OWEN: My guest today is Vikram Rajan and he is the co-founder of phoneBlogger.net. Vikram, welcome to the show.
VIKRAM: Hey Owen, I’m looking forward to talking to you.
OWEN: Awesome. So what exactly does your company do and what big pain do you solve for your customers?
VIKRAM: Sure. So, phoneblogger.net is a word-of-mouth marketing service. We work predominantly with law firms but also with other practicing professionals. And the biggest hurdle for our clients is how to get new clients. And most of our clients get their new clients through word-of-mouth referrals, very often from other lawyers and from their networking and past clients. But it’s tough to stay top of mind with all of their referral relationships. Now, the simplest way to stay top of mind is through an email newsletter. But I was just way too busy running a practice, running a family to sit down and think of article ideas, and write those articles, and then publish it on their website, their blog, and optimize it to make it eye-catchy, search engine-friendly, and social media-friendly. And put all those blog articles and promote it through their social media like LinkedIn, and put it together into an email newsletter. So instead of our clients having to do that hours and hours each week, they just talk to us for a couple of minutes over the telephone where we brainstorm article ideas. And they answer frequently asked questions that we brainstorm. They’ve got bullet points in front of them. They talk to us for us 3 or 4 minutes right over the telephone, and we turn their words including their personality into optimized, edited blog articles. That with their approval we publish under their name on their blog, to their LinkedIn, and other oriented professional social media, and put it together into an email newsletter. So we call this process phone blogging at phoneblogger.net.
OWEN: Awesome. I like the way you actually describe the problem and the solution you provide. I love that. My listeners always want to get some context to where the business is and what you guys are doing revenue-wise. But before we talk about that how many full-time employees you currently have?
VIKRAM: So, I’m full-time with the company, I’m a co-founder at phoneblogger.net and I have a business partner, Mark Bullock who has an office. I have a home office. His office is in the suburbs of New York City, I live square in the middle of the scrapers here in Manhattan. And then we have about 9 to 10 stable freelancers, independent contractors who would do around 15-20 hours with us each week. So it’s a pretty sizeable operation that we’ve got going at phoneBlogger.
OWEN: Awesome. And what was last year’s revenue and what do you probably plan to generate this year, estimates on that.
VIKRAM: Sure. We were a little bit under 300k last year and we should definitely be over at 350k this coming year, if not way over that. We’ve got about 70 clients. You can kind of do the math. We’re pretty simple and small operation. But as we’ll talk about it I think even small companies can benefit from systematizing and documentation. And definitely as an owner and co-founder who likes to travel a lot with his wife, it gives me the flexibility, the mobility, and the freedom to not only enjoy life’s traveling but also be out there hitting the pavement, bringing in new business to the sales.
OWEN: So, the goal of this interview is to talk about how you systematize the business and which allows you to now be free and travel with your wife like you mentioned. But before you got to this point, there was a time where it was not so systematized and there was chaos. And so, let’s go back there. Let’s take the listener back in that journey. Can you describe what you think was so far the lowest point in the business and describe how bad it got?
VIKRAM: Well, we are a Google Apps company, so our email is Gmail but corporate Gmail. And I think the good thing about being at the lowest is that we had Google Search on our side. Because that was extremely important to find all the random contact and login information for our clients that were buried in district random emails. And nothing was organized. So everything took much longer than it needed to, things are falling to the cracks, we were missing deadlines. And ultimately we’re a publishing company. So for us to miss a deadline on behalf of a client kind of defeats the purpose of having someone handle your blogging, your social media, and email newsletter. Because if you wanted to be inconsistent you just be inconsistent by yourself. So, it was like stupid and silly, and obviously it’s not what we wanted to do for our clients, we were letting them down. But we started phoneblogger.net not out of some kind of a harebrained idea of let’s make some money out of this. It was actually a favor to our clients. So we wanted to do right for them from the beginning. At the start we didn’t really have a name for this. It wasn’t really to systematize processes as it is now. It was just simple concept. “Hey, talk to us over the telephone, we’ll audio record you and turn your words into an article. Approve it and we’ll run with it”, which is still what phone blogging is today. But it became chaos where when we start bringing on other people, I had I have to forward them email, they’d lose email. It was just a ridiculous environment, which I think a lot of companies can relate to, where their document management process is essentially a cluttered inbox.
OWEN: So, on one hand the first problem was keeping all these client’s information, usernames, and passwords, and not having an organized place to keep that information because you had to do work on their behalf. And then on other hand the other issue was– You mentioned this during the pre-interview how you guys had this idea but you didn’t even know how much involved it was going to be. And then on top of that, now you also had the issue of knowing that you had bring people on-board as well. So how do you bring people on-board when you’re still learning how to deliver the thing. So, I want to ask you a question. Do you remember specifically at that time when you realized the business had to be systematized? Talk about what specifically happened. And you’re just like, “No, I have to change this.”
VIKRAM: Well, countless examples really because whenever we needed user information like a login. We would login on behalf our clients into their LinkedIn, obviously with their approval or permission, and with them wanting us to do so with our service. But in the beginning it was just a favor to them. So we’d lose passwords and our clients barely use their own password.
OWEN: Sorry to cut you short, but when you said favor to them I want to understand what you mean? I’m a little confused.
VIKRAM: Yeah, meaning that we were their marketing consultant and we were advising them on a marketing strategy and helping them develop a marketing action plan.
