JD Miller

Building successful virtual communities

31 Dec 2020   |   Culture Leadership

JD Miller

Building successful virtual communities

31 Dec 2020   |   Culture Leadership

Every CEO wants to have strong teams, but the pandemic has made leaders wonder how to bring people together in an increasingly virtual world.

JD Miller is the Chief Revenue Officer of Motus. As an experienced sales professional and a PhD holder in virtual communication, he has extensively studied the evolution of communities since the dawn of the internet age.

Motus was among the first companies that shifted to a ‘work anywhere’ culture. As an early adopter, they were able to hire great employees who were not restricted by proximity or work timings.


Creating a sense of belonging

One of the most important aspects of shifting to virtual, JD says, is being intentional about retaining a sense of unity. Earlier, watercooler conversations or the occasional drink at the lobby helped forge relationships between colleagues. But in a digital work environment, there aren’t enough opportunities for people to develop a rapport and build trust.

So how do you create virtual interactions that can help colleagues get to know one another?


Reaching out to the community

JD says that philanthropy has always been a big part of who Motus is. With tourism almost non-existent, small businesses are the most affected. This year, Motus collaborated with local business owners to host virtual experiences.

These experiences transported employees from their mundane work desks to a small family-owned chocolate shop in Chicago or backstage at an old art theatre for an enjoyable social experience with colleagues. At the same time, Motus was able to support businesses who would otherwise be struggling.


Staying ahead of the curve as an employer

Companies are constantly in competition for great talent. But what does it take to stay ahead of the curve?

“The best and the brightest didn’t want to be constrained by the walls of an office and a traditional 9 to 5 job.” Becoming the employer of choice, JD explains, isn’t just about replicating what we did in the office. Organizations need to save room for an employee’s personal life and plan work around it.

“When you get beyond the walls of a physical office, you can recruit talent from across the country, across the world, and truly find the best person to do the job.” Motus, JD explains, makes a conscious effort to recruit people from towns and communities that are often overlooked for tech jobs.


What’s next?

With the vaccines for COVID on the brink, organizations are gearing up to welcome the workforce back. But forward thinking leaders, JD says, will recognize that hybrid workplaces are the way forward. The future workplace will  invest in digital and provide vibrant experiences for employees, partners, and customers alike.



JD Miller on LinkedIn


JD’s Website



14:25 – “When you get beyond the walls of a physical office, you can recruit talent from across the country, across the world, and truly find the best person to do the job”

21:14 – “The most innovative companies are going to probably land in a hybrid where there are benefits that you get when you’re physically in a room together. And there are a lot of neat benefits that you get from digital. And so I think that the leading organizations are going to be on the vanguard of how to provide both.”

Today, our guest is JD Miller. He is the chief revenue officer for Motus. Hi, JD. How’s it going today?

Great. Thanks for having me, Neil.



Yeah, I’m very excited to have you on today for many reasons. One is you just have a great culture that I learned about at Motus and I’m excited to talk more about that. Second, you’re a CRO, which we don’t usually talk to with the show. So it’s going to be great to get your perspective on the culture you’ve built within your sales and marketing team. And then you’re also very interesting, because you’ve been studying virtual communications since back in the mid 90s, which is great. So I’m really excited about this.

Yeah. So chief revenue officer is someone who runs sales and marketing or really all revenue generating functions for a company. Today, I work at Motus, which is a B2B software company that decided to go fully virtual, not only during the coronavirus pandemic, but also for the rest of our future. And I come to it from a long history of sales. I actually got into sales when being a lawyer didn’t work out for me. So through a series of coincidences, I wound up with a PhD in virtual communications.



That doesn’t happen by coincidence, JD, I don’t think. You don’t just randomly show up with a PhD.

It was really a time when I was expecting to go to law school, I did an internship in the White House, back in the 90s, in the Clinton White House, when I realized that the lawyers weren’t having a ton of fun. And so not knowing what to do, my graduate department said, “Why don’t you come back and work on a master’s in communication?” So my advisor was looking at how communities form online. Again, it was the late 90s so the internet was first starting. So we were looking at how does community form in the physical world and then how does that translate to the virtual world. And so I finished a master’s in that. I got a job at a dot com doing that work, and then kept publishing about the work that I was doing, which ultimately led to the PhD.



