Hiring VAs For Your E-Commerce Business – Part 2

 In e-commerce, HR, Workforce

In one of my previous posts, I explained how scaling a business successfully requires you to build each layer of the business properly, from the ground up, so that you can get to the tip of the skyscraper without having the foundation collapse under the strain.

The same mindset needs to be applied in hiring and managing your workforce, whether online VA’s, or employees who will be sitting in your physical office. Small things that you do or do not do in the beginning of your employee’s tenure will affect how your employee behaves or reacts down the line. So if you want to nurture employees who stay loyal and hardworking for the long run, you need to start with your first interaction.

You also need to understand that investing your efforts correctly at the beginning will result in less attention and energy required from you later on. If you don’t pay attention to detail when hiring your VA’s, you will have a ton of problems down the line: VA’s disappearing in the middle of jobs; VA’s wanting more money and not performing if you don’t concede; VA’s telling you what needs to be done instead of the other way around (in some circumstances this is necessary, but you don’t want them getting ideas that they know how to run your business better than you); etc.

“Hire character. Train Skill.” – Peter Schutz

In all my years scouting talent, hiring people, and nurturing employees, I came to the conclusion that character is more important than skill. That’s not to say that you should hire good hearted people that have no skill. Not at all! You need to hire the most talented people for your budget. That being said, building a team means you will be dealing with many different kinds of people, and they will need to work together as well. Hire one problematic person, and not only will they cause you headaches down the line, but they will disrupt the work of the other employees they interact with as well, potentially causing you more damage than they are worth.

The Job Listing

Your goal at the end of the day is to get the best talent for the lowest budget. So even your job listing has to be designed to achieve that goal.

Your job listing needs to make it clear that this is a short term project, which if completed to a satisfactory standard, will result in the VA receiving a full time, long term job. This accomplishes the following:
– Those only looking for long term jobs will be interested; put “I don’t know yet” for job length, or something in between depending on the job portal
– Your potential VA will already be thinking of the long term benefits; they will more easily accept the terms of this short term project because they understand it is a paid trial of sorts
– Whoever is hired will have to perform an excellent job if they want the reward of long term employment

Explain what the job is, and explain how they will be used in the long term. Be honest. You should also write “preference for those who have experience in e-commerce or working with physical products”. That way your potential VA already knows what you are looking for, and their initial contact letter will reflect their abilities relating to your needs.

The more information you give (without being too much longer than 10 lines – don’t make an essay out of it), the more information you will receive before moving on to the next stage. Write what you need done, and in how much time you need it to be done. But don’t be too strict.

Don’t put the salary you wish to pay! Not many will reach out to you if you write how much you are paying in the beginning. There is a process to get them to accept and be happy with your offer.

The Interview & The Test

Assuming you did your job properly, wait for at least 10-15 replies within 24 hours. More is better. You will get some “me no speak englis but me work very good bos”, and usually a significant percentage do not even read your job listing, rather sending their own templates to every job that is posted. Don’t get annoyed, it’s just the first step.

Reply to each and every one of them (except the really bad ones) with another short, detailed description of the job, and ask them the following 2 things:
1. How long will this job take them?
2. How much are they charging?

Pick the most promising of the replies (try go for at least 5 candidates) and do a Skype interview with each – it doesn’t matter whether it is voice or video, but if you aren’t as astute in catching a person’s character traits by voice, go with video. Most of them will automatically have video on, but you don’t have to reciprocate. Go with what you prefer. Also, don’t pay too much attention to their asking rate – most VAs are used to being haggled down, so they throw a number that is higher than what they are prepared to work for. More important is how fast they can get the job done without sacrificing quality.

In the interview, I usually ask them to tell me a bit about themselves, then ask them to tell me about their experience (focus on the relevant experience of course) and then I cut straight to the chase. This is where you need to pitch them your business, your future growth, and the importance of this project. Tell them that you are a new business with no income, and you simply cannot afford to pay more than x amount (go by my last post). Tell them that if you could, you would. Sell them the dream of you succeeding in a few months hopefully thanks to their assistance, and that they will be rewarded with higher salary, and whatnot – as soon as you succeed, they will too.

It’s not enough to just BS your way through it though… you have to truly sound genuine and inspire confidence. Make them love you and your soon to succeed business, and make them feel like they will be an integral part of this success! If they believe it, they will be more inclined to believe that you will reward them when the time comes. I’m sure that most people make them big empty promises – but if you show them your vulnerability up front (new biz, no money), they will see you as a human being and not some asshole who might not pay them.

Their biggest fear by the way is NOT BEING PAID, not earning less from you for the time being! If they understand that you pay X amount because that is what you can guarantee them, they will take confidence in the fact that you aren’t promising them a high salary with the intention of disappearing and not paying.

In order to go full circle and make this as genuine and convincing as possible, you need to make them understand that you are going to the ends of the earth to find the perfect candidate, for this candidate is the one that will be with you for the long term; the one who will grow with you; the one that will have a chance for a better future.

