How Productivity Champion Ari Meisel Set Up A Business in 24 hours
Since beating the incurable Crohn’s Disease through optimizing his body, Ari has had a successful career as an entrepreneur. Recently he started a virtual assistant company called Less Doing and wrote a book with his co-founder Nick Sonnenberg called From Idea to Execution that came out in early October. That book is all about how to optimize, automate, and outsource (these are the major themes in Meisel’s approach to success) everything in your business.
In the interview, you’ll find out what Ben’s doing wrong when it comes to optimizing his work, Ari’s favorite new tricks and tools out there to be more efficient, and what you can not under any circumstance delegate or outsource to someone else.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Thanks for coming onto the Blinkist podcast, I appreciate you taking the time.
Ari Meisel: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
BSS: So the new book came out on October 5th and it’s called Idea to Execution. Maybe we can start off by you telling our listeners what happened in that fateful dinner in August 2015 and how that turned into the business.
AM: Sure. So basically, I’ve been in the productivity space for seven years now. In August of last year, 2015 – I forgot exactly what day it was but it was a Monday—
Zirtual, which is the largest or was the largest US-based virtual assistant company, and – do you think I need to explain what virtual assistants are?
BSS: Yeah sure. Let’s pretend no one knows.
AM: So virtual assistants are basically assistants that are just not the room with you. It’s that simple. They’re people who can do anything from travel planning to data entry, calling, research, whatever it might be, but they’re not sitting in the office next you. So they could be in India, they could be in the next office building over or whatever, but they’re just not there with you. They’re remote.
So Zirtual provided those kind of services. And there’s two different models essentially in the virtual assistant world. There’s the dedicated and the on demand. So, with on demand, you basically have access to a pool of assistants – in some cases that could be dozens or thousands – and they’ll do a quick task for you and you probably never interact with them again, and that’s fine. It’s actually very helpful for a lot of the things like making a dinner reservation or booking a flight maybe.
Then you have the dedicated assistant model which is much more traditional where you’re dealing with one person all the time and then, you know, Helen or John gets to know how you like your meetings scheduled and where you like to have coffee and all that kind of stuff. There’s continuity there.
And there’s pros and cons to both but the main con with the dedicated system is that you’re limited to one person which is naturally a bottleneck. So it’s a bottleneck not only on that person’s time but also their skillset.
So anyway Zirtual is a dedicated virtual assistant company.
On a Monday morning in August they sent a message to their 2,500 clients and their 400 assistants basically saying, “We’ve had financial difficulties and good luck.” They essentially shut down without any notice or any emails. And if anything constitutes breaking news in my world of productivity, that was it. My phone, my email, everything exploded with people asking what they should do. I was getting emails and messages from clients who were being left out to dry, and also from VAs who were looking for work.
I didn’t think much of it and I would just respond everybody basically saying you know, here’s this person this is an assistant and then you know you can go to this service if you need to and so on and so forth. But it was just a messy couple days.
This was a Monday. Then just by chance then next night I have dinner with my friend Nick Sonnenberg, who I’ve known for I guess four years now. He’s also in the productivity space, he was in financial engineering before that, and then he started a scheduling app. It was his own start up. And we had just planned this dinner two weeks earlier. So we’re at dinner, we’re talking about Zirtual, and he says, why don’t you just start your own virtual assistant company? I was very reactionary and said, no, I have no interest in starting another company and running that and putting in the effort and blah blah blah. His response was, well what if we did it together? And I responded with, okay. And that was all it took.
So twenty-four hours later we had built the company and launched and we were profitable and scalable from day one. So not only was it an interesting sort of a jump on a market opportunity, but it was a different way of getting a business off the ground and running it. And we’ve been very iterative, and very lean and scrappy from the start. We never put a cent into the company. We’ve never had to raise any money. At this point now we’re at almost our full first year of business and we’ve got 300 clients and 60 VAs and specialists in 13 time zones, and we can do anything basically.
We’re sort of a hybrid model: you don’t get one person and you don’t get 1,000 people, you basically get access to our entire team of roughly 60 people. At this point we have just about every skillset that we need, and if we don’t, we know where to go to get it. So we are a one-stop shop to outsource anything from dinner reservations to travel planning, like I said before, but we also produce 20 podcasts for different clients, we can build entire sales funnels with the graphic design, the Facebook ads, the analytics, the copywriting, everything. So you basically can give us everything you need done and we can do it. We haven’t had to say no to a project yet.
BSS: That’s crazy. And the book, so people know, chronicles the beginning of the business from this dinner on, month-by-month, covering a whole year. You said it was very iterative and it’s cool because it sounds like you wrote each chapter when you were in the moment and are sort of thinking about, we tried this, maybe we should try this next month, okay this is the month when we had to deal with recruiting challenges, this is the month when we had to deal with accounting challenges – so we follow along with you in the first year. I thought that was really cool.
