.)

Connect with founders who are one to two funding stages ahead.

It always helps to know what’s coming and to get advice from those more experienced than you. These founders know and understand what you are dealing with and can provide a fresh but experienced perspective.

Once you get further ahead, be sure to return the favor and connect with founders who are one to two funding stages behind you. Personally, I love the energy of new founders. I find it energizing to mentor and advise new founders. In addition, the experience of advising other entrepreneurs can help you be more reflective of your own experiences, helping you learn more quickly.

Ask for feedback.

Ask for feedback frequently, and be specific when asking for feedback. I’ve found that frequent feedback has not only helped me continually learn and grow as an entrepreneur, but has also helped me generate new ideas to move my business forward. If someone gives you vague feedback, ask for specifics on what was good or what could be improved. Even when you get specific feedback, ask clarifying questions so you can be sure to leave with actionable insights. Always thank people for their time and feedback, and follow up with your progress if and when appropriate.

Get a mentor or coach.

Yes, I said a coach. Don’t be afraid of coaching. When we were kids, we all had coaches and mentors — experienced advisors to help us along the way. As a founder (or any adult navigating their career), a coach can be invaluable. Coaches can help you improve your leadership skills, increase your productivity, unlock new opportunities and help you set achievable goals and deliver results. Not sure how to find a coach or mentor? Ask your peer founders or founders a few stages ahead of you for some recommendations. However you find your coach, make sure you find someone you connect with and trust. Without trust, coaching won’t get you anywhere.

Delegate, delegate, delegate.

Don’t hire quickly. In fact, I recommend doing each job function before hiring. But once you understand the work that needs to be done, delegate it as quickly as you can. Hire employees if the work calls for someone internal, but also be open to building a virtual talent bench. Using a liquid workforce ensures that companies can tap into the right expertise and skill sets as needed for any time frame. Engaging on-demand advisors and consultants is an efficient way for startups to grow their teams and scale their businesses without increasing their headcount.

Grow your network.

When you’re busy building your startup, it can be too easy to get deep into the weeds. As a founder, your role should be strategic. Yes, you should dig in when needed, but you should be focusing on the overall vision. Building a network of fellow founders, industry experts, investors, mentors, coaches and advisors will help you accomplish your extraordinary vision. Network with other founders in your industry, regardless of stage. Network with investors in your industry, even if you aren’t fundraising — and in fact, especially when you aren’t fundraising.

Build a “personal board of advisors.”

No one is exactly like you, and no one has built a startup precisely like yours. So there isn’t a single person out there who can advise you on all aspects of your startup. You’ll have to find and build a group of mentors and advisors who can help you with various issues. The right mentors are people who believe in you and are willing to provide honest, candid feedback.

Get a COO.

As soon as you can, get yourself out of the business of running the day-to-day operations and hire a COO. You need a COO who will not only have strong organizational, analytical, and project management skills but will also be your partner in growing your business. Trust and good communication are essential building blocks to the success of your relationship. The right COO will help you run your company’s operations while helping you take it to the next level.

Invest in your development.

As a founder, it’s easy to put off spending time networking or investing in your personal development. After all, there’s always a new fire to fight or an opportunity to tackle every day. Personal development time can be a low priority compared to the day-to-day requirements of running and growing your business. But this personal investment is critical to your success as a founder and entrepreneur. Prioritize and carve out time to focus on your personal development — invest in yourself as a leader, and it will help you in ways that you won’t anticipate.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Time For HR To Manage The On-Demand Workforce

In many companies, freelancers are often the “hidden” workforce. The human resources (HR) team is not always involved in the hiring and management of freelancers. But as organizations shift to being project-based versus role-based, HR must take the lead in managing the on-demand workforce. We must rethink the role of HR in enabling the future of work.

I find there are five key areas that HR leaders should first focus on as they take the lead on managing the on-demand workforce.

Establish Hiring Practices

The HR team has the best expertise for hiring and engaging freelancers. Your recruiting resources are experts at sourcing and assessing talent — managers should be leveraging these recruiters to find the best freelance talent.

