Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. Joining me is Barnaby lash Brook. He’s got a virtual assistant company called time, et cetera. And I would have thought these businesses are just no brainer, easy businesses to start because it just makes so much sense.
Somebody needs a virtual assistant by the hour. They go to time, et cetera, they hire a virtual assistant. They pay him a little bit more than he pays his assistants. It just seems to make so much sense. And I’ve seen other businesses that do this, and still, as he told our producer, it, the model took a while to make work.
And I want to understand about what he did to make that model work. I’m also going to understand in this interview about, um, Can this model work for other businesses and Barnaby. I’m curious later on in this interview to hear your take on it, do you think somebody can say I’m going to do marketing automation, virtual assistant.
So I’m going to do virtual assistants who only handle this one type of task. Um, or is it just that virtual assistants that are generalists will work? And finally, um, Barnaby had this company that just did really well right out of the gate. It’s, um, a hosting company and I want to find out how he did so well and frankly, how it changed his life to have done well early on, we’re going to do it all.
Thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first, if you’re starting a business, you need a hosting company. I want you to go to hostgator.com/mixergy. You’ll get a great price and great service. And the second it’s a, I hate to say Barnaby, but they kind of replaced my assistant in some ways. SaneBox and I’ll talk later about how my assistant used to go through my inbox and now I don’t need it.
I don’t need her to do, but first Barnaby gets heavier. What’s your revenue right now.
Barnaby: $8 million annually.
Andrew: Wow. We profitable, right? No outside funding.
Barnaby: Um, no entirely. I put a bit of funding in at the beginning. Um, the equivalent of about $300,000 or so, um, although mainly that went on cash burn because I massively mismanaged costs at the start of this business, but, um, yeah, no external funding, um, sort of grown under our own steam learning as we go.
Andrew: Do you feel uncomfortable talking about money? Um, I noticed, as I asked you, it was the first time that I saw you grab your shoulder and up until then it was late.
Barnaby: Uh, I’m British.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s what I thought. I’ve really realized that. Let’s talk about, then what’s the upside. We’re going to talk about the difficulty of getting the business to this level.
Is there one good thing that makes it worthwhile that you look back on and you say, yeah, now I can do this or now life is better because of that. What’s that one thing
Barnaby: I think the, the, you know, sort of most incredible aspect of it has been the impact we’ve had on the stakeholders for want of a better word. So, you know, we’ve, we’ve just literally in the last couple of weeks gone past 2 million tasks that we’ve done for our client base. And that’s incredible to know that we’ve saved our clients from 2 million things they’ve had to do.
Andrew: individual tasks that they do not ours.
Barnaby: Sorry, it’s coming up for a million hours. Uh, but uh, the, the sort of milestone that we hit this week happened to be 2 million tasks. Um, but yeah, we’re really all about the hours. Cause the hours, you know, that’s where, that’s what the value is for the client is the hours that they save.
Andrew: You came up with the idea for this business, because you had a problem in the past. Right?
Barnaby: Oh, I mean, I was, I’ve spoken to so many entrepreneurs that have had this issue, almost any entrepreneur you speak to, but growing my first business, you know, I was working a hundred hours plus every week I was doing everything myself. I was spinning lots and lots of plates. Um, and I, I just didn’t have, I didn’t know where to find someone to help me with that.
I recruited some
Andrew: Did you didn’t you hire people, you had a whole team of people, right?
Barnaby: Yeah, I had six or no, I think there were eight of us when, by the time that we sold it. But, um, you know, it’s a funny thing in a small business, recruiting someone to help you specifically as an individual is very different to sort of fulfilling a role in your business. So, you know, we, we needed people to do customer support.
So we hired customer support people. But actually what I’ve since realized is as an entrepreneur, I needed personal support. I needed someone alongside me, uh, who could take anything that wasn’t a good use of my time away from me, really. Um, and I struggled with that. There’s many, many entrepreneurs do I
Andrew: Yeah. I wonder why you told our producer that this, this is common, that most on that many entrepreneurs don’t feel comfortable passing on. I’ll tell you my experience. And I’d like to know from you what you’ve noticed from other entrepreneurs that you’ve noticed that you’ve worked with, for me, it didn’t click until a friend of mine, Aaron draggish and said, That he was at some playground.
He took his baby into the bathroom to change diaper. And then there was no changing table in the men’s room. And then he went to, he just fired off a message assistant. She said, please send them a letter to say that they need to have a changing table here. And to me as a non-data at the time, especially, it seemed like the stupidest thing to have an assistant do for you.
It’s so personal and so petty and still he did it. And then that reassured me. It made me think, Oh, all these little things that I’m not passing onto, someone else are way more significant for my business, way less personal, way more impactful than his little need. And that’s what made me finally say, okay, I now can hire somebody who does all that, and it’s still a problem to hire, but what, when you’re seeing it, can you describe it?
How the entrepreneurs and the business people that you’ve worked with have experienced the problem of hiring an assistant.
Barnaby: I think it, it re it’s it’s so wide ranging, you know, and it’s hard, but it can be, you know, if you’ve started a business from scratch, there’s no moment where someone tells you, look, you know, you, you, your time is important enough now, perhaps that you shouldn’t be doing all of this stuff yourself. So I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs kind of sleepwalk into doing everything themselves.
Um, but I think it can also be, how do you find someone who is that person? A lot of the entrepreneurs, I speak to kind of want to replicate themselves and, you know, spend a lot of time and effort trying to find that magic person who, you know, has their skillset that could kind of double up on all of what they’re doing.
So I think, I think there’s a, that’s sort of probably five or six reasons that more people don’t do it. You almost. Have to have so much self-belief in the future value of your time that, you know, and actually I studied a lot of very successful entrepreneurs and you look at people like Richard Branson, for example.
And he just had that belief. He just knew somehow from a very early stage in his business empire, that his time was so valuable that he needed people around him at which he would massively delegate.
Andrew: You hired his personal assistant of what? 29 years to be an advisor at your company. And so what’s her name?