VIKRAM: Since they were too busy to do it themselves we said, “Hey, why don’t we just handle the articles on your behalf?” And it was just something that we would do on the side, and we actually didn’t charge them anything extra in the beginning because we thought, how hard can it be? How complicated can it be? Well, it turns out literally and figuratively there are a lot of I’s to dot, a lot of T’s to cross, literally because we do the editing of their blog articles. Thankfully T’s come crossed when you type it. That was pretty much our whole system, hey, we’ll figure it out. And then it became an even greater challenge that you kind of alluded to was as you started bringing on other people… In the beginning, we had one associate, her name is Marta, she’s still with us, and she is a friend of one of our long-time client. So we felt she’s part of the family as we put it. And in the beginning we kind of threw her to the wolves in the sense that it was a side business.
OWEN: It was just jump and then do it.
VIKRAM: And we kind of figured it out, how hard could it be. And there’s a lot of little things. I think anyone who goes to the exercise of actively and actually documenting a process as a they can to your system will actually see that no matter how detailed you get you can get way more details. Because it’s not only knowing that somebody else can do something but it’s also the double-checking and the quality assurance of someone actually did do what they said they were going to do. So that checks and balances, and the accountability of people not only doing the task but recording that they did the task, and recording that they did the task well. And have somebody else checking that task to ensure that it got done well basically means that every one task actually have four meta tasks around it. And I’m just kind of making that up on the fly, but I just got to see that because, and I’m sure you know that from your expertise. But we see that all the time that it’s not only just the task, it’s the reporting of the task, the checking on the task, and the reporting of the checking of the task. And I’m sure there are other meta steps as well. So, when we started doing this process of documenting, even that, “Oh, how hard can it be?” And then it became more and more granular. And we’ve solved that in a variety of ways, maybe we could talk about it.
OWEN: Yes. So, now we’ve discussed kind of the problem that was going on at that point. So what was the very first thing you did to solve the problem. And I think during the pre-interview you mentioned the story of how you came into the idea of creating the solution for it. I want you to talk about the story as well. What happened, about you and your wife during your honeymoon. Share that story.
VIKRAM: Yeah, absolutely. So yesterday was our 3-year wedding anniversary.
VIKRAM: Thank you. So this was literally just about 3 years and a month ago so to speak because our honeymoon was a month after our wedding. And my concept was when I came back from the honeymoon I wanted phoneblogger.net to be my main brand since I was moving into Manhattan and I was recreating my network. It was a good opportunity for rebranding. Well, I turned to my wife and I said, “Look, I’m living in inbox chaos. We need at the very least a master checklist of all of our client information of all the little things that we need to gather from them. We need to keep it in one place.” And that has evolved into what we now call our master checklist. I had full intention of basically writing every little thing down on the long flight from New York to New Zealand where we had our honeymoon. While there are some great movies and I enjoy sleeping. So between the movies, sleeping, and everything, I did that. So [00:10:32] procrastination number one. And I said, “Look, as much as I’m on a honeymoon, I’ll have some down time while my wife is at the pool. I can sit down and write the checklist out.” I didn’t do that either. So it was actually, again, about 3 years to the day that we were driving in the south island of New Zealand going to the glaciers that they have in New Zealand, which is actually beautiful. And it’s a curvy, windy road so I had to pay attention. And I believe I’m driving on the opposite side of the road, I had to double-check that. I’m pretty sure it is because I remember kind of turning to the left, And after spending 10 days with my new bride we kind of ran out of things to say to each other, so it’s like, “What are we doing?” So we’re constantly talking about phoneBlogger and my business. And my wife offered, “Hey, you’ve been procrastinating about doing this checklist, how about I open up the iPad and you just start telling me all the little things that you do with a client when you bring them on?”, which is now our intake process. Funny that she asked that because if she were doing it over the telephone that would be very similar to the phoneBlogging process particularly on that offer. And it’s like great. So she opened up a very simple note taking app, it wasn’t anything sophisticated. And I just started dictating all the little things that we do. I’m like, great, when I call up a client I need to ask for this and this. And I we went into pretty much pretty granular detail. And she emails that to me. Then I kind of arranged that into a Google Document which is basically Microsoft Word on the internet. We later realized that it would probably be simpler to a spreadsheet, so we started using Google Sheets. And now it’s evolved into a Google Sheet that has about maybe a dozen tabs, like worksheets of Excel, so that each tab is a different thing and every client has that. And that’s basically our low-tech makeshift dashboard, where everything for a client is in one location. Now we don’t actually use Google Sheets right now as our project management tool in terms of the dynamic part of the process which is the article interviewing, editing, publishing and promotion. We use a different tool now called Smartsheet, before that we used Wrike. These are just project management tools to basically create a simple checklist and its communication tool among our associates as well so that we know that everything gets done and everyone could be accountable to one another so that the process moves along. And that was basically the beginning though.
OWEN: Yeah. During the pre-interview you mentioned how the master checklist actually allows clients to basically enter all the information about themselves and help to solve your administrative headaches. Talk about for a few minutes.
VIKRAM: Yeah. What I like about the Google sheets is that it’s co-editing, meaning it’s live, private. But you can logon to your master checklist, I can logon to the same document, and we could see each other’s type in real-time. So when I say “Great, Mr. Client, I’ll put in your LinkedIn username if you could literally just type it in right there.” Or if they’re just slower than what I prefer them to be I can I can ask them for it and I could type it in myself. Press enter and they see it instantly, magically. And it’s pretty cool. It wows them if they’re not familiar with Google Sheets. And also from efficient communication, they know I installed it right, etc. And those things mean a lot especially when we do what we do. One letter off and obviously the whole thing is a waste of time. So, it’s a lot simpler just to communicate to that type of a platform.
