Out of Office: How a Book Apart Was Built by a 100% Remote Team

a book apart

On this podcast, you’ll hear from Katel LeDu, an entrepreneur who built A Book Apart, a site that sells brief books for people who make websites. with a team that works 100% remotely.

In this episode, you'll learn:

  • Why to hire someone full time when you are still working your day job.
  • How to communicate with a remote team.
  • How to work backwards to achieve your goals.

Listen to Shopify Masters below…

Show notes:


Felix: Today I'm joined by Katel LeDu, the Executive Director at ABookApart.com. A Book Apart sells brief books for people who make websites and was started in 2010. It's a completely remote company, but with headquarters in New York, New York. Welcome Katel.

Katel: Thanks for having me.

Felix: Tell us a bit more about the company and what kind of books, exactly, do you guys sell?

Katel: It's funny that you mentioned that we make brief books for people who make websites. Feel like that's changing a little bit as the industry grows. We're, just recently, realizing that it's really for people who work on the web in general in "the digital space." All the books are web design resources and subject matter covers everything from programming languages, the first couple books were on HTML5 and CSS3, to responsive web design. That was one of our landmark books. Also covers content strategy, design theory, typography. Some of our recent releases were on Git, which is a really good subject that a lot of people wanted to know more about. They're all about 100 to 150 pages. I think that was also a thing that we wanted to do as part of launching A Book Apart, was make it really approachable.

Felix: Yeah, I like that idea of making it approachable. I think a lot of times when we people are maybe out there that is listening, they're creating books or informational based products, or even not that. Maybe just physical products. We think that the more the better. The more features you cram into it, the longer the book, the better. It sounds like you guys found that that isn't the direction you want to go. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What does it mean to keep it brief, concise and approachable? Why that approach?

Katel: Definitely. I think when Mandy Brown, Jason Santa Maria and Jeffrey Zeldman started the company in 2010, there was a need for some resources like this that where more handbooks that you could reach for and dive in to learn something and really put it to work right away. I think at the time, and even know, there are a lot of really great resources out there. They're often comprehensive and hefty. You have to sit down with them and pour through them. The original pitch was you can get on a plane in New York and by the time you land for a client meeting or something in LA, you'll have brushed up on fast, or gotten a little bit more of a handle on content strategy and you're a little bit more prepared for the job you're doing, or a part of a job that you're learning for the first time. I think that was really important. It's proven really successful. I think that not only is it approachable because they're easy to pick up and read, but I think that it just opens itself up to a bigger audience. It's almost not as much of a commitment. You can get into it and get what you need out of it.

Felix: No, that's definitely a good point about how you really have to know the customers you're going after. If you make it daunting or really complex, whether it's a book in your case, or a physical product, you definitely narrow the market, right? You would need more expertise or more skills or need to be further along in your skills or whatever it is that you as a company is selling to your customers. It really narrows the market. Now the general public, the people that are these newbies to the space for using your product, whether it be a book or physical product, that's going to be large. As you make it more and more complex, the market's going to shrink because it's going to be less people that feel comfortable diving into something like a really complex book or a really complex product. I think that makes total sense. When did you join A Book Apart?

I joined in March of 2013. The company was about 3 years old. I came on to really just officially start running the business more formally. It was more or less a side project for the co-founders that started it, which was a really amazing feat. They were putting books out that were ... That take a lot of, obviously, effort and really good, high quality content and production time. I think they realized that it was really becoming successful enough that it could benefit from having someone come on and steer the ship a little bit.

Felix: Very cool. How did you find out about A Book Apart? You were saying there was a side project at the time before you came in and helped turn into an actual business. How did you find out about it?

Katel: Essentially, A Book Apart was born out of their ... We have two sister companies. One is A List Apart, which is the online magazine, and then Event Apart, which is the conference series that happens every year in about 8 to 10 cities a year. There was this initial baseline of people who were writing and speaking about these topics. I think it was a natural evolution of wanting to offer this expertise and this information in a new format. I had been following A List Apart and An Event Apart for awhile. I've worked in media and publishing for a good portion of my career. I had already known about them. I followed a lot of the people who were running those businesses and contributing as authors and speakers. I had been following those people for awhile. I just really knew their work and I really admired it. I think when the opportunity arose where I could potentially become a real part of that, I was just super excited. I thought, "I'm going to just go for it."

Felix: When does it make sense for a company to ... Well, before I ask this question. What did you do once you, let's say the very first week, or month that you joined the company? What were some things that you were focusing on adding to to A Book Apart?

