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Robert: Welcome to the E-commerce Marketing Podcast, today’s guest is Nathan Hirsch, and Nathan is from Free Up and he’s a business owner and serial entrepreneur. His first business was an Amazon store, and it does over 5 million in sales. Welcome to the podcast Nathan, how are you doing?
Nathan: I’m doing great Robert, how are you?
Robert: I’m doing well, I’m excited to have you on, if you can just give us a background information, and just tell us about your journey, how you started from e-commerce to owning your own agency, and your new company Free Up.
Nathan: Yeah, sure. So I got into e-commerce by accident, I was a broke college student looking for a way to make extra money, so I started buying and reselling textbooks at my school bookstore. From there I got into Amazon because books naturally led you to Amazon and I got into Amazon at the time where it was mostly books, and they were just transitioning into other categories. So it’s just me and a few other sellers selling different products, and I would go to different deal sites, different retailers like Walmart that would sell products cheap, buy products and sell them on Amazon, and I ended up growing that business pretty rapidly, within the first year we did over a million dollars in sales. I started hiring lots of people to help me fill my needs, whether it was finding products, listing them, customer care, filling orders, all the day-to-day operations. So before I knew it I was a 20-year old kid with a bunch of employees running a multimillion dollar business out of my college dorm room, it was kind of that ‘wow factor’. So I continued to grow my business which I’ve been doing for the past seven years, and I’d done a lot of hiring, a lot of in-person hiring, a lot of remote hiring. So I’ve done everything from tweaking my interview process to making really good hires that have been with me for seven years to making mistakes and learning from them along the way. So I had the idea to create Free Up based on my hiring experienced in e-commerce industry, hiring remote workers over the past seven years to find a better way to match up e-commerce clients with the workers, and the experts in the middle specialist that they really need to improve, and expand their e-commerce business.
Robert: Ok so when you first started selling on Amazon, was this like 2008?
Nathan: Yeah around 2008.
Robert: Okay so it was around 2008 you grew the business, it was a million-dollar business, you started hiring people, and then from that process you founded Free Up, and for the last years, the last few years you’ve just been working on Free Up, trying to make it be an agency where you can help e-commerce businesses find workers who will help them grow and just do their various e-commerce marketing task, and just you know tasks that they can do in the business. So it’s like a VA agency but just for e-commerce businesses.
Nathan: Yeah and we do have some clients that are not exactly e-commerce, that just like our workers, but we’re primarily about e-commerce, and I still run my Amazon business on the side, my remote workers run it mostly without me, but at Free Up what we do is we get hundreds of applicants every week and we pre-vet them, and put them through a very rigorous interview process, and the interview process is based on my past seven years of hiring the pros, and the good things and the bad things that I’ve been able to do in terms of hiring, and so after we pre-vet all these applicants we take the top one percent, and add them to our network, and we make the network available to our clients on a first-come first-served basis. So when you are a client of mine at Free Up anytime you need something, whether it’s a customer service person long-term or a short-term graphic design project or maybe you run into some trouble and you just need an expert that you can hire for an hour to help you get out of a jam you have all these workers available to you. You know they’re pre-vetted, you don’t have to waste your time during the interview process, and we back it up because on the back-end we are hands-on, and we protect you from turnover and all that stuff. So it’s really a way for e-commerce owners to spend less time in the HR side of the business, and more time on the expansion side of the business.
Robert: Okay, it makes sense, and we are going to come back to the process that you have developed in picking these remote workers. I want to talk about your current clients, you have over 500 clients that are e-commerce businesses, and I wanted to delve into some of the marketing strategies that you do for them, so what are some of the top marketing strategies that you are using to grow these business.
Nathan: In terms of marketing?
Nathan: Sorry you cut out there for a second.
Robert: Yes, for marketing. What are the top marketing strategies that you are using these e-commerce businesses?
Nathan: Yeah, so in marketing there’s always the internal marketing. So if you’re running an Amazon store, doing the PPC campaigns, and we have a lot of experts that can handle that, but then there’s the outside which is the contacting influencers which we help a lot of our clients do, getting on different blogs and podcasts, getting your product out on social media, running a social media page with relevant content, and the content can lead you into a blog, and the blog can help you build a mailing list, and then it’s all about marketing funnels, and really getting those emails to convert.
So what I try to do with my clients is depending on what they want to do is yes you can do that internal side of Amazon which is a PPC, but you can also hire VAs to handle other things, and slowly build up a network in social media, and an email list, and a blog with great content, and SEO, drive traffic to your website. So kind of attacking it at all angles, and building slowly.
Robert: Okay, and with some of this, with creating this campaign and getting these VAs to do this, these are the VAs that you found during your Free Up network, that who end up doing some of this task for businesses?