OWEN: Yeah. And so, the first thing you did back then was you and your wife talked about what you were doing. You created an intake process and then you turned it into a spreadsheet that basically your clients can actually enter their information. You had it all gathered in one place. And that was the starting point. But what was the very next thing you did to improve upon that as well?
VIKRAM: Then we had to actually start using it. At that point we only had about a dozen clients or maybe at most 20 clients. Now, we have over 70. So, we had to go back and actually create it. And we needed to really flesh it out, kind of as I said before. No matter how detailed you think you can get, there’s more detail to be created. And now we have different versions of checklist. Sometimes when we bring on a new associate in terms of training, sometimes it can be a little overwhelming to see all the little things right away. And also, even for clients it could be a little bit overwhelming for them. It’s sometimes good for them to know all the little things that we do. But sometimes a broad brush is preferable. So we have a launch checklist, for example all the things that we do during the first month. And with smartsheet you can collapse it like a tree. So you can kind of show the bulk items. And then each section we can open it up like an accordion and kind of see all the subtasks. We could hide the subtasks more out of aesthetics. So in terms of the very next thing we started creating all these other checklists. That all kind of integrate and match each other. And it’s ongoing process. We’re still not done, we just unveiled our second version of our Smartsheet checklist to actually make it simpler than it was. In some way who are actually getting too granular and too detailed in the checklist, some of it we’ll take it out and actually put into documentation that supported it. But it didn’t need to be so granular because it was kind of getting in the way of efficiency. So, detail for detail’s sake is not necessary, but I think it needs to be detailed enough with supporting documentation so that our associated can refer to it. But after a while they know what they’re doing. And we know that it got done, we can infer that to the process. So we’re trying to make it easy. In the beginning we created our checklist. Between me and Mark we would stay up until the wee hours and create these things. And it was a mistake. We probably should’ve involved Marta at that point and then our other associates into the checklist or documentation process.
OWEN: Awesome. So let’s dive right in and talk about the specifics about the system that you have in place that enables the business to run without you. And so, you already talked about how the master checklist is what clients see initially and it’s a static information. They enter it once so you have all the information that you need in order to get to their blog, their LinkedIn page, the social media, all the things you need to go in there and enter it once. And then you said there’s the different part which is the dynamic aspect of it. Let’s talk about that. What do you mean when you said during the pre-interview there’s a dynamic aspect of what you do?
VIKRAM: Sure. Well, the dynamic aspect is what I refer to when we use smartsheet. The dynamic aspect of what we do as oppose to static. Static means that the data is pretty much there and doesn’t really change, like login information for example. You’re not constantly changing your LinkedIn password. Now if you do change it you have to alert us, we have to update the master checklist. But literally on weekly basis and multiple times a week we are updating your smartsheet. Your smartsheet basically is a real-time checklist of where your article is in the process. Now, truth be told our clients don’t necessarily need real-time information and they’re not logging on to their smartsheet pretty much without us. However, they ever want to know on an hour or day basis where their article is in our checklist, we can tell them. Basically, multiple associates can be working on the same account or client, and potentially even on the same article. Because it goes through multiple levels of quality assurance and proofreading to make sure not only grammar, typo, but also some blogging best practices and SEO-oriented optimization is being done to the article. So, as different people touch that article they’re checking off different aspects of that checklist, and that’s per article. So some of our clients are doing two articles a month, some are doing 4 articles a month. So, we’re doing hundreds of articles a month at this point, which basically means smartsheet is being used throughout the day every day, and is constantly changing. And it’s a way for our associates to communicate with each other instead of randomly sending emails. It’s another thing that we’re trying to reduce is, A, the amount of emails between our associates as well as the amount of random or one-off emails between our associates. Because we’re not a random one-off company. Basically we are a repetition company. While the product literally is custom and different, it’s still a blog article, and it’s still a LinkedIn post, and it’s still an email newsletter. That doesn’t really change. So, we shouldn’t have any surprises in terms of, “Oh, I didn’t realize we needed an image for the article.” “Of course, we need an image for an article” “I didn’t realize we’re supposed to put the description.” “Of course, we’re supposed to.” So these are repetitive tasks. And even those rare one-offs, we want to build into the process where we can anticipate or even ask our client for these things before they have to tell us. For example if a client is doing a seminar next month, what we should be asking them? “Hey, by the way, are you doing any upcoming presentations?” Or they have new contacts that they need to enter into their LinkedIn or constant contact email newsletter platform. But we can preemptively ask them instead of us being surprised that they have new contacts for us. Even though that may not happen everytime we ought to ask and kind of automate certain processes in that sense. So that’s what I mean by that.
OWEN: So let me see if I can break it down a little bit for the listeners. So, when the interviews comes the audio recording gets triggered by your customer. How does that work? Let’s start from the audio recording coming in first.
VIKRAM: Sure. So the audio recording coming in, basically, we schedule the phone blogging calls with our clients. So it would be wonderful when the time comes when our clients use the phoneBlogger app and call us, and record on their own. The DIY, do-it-yourself model most clients don’t really do, none of our clients do, because they prefer it’s scheduled and we call them. So when we call them we click record at a certain time of the phone call. And once we clicked the recording then we send it to the transcription team. So, that’s beginning. Now, some of our clients don’t do audio recording. They’re pros at the process, they like writing where they have associates who right articles. So we call them phoneBlogger pro. And pro is a wonderful play on words, it’s a great ego stroke. But really the pro, it refers to the fact that they are providing just content and we are promoting the content on their behalf.
