Original interview and Podcast with Yaro Starok
YARO: Hi, this is Yaro Starak. Welcome to the Entrepreneurs Journey Podcast. Today on the line, we have a very special guest who I am excited to interview because he has done something that I think a lot of people would love to do. He has reached a point where he has separated himself from his business. He calls himself a virtual CEO. It’s no small business either. He actually has 300 employees. So, it is a heafty-sized company that is doing big business but, most of his job nowadays is actually star’ng new businesses which I think as an entrepreneur is something we all love doing. So, I’m looking forward to delving into the background of tonight’s guest which is Chris Ducker. Hi Chris, thank you for joining me.
CHRIS: Hey Yaro, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
YARO: So, I need to know a little bit more about this company of yours right now before we look into your background. Is this something that started from nothing and then, you slowly built up yourself? How did you get to 300 employees?
CHRIS: With a lot of headaches [laughs]. It has been something that has gradually progressed over the last five years or so. We started out with seven employees. We’re in the outsourcing industry. We’re an outsourcing service provider based here in the Philippines so, we started with seven employees. 2 Two of them were myself and my wife, so we had five real employees, if you want to call it that, and by the end of the first year, we were up to about 70. The second year, we had gone to about a 100 or so, and we’re now si]ng at just about over 300 five years later. So, it’s been a very slow gradual growth. There were a couple of little spurts but, for the most part, it’s been nice and slow and steady which I prefer. I’d rather be growing like that over a period of years than sort of having massive growth spurts. It would scare me a little bit.
YARO: I think our definition of slow and steady might be different, Chris. I don’t know if 70 employees in one year and then, 100, 300 is my idea of slow growth but, you sound calm and collected like this is normal.
CHRIS: Well, it is actually quite slow for this industry, for the outsourcing industry here in the Philippines, it’s quite slow. I believe the largest company over here has something like 10,000 employees which is a US outsourcing company based here in the Philippines. We would class ourselves, with 300 employees, we’d class ourselves as a medium-sized outsourcing company. There’s a lot of little small ones which don’t really survive all that long quite frankly. But, there are some very, very big ones as well, several thousand employees. It might sound a little larger than you’d be happy with or comfortable with but, for us, it’s still over here in this industry anyway, it’s relatively small.
YARO: Okay, well, I guess everything is relative, right?
CHRIS: That’s it.
YARO: Now, you came to my attention through several people actually. There was Gideon Shalwick who you’ve interviewed before and there’s Pat Flynn who recently used your services to find himself a virtual assistant. It’s safe to say that I’ve known you as a guy who helps Internet Marketers in particular get themselves some virtual assistance, an outsourcer who does various tasks for them as an online entrepreneur. 3 Now, I’d like to know though a little bit more about your background before we reach to the point of what you are today. We know you’ve obviously got a successful company but, have you always been an entrepreneur? Did you go to University? You have an accent. You might be living in the Philippines now but, you haven’t always been there. Can you take us back to maybe, you graduated in high school or your first business, or something like that?
CHRIS: Yes, sure. I mean, I did not go to University. I did further education in the UK and by the time I was 18, I was on the telephone working part ‘me during the day time, doing telemarketing for local classifieds magazine. I was tending bar and mixing cocktails, doing my best trying to be as handsome and as sexy as Tom Cruise in his Cocktail movie, but it was in my very early 20s where I got employed by, at that point in London, a relatively fresh, young publishing company. And, they were based in a very corporate environment where they were focusing on corporate work wear and things like that. That company got bought out by a much larger company in the city of London called Hemmings International who I then went to work with for a couple of years. But, that entire period in time is about six or seven years or so. Within that time, I knew that I had that entrepreneurial streak in me. I haven’t mentioned this on many interviews that I have done before, but I’m a huge Hong Kong movie fan. I was a huge Hong Kong movie fan. I used to love all the Jackie Chan, the Jet Li, and the Bruce Lee and all those guys and everything and so, what I did, when, I think it was around ’96 or so, I started my first ever, what I would class, as my real first ever entrepreneurial venture. That was I published, being that I had some publishing background, some contacts, and things like that, I published a magazine that was aimed towards enthusiasts of Hong Kong cinema. And so, at that time in the UK, there were a couple of people doing similar stuff but, I took it to the next level and in 1997, I flew to Hong Kong with a video camera, a bunch of calling cards and a return ticket to ten days later. My intention was to basically just go knocking on the door of all of the film companies asking whether I could interview anyone. And obviously, there were some names that I went off to particularly but, ultimately, within ten days or so, I had interviewed around eight or nine people, some were actors and actresses. Some were editors or producers and I had a Chinese person with me who was doing a lot of translation. But, a lot of the interviews were actually done in English. And so, I bought that home and that gave me content, not only for the magazine in terms of “exclusive interviews” but then, I also put together a video documentary which I called, “Hong Kong Superstars” which led me to come back to Asia more and more. That was the entrepreneurial bout. I ended up selling that magazine to a company who ended up doing absolutely nothing with it which, to this day, I still cannot figure out why they offered me the money that they did but, trust me, after doing it for just three years, it was good enough amount of money for me to say, “Yes, sure. No problem.” I sold it. I was apparently going to stay on as editor of the magazine for a couple of years but, one thing led to another and they never did anything with it. So, that ended that period and at the same time, I was still working full time. I still had my full time career, job, whatever you want to call it, and there were a couple of personal changes in my life. I lost my mom. I went through a very horrible divorce. I got married very young and went through a horrible divorce and ended up coming out to the Philippines to work for one of the large banks over here, to train their telemarketing outfit. That’s what brought me to the Philippines twelve years ago.
