Even before the time of the COVID-19 crisis, the practice of hiring VAs from all over the world had already become common practice, and the crisis only served to expand the practice in more fields. Hiring VAs can be a delicate process because you’re entrusting so much to people you’ve never even met, but once you’ve established things properly, it should go off without a hitch. Domenic Rinaldi is joined by Nathan Hirsch, who is an entrepreneur, an expert in remote hiring and eCommerce, and the Co-Founder of the acclaimed platform, FreeeUp.com. Nathan speaks to Domenic about what to look for when you’re hiring VAs to ensure a great partnership. Hiring VAs is a great practice to continue your business expansion, so why don’t you give it a try?
Listen to the podcast here:
FreeeUp Yourself: Hiring VAs To Do More With Nathan Hirsch
For business owners in our community who are looking to build a more flexible and expandable business, the concept of hiring virtual assistants have come front and center, especially during the current COVID crisis. Virtual assistants had been around for a long time, but it seems like they picked up steam in the last few years with more people entering the gig economy. We were being visited by Nathan Hirsch. He’s someone who has built multiple businesses on the foundation of virtual assistants and he’s started a new firm, OutsourceSchool to help business owners learn his techniques.
Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
First, how about a quick background on yourself? What have you done and some of the businesses that you’ve built?
Growing up, my parents are both teachers and I have the mentality that I’d go to school, get a real job, work for 30 years and retire. I had summer jobs. I learned a lot about sales, marketing and business but I always hated having a boss. When I got to college, I looked at college as a ticking clock. I had four years to start my own business or I was going to go into the real world and be miserable. I started hustling. I started buying and selling people’s textbooks. I created a referral program. I started competing with my school bookstore and I got a cease and desist letter from my college telling me to knock it off or they’re going to kick me out of school. I pivoted. I didn’t want to get kicked out of college. I had sold some books on Amazon. This was 2008, 2009. They were becoming bigger and more than a bookstore. I started experimenting with different products that I was familiar with like video games, computers and sporting equipment.
I failed and I kept failing. I couldn’t sell anything until I came across baby products through trial and error. I ended up growing a large baby product business on Amazon. If you could imagine me as a twenty-year-old, single, college guy selling millions of dollars of baby products. I struggled to hire people. I hire college kids. They were not reliable and no one in the real world wanted to work for me. I was 21, so I started getting into the VA world. I got good at hiring virtual assistants. I use the Upwork and the Fiverr of the world but I hated those platforms. I wanted something better and faster. I kept looking and looking. When I couldn’t find it I said, “I’ll build it myself.” I launched the FreeeUp Marketplace and I started that with a $5,000 investment and a minimum viable product. I got it out there and our whole thing is that we pre-vet freelancers and virtual assistants. The top 1% get on.
We match people up quickly and great customer service. If anything goes wrong, no turnover guarantee. If someone quits, we cover replacement costs and we scaled that business from a $5,000 investment to doing over $12 million a year. We were acquired by one of our customers, which is a whole different story. Once we finished with that transition, we had a lot of interests with people asking us how we did it because the FreeeUp Marketplace was still an eight-figure business completely run by virtual assistants, no office, no employees, 35 VAs in the Philippines doing all day-to-day operations. We didn’t wake up one day, hire 35 people, cross our fingers and hope it worked out. We had real systems for interviewing, onboarding, training, managing, using them for podcasts, social media and all of that. We created OutsourceSchool to be an education platform, teaching people how to use virtual assistants not only in general but also for specific things and building software that’ll help people use virtual assistants. That’s where we’re at.When you can't find the platform you need, go out there and build it yourself. Click To Tweet
What a great story. Congratulations.
Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s been an interesting few years.
What an interesting time doing this episode. We’re in the middle of this COVID crisis. Everybody had to scramble to work remotely. People are trying to figure out what to do next. It seems like this topic of virtual assistance and being able to hire people so that you can be nimble and you can expand quickly or contract quickly is going to come a front and center. What’s an advice to business owners as they think about whether or not a virtual assistant would work for them?
I want to start off by saying I would never use Corona or anything like that to promote any of my businesses. We were going in the remote direction anyway as a world. This is accelerating that process that people have to work from home and see what all the risks are. There are many benefits of hiring a virtual assistant. If you go back 25 years, you had to hire people in person with an office, you had to hire them full-time, they had to be in your town or the towns around you or you had to pay them to relocate. You fast forward, you get access to people all over the world at different price points and different skillsets. You can hire them full-time, part-time or project-based. I have a bookkeeper. I hire five hours a month and they cost me $25 a month. I have higher level experts that I can hire to handle my Facebook Ads. You get that flexibility as a business owner. If you’re not taking advantage of that flexibility, you’re missing out and your competitors are.
