Name: Carrie McKeegan
Headquarters: Virtual world
Superpower: Building a successful global, virtual business
Carrie McKeegan is the Director of Greenback Expat Tax Services, a global, virtual business that prepares US federal tax returns for American Expats living all over the world. We discuss how they work remotely with accountants all over the world, how they communicate to keep everyone on the same page, and why they focus on hiring only the absolute best people.
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Interview transcript with Carrie McKeegan
Lisette: Great, now we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And I have a really special treat today. We have Carrie McKeegan from Greenback Expat Tax Services. And I saw on the website that it’s a global virtual business which prepares U.S. federal tax returns for American expats living all over the world. So I found that extremely interesting because I’m in that category. So Carrie, welcome. Thanks for letting me interview you.
Carrie: Thanks for having me.
Lisette: It’s great. And let’s start by having you talk about what Greenback Expat Tax Services is. Sorry, I keep botching that. Greenback Expat Tax Services. And then we’ll talk a little bit about how you guys work.
Carrie: Sure. We are a company that prepares tax returns for Americans who live overseas. It was born very much out of similar situations to what you’re describing. We were living overseas, working at big banks. Couldn’t get anyone to do our taxes and thought there’s an absolute need for this. So we focused very much on that one area. We also do the FBAR reporting for folks because that’s something that’s come up quite a lot in the last couple of years. And we work with clients in 115 countries at this point. So we’ve got a pretty broad reach at this point.
Lisette: So then let’s get into what does your virtual office look like. How are you structured with accountants? How is it set up?
Carrie: Sure. Everyone works from home offices. There are about 50 people on a team, of which about 38 or so are accountants and about 12 are what we describe as kind of the management team that looks at sales and finance and operations and makes things run smoothly from a system’s perspective. We all work from our home offices. We’ve got this amazing setup whereby we basically all kind of log into the same place. Everyone has got set working hours. Everyone has that consistency and reliability around when they’ll be online and making sure that they’re communicating. It’s fairly formal in terms of the setup. But everyone is doing it from different places for each person. So I work out of a workspace most days. Some people do the same. And some people have an office in their home. But everyone is at home and 98 percent of people, I would say, are based out of the U.S. So there’s a few people that are also Americans living abroad, so expats, but most people are based out of the U.S. – particularly the accountants because by definition, they’re CPAs that are more likely to be in the U.S.
Lisette: Right. And you say you have set working hours. I find this really interesting. So is this something that you agree on as a team? Or how did that come about to have the set working hours? [crosstalk – 00:02:49] different time zone.
Carrie: Yeah. And sorry, I have to actually clarify a little. Not everyone has the exact same working hours. [crosstalk – 00:02:57] they’re set. So what I mean by that is if we bring somebody in and let’s say, using an example of one of the members of our team, she is an American and she’s living in Argentina. She basically has a fixed workday. So it’s not a work when you can and trying to overlap. She’s got a fixed workday. And when we set that, we took into account with her what her preferences are around when she likes to work, and also how there’s a reasonable overlap with the rest of the team that are mostly in the U.S., for example. But the distinction that I guess I’m trying to make with the set working hours thing is there’s a lot of misperception that if you’re working in a virtual office, you’re working in your pajamas at 10 o’clock at night from your laptop in the bed. That happens in a way that when you overlap into that time because you have a particularly long day, sometimes I’m sure people do things like that. But that’s not the norm. And we very much encourage people to have a lot of structure and focus in their workday rather than having it be as and when in different each day.
Lisette: Oh, interesting. Super interesting. And you make sure that there’s some overlap with the team so that everybody has at least some sort of communication with each other.
Lisette: How do you find your talent? How do you find the people that you want to work with?
Carrie: A lot on LinkedIn. It’s become easier over time as we’ve gotten to be a bigger company to find people because we tend to find that as you get larger people come to you, they understand particularly from an accountant point of view. It’s a small community, and so you get people knocking on your door. But in general, we advertise on the same job [inaudible – 00:04:39] that you probably would if you were a traditional brick-and-mortar company, places like indeed TheLadders, places like that, and also then get quite a lot from LinkedIn – just people who are in the same circles in general interest that we’ve been [drawing near as to – 00:04:57] apply for a particular job. Or they contact us about a role.