YARO: Okay, I just have to know, for personal curiosity, a little bit more about this magazine because I love the publishing industry. I’ve loved magazines ever since I collected video game magazines during the Nintendo and Sega era before we had all this new thing called PlayStations and so forth. I run a website today that’s like an online magazine but, it’s a lot easier than publishing a print magazine. A magazine is like, I think they’re beautiful. I think it’s one of the most wonderful forms of media we have and it still is today, I think. How did you do that as like a young guy? Did you do it as one person? Did you just sort of have a word processor and you typed it up and printed it out and handed it out? Did you have distribution? How did you do that?
CHRIS: Well, actually, when we first started, it was very much along the lines, if you’ve heard about fan-zine and I think, God, I can’t remember, what computer did I have? I can’t even remember what I had. I think it was a crappy Acer PC, you know the thing ran at a very slow speed…
YARO: Like a 386 or something back in that time.
CHRIS: Yes, literally. I had a dial up account. I built my first websites that all promote magazine and it gained some popularity and I was…. It was tough. The printing side actually wasn’t that hard. It was the actual putting the magazine together. Once we went from fan-zine and what it was actually, we used to print it out and photocopy it. I used to just give them away at film fests and stuff like that to begin with. And then, I started going up a notch and we ended up doing like a multi-page A5 color fan-zine which was printed on nice paper. It was very thin but, it was nice, glossy paper and it was colored and there was lots of cool photos in the movies that I would get my friend over in Hong Kong to ship over that you can see it anywhere else, and all that sort of stuff. It was cool and it just grabbed people’s attention. The difference between doing that and doing the full blown magazine, the type of magazine that you see on the shelves, we went to about, I believe, six or seven issues now. It was published every other month so, over six issues in a year. I think we went a whole year or a year and a bit with doing that sort of full-size magazine. The printing side of it wasn’t tough because I had a lot of contacts within that industry. So, I just called on a few buddies, got people out to dinner a couple of ‘mes, and got the deals I needed to do to be able to print it at a price where I could make money on subscriptions and things like that. The tough part was filling it quite frankly with content. At that point, I couldn’t do it myself anymore so, I went through the classifieds of some martial arts magazines back in the UK to see if anybody was selling movies. It was really heavy on the bootleg side of things back in those days and things like that. So, there was always film enthusiasts that were just blatantly pirating films and getting them out there, and for five pounds here and ten pounds there, uncut Bruce Lee films, all that sort of stuff so, it was rela’vely easy to find people that were enthusiastic about movies and then, I was able to convince a handful of them to write a few articles. Yes, it was just one of those things where we would collate everything together, send them across in a Fedex package in regards to all the images and everything that needed to be scanned and it would get through a designer. He’d put it together and we’d get the printed issue. It was so cool to be able to get that box, that first box with the new issue. I used to love opening up that box and seeing the new issue is great.
YARO: I can imagine that would be a lot of fun. Talk about tough business… in keeping that one. That’s challenging.
CHRIS: Oh yes.
YARO: Okay, so you found yourself in the Philippines after some tough experiences in your life and you’re still an employee. You’re helping with telemarketing for an American company operating a telemarketing base in the Philippines, is that right?
CHRIS: It was actually for a bank that was based out of England that had a presence here but yes, fundamentally you’re right, yes.
YARO: You obviously fell in love with the place because you didn’t leave, right?
CHRIS: Right [laughs]. It’s funny. I think when I first came here, I didn’t think that I would be 12 years later. I figured, I knew after a few weeks that I like 7 the place and it was cool and everyone was so friendly and everything was just so darn cheap compared to back in London. You’d go out and have a great time. I was a newly single guy and all that sort of stuff. It was cool. I lived a great single guy kind of bachelor lifestyle for a couple of years or so, and then, I met the lady who was going to be my wife and that kind of just turned around at that point. I figured, well, if I’m going to get married to this lass, I better start looking up, doing something a little bit more just being an employee. So, that’s when the entrepreneurial blood started kicking in. I used to do a little bit of consul’ng work here as well and there in regards to marketing and branding and stuff like that because I had all that background with the publishing side of things. So yes, everything kind of just fell in place five or six years ago and we started the Live2Sell Group and the rest is a little bit of a history as they say.