You mentioned a couple of resources right there. You’ve got a Facebook expert, a bookkeeper and I’m sure there are tons of others. If you’re a small or mid-size business owner, where do you get started? Even understanding how to go about hiring the right people and knowing what to hire. How do you manage all of those resources that may be doing one small task for you? It seems like a lot of external resources to manage.
First is an understanding of everything. I like to divide it between followers, doers and experts. Followers think $5 to $10 an hour, non-US. They’re there to follow your systems and processes. They might have years of experience but they’re going to struggle if you don’t have systems and processes in your business. That the followers are what I consider virtual assistants. You’ve got the doers. The freelancers, specialists, they do the same thing, 8 to 10 hours a day. They could be writers, video editors, and graphic designers. You’re not teaching a graphic designer how to be a graphic designer but they’re not consulting with you either. You’ve got the experts. They could be $30 an hour, they could be $1,000 an hour. The high-level freelancers, coaches, consultants or agencies. They bring the strategy to the table. They bring their own systems, their own processes and knowing these different levels is important.
If you set out to hire a VA and you don’t know anything about Facebook Ads and you say, “I don’t know anything about Facebook Ads, go run my Facebook Ads.” You’re not going to have a great experience and vice versa. If you hire an expert and they’ve had a lot of success with their systems and processes in different businesses and you say, “I’m hiring you but I want you to do it my way.” You’re not going to have that much success either. Knowing the different levels and how to use each level is a big part of understanding hiring, making good hires and making it efficient or going towards success when it comes to hiring.
You’re a business owner, you get to the point where you realize this makes sense. I love the way you described followers, doers, and experts. It makes perfect sense. Where does somebody start? Where do they go?
We have a cool tool on OutsourceSchool.com. If you go to OutsourceSchool.com/VACalculator or you can do the math yourself but figuring out how much you can afford is step one. You want to look at how much money you make every single month. You want to look at how aggressive or how conservative you want to be. If you’re trying to build that next empire, you’re investing 50% of your profits in the hiring. If you’re more conservative and we’re all in a different place in our life and our business, you’re in that 10%. I tend to be in that 20% to 30% in terms of reinvesting profits. Once you understand that budget, I encourage people to create two lists. The first list is everything you do on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis. I recommend prioritizing it from easiest to hardest. I’m at the point as an entrepreneur where I order it from things I hate doing the most. Once you had that list, start chipping away the things at the top, the easiest things to get off your plate and how do you get back 5 or 10 hours a week, whatever it is. That’s going to allow you to focus more time on the sales, the marketing and the expansion. The second list is all the things you’re not good at. That’s where the doers and the experts come in. Instead of trying to make yourself good at everything you’re bad at, hire someone who’s already good at that and quickly turn a weakness into a strength.
Nathan, let’s say somebody puts that together. They put their budget and they identify what they need. They go out into the marketplace, they start looking for people, they find somebody, and that person takes over a particular task. Are you in the same situation as if you had an employee where if that person gets sick or they decide to get a full-time job or then you’re back to square one? Is there a way to hedge in the virtual assistant or specialist world so that you’re not in that situation where somebody leaves and you’ve got to start from square one?
You should diversify your hiring so you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket and load up on someone that your entire business depends on. If you think of hiring in four parts, and this is what we teach in our Cracking the VA Code course, interviewing, onboarding, training and managing. Most entrepreneurs know that they have to interview, train and on some level, they have to manage the virtual assistant. It’s the onboarding that everyone skips. That’s a part that leads to the turnover that leads to someone wanting to quit on you which costs you hours and hours down the line. For example, let’s say I interview a bunch of VAs. I want to hire Jane at $5 an hour. Most entrepreneurs will say, “Jane, that was a great interview. I want to hire you at $5 an hour. Let’s start getting started with training.”Spending extra time on the onboarding is going to save you hundreds of hours down the line. Click To Tweet
What I teach people to do is, “Jane, that was a great interview. I want to hire you at $5 an hour. Let’s make sure you’re good at $5 an hour. If you are, I want to take you through what I call my SICC Method.” That’s Schedule, Issues, Communication and Culture. We’re going to talk about schedule, make sure the schedule works for you. I’m going to learn about your other clients and what their schedule is. If there’s any overlap, we’re going to make sure you’re not working 100 hours a week and it’s reasonable your total hours with all your clients. We’re going to talk about issues. We’re going to go over your computer. Do you have a backup? Is it new? Is it fast? We’re going to talk about internet issues or what happens if you lose the internet? Do you have a backup place to go? Do you have a hotspot? Can you not work until your internet comes back? How often do you lose the internet? We’re going to go through power. Same thing. Do you have a backup generator? Do you have a place to go? How often do you lose power? We’re going to talk about the weather. Do you live in a rural area or a city? How much of a factor is the weather?”