Lisette: That makes sense, the sort of this network effect that you start to get to know people, and then they come to you. I hear that a lot. I really like that. And what do you think is so appealing for the accountants? I mean I have my own stereotype of what I’m thinking, but I’m curious. What’s appealing for the accountants in working with Greenback?
Carrie: I think that a lot of the accountants that we have came from very traditional backgrounds. So I’ve spent many years commuting in and out of an office, maybe working on expat tax returns and still working with those clients directly. But often, in kind of bigger shops, you maybe have a little less client contacts in some roles. So what we hear a lot from the accountants that are working with us is they love working with people who are all abroad and working directly, having that one-to-one relationship. You meet really interesting people. I mean people have really interesting stories when you’re talking to people who have moved to the Netherlands, moved to Bali, moved to London. Everyone has got an interesting story. So they enjoy the client interaction and that piece of it. They enjoy working from home. They enjoy having no commute, none of that kind of overhead that you have when you’re commuting into an office.
And we think that as a team, it’s a fairly nice team. We’re very focused around making it a nice place to work, making something where people feel engaged. They feel excited about working for the team, and they get to know each other. I couldn’t have envisaged before we started the business how deep the relationships are, when you don’t sit next to each other day-to-day. But somehow it happens. Somehow people get to know each other in a way that even if they can’t actually physically touch each other, they really feel like they know each other, and it just kind of works somehow.
Lisette: I’m really glad you bring this up because this is something that I’ve been exploring as well. I’ve got a collaboration partner. We’ve worked together for the last five years. She’s in California. I’m in the Netherlands. And we started on a client project together. And then when that client project ended, we liked working together so much that we’ve continued to do it even to this day. And it’s been five years. I’ve never met her in person, but she’s one of my best friends.
Carrie: Yeah, it happens. It works somehow, yeah.
Lisette: So I’m curious about how you guys communicate with each other as a company. I want to understand how these deep relationships get formed within your company, because I know it’s possible, but it seems to be something that’s very difficult for most remote teams.
Carrie: Yeah. Well, we use a project management tool that has a chat feature. We don’t use email, which is a very unusual thing. And everyone communicates in this tool. So you sort of chat back and forth in the chat area. And you group conversations within the context of threads relating to what it is you’re discussing. And what that really helps to do is it allows visibility of projects without the sort of terrible… I’ve been CC’d on eight million things. So you can kind of bring people in and out of conversations as it’s relevant to them. But they also have visibility if they ever think, “Hey, I wonder what’s going on with a marketing promotion that we’re doing.” And that’s somebody in the financing. They just kind of go in and take a look and maybe comment, “Hey, great. I just saw that come out. I’m really excited about it.” So there is quite a lot of… they’re having the conversations grouped and also having them be a mix of kind of private and public and transparent. I think it really helps with that communication.
We also try to do things within the context of that tool to just start conversations. So I think what’s hardest is when you first join the team and you don’t know how do I reach out. Who does what? What are people like? How do I even know what to talk about with that person? So we do something called High-Five Fridays and get to know you Wednesdays, which is silly. It’s one of those little things that somehow work. And every Wednesday, someone pops in. And it’s always the same. We’ve got the same moderator. We change it maybe every couple of months. But we’ve got the same person each week that knows to go in and pop in. And they just ask a silly question. So they say, “What’s your favorite beach read as you think about your summer holidays?” Or the one this week, “As school is starting, what was your favorite part about starting school?” “What’s your favorite memory of this?” “Do you love going to the beach? Or do you love going to the mountains?” It just starts a conversation. And people go in there and they say, “Oh, I love doing this.” And I just remember this great thing. They had a picture of their kids doing something fun. And you just start a conversation that way that ends up allowing that first entry to getting to know each other, and then you kind of further in other ways.
Lisette: Super interesting. One thing that you said though is no email. And it sounds like a dream to me. I’ve also worked in an environment where there was no email. And it’s hard to do. How did you get everybody on board to work in this way?