This means that before being hired, they have to pass a test. And let them know that there are other great candidates who are also going through the test, but that you really hope the one you are talking to will be the one who succeeds. Be careful to balance your words, as you want them to feel like they have a bond with you, but they need to understand that this is business and they need to perform superbly in any case in order to get the job.

For a potential designer: ask them to Photoshop one product thumbnail in the theme of your niche, or pay them $5 to create an ad creative or logo. Spending a bit of money to find the right designer is definitely worth it at the very beginning! Try your luck, you might not have to pay some people, but others might value themselves too much to accept such a deal. At the very least, they will do their best and you can then use their creative which you paid a good price for.

For a potential content writer: explain your store’s niche, or audience, or the type of products you will sell. Show them your store, and tell them to pick one product and create a 150-200 word description. Tell them to research the niche first and give them resources (if it is a niche store) and answer their questions. They know they are competing, so they must do their best. You can get this one description for free – as long as they get the project afterwards, they won’t mind and this will be priced in anyways.

For other VAs, it might be more difficult to create a trial, so you may skip this step and go straight to the hiring process after the interview. Be creative though – this is crucial experience that will help you as your business grows. Make sure that anyone who will be working in Shopify actually knows how to get around in Shopify – they can share their screen and show you. Making prospective employees pass a trial or test makes them more motivated to get the job.

Hiring Process

Once you have filtered the best candidate (or two if you have a lot of work), congratulate them and welcome them on board. Make them feel special and tell them that you expect them to be with you for a long time! Reiterate the fact that you can only pay so much right now, and that you are confident you will succeed – and that once that happens, you will reward them accordingly.

Personal note: I actually do keep my word to my employees. I believe in karma and when I find a great employee, I truly want to develop them so that they will be useful far into the future. Loyalty is not easily bought. It takes time and proof for someone to be loyal to you. Sell them the dream to buy temporary loyalty, and when you succeed, upgrade their equipment and stats to get permanent loyalty. Life is like an RPG somehow, and your accompanying characters are there to boost you and your mission.

From the first call announcing the good news, you have to set the rules in stone.
First of all: www.timedoctor.com
“Sorry, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but my accountant informed me that in order to be tax compliant, I have to receive invoices from you and I have to prove that you worked for me, which means we have to use Time Doctor as this is the proof.”

You cannot come to a VA who has been working unmonitored and suddenly ask them to install Time Doctor. This will only breed resentment, no matter how you spin it. It has to be done before they sign on the dotted line, and they have to understand you are a nice guy but you are simply following the laws, and nothing can be done about it.

I set the screenshot frequency to as high as possible (desktop – not webcam) and at the end of every working day I make sure they aren’t sitting on youtube or just moving the mouse around. Some will try – you have to catch it immediately, and call them and say “Are you ok? I noticed xxxxx.” – let them feel awkward, but don’t attack them. Aggression will only be met by defensiveness. It’s enough that they know you are watching, and that you do not let it slide. They will be more careful following. Any time spent not working has to be deducted from the salary (if paid by hour).

Also, reiterate the fact that this is a trial – because if they don’t contribute to your success, you won’t be in any position to offer a job for the long term. If they give their all on this project and your business succeeds, the long term, full time prize will be theirs, with plenty of growth to follow. Be consistent with what your job listing said, and with what you told them in their interview. Consistency will keep their minds from wandering into dark places.

Payment + Salary

Understand that the salary you close with your VA at time of hiring will need to be padded in order to keep them engaged and happy for the long term. This is why you need to start as low as possible. Even if you pay $10 an hour, eventually they will not be happy with that amount, and will start working less efficiently in order to rack up hours. From experience, I’ve found that raising the salary is less effective than paying bonuses – they will get used to the new salary as well.

On the flip side, you have to be very careful when paying bonuses. Don’t do the mistake I once made, where I offered to pay double the hourly rate if the job is completed within a certain time frame. Motivation will drop immediately following that job if the payment drops back to the old hourly rate again – and the employee will wait for you to make another double rate offer. Who will blink first?

Also don’t pay bonuses from the beginning – were you lying about only being able to pay a certain amount during the interview and hire?

With time, and with the help of our trusty Time Doctor, you will understand how long a certain job or task will take your most important VAs, and you will be able to calculate how much a certain job would cost based on the hours worked and their current salary.

When you are at that point, start paying per project!
This applies more to your important VAs, such as your designer, coder, top content writer. Not so much to the VAs doing menial jobs.

I’ve nurtured my VAs into loyal and trustworthy employees, so I trust them enough to ask how much they want for a certain project with a deadline that I set. I understand that very often this will require them working long hours and during weekends to achieve the deadline, but there is a happy ending: if they make the deadline, I pay 20%-50% bonus. If not, they get what they asked for. Win/win. No forced labor here! However, they understand that reaching the deadline includes everything done to detail with my final approval.

Very often the deadline is kind of met, but there are things I need changed or fixed, and it may take 2-3 more days of work. I pay them the bonus regardless. Reward good work. What’s most important is that they did their best, in good faith. And keep in mind that time is money – the faster they complete a job to perfection, the sooner you can make returns on it.

