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CEO of Silver Sherpa, Inc.

Five years ago I put my retirement plans on hold to start a third career building a professional-services business that delivers crisis and planning services to the elderly and their families. We now have a virtual company headquartered in Oakville that serves clients across southern Ontario and the GTA. Their family members can be anywhere in Canada or across the world and connect with us by conference call and e-mail.

It's unusual to see this type of virtual model for delivering professional services. Law firms and accounting firms typically have the client come to them, but we believe it's important to see the elderly person in their own home so we can best understand their needs.

Our virtual work force is anchored at our Oakville office where we contract with Intelligent Office to provide executive assistants who answer calls and help us prequalify clients. This means flex meeting rooms and board rooms are booked as needed, and our overhead costs are lower.

All our sales, business development and client-delivery staff spend most of their day either on the road or working from home offices. The team includes six full-time staff, a roster of client-delivery people who are part-time, a senior management team, some of whom are outsourced, and suppliers who provide expertise in areas such as IT infrastructure and marketing.

The business model we use is based on a village model with a cluster of client-delivery people. Wrapped around them is a trusted professional network of experts such as lawyers, health and personal care providers, and financial advisers. Together they serve elderly clients who typically don't want to move more than 10 kilometres from their neighbourhood, assuming these people can no longer cope at home.

Working remotely is not new. But working remotely and actually running a virtual company are two different things.

Running a virtual company means that everyone has to be connected and aligned with the company's goals. Three things are key. You must have crystal-clear goals and objectives, on-demand synchronization and encryption technology, and effective processes.

Indeed, clear goals and objectives matter even more in a virtual environment because teams collaborate across geographical areas and various skill sets. In our case, we have two teams – one devoted to sales, business development and marketing, and the other to client delivery. Members of both teams attend weekly conference calls to discuss key performance indicators.

Technology for on-demand synchronization and encryption is critical to this operation since users have their own computers or tablets, often with different operating systems. But client files and meeting notes must be done in real time, files must be synched in real time, and all client data and files must be encrypted due to the sensitivity of the information within. We have found that very few software companies can provide real-time synchronization and encryption in a single application. Still, these files must be readily available to the mobile delivery team when needed for client work.

Our client-delivery team also uses time-tracking software to record the time spent on clients, travel and reporting. Such tracking delivers many advantages such as determining the actual effort needed for client work and planning for how much time is needed for specific tasks.

Along the way, we have learned a few lessons in how to build a virtual company. For example, processes are critical in keeping virtual teams functioning smoothly. For us, this means standardizing processes such as the prequalification interview for a prospect, how we assess an elderly client in their home, or how we run an internal meeting using agendas, conference calls and online conferencing.

If there is one consistent message we hear from our people, it is the need for more face time with their colleagues. They may be part of a virtual company, but they also believe in making a difference with elderly clients every single day.

This is why we hold company meetings every four to six weeks to celebrate achievements and focus on lessons learned. And every quarter, we set aside a full day for a joint company and advisory board meeting. This is an opportunity for all business advisers to meet with the whole group to share new ideas and discuss how performance measures against goals. We also have some fun with team building and usually schedule a reception or meal later.

We are passionate about serving our clients and their families in the best possible way. Being a virtual company allows us to be nimble enough to do that. But doing so means we must never forget to engage with advisers, health care professionals, family members, neighbours, and others in order to solve real-life problems for the elderly. And that's true whether they are in crisis mode or just planning ahead. A virtual company can work and be successful, but it takes discipline.

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