Startup Frontier

April26th

This is an archived version of the original newsletter, sent via email.


Recently, I sat down with Maren Kate, co-founder and CEO of Zirtual, which connects professionals with dedicated virtual assistants. Zirtual recently raised a $2M Series A round from Tony Hsieh, VegasTechFund, and Mayfield Fund. In Part 1 of this interview, Maren discusses her previous startup experiences, how she developed and grew Zirtual from its inception, and why you should consider it over similar services.

The Interview

Can you tell me a little bit about what Zirtual is, and how you guys got the idea for it?

Zirtual started a little over two years ago. I got the idea by working with virtual assistants a lot in college. I was always trying to start different businesses, and I would use a virtual assistant to help me build out a website, or help me do market research, things like that. Stuff I didn’t have time for. What would happen is that I started to get more and more people asking me about how I found my assistants, how I delegated and things like that. I pretty much use that as the business for Zirtual.

Let’s dive in a little bit more tactically speaking – how did you start Zirtual? Walk me through the very first steps you took in building this company.

I started off my own blog. I had a blog I was pretty active on for a while. I started posting more and more about what I was doing, and people would ask me for assistants, or how I found my assistants. I had offered them a product and I was like, “You know, I could help find you one for $200 or something.” That would allow me to test the market and as people started to buy, I realized they were keeping their assistants for a while, so it would be beneficial to be the middle man between the client and the assistant, versus just a recruitment services.

That’s very clever. Where did you get these assistants to begin with?

College job boards. I started with assistants that were in the Philippines and India, and then moved to only US based assistants. I used job boards, and online communities for people looking to work at home.

Then after a while, this started to evolve. Walk me through what that looked like – what did you do next?

It’s hard to explain. I brought on my two co-founders about 6 months after I had started Zirtual, and we started really trying to understand the product offering and the market. We tried a bunch of different offerings and the ones that our clienteles were responding to the best is what we kept. Then when we brought on more and more clients, we started to expand. We pretty much built it from the ground up, versus coming in with a business plan or something. It was as simple as selling one plan, and then another, and as we started hitting different levels of critical mass we would get to a point where we would be like, “Oh, crap! We need someone managing all of these assistants!” And then we were like, “Oh, crap! We need to have someone managing all of these managers!” Or, “We need to have a payroll system!” Or, “We need to have insurance for X, Y, and Z!” It was just one of those things where it really naturally flourished. We were just trying to keep our heads above water for so long, and then one day we looked up and we saw that it was actually a pretty big business. It was literally just one thing after another, like dominoes.

That’s awesome! Can you tell my readers what kind of ideas you tried that didn’t work, or how did you know they were not working?

We knew they were not working when the clients were either unhappy or if nobody bought it. Some things we tried to do were to have a virtual assistant that helped you with online dating. That was a disaster! We tried offering unlimited models, like “all you can eat.” That wasn’t great because a few people would abuse the system, and it would drive the assistants away. So that wasn’t a good model. We tried being really loosey-goosey about a lot of things, and only reform them once people were on the verge of rioting. But in the beginning, it was really open. We just threw stuff at the wall and saw what stuck. A lot of what we did was use myself as our test client. I’ve been using virtual assistants for years now, and I’m a pretty heavy delegator myself. So if I liked it, it was a good guess that other people would like it too.

At this point in time, when you were trying all these different ideas on how to package this, were you guys working on it full time or not quite?

Yeah, I was working on it full time from pretty much the day it started. I had saved away a little bit of money from some different online businesses I had done through college and right after college. I used that to fund my very meager lifestyle in San Francisco while I was getting Zirtual started. Then the great part about selling an actual product is that we started making money from day one. Granted, it was very little money, but we still made money. That helped us barely make it to the next day, and eventually it got big enough for us to expand. For the most part, we just took any profits we made and reinvested them and brought more people into the business.

Why do people go to Zirtual? Like, why can’t you just go to oDesk or some other place?

The big difference is that oDesk is a big job board where there is no quality control. With us, we provide a relationship not only with the assistant but also with the company. It gives you a trusted user, a trusted assistant, and it allows you to develop a relationship with your Zirtual assistant without there being this fear of, “What’s going to happen with someone I randomly found Craigslist or oDesk?” We have a really thorough vetting and hiring process that allows us to only hire the very best. We get thousands and thousands of applications, and only hire a small fraction of those people, who then go through a strenuous training to really make sure that these are the absolute best people for our client’s needs.

So these virtual assistants who are on Zirtual, what kind of tasks do they do?

They do anything from scheduling, research, reservations, basic customer support if you have a really small business or start up, they can do travel planning, they can help arrange your wedding, they can do a variety of things. Anything an executive assistant could do in an office, we can pretty much do. Even if it’s something in person, we have partnerships with companies like Exec or TaskRabbit that will do that for you.

At this point, I think a lot of folks have read books like The Four Hour Work Week and understand the theory behind this, which sounds awesome, but I think a lot of people have this mental block of, “Oh my gosh, do I trust this person enough to enter my life?” What would you say to someone that is considering doing this? How do you start?

We start with baby steps, we get people in the door and we’re like, “Okay, send off a few tasks that aren’t pertinent. See how those go!” Then maybe send something a little more important, and then maybe, “Do X, Y, and Z.” Then maybe share your passwords, share your credit cards, let them manage your calendar. It’s just a series of steps that allows the client to get more comfortable with the brand and more comfortable with the assistant.

Do you guys do criminal background checks as well?

Yes, we do criminal background checks, both state and national. We have social verification background checks which is pretty new, it allows us to see if people are lying about anything within their application process based on their social graph, and checking a few different cues.

Check back next week to learn more about how a Zirtual Assistant can benefit you!

Image from twitter.com

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