Weare living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ajay Anand, founder of Rare Carat, a ring marketplace that’s been coined “Kayak for diamonds.” He founded Rare Carat after having a hard time buying a ring for his now-wife in hopes of bringing more transparency to an industry shrouded in secrecy. The Rare Carat platform uses AI technology to compare diamond prices across various online retailers, and the site has gemologists on staff all day for no cost diamond advice. Prior to Rare Carat, Anand founded an enterprise software-as-a-service (SaaS) company used by the UN in over 50 countries. He was also an employee of www.21Diamonds.in and a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. Anand holds a Wharton MBA, Penn MA, and University of Michigan BBA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m originally from Detroit, and grew up with aspirations of being an actor. After getting my BBA at Michigan, I trained at New York’s Lee Strasberg Institute before moving to India to make it in Bollywood, then came back and got my MBA at Wharton.
My first exposure to the diamond world was working with an e-commerce site called 21 Diamonds. Then when it came time to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring, I visited New York’s diamond district on 47th Street. Vendors could sniff out my inexperience. I started obsessively researching diamonds online because of the price transparency. Ultimately, I was willing to deal with the drawbacks of buying online because I was saving so much money.
After that I laid down the bones for Rare Carat, where customers can compare diamonds across different retailers free of charge and ask for gemology advice without any pressure to buy. We don’t make commissions; we’re paid by clicks. If a customer is interested in a diamond, we facilitate that transaction and back them with a 3rd party money-back guarantee.
Basically, I started the company based on what I wish I’d had.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I spent years trying to be an actor and even moved to India to try Bollywood. I actually landed a starring role but had to pass on it after the director demanded that I marry his daughter in exchange for being cast in the film! But it was good. I learned to deal with rejection and just keep going.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Art is born of constraint, and dies of freedom” — My boss at BCG was a French intellectual that left me with this quote as I quit. To me, in my career this learned that I needed to learn and respect whatever the medium was before I could even begin to do anything interesting within it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My mother by far! She has supported me in all of my wild and crazy career decisions with everything she had. Couldn’t have done this without her.
Can you share a story about that?
Oh my gosh well she still speaks to me after I wanted to follow business school with acting then moved to Bollywood…
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Normally, I think the main advantage of an in-person team is that everyone can look each other in the eye, and tone is so much easier to read. We can be more direct in the workplace without worrying too much about hurt feelings.
It’s also easier to bounce ideas off each other in a traditional meeting space — I’m thinking whiteboard — but that has its drawbacks too. Sometimes in person, it’s easier for one team member to try and steamroll others.
Honestly after being remote over the last year I’m seeing very little benefit to an in-person arrangement for our particular niche, and have declared us all remote.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
It’s tougher to build camaraderie and build workplace relationships — that’s a big one. Workdays can seem very transactional and leave employees feeling cold.
No more shared interactions, no awkward work parties to bond over — I’m serious! It takes a toll on morale when your teammate is just a name and a profile pic.
It can also be challenging arranging meetings with team members across different time zones. We don’t want anyone working super-late hours, but we also don’t need people up at 5AM.
But this drawback is also a perk for maintaining 24/7 operations.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1.) Have patience and be gracious. Everyone communicates differently and these differences are magnified when you’re communicating remotely. As an international company, team members have cultural differences that also affect communication. Some employees are very direct and may seem rude and others tend to hint at what they want instead. It’s important not to assume malice before clarifying what the other person meant. Most often, they’re bummed about coming across harsh.
2.) Lean on tech to stay organized. That’s the easiest way to make sure that your various teams are able to communicate both with you and each other without losing things in the mix. We have a slack channel specifically putting out fires, which means upper management will never miss something important. We also have add-ons to notate and enhance email communication across shifts.
3.) Welcome employee feedback. Your employees know best what will help streamline their processes and facilitate communication among colleagues. My orders team came to me today and said that they think that we need to dedicate one person to custom rings because the way we currently manage is not efficient. That is really great feedback; now I can work on making custom orders less of a burden for the whole team.
4. Think creatively. The world of remote work is always changing so you have to stay on top of things or you might miss an early chance to embrace new technology. The email management app Superhuman has been a lifesaver in terms of keeping all my emails organized and helping me stay on track of my tasks.
5. Clear lines of communication. A remote team is fractured geographically, so it’s important everyone’s on the same page about what the benchmarks are for progress. My gemology team and my orders team are the public face of Rare Carat. It’s really important that they communicate freely to stay current on not only our policies but those of the retailers. If communication falters there, things get messy.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
I think we’ve just had the normal communication challenges that anyone could expect while working remote.
