July 18, 2019

How Bean Ninjas CEO Meryl Johnston Built A Global Virtual Powerhouse


How Bean Ninjas CEO Meryl Johnston Built A Global Virtual Powerhouse


Want the transcript? Download it here.


In this episode, Matt and Barbara speak to Meryl Johnston, the CEO, and founder of Bean Ninjas.


Some of the areas covered include:


  • Meryl’s journey from a consulting firm to global, systemized, online business and the perils behind bringing in virtual contractors before you have your processes in place.


Let us know what your key takeout has been from this episode and join the continuing conversation over in the Virtual Success Facebook Group.


In this episode:

1:20 Meryl Johnson the founder and CEO of Bean Ninjas

3:38 The power of systems and processes

4:29 Building a business to scale

8:38 Key Tools or Methods to manage your team

10:24 Wrike

12:06 Systems, tools, and Processes as the front driver

13:30 The Strength of the machine

14:01 Team Meetings

17:07 Concept of the Lunch and Learn

18:02 Virtual Christmas Celebration

20:43 Local knowledge vs Overseas Knowledge

24:39 Training Guide Procedures

29:27 Highlights of the show

33:14 External Leverage

35:09 Top 3 Learnings working with Virtual Team



Intro: Do you find yourself running out of time to accomplish your work, are you spending time doing things that you’re not that good at? There are effective ways to outsource these tasks so you can focus on your business. This is the Virtual Success Show, we bring the inside scoop on outsourcing success for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs. And now here are your hosts Matt Malouf and Barbara Turley.


Barbara Turley: Hey everyone and welcome to another episode of the Virtual Success Show. I’m joined by my co-host Matt Malouf as always. Hey Matt.


Matt Malouf: Hey Barb. How are you?


Barbara: I’m good. And you?


Matt: I’m excellent. Yeah, I’m enjoying a sunny day here in Sydney after what’s been a very, very wet sort of week down here.


Barbara: Yes, unusually so for Sydney. But the Sydney sun is back, which is awesome.


Matt: It is, it is.


Barbara: Yeah. So we’re back, guys, doing one of our interview series, which we love doing. We love when we find interesting business owners that are building virtual teams and can really add value to our listeners and to ask quite frankly about how they’re doing things. So today’s guest is someone who’s become somewhat of a friend of mine, Meryl Johnston, and she is the founder and CEO of Bean Ninjas, which is a bookkeeping, financial reporting, and education business. She’s also a chartered accountant. She’s host up her own podcast, the Bean Ninjas podcast, which I definitely can recommend listening to. And she’s also a big surfer living on the Gold Coast, the beautiful Gold Coast here in Australia. So welcome to the show Meryl.


Meryl Johnson the founder and CEO of Bean Ninjas



Meryl Johnston: Hi Barb. Hi Matt. Great to be here.


Barbara: Good. So listen, why don’t you just give us the quick rundown, Bean Ninjas. What is it? Why did you start it?


Meryl: Well, Bean Ninjas is a bookkeeping and financial recording business, and before starting Bean Ninjas, I was running a consulting firm, not very cleverly named MCJ Consulting, my initials. And I was doing project accounting work and quite quickly found the business difficult to scale. It was hard from a cash flow perspective, with project work being lumpy, and it was difficult to build a team. And I looked at some other business models out there and the kind of business that I wanted to build, which was recurring revenue, it would have processes so I could scale the business and I wanted it to have global potential. And then I looked at my skill set, which is accounting and thought about how I could marry the two together, my skill set and the kind of business that I wanted. And that’s where Bean Ninjas was born.


I founded the business with a co-founder who had a similar vision of creating a global business and a business that we could run from anywhere in the world. So that was where it started. We launched the business in seven days following Dan Norris’s 7 Day Startup method, where we created a logo, a website, fixed fee bookkeeping packages, and found a customer in our first week. And we really had no idea about how much to charge, what our packages were, anything like that. But we launched quickly and then from there we’ve iterated and grown the business, and now we’re almost 4 years old and we have a team of 15.