Which is fascinating. Do you feel like that world of the internet, do you feel like that was like the pure days when it was native and nothing like tainted everything? Or is it pretty much the same thing just scaled up to what it was back then?

It’s really interesting how things have evolved. So, in the 90s, when we were studying groups online, we were looking at discussion boards. So a lot like what you’d see on a Reddit forum today, and trying to figure out how do people create community, create trust, stuff like that. Web 2.0 came where really social media and the ability to build profiles and Twitter and all of that kind of stuff really grew. And now today, the web is all about video conferencing. So, how do you take groups of people and have online meetings? How do you do full blown work in virtual communities? So, it’s the same underpinnings of technology. But the way communication has evolved has shifted from basic typing and text at each other to a much richer form of working together.



Talk about Motus and some of the transitions you guys have done. In terms of back in the day, which is like March of 2020, we’ll always remember this, when we had this mass experiment of working from home, we tried to pick up everything in the office and cram it into screens and cram it into different places. And we said, okay, we did it, we made the leap. We’re digital now. But what do you think got dropped in that transition that we didn’t realize, oh, shoot, that’s on the floor. We didn’t pick that up. What are those areas that companies first started to see struggles in and are really seeing big effects of that now?

I should first of all talk about what Motus was doing before the day, because I think we were probably an innovator or a leader back at the time that Motus had always had a work anywhere culture. And so although we did have physical offices in Boston, and Chicago, and places across the country, we always told our employees, we expect that we hired great knowledge workers, we know that you know what your goals are. And so we never had a 9 to 5 work schedule. And we never had a you must be in the office for these meetings. So we had been pre-equipped. My office in Chicago had a really full blown video conferencing system that made it really easy for anyone to pop open a web browser and start a virtual meeting pre-pandemic. So for us, when the pandemic hit, really, it was a simpler conversation for our employees, just saying we’re shutting down the office. And all the things we’ve been doing in that work anywhere, work anytime virtual mode translated. But I think when people make that transition, a lot of the things you have to be intentional about is how do you create community. When when you’re in a physical office, often it’s the kitchen and the virtual water cooler or the drink in the bar in the lobby of your office at the end of the day, where people form these loose ties with one another. And if you’re not thinking intentionally about that in the virtual environment, it has effects over the long term. You and I can have a little bit of trust with one another for a little bit of time. But if I haven’t invested in the relationship development over the long term, and if all that we ever do is talk about work and our task list, that’s the piece that I think a lot of organizations are finding they’re struggling with now that they’re six, eight months into fully working virtually.



And you’ve got this mix up of people who have worked together for many years, who are figuring out, how do we have those same relationships in the digital world? And then now you have new people who are joining in that have no prior relationship with other people, and the only connection they have is maybe through screens and virtual. So how can people navigate those things, both those old relationships and the new ones trying to bring people in? I mean, anyway, it was always hard to sometimes bring new people into your team, if you have cliques and different things going on. But how can we overcome those things in a virtual way?

It’s actually being intentional about creating meetings that have a bit of social to them. I’m getting ready for our national sales meeting, which usually we would be flying hundreds of people to Chicago for three or four days of sales training, an annual kickoff, all that kind of structured work. And then we would also be having lunches and dinners and off site events. And so when we’re doing that in a fully virtual world, we need to think about how do we not just take the really obvious things like, Oh, yeah, the training is going to be online. But how do you actually also recreate those interactions that would have happened in the lobby of a hotel and make that work for yourself, too. And so, it’s really trying to create experiences that people can have that way. Now, I think when we’re through the pandemic, I imagine that Motus, although we’re probably not going to reinvest in real estate, we’re going to redirect those funds into culture. And we will have new hire classes that go to a ranch in Colorado for a week to get to know one another. But until it’s safe to do that, it’s really being intentional about, how do you create just social events online as well, and weave that into a bigger story?



Yeah, I’m really interested in what companies are going to add back in, once it is safe to move about the cabin and get around and see people again. Will it be like before, just with a little bit more virtual or will it be fully virtual with a little more physical? And it’s nice to see different options that are out there.

