How To Scale Your eCommerce Business by Outsourcing with Connor Gillivan of Freeeup.com

 

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Trevor Fenner: Hey guys, welcome back to the eCommerce Paradise Podcast. Today, I have a special guest on the show. He is the Chief Marketing Officer of a company called FreeeUp and they offer really cool outsourcing solutions to eCommerce entrepreneurs. I'm really excited to have him on the show, welcome to the show, Connor.

Connor: Hey Trevor, how's it going? Thanks for having me on.

Trevor Fenner: Doing great, man. Yeah, we know that scaling in eCommerce business can be a lot of work and very tiresome, but also exciting. It's a really cool process, a lot of people, especially solopreneurs, they go through a lot of growing pains. You guys started FreeeUp after you went through your own growing pains. Do you want to talk about your founding story a little bit?

Connor: Yeah, that would be awesome, definitely glad to share. Yeah, my business partner, his name is Nathan Hirsch, him and I met while we were still in college and we decided to start our first business there. We saw a need or a problem on campus actually, there were students who were buying textbooks from the bookstore, spending $200, $300 dollars on every one. Then at the end of each semester, the bookstore was offering them $10 to $20 dollars. The bookstore was exploiting these students, and we saw that Amazon was still selling these books as well and we could possibly sell them for more. So, we went for the students, we offered them more than the bookstore, we started selling them on Amazon and that's really how we got into the whole eCommerce world while we were still in college.

Connor: We did that for about two years, where we were selling textbooks, then we got sick of holding all the books. There was a certain point where we had a couple hundred textbooks in our dorm room and dorm house and it was annoying to pick, pack and ship them. I'm sure other people run into this issue as well. That's when we learned of the drop ship business model, so we started going around to brands and suppliers around the United States, who had already created their own company and their own products and they weren't yet taking advantage of the Amazon marketplace. This was 2010/2011, when Amazon was really just growing up in the US, in terms of a marketplace. So, we partnered up with them, we created our own systems and processes to manage the inventory and list the products and handle the repricing and everything.

Connor: We built that business up over the course of about four or five years. In that process, we ended up hiring a lot of people because like you said, running an eCommerce business takes a lot of time. Especially the drop shipping, you're handling thousands of products and trying to keep track of all of them. So, we were using sites like Upware, and what used to be oDesk, and Elance, or Fiverr.com, and Freelancer.com. We'd go there, we'd post a job, we'd get all these applicants, we'd try to hire the best people. Don't get me wrong, we found some amazing talent that we were able to work with, but we also ran into a lot of turnover, and we ran into a lot of issues and frustrations. In 2015, we decided to start FreeeUp as a marketplace that was catered solely to eCommerce business owners, and that only accepted the top one percent of freelancers that applied to get in.

Connor: That's really the story, the past three years have been a whirlwind of growing this business, it's been a lot of fun. We worked with thousands of business owners all over the world and we're learning a lot about how this freelance economy is just impacting people all over the world.

Trevor Fenner: I think it's awesome how you took a thing that you were doing and struggling with and you found a way to create a platform that actually solved that problem for you guys, but it also solved a problem for tons of people out there. That's really inspiring, man. Great work.

Connor: Yeah, thanks. I mean, when we started, it was always something we said, "We wish we had this." So, we were always trying to build a product for ourselves and then it just worked out that other people were having those same frustrations.

Trevor Fenner: Yeah, it's definitely one of those things that other people that do a lot of eCommerce in different areas, for instance, Russell Brunson always talk about how, "If you have a business and you find a problem with that business and you create a solution for it, maybe other people are looking for that solution. Why not create a business out of that?" You guys did it, FreeeUp.com, it's pretty awesome, I checked it out. Yeah, you guys do have some really cool freelancers in there. Really quick though, before we jump into that, I actually wanted to mention, it's funny, you guys are selling books around a college campus. I was actually doing the same thing, that's how I got my start with eCommerce as well. I had an Amazon selling account and I had all these books left over from my college courses, how it cost me a bunch of money and I realized I could sell them on Amazon at the end of the semester. So, I did and I had some extra cash and everything, so that was cool. That's kinda funny, we have similar starting stories.

Connor: That's so funny. I've heard from multiple Amazon entrepreneurs who I've networked, and that a lot of people who have found their way that way, they ran into it just from selling textbooks in one way or another. It is funny where you find those commonalities.