Katel: I think the thing that I spent the most time on in the very beginning was really just getting ... Not just getting the lay of the land of where things were, but really identifying what are the things that I can spend time doing for the next 3, 6, 9, 18 months that is going to basically build a really good, solid foundation for the business and the company to grow from? I think that was one of the big things that when I came on that was a desire. They were successful and the company was really doing what the original goals had been set up to do. There was a desire and a question around like, "Can we scale this? Can we grow it a little bit?" I spent a lot of that first bit of time really just putting some processes into place and building that foundation and making sure there were really good, easy communications in place so that everyone knew what was going on and having a little bit more of a hub and a dashboard of ... I guess, trying to create a little but of a North Star for everyone working on the individual parts of the business.

Felix: Yeah, I like that. I think this is a stage that maybe a lot of listeners are at, where they have some income coming in from a store, but they really consider a side project because they already have maybe a day job that they're working on and not ready to make that jump yet, or their company's not at that point where it's an actual business where they're comfortable enough making that jump. I think when you came in is exactly where a lot of listeners are at. Let's say someone is out there that is able to hire somebody to help them out with basically your role. When does it make sense? If you have a side project, you probably can't afford somebody to work full-time. At which stage did you find A Book Apart at when you came in?

Katel: I think that is the thing. It's really scary to take on a staff person, an employee of the company, that's really going to be there full-time. I think when I came on it was this critical point where it was either going to remain a side project and there was a question mark around how much or how big or how many books we could put out. I think when I came on it was just ... The other path was, "Okay, we can bring someone on and actually put energy and resource into having someone steer things, but in a way that collates all of the work that they had already done." I came on and it wasn't like I was starting from scratch.

There was already a big audience that we were working with, which was great. There were obviously already work flows in place that were producing books on a regular basis. I took those things and streamlined them. It's allowed us to work with a lot more freelancers, a lot more different folks. It's just evolved the way we work remotely, which was a big part of where we started. The root of it is it's difficult and it's scary to make that decision, but I think if there's a point at which it feels financially comfortable enough to make that decision, it's a good decision. I think that you can start with, what is the one role that we need, at least the one role that we need, that's going to really change the company or help us move further in the direction we want to go?

Felix: Let's talk about this role a little bit. I think as founders and when we think about entrepreneurs, we think about all the people that are founding companies, we think of them as the person that does everything, especially at the beginning, right? They're the idea person. They come up with the idea, come up with the vision, and they're going on executing everything, organizing everything, but that's a limit, right? You can't always be doing everything. Maybe you don't necessarily have the skills to do everything and you should look to invest your time into the things that you're most skilled at that is most valuable for you and then hire out for the roles or the skills that you don't currently have. Why would a founder look to hire someone like an Executive Director? I don't mean to sound like a job interview, but I just want to get a better understanding of what ... If someone's sitting here and thinking like, "I really feel like my business is stagnating. I don't know." You were saying before about finding the role that is going to have the most impact. If there and thinking between, "Oh, should I hire a CEO, essentially, or should I hire somebody like CFO," how do they make the decision on which role to go for and why would they pick an Executive Director?

Katel: When I initially came on, the role was Managing Director, which we're not really worried about roles or what they're called. I just mote that because I think that encompassed, and it still encompasses, a role that would be able to ... A generalist role that would be able to come in, help prioritize the things that maybe needed to happen before other things. Just making sure that there were communications plans in place when we did book launches, or marketing plans and making sure those things were in front of everyone. Really just figuring out what the tools were that we needed to work efficiently with a lot of people that were remote. This isn't to say that when I came on it wasn't working. It definitely was.

I think the reason that they decided on having someone come in at that level and that, again, as a generalist rather than a dedicated editor or a designer or something like that, was just to corral a lot of little things that needed to happen. I think part of that was just having ... I have an English and editing background, so I think there was just a good fit where I could see all of the different pieces and then help prioritize. It wasn't necessarily that they didn't want to do those things. Like I said, it was a side project so they were already ... Those three founders were already in full-time jobs or doing other things full-time. It was like, "Okay, we need at least one person to focus on this full-time." That's really smart. Again, I think it's that decision between, "Okay, we can keep this going, or we can see how much we can grow this if we put a dedicated resource focusing on that."

Felix: I like that. This is a quote that I've heard that I would love your thoughts on, which is that, "If you hire somebody for half of their time, they give you a quarter of their effort." I guess meaning that when you don't have someone fully dedicated onto just one thing, they're spread amongst all these other different things that they're working on, whether other gigs or other projects they're working on. That has an affect, not just because your time is split, but then switching between all those things and just having all that stuff in your head, it's not going to be an efficient use of your brain if you're a employee that was working part-time. What are your thoughts on that?