YARO: The Live2Sell Group, what was that?
CHRIS: The Live2Sell Group is the group of companies that I now own. We started off with just literally Live2Sell Inc. The Live2Sell Inc. was basically an outbound telemarketing consulting company so, we would work with predominantly US based companies, a little bit in Australia, a little bit in the UK but, mostly in the US. We did that through the door so, we would do a little bit of a lead generation or some appointment selling or database cleansing and we sell do all that stuff now, as well. But, there are also other companies under that group umbrella now where we have a Virtual Staff Finder, which is where we hook up busy entrepreneurs and online marketers and bloggers, and things like that with home-based virtual assistants here in the Philippines, which I believe is the service that you referred to with regards to Gideon and Pat using them before. And then, we also have yourwebPA.com which provides project-based outsourcing such as eBook design and SEO services, article writing, niche site creation, and that’s where the staff as well.
YARO: It sounds like you’ve really leveraged your location because being in the Philippines, everyone nowadays is outsourcing to the Philippines. You are in a great position geographically to obtain from that. But, that’s not the “be all and all answer” to having a successful business. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you went from, let’s say, quitting your employment as a person working for the bank in the UK to star’ng your own business. Was there an overlap? Were you doing both at the same time, or you just one day decided to quit and then, start something new.
CHRIS: Yes, I mean, I’d actually done a little bit of work as a consultant for a company that was based out of Miami for about six months or so.
YARO: How did that even happen?
CHRIS: Well, that came about, I was involved locally here with a, well not involved but, I was friends with a guy here locally who owned a DRTV company so, the Direct Response… You know, you see the infomercials selling all types of crap like three in the morning sort of thing. He would fundamentally either source or invent these, if you would call them products. Some of them were a little ridiculous but, then shoot the infomercials here, right here in the Philippines, edit them all together right here in the Philippines, and then, he would go out to all the big conferences around the world and tell them to distributors in different countries all around the world. So, there is two or three major industry conferences and he knew I was a pretty half-decent sales guy so, he said, “Look, I’m going to Vegas, there’s a big conference. Once you come over, you can put on a t-shirt, get behind the booth and see whether you can sell some of this stuff with me. I’ll pay for your flight, pay for your hotel, pay for your gamble a little bit, we’ll have some fun… Why don’t you just come over and spend a week with me in Vegas and we’ll see what happens.” That’s exactly what I thought. I figured, “Hey, it’s a free trip. It’s Vegas. Let’s do it.” So, we went over and I ended up–
YARO: You weren’t married, were you?
CHRIS: No, I wasn’t married at that point, no [laughs].
YARO: You were married then, weren’t you?
CHRIS: Right, right. Yes, so, I go over to Vegas. I write about quarter million worth of dollars of business over the next three-day period for him which sounds like a lot but, he wrote about half a million but, he was more than happy with that. Whilst there, I met a guy who owned a company based in Miami in Florida and we just stayed in touch. He’s an older guy but, we kind of just hit it off. And, unknowingly, he was also in the process of looking to try and kind of revamp his brands and his marketing a little bit so, he hired me as a consultant a couple of months later. I worked with him pretty exclusively in terms of consulting for about six months or so but, I learned so much from this guy. But, unfortunately, so much negative stuff. I learned how not to market. I learned how not to rebrand. I learned how not to run a company, how not to treat employees, how not to take care of people that were helping you make millions of dollars every year and all these sort of stuff. He was a super nice guy but, he was a real a-hole of a guy to work for. What I did, I leveraged the opportunity where I was making some very good money with him on a month to month basis in terms of retainer as well as a little bit of commission. I then started off Live2Sell very small. At the beginning, we had enough room for about 30 employees in the office. We had seven people that we began with and I was with him for another couple of months and then, I ended that relationship to focus entirely on Live2Sell so that, I could really take it up to the next level. Now, to answer your question in a roundabout probably long way, I hope your listeners are still tuned in, that’s how I went from being “an employee” to being a full blown entrepreneur and just focusing on my own stuff.
YARO: It sounds to me like the idea of hiring people, and I don’t know if it’s because you’re in the Philippines or not. It seems less daunting the way you say it because yes, we started off with five people. You went from being an employee to instantly having people working for you. And for a lot of people working online, they never get employees. They might have some contractors because certainly, in my case, I’m still yet to have a full-time employee on salary. That’s daunting. It’s usually a case of cash flow being an issue because you have salaries to pay so, if you’re not bringing in money, how did you juggle this. Did you build up some capital first? Did you have some savings in case things didn’t work? What was the plan?