Carrie: It was really hard at first. People were like, “Oh no, no, that’s not going to work.” We did it maybe two and a half years ago. And I remember. I was a big proponent of it. And I remember very much our HR manager being like, “You know, that’s a nice idea, Carrie. And we should try it. We should try that. And we can always go back the other way.” And I’m like, “No, no, no, we’re going to do this. This is going to be great.” So it was hard. It was changing those habits. But I think now that everyone is used to it, I don’t really see… I think that email is very difficult to categorize and organize and find those conversations. And we just don’t really have that problem anymore. So it’s sort of sold itself at this point. So you don’t have a lot of situations where people are kind of sneaking around and trying to use email, even though we did it first. At first, people would forget and continue conversations with email. At this point, it just doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t need to enforce it.
Lisette: So it’s now within the culture. And also, I think once people go into a system like this, I’m very biased, of course, because I worked in a system like this and I loved it. But I think once people get used to how it is, it’s like oh, why would we go back to this ancient, heavy tool like email. [crosstalk – 00:11:15] happening in other places. And I really like the comradery that it sounds like you have in working in a system like this where people are asking questions and talking and transparent. Are most of the conversations transparent, most of the channels, so that people could go in if they wanted to?
Carrie: It’s mixed. So there’s workspaces, and you have certain conversations in certain workspaces. So for example, the conversations I was describing, the sort of get-to-know-you ones, everyone can join them. It’s very open. If you’re talking about particular areas of the business that shouldn’t be public for everyone, then those are very much kept private through the way that the tool is designed and the way it’s set up. So there’s very good controls around it. But what we try to do… For example, if you had a marketing promotion – I’m just thinking of right now – you would want everyone to know about that, but you wouldn’t necessarily feel like, “Oh, I want to email everyone about that.” Or, “I want to message everyone about that.” So by opening up a conversation in a form like that, it allows people who are interested in that kind of thing to kind of go in and look around and learn about those things without the person who’s maybe managing that promotion feeling like, “Oh, I just sent that out to everyone and [crosstalk – 00:12:33] them down with that.”
Lisette: Right, email really does have that heavy feel. If you want to just send a flyer or a quick message, it does seem to be really heavy in that way. So it sounds like that’s something that you guys do really well, this online talking with each other and keeping up to date. What’s something that’s really hard or something challenging for your team?
Carrie: Meetings. Meetings are challenging. We have a very low meetings culture. We don’t believe that you have… I should say that. We have some standard meetings that we always hold, but we try really hard to question whether we genuinely need a meeting, because you are talking about a lot of time zones. It’s a very difficult thing to do. We have a few regularly scheduled meetings, and we try to make those really productive. But getting people on the phone on the fly… So all of a sudden, let’s get everybody on the phone and talk about something. It’s difficult because you’ve got… We’re in Bali, Indonesia. We’ve got a few people that are in that sort of Central America, Argentina time zone, Pacific Time Zone, Eastern Time Zone, Australia. So you’re kind of all over the place. So it’s a little tricky to get everyone on at the same time [laughs].
Lisette: And do you do just voice calls? Or is it also video calls? Do you use the video capabilities?
Carrie: We do sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes.
Lisette: Okay, super interesting. So meetings are challenging. I hear it a lot. Even with myself, time zones, it seems like basic math. It’s just math. But I find myself struggling with time zones. And I hear teams also really struggling with time zones. And then I saw this video recently, which was about the strangest time zones in the world. And it made me realize that actually, time zones are quite complicated, quite more complicated than people would expect. So it seems like a lot of challenge. So in terms of management of the virtual teams, what kind of management techniques do you guys have for keeping your team… How do people know what each other are doing? How does the management work?
Carrie: Sure. I don’t know that it works all that different than it would’ve if you were on a traditional workspace, if you were all sitting in the same office. But I mean essentially, everyone has goals. So everyone has a view of what they need to be doing. It’s quarterly goal setting process whereby we have all of those conversations around what are priorities are, what it is we need to be focusing on – both at a business level and also on an individual, personal level. So we follow kind of a fairly standard approach in that regard.
