Press This Podcast: Virtual Assistant Strategies for WordPress Agencies with Robert Nickell

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Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Here host David Vogelpohl sits down with guests from around the community to talk about the biggest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.

David Vogelpohl: Hello everyone and welcome to Press This the WordPress community podcasts on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I love to bring the best of the community to you hear every week on press this as a reminder, you can find me on Twitter @wpdavidv, or you can subscribe to press this on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify, or download the latest episodes at wmr.fm. This episode, we’re going to be talking about something I think is something I wish I had used in my agency days, but really we’re going to be talking about this notion of like feeling overwhelmed and how virtual assistant strategies for WordPress agencies can specifically help with that. And joining us that conversation, I’d like to welcome, Rob Nickell to Press This Rob welcome.

Rob Nickell: Thanks David super excited to be here big fan of the show and listen to most episodes I think so honored to be here and just excited thanks a lot for having me.

DV: Awesome. I think you’re the first guest that’s that’s admitted to listening to all of them Rob So you’re instantly my favorite guest that that was the goal right good JJ yeah love it. But Rob’s really going to talk through today Rob runs a company called rocket station, you really kind of specialize in virtual assistant services and so he’s going to talk about the strategies, specifically WordPress agencies and freelancers can use to save time and scale their business and so kind of the construct of this notion of a virtual assistant, how you might use it in your freelance and freelance or agency business, and really kind of diving in there. Rob to kick us off, ask the same question of every guest also asked me to you. Could you briefly tell me your WordPress origin story, you know, the first time you use WordPress.

RN: Yeah I left my corporate job i w two job, two years out of college and I jumped into being an entrepreneur, and pretty much the first thing that I knew that I needed was the website and this was in 2000 2009 really, and I went about. I went online to what was then oDesk and Elance before they merged to form Upwork, and I’d put a job ad out for a needed a website, and pretty much every single response I got was you need a WordPress site. And so that’s what I did I built my first real estate website off of WordPress in 2009, the first time I really started interacting with WordPress.

DV: Did you do the build or did the oDesk or Elance people do anything were you like directing it like I’ve ever used it but like were you actually building at that time,

RN: I would well okay so to be totally candid with you I started by trying to actually do the build myself, and it wasn’t near as advanced back then as it is now where it’s so much easier to use the platform. But now I essentially was the general contractor for for getting that build and actually had to go through two different developers to ultimately get what I wanted so it started with me kind of banging my head against the wall. I hired the first person who got it about 30% of the way there and then I hired somebody else to start from scratch and

DV: I totally understand that story. You know that’s interesting that would have been you said 2009 so right before custom post types and meta fields came out in WordPress making it more of a traditional CMS so I’m sure you hit your head against a lot of walls back then in 2009. But it sounds like this kind of notion of outsourcing, if you will, these parts of your business that aren’t necessarily like critical to what you need to do is kind of been part of your journey really since I guess you said two years out of college. Starting a kind of a business, two years after finishing school. And now you’ve kind of brought that in to the notion of rocket station and what rocket station does and offers customers of all types, not just agencies, but could you help me understand a little bit more about rocks rocket station.

RN: Yeah, we really do do two things and only two days we are a system and process documentation company so we’re truly workforce management experts, we can look at everything that’s happening within your business. Every vertical every department, it doesn’t matter if you’re a one man show or publicly traded company or something in between because we work with them all. We go through the same process and that that first step is just alignment and efficiency through system process documentation so we want to create really clean, efficient and usable scopes of work for every task that’s going on in the day to day and we believe that’s really the foundation to having success, whether you’re hiring someone virtually, you know, or locally in your hire someone in your office, it’s the same process you need to start with really strong foundation exactly what needs to happen in your day to day, and most organizations are really good at providing the service but they’re not great at creating the structure on the back end so that’s the first thing that we do is we actually build out your training manuals your scope of work and and your documentation of every single thing that’s happening within the organization. And then the second thing is we’re dedicated staff so functions just like a W two, where it’s dedicated person that, that’s meeting that job description that tasks that that we just built for you. It’s a dedicated person but it’s not a 1099 it’s not a W two it’s just simply a service agreement. So we think of it’s like the easy button to to employment. So instead of having to have all the HR nightmares and all the liability that comes with hiring people, you just press the rockin station but and you get a rockstar to perform those tasks at an amazingly high level.

