Q&A with Ryan Norbauer of Lovetastic.comElance_Cathy | Oct 24, 2007
Ryan Norbauer calls himself an entrepreneurial dilettante. Read his bio and you'll quickly find he's quite a bit more, and all at 26 years old. We're big on supporting entrepreneurs, and meeting Ryan, even over email, was a refreshing experience in a world where "entrepreneur" can sometimes be a loose term.
Among Mr. Norbauer's many accomplishments, he's a writer, and guests writes on a few blogs including 43folders - a family of websites about personal productivity and simple ways to make your life a little better. I highly recommend checking it out for some handy advice. Ryan recently wrote about Enlightened Outsourcing on 43folders (see parts 1 and 2) after reading "The 4-Hour Workweek" by best selling author, Tim Ferriss, and we wanted to ask him a few more questions about his personal outsourcing experience and entrepreneurship.
Where did you first hear about "The 4-Hour Workweek" and why did it grab your attention?
I think I first saw it as an off-hand link on my pal Merlin's blog. So many business books are little more than feel-good pabulum with almost no actionable or practical information. I loved Tim's book because it was totally different from all that. It dares to speak about many of the tacit rules of the business world, and on almost every page it provides very real, very detailed ways to use those rules in actually getting things done and living a happier life.
Do you think "outsourcing your life" is just a trend, or do you think once the idea becomes discovered, virtual assistants have the potential to become a must-have for people needing to get work done? (In the same way people can't live without email or a cell/smart phone today?)
I suppose it is a bit of a fad lately, but that doesn't preclude the possibility of a long-term change in the way people think about service. In America, I think we have lost a healthy respect for personal service in the past few decades. People are afraid to ask for help. We feel like we have to manage every tiny task in our lives, or else we're either spoiled or somehow lazy. Many people even think of asking for help with day-to-day tasks as elitist or almost un-American (as a manifestation of some kind of old-world feudal/hierarchical mindset). But we're really just kidding ourselves.
Almost nobody works in a job that isn't a form of service to another person--directly or indirectly. When you think about it, there isn't any difference between a white-collar office worker for a grocery store chain who makes sure that the artichokes arrives on time, and the boy who carries your bags to the car for a two-dollar tip. They're both working to help you get something you want in life a little bit easier. In return, you pay them a bit of money which they will in turn give to somebody else to help them get some things done that make their lives easier. This distinction between indirect and direct forms of service seems terribly artificial to me, and I don't know why people shy away from the latter. We've grown away from things like housekeepers, secretaries, home milk delivery, and laundering service in the past few decades. Automation has contributed to this (washing machines and "personal digital assistants,") but I think it's really about our culture developing a pathological dependence on the idea of "doing everything for yourself," good old American "self-reliance."
As I say, this is just a silly form of self-deceit. You don't manufacture your own television; you outsource that to somebody in Taiwan. So I don't see why a person should feel weird having someone in India answer her phone, or somebody down the street wash her clothes.
When you started outsourcing parts of your life, what was the biggest surprise for you about the whole process?
The availability and flexibility of labor. I've been astonished at just how many people around the globe are out there on the internet (and here on Elance) who are willing, ready, and able to do almost anything one could imagine on short notice. I never realized that I could hire people so easily to do small piecemeal and incremental tasks. Many people are afraid to hire help because they fear the overhead of bringing on a full-time employee and all the record-keeping associated with that. But I've learned that, even if you only need help for one hour a week, you won't have any trouble finding someone to do that work--and as a completely independent contractor--especially if it's work that can be done remotely.
As a busy entrepreneur, does outsourcing have a direct impact on your work life and your personal life? Are there a few examples you can share?
Without question. I couldn't possibly be involved in as many different projects without several people helping me see to the everyday details of my companies. Never underestimate the destructive power of daily interruptions. Although all the "little" tasks of your life and businesses may seem trivial, in sum they keep you from focusing on what really matters. As an entrepreneur, what really matters is keeping a high-level perspective and thinking big about developing new markets. If you're spending all day answering support emails or running packages to the post office, you simply can't do that. Don't sacrifice your sanity, productivity, and by extension the very future of your business just to save 10 bucks.
What's the point of having money in the first place anyway? Americans spend billions every year on pointless plastic baubles to clutter their offices and cars, and fill up their attics. And yet we hesitate to spend money on services that would utterly change and improve our way of living. I'd far rather live in a dumpy house with a part-time maid than a mansion I had to clean myself.
My favorite example of personal outsourcing from my own life is that I've outsourced cooking two delicious home-made meals a day for my three-person family at the cost of only $135 a week (that's $45 a person!) And all it took was one job posting online and sorting through 15 qualified applicants.
You had some interesting jobs before you started your own company. Which was your favorite and which do you think prepared you best to be your own boss?
Working in Foreign Affairs in the office of a member of the British Parliament, on both counts. Firstly, it was just great fun. I got to feel like I was playing a part, however small, in issues of real importance on a global scale, and I got to get up close to Presidents and Prime Ministers. And, although I wasn't directly working on business in that post, my time in London really helped me develop and appreciation for the capitalist world view--which I had actually held in some contempt previously. (I originally studied and planned to be a scholar.) I fell in with a group of colleagues in free-trade think tanks at the London School of Economics, who helped me better to appreciate the importance of entrepreneurialism in improving society and the lives of people around the world. I came to understand entrepreneurs not as people primarily concerned with profit, but as what they truly are: social change agents. There is tremendous risk in starting new businesses that challenge the status quo. Almost nobody does it just for the money. It's about affecting change and creating value. If you take a serious evidence-based look at what is most likely to improve the lives the world's poor over the next decade, it has a lot more to do with free trade and commerce than anything our governments or the UN are likely to do.
What finally motivated you to start your own business and launch Lovetastic.com a few years ago?
I decided to leave academia because I felt the path to being a scholar (which I was actually fairly successful at) would leave me unable to have as significant an impact on the world around me as creating my own companies.
I had long seen an unserved gap in the marketplace, which I created Lovetastic to fill. Before us, all of the dating sites devoted to bringing together gay men were focused on very superficial qualities and transitory relationships; I wanted to build a supportive, welcoming community that valued members for who they are and treated them just like any other group of people looking for love and life-long relationships.
I think all good businesses start with an entrepreneur trying to address his own needs and desires. The company I admire most, 37signals, got started this way--and just about every other company than I actually enjoy doing business with.
For other small businesses and entrepreneurs out there, what do you believe are the most important challenges to overcome when starting your own business?
Quite simply: figuring out how to make money. Coming up with a great idea--a product that will make make society better and create value for customers--is pretty easy. Figuring out how to turn that into a profitable and sustainable business is a far harder proposition. This is something you have to take seriously from the very outset. And, no, making money by raising investment capital doesn't count. Every business should distill down to this basic question: when do our customers give us money? This seems fairly obvious, but many start-ups (in the technology industry in particular) still manage to overlook it.
About Ryan Norbauer
Ryan Norbauer is an armchair web application philosopher, madcap productivity theorist without portfolio, and entrepreneurial dilettante.
He is founder of the widely praised gay dating community Lovetastic.com, President of Norbauer Inc Consulting (which connects US start-ups with a team of extraordinary Indian Ruby developers,) and purveyor of fine über-nerdy t-shirts. He writes about productivity and whatnot here and programming here.
Norbauer has a multifarious past as a writer and researcher, having worked at the British Parliament, NASA, the CDC, and even a psychiatric hospital, among other