Personal Outsourcing – Exclusive interview with Timesvr COO Osama Sehgol

The world has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Virtually anyone can take advantage of a global labour pool today – something that used to only be available to large companies. If you’ve read books like the 4-hour workweek or The world is flat – then you will know what I’m talking about. Personal outsourcing has become the secret weapon of many people today that want to achieve more by leveraging their time effectively across borders.

In this interview I talk to Osama Seghol, co-founder and COO of TimeSvr.com. TimeSvr is a outsourcing firm that specialises in.. you guessed it – saving you time. I wanted to know how they run their business and what they can do for people like me.

I have been using TimeSvr for many months now, and I have to say that they are better at what they do than any other personal outsourcing firm I’ve worked with. And I’ve tried them all. When I realised that I have finally found a service that actually helps me to get more done in my life, I decided to track down the founder and get him on the phone.

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Meet Osama Seghol, a global entrepreneur from Pakistan.

When I first thought about the interview I wanted to know a few things from Osama:

  • How did they start this business
  • What were their core philosophies and
  • How do they manage to provide such high value for the same price as everyone else?

However, what ended up happening on the call is a completely different story! Listen now and you can find out how Osama’s mind works, the vision that they have for TimeSvr and how they went through the motions of starting a business that now has offices in two countries and is still expanding and branching out. It’s a no-holds-barred zone of questions and answers, and Osama was kind enough to share with me the ins and outs of the business – you won’t find this kind of stuff anywhere else folks.

You will learn their process for building their service, how they did their research and market testing, as well as the big shock they received when they finally opened their doors to the general public.

Once you’ve heard this story you will feel inspired and empowered to overcome any obstacles in your way.

Join me on this call and hear for yourself what it takes to run a business with today’s technology and how to create a performance culture in the workplace and keep exceeding the expectations of your clients.

If you have any questions for Osama then please let me know; I’ll be happy to pass them on and get him on the phone again in future.

For more information, you can head over to TimeSvr and see what they’re all about.

If you would like to know how I use them, and the role they play in my life then make sure you subscribe to the NicheInterview newsletter (where I talk about this website and how it all operates behind the scenes.)

To your success!

Jurgen

FULL TRANSCRIPT

JURGEN: Today we’ve got a very special interview. It’s with a guy named Osama.

Osama is the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of a service called TimeSvr which is a global outsourcing service, and they basically provide virtual assistance for people like you and me to use to make our lives a little bit easier. They can handle all sorts of tasks, and generally, I’ve been using them for a while now, and they’ve made my life a lot easier, taking care of the little things that I don’t have time for.

So what I decided to do is I decided to get in touch with Osama, and see if I can get him on the phone, and ask him to share a little bit of his knowledge, and what he’s like, what his background, interest; how he started around this journey for found this company as well as then talk about the company itself, and how it started, what exactly they do, how the industry they operate in is affecting them, and how they are combating challenges that provides the future prospects for the company, and then some fun time with common requests that they get. Maybe there’s a few gems in there that you never thought possible to outsource, but these guys can effortlessly handle for you.

So Osama, thank you very much for joining me on the call today.

OSAMA: Thanks, Jurgen. It’s a pleasure to be here. A pleasure to speak with you.

JURGEN: Osama, tell me a little bit about yourself – your background, education, family-wise, who is Osama?

OSAMA: I was born in Pakistan – Lahore. It’s the second largest city in Pakistan. I was born into a middle class family. My parents worked in the government service so we weren’t very financially well off from the beginning, but they managed to put us through into good schools – all of my brothers and sisters. From there on, after doing my school, I was privately educated at __[01:34] from Pakistan. Then I went to Singapore for my undergraduate studies. I got admission into the Physics Faculty, Department of Science.

The reason I opted for that subject was – and then because I was really passionate about finding out, and understanding a bit about the science world, and physics especially, because it help me explain a lot of things that I could see happening around me. I was sort of academically-inclined in the beginning.

During those 4 years in university, though, it weren’t very well academically for me. I wouldn’t recommend the Physics Course for the National University of Singapore. Although, I don’t mean to discredit that university, but I’m just saying that the Physics Course is not the best course out there, and I wasn’t a very good student.

I was looking around at other minors that I could do, say, a minor in Economics or Financial __[02:17] because that was a buzzword back in 2002-2003, and nobody knew that by ‘04, everything would come collapsing. So like many other physicists, and psychologists, and philosophers, everybody was looking towards the banking sector, and I thought of partaking in that sort of getting on on that bandwagon. But that didn’t really appeal to me once I started looking into that.

And so what came across as another possibility was that a few of my friends, Zaki as well as Zulfi – the people who co-founded TimeSvr with me were sort of entrepreneurial in spirit. The 3 of us used to hang out in university together. We went to school together, of course. We sort of thought that if there is something else that can be done, right now is pretty much the time to do it. As soon as we graduate from university, that’s probably the best time because that’s when we can take rest or even if we’re answerable to our parents, it’s very different from the Western culture. We, inevitably, have to answer to our parents. But we thought that this is probably the escape hatch that we can sort of try, and see what it would be like, and we came up with the idea of doing TimeSvr. Now, it’s not exactly fresh and a brand new idea, but it’s something that we put in a lot of research into it.

I came across a newspaper article, which was talking about virtual assistants. It was from The New York Times. Zaki had met a friend who was using a service like this in a different country. We thought that this is something that we __[03:42]. It’s called ‘personal outsourcing’, generally. And the ‘4-hour Work Week’ book by Timothy Ferriss was pretty new back then as well. I’m talking about 2007-2008.

This sort of buzzword was something that we were monitoring. We did a bit of homework on it. And then we thought “This is something we could do.” Three young students – we still haven’t graduated yet. I was still doing my Physics degree. Zaki was still in his engineering course, and Zulfi was doing his Computer Science degree.

What 3 of us had was that we all wanted to do something different from the bandwagon. We all wanted to take that chance. It didn’t matter whether we would make a lot of money out of it or not. And we all wanted to sort of try and put our energies into some good and positive use.

Now the only person whose university education was used, in a way, in this project was Zulfi because he put his programming skills into use. We developed our Content Management System – the portal through which our customers interact with our aides.