The power of systems and processes


Barbara: Wow, yeah. And you know what I loved about… There was a couple of things I picked up in what you said there. You said a process driven business that is scalable and we’d… Matt and I talk constantly on this podcast about the power of systems and processes and therefore how… That leading into how teams work. So you had mentioned that you had struggled to sort of get a team together in the previous business. So talk to us a little bit now about the beginnings of that virtual decision to be virtual, because that’s a big change from the original business model. How did you attack it initially in terms of hiring virtual staff?


Meryl: It was initially out of necessity, in that my business partner was in Sydney and I lived on the Gold Coast, and at the very beginning we each had separate businesses and we were working on Bean Ninjas as a side project. So it probably took about, I think 5 months into the business was when we hired our first team member. But prior to that we still needed to communicate remotely and we were building… Our intention from the beginning was to build a business to scale. So from the beginning, we wanted to make sure we were using all of the tools that would allow us to bring other team members on regardless of where they were located around the world. From the beginning, we’re using Help Scout for emails to our clients. We were using Trello to start to create bookkeeping processes. We’re using Google Drive for collaborating and file storage, and of course Xero, which is the accounting software that we specialize in.


Building a business to scale


Barbara: Matt, I’m almost salivating at the mention of all these tools. We did a whole show about the four crucial tools you need to get this right. So, Meryl, you started out with the end in mind kind of thing. So Matt what are your thoughts on starting out that way?


Matt: As you said Barb, it was that, I guess the one thing you mentioned that I think is really important for all of the listeners, is a clear intention of what the end looks like. A business that could be global, work anywhere, process driven, scalable. And so when you get clarity like that, I think what happens for entrepreneurs is we go searching for the answers, but you can’t actually go searching for answers when you’re unclear on what you’re actually searching for. So I think that’s amazing. My question is, so you said at first you didn’t hire your first virtual team member for 5 months, who was the first person you hired?


meryl johnston


Meryl: We hired a bookkeeper to start with.


Matt: Okay.


Meryl: Yeah. And the reason for that was we wanted to remove ourselves from operations, so client facing work as quickly as possible. And so that was why we hired a bookkeeper first. And the reason that it took us so long was because we started the business by putting in $500 each and then we’ve had to… Everything, we’re bootstrapping. So we basically had to earn enough to then hire that first contractor.


Barbara: Where was the contractor based?


Meryl: We actually hired two at the same time and we hired one in the US and one in Australia.


Barbara: Interesting. Oh, so you brought in the US element. So that’s very interesting. How did that… So obviously, the three of you, there was a bookkeeper and yourself and Wayne in Australia, which virtual, but bringing a US person in would have added, all of a sudden, complexity. Were there any sort of issues there around the initial stages there?


Meryl: So the story with Wayne is actually a whole other story. So I actually had… I started a business with a guy called Ben McAdam and bought it, and we can talk about this if it fits later on, but I bought him out of the business after about 18 months and then Wayne, who is my now business partner, joined the business after a couple of years and only recently, he became a partner in August 2018.


Barbara:  I see.


Meryl:  Yeah but we can dig into that if it fits.


Barbara: No, that’s fine. Just because I know him too. So I was thinking, I didn’t realize he wasn’t there from the beginning. That’s interesting because he’s in the US actually, I’ve just realized that he’s based over there.


Meryl: Yes. So we knew that we wanted to have global potential, but we weren’t actually intending to go down that path until much later, once we’d created all of our systems. We were using Australia as the testing ground to build all of our systems and then replicate what we were doing in other markets. But what happened, we had enough referrals from our app… Because our client base were location independent entrepreneurs and digital nomads predominantly, they interacted with a lot of US-based businesses or the US owned businesses. And so we had enough referrals that it made sense to actually hire someone in the US and test it.