Barnaby: penny pike.
Andrew: So I went back to just make sure they lying and just using her name. Is she really associated? She was associated. And then I started going down a rabbit hole of reading about her relationship with him.
And what I discovered was he said about her that he had no other way of working because of his dyslexia. He had to learn to not learn to delegate. He had to delegate. And that forcing function is what got him to work well with her and, and allowed him to keep hiring other people into delegate. So I understand, um, that I didn’t have that.
And a lot of people who are listening didn’t you then said, okay, I sold my company and we’ll get to a moment about how you sold your company and what that business was. He said, this is the business I’m going to get into of providing virtual assistance to other business people. How did you envision that happening?
Barnaby: Well, uh, at the, at the beginning, I had no idea really. It was a concept. I just knew that. It was something I would have used in my first business. And so I think probably the lack of knowing how we would do this, and this is we’re going back 13, 14 years ago. So quite a long time ago. And we launched in the UK.
Um, whereas now we’re mainly in the U S so it’s a very different business these days. We didn’t really know how we envision it happening. And I think that was why it was quite difficult to kind of get it off the ground initially, because we were doing it in the UK where the market’s quite conservative B because honestly, apart from it just being, I mean, I didn’t even know the word virtual assistant when we started this, you know, it was just the idea. Um, I think we called it, um, you know, we used really clunky phrasing, like personal assistant by the hour, you know, pay as you go personal assistant, just, you know, we fished around for a long time.
Andrew: Okay, that gives me a sense of it. So then you told her producer, one of the first things I did was I got office space. How much office space did you get?
Barnaby: Oh, just a, a casual, uh, I think it was 3,500 square feet. Uh, gorgeous building an old warehouse in the UK. Um, stunning building, um, had a lift and a huge spiral staircase at the front, but I think we signed a five-year lease on this 3,500 square
Andrew: Why did you think you’d need an office for what we’re now calling virtual assistants?
Barnaby: Well, because actually my sort of Juul, uh, aim at the beginning of this company was to build an incredible culture, uh, because I’d sort of just encountered at the end of my last business. Um, You know how to build an incredible company culture and how to put values in place. And I, and I had a strong desire to do that, and that meant hiring people, um, you know, sort of physically and to work in person with each other.
So the irony is at the beginning of this business, although it was going to deliver it service to entrepreneurs, uh, remotely, uh, we hired all of our assistants on full-time salaries, in one geographic location. Um,
Andrew: into the office. How many people did you hire?
Barnaby: we had, I think at our peak at that stage of the business, we had 30.
Andrew: okay. All right. And this was all coming out of your pocket. I think we should talk about how you ended up getting, uh, with the money to invest in this. What was the previous business that you created?
Barnaby: So I had a hosting company, so I guess, um, similar to HostGator, um, it was a, it was a hosting company, but this is going back quite a long time. And, uh, at the time, uh, domain names were really very expensive things and hosting was even more expensive. So it wasn’t like now where you can go to someone and get hosting for, I dunno, 10, 15, $20 a month.
This was really expensive back then.
Andrew: How much are we talking about? This is the year 2000, roughly, right.
Barnaby: well, you know, I think you could, you could easily spend several hundred dollars. You could spend several hundred dollars on the domain name. You could spend several hundred dollars annually hosting it. It was just an expensive business. It was very niche. Um, it wasn’t really consumerized back then.
And so what I did was I, um, I started selling domain names, but I gave away hosting when you bought the domain name. So it just, it was just better value than the incumbent players. This was in the UK. Um, and I started it really as a side project from my bedroom in my parents’ house. And
Andrew: but 150 pounds investment.
Barnaby: yeah. So with no money down, just, um, you know, built a website and started, started selling.
Andrew: How did you sell it?
Barnaby: That’s a good question. Um, but amazingly in the UK, they were, um, magazines, physical printed magazines about the internet. And so what I did was I risked, um, well, first of all, I bought tiny little adverts in the back of these magazines and they got customers, you know, customers started trickling in and every month I’d save the money that we had made and reinvest it back into bigger and bigger adverts.
Until at one point we were the biggest advertiser in some of these little magazines that people were physically buying and amazingly, you know, the entire business was grown based off the back of magazine adverts. We didn’t do any Google advertising. It, it was just all these magazine ads that kick-started everything.
Andrew: How did you get the, um, the domain names? Where were you? Where are you going to icon? Is that how it works?
Barnaby: We went. So I never went directly to Eikon. We were just reselling, there were various wholesalers at the time who would kind of, who was set up to sell to smaller companies like mine. Um, and so we, we were, we had a relationship with the UK version of icon called nominate. Um, but yeah, we were just reselling the domains.
Andrew: and then were people buying it on your website back then? Or did they call up with a credit card number?
Barnaby: No, it was all, it was all done online. Um, but I, the only reason it was all done online was because I was running it from my bedroom, uh, whilst going to school. And so I couldn’t answer the phone.
Andrew: how old were you at the time?
Barnaby: uh, at 1718, we’re talking
Andrew: Okay. And so the create, the two things that you added to this were buying ads in these magazines and then throwing in hosting for free when somebody bought a domain. And I imagine it’s the first year hosting was free. And then after that, you’d start making some money.
Barnaby: Just, we, we, I picked a price point for the domain that seemed reasonable, but just was enough to cover the cost of the hosting. And then later in the business we introduced. So the features were very limited when you came on board as a client with that kind of free offer later on, we literally just listened to what our customers wanted, what they were telling us, the features they needed.
And we introduced various services that met exactly what they wanted. And it just, it just sort of grew very organically really from, from that, from listening to what people wanted.
Andrew: from what I understand though, you were also doing design for your customers. You were doing just about anything they needed in the early days. Weren’t you.
Barnaby: So that’s how that business started. I was really a frustrated web designer. So I, I was, um, doing design work for people, but having to go out and get this hosting and buy these domain names for these, you know, this was a time where lots of people were just putting their businesses online. Um, and so, you know, I just encountered hosting companies.