VIKRAM: There’s another PRO word in there which is proofing, it’s pro. So they promote a part and they provide, we proof and promote, and thus they are a pro at the process, which is another pro word. So phoneBlogger pro, we have to now create a checklist, or how did we get the content from them. Did they email us a draft?
VIKRAM: Or was it a telephone interview? Usually there are other ways, but those two main aspects we needed to know, there was an input, which is why we call the primary liaison a client editor, not an article editor anymore. We used to call them interviewing editors because we realized that some of our clients don’t need an interview. They really just need us to edit and optimize their draft article, which could be an email that they sent the client that they’re copying and pasting to us, removing any private, or sensitive information. If you ever write an email to a client and it’s longer than 2 or 3 paragraphs, most likely that’s a blog article in disguise. And we can optimize it and edit it into a marketing piece. So those are the things that we do at phoneBlogger. So we have to know that there are multiple ways. So, that gets triggered a section in this smartsheet. Every client gets one smartsheet and they’re just different parts to it. So it’s a repetition of the same set of tasks that are at this point is over 300 to 400 rows, which is a pretty long document. Thankfully we’re able to collapse it into sizeable chunks where it’s really 3, 4, or 5 sections that we can easily open up.
OWEN: So, the recording is done, the recording comes in, and that triggers the task for that very article for that particular client. And then at each stage there are different phases of tasks that you guys have to do. And at each stage the people who are responsible for their specific task now get triggered to start doing the work.
OWEN: They get notified so I get that. And then you also said within the system it allows your quality assurance editors to communicate with everyone is always involved in doing the article. Talk about that.
VIKRAM: Exactly. So the beauty of our smartsheet is that instead of random emails having to be sent or random questions having to be sent, ideally our associates are using the recording function of smartsheet which basically advocates or brings together multiple smartsheets into one to-do list. Basically meaning, let’s say you’re working on 5 different clients and you’re a social media promoter for us. For client one you have to promote this article on LinkedIn and Google+, for client two it’s going to be Facebook and Twitter, for client three it’s LinkedIn and Twitter, etc. And you have all these tasks to do for a client. Instead of you having to open up 5 different smartsheets you can create a report that automatically notifies you when different clients have tasks that you need to do. And that’s automatically triggered as one person does the next thing. So when they check off an item basically the next item is due. They set a due date for the next associate. So, basically, kind of like relay race you’re passing the baton. It’s pretty simple. And ultimately the article editor, more of the client editor is very much the quarterback. He or she is interfacing with the client so they know the totality of the process.
OWEN: Okay. And so, the client editor as you mentioned, they’re interfacing with the client and as well as making sure that everybody who’s responsible for their individual parts is moving along nicely. So that at the end of the day you can deliver the product. You also mentioned that one of the things you guys do is you have, every week you get on a phone with your team and have a Monday meeting. You actually called it Monday morning management meeting. Talk about that.
VIKRAM: Sure, aka The Vitals Call. The Vitals Call is truly vital to the process. It’s really the time that I’m able to go into each client and really know what’s happening. It has a couple of purposes. The metaphor that I use is imagine a doctor with cook board coming into a patient and he or she’s got a cook board and basically wants to get the vital signs of the patient. And with those few vital signs the doctor’s able to infer a whole number of issues, red flags, and diagnose issues, and hopefully preemptively prevent things. Likewise, I’m going in there kind of triaged to get those vital signs, notice any red flags, and solve anything preemptively, predict anything, etc. And basically, there are about 6 or 7 different things that we want to check for each client in terms of where the articles are in the process, different due dates, etc. And basically it’s just deletion of what our smartsheet shows. But for me to literally go into every client’s smartsheet and kind of see it will just take too much time. So instead we talk on the phone and it’s staggered. Not everyone needs to be on the phone call the whole time. But the editorial teams kind of stagger so that it’s really an interfacing between the client editor and the promotion professional, and it’s a conversation. And I’m in the midst of it, and we’re checking on vitals and making sure that every one of our clients are on-point, and there maybe issues that we need to resolve in terms of scheduling issues, or brainstorming new article ideas. And it really helps us improve our process, and really it’s geared toward client service, to make sure that we’re not just relying on documentation and manuals, rather it’s live communication. Because everything is so systematized and systematic, we can literally blast through over 70 clients in about an hour of time. And if we take even more detail on some issue, it’s max an hour and a half. We all have appointments usually at around 10:30, or sometimes even 10 am. So we are extremely disciplined on having a very quick efficient meeting. So it’s a Monday morning management meeting but it’s also a huddle to kind of get things done. And we know what needs to get going. And very little live communication by phone is needed. We can’t need in person because we’re a virtual company with associates around the country, and obviously there’s emails going back and forth. But vast majority of it is through smartsheet where it’s pretty systematic.
OWEN: Awesome. And so, you also mentioned that due to the nature of your business not everything can actually be codified into a checklist. So, you need room for creativity as well. So, talk about that. I wanted to dive into that a little but more.
VIKRAM: Yeah. I’m a checklist evangelist. So as much as we can codify that better, and even the creative process of writing and editing I feel has a process. Any professional process writer knows that he or she has to have some discipline and he can’t just be under his or her whim and fancy of, oh, they’ll just write whenever they feel like it. Reporters know they’re on deadline, authors are on contract. So you got to get your act together and you got to build in habits, routine, and inspirational techniques to get the job done. Because this is not just for fun, we’ve got deadline to do. So, even in the creative process of writing which is for us really editing we have a process. Now, the process are more guidelines, thumb rules, and mindset, but it is a way for me to seek help editors think it through in terms of how they’re shaping an article.