And we treated it the same way in launching the business. We thought, “All right, well we’ll just give it a go. We have enough referrals, we’ll learn what we need to learn about US bookkeeping, we’ll exclude anything like sales tax that we don’t have enough knowledge for and we’ll mitigate our risks and then we’ll test it and see what happens.” And interestingly, the US market is actually our largest market in the business now.


Barbara: Yeah, that happened for us too, yeah.


Key Tools or Methods to manage your team


Matt: And so what are some of the key tools or methods you use, Meryl, in managing your team that’s now… So is the team mainly Australia and the US, or are they spread all around the world?


Meryl: They’re spread all around the world. So we are in 6… We’ve got team members that are based in 6 countries. Some of that is just because our team members travel. So one of our team members has been living in Tokyo for a couple of years and has actually just recently returned to Sydney in Australia. But our core team is based in Australia and Wayne is based in US and we’ve got another accountant in Manchester who looks after our UK clients. And then we also have teams in Serbia and the Philippines.


Matt: Okay, and what are some of the key methods in order to manage a global team like that? You know, meetings, tools, et cetera.


Meryl: Yes, we hold regular team meetings with Zoom and we like to have video on generally to help build relationships within the team. Each team member has a a one on one call with their manager each week just to check in and see how they’re going, how their workload is looking for the future and how they’re going at present if they’re enjoying their role, that kind of thing. And then we also have team meetings, and again part of it is about trying to build culture within the business, not just follow up on whether tasks have been completed.


meryl johnston




Meryl: We use Slack. That’s again great for building team culture if you’re intentional about it, but we’re in their day to day, we try and avoid using email to correspond within the team. And then as I mentioned, we use Help Scout externally, so they’re some of the tools. We’ve recently moved to a platform called Wrike for our internal project management. And I’d say it’s a bit like Asana, but it may be the step up from that. We went from Trello to Wrike and we actually use that as a CRM too, from the point of inquiry, where we perceive an inquiry in the business, we have checklists and a flow all the way through onboarding new clients to recurring bookkeeping and then the internal reviews that we have in place. So I’d say that’s probably the key tool that we use.


In terms of managing staff we use Wrike for resource planning, so to see what different bookkeepers have on across the course of a month and future months. And that really helps us in triggering the hiring process to know, right that team’s getting close to capacity. So we know it takes us a month to hire and a couple of months for someone to get up to speed. So it’s time to start the hiring process again.   And we also use Wrike… There’s a lot of different reports we can run in there. For example, exception reports on if there’s tasks that have been set that haven’t been completed for the week as well as reports done, what bookkeeping reports are being delivered, for example.


Systems, tools, and Processes as the front driver



Barbara: You know what I love about that, when you’re just telling all of those stories, excuse me, is the… You know, a lot of people where they struggle I think with teams in general, but virtual teams, it can get worse, is that they don’t know where the bottlenecks are in a workload of somebody in the Philippines for example. You can have task lists and all that but sometimes you’re not quite clear. So it sounds to me like you’re allowing systems and tools and process to sort of be the front driver, and then the teams sort of plug into those things in order to do the work and be successful, which I love, because a lot of people do it the other way around. They try and hire people and then use the tools and systems and processes as kind of a secondary bit. Whereas you, it feels to me more like that’s the driving force and then the team is plugged into that, which is the way we should do it.


Meryl: Yes, it was… Well, you’ve reminded me of a story where we were looking at resource planning for a month and the number of hours of work fitted, but if you look at it on a day by day basis, then there was something like 40 hours scheduled for one work day. So it’s little things like that that are important, but then you’re right, we’re very processed based and I suppose we describe ourselves as a people first, profit second business in that we’re very people-oriented by the way the business was built was around repeatable systems that ensure that we, regardless of the bookkeeper that’s touching the file, the quality of the work would be the same. And the way that we deliver it would be the same regardless of who’s doing it.