I saw how sort of incumbent they were, how inflexible they were. I mean, we’re talking about companies where you, you place an order for some hosting. This was an internet company and they would literally print your order out in their office. And then Sally and the accounts department would walk across the room to the other person and pass the printed piece of paper on and she’d type it.
These were quite antiquated businesses and that’s so starting as a designer and having to be on the other end of that is what inspired me to kind of try and do it better.
Andrew: Can you tell me about the acquisition apparently came in from a random phone call, right?
Barnaby: Yeah, so I’d been, you know, running this company and we’d built it to about 24,000 websites that we were hosting. Um, and you know, I was kind of minding my own business. It was a very intense company to run very challenging because there were a lot of, um, uh, plates to spend a lot of servers to keep operating.
And literally, you know, over the course of about six months, I just started getting letters, voicemails, the occasional phone call from people asking to buy the business. And, um, being 22, I probably was at the time, maybe 23, I didn’t really know what to do with those, you know, I’d, hadn’t really encountered that no one in my family had ever been in that kind of position.
So I started talking to some of these people and, um, and, uh, you know, went to a couple of meetings. And amazingly, you know, ended up selling it that same year that these calls started ended up, you know, doing my first sort of exit.
Andrew: Any tips based on how you sold for somebody who’s who’s in a similar business.
Barnaby: Um, I, the biggest tip I have is to, um, speak to multiple people. So I think if you’re in the hosting company, there’s no shortage of people that will come and buy your business. That’s the good thing. But I went to a meeting with a company that were based up the road, which was extremely unusual really, but they happen to be based very near to where I was, um, went to a meeting with them.
And, um, but at the end of the meeting, they announced that they wanted to buy my business and offered me about a million dollars. And so 750,000 pounds, I think it was. Um, and I happened to. They contacted by another business. Two weeks later, he wants to buy the company. Um, and they’re figure I ended up selling it for was 2.1 million pounds. And so that, that would be my number one piece of advice is you just never know who else is out there. Um, and who else will see value in what you’ve built, but maybe someone else won’t see.
Andrew: What did, so that was roughly $3 million at the time we’re talking about a guy who’s 23 years old, right. Sold the company was called super names.
Andrew: Um, in 2006 beyond starting a new company. What’s one thing that you did with the money.
Barnaby: Well, um, I, I look back at this and I’m slightly embarrassed, but then I think, well, I was 23, so I bought a pen. I bought a penthouse apartment, um, which is I’ve still got, that was, um, you know, that was probably a good move. I bought a Ferrari, um, as you do, um, I didn’t do a lot else really. I think that’s pretty much all I did.
I worked for the company that acquired my business, which was really interesting. I learned a lot about how a bigger business works, um, which was really helpful. Um, and then I got over the Ferrari a few years later and sold it and surf have calmed down ever since.
Andrew: I think it is good to get that out of your system. I don’t, I don’t think I’ve ever had a passion to do that, but I did have a passion to go and just be out in the world and do whatever I wanted. And I’m so glad I got to do that because now I’ve got two kids and you know, you’ve got responsibilities and you can’t just hop on a plane and go wherever you want and get the nicest hotel room and so on.
But I feel like, all right, I did that. It’s okay. You know, I can’t imagine that you’re looking at a well, are you, are you looking at someone in a Ferrari and going that used to be me? I want to go back and do that now, or is
Barnaby: No, I’m, I’m, I’m happy to have left that behind. I think at the time it felt really important to do to me at the time. I don’t, I don’t really know why it was an incredible experience to own a car like that. That was, you know, it was, it was incredible. Um, and I wouldn’t change the history, but I wouldn’t want to do it now.
Andrew: Um, what do we take from that from super names. If, if you’re looking at it as an entrepreneur, trying to get your personal best lesson for how to hustle from it, what, what’s your takeaway?
Barnaby: I think it’s probably, for me, the ability, there’s never forget that you have the ability to boot strap. Um, you know, don’t forget that growth is possible without going and raising lots of money. That was really my biggest message from it is, um, you know, sometimes I speak to a lot of people in startups.
I’ve invested in a few businesses myself and quite often the dialogue in certain communities is that it’s not really possible to grow to exit without raising money and without VC funding. And so that, yeah, that’s my biggest takeaway was it gave me this real knowledge that I could build a business without having to go and raise a load of money.
I think it also just gave me a huge financial security, which I’m very grateful for that at the age of 23, I had, um, You know, once I stopped spending it on cars, I had this money behind me. That meant that I felt safe. Um, starting my next business.
Andrew: You know, what else I’m taking away from it? Barnaby is that it’s that product mix that you came up with where you added something that didn’t cost much, but had a high perceived value to your service, right? That if there’s something that people really value a lot, but doesn’t cost you much to provide it, it pays to include it.
And I’m trying to think of other examples of that, that none come to mind, but that seems like a big insight. The domain cost money hosting probably didn’t cost you much money, right? Especially the smaller version that you are offering, throw it for free has a high perceived value.
Barnaby: I mean, that’s true. It really was just a repositioning of how it was sold. You know, it was just, um, Really just maneuvering how it was sold to reduce people’s perception of how much it costs. I mean, it was genuinely cheaper than, um, you know, the incumbent players at the time, but really it was just a sort of, it just felt much nicer for people to buy a domain name at a fair price and get the hosting for free.
Andrew: Yeah, right. Speaking of hosting, my first a sponsor is a hosting company. HostGator. Let me ask you this Barnaby as a guy who’s, who’s bootstrapped. Now two companies, if you, if you had to start over with nothing but a hosting package today and you needed to build up, what would you build on that website?
What would you, what would that first thing that you hosted be that would allow you to build a big business?
Barnaby: So my preferred starting point is I go and buy a template, you know, website template for $30. And, you know, I build out a sort of basic. One pager that explains what the concept is. So that’s exactly how I would use a new hosting package today is I’d build a one pager concept, um, put it on Google and see what interest I can get from that.