DV: Okay, so I got it so you got the two sides right the first side we are focusing on helping customers optimize their systems and processes, particularly around this notion of efficiency and task management, kind of documenting that making sure you kind of, kind of lay out a plan for the best and most efficient way to accomplish these outcomes. And then you also have the staffing side, so you can see how you kind of see it from both sides, right where you’re able to provide the services directly for completing these, but also planning that process I I don’t know if you pick this up on prior episodes of press this Rob but I did spend five years operating my own WordPress agency. And, like, personal level, I’m very operationally minded IT systems tickets. I think of a lot of things to that notion of Kaizen of like continuous improvement. And so, like, for me it was kind of a natural part of my agency. But then when I went to go hang out with friends, I’d see that it wasn’t always true in certain cases it was within others it wasn’t. At least for the agencies or freelancers or folks who worked with. You say like that like hyper organization kind of like you do on like the one arm of rocket station is that common with agencies and freelancers or is it more that it’s kind of by the skin of their teeth, they’re getting everything organized the thing we’re.

RN: What we mostly see is that people are really good at understanding, understanding the agency understand what they need to do and doing it themselves. Most people are not really good at the operational structure that you just mentioned and this entire structure that we created at rocket station to help business owners be more efficient, and ultimately become more profitable was born out of I’m terrible at all the things that you mentioned I am not system minded I am not operation minded. I was really good at sales I was really good at networking I was really good at the front end client facing part of the business but whenever it came to the back end actually running the day to day operations, I was terrible. And most people that come to us are the same way very few people are as structured, and as organized and as efficient operationally as you are and that the company was essentially created to solve all the problems that the people who are unlike you, David face because most of us are as entrepreneurs are really good at being visionaries, we’re not great at actually executing the plan every single day.

DV: I feel like as I’ve talked to people about virtual assistant strategies specifically, and I know even when I was running the agency I considered it at one I did have a staff so it was like. It didn’t need to augment it per se in that way but it was attractive at the time. I think the biggest thing was I was like, Well, what would I outsource, and I feel like you have to get organized before you can answer that question is that one of the biggest things that gets people like gets in their way in terms of thinking of virtual assistants.

RN: Yeah, I really think it’s the number one obstacle that anybody faces within their organization is there’s so much to do in the day to day and everyone’s super busy and and most agency owners when I talk to them. The first thing I asked them is Hey, what do you do all day What did your day look like today, and they’re almost offended by the question they’re like what do you mean I was busy and we get that word busy every single day it’s like that’s what I’m really busy, but if you ask them to stop and slow down and think about what they actually did all day they have a hard time telling you because they’re just knocking things out as they come up for the most part and putting out fires, and as as need to be solved and these problems need to be solved right so the number one mistake most people face in their day to day is not having the strong systems and processes on the front end because that’s the foundation to the outcomes of what we’re trying to accomplish right so

DV: I was, I’m sorry to cut you off there I’m just to kind of restate that but it sounds like the systems are super critical and then it sounds like also making a list of all the things you’re doing is probably a good first step to understand like how your day is structured and how you might think about it in terms of virtual assistants, I wanted to dive in a little bit deeper here though, but we’re gonna take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

DV: Welcome back to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host David Vogelpohl interviewing Rob Nickell about outsourcing birth through virtual assistants and supporting your WordPress agency or freelance business, Rob, right before the break we were talking a little bit about what kind of gets in people’s ways when they first started thinking of bringing on the Help virtual assistants, you know, kind of mentioned right before the break this notion maybe like making a list of the things you’re doing to know what to outsource and then you were talking about like kind of really focusing on your plan and structure and operationally for your business. But I was wondering if you could expand a little bit more there.

