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Ep. 146: How this entrepreneur built a successful remote team and helps others track their time more efficiently with Liam Martin

In this week’s episode, I speak with Liam Martin who is the co-founder of staff.com and timedoctor.com. 

The companies have 40+ employees in 9 different countries and specialize in remote long term employee management. 

Listen on to find out how Liam has been able to build a remote company and help others become more efficient while working online. 

Listen Below:

 

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My Offbeat Journey: How to let go of the unnecessary in order to make room for positive change.

 


Transcription :

Debbie:

Hey everyone, thank you so much for joining us. I’m really excited to be here with Liam. Hey Liam, how are you?

Liam:

I’m pretty good. How are you, Debbie?

Debbie:

I am wonderful. Thank you so much for being here. So can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live an offbeat life?

Liam:

Sure. So I think the biggest thing that’s offbeat about me is I’m Canadian. And outside of that I just got back from Cairo literally this morning. I travel the world. I’m also the co-founder of two technology companies: TimeDoctor.com and Staff.com. And I’m able to basically do it from anywhere. We have a company policy in our organization that we want people to work wherever they want, whenever they want. And not only do my employees live that philosophy, but I do as well.

Debbie:

Well, that’s definitely offbeat. It’s funny that you’re saying that being Canadian is more offbeat.

Liam:

I dunno. There aren’t many Canadians that do what I do. Right now, it is currently snowing where I’m at. And we’re talking about mid-November. So I came back here and realized that I need to get the heck out.

Debbie:

Well, that’s why you just came back from Egypt, right? So that’s a good life to live. Now, Liam, how did you actually end up starting this company? Because, like you said, there’s not a lot of Canadians that do it. Where did you have your “aha!” moment and started this whole company?

Liam:

It actually started about 15 years ago. I was in graduate school at McGill University. And for anyone that has been to university before, graduate students usually are the ones that teach the first-year classes. So I was given a first-year class which was very exciting for me. I started with about 300 students and ended up with a little over 150. And I’ve got some of the best of the worst academic reviews in the department’s history.

So this was actually quite crushing. I remember walking into my supervisor’s office and I said, “I don’t think I’m very good at this.” And he said, “No, you’re not.” And I said, “Okay, so what do you think I should do?” He said, “You got to get pretty good at this teaching thing if you want to pursue academia. So either figure that out or figure something else out to do.”

So six weeks later, I threw a master’s thesis under his door. I was out into the real world and that actually turned in my very first business which was an online tutoring company, and we would teach students premed prerequisites that grew to dozens of tutors throughout North America and Europe. And then I ran into another problem which was, I couldn’t actually figure out how long a remote tutor was working with a student.

So I bill a student for 10 hours, and then the student would come to me and say, “Hey, I didn’t work with my tutor for 10 hours. I worked with him for five hours.” Then I’d have to go to the tutor and say, “Hey, did you work with Jimmy for 10 or 5 hours? And of course the tutor would say, “I billed you for 10.” So I’d end up having to refund the student for the time and then I would have to end up paying the tutor for the full amount.

And this was really destroying the business. So I remember I was at South by Southwest, which is basically a big tech conference. I kind of call it like spring break for nerds and I met my now co-founder there, Rob Rawson, and we put together this app called Time Doctor that could completely solve that problem which measures not just how long someone is working for you remotely but how productive they are while they are working for you remotely.

Debbie:

Well this was a really interesting journey because you did something from a negative, right? You couldn’t really do teaching – that wasn’t for you. And now you have a huge company, you have two, and you figured things out as you want, right? Because you didn’t have a background in this and now you are running this company with your partner. How did you go about finding the information that you need, especially from someone who doesn’t have a tech background in this?

Liam:

Number one, I think whenever you’re looking at a business, you should always be trying to scratch your own itch. This is something that I see a lot in entrepreneurship which basically results in failure. You need to be able to build a business that you personally have a real problem. I had an example of a guy that I chatted with a few years ago and he was building a software product for tattoo parlors. And I remember asking him, “Well, do you run a tattoo parlor?”And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, what kind of tattoos do you have?” And he said, “I don’t have any.” And I said, “I don’t really think this is going to work out, man. You got to scratch your own itch. You’ve gotta be part of your own community.”