Katel: Yeah, I think that's really ... It's true and it's really tough. I think if you have, like you said, someone who's, or a handful of people, who are thinking about and working on a thing, particularly something that's product based, for a percentage of their time, I think it moves incrementally along. Whereas if you have someone who ... Even if it is just one person, and granted, I think our vision is to grow the team, grow the business, have a few more people who are actually in the staff and have that 100 percent energy. I think if you have at least one person focusing on that, especially when it's running the actual business. I think that is one thing that a lot of folks ... I've been there too, where you think, "It's fine. We'll just all pull together and we'll make it happen." You can. I think it just doesn't happen quite as well or maybe with as much impact and focus as if you have one person who's keeping their eyes on what the horizon is and what the goals are and what ... Really seeing, is everyone else aligned on that? Does everyone know where we're all going?

Felix: Yeah. I like that. The one thing interesting about the situation that you're in is that, I think what you're saying earlier was the founders, the co-founders, were all working on the business on the side. They had full-time jobs, but then hired someone else that wasn't a founder, to run the business full-time. I've never, necessarily, I've never heard of that situation before. I think you hear about it all the time from maybe an entrepreneur that then decided to hire someone, like a CEO, to run the company other than them. This seems like a particularly different situation where they're working full-time and more people out there that are listening are probably thinking, "I can't wait til I can quit my job and work on it full-time, rather than hire someone else to work on it full-time." What are your thoughts on that trade-off between you, yourself as an entrepreneur, going full-time, versus keep on doing what you're doing, whether it be a day job or whatever else you're working on, and then hire someone else to run the business?

Katel: I think what they did and what they do is really hard. I'm not sure I would have been able to make that decision in their shoes. Just because of what you said. I think there are a lot of people who are in the position where things are starting out and they're like, "What do I do? Do I commit to this full-time or don't I?" I think they were so smart in what they did. They wanted to be able to do all of those other things. At the time, they didn't want to just focus on necessarily A Book Apart, or A List Apart, or An Event Apart, or the other myriad of things that they were working on. They wanted to have that ability to do all of those things. I think that was really smart.

It's almost like, if I think about it for myself, I want to do everything. To take a step back and say, "Okay, we need to bring someone in here who, if we're not going to do it, or if we're not in a position to do it, then we need to bring in someone who is 100 percent in, ready to go, going to treat this like it's theirs." That was really smart. I happened to feel that way. It was a really good fit. We had a lot of interviewing and questions and conversation leading up to me coming on board, which was a big part of it. I think, like I said, it's letting that go and figuring out, what's the most valuable thing I can do for the business?

Felix: I think it's a super smart decision. I could imagine it just being such a hard decision, like you were saying. It's your baby. You're the one that started it. Why would you give this to someone else? Not just give it to someone else, but again, going back to what the listeners are probably thinking, is that they want to become an entrepreneur, start up their business, because they want their own time back. In this situation the founders are already working on doing something else. This, A Book Apart, at that time was a side project, rather than setting up the business in a way where they could work on it full-time. They decided to hire someone else full-time to do it. I think that is a, definitely, hard decision.

Seems to be playing out the right way. It's one of those things where you have to look at your situation objectively, look at your skills objectively, look at your goals objectively, and make that hard decision to do it. Definitely agree with that. I want to talk a little bit about ... I know your experience early on, again, because I think a lot of the listeners out there are in the stage where they have something brewing on the side, but want to turn into an actual business. You said that when you first came in, you wanted to really lay out a 3 month, 6 month, 12 month, 18 month plan and figure out, organize everything. How did you approach that? What were some tips on how to come in and look at a side project objectively and road map out where it should be in, let's say, 18 months?

Katel: I think that the most important thing was sitting down, obviously, with the founders and understanding what their vision was, what their goals were, what they had done and felt like their progress had been in terms of reaching those goals, what else was in the future for them and what they wanted to do. I think knowing that, then I was able to prioritize a little bit. Okay, we need to basically put some documentation in place so that anyone who's working with us can come in, pick up, hit the ground running and do the work. It's the basic things where you want everybody to be able to be on the same page, to be able to pinch hip for each other and not necessarily say, "Okay, we need a marketing plan, or we need these specific siloed things." It's looking at the company, figuring out what the goals are and then understanding what are the things we need to do to get there.

That could be anything from, at the time, bolstering our customer support a little bit. We have a couple folks working on it part-time, which is great. We have two folks, actually one person on the West Coast, one person on the East Coast, and that works really well for us. I think it's fine-tuning as part of that broader road map. Figuring out how to fine-tune all of the little things so that you're not just putting a stake in the ground somewhere and saying, "This is working. It's done. We don't have to worry about it." If something needs to be adjusted, like you need to bump up customer support because you have a bunch of launches coming out, then it's having the flexibility and knowing that that's going to come and go. Making those decisions along the way.