Even though they can’t control the weather, I want to know what I’m getting into when I’m hiring someone from a rural country. Lastly, personal issues and setting that expectation that personal issues can’t interfere with work. How to handle personal issues when it happens. Next is communication. Some people hate certain communication channels. I like Slack, email and Viber. I have certain rules for each one. Emails have to be responded within a business day. I’m going to lay out those expectations. Last is culture. What are the values? What do people believe in? We go through all of this and then at the end, I give them a chance to back out because I’d much rather they back out once they realize what’s expected and what they’re getting into then for me to figure out that it’s not a fit down the line. A lot of entrepreneurs have somewhat specific job posting and they’ll mention some things during the interview but the VA or the freelance or whoever they’re hiring doesn’t know what they’re getting into until they get started. That’s what leads to a lot of hassle for both the entrepreneur and the freelancer. Spending extra time on that onboarding and it can be a 30-minute conversation. It’s going to save you hundreds of hours down the line and hedge your bet in terms of people quit it.
Let’s talk about one of those things that you brought up which is culture. You’ve got a distributed workforce. In your case, you had everybody that was remote, nobody co-located. How do you create and maintain a culture in that environment? Do the virtual assistants and specialists commingle with each other? Is there communication amongst everybody? How do you run a business that’s got some cohesiveness and a real culture?
I encourage them to communicate. I have a podcast assistant who every morning I wake up and they send me a list of podcasts that I want to look at. I’ll reach out to the ones that I want to be on. That person doesn’t necessarily have to be as involved as my customer service person who is part of a customer service team. At some point, I do want them all to have that camaraderie. What I call it is my BARF method, which is a funny acronym. I spent a lot of time trying to make it different. It stands for getting them to buy in, showing appreciation, building relationships and creating a family environment. This is the key to building a culture and reducing turnover once you’re managing a lot of virtual assistants.
Getting them to buy in is showing them how passionate you are about the business. Making sure they understand why you started the business, who you’re helping, and what are the long-term plan is? Showing appreciation is not being the client that only talks to them when they do something wrong and when they mess up and say, “Great job.” “That project helped us do X, Y, Z.” Building a relationship is connecting with them on social media, getting to know them as a person and knowing their family. The family aspect people in the Philippines and that’s where I hire most of my VAs from. They’re all about family life and community, especially in work. When you create a family culture and get them to like the people that they’re working with on a day-to-day basis even if they get other job offers that are higher or there are opportunities, they don’t want to leave their family. When you do all four of those things, it leads to a better culture and less turnover.
In the instance where you built two businesses with virtual assistants and then sold those businesses when they were sold, did those acquirers keep those virtual assistants? Did that infrastructure that you had built stay in place?
We sold Amazon business over $25 million but we never sold it. We phased that out. Amazon was getting harder and FreeeUp exploded so that we didn’t sell. We did sell FreeeUp. Not only do they keep the virtual assistants, but we also weren’t signing anything unless we knew their jobs were secure. I still have great relationships with the people on the internal team. By far the hardest part of selling the business is not being able to work with them anymore. We felt like we were creating a win-win for everyone. We did a lot of due diligence on the buyers to make sure they weren’t going to run the business in the ground or ruin our relationships and our partnerships and that they were going to treat the internal team well. We also took $500,000 from a sale and gave it to our internal team in the Philippines to make sure that they were taken care of. That’s something that’s important to us. We would not have sold FreeeUp if we didn’t think the new people would take care of them. Even once all that’s done and you do your due diligence, you’re still crossing your fingers and hoping that it all works out. I’m still in contact with them. We have different group chats and they couldn’t be happier. They miss us on some level and all that but they like the new people that they’re working with. It did end up working out and that was something that we cared a lot about.
Nathan, what was your strategy in hiring virtual assistants? I know there are plenty of firms, not just in the Philippines but around the world and even here in the US that collect and hire their staff and then they outsource them as virtual assistants. Do you go to one firm and hire a collection of people from that one firm? Are you hiring individuals irrespective of whether or not they work for a larger firm?
I build the marketplace for pre-vetted VAs and freelancers. I practice what I preach. I only hire people from FreeeUp. Even that I sold FreeeUp, I’m a client of FreeeUp, which is a little bit weird. I negotiated a lifetime discount as part of the buyout. Regardless, I would still use them. I hired a rock star VA from FreeeUp. Even though I have nothing to do with FreeeUp anymore, I strongly recommend your readers to check it out. It’s free to sign up, you put in a request and you get someone quickly. It’s something that I plan on building all my future business with.