I think there’s a lot that can be done with hybrid events. We talk about being a fully virtual company, we’ve realized that the amount of money we spent on real estate, it was the second biggest expense we had as a company after our people. And that real estate investment has been sitting completely idle for the last couple of months. Now, just before the pandemic, we had flown everyone in the company to the east coast for a two or three day all company meeting, and we hear people talk about that event as one of the milestone moments in their career, where they met colleagues and do that. So, when we think about getting back to a safer place to travel, we’re really talking a lot about how do we create those same mountaintop experiences for our employees, where you’re not going to go in an office Monday through Friday, every day, but maybe once a month, we’re going to have an all company get together, and maybe we’re going to fly the whole company to Tahiti, or maybe we’re going to have a new hire training in Colorado or something that people are going to remember, enjoy, and have loyalty for their company. But it’s a great redirection of the same dollars you would have spent on a physical space.



Yeah, creating those moments, those milestones, I feel like that’s much harder to do in a virtual space. When you’re in a location like Tahiti, like Colorado, you feel it, you’re using all those senses, and it just imprints itself on your mind. Whereas in a virtual world, really you got the audio and you got the visual, it’s all you got. So it’s harder to do that.

Well, and you’ve got UPS as well. So we’re working really closely with an event planning group, CNS Consulting Group, who I had used to put together a lot of my fiscal events in the past, and they’ve really helped us structure sort of these hybrid things. So I had a meeting about a month ago, that it was a two day meeting, and we identified a place in California, it was during the California wildfires, that would be sort of our virtual host. And so, this was a female owned winery, they had suffered a lot of fire damage from the wildfires. So their wine production was going to be lower for the rest of the year. And we said, what would it be like for you to be the host of our thing without us coming to you. So during our two days of meetings, we kept having these small break offs, where for 10 minutes, the woman who owned the winery came in and said, here’s my fields, and let me teach you about that. Or let me show you how we actually make wine. And we were able to send samples of the wine and samples of the stuff to all of our meeting participants. So it wasn’t just in the screen we’re FedExing stuff around a lot so that, yes, it would have been great to actually physically be in the vineyard with her. But also to have some of that sitting at home with you, you felt almost as good as being there. And I think about the future, I think there will be a time, it’s not going to be a light switch that we just turned on and we’re all going to put 100 people back in a room together again, but what’s that hybrid time going to look like where maybe I could have had six people in that vineyard, and maybe I could have had six people somewhere else and still be remote distanced in a safe way and have a virtual experience, but kind of blur the lines a bit.



I love that, and especially about the community involvement angle of it because when you’re in a work from anywhere situation, it’s like, you’re not necessarily supporting Little League teams anymore. You don’t have like, hey, we’re all from this one place. We’re all Scranton people. And we all do this one thing, like we’re spread out across the world or across the country. But how can we still be involved in these local pockets of community and still take care of the people around us and recognize that our work has a local impact as well as a global one?

Motus has always had a pretty strong philanthropic arm to what we do as well. And as a company, we budget every year specific outreach into the communities that we live and work in. It’s been interesting this year that through virtual meetings, I’ve wound up having these virtual hosts, that’s a small family owned chocolate shop in Chicago, that there’s no tourists walking around downtown Chicago buying their chocolate. But again, how can I have them drop in and create something that’s interesting from a meeting attendees that’s not just a Zoom meeting, but also how can I spend a significant amount of money supporting local business and making that work? And so, as we think about next year, again, we’re putting our philanthropic lens on and thinking about where are the other places that are suffering? The arts is a big one. Chicago has got a pretty big theater scene. And all of the big downtown theaters are shuttered for a good long time. What would it be like to, first of all, provide an experience that my sales meeting is in one of these architectural gyms when you only have a camera you’re taking around, we can “bring” my 100+ participants backstage or into a scene shop, or into a tiny light booth, give them that kind of experience, but also buoy an economy or buoy some workers who desperately need it today.


We were talking earlier with Sean Hoff, who runs kind of a virtual engagement for company type things. And he was saying now’s a great time, he’s been hiring actors to do some scenes for him and some of the things like that, it’s great to engage in that way, too.

Very cool.



