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    September 10, 2020

    Episode 4: Working From Home and Managing Remote Staff

    Making working from home work for you

    In This Episode

    Tommy sits down with MerchantWords’ President, Mark Liu to chat about how anyone can work from home effectively. Mark shares his tips on managing a remote team and maintaining productivity and peace-of-mind.

    TRANSCRIPT

    Tommy Beringer:

    What's up you data-hungry Amazon sellers. This is your host, Tommy Beringer of the Sell, Rank, Win podcast from MerchantWords, and in this podcast, we give you the answers to your most burning questions, actionable insights that you can take away and implement into your business today. So let's go ahead and dive right into today's episode. What do you say? Let's go.

    All right, we have a very special guest on with us today. He has been my Obi-Wan Kenobi on becoming a Jedi master and a product manager. He is one of the smartest people I've ever met. I genuinely mean that. He's one of my great friends and the president of MerchantWords, my brother from another mother, Mark Liu, how are you?

    Mark Liu:

    Tommy Beringer, it's a pleasure, man. I got to say for all the people out there listening to this podcast, this was an idea that was just born out of, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we did, you know," or, "Hey, we should get our message out there." And this guy, Tommy, I've got to hand it to you, man. You grabbed the bull by the horns. Never did a podcast before. And, like, the level of dedication, the application of your skills in audio engineering, everything that you did to put this together, episode four now. Kudos to you, man.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Oh, thanks Mark. I really appreciate it, man.

    Mark Liu:

    Absolutely.

    Tommy Beringer:

    I just shot the idea out there and you guys are like, "Well, go for it." You know, "If you want to make it happen, let's do it." So, I just figured, you know, I come from music production, audio engineering background, and I was just like, "How can I use my audio engineering skills here at MerchantWords? And, you know, I just put it together. I try to put things together if I could think it up and I try to make it happen. But, I mean, you guys over at MerchantWords, everyone there it's just a dream, seriously, a dream working there. I've never met anybody in a group of people in a company quite like MerchantWords. That is the honest truth.

    Mark Liu:

    Thank you, man. Thank you.

    Tommy Beringer:

    No, thank you.

    Mark Liu:

    We're lucky to have you too.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Thank you, brother. Thank you, thank you.

    So, you know what? Let's tell the people a little bit about what me and you do. Well, you're over in Barcelona.

    Mark Liu:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Tommy Beringer:

    But I'm over here in LA. We do this type of breathing technique, me and Mark have adapted this breathing technique as we need to kind of calm our minds at this time right now. As we're recording this, a lot of us have been confined to our homes because of COVID-19. Hopefully, everyone is well. But we have started doing this Wim Hof breathing method. And Mark sent me over on Slack this one morning, I think it was like he got up to over five minutes for four sessions. It blew my mind so I was like, "Okay, I got to beat this guy. I've got to get to him." So I then did it, but I have yet to break the five-minute mark since. And my trick is to lay down and do the breathing. Go ahead and talk to the people about this Wim Hof breathing method briefly. It's pretty interesting.

    Mark Liu:

    It's kind of a wild thing. You know, God bless the internet. You come across all these things. And sometimes there are just these golden nuggets.

    This came to me many months ago. I saw this documentary on Vice, Vice Media.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Mark Liu:

    It was about this guy who hiked to the top of Mount Everest wearing nothing but shoes and shorts and does all these other extraordinary things. Like he swims underwater. He sitting in an ice bath for two hours. So, he's kind of like this so-called freak of nature. Then the scientists start to get involved and he's basically built this movement around just simple techniques of breathing.

    And I think one thing that Tommy and I had kind of bonded over almost immediately ... Because I do recall the day that we met. It was at the Prosper show three years ago. And you came over to our booth and I think you were wearing meditation beads because that was the thing that struck me. It was like, "Oh. Hey, I have those, too." You know, as I remember that in my head. When you see people with these meditation beads, it's like, "Oh, hey, we might have a common understanding of something." Some people wear it for fashion, but I would venture to say most people put these on because there's a practical use to them.