AM: Yeah and well, we knew who from the beginning that we wanted to write a book about it, so we were very conscientious about keeping voice recordings of things that were happening and that we found interesting, and that we were coming up with and trying. Everything was very experimental. As you can see from reading the book there were some things that didn’t work. But we were able to that shift from those very quickly.
BSS: Yeah and it’s cool that you speak about them in the book also. So is this what you’re spending all of your time on these days or are you still doing the workshops and things that you had before?
AM: This is by far my focus at this point. We are still doing workshops, but we’ve evolved now. Less Doing has always been very people-focused in terms of helping individuals be more productive, but we’ve been able to expand into a lot more business stuff now. We do a lot of business consulting. We’ll do workshops with businesses to overhaul the way they communicate and project manage and automate systems and use data to further their businesses. So the VA stuff is like 90% of the time, but we’re still, we’re doing business consulting and I’m still speaking around the world.
BSS: Toward the end of the book you said they’re two major learnings: one is, don’t invest in scalability prematurely; and the second one is, if you can’t measure it don’t change it. So I wanted to ask you what the hardest thing is to measure based on your experience with this, with this company?
AM: [noise] so That’s a good one, there’s actually a couple things. So, the most important metric for us, by far, is 30-day customer churn. Who were clients 30 days ago and are no longer clients? So, essentially it’s people who leave the service and stop working with us or whatever. But it’s a 30-day churn specifically that we’re looking at that’s very valuable for us. There’s some psychology in there and some data that backs up why that number is important but effectively we want churn to be under 10 percent. So 30 days from now, we want to be sure that at least 90 percent of the clients that we have right now are still clients then.
Now we’ve had months where churn was up to 18 percent, and that was – we were obviously doing something very bad. And at that point it’s like, are we delivering poorly on quality? Is our pricing wrong? There’s so many different factors that go into it. So that’s like the most important metric.
And then the things that are hard to measure that contribute to that, but we have a pretty good sense of at this point, are all the things that go into training, for example. So, hiring and getting human capital is like the most important thing that we do in this business. And we have are really cool hiring process at this point I think. We get a lot of data out of it – we do some personality profiling we do several things – but there’s no clear correlation yet. There’s not a hardcore definition where we can say this person scored 97 on competitiveness and 45 on stability and that, you know, is 90 percent likely to be a really good VA who’s going to work with us for a long time. That’s something that’s very hard to tell. Somebody coming in with whatever skills they might have, going through our training, working in our environment that we work in, which is remote but we have really good team culture, that’s one of the harder things to measure.
BSS: It’s like, what’s the hardest thing to measure? The entire idea of how a human brain works – it’s like the entire field of psychology basically.
AM: Yeah, that is part of it. And again we measure some of it, you know there’s definitely – and there’s data that comes out of it but it’s a challenge.
BSS: We just talked a little bit about the book and some of the challenges of the new company that you set up and now I really want to get into some of the productivity, efficiency stuff that – I mean I first got to know you via Less Doing, More Living, the first book. And there’s a bunch of stuff I’ve been wanting to ask you about this. So, to start out, you hinted at this recruitment process. That was a cool automation process, how you almost don’t touch anything in the recruitment process until you have to give the interview. In a video I found there was also, you talked about the automated process you have for the podcast which is also pretty cool.
So I wanted to ask you which automation process are you most proud of that you’ve ever built up?
AM: So the hiring one – well OK the podcast one is definitely up there, but the hiring one I think is actually the one I’m most excited about it because that’s something that I’m continually tinkering with.
BSS: So can we break it down? Let’s break it down.
AM: Yeah absolutely. So first of all we do a lot of stuff on Trello, which is for project management, for people who don’t know. Are you familiar with Trello?
BSS: Yeah we’re an Asana company, but yeah, we dig.
AM: Ok so that’s fine. I have pros and cons for both but that’s fine. So I have moved our entire hiring platform over to Trello. There are so many companies out there now that have hiring and onboarding platforms like OnboardIQ and Recruitee. We were using Workforce from Intuit. And essentially all they are is like assembly lines basically, they’re just moving people through phases. So I built it myself in Trello and it’s a Trello board along with three WuFoo forms and eight Zapier zaps, three of which are multi-zaps –
BSS: This whole thing sounds like a Dr. Seuss book somehow. It’s amazing.
AM: That’s funny, I read Oh the Places You’ll Go every night to my kids so that’s – I actually think about that quite a bit. Sometimes you’ll be in a Lurch and “Un-slumping yourself / is not easily done.”