OWEN: So what I get from that is in situation where you cannot actually get them a step-by-step like GPS of what to do like a procedure, you’re basically coming up with a rule or decision making guideline that say, “For this very thing, because there’s some element of creativity that we cannot actually tell you step-by-step what to do. But use this guidelines as a way to make your own decisions.”
VIKRAM: Correct. Here’s a great way of putting it. It’s those guidelines that help govern the creative process so that we can be somewhat systematic and know that the end result is there. For example, every article…
OWEN: You beat me to the punch because I was about say, for example.
VIKRAM: Yeah. So for example. Every article goes through a quality assurance process to make sure that is optimized as possible. And what does that mean? To make it eye-catchy, to make it social media-friendly, SEO-friendly, to make sure that it’s powerful. Those things are making sure it has a punchy title, to make sure that has a very strong opening teaser, that the first sentence is optimized so that’s what shows up at the Google description for example. To make sure that the article is eye-catchy so it’s not long monolithic paragraphs. And that has bullet points, and a call to action at the end because it’s supposed to be a responsive article, meaning it elicits response, comments, or a sale. So there are literally 23 different things we can do to an article on our checklist. However, we can’t always do all 23 things to an article just by nature, by default, or by author preference, which is another aspect. Author voice preference or AVP is very important because we need the article to sound like the author, which is our client, not like us.
VIKRAM: So, if an article met all 23 guidelines then it would literally sound like a National Enquirer tabloid article. Or nowadays we’re familiar with the click-based articles of BuzzFeed, where it’d be like “The 23 Secret Ways to Do This” or “Seven ways to do this” or “You won’t believe the top 3 ways…” And not every lawyer wants to sound like that. Most lawyers don’t want to sound like that. We’re the ones kind of pushing the limit a little bit to help them be a little bit more sales-oriented or salesy to a little bit more BuzzFeed or Enquirer-oriented, but we have to make sure it’s not overboard. So we have to make sure it’s not so bold and flashy literally in the article with so many different colors and fonts, and exclamation marks, and all that stuff. That sometimes gets a little too much especially for a conservative professional. So our point is we have guidelines. So we made sure the checklist is there that these 23 things are addressed and considered. Meaning did you consider that we have 2 to 3 bold sentences in the article. Now, sometimes you just can’t or the client says I don’t want any bold. Well, we now know by checklist that at least bolding was considered and thus addressed. It doesn’t mean it was done, it was addressed or thought about. So that’s the guideline. So these are 23 guidelines if you will. Now, there’s something that we really do insist on but we can’t say it’s always going to be done, because it may not be necessary, it may not be wanted or warranted.
OWEN: Yeah. I want you to imagine your business like a conveyor belt where on one end is somebody who has the pain you describe, he’s not yet your customer. But on the other end is that person who has actually gone through your system and become your customer. And he’s out there raving about you telling all the attorneys about the service he’s using and literally helping you generate even more new customers. But there are different parts and systems working together behind the scenes to allow that transformation to happen. So I want to give the listener kind of like a quick overview of all the different parts of the business and what’s happening.
VIKRAM: Sure. There are about 5 different parts if you will which correspond really to the smartsheet. So very much we see our process like a conveyor belt. We basically look at us as a manufacturing company, we’re manufacturing blog articles. So, it does definitely go to the process. And it’s mass customized, which is kind of a Dell-customer type term or think of it like a tiny food menu or what Subway does to your sandwich. Imagine a Subway sandwich is basically a conveyor belt. There are guidelines. Not every sandwich is going to have all the veggies and all the different meats but you can mix and match. And at the end you get what you want. And it’s a custom sandwich through a systematic process. Similarly with us there are basically 5 main areas. One aspect is the content input as… Ask me about is either through recording or by email. The second area is what we call article editing, which has those guidelines that I talked about in terms of checklist. The third area is the client editing, which is making sure that the client is happy with the article and that they approve the article. So you call it the client approval process. Then the fourth it gets published onto their blog website. It has its own quality checks to make sure it came out properly when we publish the article, and add a copyright approved image, and optimize the heck out of everything. And then the fifth process is the promotion which is kind of maybe 5a and 5b, or 6 steps. The fifth is promoting it in social media, making sure it’s on the platform that our client prefers. It doesn’t need to be every platform but it changes. So want LinkedIn only, some want LinkedIn and Twitter, etc. And then the second aspect of promotion is the email newsletter. And again, that has its own process of all that little things that has to happen in the email newsletter, which comes out…
OWEN: We got disconnected for a second and we’re back. So you were talking about at the stage of the conveyor belt where you guys have delivered the content and now you’re doing the promotion part. Take it from there.
VIKRAM: So basically, the fifth part of our promotion which is the social media aspect. So then, we have a whole checklist to make sure that the right hashtags are being used on the different platforms and make sure that we’re attending to the right platforms per client. Part of the promotion is also the email newsletter. The email newsletter only happens once a month while we’re doing articles often every other week for our clients. So the first 5 parts [Unintelligible 00:36:25] for most of our clients, and the sixth part or 5b, depending on how you want to think of it happens once a month. Now, of course if the client is doing four articles a month we just have to compress it, rinse and repeat as necessary. Of course we’re just doing the whole 5 parts, and then 5b or 6 once a month as well. So, we just [Unintelligible 00:36:48] basically the five parts of our conveyor belt if you will.