    So when I started talking to Tommy right away, I just kind of got, like, I think I understood him right away. We just surf the similar wavelengths.

    Anyway, I sort of felt the same kind of connection to this, this guy, Wim Hof, I've never met him, but he does this breathing. And it allows you to do these extraordinary things like Tommy said, like, hold your breath for five minutes.

    And for me, as somebody that tries to practice meditation or tries to bring that into my daily life, it was a bit of a radical approach to doing this. Because holding your breath for minutes at a time, it teaches you something about yourself, and in the process, you know, they are conducting studies on this guy. They're literally like prodding him and putting him under MRIs and, you know, trying to figure out what makes this guy work and like, how can he sit underneath water? How can he hold his breath, for so long?

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yep.

    Mark Liu:

    It's all about basically the alkalinity in your body and I won't bore you guys too much, because I'm sure you want to listen to other things. But the accumulated benefits of doing this, for me, and perhaps even you Tommy, was that it gives you that mental clarity, it gives you that charge you need. And it's also, you know, it has connections to your overall immunity.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yep.

    Mark Liu:

    And so that's, especially in this day and age, I'm going to do everything I can to try to stay safe. And it means just spending 20 minutes a day just taking deep breaths and trying to alkalinize my body if that's the word.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah.

    Mark Liu:

    I'm going to give it a try.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah, I mean, this Wim Hof breathing has changed a lot. I mean, I wake up in the morning. I do it. If you guys ... Check it out. Just google him. YouTube him. W-I-M H-O-F Wim Hof breathing. It's pretty amazing stuff. When I got past the five-minute mark, Mark, I started to hear things auditorially.

    Mark Liu:

    It's wild.

    Tommy Beringer:

    It's crazy. The colors are brighter. I don't know. It's almost like you're ... The pineal gland is becoming wetter or cleaner. I don't know. Something like that.

    This is a podcast about ... They're like, "Wait a minute, what kind of podcast is this. Is this a meditation podcast." Yeah, I know, right?

    I just wanted to break into how ... What me and Mark do every morning, we meditate, we do this Wim Hof breathing method, and, you know, this is going to segue nicely into what we want to talk about today, is being a remote company. Working from home. And working from home has its challenges, so we need to have that meditation. Even if you don't work from home, or if you work from an office, you always, I think, always need to be centered and meditate and do any type of breathing method that you can think of, or that you're comfortable with.

    This podcast is going to be about, mostly talking about, how we work remotely as a company. Mark's over in Barcelona, and I'm here in LA, and we have employees, you know, New York, Texas, geez I forget where else.

    Mark Liu:

    New Caledonia, Philippines, China. Yeah.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yes, that's ... Yes.

    Mark Liu:

    Yeah.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I mean, Mark, this paradigm shift seemed to be happening because of the COVID-19, all of these major tech companies and smaller tech companies are figuring out that they can have their employees work from home and save some money, save some money on the costs on our overhead for space and Twitter, I think, even announced a couple of weeks ago-

    Mark Liu:

    Yeah.

    Tommy Beringer:

    ... that their employees could stay home and work from home forever now if they want indefinitely.

    Mark Liu:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Tommy Beringer:

    Do you think that this way of working is going to stay? Is it going to sustain? Or do you think they're going back into the buildings, having a physical office space? What do you think's going to happen with this?

    Mark Liu:

    At least half of the workforce, we're going to adapt it and certainly, in the service industry or in other places where you have to show up, because that's where your customers are, you know, you couldn't necessarily perform these functions from home. But as knowledge workers, George and I, George the CEO, we've long felt that there's really no reason for us to be chained to a desk and sit there all day long, and some days when you're just not feeling productive, or even worse, spending three hours a day sitting in traffic just to get to this location where you now have to sit and somehow be productive. That was just a completely inefficient use of our time we felt.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Mark Liu:

    And part of the reason why I joined MerchantWords was because George and I, you know, we've worked together before, George and John, the CTO, we've all worked together previously and they're developers with 20-25 years worth of experience. I, myself, have been in the industry for 17 years, almost 17 years. And so we understand the purpose of being in an office can be helpful at a high bandwidth situation where you can exchange ideas fluidly. But there's so many other things that exist outside of that world that are responsible for efficiency, and that's effectively what we want.