Andrew: later into whether the time, the time, et cetera, model would work for other products. I wonder if that’s something that somebody could do. Can somebody say, I am only going to be the company that, that organizes your CRM, or I’m only going to be the company that does nothing but creates and manages your notion, databases and hire people by the hour to do that.
And what do you think of that as a service and if they would, would you recommend just starting with nothing but a HostGator single page explaining what the service is with buy button?
Barnaby: I think, um, I’ve seen these kind of vertical niches work really well. Um, and so for example, there’s a, there’s a service called content fly. Um, who only write articles. So it’s kind of what you’re talking about. Really. That’s all they do. Um, and I think phenomenally good at that. You know, they’re very, very good at doing that one thing.
Well, so I think generally, you know, if you can, if you’ve got an addressable market, that’s big enough, I think that’s, that’s a strong direction to go down and, you know, really this whole idea of putting up a one-page website. I absolutely advocate that as a way, testing the market because it costs so little to get a hosting account, buy a template, put a one pager up, maybe, you know, spend a little bit of money on Google, maybe on their display, maybe their search.
And it tells you so much about, you know, are there any people that there is the content on there resonating with people? Do you get any inquiries from it? I think it’s the best form of intelligence that you can get as an entrepreneur.
Andrew: And if that’s where you want to go, go to hostgator.com/mixergy. And when you use that URL, that full slash Mixergy at the end URL, they’re going to give you the lowest possible price. In fact, in March, we better publish this in March because in March they’re going as low as 75% off. They’ve got this big push to get as many of my customers up and running as possible.
And they’ve got good hosting package that will get you started right. Go to hostgator.com/mixergy to do that. All right. So coming back then to time, et cetera. Now we know where the, the, uh, the money came from that you use to start the business. You now had a team of people. How did you get your first customers, the ones who were paying for this, these assistant services?
Barnaby: You know, there’s a funny story behind that, because the way when I was doing web design, before I started my hosting company, the way that I got my customers was. Me and my sister picked up, uh, the phone book. So the yellow pages, um, that’s what we had in the UK at the time. And we started folding businesses and saying, do you need a website?
And when we started time, et cetera, um, unbelievably that’s exactly what we did. We hired these, this team and we got everyone going through the yellow
Andrew: who did nothing, but go through the yellow pages.
Barnaby: Well, no, they weren’t that we hired them to be our first assistants to assist our clients, but we didn’t have any clients. And so we got, we got everyone involved in, uh, basically cold calling and, and finding our first few clients and amazingly it sort of, it got us started.
We found our first few. Incredible people that were found by this clueless company, um, you know, trying to cold call them and these amazing clients said, yeah, okay, I’ll give it a go. Or, you know, that’s, that sounds like it’s worth a try. And that’s how we got our first probably I would say first 20 customers came through the door
Andrew: You’re you’re a pretty systemized person. What was the, what was the script or what’s the, the, what’s the message that you, that you asked your team to convey that got them to close sales?
Barnaby: I, I think it was appealing to people’s better nature. So I think from memory, this was a long time ago, 14 years ago from memory. Uh, we pleaded with people and said that we were a brand new business based locally, uh, needed their support. And I think we were just very sort of genuine about our predicament.
Um, and you know, people I think ended up using us, um, You know, really probably to help us out as much as, because they wanted to, you know, use the service really.
Andrew: but you still had to put in people’s imagination, the idea of what kind of work they could pass on to a stranger who just called them up. Right. And I think that, um, that’s one of the things that Tim Ferris is four hour work week communicated to people that they could outsource. And he gave people ideas for what to outsource.
But 2007, it was, I don’t, I don’t know if he’d publish the book by then. I think he did, but it definitely wasn’t a popular book by, um, it didn’t like capture the world, understanding what was possible. How did you, and that single phone call communicate to a business. Here’s what a virtual assistant can do for you.
Barnaby: I’m not sure we did it very well. Um, because all of our marketing back then was about saving people time, but we didn’t really explain what to do with that time that we were saving you. Um, and so I think probably it worked because we started talking about the hassle that you were going to save. Um, you know, if you get talking to most people about, you know, administration about expenses, about invoicing, you know, they don’t really want to do that stuff.
It doesn’t really set anyone’s heart on fire to do that in their business.
Andrew: So was it like that? What is it? We can handle things like sending out invoices for you or collecting receipts or making appointments for you
Barnaby: we literally would, you know, would do anything that anyone needed us to do. And so I, you know, I think we probably, in those very early days, we just were pleading with people to let us into that business. Um, you know, and, and do take some of this workload away from them. But, you know, I think it took, it probably took a year, at least to get to the point where people really understood what it was that we were offering.
Andrew: All right. Uh, Tim Ferriss’s book was published April 24th, 2007. So same year as you started time, et cetera. So you had this team of people, you were getting customers, and still, you told our producer, you went to the basement one day and you were confronted by what was on the windows.
Barnaby: Uh, I mean, th the, this, uh, there was a beautiful building, but down in where our meeting room was in the bottom of, it was basically a basement or a cellar. And, um, there were bars on the window and I was sat in this very dark, very damp room with the bars on the window. And it suddenly sort of struck me that the bars, I didn’t know whether the bars were to stop people breaking in or to stop me breaking out this seller.
Really. It was because I’d put so much money and time and effort into trying to grow this business. And it was just kind of flat-lining we, we were stuck, I think, at about a million dollars revenue, something like that, just stuck.
Andrew: making money or losing money.
Barnaby: um, making a very small amount of money. So this I sort of self criticized a little bit about the early days of this business, but actually when I look back, it was break even by year two.
Um, and then, you know, probably generating cash by year four, something like
Andrew: Why do you think that that’s a good, uh, that’s a good start. It’s a great start. What is it that you think about your, your personality that made you look at that and say, I’m not doing well enough.