And just as your company has defined practices for hiring employees, hiring practices also must be defined for engaging freelancers and independent contractors. It’s just as critical when working with freelancers.

Set the minimum standards for what needs to be completed before a freelancer can be engaged for the first time. For example, specify that at least two interviewers should speak to the freelancer to assess qualifications and fit. Always require background and reference checks. Decide whether a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is mandatory or define the conditions that trigger this requirement. Establish benchmarks for hourly rate ranges for the types of freelancers your company will most frequently engage.

Provide Internal Training

The HR department should also provide training for managers on best practices for working with freelancers and independent contractors. This training is important for boosting project success rates and ensuring that managers understand compliance requirements.

When working with freelancers and independent contractors, managers need to be aware of local, state, and federal regulations regarding engaging freelancers. For example, the IRS considers the behavioral control, financial control, and relationship of the parties when evaluating worker classification. Understanding the regulations is critical to ensure workers are not misclassified as freelancers instead of employees, which exposes your company to legal penalties and liabilities.

Standardize The Onboarding Process

It’s a best practice for companies to have standardized onboarding processes for their employees. The HR team should establish a standard onboarding process for freelancers and independent contractors. This process will be distinct from the employee onboarding process and reflect the different needs and requirements related to freelancers.

For example, rather than collecting a W-2 during onboarding, your company will need to collect a W-9 from U.S. freelancers or a W-8 from foreign freelancers. Your onboarding process should include all the essential documents for a freelance engagement, like an executed contract, NDA, etc. Onboarding should also include the critical “welcome” elements, such as information on any tools that the freelancer will need to access.

Standardizing the freelancer onboarding process ensures that all the essential documents are completed for every engagement and saves your company significant time.

Set Performance Evaluation Guidelines

Establishing performance evaluation processes and standards is a key element of any HR team’s responsibilities. Performance evaluations with on-demand workers are both similar and different from evaluating employees.

Performance assessments should be done on a project-by-project basis and should include a recommendation as to whether the worker should be considered for future projects. In addition to the project evaluations, the skill sets of each worker should also be tracked. Insights into skill sets help hiring managers source the best fit for upcoming projects from already vetted on-demand talent.

Determine Supporting Tools And Systems

Many companies manage their freelance engagements through a hodgepodge of tools. For example, some companies manage freelancers entirely manually, tracking information in various spreadsheets. Manual management of freelancers can become time-consuming and is prone to errors. And with an assortment of tools, it’s hard to have complete visibility of all freelancer and independent contractor activity and expenses.

The human resources team should take the lead on defining the central tool or system for the company, making it easy for finance, legal, HR, and line managers to collaborate and have complete visibility of on-demand workforce engagements. Freelance and vendor management systems, like the solutions my company offers, provide the integrated capabilities critical for on-demand workforce management.

With a central tool or system, you can more readily develop an external talent bench to support your company. An on-demand talent bench can help your company be much more agile as well as digitally ready.

Leading The Development Of The On-Demand Workforce

HR should be leading the sourcing and development of all talent, not just internal talent. HR leaders have the expertise and the right skills and resources on their teams to develop an on-demand workforce successfully. A blended talent strategy will supplement and complement internal teams. It’s time for HR to lead the transition to the future of work.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.


FlexTeam  is  a mission-based micro-consulting firm, co-founded by Yolanda Lau in 2015, that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors. FlexTeam’s most requested projects are competitor / market research, financial models, and investor decks. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.

Embrace Lifelong Learning To Thrive In The Future Of Work

In the future of work, the critical skills for success are increasingly soft skills like emotional intelligence, adaptability, and resilience. Success in the future of work requires becoming a lifelong learner. The world is changing faster than ever, and only through lifelong learning will we have the capability to adapt along with it.

Here are 11 strategies to develop a habit of lifelong learning.

1. Ask why.

Think back to when you were a child. Chances are you drove your parents a little crazy with all of your questions. Be like a child and always ask why — question everything. But be open to changing your mind. Seek out counter opinions and acknowledge alternative viewpoints — and you’ll learn more from these perspectives and push yourself further.

