Outsourcing is a common practice that entrepreneurs use to alleviate the stress of a growing business’ workload. Some hire freelancer writers, others opt for a full-time VA and some business owners hire out everything that is automated. But as most entrepreneurs learn over time, some things are better off in-house.
Bill D’Alessandro of Rebel CEO ultimately decided to stop outsourcing and helps weigh in on what all eCommerce owners should know before making the call to insource or to outsource.
Andrew: Hey, guys, it’s Andrew here, and welcome to the eCommerceFuel podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today on the show. And today, why outsourcing is killing your business. Is it? Perhaps.
Bill: It might be.
Andrew: It could be. We’re going to argue about it and see if it’s something you’re doing too much of. And recently back from a four-hour workweek, book-burning, I believe, Mr. Bill D’Alessandro from Rebelceo.com. Bill, how are you doing?
Bill: Doing good. I’m nice and toasty over here.
Andrew: You bought a whole pallet of them to burn, huh?
Bill: Yup. Yeah, I did one of those contests that he does. Bought like 20,000 copies of 4-Hour Workweek.
Andrew: I wonder if he’d be very pleased that you did that or upset that you ended up burning them all?
Bill, so this was your idea for the episode. What do you mean by this? What do you mean by “is outsourcing killing your business?”
Bill: So I really wanted to come on and talk about this because I built my business as a 4-Hour Workweek disciple. I mean, I cannot give Tim Ferriss enough credit; 4-Hour Workweek was the book that launched me into entrepreneurship in eCommerce. Period. I think it is a fantastic book. However, I think there are some things in it that are easy to take as gospel as early entrepreneur that are not necessarily 100% always true/the best way to run things.
Businesses were run in certain way for centuries before the 4-Hour Workweek and the internet and some of them worked quite well.
Andrew: Wait, what?
Bill: Businesses did survive pre-4-Hour Workweek. And thrived, in fact. And so personally, I have just come off a sort of de-four-hour-workweek-ization of my business to some degree. I started my business in 2010. It was just me. It was only me and outsourcers for four years. In 2014, I hired my first employee and then earlier this year, in 2015, I un-outsourced all of my fulfillment so I had fulfillment for all my brands outsourced. Earlier this year, I leased a 5,000-square foot warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina. I hired several employees to work in it. I fired my outsource call center. My employees now do customer service in-house. We ship all of our boxes in-house. We do a lot of our email marketing in-house. We do so many things in-house that I used to do outsourced, and it is awesome.
I’m completely loving it. The power that comes from having everything under one roof is incredible. So I wanted to come on and talk a little bit about my experience with 40-hour work week in it and some of the power that comes by not just relying on outsourcing everything. I just think there’s this gospel in eCommerce that outsource first, outsource first. Period. But there a lot of really cool things about having people in-house and you don’t have to give up the flexibility. You can have people in-house and still travel around the world. That’s some of the stuff we’re going to get into today.
Andrew: Yeah, very cool and it’s interesting you’ve been as you just said, moving more toward kind of a brick and mortar insourced model and well, we’ve got…I’ve got 14 members to help out with eCommerceFuel and our eCommerce business. I always have been a little bit very…I don’t know if afraid’s the right word, but very cognizant of making sure that the business stayed really lean. Of course, I have a small office that’s like maybe 250 square feet. But apart from that, no warehouse, anything like that.
So this will be interesting because I tend to kind of stay on the other side. This will be hopefully, a couple of fireworks here for people listening on the back and forth. Bill, one thing I think maybe we can kick it off with this, talk about when to hire versus when to outsource. And traditionally for me, like I look at hiring as, you hire people in-house as in you bring them on your payroll, for really critical roles, roles that require a lot of training and roles that have a lot of stability or continuity that are important to have associated with them.
And when I look at ecommerce outsourcing, I’m looking to outsource things that require very specific, well-defined roles and oftentimes, have a lot of expertise. When I hire for those critical roles, sometimes they’re more generalist-roles, people that can wear a lot of hats, people that can really kind of run a business whereas, outsourcing, I’m looking for someone who knows zero, incredibly well, and I don’t have to spend three weeks getting them up to speed on it and teaching what an income statement is.