The Strength of the machine



Barbara: Yeah, so you’ve built the machine and like I said, and then… Because this is something we try and, definitely through this podcast and I know Matt, you coach your clients on it. We see it coming through with the virtual hub. We’re trying to always say that actually the strength of the machine that you build… You know, plugging the people in, of course, those recruitment and HR and all these other elements, but sometimes it does come down to the initial part of the strength of the machine that you’re plugging your people into. And then you don’t have that issue of, “Oh my God, my amazing bookkeeper, my amazing VA has left. I’m left in a hole because the IPs all walked out the door.”



Team Meetings



Matt: Absolutely. So Meryl, just quickly, just backtracking to your team meeting, because I find that that’s awesome. So you’ve got a team meeting that you hold. How often are you doing that?


Meryl: We have a variety. I used to hate meetings in a past corporate life, but I’ve realized there’s less opportunity for team members to interact in a remote team. And we really want people to feel proud of being a part of the Bean Ninjas team, and feel like they’re part of something and that they have relationships with other team members across different time zones. So if our bookkeeping teams are split up into teams, so they might have a weekly or fortnightly team meeting themselves. We have a monthly, what we call lunch and learn, even though it’s often not lunchtime, but for some time zones, it isn’t.


Matt: So that was my… Sorry to cut you, that was my question. How do you, across 6 countries, how do you choose the time zone?


Barbara: I was thinking the same thing. I was like, “Do you get them all on the one call?” That’s amazing.


Meryl: It’s a challenge to do that. So what we’ve decided, with the lunch and learn, which is basically someone running an internal training session. So we actually have one scheduled tomorrow and Wayne and I are presenting the 2020 vision to the team and the roadmap of how we’re going to get there and what that means for them and their roles and opportunities within the business. And we were actually running the same meeting or the same presentation and an interactive part of the presentation twice. So we’re running it once for the Europe and US time zone and then we’re running a separate one for Australia and Asia. So it is hard to get everyone on the call. But for example, our management meeting where we have 3 time zones, we just do that really early in Australia, which is late in Europe.


Barbara: Yeah, you have to get everyone, but it’s a commitment to making it work and to… I love your idea around creating spaces where people can actually forge relationships, see each other because virtually there’s a lot of time you spend on your own or just updating systems like Wrike or doing the work. There isn’t the water cooler discussion. So that’s something I know a lot of people struggle with when they’re trying to build culture in a virtual team.


Meryl: Yeah, sometimes, Sometimes I try to be proactive, if there’s a new person, I think they’re really going to get along well with someone else, I’ll suggest that they go and have a one on one call or that they work on a particular small project together, just so that gradually we want everyone in the team to have had someone on one time with everyone else in the team, and as we get bigger that gets more difficult. But that’s something that we’re aiming for, because I think you could be in a group call for a whole year with someone, but unless you’ve had that one on one time and a chance to ask about what they do outside of work, their family, then you might not really know them and when it does come time to work on a project together, you might not feel comfortable speaking up or constructively disagreeing with them about something.


Concept of the Lunch and Learn



Matt: Yeah. And one other thing I just want to reiterate that Meryl said, for the listeners to hear. I love this concept of the lunch and learn. And I know in a lot of corporate organizations that’s a very big part of culture building and also training. And I love how you’ve adapted that into a virtual environment. And I think too often what happens is, as entrepreneurs and business owners, we place a block at times when we think, “Well we’re not all in the same office. We couldn’t possibly do that.” But with tools like Zoom and the like now, it’s having that open-mindedness that we can all sit around a virtual table, have a training, share a meal and achieve the same outcome. I think that’s just outstanding. So yeah, kudos to you. I love that. Really, really love that.


Virtual Christmas Celebration



Barbara: Actually I have a follow on question from that, Meryl. I’m interested to know, have you attempted to do a virtual Christmas celebration or like a one year… You know like when the company hits one or two years or has a milestone or it’s Christmas because we don’t do the Christmas party obviously when we have people virtually all over the world. Have you attempted anything like that, like an event where people can do something simultaneously?


Meryl: Not really. So the only time we’ve had everyone on the call was probably a couple of years ago now when we wanted to map out our vision, mission, and values and we wanted to do a workshop with the whole team. And so we had everyone there for that. I suppose something we do do, it’s hard to get the whole team together, but that actually is one of my goals for 2020, is to do an in-person retreat.


