You will discover how she went from working 16 hours per day to taking multiple vacations per year, and how she created a fair working environment for her employees, how she keeps her employees happy, and much more.
OWEN: My guest today is Sandra Yeow and she is the managing director and founder of Nucleo Consulting. Sandra, welcome to the show.
SANDRA: Hi everyone.
OWEN: Sandra, this show is all about getting entrepreneurs like yourself who have been able to systematize and automate the business so that it actually runs in your case without you. Just so our listeners can stay all the way to the end of the interview I want you to reveal to them now what are some mind blowing results that you now experience as a result of going through that process of systematizing and automating your own business?
SANDRA: Okay. The biggest thing I got back was actually to be able to pull myself out from daily operations. And there are certain things that I don’t have to be worried and fearful that get overlooked when I’m not around. That actually gave me peace of mind. And just for the record I just came back from a big holiday in Japan and nothing is broken, so I think that is the best part of putting in systems.
OWEN: That’s awesome. How will you say your company has been transformed as a result of systematizing your business?
SANDRA: Coming from a small business whereby everything was done manually at the start we were able to create a lot more efficiency. For example a lot of time was taken for expenses and now the guys are just entering into their own Cloud system using an app. And they are just taking a photo of the receipt. Before we had the system it was all glue, paper, spreadsheet, and expenses were paid at the end of the month. So things are a lot easier now and it brings a lot of productivity to the team.
OWEN: How has your personal life been transformed as a result of systematizing your business?
SANDRA: When the business started I was working 16 hours a day it’s just running the business. With the system I get a lot more work-life balance and I don’t really have to work 8 hours a day anymore. I generally work about four. As for my team they can actually go on holiday without having to worry about who’s taking over the support tickets, if client’s are calling them and screaming at them because they missed out something. And I look at the system when they’re on leave.
OWEN: We only have 24 hours a day. You were working 16 hours a day. How did you feel back then to be working that much?
SANDRA: It was tiring. I was totally burned out. In fact I was going on an anniversary trip with my husband and I was literally sleeping throughout the entire trip and I was really that tired.
OWEN: Since you have systems in place that allows the business to run without you I’m wondering what will you say so far has been the longest time you’ve actually been away from it and not having to do anything with it?
SANDRA: It was about three to four weeks and everything was running and I could to almost a month off.
OWEN: That’s nice. You mentioned during the pre-interview that now you work only four hours a day. And you mentioned something about your dance partner, because I think you dance professionally. Your dance partner was mad at you for taking vacations that much. What was it about?
SANDRA: I’m still doing competitive Latin dancing I actually do it in my free-time and I enjoy my life a lot more right now. On days whereby I have sales meetings I just arrange on days that are available. My dance partner was Nicholas was actually complaining that I actually took vacations seven times in a year.
OWEN: He’s complaining that you took too many vacations. Why?
SANDRA: That’s right. Because it’s affecting my dancing as well, so it’s kind of getting overwhelmed because I wasn’t aware that I was taking that many vacations in a year. And he was counting and making noise about how I’ve been away because I’ve been going on holidays that many times a year.
OWEN: It’s messing up his own schedule for competitive dance because you’re taking so many vacations. Just so we can give the listeners context as to what you guys do, what exactly does your company do and what big pain do you solve for your customers?
SANDRA: We are actually an IT consulting firm so we help our customers with systems and we try to make their business more productive. Of course we have to do what we preach as well. But the funniest thing is that you’re always helping others but when you look at your business it’s always the lowest priority.
OWEN: It’s like the cobbler’s children syndrome where the cobbler is fixing people’s shoes but his children doesn’t have shoes because he didn’t have time to fix their shoes.
SANDRA: Yeah, that’s right.
OWEN: How many full-time employees do you have?
SANDRA: We have two remote staff and eight local staff in Singapore, and we’re still looking at expanding.
OWEN: That’s awesome. Is the company profitable? What was last year’s annual revenue and what do you expect to do this year?
SANDRA: Of course our company is profitable. If not we wouldn’t be looking at expanding. For last year’s revenue we were hitting 1.2 million.
SANDRA: Thank you very much. And we are really hoping that this year we can hit two million.