In terms of visibility of what each of the teams are working on, what we do – and it actually illustrates how difficult it is to do meetings and how we’re trying to overcome that – is we actually have monthly business reviews for each functional area. And each of the teams produces a fairly meeting-looking PowerPoint presentation that then is presented online. So we each go in the ideas. For example, let’s say the marketing business review is shared on Tuesday at 5:00pm Eastern Standard Time. So I’m in one time zone; someone else might be in another. We all agree that within 24 hours, we’ll all go in and review and comment and ask questions. And we have that conversation in a chat-like way, even though we can’t all get on the phone.
Lisette: Interesting. And it works, apparently.
Carrie: It does. Yeah, it works pretty well. I mean there’s definitely times when we say, “Hey, you know what? There’s this one area that I want to delve into more. Let’s pop on the phone and do that. And then we do that.” But in most cases where you’re talking about just generally trying to understand maybe the trends of what’s happened in a particular area of the business, taking the time to really flesh that out and put it in a document sometimes is more powerful than if somebody just kind of arrived on the fly and tried to talk something through because they’d really have to take the time to think through, hone their thoughts, hold data, really do some analysis, and really crystalize it and make it very succinct in a written way. In my previous experience working for big corporations, sometimes you get in a meeting and it would be like people would walk in and they would just sort of talk off the cuff. And that was great in some ways, and you definitely need that. But this forces that really deep preparation, and they get really good thoughtfulness. So it works.
Lisette: I had never actually thought of that. Doing it in that way would give you the ability to really think about what you’re seeing and what you’re looking at. You’re right. If you go into a meeting and you’re seeing something for the first time, it’s like this initial response off the cuff. And you miss that deep dive that you’d get if you were like, “Hmm, let me think about this a little more and dive into it a little bit further.” So that’s actually a benefit in terms of doing it in that way. A lot of time from working in the corporate environment, you get sent information in advance before the meeting, but nobody very [crosstalk – 00:17:43].
Carrie: And that’s the thing. We all commit. And we really do all go in and spend that time quickly to review all of it because if not, there’s always the risk that you put something out there. You spend all this great time putting it together and no one reads it. And that’s why you have that conversation. And they end up being really good conversations in the context of each of those business area reviews.
Lisette: Right. So anything else on management techniques that you guys have utilized or that you have found that have been really effective for working in this way?
Carrie: I think that you need to have a really well-developed hiring strategy in order for the team to work. So we spend a lot of time… As you know, if you’re hiring virtually, you’re also not meeting in person when you’re hiring that individual. So we have spent a tremendous amount of time really looking at all the different steps. And that’s a fairly lengthy interview process. I mean people have to really want to work with us to spend the time and invest the time in all of the different ways that we try to have those conversations. But we do a mix of video and written assessments, depending on what kind of role you’re going into. Obviously, if it’s an accountant role, then there’s quite a lot of very practical practice returns, skill-based interviews – all of those kind of tests as well for a role like that. But what we find is that you really need to find people who don’t need a lot of day-to-day handholding, that are really self-motivated, that are able to kind of know when to reach out and ask for help versus when they can maybe figure things out on their own. So we spend a lot of time with that interview process to hopefully reduce anything in the back end where you’re having to then do a lot of management for people that maybe would do better in a physical office. So you need to find a particular skill set. I guess this is where I’m getting at.
Lisette: Yeah, I can imagine. And are there any benefits to doing the hiring all virtually versus seeing people in person? Or is it just the nature of this particular job? I was thinking maybe there’s something that’s better when you do it virtually than having in person.
Carrie: I don’t know. I certainly don’t think it’s a detriment, especially once you get into the point of having video. I mean it feels like you really get to know the candidates via video. So yeah, maybe you aren’t physically there in the same room. But when you’re on video, you feel like you’re physically there in the same room. And you also kind of get a sense of their professionalism. I mean I’ve interviewed people before where you get into an interview and they don’t realize there’s stuff in the background, or they’re wearing yoga clothes, things like that. You kind of get a sense for that. Whereas if someone was showing up in person, they would know to prepare for that. And so you need to see. It almost gives you a test of how well they’d be able to operate in a virtual environment by doing that interview virtually because if there’s kids screaming in the background and they’re clearly not in an environment that’s conducive to work, then you know they just don’t even really know what it takes. So there’s a little bit of that. I mean luckily, we don’t end up with a lot of those kinds of things. But if I had to pick one benefit, I think you can suss that out pretty quickly.
