We are back from our Park City retreat, and wow, are we exhausted! As a team that’s used to working from home, mostly alone, four days of strategizing and talking was a lot for us. Frankly, I’m not used to using that much emotional energy at one time, and am certainly feeling a “social hangover” where I want to lay in bed for days without speaking to a single soul. It’s the introvert in me, and I know I’m not alone there—many virtual workers work well from home because they don’t need daily human connection.
That being said, our time in Park City was extremely productive. We are a small but mighty full-time team of five, and we planned to utilize each person’s unique strengths and ideas to create five main sessions for our retreat. Five sessions may not seem like enough for the two-and-a-half days we had scheduled, but this was an intentional decision based on the goals we had developed:
- Create a unified vision and mission statement.
- Create a marketing plan for redesigning the website and logo.
- Create an ideal client and contractor profile.
- Create a strategic plan for launching a new course.
- Create a list of action items to make things happen for the next 3-12 months.
Here are the ideas and takeaways from these sessions, which I hope will give you some guidelines on how to run your own in-person retreat or growth meeting with a small, virtual team.
Who Have We Been?
By Jess Ostroff
I’m a firm believer that you can’t even begin to look toward where you want to go until you know where you came from. That’s why I annoy my boyfriend and all my friends with questions about their past… I just need to know all the things! That deeper emotional understanding of a person helps me anticipate their needs and reactions so I can be a good friend, client, colleague, assistant, or boss.
With that approach in mind, our retreat began with a little bit of ice-breaking, a little bit of champagne, and a lot of sharing.
I explained the personal side of what drove me to start Don’t Panic using my values as a compass.
I was bored at work.
I felt like I was destined for more.
I wanted to change lives.
I needed to be able to take beach breaks. (I lived in LA at the time.)
I know that some of these thoughts (from a 22-year-old, I may add) seem super basic and almost silly, but for me they were all equally important to building a life I could love. And somehow, the values I had when I started over seven years ago (location-independence, scheduling freedom, and helping others grow their businesses) haven’t changed, which is pretty remarkable for a small business that has grown at least 50% year over year since we started.
It’s also interesting that we’ve grown with that velocity without taking a single dollar from anyone. To me, that was partly because of the quality of our work and partly because of the many positive relationships we’ve formed with our favorite clients, colleagues, and friends.
I am painfully aware of how important the people in my life and in my business are. I rely on them deeply. And I say “painfully” aware because I get that my business would crumble in a second without them. Scary to think about, but it’s an important reality that we cannot lose sight of.
My goal for this in-person session was to help my team understand the values that have been engrained in myself and, by proxy, the business since the very beginning: quality work, autonomy, commitment to helping others, and close-knit relationships.
Who Are We Now?
By Jaime Hanson
In the last year, there have been lots of individual, virtual conversations going on about how we each see our life and our work, and the direction we hope to go as individual participants in DPM.
I always knew that because of the unique opportunities Don’t Panic provides to me related to work-life flexibility and being a female leader in the workplace, I’ve felt more invested in this job than I have with others in the past. What was most interesting to me as we joined together for our first ever all-hands retreat is that all of my colleagues seemed to feel this same way.
After hearing Jess’s perspective on how Don’t Panic has reached this point, we stepped back and each shared our own visions of both the company’s future and our individual roles. This was a scary process. After all, there was already some sort of a vision in place. Jess, Becca and I already had many conversations individually and together, and there were already irons in the fire leading us in a particular direction.
That said, we were trying to hold those plans loosely and stay open to the best possible result.
The cohesiveness of our values and vision as a team struck me most clearly on Friday morning, when we as a team re-did the values exercise that we’d completed virtually in January. It may seem strange to expect that our values would have changed drastically over less than five months, but keep in mind that over that time we said goodbye to a team member, added two new employees, and had some major changes in roles.
Within a team of only five full-time employees, that’s a pretty dramatic change in such a short time. Repeating the values exercise made it clear to me that this team-wide shift led us to unique cohesion with regard to both the company’s and our personal values.