Zaki and myself, I went around handling the operations. My job was to recruit people who could – and make them understand, sell to them the idea that they should be able to help people save time who are sitting in different corners of the world. And Zaki’s responsibility was trying to make sure that he was able to sell the idea that people actually needed offshore assistance in this form or manner, and it could potentially help these people save a lot of time, and potentially, money.

So we all set about our roles. We did our homework. And before we graduated, we had made some __[05:15] into making sure that we’ve done a bit of homework, and there’s some money that we need to raise. We did a bit of homework on that end as well. And as soon as our classes ended, our exams ended, we decided that we’ve set up shop first in Pakistan because that’s where we’re from, and we would be familiar with the local market there. We can set up our assistance contact center over there.

So we basically bootstrapped the idea. We flew down right after exams ended for a few months. I pretty much stayed in the office, and we took it from there. It was sort of an interesting experience.

Going back to your earlier question: Who is Osama? It’s a complicated answer, but I would say that somebody who’s focused, and passionate about doing something significant. I wouldn’t say something big, but something significant enough to help people not just in terms of how the way TimeSvr started was that we operated on a cost model. We weren’t looking to make huge profits. We just wanted to see whether we could do something like this, and whether we could actually help people or create jobs in Pakistan as well as Singapore.

And then that really enabled us – when we started seeing some success in that model – we just wanted to help the clients as well because we believe that we could really provide them a service with very little money for them to shell out. And once we thought that there’s a relationship that can be established, there is a connection that can be established, that’s brilliant. We’re helping people all across the world. I put my energies behind that as well.

I mean, I would say that I would be happy to put my weight behind ideas or initiatives or work which helps people generally. That, in a nutshell, is what I would consider myself to be.

JURGEN: That’s great, mate! That’s a really, really good comprehensive overview of the company, and the history, and how you guys went through the process of setting up shop while still kind of studying, and then taking that plunge straight out of uni.

Tell me a little bit about how you raised money for your venture when you started. Did you guys all chip in your own cash or did you go on a formal kind of recruitment drive for funding? How did it work?

OSAMA: In the beginning, we weren’t very sure on how to do this because none of us had done something like this except Zaki. Zaki had some prior experience with working with a few startups, with a few of his friends but that wasn’t an all-out effort like this one. So we didn’t really know how we were to…

So we did some numbers. We crunched some numbers. It’s sort of cliched like how people do it behind a napkin in a cafe. Ours was a bit similar. And we thought we just pulled in some vague numbers, and whatever number that we came up with, you multiply that by 10%, and set a bit of a buffer here, and that’s all we’re going to need.

When we went around looking for investors, we weren’t sure how to do that either. We first started looking for investors in Singapore while we were still in university. They didn’t really prove very fruitful because people over there – the investors that we met – were not so keen on investing on an idea which they didn’t really think – they sort of considered outsourcing was on a decline because everybody’s set up with sales agents, and call centre agents even though we tried to explain to them that this is different. This is personal outsourcing. This is one-on-one interaction with somebody, and they’re going to be helping them so they’ll probably get ‘Thank yous’ instead of… We thought that this was the idea that we were trying to project to our investors, and nobody really bothered.

So we went through a few investors, but we didn’t get __[08:33]. In fact, the more rejections we got, the more pumped up we became and passionate about our idea – ironically.

And then we were so passionate about it that we said that “Look, we don’t care if we have to back for money for this or borrow it or gi into our own savings. We’ll do it.” We incidentally mentioned it to somebody who was related to a friend of ours, and I was just relating that story through the friend, and he happened to mention to his relative who was in Denmark. And that person when he heard that these people are going to go all out for this, he’s like “I don’t have a lot of money.” That guy was sort of a business analyst for a firm, and he’s like “I don’t have a lot of money, but I can only manage a few thousand (US) dollars.” And we said “Okay, whatever comes out, we’re willing to part with a bit of our equity.” and so on, and so forth.

We purely used that money exclusively for our operation. We didn’t pay ourselves. We didn’t pay for our airline tickets. That was money from our own pockets or from our parents’ pockets or whatever, odd jobs that we had done through university. We put that into getting flights back into Pakistan, in Karachi. That’s where we set up our office. And we bootstrapped for the first 3-4 months.

We had to organise a car to pick and drop our guys that we had recruited. That was a whole cycle. And making sure that we’re up 24/7 because we wanted to launch a 24/7 service. Being in a service-based industry around the clock in a developing country with has really poor infrastructure, with regular electricity outages, or security problems, or internet outages, and so on, and so forth has become quite expensive, and a bit of a logistical dilemma when you have to do some of that. We really pulled out all the __[10:10]. Zaki’s like “Let’s go in and do this.” And with just a few thousand dollars, we managed to get something up and running.

Now at first we decided that we’d do a Beta trial, free of cost, that was actually critical in getting traction on our website. We were our own marketeers. We were our own operations people. We were our own developers. What we did was we contacted some bloggers, and some people who were big on the idea on productivity – which is different from personal outsourcing, mind you – but people who were big on the idea of productivity. We got in touch with them, and said “Look, this is what we’re trying to do. We’re just out of university. We’re building a website. We’re training people to become a part of the resource that people like you should try out.” And they’re like “Okay, so what sort of work can we get them to do?” So we just come up with a few examples and say “Maybe you can get them to wake you up or maybe you can get them to hold the line for you while you’re on the phone with AT&T or Verizon.” and so on, and so forth. Just some of the generic examples that other VAs do. And they were like “Okay, since it’s free, we don’t really have anything to lose. Why don’t we try it out?”

My job was basically to focus on the fact that our guys who were trying to assist these people become aware of a full-on culture that people in the West are usually accustomed to. We didn’t focus on accent training. We thought it’s pretty unnatural. They should know that we’re sitting in Pakistan over there. So that it’s the proper, legitimate, realistic bond that they have. It sets the expectations accordingly as well.

And then we said that “Whatever you do, you need to try and put yourself in your client’s shoes, and figure out what they want just as you would want it so that would enable you to go a bit above and beyond whatever the client asks you to do.” So maybe you’re not just holding the lines for them, but perhaps you can go ahead, and solve the problem altogether as well, and make sure that it doesn’t recur.” Just as an example.