Barnaby: I think because my expectations it’s, it’s purely that my expectations were higher. So, you know, I, I expected not to. Put $300,000 into it. I, I, you know, looking back, I can have a lot of compassion for myself at the time. It felt very scary that I’d put $300,000 into this business and then it was flat-lining and I just couldn’t get it past that.
I know it’s a really common problem to hit a kind of revenue ceiling and not be able to get past it. Um, and that’s where I, when I found myself in the basement that day, that’s really, the moment I had was just, you know, you know, knowing that I had to change how that business works, because we’d been going all at it.
I’d put all this money into it with God, our first revenue, but we just couldn’t grow.
Andrew: And then what did you do? What, so you’re sitting there, you feeling like I’m trapped in this business. It’s like, I’m in jail. I can’t get out of this business cause I’ve already started, but I can’t get it to grow. And so I’m trapped. And then you had a realization soon after that feeling. What was that next realization that changed everything.
Barnaby: Well, I feel that the, the fundamental realization I had was that I needed to go back to my roots and my roots were, um, using technology rarely, you know, th the hosting company I had, it was all about automating it all. That’s how we were able to sell hosting at the rate that we sold it at. And I turned myself into a people person and a people manager, not a very good one, as many of the people involved at time, et cetera, at the beginning will probably tell you, um, and I was not using the skills that I had really built my foundation on.
I wasn’t using any of the things that had driven my first business forward. And so when I sat there that day, the revelation was about saying, ah, you know, there is a different way. To grow this business. There’s something very different that we could do well, I’ve lost Sandler.
Andrew: What was that? What’s that new digital way of growing the business.
Barnaby: So, you know, we had had retired, um, these fairly junior, uh, people in an office in one geographic location. And throughout the years we’ve been contacted by, you know, hundreds of incredibly experienced, very talented assistants who had given up corporate careers normally to start a family. And now wanted to get back into a little bit of work, but actually didn’t want to commute.
Didn’t want to go back into the corporate world. Those people have been contacting us. Um, you know, for years to say, look, can I come and work for you? Can I do a bit of work remotely for you? And when I sat there that day, um, I, I suddenly realized that, you know, I could build a platform that would make it very easy for those remote people to, um, to work through us and to offer their services and to engage directly with clients.
And so that, that was, it sounds really basic saying that now. Um, because, you know, that’s just the way everything now works, but at the time, you know, that was a fairly big change. And from that day on, I set about creating this platform and making this business much more scalable and really using these incredible experiences that people had had, you know, as executive assistants who now were willing to give that experience to us.
Andrew: I understand how that would help your expenses Barnaby, but not your revenue. The expenses I imagine would go down because now when you weren’t employing the virtual assistants, you didn’t have to pay them. And, um, and when you were, you could scale up, right. Am I right about the expense side of it?
Barnaby: Yes. But actually what it enabled us to do was deliver the service at a price point that people were willing to pay and we employing people full time. Um, and then trying to split their time up so that they could deal with several different clients. If you do that, say in legal services, it all works out because the fees are so high.
Um, and actually arguably legal services work people very, very hard as well, but it all works out because the fee base is so high that you can kind of justify the cost. When you do that with lower value services like administration, you end up having to charge your service at a price point that people just
Andrew: Okay. So now by reducing your expenses, you could reduce your price, which then brings in more customers and allows you to grow. Okay. And then in order to do that, you said that you needed some kind of, some kind of system, some kind of software. I imagine. What did you build to allow you to manage all that?
Barnaby: I built really a kind of brain that sits at the center of it all. That’s still the thing that runs our business. So, um, it’s, it’s, uh, on the one hand it allows our assistants to log time, but it also allows clients and assistance to communicate with each other. Um, it does things with email. Um, it itemizes all the billing for people.
It acts as a big CRM for our, uh, kind of HQ team so that they can provide customer care. So it was really, uh, a complete piece of technology that runs every aspect. And what we said was we wanted to automate 95% of what we do and the 5% that we couldn’t automate. We wanted to do amazingly well. So we’ll throw lots of resource at doing those touch points that we can’t automate.
Yeah, really, really
Andrew: what can’t you automate?
Barnaby: I think, well, actually at one point we automated almost everything. So, but a classic example is if you to come to us as a client, six years ago, you’d have been onboarded without any human touch. So you could come onto our website, take a free trial, send your first task, be matched to an assistant, get it done and work with that assistant ongoing, without talking to an, a member of our team.
And actually we found maybe predictably that if we invest that time in talking to you and really consulting with you and finding out specifically what you’re all about and what your needs are, the outcome is much better. So that’s, that’s an example of the 5% that we, now we know that we can’t automate and we want to do that really, really well.
Andrew: you know what, I didn’t think about the software involved in managing all this, because you do want to be able to. Pass work on to a virtual assistant. No. Who has time? No. Also that she has worked or he has worked and then be able to bill your customer and keep track of the tasks. I, uh, I feel like the founder of design pickle was working on creating software like that for companies like yours.
Right. So I think he realized that there were going to be more businesses that were in the business of offering services on an hourly basis. And they need the type of software you’re talking about, but you had to create it yourself that meant investing more money. Does that mean going back into your bank account and taking more of your savings into the business?
Barnaby: No. So we, I sort of, because I went back to my roots, really. I was able to produce quite a lot of this myself. I had a developer at the time who built. A large amount of the platform. And then we’ve kind of just reinvested organically in it over the years. So the actual development of the platform was, was really affordable, but it just enabled so much because it enabled us to go to market with this really scalable, predictable, um, service that, you know, when, when we were doing it without this platform, just things like monitoring the quality of the work being produced for clients, very difficult to do.
It’s, it’s really hard to kind of intercept work and, and monitor it for quality. This platform made all of those kinds of challenges that have been the things stopping us from growing our revenue. They kind of address them all.
Andrew: you know, it occurred to me that, um, I, I was asking what other businesses could be done like yours. Um, go beyond virtual assistants, yarrow star. I created inbox inbox done, which is a stew, you know, the service.
Barnaby: I’ve heard of it. Yeah.