OWEN: That’s awesome. We’ve talked about what you enjoy now because the business is systematizing and actually runs without you. And I wanted to go back to when it wasn’t like this. Take us back to when the business was not systematized and automated like it is now. What was wrong with it? Let’s dive into this a little bit more.
SANDRA: Back then as a startup it was a huge investments course to invest in systems. Most startups probably wouldn’t see the value in it, but not having it actually started causing a lot of business risk. Eventually it was about two years after we started out that I started realizing that we actually really need a system because there were just too many risk for us as a business owner.
OWEN: Can you shed some light on what those risks were so that it’s more concrete to the listener. I’m just curious.
SANDRA: It’s more like legal issues and compliance. Again, all these things we’re actually doing it for our clients because some of them are pretty high profile. We kind of have to meet their compliance with [Unintelligible 00:06:43] as well.
OWEN: Is it like there are some specific industries that have these compliance requirements and stuff like that? I’m just curious.
SANDRA: Yeah. They started dealing with banking industries. So in a banking sector you’re just a lot more particular with all these compliance requirements. We actually did lose a few customers because we were not able to meet their requirements and we don’t have documentation or helpful sources, change requirement, and history in place. That took me back and made me realize that we would not just deliver small clients anymore but bigger clients are actually demanding all this from us as well. In order for us to grow further we had to take a step to systemize.
OWEN: During the pre-interview you even shared some more details about how losing a big customer was kind of a breaking point for you. Can you talk about the specifics about that story of the customer and what happened?
SANDRA: There was a pain in my heart. That particular customer was a lot of pride for me because that was the first customer I had and we saw them grow from five employees to 35. They were growing so fast, faster than we were, and they were getting clients from the banking industry and they had really, really tight compliance. We were not ready back then. We couldn’t put in a system fast enough to meet their requirement. We ended up hindering their business and eventually we mutually decided to terminate the contract. After that I realized that it might look like they’re just a small company, like 35 users but looking at us we have clients of high profile so there will be a day that they will come to us and say, “Hey, we need you to be in compliance. I see it as inevitable that we would need to systemize one day.
OWEN: Okay. What was exactly the first step you took to systematize the business?
SANDRA: It was the accounting system, because that was something that was quite dangerous for us because we had to meet the tax regulations and we actually missed a few submissions and we were given penalties. That was the very first thing that I looked at. And not just that, we were missing payments from our clients and my admin person couldn’t get a clear vision of all the outstanding payments and the problem checking. That was the very first thing that I looked at.
OWEN: Okay, so the accounting system. The second step you took to systematize the business, what was that?
SANDRA: It’s actually our CRM system and that actually chained up all the process in our whole company. Because we were expanding overseas and we needed a system to allow people to operate remotely and because we need to help our clients remotely. Having a good tracking in place so that our engineers will not miss out any of the support request is actually quite critical.
OWEN: When you say chain up all the processes can you explain what you mean when you say that?
SANDRA: Right from the start quotation process is done by our sales person in Singapore. But when it comes to the ticketing whereby there is support request coming in from clients it’s actually done by my staff in Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore all operating remotely. So we need a Cloud system that actually allows everyone to have a clear vision and be on the same platform.
OWEN: Basically all the different things that each individual person is contributing to a task for a client this tool was able to bring everything altogether. And so regardless of where you are you can see for this very client what you’re doing versus what other person in the team is doing. You get a big picture of what’s going on.
OWEN: What are the steps did you take to systematize the business back then? During the pre-interview you mentioned something about HR system. Talk about that.
SANDRA: I actually like to provide fair employment to my staff. In order for us to justify and I like to share our company profit, I need to make sure that everyone has a KPI. We need to set some targets and things like that for everyone. Putting in the HR system actually helped to create fairness in the company.
OWEN: Can you make that a little bit more concrete? First of all what do you mean by KPI and share a little bit of the things you decided to put into the KPI so that the listeners can get some insight of that.
SANDRA: There are things like selling some targets like for example support calls. How many support calls they are doing on an hourly basis, how accurate they are with their maintenance reports. Because we actually maintain servers for our clients and that is actually very critical because this service actually pull up the business of our client. To make sure that the back-up of the system is successful the guys have to check on a daily basis and we have to make sure that it’s 100% successful. We do have electricity bills and things like that. We have to make sure that they actually attend to all of them. So this is why we actually measure their performance based on that. In a way there are bonuses and their salary review will be tied to the appraisals.