Felix: You guys already had plans on, once you join the company, to continue to grow out the staff and all that too?

Katel: Not necessarily when I joined. I think at that point there were ... Yes, there were definitely broad goals and a vision of making the publishing house into something that was staffed in a way that felt like we were on solid footing, putting books out and working with folks. I think we're slowly working towards that. I think we also have just had a really good experience working with freelancers. I think that was definitely already ... The basis of that was already set up when I came on. There were already people working on these great books and people who really loved doing that work. I've, since then, grown our editor pool and our editor network. We work with a lot of different authors now. I think there's a lot of interesting things we do with pairing authors and editors.

Felix: You mentioned that a big part of what you're doing was to identify the processes and then create some systems around it and documentation. I think that that's ... I've heard this over time and time again from entrepreneurs that said that that was the key to unlocking growth and scale in their business. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did you know what should be outside of the founders' brains and into an actual written, or some kind of system, so that it could be more scalable?

Katel: Definitely. One of the things I ask myself a lot when I'm thinking about just that is, what needs to be in place for me to be able to walk away, right? Not necessarily leave, because I love what I do and that's not really what it's about. It's more like if I had to be out of commission for a day or week or whatever, could someone come in and pick up where things were left off? That's literally from every role. From, particularly the founders who are still involved on a day to day level, or a level that which they know what is going on and they need to know at a high level what's happening, to everyone who's coming on board and working on a specific project. I think that's really important.

I wanted to make sure that there was a visibility about what needed to happen and when and who was involved. I think that's really just a simple recording that and making sure that the people who are not just working together on the start of the project, but down the road into when things change over from editing to production, who they're going to be working with. Just making sure that those introductions happen and that communication happens and that people know where to find the resources. I totally agree with that. I think that that forms such a good foundation for people to be able to go in and do the work and not have to worry about where or how to find something, or who to talk to.

Felix: The store owners out there have an idea of when they should be focusing on this. It doesn't seem like it makes sense if you're just ... Let's say your launched your store last week and all of a sudden you're spending all this time documenting all of the things that needs to be done. When do you think a store or a business should start thinking about documenting their processes?

Katel: If you ask anyone I work with, I'm a big fan of doing that and recording things and organizing things. I would do it right away, but I know that that's not feasible, regardless of the set up or where things are with the business. One of the things that I noticed is if there was a process or something that we were doing that felt like I was trying to remember like, "How did we do this last time?" Or, "Why does it seem like I'm doing all of this work every single time to try and get to the same goal?" I realized, "Okay. If I step back and sketch out what is involved here, I think I can pinpoint where the problems are and where the duplication points are." I can cut down on that and streamline it. Then the next time, that's when I would either put a little process sheet together or say, "Okay, look. Here's who to contact for this," and, "That goes into GitHub." That type of thing. It becomes a little bit more reducing the steps.

Felix: Makes sense. What is the actual process for documenting? Is it all written, or is it video, or how do you ... What does the library look like?

Katel: It's mainly written. We use a bunch of different tools. I use TeamGantt a lot for publishing schedules and that thing. We use GitHub a lot for ... That's where we store all of our book repositories and all of the materials and content that goes along with each book project. We do everything ... Tracking [inaudible 00:29:47] and doing that thing in Google Docs. We use a couple different tools. One of the things that, actually, this makes me think of really a lot is a file guide. We actually started using GitHub. We created a Wiki to house our editorial style guide. It's been this amazing project that has unfolded on its own. It some point, we would love to make it open source. It's something where we tied slack to GitHub and so now we have this style guide that's evolving and growing. There's all this conversation around it, which is just really, really cool.

Felix: Yeah, I really like the idea of creating a Wiki for your documentation. I haven't done this, but everything, all that I have, is all stored in Google Docs and I feel like I need to migrate into something that's a little bit easier to update and Wiki sounds like a much better alternative. Speaking of keeping things up to date, do you regularly look over documentation, or how do you make sure that none of the steps of processes are redundant or updated? How do you keep it up to date?

Katel: I think having things in a tool like GitHub makes that a lot easier. Not only can you go in and make sure that you're working on the latest version, I think it also just makes it a lot easier too, to update when something needs to change. I also really like this because I think it keeps you honest. You have other collaborators on it and people commenting or pulling. Working on the same things can keep you check in terms of updating things and making sure things are up to snuff and working and useful.

