I worked with a few sponsors for the 2013 Nigerian Blog Awards, and before that, I collaborated on small, related elements of past Awards. All of this was done long-distance. What I learned is long-distance collaborations, like long-distance relationships, are not ideal. I will never forget the potential sponsor who had me jumping through hoops for two months last year, working my butt off on different proposals and ideas, only to cancel the agreement when I contacted them after a week of silence and no response to two of my emails. The worst part to me was the feeling that if I hadn’t contacted them, they wouldn’t have contacted me to tell me that the deal was a no-go—which is unprofessional in my books. That experience and another one in particular have taught me so much about how I’ll handle such opportunities this year.
Here are two challenges of long-distance collaborations and how to manage them.
At any given time I’m five or six hours behind West African Time (WAT), so my Nigeria-based counterparts find it hard to reach me when it’s morning in Nigeria: at 7:00am WAT, I’m just getting my sleep on, since it’s midnight or 1:00am where I live. And when it’s morning here, the workday in Nigeria is half over. The result is any emails sent can rarely be fully dealt with during the same workday of the person who sent it. This makes the back and forth take place over many more days and leaves both sides feeling like the other is slacking.
I tended to deprive myself of sleep so that I could be in the same timezone as those I was collaborating with, but that was hard to do consistently and I failed most of the time. Instead:
- Make time for one or more initial voice chats where you discuss the key details of the collaboration and this issue of delays in receiving and responding to emails. I completely underestimated the value of voice chats; not any more! After a voice chat, the person on the other end of the email is more real to you, and I think that’ll affect how you treat emails from them (and vice-versa). A voice and video chat would be even more ideal.
- Document the important things so you don’t have to send as many text messages and emails. In addition, instead of sending an email at 8:00 or 9:00am my time, I use Gmail’s Boomerang add-on to schedule emails to be sent when it’s morning for the recipient, so that when I wake up (and it’s afternoon in Nigeria), there’s a good chance the recipient has replied to me already and if I reply right upon waking, we might be able to get a few exchanges in until we’re hampered by the time difference factor.
I have a North American approach to doing business (whatever that means, right?). No one’s perfect and everyone has different turn-ons (in business, hehe!). I value quick replies to communication, so I try to give what I want to receive. I’m also a fan of extremely detailed emails (since we don’t have the luxury of face-to-face contact and lengthy long distance phone calls can be expensive) to eliminate confusion and misunderstanding, and I like to set clear deadlines for projects with milestones, which I work hard to respect.
I learned these traits were more likely to be considered nagging or “control freak” behaviour rather than efficient by some of the people I worked with. My emails were too long and often not read in whole. They would go unanswered for one or two weeks, then I would get a reply asking why I hadn’t taken action on something that I had indicated in my email I could not take action on before hearing from them. Or I’d get an email saying I hadn’t done something and when I showed that I had, I wouldn’t hear any more on the topic. Some people treat deadlines as guidelines, and it’s easier when the person on the other end is someone you’ve never met, or spoken to. For me, a deadline is the absolute latest time to take action on something, not the time to just start working on it. And what about the rolling deadline, when someone keeps asking for extension upon extension, only to not deliver in the end? Argh!
Solution: Only work with people who share a similar work ethic as you? Hah—I’m joking! You learn so much from working with people who approach things differently from you. But to minimize your stress:
- Expect that some people won’t respect agreed-upon timelines—it’s usually not personal: they’re just bad at managing time, or they don’t think the deadline is actually set in stone (and you could be to blame for this). Build plenty of “wiggle room” into timelines but do not let them know that you’ve done this, or you’ll be back at square one! Do not say “Your contribution is due on February 6, but if you’re a week or two late, no wahala” because guess when you’ll receive their part? February 30 (and yes, there’s no February 30!)! ;)
- Seek guidance from others who know about how to best work with either that specific person or more generally with someone from a different cultural orientation than you’re used to. That will help you develop realistic timelines and not take everything so personally (completely speaking from personal experience here!).
Mind you, your cultural orientation doesn’t mean you can’t work in a similar way to someone from a completely different culture, but in my limited experience cultural background has appeared to play a big role.
Be clear regarding all aspects of payment: when it’s due, especially! Ideally payment should be milestone-based, and this should be clear to all parties. I was so naive on this point; now I know better for next time.
I’m hoping to have many more collabos this year, so this is why it’s so important for me to set up a plan for success for future interactions. If you have any great tips, please let me know!