JD, you were saying that Motus was ahead of the curve beforehand, offering some of these perks, this work from anywhere, that kind of flexible work timings. Now that it seems like most companies have been forced up into that realm, what is Motus doing to stay ahead of that curve, and to make sure that you’re continually that employer of choice?

I like that you say employer of choice because it is ultimately driven by a competition for great talent. We wound up in work anywhere years ago, because we knew that the best and the brightest didn’t want to be constrained by the walls of a traditional office and a traditional 9 to 5 job. And we realized that if you make room for people to be able to mix their work in life, whatever it is, whether it’s kids that you’ve got to go see a pageant in the middle of the day for, or maybe you’re a passionate triathlete and you want to go to the gym and train for an hour in the middle of the day, when you can shape the work life around what else is happening in people’s lives, you can attract better talent. The other part of it is, when you get beyond the walls of a physical office, you can recruit talent from across the country, across the world, and so find truly the best person to do the job than not. So how do we stay ahead of the curve today? First of all, it’s realizing that virtual work isn’t just trying to replicate, here’s what we did in the office and now we need to figure out how to make it work in an online place. It’s actually how can you make the best of all the features and functionality that online work provides you for. So for us that’s having more diverse teams from broader geographies that bring the best of the best across that we wouldn’t have done before. But it’s also starting to think about what can technology enable that you just couldn’t physically do in an office? I was looking on your blog, you have this five levels of a digital workplace. And you start to talk about work from anywhere as not a second choice or second best, but actually an intentional choice because suddenly you can have truly distributed management or you can truly maximize the benefits of the environment you’re in instead of just trying to make it look like the office, but at home. Does that makes sense?



Yeah, absolutely. Trying to get beyond just the replication and try to find, hey, this is actually better in some ways. And we don’t have to just make it what it was before, but really find some new uses for it. I like that. JD, let’s talk about the impact that digital work, and specifically this kind of forward thinking mindset that you have, what’s the impact on people who’ve been historically oppressed in the past? Do these new opportunities just make it easier for people who are already ahead to get farther ahead? Or is it opening up new opportunities? And specifically, in your experience with Motus and other people you’re aware of, what’s the real impact been?

This is a topic that I’m doing a lot of thinking about. And I don’t know that I have a pithy answer. But I can see multiple sides of this. When I’m not at Motus, I’m the president of the board of the homeless organization in Chicago. And during the pandemic, we’re seeing a big increase in need for our homeless services, and a lot of people have been put out of work and things like that. For the low wage earners or for the families that maybe had kids in schools that now it’s supposed to be teleworking, but you don’t have internet in your house, or you don’t have a laptop, there is a bit of a divide that the digital divide is making it more and more difficult for the poorest of the poor or people who already weren’t on, to use an old term, the information superhighway. On the other hand, at Motus, what I’m finding is that when I go recruit, and we’ve been hiring a ton, when I recruit, I’m able to recruit talent from towns and cities and communities that a lot of times are overlooked for tech jobs, because all you need is an internet connection, and you can work anywhere and be part of our team really well. So that’s working really, really well. The place that I haven’t quite figured out yet, and this isn’t specifically what I’m seeing in my job, but just in general, is I’m thinking a lot about Zoom meetings, and I’m thinking about when you look at the background of someone’s home office, suddenly you’re getting a lot more insight into their family and their personal life that you didn’t get when you went into an office. And so if I was struggling to survive, or if I am a single parent, or if I live in an apartment that’s not as posh as yours, a lot of that was hidden when I was at work, and suddenly, you start to see a little bit more of people’s personal lives bleeding through the edges of the Zoom. And so that’s a place I’m really curious to see what happens is that, how do we bridge the wall between public life and private life and how do we manage our self disclosure in a different way?



Yeah, I think that’s a great topic to think through. Because if you already had a stable life, if you already had a stable house, you already had a stable internet connection that was already there, then this transition probably was not difficult. Maybe you have more kids running around different things. But if you’re in a situation where you’re sharing a home with many different people, it’s a small place, small location, that may just make it even harder to get about that. So I think we need to always have the empathetic ear out and say, yeah, this is working for me, but is it working for everybody? Are there things that don’t have to be there that we can take away and create opportunities for these? So I’m glad that you’re thinking about that. And that’s a very important topic.