Andrew: He matches business people up with, um, individuals who’ll handle their email for them because email is such a big headache that their services now, or at least his one service that does nothing but ha uh, allow you to hire people to handle your email.
All right, that kind of brings me into my second sponsor. It’s a company called SaneBox. I had my virtual assistant of many years go into my email on a regular basis. She’d start her day going through my email, responding to what she could organizing and deleting. Actually, I never like anything deleted, archiving, anything that wasn’t, um, that wasn’t critical for me.
And that saved me so much time. I actually start my days now, Barnaby going through my journal entries from a year ago, eight years ago, et cetera. I can’t believe how much, eight years ago, day after day, I could see in my journal, I had to answer email. Email is such a problem. It’s just like such a fricking nightmare.
The way I hired Andrea, she went through my inbox. She helped organize it. And then, um, our old producer, Jeremy White said I’m using SaneBox it’s phenomenal. I started, let me try it, sign up for SaneBox. What they do is they start to organize my email better than a human being could, because they could kind of tell what’s a newsletter and what’s not, they could do it multiple times a day, where she would have to do it in the morning.
They could start to pick up on my rhythms and automatically put things into a black hole. If I want them to go into a black hole or pause some messages, if I want that, or if there’s a message that I don’t want a handle now, but I want to respond to a month later automatically bring that back in my inbox.
It just does it magically. And so I signed up, it was incredibly easy to sign up. I gave them, uh, access to my inbox after spending a long time, weeks and weeks, making sure that I, that I trusted them. And I’ve been so happy. I told Andrea, I’m sorry, there’s one less thing for you to do. You don’t have to go through my inbox and now I don’t have that headache anymore.
If you’re out there listening to me and yeah, got a problem with your email, you don’t have to suffer through it. You could hire a virtual assistant frankly time, et cetera, your virtual assistants Barnaby. Did they do that?
Barnaby: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Email is a big part of what we do. It’s certainly, it’s probably the number one daily benefit for me is having someone that sort of understands what I want to action and what I don’t looking at my email.
Andrew: And frankly, if you want to do it, I think that’s a great use of a virtual assistant. If you’d like to try the automated way, I’m going to let you try it for free right now. All you have to do is go to sane box.com/mixergy that sane box.com/mixergy. And I should spell it because I talk very quickly.
It’s S a N E B O x.com/m I X E R G Y. Go try it right now for free. Um, all right. So now you had this model and you were starting to talk about how the price brought in more customers. Were you still at that point, um, making phone calls, or did you find an online channel? What’d you find that worked for you for bringing in customers.
Barnaby: I said Google search was really at that time where our customers were coming from. Um, but the other thing that this platform enabled us to do was we created a free trial. Um, so we, we just said, look, you know, you can come and think of a task that you can give to one of our virtual assistants, type it in and we’ll do it for free.
Um, and so just let people directly experience what a virtual
Andrew: What did people ask for for that? That was that’s huge. When I read that you were doing that, that felt like, that felt like a mistake that you were going to have to come back from. Um, what did you get people to do for free and how did you make sure? Well, let’s talk about that. What are people, what were people able to ask you to do for, without getting the whole onboarding experience?
Barnaby: Okay, well, so on day one, uh, it was a free text field and that didn’t work and it didn’t work for two reasons. One because it allowed people to type in utterly bizarre requests, which is maybe what you imagining. But the other thing that was really interesting that we found was that if you just give people a free tax field and say, go on, you know, get, get a task done, people cannot think, or they really struggle to think of what.
To get done. And so what we ended up doing was we had, uh, well, we still got it to this day, actually a big dropdown, and we’ve got loads of predefined tasks in there really, that we’ve kind of tweaked so that they’re good, safe ways to test a virtual assistant out. So if you go onto our website, you can see a big list of tasks that you can get done for free and you can tweak them and you can add details to them.
And really that’s massively helped us to reach more people with the free trial, because it just makes it very easy to think of something that you could, you could get a virtual assistant to do for you.
Andrew: Can you give me an example? What are some of the things that without being onboarded you could do here? First select the category. I see you’ve got marketing, you’ve got admin, you’ve got writing, selling. So if I select selling research prospect, Oh, got it. You can then schedule a phone call for me
Barnaby: Yeah. So that’s, that’s, you know, that’s one area, but proofread a document, um, um, you know, um,
Andrew: Oh, okay. You know what? So let’s get research. Um, so if I,
Barnaby: know, edit a slide.
Andrew: Edit it. Okay. So if I were trying to use you guys, I get it. I might say I have a guest that’s coming up. I’m going to send them my list of questions. Let’s see if they could do a good job. And if they do a good job now, I’ve got a sense of how I could work with them.
Got it. All right. And this says $25 in free credit. Got it. I see. All right. I was thinking that anything that a virtual assistant would do is gotta be personal, like take my credit card and go buy me an airplane ticket somewhere or cancel my Comcast cable. No, it’s more of these types of, um, uh, less personal services that you can offer for free.
All right. I see it. And then did you offer a co a call, an onboarding conversation for people who did that or was that just a web form only?
Barnaby: Yeah. So what, what we do, um, these days is, you know, we, we really want to engage you into a bigger conversation. Um, and so we’ll reach out and, you know, we offer people the opportunity to book him for call there’s. There’s only so far. You can go by trialing it. We, we want to, we want you to be able to try it for free and to really experience a virtual assistant and to have that whale moment where you get something done without having to do it yourself.
But then we also want to guide you through the process. If you decide that something that’s for you, if you decide that actually a virtual assistant could work really well for you, we want to be very available to you because we want to make sure that we get you started along along the right lines.
Andrew: Okay. And so now you’ve got this thing that’s starting to work and it’s starting to build up. What’s the next big headache that hits you after this free trial starts to work?
Barnaby: Um, well, the, the next, uh, sort of major thing was we were in the UK at the time. And, um, you know, cause we’re a UK based business, that’s where we started. And, um, you know, really there’s the UK is quite far behind the us in terms of the ability to outsource the ability to get delegate. There’s a, quite a big risk perception without sourcing and delegating in the UK versus the U S.