Is that kind of the same framework you use?
Bill: Sort of. I think you’ve kind of baked two reasons to outsource into one reason to outsource. I think there are really two reasons to outsource. One is when the job is so simple that they don’t need a lot of training. It’s very straightforward, and it’s kind of rote-button pushing.
The other is when the job is so complex that you can’t possibly hire someone to do it in-house full-time for a reasonable amount of money. You know, if you need a formulary chemist to develop this advanced sunscreen product, you should not hire a formulary chemist, right? You should outsource that. You should find one to hire on a contract basis.
Similarly, if you need someone to just button-push, and type data into Excel, you should outsource that to India, too. But I think sort of the middle is where you should think about bringing something in-house and I think the sweet spot for bringing people in-house, in-house, I think, is wider than anticipated. Fulfillment is one of those things that people tend want to outsource right away. They go, “Oh, this is very simple. This is take a thing off the shelf and put it in the box and hand it to the mail carrier to put a label on.” Very, very simple. Repeat over and over and over again.
But the thing is with fulfillment, there are a lot of real time exceptions. There are packages that get returned and wow! Now what does your outsourced fulfillment do? Or there’s somebody that calls in and says, “Hey, I meant to order a red one instead of a blue one. I just placed my order 30 minutes ago. Can you change it for me?” And now, you’re not physically there. It’s very hard to manage exceptions through the telephone or through email when you aren’t physically in the same place. It adds a lot of friction to every interaction when you outsource.
Andrew: It does but it also…I hope this is okay, Bill, that I mention this. We talking kind of before we started recording about the PNL side of things and you do gain, like you said, the flexibility and the ability to be agile and change orders on-the-fly. But in terms of what you’re taking on, you’re taking on more overhead, you’re taking on more risk and financial obligation with the lease, with the employees, things like that. And you were saying right now, it’s about to wash in terms of profitability. It does give you the ability to scale up and grow and as you grow into it, those figures will pencil more favorably, and you’ll actually be able to save money as you grow versus outsource fulfillment. But at the level you’re at right now, it was about a wash with the… you do get the more flexibility in terms of being lean or in terms of being able to change orders, but you do have the more overhead and risk, as well.
Bill: True, so that’s a fair point. When you’re very, very small, sometimes it makes more sense to outsource because you can pay per order, and you don’t need a lease. You don’t have like this fixed cost of the lease and somebody who’d ship and pack boxes.
Insourced is more of a stair-step cost model. You have a certain amount of fixed cost, and you can add one incremental order without increasing your cost at all. And you can do that for a while until you have to hire a second person or until you have to move to a bigger space. You can’t just say, “Oh, I have more stuff in my warehouse. I need to lease two more square feet today.”
It’s a stair-step function. But when you’re smaller, keep in mind, it can work to your advantage, too. Like you’re like, “Oh, well. It only cost me $2 an order to outsource fulfillment and shipping.” Well, how much does it cost you to do it yourself out of your garage? Zero. And then when you get too big for your garage, then you have…you’re eyeballing the stair-step. Do I commit to a lease? And I lock in that or can I just send it to a fulfillment center and pay $2 an order? And then, at certain points along the curve, it makes sense to be insourced, and at certain points along the curve, it makes sense to be outsourced.
I would say, generally, the bigger you get, the more likely you can make insource work or the smaller you get, the more likely you make insource work because it’s just you. In the middle, outsourcing can make a lot of sense. Outsourcing can also help you scale really easily. If you’re an Oprah tomorrow and you’re outsourced, they just ship the orders, no problem.
You should run the analysis but insourcing makes more sense than people think.
Andrew: So Bill, may we entangle some of the dangers in outsourcing as well as dangers in hiring people too much and kind of run through a handful of them? You touched on a bunch already, but one is if you’re outsourcing, you usually get less buy-in from team members. Someone in-house who you work with every day, who you’re paying their salary, who you have much more of a face-to-face or at least a rapport with, is going to care much more your business, especially if you’re doing a good job leading them than somebody in an outsourced fulfillment company or a warehouse or something like that. You don’t have the buy-in.