2. Learn to love challenges.

Challenges stimulate learning and bring a sense of fulfillment. I love challenges and welcome struggles and obstacles as the things most worth doing are often hard. Without challenges, we stagnate. While challenges and bumps in the road can be uncomfortable, these opportunities are the ones from which you will learn the most. Get ready to take risks by setting stretch goals for yourself. A willingness to take risks doesn’t mean you need to take on every challenge — it’s about taking measured risks that push you beyond your current limits.

3. Embrace failure.

Failing is something you do because you’re pushing yourself to do more. Every failure is an opportunity to learn. Don’t be ashamed or afraid of failure. You likely aren’t challenging yourself if you haven’t failed some of the time. I’ve found that failure has frequently been my best teacher, and my successes are a result of growth and learning from past failures and mistakes. Embrace failure and mistakes as opportunities to integrate valuable feedback and information. After all, as Albert Einstein once said, “Failure is success in progress.”

4. Practice mindfulness.

I’ve found that mindfulness is an essential soft skill to learn as it amplifies your other soft skills. Mindfulness can boost your mental agility, self-awareness, and resilience. Plus, taking a mindful brain break can boost your productivity and effectiveness while increasing the “divergent thinking” that results in new ideas. A plethora of apps and programs, such as Headspace, Yoga Ed., and Calm can help you practice mindfulness and build this essential lifelong learning skill.

5. School is only the beginning.

School should function to build a foundation for lifelong learning. Lifelong learners realize that learning doesn’t stop when school ends. Never stop seeking opportunities to learn, prioritizing both surface learning and deep learning. While surface learning is quick and easy, deep learning takes more effort. Both are valuable.

Coursera, Udemy, and EdX are great for consuming content. Cohort-based courses like Maven, On Deck, and Ascend take learning to the next level by bringing together groups of learners.

6. Be open to feedback.

Be proactive about asking for feedback. Surround yourself with mentors, personal advisors, and coaches and be willing to ask for help. I’ve found that having a community and network of peers and advisors has been essential in not only solving day-to-day problems or identifying new opportunities, but also in fueling my personal development. Frequent feedback has helped me to continually grow personally and professionally.

7. Become a polymath.

In the past, it paid to be a specialist — to accumulate as much knowledge as possible in only one area. But in the future of work, polymaths and expert generalists have the advantage. Developing deep knowledge in multiple areas, ideally with cross-disciplinary awareness, makes it easier to uncover unexpected connections and convergences. In a world where data is everywhere, pattern recognition and intuitive thinking have become more important than ever. Being an expert generalist or polymath requires continuous education — lifelong learning.

8. Teaching brings mastery.

In my experience, teaching brings mastery. I’ve been a teacher or teaching assistant for everything from entrepreneurship to ESL, citizenship to physics, biology to coding, sustainability to app building — each teaching opportunity was a window to deepen my understanding. Answering questions on the fly is the quickest way to test your knowledge and learn what you don’t know. Having spent my career advising entrepreneurs and small business owners, I’ve constantly been learning as I teach. I love it when I get to tell a founder, “I don’t know,” as it gives me something to learn.

9. Stay curious.

Talk to strangers. Be present in conversations and look for things that stimulate your curiosity. Pull on those threads and be open to learning from strangers. Follow your curiosity, and you never know where it will lead you. Sign up for that yoga teacher certification course, take that cooking class, try out a new sport, go for that art class. You need to keep that sense of wonder you had as a child to spark inquiry and continual exploration. This curiosity and openness will fuel your lifelong learning.

10. Prioritize process over goals.

Life is not about completing a series of goals. Most of us have had long and winding career paths, which didn’t necessarily make sense at the moment. When you prioritize the process of learning over the goals of completing the class or diploma, you’ll open yourself to new opportunities. Changing your mindset gives you the flexibility to follow your curiosity and may lead to opportunities you would never have otherwise thought of.

11. Give yourself the gift of grace.

But give yourself the gift of grace. It’s okay if you don’t know something. Embrace this as a challenge and as an opportunity to learn something new. It’s also okay to sprint and rest. In fact, giving yourself breaks is the best way to recharge and nurture curiosity. Breaks give your brain space to integrate your learning, developing connections between seemingly unrelated areas.