That was a bit of a challenge to do. We weren’t sure how to recruit these people in Pakistan. You don’t have people prepared to do this sort of a job just off the market or fresh out of university. We really had to find our place. The first days that we landed in Karachi, I interviewed maybe 60-80 people over the phone then I had a full session of people coming over the next 10 days to meet me in person. I had never taken interviews before for something this __[12:32]. But you just learn on the job, and you speak from the heart. You’re like “This is what we’re trying to do. I’m really looking to build a core team here. There is potential for expansion. It’s not just another call centre. This is really different.” Most of the people…understand what I was talking about and most of the people didn’t really believe that something like this could take off from Pakistan. It’s just another call centre which might just close in a few months time, and they’re going to be making sales calls, and sales pitches, and that’s not really a good job.

We went through that cycle, then we finally picked out a very young team of 3 people  – people we started with, and I had to make sure that security was a concern. We didn’t want information being __[13:09]. We needed to lay down some procedures, and we needed to keep a strict eye over the content so what was going on.

So I basically sat through the first few months pretty much going on no sleep whatsoever (about 3-4 hours a day), making sure that things were getting set up, up and running.

From the Beta stage when we were burning the sort of seed money that we had, we sort of came to a point that that money didn’t really last very long. What Zaki did was he got a job in another startup which his friend was working on, and that was in the US. He just flew to the US – to his credit. He was like “We really need to get this company up and running, and we’re running low on funds.” Thankfully, we didn’t need a lot of money. We didn’t need money in the hundreds and thousands of dollars. We just needed somewhere around the tens of thousands of dollars. So he left to earn some money, and he would send half his salary for the following couple of months to TimeSvr which started paying the bills, and none of us were taking salaries. We were working around the clock to make sure that this thing just got off to a good start.

Within 4 months, we were done with our Beta. We had fixed all the bugs on our system. Well, most of the bugs on our system. And the good thing was because we directly interacted with a lot of clients – I, myself, directly interacted with a lot of clients, and Zulfi – the guy who was building the website – also interacted directly with a lot of clients, they chipped in with a lot of suggestions and help as well. They We really developed strong relationships with our customers, and they were able to give us direct live feedback which we were able to implement very quickly. So they were like “Okay, these aren’t just a bunch of idiots who are trying to con us into getting our information or them passing it onto somebody, but they’re genuine people who are trying to get a company up, and who really need help here.”

So through the credit of most of our clients, our early adapters as well who took that chance and signed up with us for free, they really chipped in as well.

Then came the stage that we were like “Okay, let’s launch. Let’s go for the paid version. We can’t afford to just keep burning money.”

JURGEN: …Zaki…in America working his bum off.

OSAMA: Exactly. He was working, and he was also taking a look at things over TimeSvr as well while he was working. And our role sort of switched here and there. We were all filling in each other’s shoes. We were a tightknit group especially in the beginning. So you really need to work with people who you understand, and who will be able to make these sorts of sacrifices for you or for your company. That’s the core mission there.

And then we decided that “Okay, now is the time to go for a full launch.” We thought that we had about 200-300 Beta clients, and we were hoping that if we’re able to convert a small percentage – we were hopeful of a large percentage – but even if we were able to convert a small percentage into our paid plan, we should be able to make ends meet.

So again, we did the numbers and we’re like “How much do we charge for this service?” We have redundancy and such and such hours. This is how the shifts are working. And we’re also looking to make a bit of extra money so we can pump back into the company, and grow it a bit more, get our own place. We were sharing an office. So we did those quick calculations now in the napkin once again, and we thought “Okay, $69.00 a month, we should be good.”

Now ironically what happened was that we were hoping that at least 20%-30% – which is a pretty high number – we were hoping 20%-30% of our 300 Beta adapters would convert, but sadly it did not happen. Only 7 out of 300 converted and that was a very __[16:35] number. We were sort of left in a bit of a lurch like thinking “Okay, how are we supposed to manage now?”

But ironically, 1 of the 7 people was a very prominent blogger who had up to 30,000-40,000 people visiting his blog every day. And he really liked our service. He got the idea. He’s like “Okay, I understand what these people are trying to do. They’re trying to provide assistance in a way that is live all the time, and you can outsource small, little basic tasks.” And this person also sort of understood the fact that ‘They’re really trying to do it differently because they are not looking out for any competitors. They are not looking out for any particular industry that they’ve targeted. They’re just trying to provide a service, which is fundamentally meant to help people save time.” Now, as long as they’re trying to do this, they should be able to achieve whatever goals that they set themselves here onwards.

So we didn’t really factor in the competition. We just thought “If it were up to me, how would I want time to be saved? That’s how I will train my people to save time.” It was exactly like this.

Sid Savara wrote that blog, and he wrote a very detailed post about us, and incidentally, his post went live soon after our paid version went out, and that sort of set the trickle in for the new clients.

The purpose of telling your audience this, Jurgen, is that even if you face initial setbacks like we were expecting a lot – we had established good relationships with our Beta testers, we had contacted them very frequently. They have given us good feedback, good suggestions. And even though we sort of know these people really well, and we could do a small calculation and say “This Person X, Person Y, this person would definitely convert.”, prepare to meet sort of unexpected events. And even if that does happen, I don’t think you should give up in the sense that luck sort of favours you in one way or the other. If you’re set out with such a big purpose and a mission, somewhere or the other, things can happen, and they do have a tendency to work out. But it only sort of happen because everybody was focused.

The early guys that we’d taken on who had no idea how to do this or work, they were very keen to make sure that the company got off to a good start as well, and so on, and so forth. So if everybody was motivated and angled towards the target, things work out. I sort of believe in that. It just happens. I guess nature sort of finds its way of giving back what you are trying to achieve in a way. It’s a bit of a spiritual thing there. So yeah, those were the starting days. Very eventful, very tight on money. It was quite interesting.

JURGEN: Well it sounds like a fascinating journey that you guys underwent. I mean, Zaki going over to the US, and working there, and donating half his salary to the cause. You, having to recruit 60-80 people on your first day of interview. And then hundreds of calls and stuff after that, that’s absolutely insane. I mean, the level of dedication – it sounds like you guys put in, and how you were able to – I guess these 3 people that you eventually ended up hiring without a clear idea of how you’re going to do this, you just knew what you wanted to achieve, and how you were able to then motivate them, and get them onboard with the vision, like you said earlier, it’s probably one of the most important things for you was to sell the idea to them – how you did that.

