Having acquired an online business and run through a full site audit after closing, its usually the right time to give more detailed thought into how the business is going to be managed on a day to day basis. This will invariably depend on individual circumstances, preferences as well as time commitments.
This article explores in detail the ways in which buyers can outsource aspects of their business. It gives practical advice on outsourcing success as well as information on semi-automation or complete managed services.
How To Manage An Online Business
Some buyers invest with the sole aim of learning more about online business, taking on a more active management role. These buyers, should be clear on how to run a successful online business. Portfolio buyers on the other hand, may have an internal team to take care of website management or may wish to operate a more outsourced, passive model.
Whichever route is taken, buyers still need to plan and manage resources effectively, to ensure success. Whilst self-management is the most popular route, we have outlined two alternative routes that investors should consider – outsourcing and managed services. With automation high on investor’s priorities, we also share some top tips for realizing the benefits of semi-automation.
Over the years, FE International has dealt with thousands of buyers from different backgrounds looking to invest at different levels of the online business market. We have seen online entrepreneurs with skills that vary dramatically both in terms of breadth and depth. As noted by Sparks; “most entrepreneurs have great talents but (often) think they can do it all”. This is particularly true of first-time to intermediate investors. When managing an online business however, owner’s often lack expertise or interest in a specific area. This is not necessarily a bad thing and more often than not, investors can build a better business with outsourcing.
Over the years, people’s perception towards outsourcing has changed dramatically. In the past, outsourcing was seen as something only attainable to ‘big businesses’ that required certain skills but wanted to avoid adding overall headcount. With the internet, came global connectivity which has fundamentally changed the way and extent to which both large and small businesses outsource. A recent statistic shows that the global market size of outsourced services has grown YoY, reaching $105bn in 2014.
Value of outsourced services in US, 2005 – 2014, billions.
Source: Huawei (2015).
Benefits of Outsourcing
There is no doubt that outsourcing is an attractive proposition with plenty of benefits to be had for small businesses and website owners alike. Embedding a well-defined, sustainable outsourced model helps free up management/owner time, which is often better spent working on more strategic elements of the business. In essence, outsourcing helps internet businesses remain agile, whilst contractors benefit from freedom and mobility.
Not only this, but rates for contractors (often residing non-domestically) are often much lower than web owner are able to pay in their home country. To hire a programmer in California it is likely to cost around $80-$120 per hour. In Vietnam, which is now the top global outsourcing location, rates could be as little as one-quarter of the cost. In short, well-structured virtual teams can help cut overhead costs.
That being said, whilst putting together well-structured virtual teams of contractors, creates a level of flexibility and efficiency that is unlikely to be achieved any other way, pulling together the right team with the right skills at the right time requires detailed planning. Finding the right balance takes time, trust and patience. In some cases, outsourcing can lead to hidden expense and risk, so it is important to get it right.
Roles That Can Be Outsourced
To many online investors, outsourcing is the only tenable way of successfully building a portfolio of online businesses. With a rapidly growing portfolio or with an internet business that is realizing rapid month-on-month growth, the decision is quite simple. Nevertheless, selecting the tasks to be outsourced vs. kept in-house is not always obvious. To provide some clarity, we have broken down some of the key roles that are most commonly outsourced:
- Virtual Assistants (VA)
- Graphic Design
- Website Design / Development
- Online Tech Support
- Data Entry / Processing
- Content Creation and Management
- Social Media Management
- Customer Service
Outsourcing the Right Way
Having made the decision to outsource one or more tasks it is key to follow some basic principles when looking for contractors to work with.
1. Know What Is Required.
This may sound obvious, but it is a mistake that we see buyers making time and time again. Business owners should be absolutely clear when they look to define and communicate the task that requires completion. Outlining the objectives of the task, milestones and a clear vision is likely to reduce the risk of misinterpretation. Using available tips for writing specifications, is a good starting point.
It is always worth giving more information than you think is required when putting together the brief. Most websites/marketplaces where jobs are posted require an advert for the piece of work, try and be as detailed as possible and invite questions along the way.
2. Road Test The Individual.
Before committing to any contract (short or long-term) or agreeing to Escrow funds, it is important to ensure that the individual is good fit. As the contractors/virtual teams are often geographically disparate, it is important that each contractor produces work of high quality, is able to communicate well and is reliable.
Many of the websites that web owners use to find contractors provide reviews and testimonials, providing some reassurance. However, be proactive and ask them to complete a small task prior to committing them to a project and look for trust signals throughout. For more information, review this first-timer’s guide to hiring a VA.