RN: Most people feel a little bit of pain in the day to day we talked about how busy people are. And so whenever it comes time to solving some of those problems. The usual response is to just hire somebody throw them into the fire and hope that it works out, which most of the time. In our experience is an epic disaster because we don’t start with the end in mind and we don’t have enough structure to create a lane for people to be really successful and and so whether you’re hiring somebody locally or you’re hiring somebody virtually. The first step of having those systems and processes creates the foundation to one the personality and the profile of who you’re trying to hire but then to managing becomes so much easier to those Africans because you know what you’re looking for, ahead of time, nobody likes to guess what they’re supposed to be doing in the day to day so if you create the structure on the front end, it allows for your team members to be super successful and have the outcomes that you’re really looking for.

DV: So you cannot blowing my mind thinking back to the considerations, I put into this decision back in the day. And, like I always thought of it through the lens of the general virtual assistant but it sounds like what you’re recommending is rather to focus on one or two or several systems and talk today, specific areas and kind of put together this lane as you call it, to make sure you get the most value out of it and I guess as you pointed out, get the correct person for that role.

RN: Right, because when you look at the different tasks that are happening in the day to day there’s different skill sets that do that so if you look at you know social media agencies, so much of that is about posting content replying to post community management that’s a very outward facing very engaging type role well that’s a different skill set than a lot of the SEO agencies hire for which you know they’re they’re building reports and pulling data and passing that information on to their clients and having to explain the data and filter through keywords and all the grunt work like setting up redirects that’s a very different skill set, than managing and engaging with with your outward clients and a lot of the social media stuff so the task, really determines the profile and the skill set of who you’re looking for and most agencies don’t have enough going on, or big enough for one person to just do one task, all day long. That’s pretty rare there are agencies of that size, but it’s pretty rare so most people have to wear multiple hats in the day to day and that that makes sense but if you get really structured on the front end and then you get the right people in place to do those tasks. That’s where we view efficiency and the end result to be super successful, and now you’ve got a harmonious relationship in the day to day between employees management and what you’re actually getting from that workforce expectation.

DV: Gotcha. So you’re, you’re shaving off these chunks of your workload and very precise and task oriented ways is one way to go about this rather than like a generalist do all virtual assistant, and that presumably by doing that you’re also having them focus on the most valuable parts of your business. I also liked how you talked about structure we had Shawn Collins and Affiliate Summit, formerly the Affiliate Summit he sold that a couple years ago with his partner Missy ward. They had an extremely efficient organization, I think they had maybe three full time staff and the two of them were this huge conference that happens all around the world. And it was their systems, they never broke from it, they did the same thing every single time. And it was, it was that way of operating that business that I thought had driven their efficiency so it’s interesting to hear you mentioned that here in the context of virtual assistant.

RN: Well people talk about culture all the time and they’re they want to know well how do you build a culture great culture with a virtual team and you just gave the formula right there. It’s having strong systems and processes because when everyone’s playing by the same rules knows what the outcomes are and then you’re winning that all of a sudden you’ve got an amazing culture so I just defined culture as a set of rules and set of guidelines that everybody within your organization follows, and that results in great culture and you just said it you just gave a great example for how to build great culture.

DV: Yeah, definitely admired how they ran and how efficient their business was, I was friends with him for many years still am, but during when I was operating my agency, it was just very envious of how efficient they were politely helped me understand like when an agency or Freelancer like when you work with them and rocket station what’s like the typical reason they would they would start that journey like what pushed them to, you know, fill out your lead form or call you or whatever the thing was like why do people start this search.