Actually, one thing I’ve done with drop-shipping to try to do that is at Christmas time, I’ll send over…they’re not big. But they’re small cash bonuses to the pick and packers at our drop-shippers, at least one of our primary drop-shipper to the people who do that to try to one, let them know I appreciate them but two, create a little bit of sense of buy-in because a lot of times if you’re not doing in-house, there’s not as much initiative for them to really make sure that an excellent job is getting done.
Bill: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I mean, you know intuitively as a consumer, right? Every time you dial an 800 number, you know. How long did it take you to know that’s an outsourced call center, right?
Andrew: Seven minutes and that’s usually right when somebody comes on the phone after you’re on hold for 20.
Bill: Seven minutes of hold time, five seconds of talking to them. You immediately know they’re reading from the script. You know they don’t understand the products. You know they don’t use the products. You know that they were talking to someone else about dog food 10 minutes earlier.
You can just, as a customer, you can tell. But also, from a business perspective, they don’t know your products. They can’t cross-sell them the same way, they can’t upsell them the same way. Customers want to hear, “Oh, well. I really like…this is the one that I use. This is the product that I use. This is why I’ve been here for two years and I’ve seen… we developed this product.” They can speak so much more authentically about your brand, when they actually work for your brand.
And I mean the same thing. Like if you have insourced fulfillment, write a handwritten note on every packing slip if you want. You can just say, “Thanks for your order.” Signed, Bill. And all of your warehouse employees can do that. That costs you no additional money, but it’s a great extra touch for your customers that you just can’t get in outsourced. You get so much more buy-in, and I think it’s funny to hear you say that you send little cash bonuses to outsource guys. I did the same thing. When I was outsourced, I knew there was a Dairy Queen across from my old outsourced warehouse and so I called Dairy Queen and I had them deliver 50 free DQ coupons to everybody that had ever touched. I said to my relationship manager, I said, “Anybody who’s ever touched or looked at one of my products gets one of these.”
Andrew: That’s awesome.
Bill: Which is a great thing to do. But if that works in outsourced…I mean, for example, it’s one of my employees birthdays today. I grabbed a Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream cake on my way to the office. We sat around and we had ice cream cake. You get…I clearly like ice cream.
You just get like better buy-in for people who care more about your products, and also if things go wrong, you know, your outsourced people don’t care at all. Your insourced people actually care about making these customers happy.
Andrew: And Bill, another one you said was problems don’t always bubble up. What did you mean by that?
Bill: Oh, I mean that if your business is not taking place in front of your face, stuff is going to go wrong forever before you realize it’s going wrong. With my outsourced fulfillment company, personal story. Thank God this worked out okay. But I did a shipping analysis and I was like, “Man, why are all of our…why am I spending so much on shipping with FedEx? And I couldn’t figure out. I was insisting it was wrong. What we ultimately figured out is that they had not configured the weights of all my products in their system, and so everything had defaulted to 1 kilogram, which is 2.2 pounds. Now my products are small jars of skin cream that weigh several ounces. I had overpaid almost $20,000 in shipping over almost a year. And it was because nobody cared. They weren’t eyeballing it.
Then it happened here. My warehouse manager who’s full-time would have said, “Hmm, this is too much.” They would’ve caught it. But that problem didn’t bubble up to me for 10 months, and I had to take it out of my outsourced fulfillment company. Thank God, they reimbursed me, because it was their error. That was a $20,000 mistake that I could have been on the hook for. Also like as far as the way they’re doing things like I was paying them by the hour and by the touch to assemble some things and they were just doing it in this horribly inefficient way. I used to go out there every six months, and I showed up and I was like, “Oh, my God. You’ve been doing it this way for six months and charging me for it?”