3. Track, Monitor And Improve.
When the contractor is on boarded, the process doesn’t end. It is important to manage a virtual team effectively, to ensure that pre-agreed milestones are hit and work is to sufficient quality. Whilst being hands-off may be empowering for the individual, it could result in scope creep from the original brief. We recommend organizing regular briefings, status reviews as well as screenshares to review work. Keeping in regular contract will not only provide reassurance but will help to strengthen the relationship, paying dividends down the line.
Outsourcing Websites: Where To Start?
With a whole host of outsourcing websites to choose from, with more emerging, finding the right one can be a little tricky. Whilst each site has broadly the same focus, in terms of the type of work offered and core functionality (users post jobs, people bid on the work, price is negotiated, there are some nuances to be aware of.
From our experience, buyers and sellers frequently cite the following websites as being the most useful within the industry, reviews are also available.
Aside from outsourcing and website management, the burden of managing an online business asset can be significantly reduced by investing in business and process semi-automation. We often hear online entrepreneurs referring to their business as ‘passive’. What they really mean is they have taken the necessary steps to achieve semi-automation. Whilst there is obvious upfront time and cost involved, the medium to long-term gain of automating 79.7% of an internet business can be tremendous.
As an automated business grows, it naturally becomes more efficient over time, reducing costs and owner time requirements. Whilst automation is an attractive strategy for investors, it can be complex and warrants demystification. Below are some of the most effective first steps to take when looking to semi-automate an online business:
1. Email Marketing
Auto-responders/drip campaigns can feed a sequence of content to subscribers, without the need to manually email people whenever they sign up to a mailing list. They are key for nurturing potential leads, at all times in the day. There are plenty of resources available that teach individuals how to use auto-responders to drive traffic and increase income. Drip is a particularly good tool for email automation – allowing individuals to send automated welcome emails, product recommendations and more.
2. Social Media
Managing social media can be arduous. Having a social media presence is extremely important for online business and customers have come to expect it as a method of engagement. A well-thought out social media automation strategy can be achieved through using tools such as Buffer, which allow marketers to connect all social media accounts and create content queues. SproutSocial is another tool, which helps by creating support tickets for comments made by followers or fans.
3. Third-party Payment Gateways
Popular online payment gateways such as PayPal help webmasters make regular payments for subscriptions, services and affiliate partners. PayPal is great for small businesses, as there are no monthly costs involved. Likewise, other providers such as Stripe and Authorize.net have a set of APIs and are built with integration in mind.
CMS’ such as WordPress allow webmasters to schedule posts for days or even weeks ahead to ensure that posts go out on-time, at different points in the day. Publish to Schedule is a popular plugin that we regularly see used in the blogging community.
5. Customer Support
As an online business grows, it is likely that a growing number of people are involved in the overall management of the business. Customer support automation can be used to proactively manage and engage customers to ensure that their support queries are handled as efficiently as possible. ZenDesk for example, is able to manage support issues cross-platform as well as providing chat functionality and customer real-time customer support analytics.
Tools such as QuickBooks automatically import transactions from banks and/or payment gateway provides, which has a number of benefits including the reduction of manual data entry and reconciliation. Investors should look to use such tools from the outset, as maintaining a robust set of accounts is crucial for any subsequent sale.
Semi-automation can be achieved in all areas of online business operations, from customer support through to social media management and order fulfillment. Whilst automation is attractive, it is important to remember that customer experience still needs to be upheld to the highest standards, to realize any incremental benefit.
If self-management and outsourcing still seems too hands-on, there is always the option of working with a company to outsource website management entirely. Companies offer services that include on-going maintenance, brand strategy as well as content management, otherwise known as Website Management Outsourcing. With expert resources in place as well as vast experience, this option can be attractive to online investors. A website management company will offer the full spectrum of services required to successfully management an online business:
- Inbound marketing
- Website design and development
- Search marketing
- Social media management
- Content marketing
- Email marketing
- Customer support
Website management companies usually charge a flat monthly fee, which covers everything required to manage the business. Therefore, instead of having to make irregular payments, cash flow forecasting becomes even easier. Clearly, the amount charged will depend on the services required, size and complexity of the business in question.
FE International offers management services and has a large portfolio of businesses under management on behalf of clients.
As an investor, the time required to manage an online business can often build up quickly. It is important to take a step back and figure out the best way of managing the asset in advance of acquisition. Looking to outsource aspects of management, semi-automate or paying for managed services altogether are all viable options that can help augment the management strategy for the business, setting it up for success from the outset.