OWEN: So you basically mentioned what’s happening behind the scene on the production part when you have a customer. I’m just curious. Are there any kind of systems you have in place to even attract the person who has this pain who has not even heard about you yet? So I’m basically trying to figure out if you have any engine for your marketing to get people in?
VIKRAM: Sure. We haven’t really entered so much into the world of marketing automation, which is a whole different world in terms of online marketing and email-based marketing in terms of marketing automation. Most of our clients come through our word of mouth referrals. The video on phoneBlogger.net begins with the question or the premise, what if every one of your clients brings you one more client, and essentially how your business can double continuously. That’s very often how we’re getting our client, through the word about referrals from our current client.
OWEN: Do you have anything in place for that to basically engineer that word of mouth referral?
VIKRAM: We do. We don’t have a paid incentive or an affiliate program in any formal sense of it. However, we have opportunities out there where we’re able to benefit others through their word of mouth. But with our clients, very much we do a lot of seminars a month. I do about at least 4 to 6 seminars a month, all of them where I’m invited by colleagues to present different associations. Different bar associations…
OWEN: So your clients invites you to come and present, and do like education to deliver a content.
VIKRAM: Every one of them are active in their own groups. So, that not only helps brand phoneBlogger, it helps attract new clients. And once they’re in the room it’s very simple for them to turn to their neighbor and say, “Hey, I use these guys, you should use them too.” Or when they’re literally introducing us to say, “Hey, phoneBlogger.net is great. You should use these guys.” And quite frankly there’s nothing better than a testimonial from a client live in the room. I don’t really have to say much to really sell myself. I just need to at that point educate, provide value, provide ways for them to even do it themselves. And the more I can say, “Hey, you could do it yourself. All you need is another hour or two a week. And here’s everything that you can do to do it yourself”. And invariably they’re saying, “Another hour or two a week, that’s ridiculous. I don’t know where that 25th hour in the day is going to come from.” And that’s why they become clients of ours.
OWEN: Yeah. I just wanted to connect the dots for the listeners. So now we’re basically taking them through your conveyor belt in the sense where you’re getting customers from your referrals. But the way you’re engineering the referrals is by having seminars with your customers so they can invite other people and get education-based marketing, and learn about. And oh, by the way, as the people are learning, obviously your customers are there to tell them, “They do actually deliver because we’re using them.” So that’s how you’re getting people in.
OWEN: When people will come in they’re going to go through your intake process as you mentioned earlier where it’s a static part of the process where get all the additional information that you need from them. And then after that it now gets on-boarded to the 5 different phases per each article that you mentioned. So now, you’re listening, you’ve gotten the entire funnel. Let’s move on to the next question. I’m curious. What challenges did you even experience when you initially tried to create systems for the business, and let’s talk about how you probably even solve them.
VIKRAM: Yeah, I kind of alluded it in the beginning. The number one mistake is we didn’t include or team, our associates in the process. Now, I don’t think our team could’ve created a process on their own, I think everyone’s kind of focused on what they’re doing. While they’re each building in their own way they don’t necessarily have… Can you hear me okay?
OWEN: I can hear you clearly. Go ahead.
VIKRAM: Great. I don’t think they have the totality or even the vision that I would want of what phoneBlogger.net should be, and can be, and ought to be for its clients from a marketing strategy perspective. So I think it was definitely healthy and helpful for Mark and I to sit down and write out the details. I just don’t know if we needed to have gone to such granular detail. We should’ve probably brought in Marta and the rest of our associates now into the process. And that’s what we did this time around. So, we were in a very long, private data beta and testing process. I think we did for maybe 6 or 7 months. Basically I got very antsy. My partner Mark is much more, he’s an IT technician so he’s used to doing QA bugs testing for software and other technology. So you’ve got that patience and that engineering mind because he’s an engineer by training. And while I believe in checking out the systems from a management science perspective, I’m extremely hotshot, and ready to go, and trigger-happy. This would’ve been unveiled 6 or 7 months ago but he kept, in my mind, what I call delaying it. But really he was testing it. And really what it was, was bringing in different team members for them to basically use this new version, and to tweak it, customize it, and adapt it to how they work. And as each person did that, we couldn’t take every suggestion or there would be a hodge podge, and by definition not have standards. But however, everyone was able to have an input and everyone was also able to have a sneak preview with it, which made them feel good and buy-in was necessary. So, we didn’t do it a personality, psychological manipulation perspective. You just get their buy-in. Because we wanted their input, we needed their input, we needed our system to be real and really reflect what they go through, what they go through with clients to make sure it’s flexible enough for all the client ridiculousness that get thrown at us. And to make sure that it’s truly streamlined, effective, and flexible, while at the same time systematic. We didn’t want it to be so rigid and Draconian where essentially people are just going to ignore it anyway and just get the job the done for the client. Our associates truly do help our clients and go overboard in a good way and take the initiative to help our clients in a variety of ways, which basically means they would kind of throw the checklist out the window and just do it, which obviously defeats the purpose. So, from aspect we needed the system to be flexible from that prospect.
OWEN: You also mentioned another challenge too was not everybody on the team was familiar with a lot of these project management systems that you have. Describe that challenge and maybe how you kind of solved it too.
VIKRAM: Yeah. On one aspect we have it where our associates don’t have MBA’s. But on the other hand I think it’s healthy because they can remove the BS jargon that MBA’s can kind of present. So while there’s a lot of useful insight, it can also be kind of a hindrance. But because they don’t have project management training in the truest sense of it, it became a situation where we had to create a system that was real and realistic. Which meant everything I just talked about. It has standards, it has a process but is also flexible, and realistic. So, it post a challenge in the sense that they’re not familiar with Gantt charts and project management, resource management. And for us, I think that’s almost healthier, because we weren’t surrounded by yes men and people who just talked in buzzwords and jargon, and basically BS the whole problem way…
OWEN: What I’m hearing from that is because not everyone of them were really into this initially it forced you guys to really figure out a way to make the use of your systems even simpler.