Another VERY important note: ALWAYS PAY YOUR EMPLOYEES ON TIME!!!!

There is no easier way to lose trust than not paying on time. Yes, in the ecommerce business it is easy to have liquidity issues if you are inexperienced – if that happens, you have to inform them THE MOMENT you realise there might be an issue paying them. If you sort out your liquidity issues on time, your VA will be happy to be paid on time and will really appreciate your straightforwardness and honesty. If you don’t sort it out on time, make sure to add a bonus for the delay. If you know it will be 4-5 days till money comes in from Paypal, and your bank account is empty, tell them immediately and tell them its ok if they stop working till you can pay them. 9 times out of 10 they will happily keep working because you are honest and you have built trust and loyalty.

In terms of payment, I don’t think I’ve ever paid through any of the portals. Your VA will probably prefer a direct payment as well, so they won’t have to incur fees (many applicants will send you messages saying they accept paying the fees when you post the job listing – another positive point for you in their eyes). I pay via Paypal, Payoneer or direct bank transfer, showing them a screenshot of the bank transfer. But before that they need to send an invoice. This is for tax purposes – consult your accountant, they will tell you the same.

Cultivating A Manager

I guess by now you may see a common theme in my posts – build a skyscraper of a business efficiently by making sure every layer is set properly. Invest the effort in everything you do, so that you have a business that runs smoothly and you are able to focus your energy on bigger and better things.

This means that eventually you will need a manager to manage your growing number of VAs.

You need to start searching for that manager from day 1, even if you may only assign the manager to his/her position after 3 months or more. Choose a VA that has the right character attributes, for example:
– not overly friendly but approachable
– 100% loyal to you, your business, and the growth and success of the business
– talented and hungry, but lacking understanding on how this world works and how to move ahead on their own
– committed to delivering what you desire

Your manager has to be the gatekeeper that everyone fears, whereas you are the angel who feeds their families. Large corporations are run in the same way. Employees should love their job, senior management and the company – their direct manager is the one that usually takes all the hate, while employees don’t understand that their manager is simply following orders from the smiling superiors above. You don’t have to run your ship like a big cold corporation, but you need to understand the different purposes your managers will fulfill down the line as your company grows.

Keep an eye on those you feel have the potential, and tell them that they might receive the opportunity with time, as your company grows, and they keep proving themselves. This will motivate them, and you will truly need to promote in any case. If they don’t prove themselves, they won’t get the opportunity, but usually you will see better work from those who are pre-selected and informed of this possibility.

Once you have need for more than 5 VAs, you should promote one of your VAs to the job.
Raise their salary by around $1-$2 per hour, and pay a small percentage of the hourly salary for every hour worked by VAs managed directly by this manager. The more the team will grow, the more the manager will earn – so again, good work and the business’ success is key to getting a bigger paycheck!

Your manager will have to monitor Time Doctor for employees assigned under him/her, and give you a report at the end of each day detailing hours worked, tasks completed, and progress of the specific job/project. Your manager will also be required to keep employees in line, and working hard.

Your manager should also understand the job flow for each of the VAs he/she is managing. Train them, and make a conference call with each VA and your manager, where your VA will walk through what they do via shared screen on Skype. Just like you, your manager cannot manage properly without knowing the process.

You should also reward your manager with more than a few more dollars and a bit of authority – let them off the hook with Time Doctor if they are still using it. When paying your designer/coder/content writer/etc per project, you will stop needing it. For the beginning of your VAs tenure, or any VA that is still paid per hour, Time Doctor is essential, so keep using it.
Speak about more personal things with your manager, while making sure not to lose all professionalism. You are still their boss. But they should have closer access to you than the other VAs – this will give them the FEELING that they are growing with the company, more than any pay raise can.

It is an old secret that you should never promote the most talented person to the top job. They are usually not satisfied with what they have and will always want more, and they are worth more doing what they were hired for. That being said, the person who wants to move up within the safe confines of your ship and has the management characteristics I detailed above, is the most suited to be the first mate.

There is so much more I could write on this topic, but it seems that part 2 has grown to be quite a long post, just like its predecessor.
I will just say one more thing: your employees, or VAs, are your business’ assets! They are not money, or depreciating assets like furniture and equipment – they are an appreciating asset, that can be nurtured into something that gives much more value to your business with time. They are also human beings – it’s not always so much about how much return they give you now, but how much they can give you in the long run. Help them develop their skills, and train them to do more. As your business grows, it will have more varying and complex needs.

Giving a trusted VA the opportunity to diversify their work day will keep them engaged, happy, and they will feel that they are growing together with your company, just as you promised in your first conversation with them. See? It all comes full circle. Plan your words and actions carefully from day 1, because being able to tell your employee or VA “see? I kept my word” months down the line is the next milestone in building a strong, loyal, hardworking team who will be behind you all the way  – eventually enabling you to automate the business without worry, and move on to the next big project, knowing your team will take care of it. 🙂

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