So that was number one: just actually figuring out this was something that I was passionate about. And something that I really wanted to solve. Secondarily, for me and my co-founder, remote work has been a core component of how we’ve lived our lives. I’ve been working remotely since graduate school which I think is more than 15 years ago. Back at that point it was called telework or outsourcing.

Now, we’ve got this new terminology for it: remote work. But this is something that I’ve really loved doing and I’ve also really loved being able to try to share that message with other people. So between those two things, I mean, that’s kind of the unpopular way that I’ve been building this business, trying to be able to make sure that I’m sticking to something that when times are tough; when you’re in Cairo and you’ve got to fly back 20 hours to get back to Canada and you really don’t want to do it and you’re in middle economy, you think to yourself, “Well, I’m doing this for a higher purpose.”

Debbie:

And after all of that, right? Because it does take a lot of work. If you’re not passionate about it, if you are, you have no interest in it, it’s going to go down pretty fast. And because you did have that interest, you’re still doing it after all of these years. I’m sure you had a lot of setbacks – you’re still going strong.

Liam:

Yeah. We lost $3 million about a year ago in 24 hours. There’s all of these, I could go through a long list of all the disasters that occur in the business all the time but at the end of the day I enjoy doing it and it’s something that I think that my business partner enjoys doing. And also, more importantly, I think everyone in the company really enjoys their work at least more so than other companies. We generally have a much higher employee net promoter score than most other companies that we deal within the industry because we allow people to work remotely and work from wherever they want, whenever they want.

Debbie:

So you talked about dealing with all of these setbacks and losing millions of dollars. How do you go up from that? Because for somebody listening to this and they hear that they’re going to say to themselves, “Oh my gosh!” How do you go up from that? Feeling like you’ve failed at something and maybe there’s more to it like emotionally, how do you deal with that?

Liam:

I got an unpopular view on that. I don’t know whether or not you want me to really share that, but I think it’s probably my truth which is you just deal with it and you just move forward. I’ve got an example last year at the conference we run which is called Running Remote. We ran a short of my now friend Faheem and Faheem is in Bangladesh and he has muscular dystrophy.

And he went from basically begging in the streets of Dhaka to making thousands and thousands of dollars as a graphics designer on Upwork and Fiverr which are platforms for basically connecting employers and employees remotely. And when I think about all of the problems that I have in my life, I think to myself, “Oh, I can still use my hands and my legs and I had breakfast this morning and I’m sipping on a very nice cup of chai tea. I have a computer, there’s electricity, I’m warm even though it’s cold outside. What do I have to worry about?” Those are relatively small details.

I basically think of those as problems of success. And if you really put your life in that context, you’ll be very happy. And any of those things that seem like disasters are actually very pale in comparison to my friend, Faheem.

Debbie:

I love hearing stories like that because I think a lot of times we’re in our own little bubble and we really don’t practice a lot of gratitude. But if you compare yourself to somebody who really came from nothing and they did something with it even without the opportunities that we have here in Canada or in the United States, it’s just mind-blowing what you can actually do. And honestly all those setbacks lead you to more – there’s more opportunities and that’s really something to be grateful about.

Liam:

Absolutely. I think that people like Faheem are bulletproof and if we just learned a little bit from people like him, if I was able to have even 10% of his resolve, I’d probably be a much wealthier individual. But there are people like him in the world and I think they’re just one of those examples of people that we should really look towards as mentors.

Debbie:

So let’s go back to when you were still in school, right? And you wanted to go into academia but then realized it wasn’t for you and you decided to switch gears and you’re starting this new company, you have this great idea, you decide to go for it. Did you ever have a “what now?” moment after that? Because I know I have and it really freaked me out. What about you, Liam, what was that “what now?” moment like for you?

Liam:

What do you mean by a “what now?” moment?

Debbie:

So pretty much when you pivot and you transition into something completely different, what you thought your life would be like and there and you took that chance and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what now? What’s going to be my next step?” Like, “I took this chance.”

Liam:

I was always pretty focused, particularly at that time in my life. I did have a “what now?” moment about three or four years ago which was when Time Doctor and Staff.com had really gotten to a point in which my daily operations inside of that company didn’t really matter. So I talk about this a lot: the difference between entrepreneurship and becoming an executive. We have over a hundred people right now in the company.

Me working on the front lines of the company no longer really moves the needle in the grand scheme of things. And I had a bit of an existential crisis,which was, “Well, do I keep working to just add another zero to my bank account? Is that really gonna make me happy? Probably not.” And this is also for people listening right now – is super disingenuous because the Liam of 15 years ago would be like, “Man, this guy’s full of crap.”