Become A Lifelong Learner

Lifelong learning isn’t just about preparing for the future of work. Lifelong learning also brings joy and a deep sense of empowerment and fulfillment — making life more meaningful. Grow and succeed professionally and personally by embracing lifelong learning.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Five Strategies For Building A Virtual Talent Bench

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift to remote and hybrid work while also increasing the number of independent workers. The future of work is now. As companies become more comfortable with building and integrating on-demand workers into their talent strategy, more companies are realizing the value of building a virtual talent bench.

What is a virtual talent bench?

A virtual talent bench is a pool of freelancers, independent contractors, vendors, and small agencies that you’ve sourced, vetted, and are ready to work with. Having a virtual talent bench allows your team to quickly staff projects as needed, particularly as work shifts from being role-based to project-based.

Why should you build a virtual talent bench?

Building a virtual talent bench makes it easier to deploy independent workers to work on critical special projects quickly. By creating your own in-house virtual talent bench, you’ll save time and money by reducing the time to find and onboard talent — and save fees you may have paid to sourcing agencies.

In addition, building a virtual talent bench well before engagement allows businesses to properly qualify, vet, and onboard talent. Having advised startups for most of my career, I’ve seen many companies bring on talent without formal contracts or vetting simply because of an eagerness to get to work. Without sufficient vetting and executing appropriate contracts before onboarding talent, companies open themselves up to worker misclassification risk and intellectual property issues.

Now that we’ve established the importance of building a virtual talent bench, here are five strategies for building your pipeline.

1. Start by assessing skills gaps.

Start by assessing the skills of your employees against the work you do and may do in the future. You’ll likely find areas where additional resources, specialized skills, or expert advice could be helpful from time to time. Once you have a sense of what kinds of people you need on your virtual talent bench, you’ll be able to start looking for and recruiting the external talent you need.

2. Identify experts and other independent contractors.

There are many ways to find experts, consultants, and other independent contractors, but I’ve found that trusted referrals are the best way to fill your virtual talent bench. Ask your existing virtual talent to refer other freelancers and independent contractors to you, and ask your network to share their trusted talent with you. Freelancer marketplaces like UpWork or Catalant are also another source of virtual talent if you’re having difficulty sourcing referrals. Or, if you are open to establishing a relationship with a company with a deep bench, consulting firms like Business Talent Group or our own firm, FlexTeam, are built on virtual talent benches so that companies don’t have to build their own roster of talent.

3. Develop processes to vet and onboard talent.

Once you’ve identified talent, it’s important to make sure they’re vetted. Check references, run background checks and make sure they are seasoned independent professionals. Then, when you’re ready to onboard your virtual talent, create a standardized onboarding process that makes it easy for your company and your talent to work together. Using automated and electronic onboarding processes makes it easier to ensure all the proper contracts and tax forms are signed quickly and stored safely. Vendor management systems can help you manage all onboarding, contracts, and payments for your virtual talent bench.

4. Develop relationships and prioritize communication.

Working with a virtual talent bench can be transactional, if you choose. But you’ll likely find that building relationships with your virtual talent bench improves outcomes. Not only does relationship building make it more likely that your virtual talent will want to work with you in the future, but it also makes each project run more smoothly. Make sure you’ve documented and communicated best practices and expectations to your virtual talent. Communicate frequently and clearly, both during projects and outside of projects. Engaging your virtual talent bench even when they aren’t actively working with you helps keep you top of mind — making it more likely that your virtual talent will choose to work with you when the time is right.

5. Create procedures for providing feedback and assessing performance.

Providing feedback to your virtual talent during each project is critical to building strong partnerships. Start by creating a procedure to assess performance and give feedback. Make sure all employees who have interacted with your virtual talent bench are asked to provide feedback. If appropriate, ask your virtual talent to provide feedback on the other individual freelancers or consultants they may have interacted with during projects at your company. In addition, store the feedback in your virtual talent bench database for future reference. This information should provide you with actionable insights to help improve future engagements.

Be sure to compile the feedback to share with your virtual talent. I’ve found that freelancers and consultants are eager for feedback, excited to learn, and keen to build new skills.

