How I started a Virtual Receptionist Remote Call Center that got successfully acquired after 5 years : Entrepreneur

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Hi all, I’m Donald Spann.So, back in early 2015, my former partner wrote a post on how we started our company, and it was a very popular post, but it was deleted. After being on a podcast a few days ago that was fun, I figured it would be nice to let reddit know our story againI’m here to essentially re-write it, 5 years later. I’ve been a redditor for almost 10 years now so I’ll write some quick disclaimers…Disclaimers:* I’m going to shy away from numbers overall, but this business generated a FT income, and I’ll leave it at that.* This will be long, and possibly boring at times, but the nuggets are in the details!* I will name the name of the company but I will not link it. I also don’t own it anymore, so it will merely benefit the new owner. Also, yes the new owner was ok with me writing this post.You will learn:What virtual receptionist companies areWhy virtual receptionist companies are a great fit for most small businessesHow to start a virtual receptionist companyThis post is not going to be some sexy brag post—but a legitimate post on how you can build a simple, awesome business that changed my life for the better.ONWARDS!Background:…so when you think about it, a LOT, perhaps most businesses need their calls answered.But very few businesses are a good fit for the typical “call answering” options they typically go with.They typically include:Hiring an employee or receptionist in-house to answer calls as their principal role (among other things)**The problem: Most small businesses can’t financially justify a FT employee just to answer the phone.**However, the opportunity cost of NOT answering the phone can be high as well, and oftentimes business owners either can’t be available all the time, or might be otherwise engaged in another activity while the phone rings. *This causes them to lose out on potential business.*Examples: Someone who has a FT job while running their part-time business. A solo law firm that gets calls while the attorney is in court. A painter in the middle of painting a wall when the phone rings.What usually ends up happening is the biz owner just deals with the financial hit, and they kick and punch (metaphorically) until they can hopefully build revenue enough to actually justify it.Hiring a traditional answering service**The problem: While the phone is getting answered for cheap, the quality of service provided isn’t high enough to win potential clients over.**I would say that this option is a decent fit for a lot of businesses as a minimum—but answering and taking messages for every caller can only be so helpful. Most of the time people are calling a business for the first time (the most important callers) they are in the research phase, and they are trying to decide whether THIS business is worth their time and money.Oftentimes, if the call takers (agents) take a message without answering necessary questions, that business won’t necessarily get written off, but the prospect isn’t won, either. They know that someone might get back to them (maybe not) and they will likely call competitors until they get the answers they’re looking for.Hiring a Virtual Assistant**The problem: VAs are meant to be task-based—not purely phone answer-ers.**Unless they are doing outbound telemarketing (which most of them do NOT want to do,) a VA isn’t best utilized for inbound calls.If you hire a VA in the US, you are paying as much as an employee, without the same level of commitment. If you hire outside of the US (or your business’ country, wherever you are) you run the risk of cultural/language lost-in-translation scenarios.It’s not terrible, but it’s certainly not ideal.So what does a business do? They typically go with one of these three options, and usually end up with some level of satisfaction, but for whatever reason, small businesses under 1 million in revenue (~90% of businesses according to NAICS Association) usually have some type of issue with each option.I myself had this same problem back in October 2014, when I was looking for call answering options for my cleaning company, which was around ~$150k/ARR at the time.So I looked into some options, didn’t love any of them, but during my extensive research I learned about Virtual Receptionist companies.Virtual Receptionist companies were perfect for us for the following reasons:They were mostly US-based agentsThey were a fraction of the cost of in-house employees or VAs (especially US VAs)The agents were enthusiastic and actually helpful (making a good impression for our business)So, being an entrepreneurial person, I realized sometime during my research that maybe I could reverse engineer one of these companies and make it work?At the time, outside of one job where I was taking calls selling dish network services for a few months, I had NO experience or knowledge about call centers or how to build one.So I talked to a few business friends to partner with—the second guy I talked to was in after one convo.Again, this was late October, 2014.We set a launch date of Jan 1, 2015, and got to work.Fortunately, my partner (got bought out by me second year) and I indeed got it done and launched on Jan 1, 2015, FOR VERY LITTLE MONEY, and we were profitable after two months in business.This is how we did it:(Note: some of the things I’ll recommend here as vendors, etc were not our original solutions–but what we eventually migrated to–I’ll post those to help eliminate trial and error for you guys)**Step 1: Figuring out what we’re going to offer:**Simply put, what we wanted to do was to provide what we were looking for specifically as business owners. We knew that our