Our employees use their own cell phones and laptops for work. Of course this means that we are working with varying degrees of computer and Internet quality which can sometimes slow things down. We use our own email accounts and phone lines though.
We strongly believe in privacy after-hours.
It would be ingenuine to say that there have been no challenges, but we don’t have any issues with productivity. There’s so much more going on in an actual office to distract than at home, in our experience.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
To keep things simple for our multinational team we stick with Slack, WhatsApp, Google Meet, Jira (and other Atlassian products) for communication across teams. Since our company is spread throughout the world it’s important we have programs that are usable in several different countries.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I saw a neat product called Vowel, that actually took notes and created agendas from meetings — all using AI.
It would be great to have an app that integrates chatting, calling and video all accessible from everywhere, that’s also able to integrate social media platforms to transform brainstorming into implementation. All while being user-friendly!
That may be a bit unlikely but I do think that with the growing need for remote work, having programs that work in all countries will improve accessibility, and also increase worldwide employment.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
We are now geographically distributed, with no two people in the same location — the only way we can survive and thrive is through asynchronous, rich communication of our ideas.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
For Rare Carat we use artificial intelligence to benefit our consumers, but it also ends up benefiting our gemologists who are on staff all day using that technology. Having a computer that runs the data for you allows the team to focus on important aspects of customer service and gemology suggestions which is way more productive.
Aside from video calling like Zoom I’m not particularly excited about things that might be bringing people together in the same space a virtual reality environment. It would be too “uncanny valley” for employees to really engage with their workforce.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
The future vision only really concerns me insofar as it might be used to take advantage of not only customers and consumers but also employees in the workplace. I think the fear with augmented reality is that unkind actors might use this to influence and deceive people. I do think that this can be avoided though with the right proven protections in place.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
At Rare Carat we pretty much do everything via chat, messaging, and phone/texting apps. Business has more than doubled, and we tripled our staff during the pandemic, so I would say these electronic forms of communication are working great for customers.
I think they’ve realized they get to browse and chat with real humans from the comfort of their own home without having to risk going into a brick and mortar store, get upsold or run it to someone who’s not wearing a mask. Since they’re not around humans and family as much as normal, our gemologists give them advice over chat which they wouldn’t be able to get from anyone else.
Sometimes, we kind of hold their hand through the process while also taking care of other customers, which we could not do in person.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Oh for sure, we have tried a bunch of different ways to make this happen. It’s definitely trial and error because it depends on the teammate.
Some teammates are really great when you’re entirely straightforward; they take it as a moment to improve. With other employees, they have a tendency to take more direct feedback personally. Learning to sugarcoat things is an underrated skill.
Either way it’s always good to sandwich things in between some more positive feedback which leaves them open to change. It’s also more important that you be encouraging towards your employees so that they feel motivated to work for you.
If employees have low morale then they are not going to work very efficiently or be very empathetic, and we don’t want anyone on edge in the workplace.
It’s important that we retain stuff so it’s important that we work with stuff to meet them in the middle with our communication styles, especially during Covid.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
The first suggestion is teambuilding — and doing so regularly. Fridays, we play games. Typically it’s a game of pictionary online, which is always a hit — but this week, we tried something different. Teams had 10 minutes to work together to draw a dabbing unicorn in a pre-coded Google sheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/13bQaexKbu9Qyah1K-1ZAs6VF2TCRaUi6va-IH1gS2Ko/edit#gid=1629905998
These were the results — as you can imagine, it was a BLAST:
Also, we create a sense of camaraderie by including everyone in on our live chat communications. This way everyone throughout the company knows what’s going on with other teams and not in the dark without direct updates like in an office.
We also use an e-commerce chat interface that makes everything searchable so that the team can go through and look up interactions between teammates regarding certain customers, retailers or products, making information easily accessible and communication freely encouraged.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is a tough one, and to be clear I do not consider myself a person of great influence.
Before I started Rare Carat I actually founded an enterprise software service company which was used by the United Nations in about 50 countries to deliver aid, which was rewarding.
I do believe that people in positions of privilege should use that privilege to help others, and to that end I would love to see more transparency in the diamond industry beyond what we’ve already created.
Change is slow, but we do see the diamond industry morphing into a more ethical place. We are also partnering with the tech startup Everledger to create a searchable history for some diamonds we sell. The customer will be able to check on the origin of their stone and choose a diamond that’s not just physically attractive but is in line with their ethics.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can check out new developments at RareCarat.com.
I post on our blog at https://www.rarecarat.com/author/ajay-anand
You can also follow us on Instagram at: Instagram.com/rarecarat
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.