But they just don’t care because outsourcers, they just punch a clock. They’re like, “All right. I followed the checklist.” Or they come up with their own checklist, and they’re not doing it right. But if you’re in the office, like I swing to the warehouse every day, and I see how things are going back there. I occasionally pack orders with the warehouse manager. And so I can say, “Hey, should we be doing it this way? Why don’t we put this table over here? What if our process was better?” You can only do that in-person?
Andrew: Yeah, you can fine tune and oil your machine and one thing is there’s a lot less continuity for customers. This has been a frustration of mine with drop-shipping. If a customer calls up and says, “Hey, I’d love to order this antenna. But can you tell me, are there two screws down here on the right-hand side underneath the magnet?” Then I kind of say, “Well, let me check with our warehouse manager. I’ll give you call right back.” And I got to hang up, and I got to call our drop-ship to house. And then they’ve got to go look at it. And they’ve got to call me back. And then I call back to just see…it takes so much longer to do some basic things whereas, Bill, you, you would go ahead and just you just say, “Hey, can you hold on for 30 seconds? I’ll go grab it.” You go grab it. You pull it out. You talk to him on the phone and it’s done. It’s resolved.
Andrew: And that happens all throughout the process not just in that one little thing. So it’s like the continuity that you have is something that’s hard to make work with outsourcing a lot of times.
Bill: I completely agree. I mean, what you’re getting at is the friction of email and telephone management. And this was actually ultimately the thing that pushed me over the edge, caused me to snap, maybe turned my life upside down, lease a 5,000-square foot warehouse and hire tons of people is I realized there are a couple of tools on the internet that you can plug them into your Gmail and then measure how much time you spend in Gmail, how many emails you’re sending, etc.
I realized that I was spending…there was like four hours of my day just off the top that I spent dealing with bullshit like on the phone and over email with my outsourcers. Like if somebody had emailed in, and was like, “Hey, I need a red one instead of a blue one.” I would have to email or call the outsourcer, the outsource fulfillment house. I’d have to wait for them to get back to me. Sometimes they would say, “Oh, well, it’s already been packaged so we can’t change it. Now it’s a return.” And now I got deal with the return with the customer. I email the customer. “I’m sorry.” And I spent all this time like checking on things, waiting for them to get back to me. Email and telephone time and it was just pure friction. Whereas now, I can just poke my head out of the door and I go, “Hey, change order 123 to blue.” And Matty [SP] goes, “Done.” And I go back to the phone and I go, “No problem.” It’s done and there’s no email and I’m already drowning in email. I wrote a post on my blog about how to deal with too much email. I’m sure you’re drowning in email, too.
And I realized that the phone and the email, I was a slave to the management and the friction, because managing people over email and telephone is not even close to as efficient as communicating with them face-to-face. And I was wasting so much time and since I’ve had this all in-house, I feel completely liberated. I mean, I can’t tell you how much lower stressed my life is, how much like the graph on the how many emails I send, has cratered. I mean, so few because now we have Slack so we do team chat, and I just walk down the hall and fix things. There’s no BS anymore, it’s amazing.
Andrew: So before everyone heads out and follows Bill’s lead and hires a huge team, gets the warehouse up and running, abandons the outsourced mindset, let’s chat quickly about a few of the dangers of hiring, bringing too much stuff in-house because I think there is a real danger there potentially, especially, if you do too soon.
First one, Bill, overhead. We were talking about this earlier, too. You get overhead and it’s easy to bring on, it’s hard to shed when you need to. And overhead, if you’re not careful, can kill you. We’ll link up to a comment from a to remain anonymous forum member, at least on the podcast, about having too many employees, just the stress that caused and how they got done and they downsized and they realized they really didn’t need them because there was a lot of stuff that they weren’t really doing that was adding to the value of the company.
Bill, is that something that even in the early kind of love bird stages that you’re in, is that something that you think about in the back of my mind, “Here’s my kind of minimum hit I’ve got to make every month to make this viable.”
Bill: Yes, you asked me on a previous episode we did whether using debt to finance my business kept me up at night? And I said, no.
