How to run a virtual business as cohesive as if everyone worked under one roof. Photograph by Roberto Caruso How to run a virtual business as cohesive as if everyone worked under one roof. Photograph by Roberto Caruso

Seeing glaring spelling mistakes such as "marjewana busts" drove Chandra Clarke to become an entrepreneur. As the managing editor at an Ontario community newspaper, Clarke grew sick of the typos littering so many of the press releases she received. So, in 1997, she quit her job and founded Scribendi.com to do something about it.

Fast-forward 15 years, and the online editing and proofreading business Clarke launched in her living room is now an international leader in the document-revision industry. A key competitive advantage: an army of 200 contract editors in more than 60 countries who burn through 1.5 million words a week. This allows Scribendi to operate 24/7 and guarantee an eight-hour turnaround for clients who pay a premium.

Running as a virtual business offers many benefits, such as low overhead for Clarke, worldwide service for clients and flexible work hours for editors. But it also creates challenges, among them keeping home-based employees highly engaged in their work and consistently delivering topnotch quality. These challenges are especially acute for Clarke, Scribendi's president: not only does she have editors dispersed around the planet, but her business is all about making things perfect.

The 14th annual PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 ranking of Canada's Top Female Entrepreneurs (for additional information about any entrepreneur's company, click on her name)

Clarke has overcome these challenges by developing rigorous operating processes for everything from employee training and engagement to workflow—and vigilantly ensuring they're followed. Her thriving business offers a paradigm for other firms that are considering going virtual in order to reduce costs, boost employee retention and become more flexible and responsive.

Operating processes are at the heart of this paradigm. "We live by checklists and leave nothing to chance," says Clarke, a self-confessed "process nerd" who completed a correspondence degree in automation and robotics while in high school.

Whereas many CEOs pay close attention to processes only after their firms reach a certain size, Clarke has focused on them since Day 1. The staff of 22 at Scribendi's head office in Chatham, Ont., follow dozens of procedures detailing, say, the proper way to send out a press release or proofread a brochure. The firm adds processes and revises existing ones based in part on feedback from regularly polling employees and clients. (The latter include authors, academics, students and businesses.) And in 2010, Scribendi became ISO 9001:2008 certified—which, to Clarke's knowledge, makes it the world's only document-revision firm with this quality-management accreditation.

We live by checklists and leave nothing to chance," says Clarke, a self confessed "process nerd

Scribendi staff spent hundreds of hours completing the ISO process and now run frequent product and quality audits to maintain the certification. For instance, the firm's editors—who complete an intensive, month-long training and testing curriculum before taking on any assignments—undergo random training exercises. If an editor's work isn't meeting quality standards, Scribendi's HR department provides more training to get the editor back up to snuff.

Clarke says the ISO designation was critical in helping the company more than double its revenue over three years. This growth is one of the factors in her No. 89 ranking on the 2012 W100. And Scribendi's diligent processes strengthen the company's ties with its far-flung workforce, says Clarke: "You need really solid processes in place so everybody is clear what their role is and to ensure that people are getting what they need from you."

She says following standardized processes has allowed Scribendi to develop a pricing widget through which potential clients enter a word count and deadline for a given service and receive a firm quote in seconds. This "no surprise" pricing is a key competitive advantage. Under the traditional editing model—usually a lone editor with a red pen working at a set hourly rate—varying editing speeds mean clients won't know how much their final bill will be until it graces their inbox. "With us, clients know exactly how much it will cost and when they'll get the job back," says Clarke.

Employee engagement is another area she doesn't leave to chance. Scribendi's editors must install a proprietary instant chat application on their computers so they can connect with colleagues. Editors also are required to check in daily to a central message board with updates to company guidelines, policies and procedures.

Scribendi's proprietary workflow-management software lets managers monitor how often editors log in to the system and how much work they do. If days or weeks pass with little or no activity, "we reach out," says Clarke. "They feel they're not just some anonymous person out in the middle of nowhere. It reinforces that we really do care." This close connection to staff drives strong word-of-mouth recruitment—Scribendi receives up to 30 resumés a day.

Given that Clarke and Terence Johnson, her husband and business partner, plan their kitchen renovations down to the last nail, it's no surprise that they've set a clear growth target for their company. By entering more foreign markets, and possibly offering foreign-language editing, Clarke aims to quadruple revenue over the next 18 months. That would push Scribendi's staff count well past 250—and help it score some victories in the war on "marjewana."

PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 rankings (for additional information about any entrepreneur's company, click on her name)

More Success Stories from the PROFIT/Chatelaine W100: Canada's Top Female Entrepreneurs

Indicate your interest in participating in the 2013 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100

Loading comments, please wait.