Do they have specialists as well as virtual assistants or are there specialty virtual assistants?
They have both of those and they even have experts. They have agencies, they have consultants on the platform.
Let’s talk about some other potential downsides. Culture is a big one because if you don’t have a good culture, it’s hard to gain momentum. It sounds like you figured that out. How about some other things that could pop up like data security and other things that owners might need to think about and plan for before they go down this path?
Risk is the one that everyone’s worried about. This is my overall stance on risk. There’s always going to be a risk when you hire anyone. There’s nothing that I, you, or anyone else can do to make that risk zero. Even if you hire an employee in your office and you’re looking over their shoulder or you hire your best friend, there’s still a chance they do something stupid, jeopardize your business or you in some way. The average freelancer and VA especially if you get someone on FreeeUp where they only let in 1% of the applicants that apply, those VAs care much more about staying on the FreeeUp platform, having you as a client, providing for their family, and everything that goes along with a stable job than they do about stealing or jeopardizing your information in any way.
What are they going to do with a lot of that information? You should do things and you should have LastPass. Let’s say I hire a bookkeeper. If I give them access to my credit cards and my bank accounts, I can give them view-only access although my bookkeeper with FreeeUp had access to everything, they could send money and all of that. I built that trust. You can even have them sign an NDA but are you going to chase them across the Philippines over an NDA? Probably not. The number one way to protect your business is to build relationships with the people that you work with. It goes whether it’s a person or remote. That’s the key. I fired people that they didn’t want to hurt me and I didn’t want to hurt them. I’ve had people that quit on me and the same thing. It’s because I built that relationship. That’s where I encourage people to do the terrifying experiences that you hear in the horror stories. Those are the exceptions. They’re not the norms and you should not hire someone on day one, then give them access to everything. You can build trust with them over time but there’s nothing you can do to reduce that risk to zero.
Nathan, this has been tremendous information. What else would be important for people to know and understand about these opportunities? I do believe that we don’t want to promote that Corona is the impetus for all because it was well underway before this crisis. I think it is the future. What would you like to leave people with in that regard?
No one has a 100% hiring remote. It doesn’t happen. This is not how the world works. The entrepreneurs that figure it out and get into that 85% to 100% in terms of success rate compared to the ones that are in that 30% to 40%, those are the ones that scale their business. You don’t necessarily have to have the next great idea. Think about how many marketing agencies there are out there. There are marketing agencies that are doing the same thing as everyone else but they scale and they grow because they build good teams and they’re good at hiring. There are other entrepreneurs that come out with good ideas that are new and that could be game-changers but they never get off the ground. They never grow because they don’t hire the right people. People have to start looking at the hiring process like they look at marketing and sales. It is a core part of being an entrepreneur. At some point, you have to figure out. The way you figure it out is by focusing on what you can control. What you can control is your systems and processes for interviewing, onboarding, training and managing people.
That’s great advice. Your new venture, OutsourceSchool, is hitting right at all of those things. It’s a tremendous opportunity here. Nathan, if people wanted to get in touch with you, how could they reach you?
I’m one of the easiest entrepreneurs to contact. You can add me on Facebook or LinkedIn, Nathan Hirsch. Twitter and Instagram, @RealNateHirsch. You can go to OutsourceSchool.com. Join our newsletter. You can go to OutsourceSchool.com/VACalculator and get that free tool I was telling you about. If I can help you in any way, feel free to reach out.
Nathan, thanks for being with us.
Thanks for having me.
If you’d like to learn more about the process of acquiring or selling a business, please visit our website at SunAcquisitions.com or feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]. I look forward to seeing you again in the next episode. Until then, please remember that scaling, acquiring or selling a business takes time, preparation and proper knowledge.
- FreeeUp Marketplace
- Cracking the VA Code
- Facebook – Nathan Hirsch
- LinkedIn – Nathan Hirsch
- Twitter – Nathan Hirsch
- @RealNateHirsch on Instagram
- [email protected]
About Nathan Hirsch
Nathan Hirsch is an entrepreneur and expert in remote hiring and eCommerce. Most recently, Nathan co-founded FreeeUp.com in 2015 with an initial $5,000 investment, scaled it to $12M per year in revenue, and was then acquired in 2019. Today, Nathan is a co-founder of OutsourceSchool, a company working to educate entrepreneurs on how to effectively hire and scale with virtual assistants through in-depth courses. Nathan has appeared on 300+ podcasts, is a social media personality, and loves sharing advice on scaling remote businesses.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!
Join the M&A Unplugged Community today: