The following article is an excerpt from the book “Ecommerce Uncovered” by Nathan & Tessa Hartnett.
You’ll read a lot about time in this book. How important it is, and how you can use our model to get it back. As much as you can automate many aspects of this business through software, at some point you will need other people to help. People to help design your websites, help your customers, ship your products, and much more. This can be done through local staff, as well as contractors outside of your company.
This might seem like a big step for most people (depending on your background), but I can assure you, it is a necessary one. Ultimately, you should be looking to build your business to the point where all you do is think and strategise, and where all you have to do is send an email or two to the right people in your business, and they can then go move mountains on your behalf. We liken it to controlling an aircraft carrier with a playstation gamepad.
The ultimate aim is not just for your businesses to be able to run without you (when we first reached this point, we thought we’d made it – but we really hadn’t), but for them to be able to grow it without you as well. Nothing in nature is stagnant, it’s either growing or dying, and your business is the same (and so is yourself for that matter), so make sure it’s always growing and evolving.
Your team and business needs will also change over time. When you reach one goal, you’ll inevitably come up with another, and then you will convert from a passive phase back into an active phase. Once you’ve grown your businesses to the next level again, you may have to introduce new team members, and then rewrite many of your systems again to be able to bring your “next level” business back to a passive phase.
As at the time of writing this book, this is who we have on our team:
Warehouse Manager (staff)
Shipping Team Member (staff)
Article Writer (contractor)
Product Description Writer (contractor)
Customer Support (contractor)
Virtual Assistant (contractor)
Marketing Person (contractor)
Image Editor (contractor)
Web Guru (contractor)
Graphic Designer (contractor)
On any given day, some or all of these people are working on running and improving our companies. We certainly didn’t start here though, but even from the beginning, we recommend you start thinking, planning and dreaming about the day when you have lots of other people who have a vested interest in seeing your business succeed.
While this will be the case, they will never care about your business as much as you do. If you’re as passionate about your businesses as we have become, this can be a tough pill to swallow. We only ever expect our best employees to work at about 80% of what we would do in their position, and that’s the best you can expect. You can’t blame them either, they have other things in their life that are clearly more important to them than your business, and the reality is, if they cared as much as you did, they’d probably leave soon to start their own business anyway.
Because they’re thinking about other things, it’s vital that you have very clear systems for them to follow, even when you outsource your very first task. There need to be very clear expectations set, and step by step instructions on what they need to do, and what will happen if those instructions aren’t followed and expectations aren’t met.
Your business will live and die by how well you write your systems, and if there is one takeaway from this whole chapter that you need to be clear on it’s this. If a problem occurs in your business, never fix the problem yourself. Write a system that fixes the problem and ensures it will never happen again. This seems so obvious when you read it, but in the heat of the moment, it is so much easier just to fix the problem instead of having to write a system, and disseminate it to everyone. Sometimes your staff won’t like systems, as they can feel like they’re being treated like children. To this end, we try to make sure that every regular staff member/contractor has an up to date version of our operation manual. Most won’t delve too deep into what the other staff have to do, but it is a reminder that going outside of their systems can result in a ripple effect that breaks down other systems.
This is most prevalent between our customer support staff and shipping team. It’s amazing what assumptions each will make about the other’s role, and these assumptions more often than not result in a poor customer experience. When this occurs, make sure the systems aren’t at fault, then use it as an example to all of your staff how going outside the systems can result in a) a bad experience for your customers, and b) damage to your business and brand.
How To Find The Right People
Learning how to outsource is like any other part of your business. It takes time, you have to learn how to do it, and you will make plenty of mistakes in the process. As I’m writing this, I’ve just placed a job posting on upwork.com to find a “Product Manager”, and already I’m seeing notifications of applicants pouring into my inbox. Finding someone to apply for your position is not the difficult part, finding the right person, with the right attitude, and the necessary skills for the position – that’s another story.
Our primary source of finding customers used to be odesk.com and elance.com, but as they have combined to become upwork.com, that is now our main source of contractors. You simply register for the site, and then post a job that clearly describes who you are looking for, what their job will be, and what experience they need. Most of the contractors will then promptly ignore everything you just wrote, and apply regardless. One trick is to have something silly at the bottom of the job posting like “you must mention purple monkey dishwasher in your application, otherwise it will be rejected”. This will instantly weed out anyone who hasn’t even bothered to read your job posting before applying.
Once you have shortlisted the few applicants who actually did read the posting, it’s time to weed them out by those with no experience, no reviews, and generally poor applications. There is one exception to the “no experience” rule though, and that is those with really good applications, but no work history. You can occasionally find a great native English speaking content writer for a good price, who is simply trying to build up their hours and reviews.