Nathan: Correct, so we offer VAs from five to fifty dollars an hour, both U.S. and Non-U.S. So while we do have… when you think of a VA, you usually think of the lower level workers, and we have plenty of them, whether it’s data entry, customer care, basic listings, but what separates us is we also have the specialist and the mid-level and the experts ready to go. So if you need someone that is an expert at keywords you can hire them in that mid-level pricing to just find you great keywords, and do research and stuff on there. If you want someone to run your PPC campaigns or Google AdWords or any kind of advanced click funnels or you know marketing, we have those experts you can hire between twenty and fifty dollars an hour to help set those up, and consult you along the way. We try to support our businesses hiring needs from the bottom all the way to the top.
Robert: Ok, so I am actually going to sweet it up right now. I usually ask this question at the end, but I’m going to bring it right now, and the reason I’m bringing it right now is because you get a lot of businesses coming to you that need your service, and need your help, and the question is what is the one thing an e-commerce business can do right now to help that business grow? The reason I’m asking this is because you’re getting this flood of traffic, and all these businesses that are coming to Free Up because they need some help. So from what you have seen in your network, and in your website from companies what’s the big need that these businesses have, and how do you direct them, and set them for success?
Nathan: Yeah, it’s a good question. So it’s different for every business, what I like to discuss with my clients is what are you good at? If you’re someone who’s really good at writing content, then you should be the one writing content, but you should get someone else to whether it’s run the PPC campaigns or do that click funneling or whatever it is that’s not the content in the business. If you’re a good salesperson, and you can go out and talk to different manufacturers, and get great discounts on products, and get add to your product selection, you should be focused on that, and you should be hiring people to list products with great keywords and SEO and may be having someone run your social media. So figuring out all the different areas that you could have your business, you could focus your business on, and really having you focus on whatever you’re good at, and what you like doing, and then hiring experts and VAs to handle the other stuff while still monitoring them, it’s a great asset to any business owner, and that’s really how I found success because I’m good at the sales and the customer service side of it, but I have someone else who does my content, and I have someone else who runs my social media, and my ads and we’re always meeting, and we’re always on the same page, but I tried to hire people that are the opposite of me, that do things that I can’t do or that I’m better spent doing things that I’m good at.
Robert: Ok, so that makes a lot of sense. So you just need… as a business owner, if you are an e-commerce business owner, you just need to focus on what your strength is, and then you try to build your team on some of the other things that you need down, that are still priorities but you can’t pay attention to. It’s just better to hire a team and have them do that.
Nathan: Yeah, I mean to me it’s not worth my effort to go out and learn how to become this Google AdWords expert. It’s just not worth my time because my time is better spent on the phone with clients, and doing different research and different customer service stuff and improving processes and systems because that’s what I’m good at. So I’d much rather hire someone even if it cost me thirty, forty dollars an hour to run my Google Ads at a high level so I can focus on other things, and if you’re really good at Google Ads maybe you need someone to write up your content, you can hire a professional writer that has a past history of writing very well written blog posts that people read and follow, and you’re able to collect emails with. So that’s how I try to run my businesses.
Robert: Ok, and a question that just came up is how much does it cost to use Free Up, and also where do you get these remote workers, these VAs? Are they all over or is there a specific region?
Nathan: Sure, so we’re about 40% Philippines, 40% U.S., and 20% scattered throughout the world. We offer U.S. and Non-U.S. workers for every position, obviously U.S. people cost more, and the cool thing about us is there’s no setup fee, there’s no monthly fee, you only pay per hour. So if you hire someone, and they cost ten dollars an hour, you’re paying ten dollars an hour, and so we have all these different workers at different rates, and they’re available to you with no minimums, no obligation, no setup fees. We really want to just have the best workers available to our clients whenever they need them.
Robert: Okay, and why did you start Free Up? Like what was your main motivation of starting Free Up?
Nathan: Yeah, that’s a good question. So I’ve been through the HR nightmares, I’ve been through turnover at the worst time, I’ve been through really good hires and really bad hires, and more importantly, and I value my time a lot. I’ve just spent hours and hours in the interview room or on skype interviewing candidates, and I really just wanted there to be a better way so I built Free Up on what I wish I had back when I was in year 2, 3, 4, 5, and I was hiring all these people every year, and I was just spending so much time doing it. I wish that there was a way for me to just get that top 1% available to me without having to go through the process.
Robert: Ok, and how does the business know that it’s time for them to actually use your service? Because a lot of e-commerce businesses, and a lot of small businesses, they try to do everything and it’s understandable, you don’t have a lot of money, you’re building your business, you are busy, you are doing a lot of things. Maybe you’ve multiple jobs, you still have a family, when do they know that, hey maybe it’s time I need to be looking at Free Up, and you know any other service, when is the right time, what’s the perfect business for you?