And so we launched a platform and we had this free trial going, but actually we were still hitting a, a bit of a ceiling. And so the next thing that happened was really going back to what I was saying earlier about creating a one pager and throwing it up on the internet. I think one afternoon, I got a bit frustrated by the slow growth in the UK.
And so I just put up a us version of our website, changed a few words around, started, you know, customizing episodes slightly took me a couple of hours, logged into Google ad words, put some ads live. Um, and almost immediately we had a flow of people trialing the service for free that we just couldn’t have dreamed of in the UK, just a constant flow of people that wanted to engage and wanted to speak to us and wanted to find out what it was about.
Andrew: So there’s this whole model that already worked, just brought into the U S what year was this?
Barnaby: Uh, 2015, I think.
Andrew: 2015. Wow. Even as far, or as recent as 2015, the UK wasn’t embracing virtual assistants. And you know what? I’m on SEMrush to see where you’re getting your traffic now, directive courses, number one, but Google is still Google paid is even bigger than organic. And Google combined is still your number one outside source of customers.
Barnaby: Yeah, so it said, um, a lot of our client flow is word of mouth. And so what the free trial has done is created a huge pool of people that have experienced time, et cetera, may not have gone on to buy a service from us, but have experienced time, et cetera, in one way or another. And so Google probably is about a third and then the rest is fairly strong word of mouth that I directly relate to the free trial.
I think the free trial is really helped us to, to reach a lot of people.
Andrew: One of the big issues is still business. People do not know what they could delegate. And so you’ve written a book you’ve done a course. How, how, how do these fit into your marketing?
Barnaby: Well at the moment, they’re not, you know, they’re not a fundamental parts of the marketing, but we’ve got a new website that we’re launching hopefully in the next couple of months. And they really will become much more of a part of our marketing because where we want to go is all out on education and helping people to not only see how they could use a virtual assistant, but more importantly, how they could achieve more without working longer and longer hours.
That’s something I’m really passionate about whether or not you do it using SaneBox or whether you do it using a virtual assistant. I’m passionate about helping people to understand that, um, growing a business isn’t. Always about the amount of hours that you work. Um, and that, you know, it is possible to work a sensible amount of hours and still grow a business.
Andrew: You know, Barnaby, I feel like there are two things that I could still use help with. I still think that I’m not passing enough onto my assistant, because I don’t think of the things that I do as taking up my time. If that makes sense. I don’t realize some of the things that I do with, but that ended up sucking time.
And the other thing I always thought would be helpful is so I’ve got, I’ve gotten an assistant. I feel like she’s not being, she’s not getting enough external understanding of how other people work. So I guess the first one, maybe you could solve for us, for people like me and say, Andrew, here’s what you could get done with the virtual assistant.
Here’s some stories that will fire up your imagination, make you realize you’re doing things that you shouldn’t, that you shouldn’t be doing and you can pass on. But also the things you’re not doing that an assistant can do, like, as I was going through your site, I realized your assistants can actually write blog posts can send out a promotion, right?
It’s not just the little menial tasks. It’s real significant marketing.
Barnaby: Yeah, I think, you know, well focuses on the things that, um, I mean, really you can split your to-do. My theory is you can split your to-do list into two and on one, on one side there’s things that only you can do because they require, you know, specialist knowledge or some sort of, uh, skill set that you possess.
Um, and only you can do them or, or they represent you personally. And on the other side, actually, most people have a list of things that someone else could technically do if you showed them how to do them. And so that’s, that’s really the sort of the push is to help people understand that really, instead of just saying one to do list, there should be two sides to it.
The other thing that I did personally was I went from working a hundred hours a week and I, um, restricted the number of hours that I allowed myself to work, which is very severe, but I restricted it to 35 hours a week. Um, on purpose and what that did was absolutely incredible because it forced me into really appraising which tasks I could afford to do in those 35 hours.
I took my time as an entrepreneur from feeling like it was unlimited every week to feeling like, Oh, I’ve only got 35 hours. You know, I really, really have to think carefully what I fill those 35 hours with because otherwise the business doesn’t grow or I don’t make that move that I should have made, or I don’t find that new marketing channel that I should have found.
And that really helped me to, to sort of, um, to realize how much I needed to hand over to other people.
Andrew: How podcasting been for you? You’ve been doing interviews. Is that helping grow your business?
Barnaby: Um, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest. Um, I don’t think we’ve got a reliable way of tracking it, but I think what the appeal of podcasts for me is the ability just to talk about, you know, helping people to achieve more, the, just, you know, I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I love having entrepreneurial conversations with people.
It’s, um, it’s, it’s in my blood. So that’s, that’s why, you know, w that’s why I love to do a podcast is because, you know, it’s just a moment where you get to really dive into that stuff.
Andrew: All right. So then let’s trigger some ideas for entrepreneurs who are listening. It seems like this verticalization of virtual assistance model could work. What areas do you think people could turn this, your model into working for them on a, on a niche? We talked about Yarrows idea for email, right?
Nothing but email. What else is out there? Presentations? I imagine, but presentations, I don’t know that there are enough people who need them done on a weekly basis, right?
Barnaby: So I think something very similar to presentations is proposals. So people who are maybe in a sales role who are having to put together like proposals, um, or, you know, pitch documentation, I think, you know, that is a very clear sort of niche vertical. If you found someone that was talented at kind of interpreting what needed to go in there.
Um, I also think invoicing and billing and backend things. I appreciate there are lots of tools, um, that are kind of taking over that space, but actually, um, a lot of consultants, for example, waste some of their billable time, um, kind of doing their back office stuff. Uh, and I think that’s a sort of niche that could be filled and likewise scheduling for perhaps consultants, people in a fear owning.