RN: Yeah, most agency managers are freelancers, they start in the business because they’re really good at what they do, whether it’s SEO or social media or whatever the agency is they’ve got a skill set and the ability to just go crush that well then once they get going a little bit and get a little bit of momentum and a little bit of traction, they become responsible for everything in the day to day which just severely limits your opportunity whether that you’re looking to grow, whether you’re looking to become more profitable. Whatever your outcomes are looking for if you’re the one responsible for everything in the day to day that is just so limiting on what you can do. And as an agency a big part of what you’re doing is, is managing the expectations and the relationships and with your clients so if you’re spending your entire day. Pulling reports and not being able to actually give them deliver and explain those reports to your clients, then it’s a frustrating place to be. So most people come to us because they built a business that has a little bit of success and it’s got some momentum it’s got some, some movement and they’ve got. They’ve got what they’re looking for from a very foundational standpoint, but they’re just want a little bit more they either want some of their time back, and we work with agencies all the time who say hey we would be great with making the exact same amount of money, but just have a little bit more time back to be able to go on vacation with our families and not have our phone ringing and and come back from a vacation and there’d be more money in the bank account and when we laugh. It’s really about setting the business where it works for you or the business serves you instead of you serving your business all day. And so most people that come to some kind of hit that wall the ceiling of opportunity, and they’re looking to just become more efficiencies and more efficient so they can get their life back, or they’re looking to grow and expand and we can really help, help them do that. So those are the two main reasons people come to us.

DV: So it’s this kind of feeling of, you know, eventually being overwhelmed, I mean again to kind of liken it back to my own journey journey I started as essentially a freelancer or that I created a company I guess an agency with one employee Me and 100% of the billing was my time. And then I also had to spend time operating business. You know advertising the business and selling the business. And then as added people to the team, and less you know obviously less and less of my time was where our billing came from, but because I had to be involved from an expertise perspective on many projects. I didn’t have time to focus on, you know operating my business and kind of mundane operational tasks were kind of a drag, if you will, that was preventing us from building more or growing more and so you know your your thought is when people are feeling that stress, that’s when they start to think like, Are there other ways to go about getting the work done that I’m doing myself.

RN: Yeah, ideally people would tend to think that way from the very beginning right if he if he started that way. And I wish I could say I thought that way from the beginning to I created this company to solve the problems that I had every day, and I was the bottleneck in my organization pretty much nothing happened within the company that I didn’t have my, my involvement in in some way. And that is just such a limited way to run a business so if you want to be very limited and you want very, you know, just a specific opportunity that’s fine but you know when I leave my house every day and I’m thinking about leaving my family and the time away from, from the things that I truly care about. I want to make sure that that time is truly valuable is going to add value back to my family it’s worth being away from them so the things that I view is most important in the day I’m trying to protect and preserve that and kind of build a moat around what is most important so I’m very very focused, you know my myself on what is most importantly what I should be involved in, and that’s what we really try to help our agencies and our freelancers do kind of evaluate how they’re spending their time what is most important for them to actually accomplish in the day whether that’s strategy client relationships or sometimes sales, whatever it may be, is most important for you and your time. We try to take everything else off your plate and let the organization run much more efficiently.

DV: Like that I gave a presentation and I guess it probably about half a year ago now and it was oriented towards stakeholders and talking to developers and one of the things I mentioned it in it. Was that your team only moves as fast as you do. And so, you know, that kind of what you said there kind of reminded me of that and that notion of like what are you spending your time on, is it the most important things. And then, you know, kind of freeing up your mind to help the business grow. Overall, instead of as you put it, have been involved in every single little thing, and really kind of restricting your your velocity and thus your team’s velocity. I can see, absolutely our virtual assistants would be key to that, I want to talk to you a little bit about the specific tasks that agencies might outsource though, but we’re gonna take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

DV: Everyone welcome back to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl and interviewing Rob Nickell outsourcing through virtual assistants for repressed agencies and freelancers. Rob right before the break, we were talking a little bit about kind of the reason why agencies start to look towards virtual assistants, kind of that notion of feeling overwhelmed and feeling limited and growth and wanting to outsource parts of their tasks and activities to help them faster and spend more time with their team in the right areas, what are the types of tasks though that these agencies typically outsource.