Barbara: Yeah, that’s amazing. Yeah.


Meryl: We do smaller versions of that. So we have had a live Christmas party in Australia where we’ve had people within Australia fly to the Gold Coast and we’ve also had Wayne in the US and Tom from the UK fly out to Australia. I think Tom’s been here a couple of times and I’ve also traveled. So we have smaller team meetups and Tom, who manages the team in Serbia, has traveled out to Serbia to meet the team and take them out to dinner. But we haven’t actually done a virtual party, so.


Barbara: The reason I asked is because-


Meryl: I like that idea!


Barbara: We did one last year, so last Christmas I thought it’d be an interesting story for me to share, that we attempted it and what we actually did was that we… On the same night, so obviously in the UK it was a bit different from night, it was morning there, but we have a sort of a Facebook group and what we did was we had parties in Manila, Cebu, Sydney, Melbourne and Dublin on the same Saturday and we all did Facebook lives while we were at our dinner or having drinks to each other in the Facebook group. And it was awesome there was lots of people and it was our first attempt at an actual virtual Christmas party and we pulled it off. I mean, okay the guys in Dublin were a bit late to the party, but it was cool to see on the following week we had all the videos of all the Facebook lives in there.


Meryl: I love the idea of that.


Barbara: Yeah, it was a really cool idea.


Matt: Very cool.


Barbara: So we attempted that last year. So there’s an idea.


Meryl: Yes, I’ll have a chat with Wayne about it.


Matt: So Meryl, just a question around location of your team. One of the things I wrote about in my book, The Stop Doing List, was when you want to use virtual teams, you’ve got to make a decision on whether you’re going to go local or overseas… And I think certain roles and tasks require local knowledge versus overseas knowledge. And you mentioned earlier, so your first two, a bookkeeper in the US and a bookkeeper in Australia. So is that a very deliberate move that you keep your team local for that region in which they’re operating in?


Local knowledge vs Overseas Knowledge



Meryl: It does help. So we had found that Australian bookkeepers can do US bookkeeping and then we’d just have someone in the US do a review. But I think it does help with local knowledge and knowing the names of local suppliers.


That’s something I didn’t mention, so we hired those first two staff, but we also tried outsourcing to India in that probably first 6 months and it was an absolute disaster because we had no system… Even though we were trying to build systems and processes, I should say we didn’t have any, but they weren’t very good. We were still very early in the evolution of our systems and processes and so we spent more time reviewing work… We were reviewing every email because the English wasn’t strong enough to send to clients.


So it actually took more time to kind of manage that team than if we were doing the work ourselves. And so we cut that pretty quickly and then hired local staff and then it was probably only a number of years later, once we’d really refined our systems and processes and had everything running smoothly, that we then started to introduce team members in places like the Philippines. And we were able to do that with other team members, or other accountants and bookkeepers, training and onboarding those team members rather than… As a founder, I felt it was more important for me to be growing the business rather than doing detailed training with our accountants in places like the Philippines.


Barbara: You know, I love that story because something I see a lot obviously in what I’m doing, is that when people come… Offshoring and going to places like the Philippines, India, I’m not so sure about, depending on what you’re doing. But places like the Philippines for me, of course, I see it as a no brainer strategy, to have an element of offshore team members in your business. Now, not all of them, but I think it’s great, it’s brilliant for your bottom line, of course, it’s very cost effective.


But for businesses that are not ready yet or don’t know what they don’t know yet, like what you’ve just shared, it actually does waste time, energy and money. And there’s a lot of stories online of that. So can you share a little bit deeper around, you know, the refinements, was it India that gave you the realization or did you kind of know before you outsourced and then that proved that you were not ready? And then what did you do thereafter to really get ready for something like the Philippines?