specific problem was a shared problem, so we wanted to be the ones to solve it.So off the top, we knew that we wanted a service that could:Answer callsScreen calls for solicitors/be gatekeepersAnswer any reasonable question from callers as long as we (agents) had access to the informationTake appointment bookingsTake messagesTransfer callsEmail our clients after every call with a call summary emailThis was relatively easy to figure out, as we just took what we liked from the services we looked into, and focused on that.We didn’t try to reinvent any wheels here, which is perhaps the most important nugget.In addition, we didn’t have much money.So we knew we couldn’t shell out for an office, or all kinds of equipment associated with that, so we knew we needed our agents to be able to work remotely.I’ll talk more about this later, but this not only saved costs, but gave us a competitive advantage in MOST ways (there are a few cons)Step 2: Figuring out who we were going to market to:So at the time my partner and I were both cleaning company owners in different markets. We started around the same time, we knew the business, and we knew other people in the community.As many of you redditors know about r/entrepreneurridealong, both of our businesses were born out of that sub back in 2013/early 2014.Because of this, we knew that people like us had the same problem. They needed a way to get their calls answered.So we focused our initial marketing on cleaning companies.Step 3: Branding/Value PropositionSo, I am NOT a developer, but I did have some experience building wordpress websites for other companies.We needed a name, so I spent about 20 minutes with my partner thinking of names that sounded industry-specific and fun. We also wanted something that rolled off the tongue pretty easily. We ALSO wanted a name with a domain URL of the exact same name that was available.Eventually we settled on the name Vicky Virtual ReceptionistsOur original premise was that we were a virtual receptionist company by cleaning company owners for cleaning company owners. We would focus our marketing efforts around this simple premise.But we needed a simple statement that would appeal to our audience—something that immediately captures your attention as soon as you hit our website.“No More Missed Business Calls”BOOM. Done.Great value prop, instant engagement.Logo: As I’ve done with many companies, I like to keep logos clean AF and simple (because many iconic brands keep it simple and sexy)Examples: Mercedes, Sony, Fedex, Nike, etcI’m not a designer, but I have a decent eye and no budget, so I eventually figured out a style that works wonders every time.Pick a color, pick a font, write out all or part of your company name, and enclose it in a thick rectangle.Here’s what’s Vicky Virtual’s looked like: https://imgur.com/AwxwuwhI’ve used this format for many businesses and it works (and gets compliments) every time.What I DO NOT do is use expensive logo designers like 99designs. This might work for you (and for certain industries, like fashion, I would maybe recommend it) but I find it unnecessary for this.Website: I built the site myself using wordpress. I spent A LOT of time getting the site the way I wanted it, and watched YouTube videos to figure out stuff I didn’t know, like how to get a certain design element or whatever. My partner was writing up content marketing posts, so I had a bit more time to work on/prioritize this.A lot of people don’t like to put THAT much value on their website, with the whole “done is better than perfect” philosophy.On MOST things, I wholeheartedly agree.When it comes to branding, however, you need a site that converts. This doesn’t mean, most beautiful—but it most certainly means spending TIME to get the details right.If you don’t have the time to do this yourself, there are many resources for getting a website done nowadays, at any sized budget.My only recommendation is seeing the portfolio, verifying that it’s their work, verifying a timeline, and getting some type of verifiable testimonial before committing to a website developer/designer.As far as putting the website together, I used a premium thing called “Jupiter (now Jupiter X)” found at https://themeforest.net/item/jupiter-multipurpose-responsive-theme/5177775Price for it is $59 (not an affiliate link.) There is a learning curve, but learning your way around a WP theme builder is one of the best skills you can have.Our pricing: I kept this simple and matched the pricing of one of our competitors at the time. I knew from my research that each agent could handle 15-20 clients at $250-$300/month in revenue per client, and that if I paid an agent $1,600/month for $3,750+/month in revenue—I could probably make those numbers work.We went with three plans:$99/month for 75 minutes$199/month for 180 minutes$299/month for 300 minutesAnd with per minute overage charges for businesses that went over…and custom plans I would work out for businesses that needed more than 300 mins/monthStep 4: Call Answering SoftwareCall center software, or contact center software, can get ridiculously complex, and frankly, I’m just not going to go over it all in this post…but there are a few nutshell things to ABSOLUTELY STICK TO.It must be reliable AF. Emphasis on RELIABLE AF.It should have solid reporting on all the metrics you needIt needs to be within your budgetNow for those of you that are starting off, there is a pretty clear inexpensive (in this category) initial option that works well, and that’s DialpadDialpad costs $75/agent/month, and it does everything you need for your Virtual Receptionist company.What I WILL cover here is the reliability issue.So most cloud softwares (in any industry really) sit on cloud based servers like AWS. In the phone (telecom) space, there are a BUNCH of platforms, with 10s of millions in investments, sitting on something called Twilio, which sits on AWS, and is a pretty intuitive, API heavy platform.For those of you that know a bit, Twilio to telecom is like Stripe to payment processors, or Square to POS, or Shopify to ecommerce.The PROBLEM is that Virtual Receptionist companies are meant to make our clients feel like they have an in-house employee, without the costs, without the sick days, and without the vacation time.This means that the above all else, the only thing that really matters is that you don’t miss calls.Sparing you the details—if the software doesn’t sit on their OWN physical data centers…the reliability will NOT be high enough.I’ve used 6 different phone vendors in 5 years, and did serious demos and research on 50+ of them over the years (and we’re talking initial and secondary calls, testing…the works…)Dialpad sits on their own data centers, and all of the major old school players that stuck around do as well.For contrast, we used a service like Talkdesk (with a few different businesses) and would somehow lose up to 10-15%+ of calls for reasons I stopped trying to figure out.Talkdesk recently raised 100mm at a 1bn valuation and it was almost unusable, because it wasn’t sitting on good enough infrastructure (built on Twilio.)Rule of thumb is—if you miss more than 8-10% of calls, your customers will notice, and it will negatively impact them and your company. With a great software, we maintained 2-5% (some calls WILL be missed because of solicitors, wrong numbers, etc)Ok, so with all that said, we used several vendors, and the recommended vendors to date would be:Dialpad (low cost relatively, great platform but limited. $150/agent/month all-in after other a la carte costs like phone numbers and such. No initiation fee.)Five9 (around $250/agent/month all-in which isn’t that bad, high upfront initiation fee of ~$2,500+)Step 5: Hiring ReceptionistsSo we initially tried to keep this simple, and again, we had a small budget, but we needed two people.So we hired:My partner’s sister fresh out of high schoolMy friend’s semi-retired mom.We paid them $10/hour to start, hired them as 1099 contractors (strong recommendation you switch to W2 ASAP after starting your business) and they agreed to be paid their first month’s paycheck at the end of the first month. This limited our upfront cash investment.In terms of the schedule, we set coverage hours of:8AM-8PM Eastern Time, Mon-FriThese times covered all 4 major US time zones from 8-5PMOne agent would start 8am and work until 5pm, and the other would show up at 11am and work until 8pm, each with a one hour lunch break.This allowed their schedules to overlap during the busiest period for any virtual receptionist company—lunch.The tip here is to make sure you hire RELIABLE AF agents so you don’t end up on the phone yourself, or without coverage.Step 6: Pre-Launch MarketingAgain, we stuck to the group we knew–cleaning company owners. We simply reached out to them, built an email list, saved them in Mailchimp, and sent a few pre-launch announcement emails building up to our launch.There was nothing complicated about this—we had roughly 30 people on the list at launch, we sent a total of 2 pre-launch emails talking about what step in the process we were at, and one email on launch day, and ended up with 7 signups day 1.Step 7: After launch marketingI knew that we needed to get to about 20 clients in order to break even, and again, low budget, so I decided to hop on the phone and make cold calls.I focused on cleaning companies and was able to get us mostly to our goal after about 3 weeks of calls, not making that many calls per day.The nugget here is that it took me roughly 80 calls to land one sign-up. Half of sign-ups went through our 7 day free trial and became clients.How I would do a call: I would call the company and ask how they’re currently getting their calls handled.Based on what they said, I would cater my pitch to how we could help them.Fact is, most businesses don’t know what Virtual Receptionists are (see above) but once they wrap their head around it—it’s a pretty obvious move for them.Just play the numbers.So…that’s it!There’s some other things we figured out to get to where we finished, but we launched a simple company, under a simple premise, and we learned as we went along.Also, we started off targeting cleaning company owners, but through our content marketing efforts (blogging and guest blogging under the Virtual Receptionist keyword is $$$), other businesses in different industries started finding us.We eventually ended up taking calls for over 30 different types of companies.We used slack for communication with the teamWe used gsuite for emailsWe used solve360 CRM to keep track of clientsHope this helps!I do want to leave with one final, general nugget that most people don’t seem to know:Starting a Business IS NOT A PIPEDREAM.50% of businesses with employees last at least 5 years!30% make it 15 years!A ridiculous amount of people talk about how 95% of businesses fail.They’re all wrong.These surprising statistics are taken directly from The Small Business Administration.Once you focus on simple ideas that WORK, you can start normal businesses with confidence.My dream was to start a business. I’ve started 11 incorporated businesses in the last 8 years, and 6 of them have hit at least 10k/month in revenue. So with that, I’ve been fortunate enough where my last job ever was in 2011.This company was the biggest.Thanks for reading!If you have any questions, please leave a comment or PM me!EDIT: TURNING IN FOR THE NIGHT BUT WILL ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS IN THE MORNING!

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