Of course, values and a vision are important—but they’re all just talk without moving to actionable steps. That’s why it was so awesome to see how Becca and Shannon turned this vision into actionable plans for our clients, contractors, and external marketing efforts, and Jenn brought it all home with specific steps for each of us to take in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Who Will We Serve?
By Becca Vaclavik
After clearly designating and agreeing upon our values as a team, we were able to make some bigger decisions about who we want to work with, when, and why. We’ve been talking about the idea of the “perfect client” and “perfect team member” for years, and that ideal evolves over time as our own goals evolve.
After this in- person retreat, we have decided to shift our focus towards both automating processes for and building relationships with our clients and contractors.
This probably seems counterintuitive to you, Dear Reader! However, as we continue to grow rapidly, we’re finding some basic processes are starting to feel rocky from an internal perspective. How can we better onboard new clients and get work off their plate swiftly and efficiently? How do we juggle the recruitment process for new contractors without overloading our team, or alternatively, without having any work to provide our new partners?
I spent a lot of time and brain space this weekend on figuring out exactly how to automate those processes to make them more efficient and decrease the roadblocks.
There’s a reason “automation” can leave a sour taste in a CPO’s mouth, and that has been an important consideration for us. It sounds so impersonal. That’s why we also took the time to think of ways we can truly add value to our clients’ and contractors’ lives with the newfound time and revenue brought on by streamlining.
We talked about gifts (who doesn’t love swag?), increased benefits for our employees, and incentive programs for contractors. Bonus: We spent a significant portion of Friday afternoon talking through who the “perfect” client or contractor looks like for this company so we can get better connected with people who really fit hand in hand with Don’t Panic’s values and mission.
What Will It Look Like?
By Shannon Wurthman
Our dynamic five person team of badass women was focused, excited, and ready to make things happen for our company this past weekend. And it would be a mistake if I didn’t recognize what I think is the biggest benefit of our time together, which is exactly that: We spent amazing, uninterrupted quality time getting to know each other better and learning more about one another.
While we are still strong advocates for the #remotework life, nothing can replace time spent together IRL.
As for our marketing and branding efforts, we were able to crystallize our vision for the company and the services we offer. We took time to define our audience and outline how to reach them in the best ways possible and with the most value. We also considered the idea that “Don’t Panic Management” may not be the best name for the way our services have evolved and are still deliberating over whether to keep or change the name… a big decision!
We explored some new branding initiatives and set a plan in motion to hire a designer, set up a new web platform (we chose Rainmaker for our redesigned website), and figure out how to leverage our leadership in the virtual assistant industry to reach new audiences.
How Do We Make It All Happen?
By Jennifer Hines
Throughout the retreat, we noticed a running theme for all of our personal lives: We feel a lack of personal physical relationships where we live. Since most of us have moved recently, and we don’t have a traditional office to go into each day to make new friends, we have been feeling the absence of those types of physical friendships.
Over and over again, each of us said throughout the weekend that this type of soul-filling interaction was just what we needed to power through all of Don’t Panic’s upcoming changes, and hopefully we’ll develop new habits to keep our personal friendships with each other from feeling depleted in the future.
With all of the conversation surrounding what we’re going to do, it’s easy to get lost in the big picture and forget about how we’re going to do it. That’s why we spent our entire last day on retreat focusing on action steps.
First, we planned for immediate action, the types of things that needed to be taken care of in the week following retreat. Then, we classified things that needed to be completed by next month, by the end of summer, and by the end of the year. Planning in chunks this way, our list of 50+ action steps didn’t send us running for the nearest corner in decision paralysis.
Let’s Do This.
Immediately, we’re focused on our branding refresh and new website. Next month, we’re focused on streamlining our client relationships and scaling our accounting practices. By the end of summer, we hope to have our first course created and we’ll also be developing thought leadership and influencer strategies to strengthen our brand. By the end of the year, we’re looking toward contractor recruitment and match-making between assistants and new clients.
The second half of 2016 is going to be all about making Don’t Panic the sort of well-oiled machine that helps us get out of our own way. If we can do this, we’ll free up our time to build the sort of company culture that people want to work for and with for years to come.