Meryl: At the time I thought we had good processes, but I think that was just because we had really strong local accountants and so they plugging the lack of processes and detailed checklists that we had because they were highly skilled, highly capable, and didn’t need a lot of direction. And after reviewing their work for a couple of months, Ben and I felt like we could trust in the quality of their work and we didn’t need to do detailed reviews. And I think that lulled me into a false sense of security about how good our processes were, and then I realized when we went to India that they were not good at all and we didn’t have proper processes around, on things like onboarding and that transition from delivering an exceptional first 30 days, and then what does that look like, to go into recurring work and what are our deliverables?


Training Guide Procedures


Meryl: So then when we pulled it back to local team members, then it took us a couple of years to refine it. So we would have checklists, that team members would follow in Trello and we also have training guides, procedures basically in a tool called SweetProcess. And we did a project where we created over a hundred procedures of how to guides and that probably took us nine months to complete that. So it was when we had that in place plus all of our checklists and a reporting mechanism around the checklists, which was Wrike, that we then felt like we were in a much better position to then look at hiring staff in the Philippines. And that’s gone really well for us this time around. We’ve got great accountants over there and we’ve got great local managers in place to make sure that everything’s running smoothly.


Barbara: So that’s so interesting. There’s so much gold in what you’ve just said because it really is, a lot of people give up. They just have the belief that their systems are fine and that it’s the offshore thing that has screwed everything up. But what I’m interested to know is when you… So you fixed all of that, it is a huge project to fix it, so I’m not surprised it took two years and the depth that you’ve gone to is kind of what it takes to really scale it. Did you find that, with that paired then with the offshore strategy, that the business grew faster with better profit?
[/et_pb_text][et_pb_text _builder_version=”3.27.4″ text_font_size=”16px” custom_margin=”||100px” locked=”on”]Meryl: Yes. I think we’re still not seeing all of the benefits of that. If we look at our teams structure now, the potential… The team structures definitely with a local manager managing a portfolio of Philippines accountants or Serbian accountants. Yes, there’s opportunity to receive much higher profits. It also means that managers can focus less on doing and more on customer experience, and looking at where there’s opportunities to add value or understanding their client’s businesses more. So I think we’re in the early stages of seeing some of these results, but we’ve only really laid that foundation. We’ve finished some of these projects in the last couple of months to the last 6 months, but we’re only starting to see some of these benefits, but I’m expecting them to come through later this year too.


Barbara: This is really, really… This is honestly, it’s gold for people listening, because I’ve always said to people, and I know Matt, you do this as well, it is a huge amount of work to do this, but the dividends that it will pay for your business, for your people, for your scalability later are quite enormous. That it’s worthwhile to invest 12 months, 2 years, whatever, in actually building this and taking it seriously. And what I love about what you’ve shared as well, is that your onshorer I’m going to call them or whatever, your Australian, your US, and UK managers, are now freed up a lot as well to do, I’m not going to say higher value work, although it is higher value in terms of revenue generating, but for them as well, it’s a growth experience because they actually get the chance to be more engaged in, as you said, the customer success, which elevates everything, your brand can take off with that kind of thing. So is that kind of what you’re starting to see the genesis of now, after all this work?


Meryl: Absolutely, yes, and it’s interesting, our UK manager, Tom, I think he’s starting to see… He actually do a lot of the recurring bookkeeping longer than we wanted, but it just took longer to get these processes and hire the right team and he’s starting to see the light where he can spend time on these other value-added tasks that he’s been wanting to do for some months or even years really. And he can see that now with a team in place who are full time, who are committed and highly skilled, that he can rely on them to do a lot of the bookkeeping processing. He can review and then he can focus on the more fun… It’s more fun too.


Barbara: I was just thinking to myself, your people genuinely have more fun, including those who are offshore, because they feel more secure in their own success, in their own careers, that they’re not going to be making mistakes everywhere and having bad employee reviews and even if they’re contractors and whatever. So it actually has benefits across the entire channel of the whole team and the customer at the end.


Meryl: Yeah. I’m really glad we’ve gone down this path.