Lisette: Right, it’s interesting. So then this brings up something that I’ve seen a lot, but I’m not sure if you encounter this a lot. I don’t want to call it. I’m trying to get away from calling it digital illiteracy. There are people who have trouble with the tech and the apps and how much it takes to keep on top of things. I can imagine you get really good accountants who really want to work this way but are overwhelmed maybe by the technology. Do you see that?
Carrie: We screen for it in the interview process. We screen for it fairly heavily. So instead of looking at just their accounting skills, we’re absolutely looking at how they can communicate in the context of a virtual environment because they’ll be communicating with customers and how frazzled they get by a technical system not working or just learning how to use something new. So we definitely screen for that. And then we do a lot of work up front to get people comfortable. And we do that before they really start on the team. It’s kind of the pre-prep process for them. And so we’re very quickly able to suss that out. You spend a lot of time explaining to them how to use the CRM system. And you can see really quickly if that is like a deer in headlights kind of moment or if they just get it. And usually, we do a good enough job with the screening process to not end up in that situation where we miss that. I mean I definitely took for granted a lot of the tech skills that we probably have all gathered from working remotely and didn’t know to probe on that as much as we do now. And now it’s just a standard part of the process.
Lisette: Right. So you’re screening for it in the hiring process. And then in the onboarding, it sounds like you do a significant amount of training to take people through that.
One question that’s not related to remote working, that is very interesting, is why Bali. Why are you in Bali?
Carrie: We just keep coming back, to be honest. We were living in London when we started business. My husband and I started the business together in 2009. And we had a friend who would just spend six months here starting up his own business. And we were having breakfast with him. He said, “You should go down to Bali. It’s extremely focused place. There’s a good entrepreneurial community. It’s a great place for kids.” We had three little kids. We said, “All right, we’ll go down for a couple of months while we figure out where we want to go.” We knew we didn’t want to stay in London. Totally fell in love with it. It’s a wonderful place for families. It’s just a really nice lifestyle for little kids. And we’ve got three little boys. So they’re at the beach right now, to give you a sense. After school, they went to the beach. I mean I’m not sitting here worrying about how they’re doing today. So that’s great. And there’s also a fairly good entrepreneurial community. So you do get the sense that you run into something where you want to just kind of chat through a business challenge with somebody. You have some of those people that are doing things in a slightly different way that kind of open your mind and thinking to new ways of maybe doing business that you might not think of if you were in a more traditional environment.
Lisette: Oh, super interesting. It’s always an interesting story of why people go where they go. Would you ever go back to working in the traditional office after trying this?
Carrie: I think it would be really hard to do because I’m not sure I would see what the benefit would be. So I think if someone said, “Okay, well, show up in an office right now,” you think, “What am I going to do that for?” I mean I’ve figured out a way that works really well for me to be really productive. And I do work in a co-working space most of the time because I find that it’s nice to have that structure and basically to have a place outside of the home, even though I have an office here at home. I also have a co-working space. So I can see the benefit of that. But putting me back into a suit and a commute and a cubicle would be a little harsh [laughs].
Lisette: [Laughs] I can imagine. I could never go back now. And I think if an office looked at my social media accounts, they would be like, “What are you doing here?” [crosstalk – 00:25:13]
Lisette: What advice would you have for teens? I mean after starting this company and building this remote team, what advice would you have for others who may want to start something similar? Clearly not with taxes as that’s your market, but if they’re doing a different business, what would you say to watch out for?
Carrie: I mean I think what worked well for us and the advice that I generally give to friends when they ask some of the questions is to hire the absolute best people you can as early on as you can. So if you need to stretch your finances in the beginning, just hire someone really fabulous. Don’t hire three okay people. Hire one person who can really, really help you. And then continue and just make sure you’ve got that quality of the team because ultimately, that’s what’s going to help grow your business. That’s what’s going to allow you to focus on building the business as opposed to just running the business. And I think often startups get stuck in that cycle of I need to start with this really big team. But they only have a small budget. And they hire like four or five under-qualified people with the idea that they have the right potential and they’re going to train them up. But it’s pretty time-consuming to train up new people if you’re also trying to start a team. So my advice is just really focusing on who you’re bringing in and stretch to afford as much as you can and as best people as you can and just focus on that one at a time and build up. Don’t feel like you have to start with this giant group, especially if you can afford a very qualified giant group.