Felix: Awesome. For anyone that doesn't know, by GitHub, is just a way for you to ... First thing it was used for, even today, is used more for developers that are contributing to a code base collectively, like you're saying. Again, it allows people to track who's adding what, or removing what, from the code base. The way that you're using it, it's being used for documentation. It might not be applicable for everyone out there, but actually A Book Apart does have a Git for Humans book, if anyone wants to learn how to do that and use GitHub.

Katel: Yes. It's fantastic. You're totally right. You hit on something great there because GitHub is so powerful and so robust. We do use it for those original uses, like web development and keeping our site, maintaining our site and that kind of thing. We're just always really thrilled that we were able to use it for something even further than that.

Felix: Yeah, definitely. Cool. One thing you were saying earlier about laying out a timeline, not timeline, but a roadmap for many months, a year and a half down the road, was that you figured out what needed to be done. I think an example you gave was bolstering customer support. When you have the goal like this, that maybe at end of 3 months you want to "bolster customer support," how does this goal actually roll out into your daily or weekly tasks? I think this is a challenge that a lot of us entrepreneurs have, we have lofty goals, but then it doesn't actually break down to things that we can do immediately. It sits there and hangs over our head like, "Man, I got this thing I got to do." You don't make any progress towards it because there aren't any steps to get there. Does that make it sense? How do you get past that?

Katel: Yeah. A couple things, I feel like, go into that from my experience. One is definitely the people you work with. We work with just massively talented, smart, caring people. I think that's a matter of not ... It's a little bit of luck, but it's also just working with a lot of people and understanding what kind of questions to ask and making sure that you get a feeling for what it's going to be like to work with something and to work with someone. I think conversely, I'm a more stern note. If the relationship isn't working, then being okay with letting it go and finding a relationship that does work with someone who you know is going to not just do the job that you want them to do, but also care and have the same investment that you have for making the business and the product what it is. Aside from that, there is definitely ... We wouldn't necessarily have a plan for rolling everything like that out.

I think what we do is we try to iterate in little small movements, so that we're seeing how that works and assessing it and changing if we need to, or just like, "Okay, this is working. Keep doing that." In the case of customer support, I think it's the people and actually going in there. There's a lot of ways and a lot of areas in which you can kind of ... Even though it's a personal, more relationship based thing, where you're talking to customers, we use Desk, which is great. It's a great tool and I think there are a lot of things that we can see right in Desk. Are these tickets coming in and being taken care of on a more regular basis? What's the response time? Are folks having the same issue over and over again? We can not just have conversations about it, but see actual data about what's working and what's not.

Felix: That makes sense. Knowing what I know from just talking to you for 40 minutes, it sounds like you do really try to, not necessarily get detailed with everything, but have a methodical approach. I'm assuming that's the reason why they brought you on. You don't necessarily just attack the problem, or the goal, head on, right? How do you prepare to take on a goal, is my question? If you have a big goal, maybe not the customer support one, but let's say you have a goal to say, "Okay, I want to triple my traffic in 6 months." That's not actionable. You can't actually take that and put it on your to-do list for that day and then all of a sudden you tripled your traffic. What is the approach that you've taken for yourself, or for your team, to make sure that there are things that get done every week, or get done by the end of the month, to make sure that you are tracking towards a goal? Do you use any tools or any kind of systems to make sure that goals are being met?

Katel: Yeah. I will just say, unfortunately. I wish I could put stuff like that on my to-do list and just check it off.

Felix: I would pay a lot of money for a to-do list that worked that way.

Katel: For bigger goals where it's growing audience reach, or building distribution partnerships, or looking at potential licensing relationships or whatever. I'm a huge, huge fan of, whether it's small or big, of working backwards. I think that is something that has always saved a lot of anxiety for me in looking ahead at big to-dos. I think it let's me break it down a little bit. I'm also a big fan of spreadsheets and things like TeamGantt that let me see something scheduled out and planned out, so that I can tweak the little pieces and parts that need to happen along the way. For me, it has been a really useful approach. That is, like I said, looking at all of the things that need to happen to get there. Then, I think I love relying on and working with the people I know who can help me with those things. I think I look for those parts that need to happen and then I ask for help with those things. That is the only way it's going to happen. If it's just relying on me, it's going to be on my to-do list forever.

Felix: I really love that idea of backwards from your goal. That's something that I've adopted maybe a couple years ago and has really changed things for me. It's a lot easier to find your way back to the starting point than trying to figure out how to get to some endpoint that you don't even know what it looks like yet. I think that that's a great idea. The one method that I've heard, you might know it. You know Amy Hoy? Have you heard of her?