    There's this whole movement of folks around Tim Ferris' world and others that, you know, work smarter not harder, four-hour workweek, so on and so forth. And I think that's all achievable. If anything that I've learned from this whole COVID-19 pandemic is that a different world can be achieved. We don't necessarily have to be balanced to the old institutions, to the old ways of doing things. We can reimagine things.

    We're by no means at the forefront of this. Although we have been a completely remote company from the start, we just recognize that there's a better way to do things, especially as a smaller company.

    Tommy Beringer:

    100% agree with you on that, Mark. There are so many tools that you can now use to run a company efficiently nowadays, especially a remote company. Who knows if there's going to be any brick and mortar companies anymore, any longer out there, especially in the tech world. But one thing I want to know is what are the challenges of a remote company? What are the biggest challenges that you see and that you face?

    Mark Liu:

    The most challenging aspect I would say is just the face time where we're not always going to be able to coordinate with everybody around the world. Even in the United States, because we're distributed throughout five or six different states in the US. Those situations where that face to face, the ideas that come from that, even just the, what I call, ambient awareness. It's this idea of if you work in a company and you're all just sitting having lunch together one day, or you overhear a conversation that's happening in some pocket in the office somewhere and you say, "Oh, hey. I came across this similar situation," or, "I'm working on this project and we can merge those together.

    Those challenges become amplified in a remote company, at least from our experience because it's not like we have a live stream of everybody just sitting up so I can peer over and just see what our doing, say hi all the time. Although, I have, on occasion, done so just so we can see kind of face to face and work together.

    I would say that the level of learning that is required for a company to move forward when you're not actually physically together, it becomes one of those challenges that you have to figure out, "Okay, well, how do we then build up these processes?" Or, "How do we build the company to be able to support the fluid exchange of ideas?" So I think that the biggest thing for is that kind of understanding, "Well, what is it that you're working on? What is it that our head of customer experience is working on? What is it that our data collection team, our data science team, is working on? How do I, as a conduit, allow that information to flow back and forth, at least between what I understand and what they understand." And then furthermore, foster those conversations.

    Like, when you go out and you have your conversations with everybody else on the team, the idea is like we have to continually centralize that information somehow, so that's what I'm always trying to push and to be cognizant of is how do we keep information in a place where it's not only freely accessible but able to be synthesized with other information rather easily.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah. And I think that you, as the president of the company Mark, you do an amazing job with making sure we are putting the right projects forward. And then also keeping the documents centralized so everyone can work on them and have their ideas flowing. And Google Docs is definitely one of the tools that we use that is-

    Mark Liu:

    Yes.

    Tommy Beringer:

    I mean, it's a godsend pretty much, right?

    Mark Liu:

    Yeah. Everything you need is right there.

    Tommy Beringer:

    And another tool that we use that keeps everything super efficient for us is Slack. Let's talk to the people a little bit about Slack if they don't know yet what Slack is.

    Mark Liu:

    Yeah. Slack has been super useful for us, right? It's a fantastic communication tool.

    Quick side story, but George, John, and I, and some other developers that work at MerchantWords, we built a messenger for doctors and hospitals and nurses to use that was very similar to Slack. And we spent a lot of time building one, so I've got a bit of a love affair with these kinds of communication tools. And I love what they're doing, especially at Slack, because for MerchantWords, we're able to integrate so many different things. Like, for example, how we manage our projects. We can integrate Trello into there. We can integrate email alerts into there. As a platform, Slack represents a great, wonderful resource for all the remote companies out there to manage things centrally.

    I mean, we can even run our customer service through Slack, you know? It's such a wonderful thing because that's ... I mean, if you think about it, Slack is our virtual office, right? We have these documents and these artifacts that we produce through Google and other areas like video. But by and large, like when we congregate, when we meet as a company, it's either on Google Hangouts or what they call Google Meet now, or it's on Slack, right? So, that's our office space, if you will.