Transition to a blended workforce.

To successfully compete, companies need to be agile and have workforces that can flex to meet a variety of challenges and opportunities. With a virtual talent bench, your company will have a flexible, blended workforce. That workforce will be able to quickly tackle problems and take on new opportunities. Are you ready to start building your virtual talent bench?

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Remote Work: Creating A Documentation-First Culture

Before the pandemic, the growth of remote work was already a significant workforce trend as part of the future of work — remote work options increased threefold from 1996 to 2016. After the experiences of the last year, this trend has only accelerated. My current team is fully remote (with a mix of employees, independent contractors, agencies, and freelancers), and I’ve learned that one of the keys to success with remote workforce management is documentation. Whether your company is considering an entirely remote workforce or a hybrid workforce, it’s critical to be a documentation-first company.

Benefits Of A Remote Or Hybrid Workforce

Hiring remote workers, including freelancers or independent contractors, has many different benefits for your firm. One of these benefits is cost savings, with a reduction in onsite operations costs. Even more importantly, your company has access to a much larger talent pool with the removal of geographic obstacles to hiring. And remote workers can be even more productive than onsite workers. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that work-from-anywhere arrangements were even more productive than traditional work-from-home policies. And in a recent PwC survey of U.S. executives, 83% of employers reported that their companies found success with shifting to remote work.

Remote work arrangements benefit the company and the worker — increasing the attractiveness of working for your company not only for potential new hires but also for retaining existing employees. A Gallup survey found that 54% of office workers would leave their current job for one that offers flexible work.

Challenges Of A Remote Or Hybrid Workforce

But engaging a remote workforce does also create challenges. Managing benefits can become more complicated for your HR team, and communication can be a critical issue with the potential for not enough communication and/or remote employees feeling left out or excluded. Plus, building and maintaining your company culture takes more thought and dedicated effort and programs with a dispersed workforce. One of the ways to overcome these challenges is with a documentation mindset.

Going Beyond Onboarding

It’s common for companies to have a standardized onboarding process to complete and collect all the necessary forms, like W-2s for employees or W-9s for freelancers. A digital onboarding process makes it easy to assemble and organize all the required forms quickly. But when you have remote workers, it’s critical to go beyond the documents and deliver a comprehensive onboarding experience. After all, a 2018 survey found that 93% of employers concur that a good onboarding experience is critical to retaining workers.

You need a documentation-first mindset when engaging a remote workforce. Think about how you translate an onsite onboarding experience to a digital experience. How do you bring your company’s culture to life? How do you make your company’s resources and tools easily accessible and understood? What training do you need to provide?

Preparing and regularly updating documentation in advance is critical to success as you scale your remote workforce. This shouldn’t be an ad hoc exercise, but rather something that your company regularly dedicates time to create, maintain, and improve.

Increasing Knowledge Sharing

With my remote team, I’ve found that documenting our processes and best practices is essential to our success in working well together, regardless of location. Fostering knowledge sharing through “living” documents increases our ability to collaborate effectively and for employees and freelancers to quickly help with new projects or contribute impactful ideas. And one of the most important areas to document is related to communication.

Make sure that your employees and contractors have a dedicated place for communication. For example, we’ve defined Slack channels for a variety of topics and projects, as well as for sharing FAQs. We also have documented details like tips for communication styles, expectations for communication content and frequency for project updates, who to connect with for different types of questions, and more. Effective, two-way communication is even more essential when working with a remote team.

Plus, with a documentation-first approach, it’s much easier to shift to a project-based work model. Moving from a role-based to a project-based organization increases the speed and agility of your business. This type of organization is only effective with robust processes and communication.

Embrace The Remote Workforce

It’s time to embrace new models of work and grow your remote workforce. Hiring remote employees, freelancers and contractors strengthens your talent pool and helps make your company more agile. With a documentation-first mindset, your company can smoothly transition to a remote or hybrid workforce. And that mindset will also help you take a more agile and project-based approach to plan and execute initiatives. Get ready to thrive in the future of work by becoming a documentation-first company and growing your remote team.

This article was originally published in Forbes.


Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.