So basically somebody applies on a Wufoo form and Wufoo is like, for people again who don’t know, it’s like Typeform or Gravity Forms, it’s just a website that helps you make forms. I just like Wufoo particularly because a lot of flexibility in terms of what you can put into it, and also you can plug into it with automations really well. So they fill out an application, a part of which includes them doing a YouTube video of themselves and the resume, and then they have to answer like a test task question.
BSS: Wait can I stop you there? I’m also curious about what the best YouTube video that a prospective applicant sent in. Is there one that comes to mind right away?
AM: So it’s funny, when somebody does a production in their YouTube video, you know they have like words coming in and they have graphics and stuff – those people never make it.
AM: In fact one of our worst, well, not fires – so usually when it doesn’t work out, the people that work with us have the decency to finish off their tasks they currently have and offboard properly. The best video I ever saw was from this particular VA, and the only person who ever worked for us who decided she didn’t want to work with anymore and she just was like, I’m done, and didn’t respond anything and left it all hanging. So I actually use that as an indicator now. Plus a lot of times the people who do those kind of videos are actually using generic videos that they use for other things because they’re not going to put in the effort in for everything.
AM: So, anyway the best video though – I mean they’re only three minute videos with people describing themselves so I have one in mind but I can’t really describe it without telling you who the person is.
BSS: But was it very personal? Very human?
AM: Yes. So that’s the thing. We purposely don’t give people any direction. We just say do a quick YouTube video telling us about yourself. So if they’re less than a minute that’s almost an automatic no and if they’re more than five minutes that’s usually automatic no. So like a three minute video is about the sweet spot, and it’s interesting how often people hit that. If somebody is reading off the screen, which we’ve seen a few times, that’s a no-no too.
So they fill out the WuFoo form, it creates a new entry, a card, in the Trello board as a new applicant but it also posts just their name and their video into our Slack, our #manager Slack channel. So right away the managers can see the video and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and decide if we’re even going to go into an interview stage. Then if I want to give them an interview all I do is drag the card over to the next list, which is “Interview offered.” And that activates a Zapier zap which sends them an email saying, congratulations we’d like to do an interview, click this calendar link to schedule an interview. They do a 10-minute interview with us, with some questions that I’m very fond of asking at interviews. I try to like focus on people’s weaknesses as much as possible and how they handle that kind of situation because everybody can talk about how great they are.
AM: Then, if the interview was good, then I drag it over to the next list and they get an email that has them take a personality profile and a basic skills test from a company we use called HireSelect which has been a real game changer for us. The skills test is pretty obvious. It’s like verbal, spatial reasoning – it’s basically just, can you read and write. And then the personality profile is a fascinating one for us because they have a profile of what they think – the company does – of what they think a customer service-related person should have, and that’s a lot of what we do. It’s the best thing to map to somebody that works for us, customer service. And that’s in terms of competitiveness and stability and teamwork and all that stuff. So we get a good profile there.
If all that looks good then they go to a background check. We use a company called Onfido which does the background check for them, and all this is again activated through Trello. And then if that works then they get dragged over to documents signing, so they get to sign our onboarding documents, which is all done through RightSignature. They fill out their NDA, their contract agreement, their W-9, and all that stuff. That gets submitted.
Then they move on to onboarding and they get what I’m constantly refining as a really cool onboarding, training video and set-up, because we had to put them on all of our systems, on Slack, on Trello, on 1Password, on Toggle, and then our own custom dashboard. And basically every time new hires come in I ask them, what are some questions you still have after going through the training? And then once they tell me that then I just make it a task and add that to the training. I’m really trying to chip away to the point, and we’re pretty close now, where somebody can basically come through the automated aspect of the training and be ready to start working right away.
Then they go into a #training channel in Slack and that’s where all the new recruits are, and our managers, and that’s where they can ask about tasks and ask questions and they have to get all of their comments approved to clients before they can actually post them. Then it’s either sink or swim. You either get out of the #training channel into our main #team channel, or you stay there for a while, or you get fired. And usually when people get fired it happens within the first week. So, we’re swift with that. There’s no point in wasting anybody’s time.
BSS: And so in this whole recruiting process you would touch the prospective applicant in a 10-minute interview and that’s pretty much it.
AM: Yeah I usually don’t do the interviews.
BSS: Or somebody, a manager would first be involved only at the 10-minute interview and then later in maybe the #training group in Slack.
AM: Yes, exactly.
BSS: And there’s like eight steps in between. That’s pretty nuts.
AM: Yeah, it’s really cool. Everything from document signing, background check, testing everything – it’s all automated.
BSS: So one of the best things about your books that everybody should know is the lists of tools that you use and just cool stuff – like I didn’t know about Ponoko and Shapeways, for example, in the first book.