Lisette: That is really good advice. I’ve actually not heard that before, which is interesting. So really focusing on hiring the best person for the job because you want to be able to focus on what you’re focusing on and then make sure that that function is taken care of. I can imagine [crosstalk – 00:27:07] best person for the job.
Carrie: Yeah. And also hiring somebody who’s good at things that you’re not good at is really helpful too. So I think often people hire someone that’s very similar to what they can do because they admire those qualities. They look for those qualities. It resonates with them. Whereas if you hire somebody who can do something that you’re not particularly good at, it’s great. All of a sudden, everyone wants to do exactly what they’re doing. So that’s worked pretty well for us too in terms of thinking, “Can this person add value that I couldn’t?” As opposed to, “Is this person just a natural extension of me?”
Lisette: Right. Yeah, I can imagine that’s really hard to do because we all gravitate naturally to people who are similar [crosstalk – 00:27:49] the way that we do indeed.
So then one last question. I know we’re reaching time here. One last question, which is what’s the best way if people want to find out more? There’s of course your website. But what’s the best way to get in touch and to find out more about what you’re doing?
Carrie: Sure. If you want to talk about the business itself, then getting in touch with me directly is great. My email is email@example.com. If you need help from a tax service perspective, then it’s best to go to our team directly that’s managing all the customer relationships. And probably the best email address to start with would be firstname.lastname@example.org. So either way.
Lisette: Great. That’s exactly what I did. I’ll just let for people who are listening. I actually found out about this from people. I was unhappy with my current accountant. And lots of people in the expat world said, “Oh, you’ve got to go to Greenback. It’s really the place to go.” And in fact my expat lawyer recommended it here in the Netherlands. He said, “Go to Greenback.” That’s [crosstalk – 00:28:53]. And then I went to the process and was super impressed. And of course, as I heard about how the team was structured, I thought I’ve got to get in touch. I’ve got to know more about how you guys were [crosstalk – 00:29:02] interesting.
It seems like you’re right. There must be lots and lots of people out there who are needing help with this as there’s more digital nomads, as there’s more people traveling the world needing this kind of service.
One last question, which is do you see a lot of digital nomads coming to you? Or what kind of people are coming to you? I can imagine… yeah, expats broadly, but are there any more specific groups?
Carrie: Sure, yeah. The IRS has not traditionally done a very good job of letting people know what their requirements are, so what they need to be doing. So we unfortunately get a lot of people who didn’t have any… They might’ve been living abroad for many years and had no idea they needed to file or maybe didn’t know they needed to file foreign bank account or [report forms that did file tax – 00:29:48], things like that. And maybe have gotten some misinformation from their prior U.S. account because again, there’s not a lot of really good visibility there. So we get a lot of people who come to us kind of in a panic, like oh my goodness! Am I going to be able to go back to the U.S.? What am I going to do? And we try very much to pride ourselves on being able to share exactly what you need to do and what the real [inaudible – 00:30:14] these are. So here’s the worse case. But what usually happens and how do you usually end up seeing out the other end of that? So we focus very heavily on that and get a lot of people who are technically delinquent filers. But it was purely because they didn’t know. They’re just starting to get that awareness.
Lisette: Right. You’re not getting letters in the mail saying, “Hey, we notice that you’ve been in France for a couple of years.”
Carrie: Yeah, no one knows. They think I’m gone. I mean even if you kind of know you’re supposed to do it, it’s easy for it to fall off your radar because in most cases, you’re filing tax returns in the country you’re living in too. So you kind of think I’ve ticked that box.
Lisette: Right. So for all you expats out there, get in touch with Greenback. So [crosstalk – 00:30:58] you need to file. Luckily, I knew from the beginning. It’s been six years now since I’ve been in the Netherlands. So I knew from the beginning. So no emergencies on this one.
Carrie: Yeah [laughs].
Lisette: All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been really interesting to hear how your team works. And I hope that other people get value from hearing your story.
Carrie: Thank you. I appreciate your time.
Lisette: And until next time, everybody, be powerful.