VIKRAM: Correct. It made it simple, and that’s a good way of looking at it. And it was real. And I think both are important. And because we weren’t trying to force anything on them we really wanted their input, I’m happier for that because it’s the healthier way of operating.
OWEN: Yeah, definitely. And so, one question I have now is you guys started creating systems and all that for the business. But, at that point, how did you know which systems or processes to first create for the business. What did you use as your yardstick to say, “Okay, this is where we need to start creating a system for now and this is what we need to create a system for next.” Do you understand my question? I’m trying to figure out how you went about it.
VIKRAM: It really became out of need for us.
VIKRAM: Because whenever we needed it we created the process. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t just this big strategy of systemizing for the sake of being…
OWEN: When it hurts you create a system.
VIKRAM: Yeah, when it hurts you create a system. When we realized we are delving into chaos, very similar to the New Zealand story of how the message came about. It was like, look, we’re in chaos, we need to do something about it. Right now for example with our training process. Our training process is a little bit chaotic right now, and my associates listen to this so that they’ll so [Unintelligible 00:46:31] a lot in chaos right now. And so, we are improving and we’re having more emphasis on creating a manual and creating a training system. And more than training, it’s really a learning system and accountability so that we know someone did learn it, and they have used it and that they, again, use it on a consistent basis, which will come back to smartsheet. But that training and learning process, I think it’s extremely important for us to do. Because as we’re growing we’re bringing on new associates. I think it’s great everyone helps each other. We also need a way for people to learn and to show that they’ve learned. And thus, use smartsheet, etc., that much more effectively and consistently.
OWEN: Yeah. So you’ve talked a lot about some of the tools you’re using. I’m just curious, precisely when it comes to actually documenting step by step how something should be done, what tools did you guys actually use besides smartsheet to actually manage the workflow of the task. What other tools you guys are using?
VIKRAM: As I mentioned it’s really the three that I’ve talked about. We started with Google Sheets, and then outgrew that, and started using a system called Wrike. That wasn’t as flexible and nimble as we wanted it to be. And so, we moved over to smartsheet which is essentially the project management system. So, we didn’t really use anything from a documentation perspective it was us writing everything out. And we just wrote it out in a spreadsheet checklist form.
OWEN: Okay. And so, you not only have created a kind of way which you’re guiding them on what the work they need to do next, and so on and so forth. But I’m also curious to know how do you track and verify the results that they end up delivering to your employees.
OWEN: Delivering to your customers, sorry.
VIKRAM: Yeah, that’s what I figured. It’s a QA process when within that conveyor belt analogy that you talked about are those subtasks where we are checking if the task was done. And that falls on to the QA process where we know the article editor was actually the person editing the article, I may have misspoke earlier, client editors, very often the person interviewing. There’s an article auditor who works on that article and then sends it over to the QA editor to proofread it and to make sure that all the quality checklist, blogging standards are taken care off. And then he or she sends it over to the article editor who interfaces with the client end. So because [Unintelligible 00:49:05] who inevitably is going to be reading that article with the client. So because it goes through three parts we’re able to have those checks and balances. For our proofreading is the double-checking to make sure everything got done properly from an article standpoint and likewise in a similar process with social media.
OWEN: You also mentioned also on top of that for every client they always have a publishing schedule as well. That way everything is on track to be delivered at the specific time. And so, now that the business runs without you, what will you say has been the longest time you’ve been away from it actually?
VIKRAM: The longest time that I’ve been away. Usually after about a week to 10 days of a vacation I get antsy. So I really do enjoy my business. And I think in terms of traveling, which my wife and I do quite a bit, more than quantity times quality of time. So we’re usually running off to some place that barely has internet connection, or somewhere around the world. So it began with the New Zealand honeymoon where we’re literally a 12-hour difference. And in the middle of nowhere taking a helicopter to a glacier, so there’s just no way for me to check in with the team. To the African Safari that we did this past January for about 2 weeks, and again we’re in the middle of nowhere. The guides had cell phones but I didn’t. So I had no idea or no way of checking in with the team. So, anywhere from like a week 10 days we’re usually taking a trip once every three months just to kind of get away from everything and I basically have no communication with my team at that point. But then my partner can do the vitals call because I think that’s obviously vital to what we do. But on a day-to-day basis, more than even the systemization and the documentation it’s really a team, it’s the people, it’s our associates. Because they care, because they want to do a good job, because they don’t want things to fall through the cracks and they do want to do right and great by the client. That’s when all these systems become important and are used and are improved. I think if it were just the systems we get the amount of enthusiasm that we get some of the fast food chains where they go into the motions and the passion, the enthusiasm, and the initiative. If it’s not there then the system is barely done. And if it were checked off we don’t know if it was done well, or even if it was done at all and [Unintelligible 00:51:52].
OWEN: I totally get that. And so how will you say the company has been transformed as a result of systematizing the business. And this is just basically you reflecting on back then and now?