Capacity, um, you know, a lot of people in fear and in capacities have quite new on scheduling needs. Um, not so much during COVID, but pre COVID in a nuanced travel needs and scheduling that had to take into account things like travel to different places. Um, and I think, you know, focusing on that kind of vertical, I can see there being, you know, pretty strong market in, in, um, in, you know, really supporting those people who have complex scheduling needs.
Andrew: And what advice would you give to somebody who’s, who’s doing that? Who’s following that niche. That whether it’s one of the ones that we’ve discussed here in this conversation, or another one, what, where could, where are the opportunities that they might miss and where could they, um, and where could they go wrong?
Barnaby: I think, um, Uh, I feel like my advice would be to come up with a process. So where you possibly can try and figure out a method or a loose method for how you, um, say manage someone’s complex schedule. Um, because I think a lot of time, uh, people starting out in this kind of business think that the client is going to know exactly what they need and exactly how to deliver them the service.
And they sort of sit there and let the client tell them kind of what they want and exactly how to do it. Now, some clients will do that and some clients know exactly what they want and they know exactly how they want it to be done. They have an existing process, but a lot of people that are going to engage with a service like that have never outsourced it before.
They’ve never delegated it before they haven’t written the process down. And actually you can really add value to them by saying, this is exactly how I’m going to help you do this.
Andrew: So you can imagine somebody saying, you know what salespeople would do much better if they created a beautiful customized proposal for each one of their prospects, right? You get off a sales call instead of saying, thanks. Here are prices you say, thanks. Here are our prices. And I’ve customized something to you with your logo, with your photo, with the whole thing in it to make it look nice.
They don’t even know what software to use for that. They don’t, they don’t know what the process should be for taking for passing that data onto their, uh, assistant. So if I were to create a business like that, I might say the way you’re going to pass it to us is here’s a form where. Where you press a button and you could talk into video about what you discussed and what the deal is.
Here’s a form where you tell us like what their company is and what their logo, and maybe not their logo, but what you, what you’ve offered them, you take all that stuff in, and then you pass it onto the assistant who puts it together in whatever proposal software you pick for them. Um, and then you send it back to them and they give you some edits.
And that makes total fricking sense. I wonder if that’s something you’re going to want to do Barnaby, if you’re going to
Barnaby: Yeah, I want to do it now.
Andrew: or you like this idea, but would you, would you turn it into its own site or would you say our assistants now do that,
Barnaby: Uh, I would, I, if I, if I was going to do that, I turned it into it. So inside, I think, I think I would want it to be, um, a market in itself, uh, with time, et cetera. I think our appeal is it’s very broad and the client can define, you know, exactly. Um, you know, there were points during our growth where we’ve thought about, you know, do we restrict what we do or do we, um, you know, do we limit how we do each individual tasks, but really I think the appeal of time, et cetera, is it’s wide.
I do it is its own site, but I, but I’m very, I’m very intrigued in the idea of sort of process-driven um, Process driven, outsourcing it’s it’s also what this company content fly do. So that, that is exactly the model that they’ve got.
Andrew: And they do just for content. And I can imagine somebody, I love the idea of proposals. I feel like the beauty of that is it is a pain in the butt Barnaby to find the right logo, to make sure that it’s, that it’s got a transparent background, that it looks good on the proposal software that you’ve updated everything in it.
I actually sent a proposal to somebody by accident and included the wrong company name because I reused a proposal that I love that did well. This was just a few days ago
Barnaby: We’ve all done. It.
Andrew: Oh, it’s so freaking painful. Uh, thank you. They understood it. And then they signed up. They’re gonna sponsor. Um, but that whole process is a pain to do.
And you feel, I feel minimized by it because I’m now going and finding a logo and that’s not what I’m great at and customizing it and all that, but it helps every single person who saw a followup message back to them with a page that said, here’s what I would do for you with their logo and all that with them.
They said, you really took the time to do this. This is, this, uh, shows us that you will care about us. And so it contributes to people’s bottom line. Obviously I’m getting excited about it. All right. I’m going to close out with this one thing. Okay. One of the things that, uh, that I took away from you was find that extra high perception product that you could attach to your offering.
The way that you did by saying hosting is included with the domain name. You did that as a kid, because you were entrepreneurial from the time you were a kid. Um, Talk about what you did with the school magazine. Nobody could sell that thing when you were in, when you were a kid
Barnaby: Oh, yeah. So we, yeah, we, we, we had a very badly written, very poor circulation school magazine that no one wanted to buy. Um, and, uh, me and my friend, Matthew tried to sell it extensively. We were Hawking this magazine in the playground, trying to get people to buy it. Couldn’t do it. And then we realized that no, one’s there sweets at school.
It just was a band item. They were contraband, uh, candy. And, um, so we went and bought a massive bag of candy and we sell a taped, a little individual we’ll wrap candy to the front of each of these magazines. And we sold it for, I think it was 20 P so like 50 cents or something,
Andrew: So now suddenly this thing that nobody could buy sold.
Barnaby: And so they bought it for the candy and our circulation went through the roof.
We were delighted.
Andrew: That is one of the big takeaways. And I love that you got to do that as a kid and continue doing it later on as an adult. Congratulations on the success with time, et cetera, for anyone who wants to go and check this out and sign up for free. I just went through the process. It was so fast. I was surprised you might’ve noticed as I was asking you, but what is in the dropdown?
And I said, Oh, wait, it’s actually right here. Uh, you made it super easy. It’s T I M E. E T c.com time, etc. Dot com. And I want to thank the two sponsors who made this interview happen. The first, if you’ve got an idea and you want to put it up on a website to see if people like it to see if it makes sense and to be able to get started with it fast and inexpensively, I urge you to go to HostGator.
And if you use my special URL, they’ll give you a phenomenal price. That is hostgator.com/mixergy. And finally, if you want to have software, handle your email and simplify it for you, do what I do every single day. I see that same box working on my inbox, giving me sanity, go to sane box.com/mixergy, S a N E B O x.com/m I X E R G Y.
Barnaby. Congratulations, and thank you for being on. All right. Bye everyone.