But it’s absolutely true and unfortunately, you can only figure this out once you’ve gotten to that point which is that those numbers don’t necessarily matter or once you achieve them, it’s really the journey which is exciting. The destination is not that exciting at all and actually is somewhat counterintuitive. So I thought to myself, “What do I want to do next?” And that was one of the reasons why we had started Running Remote which is the conference that we run on building and scaling remote teams.

I was very passionate about the effects that the software was having and I just wanted to have access to more of that. And that actually made me a much happier person as opposed to the person that’s thinking, “Okay, well what now? Should I add an extra zero to my bank account?” And not to necessarily say that that’s bad. I think that that’s actually quite good and people should continue to pursue that in their careers. It just didn’t necessarily feed me anymore. So I needed something else that that would give me more direct access to the people that we were trying to help.

Debbie:

So what would you say, Liam, is your secret sauce for making your business successful because you have this incredible company, you have several for that matter, and you have hundreds of employees. How did you get to that point? What do you say is a thing that really led you there?

Liam:

I thought about this a lot. I actually did have an interesting round table discussion about this with a bunch of other people that are more successful than me. And I asked them, “What do you think led to your success? Technical knowledge, the dumb luck or mindset?” And almost everyone said mindset. I actually, before that point, thought to myself, “Well, maybe it was a combination of mindset and dumb luck.” But I think more and more as I talked to more successful entrepreneurs – it’s entirely mindset.

So that’s something that you really need to lock in quite early. And unfortunately, you can’t really figure it out until you’ve done it at least once. And again, I think this is very epistemological in this type of conversation. But if you’re listening to this podcast right now and you’re thinking to yourself, Man, if only I could do X, Y, Z,” I think you’ve actually already lost.

You have to think to yourself, “I’m going to achieve X, Y, Z, ” and just know it and it will happen. And I know that that sounds weird. But the more and more entrepreneurs I talk to, the more that I know that they were going to achieve that goal regardless of how they’re going to get there. So they don’t know how they’re going to get there, but they are absolutely laser-focused and they know that they’re going to achieve their goal. And if you have that type of mindset, it’s going to be huge for your overall success.

Debbie:

Yeah. Well, I definitely agree with that. Mindset is a huge thing in order for you to keep going, especially when we talked about having setbacks but how do you keep motivating yourself when things do happen, right? Because as an entrepreneur, every day it’s an up and down, it’s a battle, right? Especially when you’re just starting out. How do you keep yourself going and motivated throughout all of that?

Liam:

So one really pragmatic thing that you should do is don’t put all your eggs in one basket. So if the business doesn’t go well one day, week or month, you should have other things in your life that also make you happy. So do you have personal relationships? Do you have family relationships? Do you do sports? Do you go to the gym? You do some type of extracurricular activities. You need to be able to have those things in your life to be able to offset when things go wrong. Secondly, I think that people should probably, and this is just my opinion, therapy is probably a really good place to start.

If you can’t afford therapy, then having some type of positive mindsets around you. Something like listening to this podcast as an example could be an excellent way to be able to keep your mind focused and on track even when sometimes you fall off track a little bit and then I think third of all just realize that it’s going to be okay. Being thankful for what you currently have is usually one of the best ways for you to be able to keep a positive mindset and be able to kind of parry and move through negative times in your life.

Debbie:

Yeah. It’s so important, again, having gratitude, right? I think there are so many things that we really underestimate about having that mentality of just gratitude throughout everything. ‘Cause we do have a lot of things to be grateful for, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like that, you’re kind of banging your head against the wall and you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, what’s happening?” And that does happen quite often.

Liam:

Yeah. This is something that’s particularly problematic for entrepreneurs. I made a video about this on our YouTube channel just recently. I had a friend of mine who was an entrepreneur who killed himself about a year and a half, two years ago, and it was from these types of dark thoughts and these types of sort of not just one thing happening badly but three or four things happening badly at the same time.

And it can happen to anybody. And I think it’s really important to be able to, number one, keep yourself motivated, keep yourself pointing in the right direction, recognize that all of these things shall pass. And then secondarily, being able to reach out to people. I know for me it’s one of the biggest regrets of my life.

