Lately, new age virtually driven businesses have become all the rage. Everyone is talking about them.
But automation has nothing to do with being lazy, careless, or complacent. You can never fully automate everything, and even if you could — you should not. Nor does talk of a virtual economy immediately link to the cliche of a cheap, low-quality workforce in emerging economies desperate for dollars.
It’s unfortunate that some continue to focus on this narrative.
Not long ago, people used to believe that to be successful, you had to have a swarm of employees and a swank brick-and-mortar office in a tony part of town. The more employees you had, the more successful you were. To be honest, I was of the same opinion till late 2012 — two years after I started my own business.
And even today, many people have a misplaced notion about “service businesses" in particular. Even today, it’s not at all uncommon to hear them opine that such businesses are overtly people-dependent, rife with overheads, and barely scalable.
We know that this notion is simply not true. With workflow automation, machine learning (or AI), talent marketplaces, collaboration tools, and a curated network of independent operators, you could be one person, sitting at home in your pyjamas, doing the work of a hundred people and making decent money. Legitimately and efficiently. There are numerous examples of these pyjama-wearing, globe trotting multi-millionaires out there.
Sadly, I’m not one of them, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.
The virtual economy
It’s great to know that many people and companies (large and small) are embracing the new culture of work and life, thanks to a bunch of stories (highlighting real-world successes) that have comprehensively covered the benefits of the virtual economy demonstrating their value in operating a tangible business and to a manager’s overall productivity.
The virtual economy goes by many names. Depending on who you’re talking to and in what context, it is the “distributed economy", “remote economy", “gig economy", “sharing economy", or “collaborative economy". While they’re not all the same, each one is deeply interconnected with the other.
On further research, I discovered that nearly 34% of all workers in the US freelanced last year. That’s 54 million Americans! 2.5 million (5%) of these folks are independent business owners (aka. a one-man army) who collaborate with freelancers for their output.
Not just that, some of the most recognised and celebrated names in business and politics depend exclusively on the virtual economy to accomplish their own objectives.
I, for one, absolutely love the fact that my business gives me a chance to interact and work with a highly experienced and professional group of people (whose talent and expertise I would simply not have been able to afford, had they been working full-time for me) from across the English-speaking world, to help us deliver on our project commitments to clients.
I’m quite certain that I would not have this privilege if it weren’t for the virtual economy.
Some of the best people I know work as independent professionals. They find the corporate environment and even start-up culture too stifling.
It’s no surprise that 78% of those who left traditional employment earned more freelancing, within a year.
That’s an impressive statistic. Imagine the immense value this could add to the global economy in the coming years.
From brick to ether
I remember that at one point in our early days, we had around five full-time employees as well as a few interns working out of a small office in Bangalore. We were tiny and scrappy, but I had invested an insane amount of man-hours in building this super-human team. Each was hard working and talented, and I’m very lucky to have had an opportunity to work with that team.
As a first generation entrepreneur, I made many mistakes along the way, but I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses.
I came to the conclusion that, as a leader/manager, I had more weaknesses than strengths.
Shortly after, I started to explore the idea of working on large digital projects but with a curated team of independent writers, designers, and developers instead. It worked! Really well, actually. I loved it. Our clients loved it. And, my remote partners weren’t complaining.
It was hard to go back to hiring full-time employees again. The lure of “possessing" something without really possessing anything was hard to resist. And we were churning out equally good work. The idea was too “Uber-cool" and “AirBnB-esque" to believe.
Sparing us all from the long-drawn background and intent behind sensationalist PR pieces and seemingly tragic opinion posts, the objective and intent of this piece is to offer to take the horse to the trough of water. I don’t wish to force it to drink.
Virtual work, and life
Let’s fast forward to how I run my business today….
Like many others, I realised that there are a few things I could (and should) do by myself and there are several things that I absolutely do need help with, to make sure everything here runs like any other well-oiled business should.
And quality would have to be at the centre of every decision.
I considered two possible options:
Recruit a full-time staff and have them work remotely, or hire talented on-demand partners who would work remotely by default.
I heard that the teams at 37 Signals, Automattic, and Atlasssian were doing an amazing job with Option #1. But this option only made sense if I had plans of recruiting a sizeable team (more than 20 employees). At the time, I did not. And so, I went ahead with Option #2.
After spending several months studying and working within the virtual economy, I started to leverage it extensively for tasks that do not require my hands-on attention (only my review), and those I for which I do not have the right skills/abilities.
It takes the same amount of time and effort to hire talented remote partners as it does in-house employees. More so, when you’re retaining them for short-term projects. It’s also important to keep in mind that your ultimate goal should be to turn your transactions into a formidable relationship with your partners.
Let’s not make the mistake of assuming that managing a team of remote partners is quick and easy. I mean, it can be, if you don’t care much for quality. But if you do (and you must), be prepared to invest the same amount of blood, sweat, and tears into it, if not more. It is, after all, a team effort.
The funny thing about hard work, focus, and luck is that you stand to benefit from the law of compounding rewards.
Okay. Let’s talk about the tasks that don’t require your hands-on attention (only your review).
