Platform Design 101: Business Systems (Part 8)

Business Systems

<- Read Part 7: Business Building and Products

For most of you (or all of you?) creating your online business platform means you are trying to create a long-term, viable business that will allow you to support yourself in the future.

This long-term vision is great, but it also means that you have to set up your business in a way that allows for long-term growth and scalability.

The Entrepreneur’s Mindset

The biggest mindset shift that most people need to make when transitioning from an employee to an entrepreneur is the idea of removing yourself from the work. This may seem strange since, aren’t you actually going to be doing a lot more work on your own business than on a 9-5 job? Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong; building your business is going to be a LOT of work. But it is how you view the work where the difference comes in to play.

When you work for someone else, you are being given tasks and it is your job to perform those tasks to the best of your ability. The more you can do and get done, the more you get paid.

However, when you are an entrepreneur, your entire job is to delegate as much of your work to other people or systems as possible. In this case, the less you can do yourself, the more you get paid.

Business owners can’t sustain themselves and grow their business if they try to do everything themselves, and this is probably the most challenging aspects you’ll face when making the switch to owning and running an online business platform.

I previously said that design is a process of editing and eliminating what isn’t essential. Well, in the same way designing your business is the same process. Keep an eye on all the tasks and duties that make up your business and always be on the lookout for things you’re doing that aren’t necessary.

Without spending too much time on it, create a quick flowchart of the moving parts of your business. Usually these are things like “Content Creation”, “Marketing”, “Social Media”, “Podcast Editing”, etc. How are they connected and what is the primary roles you play in each one? Then, make it your job to eliminate yourself from as many of these things as you can.

These are the 3 keys to creating a business system.

  1. Eliminate: Does this work really need to be done?
  2. Automate: Are there pre-existing systems out there that can do the work for you?
  3. Delegate: Are there people out there who can do the work for you?

The other way to look at your time is to break down what you are ultimately worth per hour and make sure you are not doing work that can be done for less than you should be paid.

For example, if your goal is to make $100,000 / year from your online business, that means your time is worth at least $50.00 per hour. You might not get paid that much right now, but that is the value you are putting on your time if you believe you can make $100k per year from this business.

You need to pick your battles carefully and work on those things that provide the biggest return on your investment (ROI) of time. So, if you’re working on a social media task that you could pay a VA to do for $5.00 / hour, then that is a poor ROI for your time. Pay someone $5.00 / hour and do the work that earns you the $50.00 / hour.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg and I could spend an entire blog entry (or week long seminar) talking about the necessary mind set shifts, fear-facing and attitude adjustments you need to adopt as a designer of your online platform, but the basic idea is to focus on the work that makes the biggest impact on your business and then eliminate, automate or delegate whatever tasks you can.

Virtual Assistants (VA)

I touched briefly on the idea of virtual assistants before. I’ve hired and work with over a dozen VAs in the past few years and they can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you approach it and your particular style of management.

In the future I will talk more in depth on working with VAs, but the process involves four main parts:

  1. Hiring
  2. Training
  3. Managing
  4. Firing

So, where do you find a good VA to work with? This is a common question. And unfortunately if I’m asked this question it results in me asking a dozen or so questions right back. So, here are some of the things you need to ask yourself before you even figure out where to get a VA:

  • What role or task is the VA going to be doing? Be specific! “Designer” isn’t specific enough. “Create social media graphics for a Facebook campaign” is specific.
  • How important is an understanding of English? You will get varying degrees from “survival level” to “conversational” to “fluent”. Make sure you pick the right one.
  • How important is it that they work certain hours? Time zones can be a pain in the rear. Make sure you are clear on whether or not they need to work along side you (virtually speaking).
  • What specific skill set does the VA need to have? (i.e. “Adobe Photoshop”, “Hootsuite”, “Infusionsoft”, etc.)
  • Will there be any interaction with your customers? Make sure you hire someone with the right soft skills — not just technical prowess.

VAs are available from just about every corner of the globe, but the one country I’ve found the best success with is the Philippines. Why? There are quite a few reasons, but it boils down to three things:

  1. Language: They typically have a higher command of English than most VAs from other parts of the non-English speaking world.
  2. Culture: The culture of the Philippines is closer to that in the Western world.
  3. Attitude (as a generalization, the work environment and a feeling of contribution and learning is very important to VAs from the Philippines. It isn’t just about the money, but about job satisfaction.

Are there exceptions to this? Of course. It’s just a list of generalizations. And I’ve had success with VAs from Europe, India, Pakistan or China too. But I think the best bang for the buck is from the Philippines.

So, where can you find VAs? There are several sites you can use to post up jobs for VAs. Here are some of the more popular ones:

There are a lot more, but these are some of the most popular. Of these, I’ve used the first three, and I’ve had the best success with There is also hiring services that will “head hunt” VAs for you through their network. One of the most popular is Chris Ducker’s Virtual Staff Finder service. I’ve used this service before and it worked well. I would say the biggest issue for a new business designer is that the cost is quite high, so I would hold off on VSF for when your business is making some money and you are looking to build up your team.

The Hiring Process

Again, I could write a whole blog (or series of blogs) on the process of hiring VAs, but I’ll keep things simple for now and give you a list of do’s and don’ts that should help you out:

Do …

  • Provide a very clear job description with precise details on responsibilities, expectations, hours, and wages.
  • Interview the candidate using Skype or a similar video chat service so you can get a feel for who they are and how they communicate.
  • Have a second series of interviews for the best candidates
  • Make sure they test their broadband speed
  • Find out what sort of computer system they’re using
  • Find out what environment they are working in (home, office, cafe, school, etc.)
  • Test their knowledge of necessary skills

Don’t …

  • Assume anything. You need to make sure all your needs are met so be thorough!
  • Treat them differently. They aren’t “less than” an employee you would hire to work in your office, so treat them the same as any other valued employee and they will rise to the occasion.
  • Take a resume at face value. Ask for specifics and details.
  • Hire for a “general practitioner”. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all-tasks VA. Hire for the tasks you need done.

The most important advice I could give is to remember that a VA is an important part of your team and you are relying on them to help you build their business. Be clear in your hiring process and you will eliminate a lot of trouble down the line.

The other thing I recommend is to start them off part time and then ramp them up to full time over the course of a month or two. Think of this as a probationary period. Also, you have a business to run so you can’t spend 40 hours a week holding someone’s hand on every task. Train them on the easiest, repeatable tasks first, and then increase complexity and scope as you gain confidence in their skills.


You can’t be too thorough with your VA’s training. As I said in the last section, if you start off your VA with a part-time schedule and easier tasks you will have time to train them up on the more complex responsibilities.

And as long as you’re training your VAs then this is a good opportunity to create a master training library. In a previous project I ended up creating (over the course of several months) over 50 screencast videos training each task of my operation. From posting to Twitter, to online research, to uploading videos to Youtube, to editing podcasts and more. Eventually 80% of the entire operation was available in an online video library and if I ever had to bring in a new VA it became incredibly easy to train them on a task in just a few weeks.

If you find yourself doing something and thinking to yourself “this could be done by someone else”, record your process with screen capture video software and add it to your library. Even if you don’t have a VA yet, it will provide you with training materials for the day when you do. It might seem like a waste of time, but the long term benefits outweigh the short term time it takes to do it.


Its important to touch base with your VAs on a consistent basis. Thinking you can just leave them to their own devices will end up coming back to haunt you in the future, so here is the bare minimum recommendation on keeping your VAs (and regular employees) on task

First, make sure that your VAs track their time and tasks and send you a report at the end of each day saying (1) what they worked on, (2) what they accomplished, (3) how long it took them, and (4) what can be improved in the future.

Next, it is also a good idea to have a quick (10 minutes or less) talk with them on Skype at the beginning of the work day to make sure you are on the same page and let the know of any new developments. But at the very least you should have at least two meetings with them, once at the beginning of the week and once at the end of the week. It isn’t a waste of time if it helps you make the best use of your VA’s time.

Another good idea that I heard from Chris Ducker, is to ask them for their honest ideas for improvements to your business. He said that he ended up with some amazing business ideas from his VA’s. And this leads to the next suggestion …

Reward your VAs for their hard work. In the previous example, the VA who gave Chris the great idea ended up getting an iPad sent to them as thanks for their hard work. Make sure you know your VAs are appreciated and if they go above and beyond make sure they are compensated for it. You can’t buy loyalty, but you can certainly reward it.


No one likes being fired, but there may be a time when you have to let your VA go. The worst thing you can do is stall the inevitable, so bite the bullet if you need to let someone go. I usually am very honest about someone’s performance and they will get a couple warnings before they are terminated. The things is … everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made them plenty of times. But if someone continuously shows an inability to learn from their mistakes and continues to make them, its probably time to let them go.

The biggest mistake most people make with VAs is not communicating with them clearly about their expectations. Lay everything out from the beginning so they know exactly what they are expected to do. Then, when it comes time to fire someone, it isn’t a mystery why it is happening and they’ve had plenty of opportunities to right the ship.

Outsourcing Services

So, what exactly can you have a VA do, anyway? And how do you know whether you should hire one or hire a service (or buy some software)?

The list of things a VA can do for you is pretty expansive so I won’t get into it here. You can check out Chris Ducker’s list here if you want to get an idea. In general I weigh the amount of time something takes me to do and then determine whether it makes more sense to have a VA do it (based on their hourly salary) or a service / software. But beyond that you have to also figure out the additional cost of time and effort required to review your VA’s work.

When working with VA’s my general rule of thumb is to first focus on giving them tasks that don’t have too many variations or variables to figure out. So, uploading a podcast audio file to my website and integrating it on my show notes page is a process that doesn’t have too many twists and turns. When I make a screencast video to show the process it will apply to 99.9% of the situations. However, the process of editing the audio file is more of a specialized skill, for which I would prefer either a service or someone who specializes in that particular skill set.

For example, if you are putting together transcripts for your podcast, how long would it take you to do it? For a 30 minute podcast it probably takes about 60 – 90 minutes to transcribe it (assuming you’re a decent typist). A VA that costs around $10 / hour would cost around $15 – $20 per transcript. If you use a service like, which charges $1 / minute, you’ll end up spending $30. At first glance that might seem like a no-brainer to have your VA do it.

However, there is also the factor of human error. specializes in transcriptions and have higher quality standards than a VA who’s first language might not be English. Most likely you will have to go back through a VA’s work, adding more time and expense to the process. In this case I would use for the transcription, and then train the VA on the method for incorporating the transcript into my website.

As I said before, it is best to hire VAs for specific tasks. The VA generalist is sort of a myth and it is difficult to find that magic person who is a duplication of yourself and can make those sorts of executive decisions. Instead, find the parts of your business that are a process which you can train, and keep the executive decision-making to yourself. At least until you get to the point where you can bring on someone who has that particular skill set.

Instead of looking for the perfect person to do everything, look for the person who can do one thing really well. The other mindset shift from employee to employer is that instead of trying to find someone who is a master of all trades, you need to fill specific roles within your company. If you were building a house, would you look for the one person who is able to do carpentry, plumbing, electric, paint, interior design, architecture and had a realtor’s license? Or would you find the best carpenter, plumber, electrician, painter, designer, architect and realtor for each position? Hire for the task and you’ll be good to go.

What is the Platform Factor?

We’ve covered a LOT of information in this 8 part series. Actually, it is more like a novel. Around 20,000 words in total, so kudos to you for getting this far.

But you might be wondering why I did all this in the first place. Why write out an entire blueprint for how to design your online business platform and put it on the web, free for anyone to read? And its true that there are people who charge you to learn this same information.

Truth be told, I have somewhat selfish reasons for doing this. Namely, it gets exhausting explaining all of these things to clients or associates. I meet a lot of online business builders and rather than repeat myself with each one, I decided it would be easier to write all of my methods out and make it available for anyone to read.

You see … you can actually do a lot of this stuff yourself. You don’t need to hire someone like me to build your platform. Naturally, I’m happy if you do, but if you just had the roadmap available to follow, then you could really do most of the work yourself without wondering which option are best.

And that is basically why I created the Platform Factor: to give you the shortest distance between you and your up-and-running platform. This whole website is dedicated to taking all of the information from this article, and breaking down each part so you can do it all yourself.

Over the next several weeks, months and years, I will tackle each part of this blueprint and go in-depth to show you how to do the tasks. Think of this like a “color by number” picture. Over time I will be coloring in this online platform design picture with details and information in the forms of tutorials, reviews and screencasts, each walking you though the processes you will need to learn to build this all yourself.

So, if you’d like to get updated whenever a new blog is posted up, or a new resource becomes available, I invite you to sign up for the Platform Factor newsletter. I hate spam (doesn’t anyone actually like spam?) so I promise to only send you relevant, helpful information that will help you build and design your perfect online platform.

If you have any questions for me or have something you’d like to learn about, or see on this website, just let me know. I’m here to give back to the online community and if I can help you on your journey in any way, then it will really make my day.


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Mark is the founder of Akamai Websites and has been designing websites, user interfaces and graphics for over 25 years. Originally building websites for clients such as Disney Channel and Warner Brothers, he was also a member of the team that developed Rotten Tomatoes, and was Jet Li's webmaster and assistant for ten years. After 8 years working in China, building websites for movies and celebrities, building online businesses, and designing interfaces for mobile applications, he moved to Hawaii where he helps businesses craft their online platforms.

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