Barbara: Oh good. Because I know Matt, you must be… I mean this is gold for us really. Because this is the hard work that you’ve put in, but you are going to see. This is the benefits that some businesses, they sort of conceptually go, “Yeah I kind of get it.” But they don’t get how much work is involved, to pull this off, how much it’s worth it.


Highlights of the Show



Matt: Yeah. And I think a couple of things for listeners, to highlight here. Early in this episode the first thing Meryl was very clear on, was the vision for the business but also what she was creating, a process driven business that is scalable. And the second thing is, I see so often business owners jumping in wanting to scale fast, but they’re not ready. And I think it’s having the foresight to understand that and go, “No, you know what? We weren’t ready for that. We have to go in and layer in tighter infrastructure. Our foundation’s not strong enough.” 


And then to Barbara’s point, most people will blame the virtual team or the location… And one thing that Barbara and I continuously on this show and in the work that we do outside of the show, are sharing with people is, without strong, robust systems that you’ve tested and tried to break, et cetera, your business, you can’t grow in scale. It’s near impossible. And it’s having the patience for that. I think too often business owners try and throw money and people at the problem versus actually having the patience and investing the time, energy and effort into building the machine that is your business, so that then… I call it, if you have a strong system that’s proven, you can take someone with the right attitude and make them look like a superhero overnight.


Barbara: Yeah, you can. You can train people to be that.


Matt: And that’s what Meryl’s done. You know, Meryl has tried India, wrong location, and I think that’s a really important point. Not that they’re better or worse, it’s just the wrong location for her type of business and the type of people that she was looking for, went back to the drawing board, has tightened the system, identified where the problem and… Every day in what I do and I love that Meryl, you’ve done this, you took a hundred percent responsibility as opposed to blaming, and then what you’ve now got is the ability to have a business that can operate in 6 countries, and you or your team can work virtually anywhere in the world. That’s just amazing.


Meryl: So definitely got some team members that take advantage of that. Michael, from our team, he’s lived in Bali for a couple of months last year and he’s planning some surf trips to New Zealand actually, where he’ll be working, and he’ll be fitting in his work around what he’s doing.


Matt, I wanted to add something else to what you were talking about there, and something I found hard in probably the second year of business when we started investing in processes, was I had to put my ego to the side and as a founder originally some of my… I was attributing whether I was a good founder or not, around how quickly I was growing revenue and we had to put revenue gross on hold for a little while, really scale it back while we worked on systems and processes. And so that was putting ego to the side and really thinking about what the business needed for the long term. And it was challenging to do, especially when lots of other businesses were growing quickly around me, but it was not about what they were doing. It was about what was right for Bean Ninjas.


External Leverage



Barbara: I love that you’ve shared that Meryl, because I think as well, everyone’s trying to rise to the top and a lot of people are very focused on marketing, or what I call external leverage, which is marketing, sales, PR, client acquisition, traffic, all that sort of thing. And really internal infrastructure is what breaks that in the end because if you drive all of those sales and all of that hype into an engine that is rusty and half falling down, which is the engine of your business, then you blow yourself up in the end and we see that happening a lot. People do end up blowing themselves up. Where I’m with you, I just think this is a more sustainable… It’s more painful in some ways because it’s not fun. Building processes is just not fun.   Like who wants to sit down and do that? But again, I hear this all the time from people, I’m not on our sales calls anymore, but I see it coming through on the common commentary. People saying, “Oh look, I just don’t have time for that, sorry.” And my answer to that is always, “Well, if you don’t have time today, you’ll have less time in 12 months’ time.” 


meryl johnston


Because you have to… It’s like going to the gym, right? You’ve got to work that muscle if you want to achieve the engine or the machine in the end that will take you where you want to go and actually give you the entrepreneurial freedom that we all went into business to achieve. Not necessarily sitting on the beach doing nothing, but you know what I mean? It’s having the opportunity to, in the end, do things like this, like do our podcasts, talk to people about the company growth, look at company culture, all the more fun stuff. But you’ve got to do the hard work, in the beginning, to make that happen. And it has to come from the owner, I think, the founder.