CHRIS: I did have savings. Like I said, I was paid quite handsomely to do what I was doing for this guy. We’re not talking millions of dollars or anything like that but, I had a little bit of money saved up and I also bought on board a silent partner so, I wouldn’t have to pay everything right up the front and I ended up paying him what he had invested back within the first eighteen months. So, he was then out of the picture. He got a nice golden hand shake from the partnership and everything. But, I knew pretty solidly that it was all going to be down to me. So, I didn’t want to end up giving him 50% of the profits forever. So, before it got too big, and too successful, I ended that relationship in a nice way and everything. For him, he was never really interested in the growth of the company or getting involved in the operations of it all anything like that. For him, it was purely just coming on board to make some cash. I gave him a lump sum. He got out of it and from about two years onwards, it was nothing but, me. But, it was funny. It’s funny how you mentioned that. One minute you’re an employee, the next minute you’re an employer. I really did happen like that because the way that I ended things with the guy that I was doing some work with in Miami was actually in Miami whilst they were building out their office here in the Philippines. Everything was cool. We didn’t shout or scream at each other, or anything like that but, the fact of the matter is, I flew from Miami, landed in the Philippines on a Friday and then, on a Monday, I was doing interviews to hire the first batch of staff.
YARO: Okay, so I’m seeing there, obviously there was a connec’on between the consul’ng you were doing for the solo or being a nice kickstart to do a business but, there’s a big difference between consulting here and there and then, hiring people. I mean, I know there’s so much to study about how to find good people and now, you’re in charge of 300 people. How have you gone about this process of, I believe, rapidly hiring people and growing a business? I should actually clarify, what year were you when you actually started doing this hiring?
CHRIS: It was 2007.
YARO: Okay, so it’s 2012 now, just January. 300 employees and so within five years, you’ve gone from nothing in terms of employees to 300. And, to be honest, it didn’t sound like you have a ton of experience running a fairly hefty size business before you started this one which has grown rapidly in my opinion. Did you get lucky? Naturally confident? Where is all of this coming, Chris?
CHRIS: Well, I think confidence plays a big part of it and I certainly didn’t start it for it to remain small. I can tell you that right now because I’ve been involved in the outsourcing industry for some time here in the Philippines, and I’d seen the boom of the outsourcing industry had experienced in the country. And, it’s very much now the destination of choice for pretty much anything and everything in the outsourcing game. So, I knew far well when I started, which is the room for 30 old people that I would easily be able to grow the company. Did I think it would grow as large as it is now to date? No. I certainly did not but, you know what? There’s always an element of luck involved, I believe. If there’s anyone out there that says that there isn’t with what they have done to become successful, I think they’re just plainly lying to themselves because there has to be an element of luck because the two or three clients that grew with me wouldn’t have grown with me. They could have decided to go and grow somewhere else and make someone else’s company grow and flourish. But, they decided to go with us and I believe that’s a little bit of luck. Out of all the websites in the world, they decided to send an inquiry from my contact form on my company’s website. They probably sent it to a few others as well, and maybe yes, I did convince them a little bit. I did a little salesman on them, and all that sort of stuff but, yes, there was certainly an element of luck in there. But, my old man used to say to me, “If you work hard, you never have to worry about work.” That kind of has a little bit of an employee mentality in there but, everything I’ve done both as an employee in the past, and now as a boss, I do with that kind of adage in the back of my head all the time because I still work my ass off now, today. I work very, very hard. And, I don’t look at having 300 employees. I look at fundamentally suppor’ng 300 families. So, I take that responsibility not lightly in any way, shape or form. So, I guess, yes. There’s definitely confidence in there. I knew that we could grow if I worked hard on it. I had some great help with the wife, believe it or not. There’s a saying, “you shouldn’t work with your children, animals, and wives.” [Laughs] I kind of risked it a little bit on that one but, she’s great. She’s certainly helped me get it to where we are. I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. Just being a combination of all those things kind of just aligned nicely and a little bit of luck. You got to have some luck. You just have to.
YARO: Okay, well it sounds like you’re pretty good to things, Chris. You’re good at getting clients and you’re good at hiring good people.
YARO: Given those two things in mind, can you maybe take us through from this starting point, your office with space for thirty but five initial employees, two of them being you and your wife, correct?
CHRIS: Mm-hmm, correct.
YARO: Take us from there. How did you get your next bunch of clients as well as how did you manage the need to hire employees. There’s a juggle there. There’s got to be a balance, right because your cash flow needs to work out so, when you get a new client, you’ve got the staff to service them but, you don’t hire the staff before you get the cash from your clients, correct?