    So what I try to do is figure out, "Well, how do we use this office space as a place to make things a lot more efficient?" Because in the day to day life, especially now when kids are home and we have to play teacher, phys ed teacher.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah.

    Mark Liu:

    And sometimes even dispute mediator. We've kind of forced these parents to mitigate a lot of things and our children have to put up with a lot. And so the demands that are put on us as professionals has been amplified. But like I said, from the start, MerchantWords was a fully virtual company, it was a fully remote company. And so that's built into the DNA of ours, it's just, "Hey, you need to go step outside to go be PE teacher for two hours? Go, please. Go run those kids because they need to go move their bodies."

    I think that's one of the lessons that I learned throughout the years here at MerchantWords, especially living here in Barcelona, where I'm nine hours ahead of half of the development team, is that I can't necessarily bend, make everybody else's schedule bend to mine.

    Initially, I thought it was like, "Okay. I can work in the morning hours and then I'll hand things off to Tommy because Tommy is so awesome and he can carry it on." But it turns out that there's still a lot of conversation, of brainstorming, or making sure that the details are done right, because we work with a tremendous amount of data. I think that being a small team that we have to be super connected with the product itself. And so what I've learned is that ... I've subsequently adjusted my days. So, I get up normally. I used to be a morning person but since I moved to Spain it's now mornings to me are about 9 or 10 o'clock now the kids don't have to ... I don't have to drop them off somewhere.

    What I've managed to do is, it's kind of ironic, is if you've ever asked yourself the question, "I wish I had more hours in a day," or, "How can I get more hours in a day?" One tip to you would be to move to another time zone if your company will allow it. I'm not kidding you, I've become a lot more productive. Sure, my days are extremely long, but I guess you can say I'm an intense person as it is. I kind of throw myself at everything, whether it's parenting, sports, kids, vacations. I'm able to get up in the morning at nine, do a little bit of work, do my routines in the morning, get the kids focused and ready, get them what they need in order to go on with their days, do some work, drop out again, make lunch. Break up my day a lot more different than I would be able to if I just had to show up every single day at 9 o'clock and sit at a desk.

    I feel enormously blessed to be able to do this. And the circumstances of which this came about led to greater growth in me, not only as a person but as a professional.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Absolutely. If you could quickly paint the picture for listeners of what is your day like waking up in Barcelona. What do you do? Do you do something in the night before you wake up to prepare yourself for the next day? What is your process in the morning and how do you go about your day? If you could paint your picture as a president of a tech company, just paint that picture for us.

    Mark Liu:

    I can honestly say this is the first time anybody's ever asked me, aside from my family, of course.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Not to put you on the spot.

    Mark Liu:

    No, no. It's cool. I don't know that ... I'm humbled that I would be asked this question.

    Something that one of my mentors many years ago taught me was this concept of winning the morning. It's this idea of, like, when you get up there's a finite amount of time where your brain, and there are studies around this, your brain has the ability to perform executive functions, things like organizing, planning, prioritizing, reflecting. Things that are just sort of like, "Okay. I need to have a clean slate." Because you literally do. You wake up in the morning, your body has replenished itself from the night before, your brain has done the same thing, assuming you had a good night's sleep, of course. Your brain has done all the organizing it needs to do and it's ready for the next day. So, now you can approach this day essentially with a clean slate.

    What I do is, first thing is get up is, like, make sure you have a routine. The first thing I do every morning is I chug a big glass of water, as big as I can. And that wakes me up faster than any cup of coffee will because your body also gets dehydrated overnight. I'll wake up, I'll chug a glass of water, and I'll just like very slowly get into things. I'll listen to the news just to understand what's happening. If I need to be quiet I'll definitely take five minutes to myself and just sit and nothing. Just set an alarm for five minutes, I'll just sit. If I have to put on my headphones because kids are on, that's cool. And just let your mind do what it needs to do.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yep.

    Mark Liu:

    Because it's in this state, especially in the morning, because it's in this state where it's more receptive to things, where it's ready, just pay attention to what comes up.