Once you have found a few possibilities, it’s time to hire them for a trial. Make sure that they are clear that you are just going to check out their work for a short period of time, and that you are also trialling others at the same time. This is really where the rubber meets the road, and you’ll often find someone who has a great application, but for some reason just doesn’t click with you or what you need done. One of the main criteria that we look for now is whether or not we like working with them. In fact, that’s probably now our main criteria. We’ve now had contractors who had both the skills and experience to do the job, but they weren’t great communicators, which often left us feeling like their contracting business was far more important to them than our business, which is not how we wanted to feel. We want people that we can get to know, and who will fight for our business as hard (well, 80% as hard) as we do. So we replaced them with people we like to work with, and who also have the necessary skills and work ethic.
Another important thing to keep in mind with upwork.com and similar sites, is that when you post a job, only a certain number of contractors will actually see it. If you don’t find who you are looking for after a week or so, keep reposting the job until you do. It can be a frustrating process, but we’ve always gotten there in the end. If you haven’t figured it out already, perseverance is kind of a requirement for this business.
Hiring staff locally is definitely the preferred option, as you can meet with them and discuss issues face to face. We have a couple of part time workers in Brisbane (where our warehouse is located), which is great, even though we have often lived in other countries, it’s nice to be able to Skype them and chat about what’s going on.
Depending on where you live though, the cost of hiring local staff can basically make your business not viable. In Australia, we find it particularly hard, as the laws here to “protect workers” have made it near impossible for us to hire anyone. You can’t even contract someone with a mutually agreed contract, because if the Government finds out that they are doing regular work, it will classify them as an employee, and can make your life very miserable, even if both you and the contractor are perfectly happy with the arrangement! When you’re in a global economy, and you can’t meet local employment requirements (and I’m not talking about pay rate necessarily either, I’m talking also about minimum hours required, and all of the paperwork, red tape and bookkeeping requirements that go along with hiring locally), then it’s simple, go Global and hire someone from overseas.
We’re particularly fond of hiring people from the Philippines, as while not all of our experiences have been perfect, we have had a much higher success rate with hiring from there over anywhere else. When it comes to any kind of content writing though, we always go with someone from countries like the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia, or New Zealand.
How Much Should You Pay?
The amount you pay any given contractor is largely set by the market. It’s always tempting to try to go lower, regardless of what the market is telling you, but as the old saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Expect to pay higher depending on skill level, and also depending on the number of good reviews a contractor has.
If you’re looking for ongoing work like customer support, or a marketing person, we recommend paying by the hour, but if it is more of a “project” like getting your banners done for your homepage, or getting a website built, we prefer to get a quote on the project.
Finally, when it comes to image work (product photos, image editing) we prefer to pay “by the usable photo”. The amount you pay per image will have to do with the number of photos you need, or by the complexity of the photo that needs editing.
Using a site like upwork means that you can set a price per hour (or per project), but applicants can also set their hourly rate (or project price). This will give you an idea of what you will be likely to pay.
What To Do When They Ask For A Raise
On occasion a contractor will ask for more money. Depending on how good a job they’ve been doing for you, or if there has been a change in the kind of work they’re doing, this might be perfectly reasonable. Remember, a 50c or $1 an hour raise might not make that big a difference to your expenses, but it can make a huge difference to someone’s life in the Philippines for example. Now, if you’re not feeling particularly altruistic, giving a great contractor a raise can make them feel appreciated, and in turn give them a reason to do an even better job for you.
Having said that, if they’re only doing an average job, not meeting deadlines, and they’re already being paid well, then this might be a trigger to go out and do a little shopping. It doesn’t cost anything to post a job on upwork.com, and the applications you get will give you an idea of whether or not you’re they’re being overly ambitious.
I’m a big believer that a good contractor or employee will do a great job no matter what they’re being paid, because it’s in their nature to do a great job. But if you don’t recognise this as their Boss, then you will lose these great people as they move on to greener pastures. Recognise your people, reward greatness, and you can end up with a team that will work almost as hard as you do for your business.
Hire Slowly, Fire Quickly
We mentioned that it can take a while to find the right employee or contractor for each position, and you should definitely take your time. Like trying to find the right niches to enter, you may end up putting a lot of time and effort into getting any of your people up to speed, so make sure they’re worth putting that time and effort into.
If you do hire someone though, and they lie to you, steal from you, continually fail to meet deadlines, or not produce the level of work you expected from them, then move on quickly for their sake and yours.
It might not feel nice, but you need to do it for the sake of your business. Don’t try to change them, as these are character issues that only they can change for themselves, and it needs to be at their expense, not yours.
People can either be your greatest asset, or your greatest nightmare, but they will always be necessary. At some point, when you are successfully growing and running your ecommerce empire, you will transition from being a “doer” to a “leader”, which is not always an easy move for some people. If you don’t feel comfortable with leading other people, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Try to remember that many great leaders throughout history were reluctant leaders, they did it because they had to. They were great because they stepped up to the challenge, not because they desired it. You too can become a great leader, and I’d encourage you to read books on the subject, and look at it as a great skill that everyone should eventually learn.
Tess and I don’t consider ourselves to be great leaders, but it’s definitely something we aspire to, and is a skill that we hope to improve over the course of our lives.