OWEN: When you said servers, correct me if I’m wrong, basically you guys are the outsource IT department of these financial firms.
SANDRA: That’s right.
OWEN: Okay. I’m wondering back then how did you even prioritize the order of steps to take? How did you decide what systems or processes to create first and the next one after that? What was the decision factor you put into place?
SANDRA: For us being an IT consulting firm our customers always come first. The first process that I thought of was actually to have an easy way to get support request through to us. Back then we were doing manually. Our numbers were given to our clients and of course over the phone. It was fast but it wasn’t the best way because some of the guys might be busy or on leave. So having a system in place and get them to email to support when they have issues allow us to actually manage the request in a more efficient way. And our clients can have a clearer understanding of how to get to us and they know that they’re in the cue and we’ll be helping them, rather than the guys would be just busy picking out calls over their phone and they’re not actually able to attend to anyone.
OWEN: I get that because it’s a customer facing business.
SANDRA: It’s a service line.
OWEN: It’s heavily dependent on facing the customer. You focus on that first. But I’m wondering was there any other decision factor besides that when it comes to what systems to create next and after that?
SANDRA: Being a service line customer is the priority. When I first look at it I was like, “Okay, we need to make sure our customer our happy, they’re followed by our internal staff, and those two were the first thing that I actually looked at. Because to me having happy staff is going to be the success of the company.
OWEN: Yeah, that translates to the actual customers themselves. They can actually feel that. A happy employee means a happy customer eventually. How exactly did you document procedures as well as processes for the business? What tools did you use back then? I’m curious.
SANDRA: We have other policies and processes in paper form. We have a staff, HR process that I make the team go through with me once so that they know the expectations. This is when they first started off. It’s like an induction program.
OWEN: HR process for onboarding them, okay.
SANDRA: Yeah. There are actually training guides and the seniors will actually train them on how to attend to the customers and how to use the CRM and the ticketing system. We tried to improve on these processes as much as we can and get my favorite intern, a part-timer actually to help me with documenting these processes and make available on our intranet for everyone to be able to read it.
OWEN: Let me break that down for the listener. First of all you said you had the policies and procedures in paper form. And then part of the requirement for hiring somebody after they’ve been hired through your staff HR onboarding process. And then for the work they actually have to do I’m assuming using tools that you guys use, you guys have training guides and manuals in place. And then older staff would have to help with the on boarding and training of this new staff on how they use these tools, right? And then you also mentioned somebody in your company is actually dedicated towards documenting this stuff. And that person works across the different departments documenting processes for different departments, right?
SANDRA: Yeah, that’s right.
OWEN: At the time when you were working on systematizing the business and even automating I’m wondering did you have any influence by mentors or even books? Which ones influenced you and why?
SANDRA: There is this client of mine who is like a mentor to me. We had occasional bears together and he is someone who is in the trading business. He told something about systemizing, because my business is service-based and the labor force in Singapore is getting more and more expensive. In order for us not to waste on unnecessary administrative work was to actually put in a system. I had a thought about it and it kind of made sense to me because the staff salary is one of the highest expenditure every month. And creating a system is actually cheaper than getting in that additional head count.
OWEN: That totally makes sense. If we only talk about the things you did and the success you’ve got as a result of implementing the things you did we don’t give the story a full picture. There obviously had to have been challenges. Let’s start, what was the biggest challenge that you actually experienced when you tried to systematize the business and how did you solve it then?
SANDRA: Being a small business to be honest we only have 10 staff, but we do have a customer base of 80. We try to give the staff the ability to work remotely. As long as they have an internet connection they can respond to the ticket. I don’t really bother about where…
OWEN: The results is what you’re looking for.
SANDRA: That’s right. I don’t care which part on Earth they are as long as they can support the clients. So then you realize that some of the staff were actually abusing their working hours and creating an unfair work environment for the rest. I had to put a work policy in place. I have to someone out there and report to the office and that wasn’t productive at all. In fact it was micromanaging them actually. Then I thought of I have to make more regular appraisal reviews with them rather than just do it quarterly. Sometimes we have to do it on a monthly basis. I lied to them that it’s all part of the appraisal and tied with their bonuses. Putting in the HR system was really helpful because it makes it fair for everyone for the company and the employees as well.