    I didn't come up with this idea either, these are just like nuggets of wisdom that have been handed down to me and I've applied them to my day and it's been helpful. Once that's done, if I'm not working out that day I'll do Wim Hof in the morning, I'll do a little bit more meditation. Then I'll get into my day and I'll make breakfast for the kids. I like to cook so I'll make breakfast for the kids. We'll get them going on their day.

    And then and only then will I go and reach for my cell phone. Once everything is done, then I'll say, "Okay, well, what does the rest of the world want from me?" Because if I don't take the time in the morning for myself and to make sure that I'm right, then I'm not going to be right for everybody else. And so it's very important for me. I won't touch my phone in the morning because it's like, if you think about what it is, it's a device that just screams for your attention.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah.

    Mark Liu:

    So, to me, it kind of has a negative effect on all of the things that I have to do in order to process work and just to be a human being for the rest of the day, I suppose. That's kind of in a nutshell what my morning's like.

    And then in the afternoons, depending on the day, I'll work on more of the longer-term projects. Because that's the time that you guys are sleeping. Sometimes our developers are night owls so I'll connect with them on works things, but most of the time during the afternoons I'll find like one or two hours to dedicate towards long term strategic planning because we have to make sure that we're not reacting to things. We're thoughtful, we're planning, and things that come our way we want to make sure we process them and we handle them appropriately as opposed to just constantly react to things. That's like my afternoons.

    And then my evenings, when you guys get up, those are usually occupied with calls so anywhere from like six to midnight, I'll just hop back on. We have our daily calls, we have our daily calls on the business side, on the dev side. Any other calls that I need to make in order to make sure that everybody has what they need before I check out for the day around midnight.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah. I mean, you're amazing with that. Sometimes I'll be on at three o'clock, four o'clock, Pacific Standard Time in California, and I'll see Mark pop on something like does this guy sleep? Like, what's going on over here. Geez.

    You are a tyrant. You, for sure, get things done by any means possible and we're very lucky to have you as our president, I just want to say that.

    Mark Liu:

    Thank you. Thank you.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you for painting that picture. You know what? Add some lemon to your water in the morning.

    Mark Liu:

    Yes.

    Tommy Beringer:

    And try to make sure that it's room temperature.

    Mark Liu:

    Yes.

    Tommy Beringer:

    I do this every morning, too.

    Mark Liu:

    Okay.

    Tommy Beringer:

    I drink water. I make sure it's room temperature. And I add a full lemon. I'm very lucky to have my mom and my wife's mother, they both have lemon trees so I have an insane amount of fresh lemons all the time. Anyway, that's a tip, quick tip there. Now I want an actionable pro tip from the president of a tech company that you can give to our listeners today that they can take away and use it in their everyday life or inside of their business.

    Mark Liu:

    Absolutely. I guess my first tip I'd already revealed. If anything, I would say just focus on developing the right morning routine for you, because that sets the tone for the rest of the day. And once you figure out that routine, you have to be kind of ruthless about making sure that you abide by it because this is your... You want to listen to what your body and your mind are telling you that you need to do, not what everybody else is telling you what you need to do, because that's the only time that you really, that I really have, during my day to be able to focus on myself. That would be my first one.

    The other ones are some more practical tips, I would say. One thing is focus on, as a remote company, focus on things that will help foster collaboration, you know? Any kind of tool that you can get your hands on. There's a wealth of software. It's just like a Renaissance period for software development now. There's literally a tool for everything. There's an app for everything. Find what you can that will help foster that collaboration amongst your team. Try a bunch of things. Don't be afraid to fail because essentially what you're doing through these tools is you're codifying the culture of the company, right? So, like I was saying earlier, Slack is our "Virtual Office" and so that's where our culture gets codified. And so we want to make sure we celebrate things like everybody's birthday is on there because those things can be important. Those things are very important for people that live alone and work remotely, you know? You want to make sure that that connection is maintained to people.