Katel: Yeah.

Felix: She's a big proponent of this, too. I think she calls it Bass Ackward. I forget what it was. Basically, she has a way where she says that, "Always start with the end goal in mind and then work your way backwards until you've reached a point where you have a goal or a step that can be accomplished tomorrow." That's just a conceptual thing, so that you know that you've broken your goal down enough that you can actually wake up tomorrow and tackle that step. That's when you know you've hit the endpoint, not endpoint, but the next step, essentially, from the starting point.

Katel: Right. It feels good. It feels good to be able to have a couple things on your list that you can check off. You can say, "Okay, I did those." Putting one step in front of the other. I think about that a lot, actually. I'm a runner and I run a lot. Whenever I go out and run, I literally think, "Okay." I love running, but every once in awhile there's a day where I just don't feel like doing it and I just think, "All you have to do right now is put one foot in front of the other." It sounds cheesy, but I think that is applicable in a lot of situation where you're like, "All right. Just one thing at a time."

Felix: Yeah. That's the reason why when I hear people say, "Dream big," and all this stuff, I actually am not personally a fan of the idea dreaming big. Not because I don't think you should have big goals, but you shouldn't focus on the big goal right off the bat, because it just becomes such a behemoth and looks like it's unaccomplishable because it's so large. I think you should have these big goals. I think you used the term a North Star. You should have this gravitation towards a goal, but don't focus on it so much. Focus on what you can actually do today. What are the very first step, like in your example, the very first step of a run. Focus on that. Don't put your eyes on the finish line, put your eyes on the steps in front of you. I think that's a great point. Cool. I do now want to talk about your remote teams. I think that's where you have the most experience out of all the guests I've had on here. Maybe if we can start off with, how did you know ... Maybe your situation, your industry is a little bit different, or your business is a little bit different, but how did you know who to hire first for the company?

Katel: When I came on, we were already working with quite a few folks, from editors to customer support, to production for, not just print, but e-book. That was great. There was already a base, a group of folks who knew the product, knew what was supposed to happen when. I think that was really helpful for me. To be honest, I came from working at a really big publishing organization. I worked at National Geographic before this. Coming from a very traditional corporate situation, where I would go to work every day and sit in an office and then coming to a situation where I was working at a desk at my house, or coffee shop, and working with people who I wasn't seeing every day, it was completely new. It definitely took me a little while to get used to it. I knew that's something that I wanted to do because I did work with a lot of people who were not in the office when I had that previous job, but I didn't quite know what it would be like to do that as a foundation for no one works together physically. That was something that was actually nice, because I was coming into it and learning how to do it along with everyone else, which was really nice.

We have made other, I guess you would call it, hires. At least in terms of freelance folks along the way. I think that has definitely ... A big part of that is really talking to people. I think any time I have started working with a new freelancer, there's a lot of discussion on a lot of conversation that happens before any work happens. Again, I think it's having a gut feel. I can't say enough about the people that we work with. Everyone is just really wonderful and I think just cares a lot about, not just A Book Apart, because that's one of the things a lot of these people are working on, they really care a lot about the work that they do.

Felix: I think that's one of the biggest shocks that you're talking about earlier is that when you're working for yourself or working from home, when you are working at a day job or you're working in an office, we fantasize about this life. It's going to be so much fun. We'll be home all the time. It's a shock, initially. The whole social aspect is almost gone, right out the window, especially if you're in your own office. You can spend days and, "Wow, I haven't seen anybody," except for people that live in your home. In my case, my dog, so you don't realize how much you miss being around people. How do you personally deal with it? How do you help your employees, or your freelancers, deal with that situation?

Katel: Yeah. I think we definitely rely on Slack. We talk on the phone a lot. We email. We do really use the tools that we have at our disposal to keep communication open. I think what I found is if I need to talk to someone about something and I wait or if I try to find the right time or something, then it may not happen. Even if it's something that I just want to check in really quick on, I just try to find the best method of doing that at the time. Sometimes that means I will email someone or text someone or Slack chat them and say, "Hey, do you have a second? I want to talk over this one thing." They may not have a minute then, but at least then there's something started and we'll get to it when they do have time. One of the things that I guess that is to say that I had to overcome, or I had to talk myself into, was just bother people. It's really just you have to reach out. If I'm running the business, then I need to. If I need to talk to someone, then I'm going to talk them. We'll find a time that works, obviously. I'm not trying to crash anybody's day or crash into anything that they're doing. I think it's really just raising your hand as much as possible and keeping those lines open.

