Virtual firm turns to Web services

When Heather Fitzpatrick launched virtual marketing firm MarketFitz Inc. in 1998, her biggest fears centred around management – how well would her 12 remote employees manage clients, projects and accounts, and how effectively would she in turn manage them? Turned out, Fitzpatrick should have worried instead about her company’s technology infrastructure.

Just starting out and low on cash, Fitzpatrick created a patchwork of solutions for communicating and sharing data. MarketFitz used a freeware e-mail service that also served as the firm’s ad hoc intranet. Employees accessed the company Windows NT file server (in Fitzpatrick’s home) via a VPN, but often lost or overwrote files accidentally, which made tracking client projects difficult. Similar mishaps occurred when employees tried to synch to the firm’s centralized Act database. For billing and payroll, time sheets and expense reports were mailed or faxed – reliable but slow and cumbersome methods.

Nonetheless, the company grew to 100 employees in two years, serving as the outsourced marketing department for dozens of clients.

The benefits of running a virtual company abound. Without the constraints of facilities costs, virtual firms can grow quickly and inexpensively while helping employees enjoy more balanced lives. Yet, a virtual firm is only as effective as its ability to store, transmit and share data.

In 2000, MarketFitz’s weak infrastructure caught up with it, and growth stalled.

“We had sophisticated client needs, but couldn’t pull people together sufficiently,” Fitzpatrick says. “If we didn’t find a solution, we would have had to pull people in-house.”

That’s when Fitzpatrick turned to Portera Systems Inc., a Web services company that offers contact database management, file storage, account logs, time keeping, billing and invoicing primarily to professional services firms.

Portera’s ServicePort software now ties the organization, its clients and projects together like no piecemeal effort ever could, Fitzpatrick says. While most of her workers live in the Seattle area, one is in New Mexico, another in Montana, and one manager even lives on an island in Puget Sound. The technology brings the team together to manage workflow and boost efficiency.

“You have to find the right technology that can tie the team together,” she says. “Then it becomes a simple workflow issue. If you can’t manage the work, generate reports and keep the people on the same page, then you just drown trying to manage it all.”