Not being able to reach out to my friend when I knew that he needed that type of help and I did reach out to him. I didn’t reach out to him as much as I probably should have to be honest with you. But then also he wasn’t in the right headspace to be able to accept that type of help. So it’s something that I think, particularly in entrepreneurial circles, is a real problem and people need to be able to get help. If they feel like they can’t really keep moving themselves forward.

Debbie:

Yeah, I really, definitely agree with that. I think mental health is not something that we talk about enough in this type of space as an entrepreneur and also with remote workers and entrepreneurs as well. It’s just not spoken about enough and I think there’s still a taboo in someone telling you: they’re not mentally healthy or they need help. And asking for help is another thing that we really don’t do because we always feel like we can do everything ourselves and we can make sure that everything is going well with the business and ourselves as individuals. And it’s a really huge thing, I think in your so right, Liam. I think that we really have to help each other as well. And you know, it’s really crucial to do that.

Liam:

Yeah. I know in my personal relationships, some of them have ended up losing people. It’s one of those things that is so important and I think it’s almost entirely connected to ego which is really unfortunate because that doesn’t help anybody. That results in real longterm damage to not being able to reach out to other people. Don’t think that people are going to think less of you if you don’t go out and ask for help or even just have a sort of positive mindset around you.

So even a podcast, as an example, it’s always looking at the positive side of life; it can really cheer you up and motivate you and start to move you forward. I think about this quite a lot actually. There’s a book that was recently just published by my friend, Michael Dash, on mental health and entrepreneurship and it really is a very problematic phenomenon and something that I agree we need to talk about more and more. Whenever someone gives me an opportunity to talk about it on a podcast, I talk about it so that people don’t think it’s as weird as they currently think it is.

Debbie:

Well, it’s also really easy to look at you, Liam, and say, and think also that, “Well he worked on this. I’m sure everything is really great with his life and all of his peers.” Everything is wonderful and you don’t realize how much struggle you actually had to get through to get to this point and what breaking points you had and what you had gone through, right? So it’s really wonderful to hear this from you and people like you that no, not everything is perfect. We all go through our ups and downs and sometimes we do need that help from somebody else and we can’t do everything.

Liam:

Yeah, absolutely.

Debbie:

So, now let’s go back to when you first started, right? And you didn’t have the money that you have now yet, right? And you are struggling like all of us. So when you first started and you had that first company, how much money did you actually save before you set off to start that remote company? And how did you budget it to actually last?

Liam:

Sure. So I probably put about maybe five grand into that business, I would say. And that was me building the website completely on my own which took me about two months to do. I actually learn HTML at that point and the technology stack was actually very simple. It was just simply me using PayPal to be able to run a transaction. And then also me having a Skype for the technology stack. It was incredibly cheap and then I just started blogging actually.

That was probably the way that we brought the vast majority of our clients inside of our first tutoring business. And I had a full-time job, so I would work from nine to five and then when I would get home, I would either tutor clients directly or at one point then just work with customer service basically managing all the other tutors that were working for me. And within about 6 to 12 months, I believe, I was able to quit my main job and just focus entirely on my tutoring business. And I think I was going to pay myself something like $2,000 a month. So that wasn’t that much money but it was enough for me to be able to survive.

Debbie:

Was it hard for you to pay yourself in the beginning or did you kind of hesitate to yourself? It’s like, “I don’t want the business not to pay for itself,” because I do have this issue with myself and I know some of the entrepreneurs, I know it’s like you see the bank going up, but then you always have that fear that if something happens like you’re going to have to take it from your own personal account, right?

Liam:

Sure. So, I really wanted to kind of get myself cash positive in the first business. So, I did pay myself a salary. I did have that problem for Time Doctor which was my software company. I didn’t pay myself a salary for, I believe, two and a half years before we started paying myself something.

But at that point, it’s a little disingenuous. I had cash saved up in the bank and at the end of that business or before I started my software company, I had enough money that I could probably live off of the cash that I had saved up for about three years. And it kind of just came down to a point where I said, “Okay, well…” And I remember paying myself, it was like 2000, 2500 a month or something like that for this software company.

