Shelly Spiegel
CEO and Chief Creative Officer
October 05, 2020

Interview with Shelly, CEO of Fire Engine RED & remote work pioneer

Twenty years ago, Shelly started one of the first all-remote U.S. companies. See how remote work has given Fire Engine RED a competitive advantage & the four most important words in the employee handbook.

How did you get started with remote work?

We’ve been fully remote since I founded the company in 2001.

In fact, Fire Engine RED was one of the first all-remote companies in the U.S., possibly the world.

I’d love to say that my decision to start a 100 percent remote company was part of some grand vision (like, “This will be the future of work!”). However, the truth is, Fire Engine RED began operating as a virtual company out of pure financial necessity.

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What has been the benefit of allowing remote work?

The biggest benefit of being a fully remote company has been our ability to hire top talent no matter where they live.

Our lack of a centralized office proved particularly helpful in the hiring of three of our executive vice presidents, all of whom were “unicorns”—highly sought-after education professionals with unique experience, skills, and credentials.

The fact that they didn’t have to relocate gave us a key competitive advantage over the other companies that were trying to hire them.

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What have been some of the challenges?

When we first started, there was no "how-to" book starting and running a fully remote business. I learned by trial and error. This is why, after nearly 20 years of running an all-remote business, I decided to publish Fully Remote, the first how-to book that tells people how to set-up, manage, and lead their own successful all-remote business. This is the book I wish had existed when I first started.

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Do you have a hybrid or full-remote team?

Our team is 100% remote, or as we like to say, fully remote.

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What are your company's most popular tools?

Collaboration is key to our success. Here are a few of our favorite collaborative tools: Slack, Google G Suite, Teamwork, Zoom.

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What does a typical day look like for your remote teams?

Just like brick-and-mortar companies, our team members work on their own projects and have scheduled department, client, and 1-on-1 meetings.

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How do you support or train your remote managers?

Most of our managers are promoted from within, so they know the drill long before they’re promoted.

Each department has its own playbook, which helps get new team members up to speed. Also, our new team members do a lot of “shadowing.”

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Do you have a formal remote work policy?

We have an Employee Handbook that discusses our fully remote policies and procedures.

Four of the most important words in our employee handbook are “use your best judgment.”

We feel confident about using this phrase because we trust our employees to do the right thing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have hired them in the first place!

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How has the role of HR changed when it comes to supporting your remote workforce?

Since we’ve always been fully remote, HR’s role has not changed.

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How do you build trust and camaraderie among your remote workers?

It’s all about communication. In a fully remote environment, you can’t over-communicate. A CEO of an all-remote company needs to be transparent and keep their team informed. Here are some of the ways I do it.

Every other Friday, at 4 p.m. (EST), I host the “SS (Shelly Spiegel) Feed,” an all-company call during which I share information with the team. During this call, I brief the team on the latest happenings at Fire Engine RED; this includes providing information on new hires, organization updates, and policy changes. I also talk about year-to-date sales, margins, and third-party costs.

Also, I try to schedule a one-on-one meeting or virtual walk with a team member nearly every day (including new team members, once they’ve settled in and have been with Fire Engine RED for about 45 days).

The calls help me get to know my team members better. We often talk about their families, pets, travel, and even politics. And I’m always looking for recommendations on the next great television series to binge-watch. I also get a better view of what’s going on at the company at all levels.

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Do you facilitate opportunities for face-to-face interactions?

Prior to COVID-19, those of us who traveled would often meet up for lunch or dinner with team members who lived in the area. We also encourage our team members who live within an hour or two of each other to get together in person for a company-paid meal. Although we haven’t had an all-company meeting since 2013, we hope to resume this event post-COVID-19.

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How has remote work impacted your company's productivity?

We’ve always been a very productive company because all of our processes were created specifically for a fully remote work environment. We also hire people who have at least five years’ worth of experience.

We’ve found that the more work experience a person has, the more productive they are right out of the gate.

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How does remote work help you better service your clients and customers?

Our clients have benefited from our ability to hire top talent, no matter where they live.

For example, here’s what one of our clients, Wes Waggoner, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University, said when asked what it’s like to work with our fully remote company:

I want the best people working on my [student] search program, not just the best people who live or will live in the same city. If that means a team who chooses to live around the world for their own needs, lives, and situations, then that reassures me the best talent will help SMU achieve its goals.”

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Biography

Shelly Spiegel

One of the first fully remote companies in the U.S., Fire Engine RED opened its virtual doors in 2001 and has been operating successfully without a physical office ever since. The company provides more than 300 clients in the education market with technology, marketing, data, and consulting services.

Fire Engine RED has 80-plus team members, working in 26 states and five countries, including the U.S., Brazil, Canada, France, and Peru. The company’s annual employee retention rate is an amazing 92 percent.

Fire Engine RED has been featured in Inc., Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Men’s Health, and on websites that cover remote work, such as FlexJobs and Remote.co.

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