And then overcome all these challenges from bootstrapping the business, not paying yourself salary, and living off your savings from uni as well as contributions from a few select people that you guys have met over the time all from, ironically, different countries as well.

That’s one thing I found quite interesting is your business is set up to provide services to people from all around the world, and the very start of your business started in the same way so your contributions came from – was it Denmark?

OSAMA: Yes. The person who invested in us, he was from Denmark. It was sort of a personal contact that we activated. It wasn’t really a formal investor or formal venture capitalist firm that we contacted. So somebody from Denmark investing, and 3 Pakistani guys who were in Singapore…company in Singapore as well – set up an office there eventually as well. And we were going to service clients primarily in the US and Canada, and eventually all over the world – Australia like you as well.

JURGEN: That’s great. That’s a really, really good story. Thanks for going into so much detail, and telling us about especially the lesson learned there about having your Beta stage, which you said was critical to you guys, in terms of figuring out how to best deliver this service because one thing I can say to you – I’ve used other services like yours before I went to TimeSvr, and the difference in the value – or not so much the value – but the quality of feedback that I’m getting, or the quality of the responders to my queries, and the length to which your guys are willing to go to satisfy my request – like you mentioned earlier, they’re trained to kind of treat them like you want to be treated yourself? Treat the clients like you want to be treated yourself, and try to preempt what the client wants, and I must say that it’s funny to hear that as part of the initial design of it because that’s one key differentiator for your business compared to every other one that I’ve used is that I don’t have to worry about what it’s going to look like when I get it back or how they’re going to be able to do this, and would it be a pain to deal with them, and all that kind of stuff.

There’s just none of that. And it’s just so effortlessly quick, and yeah, I’m blown away by the level of service that you guys are providing. And that’s the primary reason why I ended up signing up with you.

OSAMA: Thank you. It’s actually really heartwarming still to hear that somebody is actually finding – sort of gets the idea just like us. I mean, there are mistakes that we still make, and we always try to improve, and we always welcome feedback from our clients as well because we’re like ‘Hey, we’re human. We might make mistakes, but we’re always trying to learn.’ It’s just part of an optimism that we try to implicate within our guys especially the way we interview them, and the way we train them, and the test that we take. It’s not just “Can you speak English? Can you use the Internet?” Apart from those fundamentals, we sort of try, and assess, and gauge their personality as well, and build upon that so that they could really connect with the clients.

And I’m really happy that you sort of felt that, and you were able to tell the difference a little. And if there are suggestions that you have or any of you audience members eventually have, you know, you’re welcome to pass them our way. Our guys are always happy to take constructive criticism and improve. It’s one of the things.

JURGEN: And that’s exactly the last part of that story is basically I can see that you listen to your clients. And once again, you built it in from the very start as part of your core, I guess, unique sales proposition. Your unique differentiating factor is that you guys are actually going to listen to your customers. You’re going to do the direct live feedback. You’re going to Beta test beforehand with hundreds of people, 200-300 clients that you had, and basically take that chance to put the user who’s ultimately the one driving the service so that no matter what the question is, you have people that are motivated, and ambitious enough to achieve whatever goals that are set for them, and just jointly work towards that greater vision of saving people time. That’s really good.

I’ve got a quick question here about we’ve covered how the business started, and some of the challenges that you, I guess, faced. One that was in particular interest was you mentioned that normally the call centers over there that start up, you had some trouble hiring people because they weren’t completely in-line with what you were trying to achieve, and they thought that call centres close really quickly. What’s that all about?

OSAMA: Right. Well the thing is that over here – as you might be used to and if you call Dell or Microsoft or their help lines or if you call your bank perhaps – especially in England if they call their bank – they end up getting routed to India or The Philippines or Pakistan.

Apart from that, a lot of call centres over here has sprung up or during this new tide, this wave, they start about, say, 5-10 years ago, and what people just started doing over here was “Can you speak English? Doesn’t matter how broken or bad it is grammatically. We’ll teach you a script so well that you should be able to pretend that as if you have an accent from Darwin or from Ohio, and you would be able to sell or receive calls and complaints as well as any other guy.”

Now the thing is that in principle and in theory, it sounds brilliant but it doesn’t exactly work like that because if anybody goes off the script, they’re __[24:38]. You can’t really get somebody to speak English like a native English speaker if they’re not a native English speaker. There’s no point putting up that pretense over there as well.

In Pakistan, what’s happening was apart from a few big companies which have clients like Amazon or eBay, and big companies with big clients, most of there seem to be a lot of call centres who had just sprung up to sell scams, or holiday scams, or credit card schemes, or some mobile phone connections, or cable TV connection, and so on, and so forth. So they sort of lasted a few months or maybe a year or so. Unfortunately, they sort of had sprung up as well, but they would never last long primarily because their business usually wasn’t legitimate.

A few of the people that I had interviewed in the very early stages, they had applied for this job thinking that this would be something like this. When they sort of told what was going on, and I sort of found out “Okay, this also happens in Pakistan.” and in other countries which have call centres, I thought that it was sort of dangerous, and that’s how we ended putting client information security as a primary focus, and made sure that none of our information was stored in Pakistan, and in fact was abroad (in Singapore and in the US), and made sure that we sort of kept a very close eye on the information that was being handled by our aides as well.

We ended up not hiring anybody from the call centre industry primarily because they couldn’t go beyond the script. They couldn’t put themselves in their client’s shoes or sort of apply themselves to a certain cause as well. Sure, they would give a good wakeup call, but when they would be asked to research on some important __[26:23] ‘green’ or ‘clean energy’, they wouldn’t know what that meant, and they wouldn’t know what to do with it.

So we ended up gravitating towards people who had done their graduate studies or undergraduate studies from decent local universities in Pakistan. That way, these people would be well-positioned to do some research work online. They would obviously know how to use a computer, and speak, and communicate in English. They would have to be brushed up a little on customer service skills because that’s not what they were sort of taught to do. And apart from that, they really get into the research aspects of things.

We have gravitated towards hiring people who are university graduates, and the way to do it is a combination of things.