Trevor Fenner: Yeah. I'm actually reading a book, The Everything Store, right now. It's really wild how much crazy stuff Amazon went through in their startup, a couple of decades of startup. Like you said, in 2010 they really started growing in the states. I mean, they had been doing tons of crazy stuff back in the '90s, I wasn't even aware of that before. This is before I was even plugged into the internet and the stuff they went through back in the early 2000s is crazy. You talk about drop shipping, what was it like back then drop shipping on Amazon? Could you talk a little bit about that? And how crazy it was and what kind of things you had to deal with as an entrepreneur through that?

Connor: Yeah, absolutely. It was somewhat of the wild west. I mean, today I think it's a lot harder, there's so much more competition. Almost everyone's drop shopping or private labeling, or taking more advantage of the marketplace. Back then, sometimes we were the first seller to go onto big product listings. Whereas today, there may be 100 people trying to sell it. Then in terms of drop shipping, Amazon, they didn't have as many rules around it either. They didn't know if you were necessarily fulfilling it or if it was gonna go through FBA, there was a lot less rules and I would say you could probably get away with a lot more, and you didn't need to know as much about Amazon as you do today and their policies.

Connor: It was interesting to learn about it then, and then start to go through the transition, I would say 2014/2015/2016, Amazon really started breaking down their policies for third party sellers and for FBA sellers more and it's become what it is today. A very cool experience to see that transition.

Trevor Fenner: Definitely. Yeah, things have changed a lot in the last 10 years alone, much less the 10 years before that. Things are evolving rapidly in the eCommerce world, it's really incredible to see it unfold in front of us with all the new advancements with Shopify, and Ebay growing as well, and Amazon, and all of the other big websites out there now. It's really, really cool what is possible. Could you talk a little bit about the exact sort of things you guys went and found ... the problems you had and the solutions you found from outsourcing through that drop shipping business, that you were able to take into FreeeUp as experience?

Connor: Yeah, absolutely. One of the biggest issues that we had as business owners, it all came back to our time. That was one of our biggest issues we found when we were trying to outsource. Like I said, we were going through all these different job sites and we were posting a listing for someone that could help us list new products from suppliers of relationships we had created. We'd post a job but what would happen is we'd get 20, 25 people who were applying from all over the world. We'd have to go through their profiles, we'd try to see if they had relevant experience. We maybe invite 5 or 10 of them to interview, that then took up another 30 minutes of our day for each interview. We'd try to shortlist those people, maybe do one more interview, see if they were gonna be a good fit, and then finally make a hire. That whole process could take a week, two weeks, whatever it may be, so we just found ourselves, as the business owners, being pulled away from actually growing the business and we were stuck in this whole hiring and outsourcing process.

Connor: I would say that's one of the biggest frustrations we had, is just the time that we were putting into it. I think time is one of the most valuable things you have as an entrepreneur and it's really important to value that at high level. That was the first thing in having people that weren't vetted in front of us. The second thing was, the fact that we ran into a lot of turnover. There would be situations where we went through that interview process, we found someone, we were like, "Wow, this person's a rockstar." We'd work with them for a couple of weeks, we'd get them fully trained up, they'd start listing our products, they'd be working very closely with us. Then, for whatever reason they would either disappear or they'd take another job, or they just weren't able to work with us any longer. Okay, now we're back to stage one where we're going through that whole process again. That was another big frustration that we wanted to try to eliminate with the FreeeUp marketplace as well. I would say those are the two major ones.

Trevor Fenner: I couldn't agree more, man. That is one of the biggest frustrations when you're trying to hire people, is trying to train them and onboard them and trying to find the right people, man. My wife and I had gone and done this so many times, where we'd hired somebody and right after the first few sessions, they're just not right and we have to hire again, and then hire again, and hire again. Then finally you find somebody, we actually had a really good VA for a long time, she was a VA for us probably eight or nine months and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, her productivity just plummeted. She just stopped working basically and following up on emails, things were falling through the cracks and it sucked we had to let her go.

Trevor Fenner: Since then, it's just been like an on and off thing where I mostly work with project VAs now and we do our own customer service, just because of the time you talk about it takes to hire people and train them. All that time, we realized we could be spending on building our business. It's a really tough thing and I know that more eCommerce entrepreneurs are going through this kind of a thing, so I can definitely see the value in FreeeUp. Can you talk a little bit maybe about how you vet these people and how you determine that they're really good for eCommerce and stuff like that?