Nathan: Yeah, I mean you definitely don’t want to be focusing, you want to make sure that your business is the biggest priority in your life. If you’re doing this as a side job, yes you can hire a VA here and there to help you with listings, but if you haven’t really gotten off the ground, and you haven’t got any sales yet, you can hire all the experts you want but it’s going to be better if you kind of get in with your hands dirty, and get your business to a level where its making money, where there’s a good difference between your revenue and your expenses, and there’s a good gross profit margin, and that you have money to reinvest into the company because that’s really what hiring a VA or an expert or mid-level specialist is all about, it’s about reinvesting back in your company. So when you get to the point at your business where you have enough money in the bank to reinvest into the company, and expect to get a lot out of it because if you’re hiring someone to handle customer service 40 hours a week; that’s time that you don’t have to do that, and you can go out, and do whatever is unique to your business and getting sales, whether it’s getting more products or contacting new clients, whatever it is. So really look at it as an investment just like you would anything else, and you once you get to the point in your business when you can actually make that investment, that’s the time to start hiring.
Robert: Ok, and as you’re growing Free Up, within the last few years what have been some of the struggles you’ve had growing Free Up?
Nathan: Sure, so Free Up does not offer coders, and there’s a reason for that. I’ve never, I don’t have a tech background, so it’s tough for me to evaluate people that write code and our software, so the biggest struggle for us is we want to have a software that our clients like, that our workers like, that’s easy to use, that does everything from collecting payments to recording hours, and all that, and really building our software and tweaking it without having a tech background, and without having coders and developers on our team; it was definitely the biggest struggle, and it’s something that we’re going to focus on a lot going into next year, because we feel like we have a great team of workers, we have good processes and systems that are fair to both parties, we have a good amount of clients, we are constantly getting more clients, so all that’s great. But if you don’t have the software to support it, you can only get so far, so that’s been the biggest challenge in the past year and a half – two years, and it’s something that’s going to be a major top priority going into next year.
Robert: Ok and now let’s go back to the process, you talked about, you came up with the process of hiring people, so what are you always looking for when you’re hiring these VA’s, and what have you learned over the years. What are some of the mistakes you have made that are know part of your process where you make sure you don’t want to make this mistake again?
Nathan: Sure, so the biggest thing to me is communication. You can hire someone that is the most talented person in the world, but if they don’t communicate, if you’re not getting updates, if you have to chase them down and stop what you’re doing to find them, it’s never going to work out. So the biggest thing to me is that find people that have the skills, that have strong communication, and that have a strong work ethic, that they actually care about something more than money. They care about your business, they care about building something great, they care about working as a team, those are what I look for in a VA, and that’s what my interview process does a really good job of vetting out.
Robert: Ok, and like how long is the interview process? What is involved? Like do people have to go through different rounds, is it just answering questions? How long does the process take, and how do you just vet the best workers?
Nathan: Yeah, so we do have… our interview processes is long. I mean it’s at least two rounds of Skype interviews with my assistants and my HR team. We have 15 pages of communication guidelines because I mentioned how important communication is that anyone applying has to memorize, and get tested on, and then from there we have high rules and expectations and then we put someone through a new hire orientation, and make sure that everything is good there, and then they’re into the network. So it’s two rounds of interviews that test up like skills, and their work ethic, and stuff like that. It’s a written test on communication, and then our new hires teaches about the process, and procedures of Free Up.
Robert: Okay, yeah it sounds very exciting, Free Up is definitely a good service for a lot of businesses, for our listeners how can they come and get to your website? What’s your website, and also if they want to reach you, how can they reach you?
Nathan: If you go to freeeup.com, and it’s a three ‘es’, the third ‘e’ stands for e-commerce, or you can find us on social media or skype, we are everywhere. Right on our website you can actually book an appointment with me, talk about your business and your business needs. If you mention Robert’s name you get ten percent off your first worker, so make sure that you do that, and you can sign up as a client right on our site. I mentioned it’s free, it’s fast, and you can get access to our network of the top 1% of the e-commerce workers pretty easily. So feel free to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or the freeup.com skype account or right through our website.
Robert: Hey Nathan, thanks for being on the show, before I let you go, there is this one question I want to ask you about e-commerce, and 2017. It’s a question that I just thought of right now, what is something that e-commerce businesses should focus on in 2017.
Nathan: I would say diversifying. You don’t want have, now is not a good time to only have one revenue stream. Even if you go back 10-20 years, if you look at the blockbuster of the world that only relied on one retail store, and then they go out of business, the same thing you can see happening here. If you’re an Amazon seller, and you’re running this big business, but you’re only revenue stream is Amazon and Amazon is in complete control, it can shut you down, or the same thing with eBay, it’s much better to start diversifying now, especially with all these companies making changes to their policies and procedures and kicking sellers off sellers off. So if you’re on Amazon, think about going on Amazon Japan or Amazon Europe or opening an EBay account or start a new website, even if it’s not gonna have a high return right away, start building that social media following, and putting out that content because you never know when things can happen on different marketplaces, and you really want to diversify yourself going forward, so 2,3,4,5 years from now, you’re running this large business with lots of different revenue streams, and if anything happens with one of them, yes it sucks but it’s not the end of the world. So I encourage you to start diversifying, and finding different revenue streams to go along with what’s working right now.
Robert: Ok Nathan, thanks for being on the podcast.
Nathan: Thank you, I appreciate it.
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