Felix: Yeah, I think that's an important point about how when you are working in the office, usually when you approach somebody that you need their help, or you need to work with them on something, it's almost, "Okay, we're doing it right now." It's a thing that's right in front of us. Let's do it right now. When it's remote and maybe there are time difference, I'm not sure if there's a lot of time differences between your company, but then you have to, like you were saying, there's a lot asynchronous work that happens where you have an idea or you have a thing that you want to work through, but they might not be available at that time. How do you, not necessarily compensate for that, but how do you deal with any time differences? Maybe we'll start there. Are there any big time differences for the people that you work with?

Katel: Not bigger than West Coast, East Coast. Then a couple of authors and editors we've worked with are in the UK or overseas. That definitely, I think, incurs some planning, which is totally fine. I think because everyone is working on multiple things, there's an innate understanding that you do have to plan a lot of this, which is totally fine, even if it's a half an hour conversation. I think that actually turns into a benefit because people really value, not just their time but the other folks' time. Where there's something on the calendar, I feel like I have ... The percentage of times where a call has gone missed or a meeting has not happened is so rare. I think people really want to make it happen. They want to keep things moving.

I think that's also in the nature of what we're doing because we're working on producing something that we obviously, we want to release to the world. There's a sense of wanting to keep things going. I think people are really ... They want to make that communication happen. I would say most of the people we do work with are, obviously, in this space. A lot of us are on the East Coast. I'm actually in Philly now, as of the beginning of this year. I love being in a place where I can take a train to New York and see a lot of the people that I work with. I really do try to do that as often as I can and see people face to face. I think that that's just really valuable any time you can do it. A lot of people may not be able to do that often, but even if you're really remote and you're somewhere where your team is a 3 or 5 hour flight away, trying to do that a couple times a year is super important.

Felix: Makes a lot of sense. I actually had a great question that I saw from a listener when I was asking them for questions about freelancers. They asked, "Freelancers took the freelancing career path to remain independent and flexible and they're their own bosses. How do you manage to balance their interests with the goals of the company?"

Katel: I think the thing that ties us together is not just a love and a caring for the actual content that we're producing, but I think ... One thing that we do, maybe obviously or not obviously, is everyone we work with is paid, obviously. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but there are a lot of businesses out there that rely on, not necessarily favors, but pulling it together and benefiting from industry community networking resources, which is totally ... Sometimes you need to do that to get something off the ground. I think we've taken a lot of stock into making sure people feel like they're being paid and compensated for the work that they're doing so that they want to do quality work. This has definitely been because of the experiences I've had, I want to feel valued and I want to feel like the work that I'm doing is not just work that I'm proud of, but work that contributes to potentially an overall goal. That's another thing that I like to do sometimes. Sometimes people that I work with, their freelancers may not be as interested as others in A Book Apart's overall goal. I think it's important for them to know it. I try to relay that so that everyone understands what we're all working towards and that it's not just an individual book project, which it can often feel like.

Felix: I think you said something in there that it was a little bit refreshing. I think what you're getting at is that you can't just hire somebody and then sell them on the vision and then expect that the vision's going to compensate them and not pay them what they think that they're worth. You can't just, like you're saying, you have to make sure that they are compensated if you want them to work hard and actually be proud or be invested in the company, invested in doing a good job. I think that that's really important that this idea of just only selling someone the vision hoping that they'll work for free, or work for lower than average, doesn't work out, especially not in the long run. I think that's important.

Katel: Right. I think that goes back to deciding and making decisions about who to hire or the kind of roles that you may or may not need at a certain point in your business' growth. I would love to have a team of editors who work with all the authors that we work with. I would love to have different groups of folks working on things. The reality is that a lot of the times that's not possible. I think identifying if it's one really good employee, or one really good freelancer that you can pay what their rate is and get really good product out there, even if it's a little bit slower, I think that's more meaningful and ends up working a little bit better in the long run, than trying to bang out a lot of things that are maybe not as, not necessarily quality, but have folks less of their time or energy put into it.

Felix: What's the team like? What kind of roles do you have at a company?

Katel: We have a few editors that we work with who are fantastic and the editing process actually ends up being in a few little phases. There's the developmental part, there's a line edit, there's copy edit, there's a lot of different versions. In a particular book, we'll have a couple of editors rotating in those roles, which is really nice because that ends up becoming more of a collaboration and not just a couple people working on something. We have two customer service advocates who are fantastic. Again, one on the West Coast, one on the East Coast. We have someone who works with us freelance pretty part-time at the moment, but we're ramping up a little bit for a particular thing that we're about to launch, doing web development and some design and building there.