Andrew: And I was like, “What? How can it not?”
Bill: This is something that keeps me up a little bit at night. I mean, I now have a staggering kind of annual figure just for rent and salaries that I have to clear before I put any money in my pocket, because the thing about outsourced is it scales up and it also scales down. There’s really no fixness to it. And also like if you can’t pay them, you just go, “Hey, I need an extra 30 days to pay.” You can’t do that with payroll. Rent and payroll are like the most inflexible bills that there are. Like you pay on time, every time. You have to. And it’s scary in a way. I mean, I look around, and I look at all these people who depend on this business as their job and it’s a little scary, yeah. For sure.
Andrew: And another one is managing people. If you’re not careful, it’s a big investment in your time and what you’re doing. In terms of training people to come on board, in terms of keeping people busy in the slow times, managing people to make sure that not only are they doing their job and learning new things, but they’re feeling like they’re growing and maturing in their role. Managing people is lot of work. It’s something you need to do to build a good team and build a powerful team, of course. But it’s not something that you necessarily have to do with outsourcing, because someone else is responsible for making sure there’s a team that can execute there and granted, I will grant you that an outsourced team is never going to perform as well as a well-trained on-board, well-lead in-house team. But it takes a lot of time to develop that properly.
Bill: It does. I’d be interested to hear your take on this. From the time that you hire someone, I mean, you have a couple full-time. They’re not physically there with you but they’re full-time. Right?
Andrew: One full-time, one part-time, and then a couple of VAs that are out of the country, but yeah.
Bill: So when you brought on your full-time employee, how many months did it take before she was effective?
Andrew: Yeah, I’d say it depends on different levels, right? And so…
Bill: And I don’t mean this personally, either about her. I mean, because adding an employee takes ramp time.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, I’ll just do it generally across all the employees I’ve hired. I think there’s at least, at bare minimum, a three to six-month ramp up period where you’re probably spending more time working with and on that person to get them up to speed than they’re contributing back to the business. For most employees, I’d say…I know for myself, when I joined the investment bank right out of college, I was a total suck on resources for a minimum of six months, and I think that’s fairly safe to say for any kind of job. If you’re talking about someone who’s very basic things, maybe that’s less time. But for anything that has a little bit of complexity in it, yeah, at least six months minimum.
Bill: Yeah, that’s been my experience, too. I mean, everybody here has been here for about three months, and they are really just starting to hit. I think any employee takes time to ramp up, but they’re just really hitting their stride as to they know what they need to do when they come in the morning. They know how to solve their own problems. It’s not a net drain on me. I mean, my whole summer was, I barely accomplished anything except training people which is huge. And now, we have people that can crank out their jobs and now it’s in the positive.
When you go from just you to you and an employee, you immediately give up 20% of your time that you can no longer do things. You can no longer accomplish things. You have to spend that 20% of the time managing them. But now they can spend…they have to spend 20% of their time being managed. So you each are 80% effective, but together you’re 160% effective.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. And you had mentioned, Bill, one of the other dangers. It’s so much harder to scale up and down as needed when you’ve got a big in-house team and you just got that overhead and then finally, less domain expertise. I think one thing with…at least for myself, I would guess is the case for you where you’re at right now, Bill and a lot of kind of independent merchants in that high six, low seven-figure range, you’re big enough where you need help, you need people to come on board. But you also can’t hire out all the separate roles like an accountant in-house, a tax guy in-house, somebody who does amazing SEO in-house, PPC in-house, because then, there’s no way you could do it. You need someone that you can trust, someone that can wear a lot of hats, that’s a little bit more versatile.
When you do bring that in-house, for those things, you do give up some of that domain expertise, that deep vertical expertise in those different areas, to have somebody who can be more of a generalist that you can rely on, because there’s no way you can afford to pay for everybody.