OWEN: What was the second biggest challenge that you experienced when you were trying to systematize the business and how do you solve it?
SANDRA: When you’re a small company things were running without the system. There are a lot of shortcuts that can be taken. When you’re actually putting systems there are a lot more red tapes. And some staff are quite resistant to the change. And it took them a while for them to be compliant and for them to see that it’s actually for a better future.
OWEN: How did you make them become compliant and see as a better option as oppose to no systems?
SANDRA: Some clients do call our engineers directly to get support. The thing is that when things go strong there is no black and white and you can’t actually argue with a customer because they are always right. With a proper system if they go to the ticketing system the customer can’t blame them because the resolution was given and recommended. It actually protects them. Even though it means the extra steps that they have to go into the system to lock a ticket for them and send it to the customer’s email but these are just proper procedures in place to protect them. They have to see that it’s actually for a better future for them.
OWEN: And to dive into this whole thing of having procedures in place protects them in terms of them doing their role, ensuring that they actually do what they’re assigned to do. I’m wondering are you guys sharing with the customers for the different tasks you do for them exactly the procedures and processes that your people have to go through, is that available to the customers? That’s why I’m wondering how the customer can know what they did, what they were supposed to do or not.
SANDRA: Yes. Actually customers get to see the ticket, and what has been attempted, and how it has been resolved. They actually have an assurance that some things are being done for the system and it’s not left hanging. In a way customers could see what we are doing instead of they think they’re just paying us on a monthly basis and they can’t see what we are doing for them. In fact if there are certain things that keep occurring, for example a laptop keep having the same issue we can actually show it the customer this has a support ticket just for this laptop and it’s actually time to change.
OWEN: Okay. Seeing is believing. The data is right in front of them.
SANDRA: That’s right.
OWEN: Now that we’ve talked about the top three challenges I’m wondering were there any other challenges that you experienced then when you’re trying to systematize the business? Any other thing comes to mind?
SANDRA: Trying to pick the right processes and applying it to my company. There’s no right or wrong way of doing things. It’s really a lot of trial and error. You can read a lot of books, have a few mentors, but at the end of the day it’s actually a business and you have to make your own judgment.
OWEN: Basically you’d be willing to try a lot of stuff and find out the ones that work. Given all these challenges that you’ve mentioned so far why did you actually stay committed to the goal of systematizing and automating the business?
SANDRA: Like I said it’s actually for a better future, for everybody in the company, so I just bite the bullet and did it.
OWEN: It was more of getting that desired lifestyle and your business is actually helping you to live the lifestyle that you want as well as for the employees as well.
SANDRA: Yes, of course. We wanted to start up and we want to be entrepreneurs, but at the end of it the goal was actually to have a good lifestyle, a work-life balance. I look forward to having that and that was my ultimate goal. And so I really hope that my staff can have the same thing and in turn they will be more loyal to our company as well.
OWEN: It’s funny how if you want something in life you also have to think about how many people you can help achieve that goal in order for you to achieve the goal you want. You want the lifestyle of being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want and go on vacations. But you realize that in order to do that you got to make sure that your employees have a lifestyle where they feel like they’re accomplishing what they want to accomplish in the job but at the same time it’s a role that they feel is the best for them. So you have to work to make sure that your company is actually doing that for them in order for you to achieve your own goal.
SANDRA: Yeah, of course. It’s about working as a team. They do look up to me and they realize that I’m always away too. And I always tell them, “The company gives you a good number of annual leave so you guys should just take a holiday as well.” My staff actually takes a lot of holidays too.
OWEN: Now that we’re coming to a more recent time on the story I’m wondering at what point in time did you feel like the entire business was systematized and automated and it could actually run without you successfully? Did you remember when that happened?
SANDRA: I think it was when I went for the longest holiday, about two and a half weeks. And the only reason why I need to be back here was because to sign the checks. The plan would be when I’m able to hire a full time accountant in the company, because I’m still overseeing the finance for now.
OWEN: Okay. So you’re saying that the remaining hand-off is just the full-time accountant coming and complete handle the finances. What stopped you from pulling the trigger on that so far?
SANDRA: We actually outsource our accounts, and I think in terms of cost-wise that makes sense. The business has not grown to the extent that my accounting firm is overcharging, or I need someone full-time to look at the numbers. I think for now it is still pretty okay but that would be the next step.