Top 3 Learnings Working with Virtual Team



Matt: It’s your vision, it’s your dream, isn’t it? So, I’ve got one last question, Meryl. Knowing what you now know and you’ve been doing this for, I think you said 4 years, what are say the top three learnings when it comes to working with a virtual team that you could share with our listeners, who may be thinking of starting to employ their first virtual team member or may already have a virtual team?


Meryl: So the first one, I think we’ve talked about a bit, which is having good systems and good processes in place and having that as a cultural part of the business so that everyone knows why systems and processes are important. And so everyone within their role is maintaining the standard operating procedures and the checklists and continuing to gradually improve them, not just create them once and then two years later they are completely out of date. So systems and processes creation and also maintaining them.


The second is around who you hire. And it was only a couple of years into the business that we hired a project manager. Before that, I was creating all of the procedures and doing a lot of the thinking of behind that. And then when we hired a project manager, I could communicate my vision and then someone else who was very skilled could go and execute on that and rally the troops and get other people in the team organized or create the step by step process around that. And so in hindsight, and maybe we would’ve needed to have saved up for that in the business, but in hindsight, I would have hired someone of that skill level as early as possible. So rather than hiring people that can follow processes, I would have hired someone that could create the processes.



Barbara: I would echo that myself. I definitely think I should have done that earlier as well.


Meryl: And it’s hard when you’re starting out because it feels like you don’t have the budget, but I would have sacrificed marketing spend and my own salary to do that because that would have shaved months and maybe even a year off our growth curve, I would say.


And then the third one is not to neglect team culture. I think team culture is much easier to build when you’re in an in person-environment and it can happen by default because you walk out of the office at the same time as someone and you have a chat on the way to the train. Whereas you need to be a lot more intentional about it and clear about what kind of culture you want to create and then put in place strategies like the team calls or the virtual Christmas parties, the one on one calls as well as the technology behind it to enable collaboration with the team and to make everyone feel welcomed and that they’re listened to and part of a team rather than any individual doing some work on their own from home.


Barbara: That’s great. Those are three really strong points and I do think actually you’ve picked the best three possible because, as you were speaking, I was thinking I would echo those competing, particularly that project management role. And if I could actually just add there, often we see people coming to us wanting a virtual assistant and then kind of trying to morph that virtual assistant into the project manager role, which is always a disaster, but they’re trying to save on costs there and it’s just being realistic about what a project manager truly is and the value that they actually bring to the team and they can even run the offshore people eventually and delegate tasks, et cetera. So really powerful stuff, guys.


Matt: Thank you so much, Meryl, for sharing. Thank you.


Barbara: Honestly it’s such gold, great to see the growth of the company. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. I’m a user of Bean Ninjas. I’m happy to say, so get on board everyone.


Meryl: It’s been fun. Thanks for having me.


Matt: Fantastic. Thanks, Meryl, and Barb once again, another great show, another great guest. To our listeners, if you’ve got any specific questions that you’d like to reach out, for Meryl or for us, feel free to post them in our Facebook group at the Virtual Success Show Facebook group. And also too, if you’ve got any show ideas, or you’ve just enjoyed the show, we’d love for you to share that or post them online. We’re always looking to ensure that what we’re bringing to the table for this show is relevant and exactly what you’re after. But once again, thanks to Meryl, thanks Barb and we’ll all be in touch soon.


Outro: Thank you for listening to the Virtual Success Show. If you found this show helpful, take a moment to share it with a friend so that we can all grow together.


The Hosts


meryl johnstonMatt Malouf

Matt Malouf is a passionate business coach, speaker, author, and entrepreneur on a mission to help entrepreneurs around the world break the shackles of mediocrity and reach new levels of personal and business success.


meryl johnstonBarbara Turley

Barbara Turley is the Founder & CEO of The Virtual Hub, a company that specializes in recruiting, training and managing superstar ‘Virtual Assistants’ in the social media, digital marketing, and systems automation space.





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