I think I’m just glossing through some of your questions with just one question.

The way to do that was that we sort of not only incentivize them through money, which we decided was it’s an appropriate level of money that we’re paying – a bit above the market average for a fresh graduate. We didn’t compare the pay scales from the call centre industry. We almost went double that. And we’re like “If you work in a bank, for example, right after graduation, you would get 25,000 Rupees.” and then we’re like “Okay, we’ll pay you a bit more than that. You should be happy as far as money is concerned. But more than that, more than money, what you should really take a look at is the learning that you will get in this job, and the sort of culture that you will get exposed to, the personal culture and the professional culture of people, and the way they conduct their work, the sort of ideas that you get to hear about because lots of our clients are people who are working on startups as well or are busy people who are exploring ideas that they want to work on __[28:08] realise into something concrete.”

We sort of told our guys (potential hires) that “Look, money apart, that’s not important. What’s really important is that you’re young, and you can get to learn a lot of things, and we will make sure that we encourage you to sort of build value to yourselves.”

There was a genuine sentiment towards these people as well that we’re not just doing it for the money. We didn’t really start out for just the money. If we had, we would be charging a lot more than we are right now just so that our profit margins could be very, very decent but we’re also learning.

And in sort of in the same spirit that we made something which wasn’t very possible, possible – it’s never impossible, but it was difficult – I think we say that “You guys can pick up on this as well.” That’s why we also internally promote our guys. We don’t hire somebody else from the outside – somebody who spent enough time, and months, and given enough dedication to the company, they get promoted to lead a team, for example, or handle a division, and so on, and so forth.

The work culture is also very positive. It’s very involved. We are involved in each other’s personal growth as well. We help each other out as much as we can. And we really understand that the bigger purpose that we are trying to fulfill here, and within our limited means.

JURGEN: That sounds like a great way to establish a solid foundation for a great company to me. If you have the right people at the base, and they all worked together, the culture – like you said, money is not important, but you still made it competitive to attract that young talent, but also providing them the learning opportunities, and the possibility to become the person that handles the division or lead a team internally if you spent enough time on the inside, and so on. So there’s career growth potential, I guess. There’s also the positive work culture which all those things, I’m very sure, suit you very well and serve you very well at the time.

Osama, can we perhaps move to the actual TimeSvr service? And then we’re still talking a lot about how it’s been starting up, how do you guys got funding, the kind of challenges which was very interesting to hear. Some of these things, for instance, I haven’t thought of that might be a challenge such as the internet outages or the fact that you have to provide transport for your staff because you provided 24-hour service all over the world. These are interesting things to hear.

So what TimeSvr can provide for its clients? And whose it for? What can you guys do? Just a little bit about that to give the listeners a bit of an idea of when they can use you, and where all this excellent foundations that you’ve built for your business can benefit them through the service that you provide?

OSAMA: Interestingly enough, we started off with a very limited sort of scope of our service, and we were also not sure about the sort of clients that we could interact with, and I mentioned that we targeted productivity bloggers. Productivity bloggers are people who basically write about experiments that they’ve performed or they have their routines or productive functions that they perform along the day which helps them save time during the day whether it’s answering emails quicker or focusing for a certain number of hours on just one thing, and then being able to do other things while they multitask, and breaking down work functions.

It was initially targeted just people who wanted to be more productive. And then we realised that what sort of people are coming our way? Are they just people who go through these blogs? If they are, is there a specific type? Are they, in particular, professionals? Are they startup people, people who want to do startup businesses? Are they people who own companies? And so on, and so forth.

We ended up diversifying into different plans. We have a personal plan which is 24/7. You get a VA for very cheap. It’s for $69.00 a month. You can financially send up to 6-7 tasks everyday for 30-31 days a month. __[31:52] on saving time is on the person themselves. It could be you, Jurgen, or it could be somebody like me, or it could be a doctor, for example, who needs his wake-up call in time, who needs to be reminded of certain things during lunch hour, who does not have time to take away from patients or their practice in the evening with patients to sort of handle personal errands like making sure that the credit card payment went through, or if there was a problem, finding out what the problem was so they can take the next step, the next action.

It A) has a potential of helping busy professionals, B) it also has a potential of making sure because what we are, in a way, is sort of this outsourced human resource. We say that we have smart dynamic people who are very well-versed in doing documentary work or online research work or web work for you – virtually, anything that you can virtually outsource, we’d be able to do.

So lots of people who were exploring ideas or wanted things researched on for their startups, ended up coming to us. Now, a few of our clients, they signed up for a plan, and they bought a few hours of our aides’ time, and they were like “I need a bit of both. I need a bit of personal help and a bit of professional help. Can your guy do that? Can a TimeSvr aide do that?” and we’re like “Okay, tell us what you need to do and we’ll see if we can do a good job of it.” They’re like “I am too busy to do some apartment hunting. I don’t have the time to schedule my appointments with realtors, and make sure that I can meet those appointments. And I’ll also need some help scheduling appointments with potential investors that I am looking to fund my startup. B) I also need help by making sure that this website that I’m getting up and running, am I able to get in touch with the right programmers? Can you recommend some to me? Is there whatever product that I am looking out to create? Does it have market value? What sort of competitors do I have?” and so on, and so forth.

They sort of just took on hired help to go through a whole host of administrative errands/task for them as well as a bit of professionally-oriented tasks as well. Anything which could be as diverse as doing a bit of market research, and data analysis, or making sure that if they want to market their particular product or website as well, their Twitter account up, and they want somebody to manage their Twitter and Facebook pages, they’d get our guy to do that as well.

It’s a huge spread, really. I mean, you could get them to do administrative work. You could get them to do online/web marketing. You could get them to do potential research work as well. Those are the 2 main categories: the busy professional as well as the entrepreneurs that we get.

And then there are other people who were not entrepreneurs in the web 2.0 sense, but they have established businesses like somebody is from the real estate market. Somebody owns a pet shop. Somebody is a teacher and they’re trying to make sure that nobody is plagiarising the essays that are being handed in, so they get us to cross-check some of the work. A pet shop owner make sure that the accounts are set in properly, and again, do a bit of research on the competition.