OWEN: It’s fair because even Oprah she’s very, very handy with her books. She makes sure that every checks that goes out she signs. She’s a billionaire so I could definitely understand that. It’s your money. I always want to give the listeners a preview into how the business currently works right now and the different parts in the business. Think of your business like a conveyor belt. On one end is a finance company, or a bank, or whatever who needs IT support help. And on the other end that customer is raving about you guys. I’m trying to figure out the different parts of your business that make that transformation happen. And feel free to start from how you find them in the first place if there’s a system involved in finding them.
SANDRA: We have a ticketing system and that’s the front-end. And then we have the CRM system that kickstart everything for the customer. We actually do have the accounting system that actually does all the building and invoicing, as well as the expenditure. And lastly we have the HR system that actually track the performance of everyone. And that is actually tied to the ticketing system too.
OWEN: These tools that you guys use are these proprietary tools you build or are these just off the shelf tools that you’ve now made to work the way you guys want?
SANDRA: Off the shelf mostly Cloud system and we have to do some form of… It doesn’t fit 100% so we have to actually do some tweaking to it. It’s pretty generic so…
OWEN: Do you mind sharing, because the listener might be wondering, “What are these tools she’s using?” Would you mind sharing the different tools based on the categories?
SANDRA: You want to know the…?
OWEN: The actual names of the tools.
SANDRA: Okay. For the accounting system we’re using Xero which I think is pretty common in the States. I think a lot of…
OWEN: We use Xero.
SANDRA: It’s getting more and more popular in Singapore as well. But an accounting software is a nightmare when it comes to migration so it took us a while to get on to it. Accountants were not very happy but we got it done. For the CRM and the ticketing system that we have is a system called Autotask. It’s also a system from the U.S. They do have quite a lot of branches around the world though. It’s a system that is pretty much meant for IT companies. And for the HR appraisal system it’s a locally developed software by the government.
OWEN: Wow, the government developed a software. That’s nice.
SANDRA: Because they were trying to encourage companies to create fair employment policies so they got us to attend a training and workshop and gave us the system for free. And I find it quite useful. I actually tried to make full use of it.
OWEN: That’s nice. We didn’t even talk about how you get any customers in the first place. Do you have a system for that? How is that working?
SANDRA: Honestly it’s all by referral basis. Our clients are coming because our existing customers are referring them to us.
OWEN: Okay. I’m wondering what systems do you have in place that enable your employees to know what exactly they need to do. You’ve mentioned some of these things already. We can dive into them a little bit more now regarding the systems that enable your employees to know what they need to do. Go ahead.
SANDRA: First we have training videos and guides. We do have a YouTube channel whereby we upload the videos. This was done by one of my…
OWEN: Is that a public video channel or private?
SANDRA: The videos are private, just for internal staff. We do have public ones as well but we send it to our clients. They actually are some short videos of how to achieve certain things like troubleshooting guides. We have also guides that are in PDF form that they have to go through. We have an internal knowledge database that were created over the years. When a new engineer comes onboard the best thing is actually for them to go through the videos and then we also have on-the-job training. The guides and the videos actually help a lot with getting them onboard very quickly. Every half a year we also have training and workshops together. I will bring my overseas team down to Singapore and be partners with Microsoft and other major companies. I try to get them to conduct training for us every six months. That actually brings up the knowledge for our engineers as well.
OWEN: How do you track that they’re delivering the results you want?
SANDRA: I mentioned previously that we actually have the ticketing system that track down daily work so we can actually tell how many tickets they attend to in a day. And then the appraisal process happen every six months most of the time. But of course some of the problematic stuff we actually do it on a quarterly or a monthly basis. I do get the vibe that they actually feel more motivated when they’re tied to the appraisal system because they are rewarded with a bonus once they hit the target.
OWEN: I’ve heard that word appraisal systems several times in this interview and I realized that I didn’t even dive into that. Can you share the details of what this appraisal system is in the first place and what goes into it?