    And then while you have a distributed workforce, because, and this is more of like a leftover from my previous life working in a security company of sorts, basically, a secure messenger company for transmitting patient information, is you want to make sure that it's secure, too. Because, in my view, the internet is still very much like the wild wild West. So if you can picture the wild wild West in your head, there are lots of people out there that are roving around looking to invade and steal and take information because the information is power nowadays. Focus on the security of your company, too. Like, put two factors on everything you possibly can. Make sure that if your employees work from cafes get them a VPN. Make their lives a little bit comfortable, but also because we're knowledge workers, because we produce so much intellectual property, we want to protect that as much as possible.

    So make sure you're thinking about your operation in terms of like, "how do I lock things down?" For those sellers out there that work with lots of VA's, what are you doing to make sure that your information stays with that company? Did you look at the privacy policy for the company that you're working for? What happens to the information? What happens to the Google Doc after they've contributed to it? Things like that, you want to make sure that you think through all the security aspects of it.

    If I had a few more minutes I would say the last one thing is just to kind of be flexible. There's an incredible amount of challenges that we are going to face as a civilization. We are going through them now. I'm optimistic that we're going to come out better on the other side. But flexibility is essentially what has allowed us to grow MerchantWords, become this company that we are, stay as a remote company.

    That's part of the reason I work so hard is that I'm allowed to live in Barcelona. It's literally a 19-year dream of mine that I've been wanting to live abroad and share this experience for my kids so that we can all grow as human beings. I protect and honor what it is that MerchantWords has provided for me and my family. And a lot of that comes from just being flexible. Like, being flexible about what it is that I, as a president, have to do. Maybe I have to answer a customer service question, maybe I have to amend a process.

    The last thing I will leave it is don't be afraid. Don't be afraid of experimenting with new processes because a lot of companies are now forced to come online and not really having had the benefit perhaps of going through the wave and the maturity of the so-called agile methodology movement.

    We watched this happen throughout the many years and it's evolved to a point where you can kind of pick and choose what works best for you. For us, it's Kanban, which it allows us to be more receptive and understanding of what happens and what's happening in the market. What's happening with our customers. So think about your process internally and how you can amend it to be more flexible, to be more adaptable to these times.

    Because if you'd have told me last year that there was going to be a pandemic that was going to sweep through and virtually one of the only industries that were going to be the most successful were finance, stock picking-

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yep.

    Mark Liu:

    ... the medical industry and e-commerce, I would've said, "No, man, there's a recession coming."

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah.

    Mark Liu:

    If I didn't have that flexibility to think, "Oh, wow. This is happening. How are we going to adapt to this?" We would be flailing a lot. So, you know, be flexible, be humble.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Yeah. I think being flexible is key. I mean, I remember when I met you too, Mark, you said you guys were moving to Barcelona and you thought it, and you made it happen and you're out there now.

    Being flexible from a holistic view, it's just something that I think everyone needs to adapt within their everyday life, within their business so when new things come their way they can figure it out. If they want to learn it you have to learn it and then you just move forward. Keep moving forward and don't look back and good things, beautiful things happen, right?

    Mark Liu:

    Onwards and upwards, always.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Onwards and upwards. That's right. Thank you so much for spending your time with me here on the MerchantWords podcast. Loved having you on as a guest. We're going to go ahead and wrap this up. Yeah, until next time, stay awesome and be awesome.

    Mark Liu:

    Yeah, Tommy, you're an incredible human being. I am very fortunate to have crossed paths with you and I can't wait to see what we do two, three, four, five years down the line.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Oh, we're going to continue to be together brother. I'll tell you that.

    Mark Liu:

    Absolutely.

    Tommy Beringer:

    Thank you. Thank you so much and I feel the same way.

    Mark Liu:

    All right, brother.

    Tommy Beringer:

    All right. Thank you guys so much for listening. And if you got any value out of this podcast at all, please let us know at the place that you listened to it at, whether it be iTunes, Stitcher, whatever it is, give us some love, give us an awesome review and let us know maybe some things you want us to talk about on the next podcast.

    Until next time guys, stay awesome and be awesome.

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