Then we also work with a compositor, who does all of the book layout and gets it ready to go to print, which is a huge, massive undertaking and has become a really big part of our process that we have streamlined, which is really great. Then e-book production, so we have someone who comes in and is very knowledgeable and specializes in that. Really not just creates those files, but helps us understand what the best things to do are in a situation for video or for links and that kind of thing. Again, that goes back to really working with people you can rely on for not just getting a job done, but pointing out where things can be done better or where you might want to take things in a different direction.

Felix: Where have you had success finding freelancers or even some part-time workers?

Katel: Definitely through community and through the network of people that we are already working with. I think that is a big place to look is in your own backyard, so to speak. We've definitely, along the way for various roles, we've had ... We've done a Twitter call out and said, "We're hiring this specific role," or whatever. We've definitely had great candidates come through there. I think more often than not, we are already working with someone who knows someone, or someone who has worked with someone else who does this role. We come into it that way, which is great. I think having that background or a foundation of working with someone even tangentially already, just really helps bolster that relationship.

Felix: When they do have someone come on, what's the onboarding process? How do you get them to understand what the company's about, what their job is, their exposure to all that documentation that you have?

Katel: Depending on the role, it's been a little bit different for each role. A lot of the times, say for e-book production, we started working with our current producer, I think a couple years ago now, or a year and a half ago. At the time, we were ... The e-book producer we had been working with was leaving. There was a hand-off, which was really nice. It gave us an opportunity to say, "Here's the process and here's what we've documented so far," but it also allowed us to see that there were some holes that we wanted to fill, in terms of the hand-off from composition to e-book production. We wanted to streamline that a little bit and also see if we could make it a little bit more efficient.

In onboarding that person, we just ... Again, I think it's definitely not ... I don't ever want to call it brain dump, but that sounds so bulky. It's more getting the lay of the land and figuring out what ... The two key things that we want to cover is what are the struggles and what are we doing that does work well that we can potentially improve upon? The other part, because people we work with now, there's not a lot of really revolving roles. We've been working with the same people for awhile now, which is great. Editors, I think, are the one group where we may have new editors coming on board from time to time. I do work with one particular editor who we've worked together to put together an onboarding process. Just having style guides ready and materials for, "Here are checklists for kicking off a book project. Here are checklists for wrapping one up." I think it's again, making sure folks have access to not just the tools they need, but just information.

Felix: Awesome. I'm not sure this is as big of an issue for you because you do have these more so full-time folks that are already ... You know them from your network. Do you have to do any quality assurance involved when you work with remote workers, more than if you're working in an office?

Katel: Not necessarily. I think, again, that really ties back to the people who are actually doing the job. I think there's always a sense of ... If you're running the business, there's always a sense of wanting to make sure that anything you put out into the world, that you've seen it and signed off on it. I think that is definitely something we are all trying to strike a balance with, is making sure things are up to snuff in terms of what we think is the level of quality and what kind of experience we want people to have with our product, also not getting in our own way and blocking that from happening because we're putting so many points of quality control into it. That's not to say that we don't do it, it's just, like I said, we want to make sure that we're doing it in an effective way.

Felix: Makes sense. Cool. What's in store for the remainder of this year? What are some goals that you want to hit for A Book Apart?

Katel: We are going to have some new hire news very soon. That's really all I can say about that, but it's very exciting. It will be a new staff position, which is really great and I think will definitely help us reach some of these goals. We have about 20 books in the catalog at this point, which is super exciting. We've got between, I'd say, 5 to 7 new titles that are in the pipeline for this year and early next. Definitely working on those. Two of those are the second set of brief books that we just launched earlier this year. That's an e-book only book that we are trying as a format. Those are even shorter books. Those are around 30 to 50 pages and they're deep dives or an essentials look at a particular topic. We're experimenting a little bit and getting a little bit of runway to do that. We're very excited. Growing the catalog and looking at putting a little bit more weight behind marketing efforts and working with partners.

Felix: Very cool. That's great news. Thanks so much, Katel. ABookApart.com is the website. Any where else you recommend that listeners check out, they want to follow along with A Book Apart, or what you're up to?

Katel: Sure. We are on Twitter at A Book Apart and Facebook, you can find us there. We blog every once in awhile about what our authors are up to. That's just on the blog portion of the website. Definitely stay up to date there. Then we have a newsletter, so you can always sign up and we send out lots of good stuff like sales and new book releases there.

Felix: Very cool. Thanks so much.

Katel: Great, thank you.

Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the e-commerce marketing podcasts for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com for a free 3 day trial.


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shopify-author Felix Thea

About The Author

Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, and founder of TrafficAndSales.com where you can get actionable tips to grow your store’s traffic and sales.