VIKRAM: Yeah, and we’re able to grow to our level. We’re still tiny of course, and even this is the largest organization I’ve ever run. So, we’re able to grow to this level. I think everyone’s happier and enjoy the aspect of what they do more, which I think is ultimately the whole point of it, that our clients enjoy the process, everyone of our associates enjoy working with us. They’re freelancers so they have other responsibility in terms of other clients, as well as family responsibilities. So we’re not [Unintelligible 00:52:39] so we have to be an enjoyable process. So, I think enjoyment, fulfillment, and happiness, it’s ultimately what life is about. But also in terms of phoneBlogger, that’s really what we’re trying to provide for others, is convenience and productivity. So, I think that’s really what we’ve gained internally and we’ve gained thus for our clients. And it enabled us to grow without letting our clients down.
OWEN: Yeah. And with all these free time that you have I’m curious, what areas of the business you now focus more attention on and why?
VIKRAM: Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have free time, it’s utilized time. [Unintelligible 00:53:19] but I am essentially meeting with potential clients all day long. So I’m the sales professional of the company. I may not always be that person, and I may not always be the only person, but I’m very much the dominant sales professional for our company. And Mark also helps bringing clients as well. But because he does a lot of operational work and a lot of other client work so I’m out there driving pavement all day long.
OWEN: Yeah. And there’s nothing wrong with that because that’s a high value use of your time, bringing people in. But now you can really focus on bringing as many people in as possible because you already have a production engine that is working. So either way, it’s still a great place to be.
VIKRAM: I enjoy it.
OWEN: Yeah. And so, what will you say is the very next step that someone who is listening to this entire interview up to this point should do in order to get started transforming their business so that it can actually run without them.
VIKRAM: They can go to New Zealand and call my wife, because that’s really what transformed phoneBlogger. And I’m sure my wife would like another free trip to New Zealand. But outside of that maybe they can grab their own spouse and run-off. But taking a vacation from the business I think is one of those awesome things to do for a variety of uses. It really shows the cracks in the system. And if you have no system and you’re not able to take a vacation that’s the first telltale. But honestly it is doing that grunt work, either on SweetProcess, or taking a pad and pen. But they have to sit down. And the hardest thing to do is that solo flight of writing everything down. So it’s nice to do it with someone else. While I joke and I say I did it with my wife, truthfully that was very important to do it with someone else. I think if I had done it on my own I would’ve missed things, and it would just be a tedious task to sit down and write every little detail. And you just kind of forget it. So bring your team, or imagine you’re bringing on someone and you’re creating a process. You’re not going to get it right and you’re not going to get it complete the first time. So going knowing that and say, “Look, this is an iterative process where you’re basically looking to continuously improve it.” And you got to start somewhere. You’re not going to run the marathon right away. Get on the treadmill and do it for a little bit. So, that’s really what I would suggest.
OWEN: Yeah. And so, what books will you say have influenced this style of thinking that you have? What books will you say have influenced you the most and why?
VIKRAM: So my father who is a management consultant [Unintelligible 00:56:00] and got more degrees than a thermometer, he introduced me early on in my career to the E-Myth by Michael Gerber.
VIKRAM: And I’m sure you know the E-Myth, I would highly suggest everyone really read the E-Myth. It really changed the mindset of looking at a business as a system. And I think that’s extremely important to really understand. Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, and Cashflow Quadrant by Kiyosaki to understand the difference between being self-employed and creating a company or small business that creates passive income also helped shape my thinking. The Checklist Manifesto is also great.
OWEN: Atul Gawande, I love that book.
VIKRAM: Awesome. So getting the [Unintelligible 00:56:45] so that’s a great book to understand, again from a very real health care perspective, how checklists are used and enable to create quality results. Between those 3 authors, tremendously influenced, but definitely Kiyosaki and Gerber has his own world of management science thinking. That’s a great place to get started in these concepts.
OWEN: Yeah. Thanks for that list. And so, is there a question that you were wishing that I asked during the interview and for one reason or the other I didn’t ask you? So if so, post the question and the answer.
VIKRAM: We covered a lot. So, I can’t really think of another question that I would almost ask the listeners if they have a question. We run a fairly transparent company. Purposely we teach people what we do and how we do it, especially clients and potential clients. So, the only other questions is, “So, how can I get started with phoneBlogger.net?” And of course I’d welcome someone who is interested and intrigued of how they could be more systematic with their word of mouth marketing enabled by the internet.
OWEN: Awesome. And so, what will you say is the best way for the listener to connect with your and thank you for doing the interview?
VIKRAM: Sure. Email email@example.com, that’s probably the simplest way to connect with me. You can look up my full name Vikram Rajan. On LinkedIn, and they can @ me on Twitter if they’d like, but email’s the simplest.
OWEN: Awesome. So now, I’m talking to you the listener who’s been listening all the way to this point. If you’ve enjoyed this interview I want you to leave us a positive review on iTunes. To do so go to sweetprocess.com/iTunes. The reason is when you leave positive reviews about this podcast other entrepreneurs will read it, “Why did you leave such a good review?” and check it out. And by checking out SweetProcess, the podcast, we get more listeners and more eyeballs checking us out. And the more we inspire to go out there to get entrepreneurs like Vikram to come on here and talk about how they’ve been able to systematize their business and you get to go behind the scenes and learn ideas that you can actually implement in your business. If you found it useful, also make sure to share this interview with another entrepreneurs. And finally, if you are at that stage in your business where you’re tired of being the bottleneck and want to get everything out of your head so your employees know step-by-step what you know and deliver the results that you want, well signup for a free 14-day trial of SweetProcess. Hey Vikram, thanks for doing the interview.
VIKRAM: Thank you Owen, this was a pretty sweet process.
OWEN: We’re done.
VIKRAM: All right.