I am thinking a lot about just this issue of self disclosure as well. So I’m a member of the LGBT community. And I wrote a blog Pride Month about 50% of US workers are not out to their coworkers. And they make that decision for a lot of different reasons. But that’s something when you go into a physical office, it’s easy to leave the private life at home. Suddenly, if I’m at home and sharing a home office with my husband, now it’s less easy to maintain those boundaries. And I think a lot of people have, and it may not even be something that big and earth shattering. But how do you present yourself at work and how do you separate your private life? We’re a bit more blurred as a result of the technology. And so I think that’s going to be a new frontier for inclusion and diversity and all sorts of issues.



Definitely. Speaking of new frontiers, as someone who’s been on the frontier of these topics for a long time, now we’re all kind of looking to people like you to say, what’s come up next? What are the next challenges that you’re excited that you get to tackle?

We’re recording this a couple of days after the announcement that there are vaccines coming for corona. And so I think, as an organization, a lot of people are going to have to decide, we’ve had this, by the time it’s out, let’s say, a year experience of what virtual officing looks like. And now instead of it being something that’s forced on us, it’s a question of, is it something that we want to continue? And I think there are some organizations like Motus that would say, we love it, and we get the benefits of it, and that’s our future. And I think there are a lot of organizations that are itching for the time that they go “back to work” and throw out the lessons that we’ve learned over the year. I think the most innovative companies are going to probably land in a hybrid where there are benefits that you get when you’re physically in a room together. And there are a lot of neat benefits that you get from digital sorts of things. And so I think that the leading organizations are going to be on the vanguard of how do you provide both. And maybe instead of having four floors of an office, maybe I’ve got one floor of an office somewhere that’s more of a drop in do and have a boardroom meeting or a meet a client or something like that, but also really invest in the digital experience outside and make that just as vibrant for employees and partners and customers as well. So I think the short answer is, how do you create hybrid environments going forward?



Do you think there are some organizations that have like a director of remote or something like that? Whose position does that fall in? Because I wouldn’t expect necessarily the CRO or somebody who’s leading sales to be making that call. Who is going to do that? Is it going to be just individual department heads who say, hey, this is what works for my team? Or is there going to be like a strategic decision across whole organization?

I think it can be everywhere. But I think it starts with all of the executives of the organization defining what is your culture. And if as an organization, you think culturally, we’re embracing a digital workplace, then there’s a lot of arms of how that plays out, certainly IT has a big role to play in making sure everyone is equipped and able to get online, HR has a big role to make sure that people’s home offices are set up appropriately and they’ve been given a stipend and support for having a truly vibrant home office. The head of sales, a third of our employees are salespeople in some way, shape, or form. And so certainly, I have a big cultural voice in declaring how a big chunk of our employees are going to work. So, do I think there’s going to be a chief remote work officer? I’m not totally sure. I do think it needs at least one advocate. But I think the best is if actually, the whole C suite is in line with one another on the value of it. And then we all advocate in our own ways for making it happen.



For sure. Makes a lot of sense. JD, thanks for being on the show. We appreciate you coming on, sharing what you’ve learned throughout the many years you’ve been involved in this. If people want to learn more about you or Motus, where should they go?

So you can find me on my website. It’s jdmillerphd.com and that will connect you to all my social media. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and all the rest of it.



Excellent. Great. We’ll put that in the show notes. It’s been fun to chat with you and we look forward to staying in touch.

Great. Thanks for having me, Neil.


JD began his career during the dot-com boom as employee number 26 of a web content management company which went public with one of the largest technology IPOs at the time. ​

Then, he went on to take progressive leadership roles at organizations seeking sales transformations – whether that be strong increases in revenue, preparation for merger, acquisition, or IPO.

Currently, he is the Chief Revenue Officer of Motus, LLC.- a role he took on after Thoma Bravo merged two mobile technology companies in a half-billion dollar purchase. In that role, he oversees all revenue-related functions, including sales, marketing, partnerships, and customer success. Under his leadership we have grown revenues 20% annually.

He’s an entrepreneurial mentor for the Chicago tech incubator 1871, and his work with empowering underserved communities led me to be named one of the 20 Most Inspiring Chicagoans by Streewise and a Notable LGBTQ Executive by Crain’s Chicago Business.

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