AM: Oh yeah.
BSS: I just get itchy to try some of the stuff out. Of course you just named like seven Dr. Seuss-word tools – what’s your what’s your tool of choice right now?
AM: Well I mean we have several but one of the most important right now is an app called Roger.
BSS: Oh, the walkie-talkie.
AM: The walkie-talkie app. Yeah. So we do everything asynchronously for the most part, which, so I only work between with nine and three every day because I drop off and pick up my kids from school. So because of that somewhat compressed window – it’s not that compressed anymore because I love what I do – it’s so much easier to be able to do things asynchronously. And we have people in 13 times zones so that’s really helpful as well but Roger just came out with the brand new out called Fika, which is the video version of Roger specifically for teams using Slack. So basically I can do a video message that goes into Slack as an animated gif so they can see what it is, it’s then transcribed immediately, really accurately, and so I can make videos for the team for training or announcements, for example.
And the other one is Intercom. Intercom is like a shared inbox. A lot of people use it for customer service, and we do that as well, but it’s also the chat box that’s on our website. Because, again, we’re in 13 times zones, if somebody asks a question on the website, like do you guys do this service, someone will usually pick it up in a couple of minutes and it’s been a huge game changer for us.
BSS: One thing that I’ve always wanted to ask you also is if you’ve ever felt like you missed out on something by delegating everything, for example like I was thinking about IKEA furniture which I hate building up, my girlfriend loves building up IKEA furniture. I was thinking, because I never really build up the IKEA stuff, I don’t know how to quick fix it usually. She’s more familiar with the pieces inside, and so she can quickly fix it. I was thinking that’s it’s kind of an interesting metaphor for delegating everything. I just wonder if there are some things you under no circumstance will delegate or automate because you want your hands over it? Or if you feel like you’ve ever missed out on something by delegating something. Do you know what I mean?
AM: Yeah, so no. The answer’s no. I don’t think I have. If anything I think that’s like the whole intrinsic point of outsourcing, is to not miss out on things. But let’s see. I don’t outsource stuff with the kids. I guess that’s one thing. At this point we have four kids so we have a manny that helps us quite a bit – he’s also VA for the company which is really cool, so we’ve got him locked down – which is great. But, like, my eight-month old daughter woke up at 4:20 this morning and I was obviously the one that woke up with her and I got three hours with her before I went out this morning.
So usually pretty much anything with the kids doesn’t get outsourced, also food for the most part. We eat 99 percent of the time every meal at home and my wife cooks 98 percent of the time and I cook the other 2 percent, but it’s definitely something we could’ve outsourced and a lot of people do – whether they get meal delivery or some other some other way. That’s something we don’t do, we do like doing that as a family. But there’s nothing that’s like automatically off-limits, that’s for sure.
BSS: There’s nothing that you that you just kind of like I had some kind of boring repeatable tasks that I could delegate, but I like them. You don’t have anything like? Some spreadsheet you have to update that you could get a robot to do but, like, it’s so satisfying to see the invoices so nicely set up?
AM: Oh god, we should talk. No, I mean –
BSS: No nothing like to they take like an hour I mean something that’s just really brief.
AM: What do you enjoy about it?
BSS: I like when it’s done. And usually it’s something where it’s like a mental rest, usually it’s something repeatable and mindless enough where if I’m putting in a little bit of data for fifteen minutes, for example, I’m looking at the data with my mind completely switched off. Then when I’m done with that, I’ve recovered from the tasks that preceded it. Do you know I mean? The stress and the energy that were required from the task the preceded it – I did a boring task but now it’s done and it was a mindless task that rested me. And then I’m ready to go. And if I had delegated that task, I would’ve gone straight from energy-hard task to energy-hard task. Does that make sense?
AM: Yeah, I know. But the thing is, it’s like a muscle that you have to use. Anything you do more than twice, there should be a process for, and if there’s a process they can almost definitely be automated. So that’s the thing, you’re not aware of what you could possibly be taking advantage of by not having that be part of what you do or even by going through the process of automating it so you don’t have to do it.
BSS: So I should be more cutthroat.
AM: Yes. [Laughter]
AM: Be protective of your time it’s the only thing that we have that we can’t get more off.
BSS: Well the truth is I’m also going to have a kid this winter and or a month or something and I have a list of things that I have to just hand off for obvious reasons. I’m really looking forward to that, that’s going to be my cutthroat test.
AM: Yeah well, like I said before I have four so it forces you to do that.
BSS: For sure alright man well I don’t want to take anymore of your time but congrats on the book, I hope everyone out there can check it out and let’s do this again next year with the next book!
AM: Yeah absolutely, bye!