They just buy hours. And then once they establish relationship with one of our aides, they’re able to sort of get more involved in sort of delegating, and gauging the abilities that our guys have, and sort of understanding “These…minimal requirements are met. What else can I throw onto them?”

It’s basically about figuring out where you can save time during your day and making sure that whether it’s from answering emails or for professional work like chasing payments, and so on, and so forth. Lots of our clients end up using us for that as well. And so they’re getting us to do the sort of difficult work. It’s not always appropriate for the owner of a company getting them to chase payments for a whole host of their clients so they get us to do that as well. Anything that comes to mind, really, that can be sort of delegated, we do.

What we do also additionally, realising that it’s a bit vague, it’s a bit dynamic actually the level of outsourcing that we do. We are here to help. You can go to our website, fill up a ‘Contact Form’ and say __[35:57]. You can get in touch with us, and we’ll try and help you.

With the new website that we’re building right now, we intend to put up more content advertising the sort of people – which plan with our services suited to which sort of people, and we’re sort of describing it in a bit more detail.

But otherwise, people have written about us so if you Google us, I think there are a few blogs which come up – people who have experimented using our service. They have their own opinions and they have their own sort of methodology in terms of using our service. People can sort of get ideas. And if they’re still not sure, they can get ideas reading the blogs. And if they’re still not sure, they can get in touch with us, and explain their situation to us, and we can try and help as well.

JURGEN: Great! That’s way, way more than what I initially thought that you guys could do, I guess.

I mean, I’m using you guys at the moment to do a bit of web research for me. Occasionally, I’ll take a few photos of stuff I see in the paper like restaurants I want to visit, and I’ll have you guys put those into a spreadsheet for me so that I can keep track of it, and then eventually go visit those places because otherwise, I just never go there.

So I found your service is really helpful for such of those little things that I never would have done without you, and as such, I get to experience a lot more things just generally because that little bit of organisation or getting the ball rolling on it has already occurred, and it was effortless on my part. So I can just go and enjoy whatever service it was that I want to go to.

Booking an event, finding a cheap bus service to transport 50 people – that kind of stuff. Just always those little task-based things.

But you said here that you guys do market value analysis, competitive analysis – all sort of things like that – recommending programmers, I guess, because of Zulfi being the computer science guy; that background and experience. If he built the content management system from scratch for you guys then that’s a part of you that I have never even considered asking, and I might actually talk to you a bit offline after this call to discuss some of the things there.

So yeah, it’s way more than your traditional one. The other services – to give an example – I won’t name any names – but some of the other services that just one that didn’t have that client focus approach, it was a bit more difficult to deal with them, and they didn’t handle feedback that well, and so on. And the second thing is they couldn’t handle anything complex. By complex, I don’t even mean complex as in competitive analysis or market research. They couldn’t even put content into a table format in Excel for me. I’ve tried to specifically ask for it.

The difference is phenomenal. And the company I just mentioned there – like I said, I won’t mention their name – but this is a big, big, big company. It’s mentioned by very, very famous people. It’s been all over the TV in America. And yeah, they really just didn’t cut it.

It’s really interesting…

OSAMA: If I can just cut you off. When you were keeping the client focus there, it’s like you have to make sure that the human resource end of things are sorted. You’re making sure that the aides that you’ve recruited, they’re doing a good job making sure they understand what the client wants, and they sort of are so committed to the job that they don’t really look at whether I am sort of pulling all this off, whether I’m spending a bit of extra time as long as I’m making sure that I am getting the client what he/she wants. So that’s the human resource side of things as well.

But also in terms of technology – there are certain limitations same with the website and our CRM system – but we try to make sure that it’s very functional. You can send any task through email on your BlackBerry, for example, or whenever you log in first in the day, and you are also reachable through Skype. So if you just want to ping us particular tasks, you can just do that very conveniently by adding ‘live.timesvr’ your username into your preferences, and you can do that.

We are available 24/7 over the phone. Soon to be introduced SMS service as well so you can just do it over SMS. Although not many clients prefer that, it’s still a service that we like to offer in case somebody wants to opt in to it as well.

Obviously, I think when we were building our website and designing it as well, we just wanted it to be really functional. So if you just log in, the dashboard just has basically sort of text box where you can just input whatever you want to write…do it, and expect results to come in, and then you can rate the service as well the sort of task that you’ve done whether you were happy with it, you can rate it out of 5, and leave a bit of comment there as well.

It’s sort of you’re trying to find the right balance between making sure that the human resource and the technology element is sort of jelled in well. Although you first interact with your screen, with our website or your Skype, but you do get a very human response to it if we need to call you for something or if we need to email you directly, and write to you what the problems were, and so on, and so forth. We’re able to do that.

So yeah, we try to emphasize on the human as well as the technology aspect of both things. It’s sort of crucial to always keep in mind what the client wants, and not just do it for the money. Yeah, you’re out there to build not just a company, you’re out there to build a good company. It doesn’t matter how dry the idea is or whatever, but essentially, I think, a lot of people would say this but essentially I think what Google was doing was just building a search engine, which at that point in time, a lot of other companies were doing as well but they wanted to do it differently. They wanted to do it better. They became uber successful. Now, we’re not trying to replicate uber success of Google, but what we are trying to do is get that concept and apply it elsewhere as well. So that’s the idea.

JURGEN: You mentioned Google, but I actually thought of Google when I thought of your website as well. The reason is it’s so simple. The only thing that’s there on the page is ‘Here are your past tasks.’ Hang on, here’s a big block, what do you want to do? Type it in there, hit ‘Send’, and a few hours later, you’ll have something in your inbox.

It just makes it so effortless to use it. You provide all the different channels. Like you said, Skype is available there. Sometimes you don’t have time to type an email, but you’re chatting to someone on Skype, and you can just flick a quick message through like that. I think the SMS service certainly something I would use especially if you could perhaps find a way to have the service provided so that I don’t have to necessarily use my own phone. I’m just thinking of situations because I’ve got an iPhone, and it’s pretty connected. You can access the internet and everything. So it’s not so much a problem for me with that. But if I’m somewhere, and I get an idea, and I want one of you guys, maybe, to do a bit of search for me, and just maybe send me an email to remind me about it. If I’ve got an SMS device available like a cellphone then I can very easily take that, and just quickly flick you guys a message, and then if there was some code or something to identify me then it’ll be very valuable service to me, I guess, to have that accessibility as well.

