From Outsourcing Your Life to Full Automation
October 21, 2015
Like many others, My Tim Ferriss obsession started after his book ‘The 4-hour Work Week’ came out in 2007. Initially, I was skeptical. These “self-help” or “productivity” books all seem like a waste of time. I didn’t need to be motivated, I understood the importance of time and ambitions at an early age. It was not until a few years later that I realized how much impact this book had on my life and shaped the way I think.
I was just starting my professional career then, and just beginning to understand the money/time tradeoff. The prospect of a “muse” or passive income business immediately caught my eyes. There’s a way to get out of the infinite cycle of trading my time for money? Sign me up! In his book, Tim discussed quite a bit about his experience of replacing himself with a system — an outsourced system, consisted of people overseas who are significantly cheaper in labor cost. Outsourcing was not a new concept, however, this was personalized, customized, revolving around one person’s needs.
As my consulting business started to take off a few years later, I couldn’t wait to start creating my own “outsourced self.” Initially, I followed Tim’s methods. However, as an engineer, my obsession for efficiency and my natural curiocity gradually took over and I ended up with my own set of ways. In this part of the post, I’ll discuss my experiments with Tim’s teachings and lessons learned:
Tim’s Method 1: Outsource Busywork
For virtual assistants (VAs), I experimented with a few elance-like services. At the time, the price ranged from $3-15 usd/hr . I interviewed about half a dozen of VAs and negotiated a deal with a lady from the Philippines for $30/week. She ended up being a great asset for me, mainly for placing a lot of outbound phone calls. I set up a VPN in the states on an old laptop and she was able to use a google voice number to call for free.
However, as time went on, I realized a few things I dislike about this setup:
- I have less and less of work for her to do. I realized I couldn’t trust her with the more sensitive information of my business, which prevented her from being too effective. I tried time-sharing her time with another contractor friend of mine, but even that couldn’t keep her busy.
- Lot of instructions required. Sometimes, the time cost of writing up a clear set of instructions simply doesn’t make sense. I ended up doing lots of the busywork myself.
- Upfront time cost. Like any other hiring decision, usually it costs quite a bit of time and energy to do the initial digging.
- Virtualness means far. In practice, a lot of the assistance work I needed required physical proximity. For example, I found myself needing/using taskrabbit or food delivery services way more when they became available in SF.
Tim’s Method 2: Outsource Research
For consulting businesses to survive, lead generation is critical. You have to maintain a constant stream of clients, then you can start to expand.
- Sourcing via Linkedin. Linkedin is the center for professionals on the interwebs these days. I had my VA look through some of the less tapped industries and gather important decision makers’ information onto a spreadsheet/csv file. Since software is eating the world, any industry can use my service. I’d rather explore industries with less exposure to tech.
- Résumé’ing on all hiring websites. This is pretty straightforward: my VA helped me fill in job applications.. everywhere.
- Interfacing with recruiters. Recruiters have a bad rep in tech due to high placement fees and constant phone/email harassments. I came up with an alternative fee structure and my VA helped me turned the table and spammed lots of recruiters.
At the time, I also wanted to explore real estate as an alternative passive income opportunity. Lots of the research and analysis in housing prices, buy/rent ratio, cost of living, and quality of living in different LoI (locations of interest) were done by my capable VA.
Tim’s Method 3: Outsource Actual Work
It’s been a while since I read the ‘4 hour workweek,’ but I believe there was a whole chapter in his book about how the chapter was actually written by people overseas. For my software consulting business, however, I’ve always been against outsourcing. I think we are in an industry where reputation and quality of work matter way more, I almost always get better clients from word-of-mouth referrals than cold calling. The only tasks I used my VA for were general communications and customer on/off boarding (schedule meetings, receive feedback etc.).
Even though Tim Ferriss’ outsourcing approach is a great life/productivity hack, there are quite a few downsides. The problem with humans in general is that they are harder to manage. They are:
- Less predictable: people move on to other jobs and they get sick. As an employer, you have to constantly have a backup in mind.
- Requires repetitive training: depends on the person, you have to invest a lot of time training and correcting your employee(s). With every new person that comes in/leaves, you have to start the process all over again.
- High upfront cost: both in terms of training (onboarding) and opportunity cost (possible better candidates in the future)
- Domain expertise: sometimes, the jobs are simply too technical that it’s impossible to prepare someone in a short period of time.
This is why I believe computer-driven automation is the natural sequel to Tim’s human-powered automation. It’s cheaper, more reliable, more scalable, and to an engineer’s perspective, more adaptable.
In the next part of this post, I will discuss my modified system, a completely computerized system, that currently runs >80% of my life. I will discuss the technology stack I personally use as well as the cost analysis in terms of time and money I spend maintaining my servers and writing code.