Connor: Yeah, of course. Our vetting process has evolved over the past three years, but the general breakdown of it is there's first an application. So, any freelancer that is interested in offering their services through FreeeUp, they'll fill out about, I think it's a 25 question application where they provide information about their freelance business, how long they've been running it for, types of clients they've worked with in the past, the services that they offer. Then we ask a good number of situational questions. How do they respond to issues with their internet, let's say if that happened for someone who's overseas. Or, "You and a client don't necessarily agree on the scope of a project or how long it's gonna take, how do you react to that type of situation?"

Connor: We really try to get as much information upfront as possible about how they really work with clients. We're looking for those people that do it more on a full-time basis and have a lot of experience. We review all those applications then we invite a certain percentage to a one-on-one interview, we actually set up a Skype chat with them, we talk to them, we ask them more questions. We really dive into their skills, so if someone says they're a Facebook Ad Expert, we have a rubric of questions that go deeper and deeper into how much they actually know about it, we look at their attitude. Again, we see, "Are they doing this full time? Are they just looking to make an extra buck? How do they treat their clients?"

Connor: Then the biggest one is communication, "How do they setup the communication with their clients? Do they have a process for it already? If so, is it efficient? Is it up to best practices so that there won't be issues in the future?" A certain percentage make it through that. Then finally, there's a last test that asks them a lot about our terms of use and best practices to make sure that they really just understand how they could use the marketplace to grow their business. Then the top one percent come out of that final test.

Trevor Fenner: Wow, that's incredible. Yeah, I mean, I know how much work that takes. It's a lot of work you have to go through to vet people. All these questions and it's hard to know what the right answers are, who's giving the right answers. Not only that but the difference between somebody who's emailing you an answer versus someone who you phone chat, it could be completely different. We get a lot of Filipino VAs and a lot of times, they have really thick accents over the phone where you couldn't really tell that on an email. So, if they're gonna be customer service, they've gotta sound somewhat clear when they speak. You can't have too thick of an accent. Then they've gotta make sense when they write stuff, they can't be weird gibberish emails that make no sense. It's a tough process, man.

 

Connor: Sometimes as a business owner, it's tough to know who is really telling the truth too because a lot of people are trained to do well in interviews. So, it doesn't really stop there, you want to make sure you give them a test project, if you think you found someone that's a good fit as well because they may have just done really well in the interview but their work may not actually reflect it.

Trevor Fenner: Makes sense. Yeah, I think all of these things are really important. I think also, a lot of entrepreneurs that are just starting out for sure, and they're starting to scale their service, they don't really understand what they should be doing when they go through the hiring process. It's very confusing, you could stumble a lot when you first get started. Do you have an onboarding process for entrepreneurs with FreeeUp? How to work with these people?

Connor: Absolutely, yeah. We run into this all the time, we have a lot of entrepreneurs who are just getting into it or have maybe hired a VA in the past but they didn't have success with it and they are looking for that type of advice. We break it down into a few simple steps. The first one is just knowing what you're looking for. You want to identify the thing you want to take off your plate, right? If you're an eCommerce entrepreneur, you had mentioned customer service, maybe it's that, maybe that's taking up a lot of your time and that's something you want to try to take off your plate. Well, make sure you know what exactly they're gonna be doing. Are they handling email? Are they handling phones? Do you have Live chat [inaudible 00:14:39] make sure that you know who you're looking for.

Connor: If they're doing customer service for you, you had mentioned some people in the Philippines have heavier accents, as that's something that's important to you? Make sure you're checking on that as you interview them, see if they've worked for past eCommerce businesses if that's important to you, make sure that if you want them working on eastern hours, they're able to do that. There's all these questions that you can answer to yourself up front, before finding the person that can really help you in that process. Then the next step is just using a site, it could be FreeeUp, it could be somewhere else where you actually start to meet some Freelancers and put them through this interview process and try to vet out the top people that could be a good fit for you.

Connor: Then the last step is on the onboarding, which I think a lot of entrepreneurs look past. They think they've found someone that they like, they just throw them right into it without much guidance, and then they're surprised two weeks later that, that person isn't doing everything that they had expected them to. We always recommend setting up a meeting right after you hire someone, talk to them about the expectations about what they should be achieving each day, have them set up daily or weekly communication check ins with you so that you know what they're up to and you can stay in communication. And just so that you're on the same page, give them the business goals, let them know really what's going on, so they can be as efficient and effective as possible.