Learn to believe in the collective power of remote freelance professionals and in actively seeking opportunities to collaborate with them. Some virtual assistants (VA) work really well for certain administrative and back office tasks such as answering emails and phone calls on your (or your remote team’s) behalf, creating detailed travel itineraries, scheduling meetings (or Skype calls) between you (or your remote team) and your clients. Training anyone to think and communicate like you is a colossal effort and very time consuming. Virtual project managers (VPM) can be a boon if you have too many projects on the table, but not many resources to manage them. Talented VPM’s can be ace operators who can bring on board the right partners for the project, promptly update your clients, and handle invoices or payouts with ease. Always be ruthless about the quality and calibre of people you hire.
Choose to take up fully serviced offices or co-working spaces, even if you have a small full-time staff. Most of the hassles that come with operating an office (and believe me, there are plenty!) are essentially taken care of by someone else. Almost all of them now target the SMB (small and medium business) audience and their prices are fairly affordable. You should be able to find one in practically every major city on the planet. If you have international clients and travel frequently, having a dedicated virtual office/desk within a business centre (or co-working space) will help immensely, so you have professional space available when you do meet with them in-person. Until then, your business centre’s staff of receptionists (or your VA) can field all calls for you by either taking a message or forwarding the call to you/your remote team.
Wherever possible, integrate effective SaaS (software as a service) tools to aid and automate your business workflow, so there’s less human error to account for. Zapier is a blessing in disguise. Also, hurray for Artificial Intelligence (but not too fast!). To give you a simple example: the contact form on your website can trigger an automated email with pricing details and case studies to anyone who fills it out. It’s an efficient process in self-selection and qualifying the prospect. And, it saves precious time.
Moving on, let’s talk about the tasks for which you may not have the right skills/abilities.
I’ll tell you this — I’ve always wished to have the skills of a seasoned salesperson. But I don’t. I know it’s not an excuse, and I’d like to be better at it. Since my business is all-consuming for me, I consider this trait to be my biggest weakness. I’m solely reliant on word-of-mouth and good karma. At this stage of my business, I do not believe in hiring salespeople either (in-house or freelance). But if you do, there are a few good outbound sales platforms out there that automate all the heavy work for you. You can even find experienced salespeople on LinkedIn to work for you “on demand", albeit at higher costs. You could extend this to your overseas presence as well, if you wanted to. There’s an answer to every question in the book.
If you look hard enough, you’ll find that there’s an entire online ecosystem of talent marketplaces serving every creative and operational demand your business possibly has, depending on the quality of work you seek. It’s easier than ever to tap into a vast resource of “on demand" writers, designers, programmers, lawyers, accountants, book-keepers, publicists, community managers, photographers, videographers, and pretty much anyone else you need to run your business smoothly and efficiently. Good people don’t come cheap and you get what you pay for. But like I said earlier, be prepared to spend a significant amount of time and effort in shortlisting the right people for you. Usually, all good things take time and money. Please don’t try to cut corners just because you can.
Getting virtual to work
Now, if I were to give in to a typical entrepreneur’s dementia, we should be making hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly even billions, but I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you and your cat that we’re not.
I took a decision long back to function like a boutique outfit, serve selective clients in specific locales, work on challenging projects, and contribute by participating in the virtual economy as much as possible. I’d like to believe we’re doing exactly that.
Oh, and our revenues are fairly healthy. We’re doing okay. Should we be doing better? Of course, you could always do more and better in business :-)
Does the virtual economy make me less social and perhaps isolate me from talking to real people? Yes and no. At the end of the day, I am interacting with real people at the other end, not robots. Well, except this one — https://x.ai.
Evidently, as highlighted above, one can safely deduce that I have no plans of cattle-prodding our business into becoming the next Fortune 500 company anytime soon. I can confidently tell you that I’m pretty happy with that decision today.
Between running a (slightly radical) business, spending time with my parents, dreaming of Himalayan adventures, saving up whatever little I’ve earned, reading up on what I believe are the last few comics left in my Asterix collection, catching up on Narcos and Game of Thrones, and tweeting away to glory I suppose I’m left with little time to do what people would categorise as “the finer things in life".
One may think that “automating" a business (in some sense) will leave a person with more time. Here’s the caveat: moderating and quality-checking such a business is a full-time job.
Even if I had the luxury of more productive time (and I wish I did), I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have a small and wonderful family, a smaller close-knit group of trusted friends, and a whole bunch of loyal clients. Why does this matter? Because it makes me feel good. And feeling good helps me to deliver on our own quality benchmarks.
Adopting this virtual business model comes with its own kinks as well. In explaining, executing, and tweaking this progressive business model, I have had serious disagreements with some very good people. Unfortunately, I burned some bridges too. Some knowingly, others unknowingly. Mostly because of my own faults. I do regret this part. There’s still a lot to absorb and learn.
The objective is to create a model that you can call your own, because no one size fits all. I’m certainly committed to mine.
Rohan Chandrashekhar is founder, BUZZVALVE, and managing director, First Block Advisors.