And I said to myself, “Okay, I think I have like two to three years that I can survive.” And I always was holding this off until the next quarter. So I said to myself, “Well, I could just hire someone else. I could hire another person.” And I think that was probably a mistake in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t think that you should pay yourself an exorbitant amount of money but I think you should pay yourself enough to cover your basic bills. In my case, as an example, if you’re not located in San Francisco or New York and you’re paying yourself more than a hundred thousand dollars, and let’s say it’s the first year of a business and you’re trying to raise money, for me, I would probably not invest in your company because I think you’re too soft.

You’re making too much money. I would say $2,000 a month is what you should probably try to pay yourself as quickly as humanly possible which is like survival level. What a lot of people call ramen profitability because you just can live off of eating ramen all day long and then pass that you’re basically immortal. And that’s when you can start to build up the business and build on other aspects of it and really kind of take it to the level that you want to take it. And later on, you can pay yourself more but not until I think you really deserve it. There’s the old adage that like, “leaders eat last,” and I think that you should pay attention to that whenever you’re thinking about building a business.

Debbie:

Yeah, that’s definitely something I needed to hear. So thanks for that. Now, Liam, let’s fast forward to 30 to 40 years from now and you’re looking back at your life. What legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?

Liam:

He was a nice guy. He liked people. He was a relatively fair person. He helped enable remote work which is making people much happier working from home. And yeah, I would say that that would probably be a pretty good life. I think that you shouldn’t really think about how you’re going to be remembered that I think your actions should communicate that. So what I mean by that is don’t think about your epitaph but try to do things that will be remembered. Because if you think about those types of things, I think you’ll get a little distracted on what you’re supposed to be doing.

Debbie:

Because it’s even hard right now, right? Without even thinking about the future.

Liam:

I mean, so if you think about it in the grand scheme of things the Greeks have this concept called the second death. This podcast is getting super Gothic but have you ever heard the second death in Greece? Ancient Athenians had this concept called the second death?

Debbie:

No, tell me about it.

Liam:

So the second death is when the last person that knew of you dies.

Debbie:

Hmm…

Liam:

That’s the second death. And that will happen to all of us. Don’t suggest that anyone will be remembered more than a hundred years into the future from where we are right now. So if that’s true and it is true then, where are we at? Well, let’s just try to keep people as happy as possible here. Keep yourself happy, keep other people happy. Try to be kind to people. And I think that’s all that you can really ask for in life.

People like Faheem as an example. These are people that are very, very happy people that just have such an extreme source of discipline and they’ve been able to overcome such massive odds in their lives. So I really look towards them as mentors of how you should live your life. Forget about whether you’re going to be remembered because at the end of the day you won’t be, just try to live a nice life now.

Debbie:

Well, yeah, I mean that’s really your biggest impact: what you’re doing right now when you’re still alive and you can help people as many people as you can.

Liam:

Absolutely.

Debbie:

Liam, what are you working on currently that is really exciting to you?

Liam:

Oh, I mean, so for me, it’s the dessert business that I have which is the business that I only work on Fridays which is Running Remote. So that’s the conference that I talked about where we help basically enable remote teams. So I think when you look at the metrics connected to remote work, it is the most positive thing that you can do to be able to improve an employee’s work life. Giving them a remote work agreement is the single most important thing that will make them happier in their work life.

And study after study has come back showing that this is true. So for us, we’re really excited about can we move that needle forward by one, two, 3% from where it is right now. If we can, then we can have millions of people across the world that can work from home or work remotely and then, by extension, to have a much happier life because of it. That’s what is very exciting for me.

Debbie:

Well, it’s really exciting that you were able to start this and keep promoting this because you’re right, we all love being able to work remotely. There’s so much freedom to it.

Liam:

Absolutely.

Debbie:

If our listeners want to know more about, Liam, where can they find you?

Liam:

If you want to check out Time Doctor, go to TimeDoctor.com. If you want to check out Running Remote, go RunningRemote.com, and if you want to get in contact with me, I’ve shut down almost all sources of social media from my phone except for YouTube. And I actually have this theory that YouTube is the most real version of social media that currently exists. So if you’re interested in talking to me on there, go to youtube.com/runningremote and if you put in a comment, I’ll usually respond within a few hours.

Debbie:

Perfect. Well, thank you so much for being here, Liam, and sharing with us your incredible journey. I really appreciate it.

Liam:

Thanks for having me.

GET THE EXTENDED INTERVIEW WHERE LIAM SHARES HOW TO BECOME MORE PRODUCTIVE AS A REMOTE WORKER AND ENTREPRENEUR

 


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Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith


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