OSAMA: Right. Absolutely. There are other ways to diversify as well.

JURGEN: I’d like to move onto perhaps the future prospects that you see for TimeSvr. We’ve talked about how you started up. We’ve talked about your current business, your kind of core ideas that influenced the behaviour of your staff, and the vision that strings this whole thing together.

Where do you see TimeSvr going in the next 5 years or is that too far to project out for this particular industry? What’s it going to look like?

OSAMA: TimeSvr has been around for more than a year now. Now is pretty much a good time where we’ll be scaling. We are sort of going through the problems which all companies who scale go through.

In terms of expansion, we’re trying to maintain the level of quality that we want to, and still increase our numbers, the numbers of clients that we have, keeping in mind that, again, it’s the whole dynamic assortment of clients that we do get.

What we are thinking of also doing is diversifying our service – not just to be competent of it because quite a few clients have got in touch with us, and asked us whether we provide or know people (just by virtue of our relationship) whether we know people who are able to provide other services like transcription services or web development services, content writing services, bloggers who want – SEO people who want content written or bloggers who want a bit of marketing done or they want to tweak their website or get a new website up, and so on, and so forth.

We are planning to diversify first in the few different stages only if you’re able to make sure that the sort of endeavours that we take, we’re able to maintain this momentum that we have, and we’re also able to maintain the quality that we have marring a few problems here and there, of course, but by large, we want to maintain this progress that we’ve come up with.

What we are deciding to do is that TimeSvr is moving towards not just being a VA company, it’s also moving towards incubating other companies. We decided that instead of setting up within our own organisation, it might be a bit of a good idea if we passed our startup spirit onto entrepreneurs elsewhere other than us. It could be anywhere in the world.

Out of our Singapore office, and out of our Karachi office, what we’ve decided to do was we started incubating small companies which can sort of take in projects from our clients or projects that our clients refer to us, and start passing them onto individuals who we feel are good and deserve this chance to set up something of their own.

What TimeSvr is essentially doing is providing the infrastructure and a bit of seed money to individuals who we think, who in our assessment, are worthy, and deserving, and very capable, and as hard working as we are __[45:15] concern sort of a separate company up which can provide the services that obviously there is a demand for.

Now, we only do this – as in, the only reason that we’re starting out and the only reason we’re doing this is because we believe that there is a lot of potential for people to benefit each other all across the world. There are clients who could use somebody dependable and reliable to get their work done, and we feel that we might know – we, in fact, do know people who would be able to get that vision and execute that as well.

That’s one of the diversifications that we are going towards incubating other companies which do projects like web development and content writing. And also, we want to take some technological advancements. We want to make sure that we are essentially – we want to bring the focus back into the technology aspect of our company, and make sure that our task, response system, it goes through some tweakings, it becomes more user-friendly, and we’ll consider optimising that, and making sure the client we interact with, the clients __[46:17] as well.

We are scaling in different directions, opening up new verticals, new __[46:22] as well as optimising our existing website to make sure that we are able to scale very, very appropriately.

The first thing that we are also doing is that we branched out into different offices within Pakistan as well. We are thinking of doing that in different countries in a few years time. I don’t realistically see that happening by next year or in a few years time we want to branch out into different countries as well provided only that we are able to maintain that level of quality, that level of security of information, and so on, and so forth. Those are a few of the things that we intend to do.

JURGEN: That sounds great especially like the idea of the incubation plan that you kind of put in place. If one of your staff – because you’ve picked them kind of the young stars, and recruited them into the business, and got them because they share a particular vision, and the style of working, I guess, and the commitment to the clients __[47:12] then those are the perfect people. Then if they’re ambitious, and committed, and they have their own ideas, yeah, why not support them? Let them set something up. Provide them with that little help. And yeah, create that spinoff.

And then you actually extend your services, and the type of offerings you can provide to your clients as well as those young stars of yours. They obviously get a leg up on life, and get to run their own business, and provide the same quality service, and hopefully, that perpetuates in itself. And you’ve eventually then made quite a massive contribution to the community in the way that a company should be run. That’s very good.

OSAMA: I mean, I don’t know how traditionally startups operate. You asked me in the beginning who Osama is, and Osama really wasn’t a startup person. I mean, I’ve read up on startups. I’ve heard the success stories. I’ve had a look at a few failures as well, and I realised that there is no particular…for doing a startup as much as people would like to think so or say so or believe so. People are trying to get this idea that if you meet such and such fundamentals, you will definitely be a startup guy. I don’t think that’s exactly true. I mean, you can’t really pinpoint. It is personality-based. It isn’t meant for everyone. That’s for sure. But it’s very difficult to pinpoint ideas or certain characteristics within people, and you can say that “Okay, this person can do a startup (or not).”

Whatever idea that you have – ideas are cheap. Lots of people have them. Whatever ideas that you have, if you have some level of passion, and dedication, and commitment behind that idea, you can make it happen even if it’s a relatively – it doesn’t have to be entirely innovative, but you need to be innovative while you’re executing that idea because you will come across problems so you will need a strong heart to push through. And you will need innovation to make sure that you are keeping your nose above the water, and staying ahead of the competition, or making sure that you’re anticipating problems, and then you can come out of those problems as well.

And then of course a bit of raw intelligence – that’s also important. You need to be smart about things. There are different ways of doing things so you need to do things slightly smartly if you can.

They’re entirely different separate topics to elaborate on. Maybe for another time when we do have a longer time to talk.

But yeah, as in generally I think that when we started out, we weren’t sure how to do it, but it just sort of went in well, and we just put our weight behind the concept, and you just push through. Anywhere in the world, anything can happen. You can make it happen. People can make anything possible. I’m sure the idea that you have, sharing knowledge, sharing the experiences, getting these sorts of experiences in from different perspective, different corners of the world…different ideas on your site, it’s a great idea. I mean, the sort of idea behind it is it’s for a good cause. It’s for other people to learn from your particular site. And I think that that’s the big fundamental that is there, and you can just do great things from there onwards. You don’t necessarily have to replicate all the successes that are out there. But as long as you focus on a few fundamentals, do the good things, do the right things, opportunities that you capitalise on, reading…the sort of ideas that you look into, you keep doing that, you will be destined for greater successes in my opinion. I’m only 24, but I’m just saying that you have time in front of you that you can really put yourselves forward, and make sure that you’re not wasting time, and building something great.

If the fundamental’s right, great things will happen. I’m hopeful. That’s what I’m saying.

JURGEN: That’s great advice. Thank you very much for the nice words as well. The idea is to basically share, and just get people to experience it down, and just let the world know about it.

Everyone has a story, I think, and one of the things that I want to do is just share those stories with everyone else so that we can learn from each other. It’s one way to give a little back to the world, I guess __[50:57] that sounds.

OSAMA: Exactly. Brilliant. That’s exactly the point. You’re here in this point in time, and you might as well do whatever good that you can out of it. That’s great.

JURGEN: Osama, some resources that you may have relied upon in your earlier days so, I don’t know, books or people that you’ve listened to or blogs that you’ve read or any kind of supporting knowledges and whatever else that you were particularly relied on to figure out this journey as you guys have started up? Because it sounds like it was pretty heavy one. You had guys flying all over the world working in different countries to support the funding. You had a bit of an unexpected lapse in the amount of conversions that you wanted from your Beta testers, and all these little challenges. How did you stay motivated throughout that? Was there anything that you can direct our listeners to in terms of providing them with that same level of support, I guess?

OSAMA: Yes, I’ll try to keep this one brief because there’s a lot that can be said here.

First off, role models: yes. It’s a bit, again, cliched but my parents were – we weren’t very well off, but they were honest, hard working people. That idea of putting your weight behind something, and going against the odds to do something good, I think that’s where it came from – my parents. And because they tried to put us into good schools, and from there onwards, I tend to keep myself abreast of current affairs. I read a lot of newspapers – continue to do so – weekly magazines like The Economist and Foreign Policy. Those are things that I do as a hobby and passion. When I was in university, although I wasn’t going to Physics classes as much, I was attending Political Science seminars and these talks that academics give and do especially which pertain to South Asia because that’s where I’m from, and South Asian relations.

That element of curiosity, I was just reading newspapers normally, and figuring out where the Afghanistan war is going, and I happen to come across the virtual assistant article, and I did a bit of research, and you spend a couple of hours on Wikipedia going from one site to another, and you just keep on going through.

If you’re curious naturally, you will come across – and you read a few of these books or topics or newspapers of interest, you will come across some things. But a few books that I would like to mention that I’ve read recently, and I’m a fan of, I would recommend ‘The Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a bestseller these days. It is a good book as well. Within reason, I would definitely recommend it. ‘The Clash of Fundamentalisms’ by Tariq Ali, again, it puts in context the historical and political aspects of our world. Obviously, if you want to read into certain personalities, there are quite a few people that you can look up to.

But for startup people, I would say that if you pickup Richard Branson’s ‘Screw It, Let’s Do It!’ before you get into any venture, it would be a nice book to read. It just gives you the sense of ‘Just get up and do something.’ It doesn’t take much – and Richard Branson is a good person to look up to in terms of entrepreneurship. You don’t have to emulate him. You don’t have to copy him. But you do get a sense of his ambitions and achievements. Ambitions are proportionate to your achievements. So you get a sense of that, and you just need to realise those. That’s a good starting book, in my opinion.

And then there are a lot of other books that I can mention as well, but they’re not exactly pertinent. There are a lot of other books that I still have to read which are on my reading list.

JURGEN: Thanks for sharing that. Maybe we should swap reading lists one day, and see if there’s any…

OSAMA: Oh yes, we should. I think we should definitely stay in touch over email, Jurgen. Perhaps exchange some more ideas. I’ll take a closer look into your website, and we should keep talking. That would be nice.

JURGEN: It sounds great.

Osama, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much. Certainly, we appreciate the time that you spent even though visiting your family and everything talking with me and with all our listeners out there, and sharing your experiences. I mean, from the very start going to uni, meeting up with Zaki and Zulfi, and starting this thing out from the back of a napkin, going through the hurdles of doing a Beta with no funding, having the obstacles of the conversions, and all those things, and then suddenly getting this one blogger out of all the 300 people to write an article. The story is quite fascinating. I think it’s a lesson to everyone listening that the unexpected often happens. If you gave up halfway, you may have never got that chance.

Then the second part, I guess, or the other lesson that I’ve learned through this conversation is that as long as you are building your foundation on solid, hard working, good principles, honesty, and integrity, and putting the client first in business because that’s the only reason you’re in business is to serve your client whether it’s someone buying a product from you, which I think you should view them as a client and not a customer anyways, or providing a service like you guys are doing, that client mentality, and really doing it for the love of it, and solid recruitment strategies, I guess, that allow you to exercise that vision, and how you motivate a team.

It’s been very, very useful for me, and very enlightening to hear all these stories from you so thank you very much for that. And I wish you all the best for the future, and I hope that TimeSvr goes above and beyond, and then expands, and grows, and makes timesaving for a lot of people a lot easier.

OSAMA: Thank you. I really, really appreciate the time, Jurgen, that you’ve spent, again, for a cause that I think that you believe in, and it’s something that is obviously dear to you that’s why you take out the time to speak, and create, and do a bit of research, try out new things, and take a lot of time into looking into these new ideas, and taking the trouble to speak to a lot of people. You should also perhaps present your story forward…and sort of pen down what your vision is. I will take a closer look at your website, and see if it’s there.

But I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you, and I wish you well in your endeavours as well. It was my pleasure. Thanks very much.

JURGEN: Thanks, mate!

OSAMA: All right. Take care.

Thanks, Jurgen. It’s a pleasure to be here, a pleasure to speak to you.

Categories: Interviews
Tags: Interviews

3 Responses to Personal Outsourcing – Exclusive interview with Timesvr COO Osama Sehgol

  1. Markus says:

    Hey Jurgen, I just signed up, thanks for the recommendation!
    I have a series of questions coming to my mind. Can I send them through via email and use them for my own blog post?
    Cheers,
    Markus

  2. Pingback: OutSource Your Task: TimeSvr.com

  3. Pingback: OutSource Your Task: TimeSvr.com

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Osama Sehgol

Co-founder and COO of Timesvr.com

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