Bill: Sure. Yeah, you can’t have an accountant when you only need an accountant five hours a week. You can’t have a full-time accountant. It just doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, I think we get back to training. I mean, people can be trained. My employees are having to wear a lot of hats right now. One of them does customer service and email marketing. And she’s starting to do Google AdWords and some Amazon optimization, things like that. My warehouse people, they’ve got to not only ship all the orders but have to understand how the postal service works, have to order from my suppliers, have to understand that when we order sunscreen, we’ve got to order labels, things like that. Training them up has been tough because you can’t find anybody to do all that stuff. You can’t find anybody who can wear eight different hats at once, like that resume doesn’t exist. You have to train them.
There’s a real ramp because you can’t hire the job that you need off the street. You got to train them.
Andrew: But I’ll be curious to hear. Are the people that are doing your pick and pack doing some of those things like Amazon and email marketing when it’s slow? Are they doing both of those things or do you have someone who’s a pick and pack full-time and then someone who’s a little more on the marketing side full-time?
Bill: So I’ve got them separated. There’s one role which is marketing and that encompasses email marketing, customer service, blog writing, social media, basically anything that touches a customer. It really should like if this touches the customer directly, if the customer reads this, if the customer speaks to us, she handles that.
The warehouse handles all shipping packages and also making sure we have everything to ship. So ordering from our suppliers, doing assembly, filling shampoo and sunscreen, putting labels on them and caps on them, planning our inventory levels, making sure we’re not out of stock on Amazon, that type of thing.
I’ve centralized it in that way, but there’s still definitely a bunch of different hats.
Andrew: Got you, make sense. Bill, I’d love to close on one question and it’s, do you think there’s a cap on how big you can grow a business being really lean with a couple of key employees and outsourcing a lot of it? Do think there’s this kind of…Taylor Pearson, he’s on show. He wrote “The End of Jobs.” I don’t know if you’ve read that. I’m in the middle of it, it’s a great book. He kind of argues that fixed jobs are getting a lot harder to secure, and really, people are becoming much specialist, much more entrepreneurial in a sense, and do you think that it’s possible to grow in this new brave world we live in with so many outsourcing opportunities that you can grow a very sizable eight-figure business with maybe a handful, call it half a dozen key employees and outsourcing the rest of it? Or do you think there’s a ceiling where you have to, at some point say, “Okay. I’m going to bring everything in-house because there’s no way you can scale.”
Bill: So I want to really say that there is a cap and hear all of the people come out of the woodwork to prove me wrong.
I think that would be fascinating. But no, I do not think there’s a cap as to what you can do with a motivated entrepreneur and a handful, five or so really committed employees. And I know, I would love to hear from listeners who are examples of this. If you’ve got five or so employees and are just really killing it, leave a comment on here. I’d love to see your business and chat with you. But I don’t think there’s a limit to that. But I do firmly believe there is a limit to what you can do alone. And that is, I do not think you can build a big business, a big successful staying power business, as a single person, using only outsourcers. Period. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that. You are going to need, at some point, some committed bought-in employees.
Andrew: We’d love to hear your counter points and arguments to the contrary, eCommerceFuel.com and couple kind of closing things. One, if you do want to do some strategic outsourcing but I think you and I both would agree that outsourcing very strategic elements of your businesses, even for large businesses that are growing is great to do. If you’re in the forum, we just rolled out, the last couple months, a service provider directory where members of the forum are reviewing people that they’ve used for accounting, for a graphic design, for programming, all these kinds of things. Instead of going to oDesk and having to trust a bunch of reviews which may or may not be very legit, you can see providers who are recommended by people in the forum who are actually running these businesses. Go ahead and check that out.
Bill, I’ll be very interested to see the comments we’ll get if any, on this. So maybe someone will come up with a $20 million one-person business completely outsourced, and we will have to them on the show.
Bill: I would love to have them on the show. That would be really cool. I hope people comment or hit us up on Twitter, and let’s have a discussion about this.
Andrew: Bill, it’s been fun as always. Thanks so much man.
Bill: Yeah, sure thing.
Andrew: That’s going to do it for this week. If you enjoyed the episode, make sure to check out the eCommerceFuel private forum, a vetted community, exclusively for six and seven-figure store owners.
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