RN: Yeah, so most of our world is done through some form of social media today and that is just so time consuming, there’s so many things to do from creating calendars to content sharing to update a Facebook post to update in your Google Plus campaigns to LinkedIn and Twitter. I mean there’s just so many things that have been so so creating posts replying to comments community engagement is so important and we’re so aware of all of us are aware of how important that community engagement piece is but it’s also super, time consuming. So if you could have somebody that can constantly be engaging with your community and your social media platforms. It just, it provides exponential value for organization so social media is super simple when it comes to SEO, so much for that process it’s, you know, around your analytics so whether that’s pulling reports analyzing Google Analytics, creating structure around that reporting so it can be delivered in a clean way keeping the CRM updated doing keyword analysis competition research, you know, reviewing different e commerce sales data from different companies. It really depends on the agency and all agencies operate a little bit differently, but the one thing that is common across them all is there’s a million different ancillary tasks that has to be accomplished in the day so that could be supporting the sales process by by creating proposals or, you know, creating lead capture forms and writing copy and and answering the phones and the follow up so there’s really nothing that can’t be done on a phone or computer that as long as you’re willing to spend some time to create systems and processes and structure, there’s not really anything that can’t be outsourced at a really high level. Most people tend to think of virtual assistants as these low level tasks or low level jobs. The big difference about today, and what used to be the case is that that you no longer think of virtual teams or virtual assistants as low level, it should be the exact same expectation as when we hire somebody in house on what their performance, and what their capabilities are hiring virtually or or locally so most agencies kind of have a hard time with that initial step of saying, Hey, I understand outsourcing I understand the general concepts but how could that work for me what could they do within my business. And that’s why everything that we do is fully custom because every agency and every Freelancer works a little bit differently, but there’s so many things that have to just happen in the day to day for monitoring your Facebook page, and your affiliate programs and retargeting and keyword research and your AdWords it’s, there’s just so many tasks that have to be accomplished in the day, and we’re pretty efficient at nearly everyone.

DV: You have to think through that like you have to first kind of define the thing that will be done. And then you have to, you know, fundamentally, work that into your business and it feels like there’s kind of two sides to that perhaps from an agency and freelancers perspective. There’s like let’s say the back office operational. So in other words, we need to update our invoices once a month or we need to update our CRM or whatever the thing is, but that is not you know directly, a service. Tasks task and service to a client could have been tasked in service to the overall agency business. And then the other class, it sounded like agencies and freelancers will use virtual assistants to kind of augment the services they’re providing to clients, whether it be social media management keyword research, or any of the other aspects you talked about. So I’m just kind of imagining now like I have a, I have an agency. I have a new SEO client I have a set of tasks that must be complete. So then some of those things can be outsourced to the VA. Did you find like people draw the line. In that case, like around the analysis of the data versus like doing the task to pull reports and stuff, or

RN: yeah you’re dead on with that right that is exactly how it is. The role of the agency manager the freelancer becomes more around strategy than the actual implementation so they get to spend time, you know Michael Gerber everybody’s heard that concept of working on your business instead of in your business. That’s how you actually get there is to have somebody pulling the levers and pushing the knobs, and the way you just described and then you can strategically think about how to run the business, and then prioritize where you spend your time because many of our freelancers and agency managers, they still want to take those client calls they still want to deliver the message. But if they were having to actually do all the task of pulling the reports and gathering the data and Colet The, the different information that’s got to be delivered that they would never have time to have very many clients so that’s a really good,

DV: it’s an absolutely good point and reminds me of a saying I had in my agency days they rent our brains not our fingers. It’s not about the tasks, it’s about your expertise. Exactly. It sounds like it fits right in, Rob, this was great, thank you so much for coming on today.

RN: I really appreciate you having me I hope this was helpful and happy to spend time with anybody who has more questions about this whether you hire us or not. Awesome, awesome I wish I could go back in time and use some of these tips in my agency days.

DV: If you’d like to learn more about what Rob is up to please visit rocketstation.com. Thanks everyone for listening to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. Again, this has been your host, David Vogelpohl, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine. And I love to bring the best of the community to you here every unpressed.

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