20. John Miles: Improving economic prosperity for workers in Venezuela

Sue Stockdale talks to John Miles, co-founder of iWorker, about why he started up the business and how it helps generate economic prosperity for skilled workers in Venezuela and other countries that are in dire economic situations.

John Miles is a Canadian entrepreneur who started his career managing a few small brick-and-mortar businesses just outside of Toronto. In 2017, John decided he wanted to experience a new culture and learn a new language so he cashed out his ownership in the companies he was involved in and bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Soon after arriving in Buenos Aires, John met his now business partner, Jeb.  After hearing the stories of food and medicine shortages from their Venezuelan friends who had fled the crisis back in their country, John and Jeb decided to try to do something to help out the situation.  They soon got the idea for a socially-focused virtual assistant agency that would connect college educated Venezuelans with online work in North America.  Today iWorker has grown to over 300 workers and 700 clients and has expanded to countries going through economic crisis such as Haiti, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and Kenya, to name a few. More info about iWorker.

John Miles transcription

Sue Stockdale: on the podcast today, I’m speaking to John Miles, John’s co, founder of iWorker, a social enterprise that began with the aim of providing quality work to Venezuelans. It enables entrepreneurs and small business to hire talented remote workers who are highly educated and have a range of skills. Often called Virtual Assistants, this type of resource is really becoming very popular now, particularly with small businesses that are growing or need flexible resource. In fact, Matias who’s a key member of our access to inspiration team works remotely with us from Argentina to edit and produce the podcasts. So, I’m certainly familiar with this concept. Welcome John to the podcast.

John Miles : thank you very much for having me. Sue.

Sue Stockdale: Now I know that you are a bit of a traveller and have a global focus and that this business, initially it was started around South America. What took you to south America in the first place?

John Miles : Yeah. I was involved in a couple of businesses back in Canada and I just had the opportunity to sell the ownership and those businesses at one time, and this was about three years ago. I had always thought, like a lot of people I’ve fantasized about sort of traveling and you hear the stories of people traveling the world and just working from their laptop. And that sounded pretty cool to me and so I had actually had the opportunity to do that when I Sold my shares in these businesses. So, I thought, well, what do I want to do? I really liked being in business, so I said, okay, I’m going to start a new business of some kind and where are some of the places that I’ve been that I think would be interesting to go to. So, one of the places was Argentina. And another which was on the top of that list was Medellin, Colombia. What appealed to me was just I wanted to learn another language so I could actually talk to locals and experience a bit of a different culture. So I thought, okay, well, Spanish is a valuable language it’s useful all over the world, so, okay, I’m going to learn Spanish. Medellin was one of two cities that I’ve been to, that I really liked. So, I went down to Buenos Aires, for four months, got an apartment and it was down there that I met my now business partner, Jeb. We actually didn’t start this business right away. He was working on other things and I was doing a bit of consulting, but we got talking and we hit it off, and we had met a lot of people from Venezuela and then got the spark for the idea to start this business, but that’s how I ended up in South America.

Sue Stockdale :  I know you’re speaking to us today from Medellin in Colombia, and it’s lovely to hear the birds tweeting in the background who really get a great sense of what that city must be like for you.

John Miles : yeah, yeah. It’s amazing. Yeah. Like Palm trees everywhere, super green and just birds everywhere, so it’s cool. It’s really quite something.

Sue Stockdale : It sounds lovely. Now I know, I know you were saying that you and Jeb were  hearing stories from people in Venezuela about what the situation was like there and the economic crisis – what were you learning from people coming from Venezuela?

John Miles : You hear all sorts of things, but I mean, some of the, some of the typical stories and the situation changes really quickly, but something that’s super common is just really long lineups for groceries. So, things that you couldn’t even imagine, like waiting for four hours to get into a grocery store to get food and then you get in and they don’t have a lot of the stuff that you want, or it’s just so expensive to buy certain things. Like some things are not expensive, but then certain things are just ridiculously expensive and so it makes just things that we take for granted super difficult. Another one is getting money out of a bank machine. the government will limit how much cash people can take out, and you can wait for three hours to get to go to the bank teller and get cash out, and then you’ll get enough cash to buy a sandwich, type of thing. Everything that we take for granted that you can do just super quickly and super easily is, is difficult. there’s also the safety factor. So going out in the street, the crime rate’s a lot higher it’s in a lot of the bigger cities like Caracas so that’s certainly a factor. The public transit system can either be not working or just, again, you have to dedicate a lot of time to being able to get where you want to go. So,we’re talking hours to get places and then the country has gone through different waves where food has gotten really expensive. But then that, that problem, at times it seemed to work itself out, but then other problems come up where they have issues with maybe electricity went out for a few days across the whole country at one point. So, it just seems to be problem after problem. Luckily, they haven’t been hit too hard by the coronavirus yet, but the medical system there is in poor shape. And so, yeah, you can just imagine anything that, that, that is a small problem can really grow into a bigger issue.

Sue Stockdale : So you and Jeb were hearing these stories coming out Venezuela and many other people could have heard similar things and just had a degree of empathy for those in the country. How did you get from hearing those stories to deciding to start up a business?

John Miles : part of it was that we had some friends that were Venezuelan and they had fled Venezuela, and we got to know them in Buenos Aires and. And Jeb and I were both in different but similar positions that Jeb was doing well with, with a few online businesses that he had and I had just sold my shares in these businesses so we weren’t under the gun to do something new and make a ton of money off of it. So this, this happened more where we didn’t have these grand plans to start a huge business. We just said, okay we’ve got a bit of time we could probably help of these Venezuelan friends of ours out, because we’ve got a foot in both worlds.

We’re living in South America. We know some people, we know a bit about the culture, but we’re North American businesspeople I am from Canada and Jeb is from the US and we’re entrepreneurial and we can have those conversations with entrepreneurs back home and speak the same language. So, we thought, okay, we’re in a unique position. So. Why don’t we just try this out, trying to make some of these connections with people we know down here with friends and business owners back home. We just started doing it on the side, like small scale, but it took off like almost from the beginning. We didn’t have a website; we didn’t have anything. We were just sort of talking to people and we saw that the demand was there. And yeah, it sort of just, it built from there.

Sue Stockdale : So in terms of the setup of the enterprise, I know you described it as a social enterprise, which one might argue is making money and making a difference, which one’s more important for you?

John Miles : We started this for sure, making a difference- the reason for that is, we weren’t starting this to get rich or that just wasn’t our goal from the beginning. So, we decided, okay, we’re going to take a small margin. We’ve never changed that much and actually we have plans to decrease the margin as the business becomes more established and we’re getting some things with economies of scale and that sort of thing that allows us to pour more money back and we’ve given substantial raises to all of our workers. And that’s super important to us. So, if we have any extra cash, we pour that back into to give workers raises. Cause that’s our ultimate goal is to pay people as much money.  as we can. So we’ve got our P&L, and then we’ve got a couple special lines on our profit and loss that show how much money we’ve paid out to the workers since day one, and then show how many workers we’d given work to in total and how many workers we currently have working. So, for us, those metrics are super important.

Sue Stockdale : So you are really trying to make a difference as well as make sure that the business makes money.

John Miles :  Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Sue Stockdale :  So for those listeners that don’t understand or haven’t heard about the idea of VAs, virtual assistants, tell us about what, what is the kind of service that you’re selling?

John Miles :  So VA is, is quite a broad term actually. We prefer on our website we use more, remote worker, remote professional. The reason for that. Is that we feel it encompasses more of what the workers are capable of doing. Because if you’re a virtual assistant and you’re just like someone who can do basic things like, I dunno, book a flight for me or find a hotel or whatever it may be. But most of our workers are college university educated. We have workers with master’s degrees. We have workers who are at least a couple that are lawyers, at least a couple that are medical doctors that work with us on the side. So, that’s why I say remote professional. It gives you an idea that, okay, they’re, they’re capable of all sorts of different things. So, it’s, it’s almost anything that a worker can do on a computer. So the common things would be social media, customer service, sales, lead generation, graphic design. Digital marketing is really quite popular. Like SEO and then doing web development. So a lot of it is on WordPress, but also like application development. phone apps, and that’s okay.

Sue Stockdale : if I was a business owner in the UK or anywhere in the world for that matter, and I was looking to get a resource to help me with my website or do some social media for me, would I be then hiring one of your workers full time or what would I be actually buying from them?

John Miles : Not full time. And that’s one of the advantages too, I think. Hiring from a company like ours is just, we will do everything. We tend to fill that worker’s schedule, so if they want to get 40 hours a week, we can put them with a few different people, to get them up to those 40 hours a week. But you don’t have to commit to 40 hours. So, if you only want five hours or 10 hours a week, that’s fine. We chunk off that time. And then that worker becomes a member of your team. We’re not swapping them out, but you don’t have to commit to, to try to find them other work to do just so that they can, they can get by but because they’re working with us, we’re probably filling their schedule and other places. And so there’s that commitment that this is actually their full time job, their career. So, we get that commitment of us being their full-time employer, but you don’t have to commit to the full-time hours. So that can be, can be quite powerful.

Sue Stockdale : No, that makes sense, John, and in terms of language, you talked earlier about obviously the main predominant languages being Spanish and Portuguese in South America. How do you cope with the potential language barrier when maybe your clients are, I’m imagining mostly English speaking?

John Miles : So, we are particular about who we hire. So as much as we operate as a social enterprise, I realized from being an entrepreneur myself, it’s not easy to, to grow a business. So, we  expect our workers to be reliable to have some, some skill set that’s marketable, and then have advanced level English. we’ve had probably I don’t know, 5,000 people apply with us, and we’ve got a team of, I think around 400. So, we don’t hire everybody that applies as much as we’d like to. We realize, okay, English, having a high level of English is, super important, for communication and all that sort of thing.

Sue Stockdale : Tell us maybe about some of the challenges in the early days, cause I can imagine trying to set up a business like you’ve got and satisfy the requirements on both sides might be a little bit tricky at the start?

John Miles :  Well, you sort of hit the nail on the head when you said both sides, because it’s the biggest thing for us in the beginning, and actually it still can be a challenge, but we’re, we’re getting more and more in the groove as time goes on, but knowing, okay. Cause you can’t, you can’t hire a bunch of workers overnight. And we’ll go in waves where we’ve got, we’ve got all these workers and we’re trying to find work for them. And then we’ll go in waves where we have all this demand and then we’re like, Oh, we don’t have enough workers. And so trying to try to predict that and see, okay, where, where are we going to need to be in four weeks’ time, this type of thing with the number of workers. We don’t want to be recruiting and getting workers’ hopes up. And then it’s like we sort of overshot. We have too many people and we can’t find you work. Cause it’s disappointing and we don’t want to waste anybody’s time. So that has been our biggest challenge, probably, is just balancing both sides of it and making sure that we’re not doing too much of one activity.

Sue Stockdale : I also imagine that as the person that requires the service from the worker. So let’s imagine the British company again, that it’s not necessarily a case of just saying, okay, John, here’s my website update it very week for me, and that that’s the level of briefing that is expected, or will deliver the result. I’m imagining there’s a bit more to it than that.

John Miles : So that’s the biggest factor when people ask me, okay, like what? How do I have a successful relationship with a remote worker? And what I say is, okay, you need to treat this person as if it’s somebody that you’re hiring. Let’s pretend that you have an office in Britain and you’re paying them whatever the going wage is 50,000 pounds a year, whatever it may be and so you need to invest that same amount of time. And this remote worker, even though they’re in a different country and you haven’t met them in person, and you’re paying them significantly less. There are, still in a lot of cases, going to be equally educated and have the same sort of skills and potential. So, you have to realize that and foster it. And part of that is just investing the time in the beginning too, as you would with somebody if you hired them in person. And that’s how you’re going to get the result of, of bringing the best out of them and get them to get a worker, that’s just as valuable. So we, in the extreme example, I’ve seen cases where somebody will hire a worker and then they just do up a Google document and they give it on the worker’s first day, they send them an email and say, okay, here are the instructions and what I want you to do. And I sort of equate that to if you hired a worker to work in your office, and then they come in for their first day of work and you just leave a piece of paper on their desk and you’re like, this is what I like to do. Nobody would do that. Like you spend time with them and you show them around the office and you check in on them during the first day and the second day you make sure they’re, that they don’t have any questions that are on the right track. So you want to do the same thing with a combination of calls and then check-ins, whether you’re communicating with them on Skype or Slack or whatever it may be. And just check in with them over, communicate during the first week, two weeks, and expect the same from the worker and say, I want to hear from you every day on what you’re working on. And do you have any questions you have. Things you don’t understand. And if you, if you over communicate in the beginning, it takes a bit more time, but you’re going to get way quicker to the point where the workers autonomous and you don’t have to babysit them at all.

Sue Stockdale : I’m imagining what you’re saying there, John are wise words for anybody listening to this podcast and is having to work with their staff remotely because of the  coronavirus challenge as well.

John Miles : Communication’s key and it’s something I, I remind myself of because we’re, everybody’s busy and so it’s easy to just think, okay, the most efficient thing is just a few words, send them a message on Slack and get on with your day. But sometimes. What ends up being the most efficient is not and it doesn’t seem like it on the surface, And again, I’m guilty of that. I’ve hired really great workers that are awesome workers and that perform really well for clients, and they become available and we bring them on within their business. And I. Set them up and then it’s not going the way I wanted. And I looked back and like, okay, the problem here is me, because I look at the instructions and I’m like, okay. I rushed that, and I wasn’t clear on what I’m looking for. So I totally understand it. But now I can see certainly that investing, that extra time, training them, is key.

Sue Stockdale : So I guess I’m hearing there’s responsibility on both sides there to make sure that the communication works. I know as an entrepreneur, John, I’m imagining that I have met many in my time and they’re often then looking for the next venture. So, their greatest at the start, and then they want to get onto the next thing. I guess with that in mind, what are the strengths that you bring to the business?

John Miles : I think I’m sort of well-rounded. I’m comfortable with technology. And I’m comfortable with learning. I know that I, that I have a lot of weaknesses and I’m not afraid to sort of face them and try and improve. So maybe that’s, that’s my biggest strength is just that I’m not afraid to learn new things and try new things and then also my business partner Jeb is an exceptional communicator. He’s put great systems in place to train our workers on how to communicate properly and that sort of thing. So yeah, I would say that those are maybe the skills that we bring to the table. And then we have a lot of experience between Jeb and I outsourcing. And so. It’s been, that’s been really powerful for us because as we get more and more clients, we can’t handle them all like we used to. I used to know every client and every worker, and we’ve gotten to the point where that’s not possible to do all that communication, but we have enough experience setting up the systems and outsourcing them so we can, we can grow and we can handle as much demand as there is just by, by nature of outsourcing.

Sue Stockdale : So do you outsource to yourself?

John Miles : Yeah. Anytime a really good worker comes available, we’re like, okay, how can we fit them into this business? Because it, it’s just, yeah. It’s sort of like a magic potion when you’ve got somebody who’s really exceptional. It’s, it’s incredible.

Sue Stockdale :  I’m imagining word of mouth is a strong way of communicating amongst the workers that Iworker is a good organization to be part of.

John Miles : Yeah, because there’s a huge trust factor there. Like there’s a trust so we realized, okay, when clients come to us, like we’re not a huge brand like Fiverr or Upwork, so people, most people maybe haven’t heard of us. So we know that, okay, we need to, we need to show them that we’re, we’re a legitimate business so part of that is, is us being accessible.  I’m willing to jump on a call with, with anybody who’s interested in all of our clients and that sort of thing. And then on the same side with workers, as you touched on there, people sometimes forget that, that the workers, when they’re looking for work online. There are so many scam jobs and jobs where they risk working and not getting paid. And I’ve heard so many stories of that and so word of mouth is big. We’ve had a lot of workers come in through friends that are working with us or family that are working with us because okay, this person’s enjoying the job. They get treated well, they get paid on time and all that sort of thing. So that’s certainly, yeah, that’s certainly is a big way that we do recruiting. And then also a big way that we find clients.

Sue Stockdale : So it sounds like the values that you have for how you make a difference, also apply to how you treat people that are a part of your, your team, the workers and the clients.

John Miles :  It’s huge. And so we’re sort of, we started with that in mind, like, because that was the goal, it had, it had unintended, really positive consequences. We thought, we’re just going to pay people well, and just treat people well and because that’s, that’s the right thing to do and in doing so, I think it was like maybe the, a year before we had any worker leave, and I’m like, this is insane because I’ve run businesses for 10 years, let’s say. And it’s part of turnover, like you pay people well, but they go and find something else or just, or they get bored or whatever it is. I’m like, I can’t believe that we have whatever it was at that time. 50 workers and nobody’s left. And so I’m like, soon we must be doing something right. And we were having, people refer their friends and family because we started it, not with the goal of, of making a ton of money. We’re just like, okay, yeah, let’s pay the workers as much as we can and keep our margin as low as we can and just run super lean. And we realize, okay, we’re actually, people really like working for us. And we got some really nice messages from people at Christmas time or new years and just saying, it’s been a great year. So, that was an unintended consequence, but certainly treating people well has paid off in the sense it’s just made our lives easier for running the business.

Sue Stockdale : what, what do you enjoy about it, John? What do you get from it? Whats your motivation?

John Miles : Almost  everything I love. I love the entrepreneurial aspect of it. I love that. Business has just gone really smoothly of course we’ve had problems, but, I think because we’re coming at it with good intentions, that the clients realize if something doesn’t go perfectly well, like they know that we’re trying our best and we’re big on communicating and we work really hard to try and fix things. So we haven’t had really any sort of friction on the client side. Again, because I think we’ve got good intentions with the recruiting. We’ve found that people can realize that we’re genuine and in the way that we advertise in our job postings and all that sort of thing. we’ve been able to hire tons of good workers, so it’s just been a really smooth process relatively speaking, running the business, and its fun to help people and  it is nice to, to know that we’ve been able to give people jobs. They’ve been able to save money and leave Venezuela if that’s their goal. Like we have a lot of workers that have left Venezuela because they know, okay, I can, I can leave the country, move to wherever, Chile, and I’m not going to have to go through a period without having work. I can work when I arrive, I can open my laptop and continue working and continue making money.

Sue Stockdale : you’re really positively impacting people’s lives by what you do.

John Miles :  I hope we are. I think, we’ve got some, we’ve definitely got some stories that I think would show that.

Sue Stockdale : you know, I think with the way the world is today, Venezuela isn’t the only country that’s in economic crisis. So, what are your plans for supporting other countries, or do you work with workers from other countries already?

John Miles : We do – about a year and a half ago, I think it would be, we really started to focus as much as like Venezuela was our, certainly our main goal. And and now we, we made one of team he started as a virtual assistant but we made him a partner in the business and he’s now on our website, if you go there and see him so he’s one of the first people that we hired. Venezuela is super important to us because that was our main focus, but we’ve also realized some other countries, well, certainly there’s a lot of economic need, and countries with like really high inflation rates. And so, we said, we can sort of stay true to this, this original focus, but it doesn’t have to be just Venezuela. And there were some other countries that have really skilled workers with particular skill sets, so we hired workers from all over South America. We’ve hired workers from the Caribbean, from Haiti, Dominican Republic and then we started hiring workers from Africa. So, we have workers from a number of different countries in Africa. We have a few in India, maybe one or two from the Philippines, but there are lots of companies that cover the Philippines. Asia is not a huge focus for us, just because of that.

Sue Stockdale : Final question to you at John is, what are the plans for the future? Then where do you see this ultimately ending up as a business?

John Miles : I wish I had some like grand vision, but I think it’s more of the same. Like we just really enjoy what we’re doing and as tempting as it is, you sort of touched on earlier, like entrepreneurs are always looking for like the next thing, but we’re like, okay, this is working quite well so let’s not, let’s not get too tempted by the next shiny object and really change what we’re doing. Lets focus on our strengths and our focus is trying to reach more of the same clients and just spread the word as much as we can. And then. In doing so, it will allow us to provide more work for more people.

Sue Stockdale : Fantastic. Well, I hope that the listeners to this podcast will be one route that will help spread the word about your organization. How can people find you on social media if they want to know more about iworker?

John Miles : I’d say just go to our website, www.Iworker.co not.com but.co and that’s where you can  find us and you can communicate with us. I’m happy to talk to anybody if they want. But yeah, we have a great team.

Sue Stockdale : Thank you so much for your time today, John. It’s been really interesting to hear about what you’re doing and the difference you’re making in these countries.

John Miles :  Yeah. Well, thank you very much, Sue. I appreciate it.

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