Trevor Fenner: Yeah, it's all really important stuff. I know the onboarding process is definitely time consuming but it's worth it, right? eCommerce entrepreneurs, if you want to outsource, if you want to automate your business, you have to start outsourcing at some point to free up your time. I mean, it just really is required, there's no way about it because there's not necessarily a computer program yet that's like AI super intelligent that can understand customer issues. Maybe someday we'll get there, I really do hope so. There's chat bots-

Connor: That would be awesome.

Trevor Fenner: There's some email automation you can do, but they can't really tell customer emotions, they can't really tell where someone's at exactly in the sales final process, if you're doing that. So, until that happens, until it gets here, we gotta find other human beings that can help us, and the best thing about the world is that there are other places in the world where it's not as expensive to live. So, you can hire people to do stuff, like in the Philippines and it's way cheaper than hiring somebody in the states. But yet, I've heard the eCommerce store owners and stuff like that talk about how hiring somebody physically in the states is actually a really good thing too. I mean, you hear both sides. What do you think about that? You guys probably work with people all over the world, right? Do you see a big difference between the people in the Philippines versus the people in the States, quality wise?

Connor: Good question. For us, I think it really comes down to the business owner's preference. Some just aren't comfortable hiring someone overseas, they just view it differently, it's harder for them to wrap their head around them doing as high a quality of job as someone here in the US. We, as business owners, have seen great work come out of the Philippines, we have a large support team with FreeeUp that are from the Philippines, but we also hire a good number of US freelancers who specialize in higher level activities like Facebook Ads and our Google AdWords, and our blog writing. That type of stuff we'll keep in the US so that it's at a very high level, but I think there are areas where VAs from the Philippines or other areas, can also add a lot of value to your business.

Trevor Fenner: Yeah, I think that's important to understand that yeah, again, outsourcing is all different types of things, it's not just customer service. It's also, like you said, blogging, Facebook Ads, web developing, graphic design, all these things.

Connor: Exactly.

Trevor Fenner: Yeah, especially with web content, you really want to hire somebody that's a native english speaker, probably lives in the States, has an idea about the market a little bit better than somebody who's on the other side of the world and just has no idea about the American customs and just the marketplace or whatever. Yeah, that's important, that's really good. Yeah, we as business owners, I think it's really hard sometimes to breakdown exactly what we should be outsourcing. Do you have any tips for people, at what point should they start outsourcing their business, that kind of thing?

Connor: Yeah, of course. I think the tipping point usually, for entrepreneurs, is if they're already working 8 to 10 plus hours per day and they still have projects on their list that they want to get done that could continue to grow their business, it's probably time to start thinking about it. The way you can do that is, create a full list of all those tasks you're handling. I bet there's two, to four, to six hours of that day that are tasks that are repetitive, they're either mundane or you have a full process written out for it already. Those are things you could start to take off your plate and outsource. The other reason why a lot of entrepreneurs outsource as well, is there's a project that requires a skillset they don't have.

Connor: So, if you want to start doing advertising to drive traffic to your store but you have zero experience with it, sure you could take six months to a year to try to learn it and do it yourself, but you could outsource that to someone who's been doing it for years, has worked with 10s or even 100s of companies and can handle that for you. I think those are usually the two main reasons, you've run out of time or you need a skillset you don't have in your team.

Trevor Fenner: Couldn't agree more, man. Those are excellent reasons to outsource. Some of the things I need to do more of is outsourcing for sure. So if anything, you got definitely a customer in me. If you guys out there want to sign up for FreeeUp, check it out. I believe you can set up a free account, I have a link actually eCommerceparadise.com/FreeeUp. It's FreeeUp but it's with three Es, right? Free-E-Up.

Connor: Yep, exactly.

Trevor Fenner: And you're typing that in as FreeeUp, but yeah I'll put a link of the description and everything like that. Connor, thanks so much for being on. I think it was really, really helpful, honestly. The biggest thing that is keeping entrepreneurs back from growing more is outsourcing enough and properly, so you guys are doing a great thing over there at FreeeUp, man. Keep it up.

Connor: Awesome, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

Trevor Fenner: For sure.

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