Rupert Imhoff started SMS query service 199Buddy after working at a similar company and feeling he could do a better job. The service is simple – users text in, staff answer questions through web-based software from home earning money per reply and the customer receives their SMS within three minutes.
Demand for the service exploded. Imhoff soon had over 50 staff, mostly uni students, and the questions were coming in too fast to keep up. The business is currently turning over $1.5 million and operators across the world in Britain, Canada and Ireland, with plans to enter the US.
Imhoff says one of the secrets to success has been working from home, giving him more access to labour and a more productive workforce.
You started your business with profit made from shares. How did that process begin?
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My parents asked me whether I would like a car or some cash for a birthday. I took the cash, put it in shares and eight months later I had a 53% return. I upped my investment, and then decided I was going to start the company.
But I put the money into the company and really had no money whatsoever left for advertising. I came up with the idea of having a MySpace page, which really just exploded and was essentially free advertising.
How difficult was it starting out by yourself?
It was so hard. I started in December, which was fine because the numbers weren’t big, but then the kids started going back to school and of course they text more, so it was just an onslaught. I had three other people working, but they were just good friends and a bit unreliable in that regard.
I was answering thousands of questions per day and just couldn’t keep up with it. This went on for five months, I was sleeping sometimes two hours a night, trying to pump out as many questions as possible. But after six months I sort of broke down and had to step back and think about what needed to be done.
When was the point where you decided to hire workers?
I always knew I needed to hire people, but I didn’t want to hire a massive amount of people and find the queues just crashed, leaving them with nothing. There was no order or system to start off with, and it took a while to set up a system with shifts, rosters and proper training.
The quality at the beginning was just disastrous. I did it all slowly, building up training, and it was incredibly difficult because I was still sleeping maybe four hours per night. I did intense hiring – I had about 50 people on board within the first few weeks of hiring.
I really had to crack down majorly on the reliance issue. In the first six months I hired a few hundred people, but there were only ever about 50 people actively working. Now there is about 115 staff across the world now, and things are better, people are trained and there is constant communication.
While this was going on, you were operating this from your bedroom.
That’s correct. Everything that was happening was happening out of the bedroom. I had to keep rushing back because I set up an alert system to tell me when questions were coming in.
I would go down to Chapel Street in Melbourne, hand out flyers and cards, and when I got a text from the alert system I would rush back home and then answer questions, and then head out again and start handing out flyers.
Did operating from home make things harder?
I was actually pretty comfortable doing it. The fact is, I was working such ridiculous hours at the start, so it was good because I was right near a bed, a kitchen, and obviously there were heaps of late nights. The only downside is that you can lose some productivity by being distracted.
To this day I think about getting an office, but I don’t think it’s feasible anymore. We have staff all over the world, and that’s the beauty of working for 199Buddy, people are all working everywhere and are able to keep in contact and stay focused.
Is the ability to work from home a drawcard for your employees?
They love working from home. Everyone uses MSN Messenger to chat to each other, they all know and are trained to check their emails every day, and it’s been absolutely great. To me, getting an office now would be a waste of money because it’s working well.
It’s an online job, so people need to be in constant communication. They are generally very, very good. I’ve got three managers who take care of everything so nothing bad happens, and if something happens they can take care of it quickly. Everyone does the right thing, even while working from home.
What advice would you give for businesses trying to get employees to work from home, or attempting to move to a remote-working system?
The system is cost-effective. You’re not struggling for office space, spending 30 grand a year and so on. I also think workers are much more productive working from home when they are trained. I’m also opening up opportunities for people who can’t do other types of work. I have a lot of work-from-home mothers, they need something to do and can obviously earn money while answering questions. I think we step away from the status quo in that regard, and we do it very well.