SANDRA: Basically that’s the HR system that I was to referring to as well. You actually have all the employees’ data in there and you can actually set a probation appraisal whereby you expect them to be able to fulfill a certain number of tickets when they come onboard, be able to do certain number of support calls without assigning from the team, be able to do certain level of troubleshooting and setting up also… For example setting of email address in a few client system without any assistance they’ll be comfortable of doing that. There’s certain targets that they have let’s say for a period of three months. At the end of three months the senior engineers would review them and make sure that it’s really capable of accomplishing this thing. And then they come to me and I looked at it and I say, congratulations, they have cleared the probation and they’re now a confirmed staff of the company. And then we set the goals for the next six months that would eventually impact their salary review or the bonuses that they’re entitled to.
OWEN: Okay. Now that you have all this free time I’m wondering which specific areas of the business do you now focus on now and why?
SANDRA: I would really like to focus a lot more on marketing. This is something we haven’t done at all for our business. Our business have grown because of word of mouth and we’re really very thankful and grateful to our client because they really trust us so much. We don’t really do any marketing at all even digital marketing, so the next step is actually to create market campaigns and design some packages to get new customers onboard.
OWEN: I’m glad you’re doing that because now you’re trying to create a more systematic approach to marketing as oppose to depending on word of mouth. And what I realized is for the word of mouth why it’s working for you guys is because you guys are very focused on who your end customer is, financial institutions, banks, and stuff like that. And so there’s a small group of them. They know each other. They talk about it. For all you know one manager is referring you to another person, this small group because you guys are very focused. And word of mouth works a lot when you’re focusing on a very specific target customer. But I’m glad that you’re trying to systematize your approach to marketing. What is the next stage of growth for your business? What do you plan to achieve next and why?
SANDRA: Ideally it’s to grow the team and to go for bigger clients because we have always been focusing on the SME market. But we’re not sure if we want to go to enterprise level yet because with the new system we could. But things will be very different because the kind of IT projects will require a different skill set. I see ourselves moving more towards compliance and security area because we see a trend of more companies more concerned on security and data protection. We are actually looking for solutions, exploring some of the products out there that allow our client to be able to have a mobile desktop so that their users can actually work off any machine. That’s what we’re looking at for the next couple of years.
OWEN: Now as we come to the end of the interview I’m wondering if you were to give the listener a summary as we as the next step that they should take in order to get their business so that it can actually run without them what would you say that summary as well as the next step should be?
SANDRA: I think they should actually look at the areas that are taking up most of their time. That’s something that they can actually start with. Like for example their accounting process was just too risky and taking up too much of my time that’s why that was the very first thing I tried to check off. And secondly is how much time do you need to invest in the system because the appraisal system was easy and then the full body accounting. But a CRM system actually involves a lot of departments and it was a lot more difficult. So you really have to set aside the time to do it and this on top of running your day-to-day business.
OWEN: Is there a question that you were wishing I would’ve asked you that I didn’t ask you so far that you think will help to round out this interview better? If so pose the question and then the answer.
SANDRA: I was wondering if you would ever ask me if I regret my decision to start my own business when I said I actually worked 16 hours a day.
OWEN: Do you regret the decision to start a business?
SANDRA: No, never. Because making that decision actually allows me to have the lifestyle that I wanted now. And I’m really living the life that I want now.
OWEN: What’s the best way for the listener to connect with you and thank you for doing the interview?
SANDRA: I do have my own website. It is www.sandrayeow.com. That’s my website and they can actually get in touch with me if they want to. On my website there is also the link to my upcoming book and also the system that we have in place in the introduction of our business. They can actually have a look.
OWEN: That’s awesome. I’m speaking to you the listener who have been listening so far all the way to this point. If you’ve enjoyed this interview I want you to do us a favor and go to iTunes to leave us your honest feedback and your rating, hopefully your five-star review. To do that go to sweetprocess.com/iTunes. That would redirect you to our iTunes podcast where you can leave your review. If you’ve found this interview useful I want you to refer this interview to another entrepreneur who you think would find benefit from it. And finally if you’re in that stage in your business where you being the manager or even the CEO, you’re tired of being the bottleneck and people keep asking the same questions over and over again, well, sign-up for a free 14-day trial of SweetProcess to document procedures for your business. And also use our tool to assign tasks to your employees and monitor and track the progress of each task. Go ahead, sign-up for a free 14-day trial of SweetProcess. Sandra, thanks for doing the interview.
SANDRA: Thanks Owen.
OWEN: And we’re done.