Coffee Chat #1 with Ian Myers
My conversation with Ocean XYZ's Ian Myers about the future of outsourced work.
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Today, I chatted with Ian Myers, the founder and CEO of Oceans.
Oceans is the best hiring solution for startups, founders, executives, and investors who want to hire talented, educated professionals across marketing, finance, sales, and executive assistant roles without breaking the bank. Their secret? Oceans has tapped into the Sri Lanka labor market. Keep reading to learn more.
Today, Ian and I discussed the history of outsourced labor, how Covid-19 forever changed labor markets, trends that he is watching as we enter 2023, the history of Oceans, and how his company is different from other hiring solutions.
Let's get started.
Jack Raines: In three sentences or less: What is Oceans, and what do y’all do?
Ian Myers: We are the best option for early-stage, high-growth companies and firms who want to access high-quality, cost-effective offshore talent.
Jack Raines: I want to really get in the weeds on what you’re building at Oceans in a minute, but first, what’s your background? Founding a Sri Lankan staffing company isn’t exactly a normal career path.
Ian Myers: My background is kind of weird. First, I was thinking about being an academic. I went to grad school at Stanford for international policy. Then, naturally, I left that for banking. I was doing a mix of cross-border investments and fund investing. The work was interesting enough, but finance was not the career for me. Sorry to your readers.
So I joined a venture fund called White Star Capital. I was doing Series A deals in primarily FinTech and consumer, and I felt like a bit of a fraud. I had worked in academia, then banking, and then venture, and now I was talking to entrepreneurs who were building real stuff and telling them, “Sorry! This idea is not good enough.” And what did I know? I had never done anything, so I decided that I wanted to run a company.
There's this Japanese company called Uzabase, and it was launching a new business media brand, NewsPicks, in the US. They were looking for a CEO and I thought, “That's operational. That’ll teach me how to do stuff.” I knew the CEO of Uzabase and he offered me the job.
Running NewsPicks was a valuable experience for me. We launched in the US and got acquired a year and a half later. Afterward, I went back to Uzabase to become their head of new products. From there, I built out financial intelligence products for them in the US market.
Back at Uzabase, I had a team of about 30 folks that I oversaw in Sri Lanka. This is my first experience with the country, but not my first experience with offshore talent. I previously had mixed experience working with people from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe, so I was skeptical of another remote team.
However, after two years, I realized that there is nowhere on the planet with a better price-to-talent ratio than Sri Lanka.
There are a few reasons for this. One is their strong university system with close ties to the UK university system. You have a very Western-educated population. Many multinational corporations, such as Accenture, Deloitte, KPMG, Moody's, Nestle, Cisco, and Unilever, have headquarters there as well, and many Sri Lankans hold operational roles in these companies.
The difference between Sri Lanka and for instance, The Philippines, is that remote workers in the latter typically handle customer service roles. In Sri Lanka, the workers are experienced in accounting, growth marketing sales, admin operations, and finance. This island probably has the most CFAs per capita out of any country in the world.
So you have this Western-educated, Western-employed labor force, but their cost of living is a fraction of the Western world’s.
When the pandemic began, I was so impressed with my team that I would talk to my friends who were startup founders in the US about the quality of the talent in Sri Lanka. They were like, ‘I'm actually worried about the pandemic, and I need to cut my burn, but I still have to keep hiring people. Can you help me hire folks for Sri Lanka?” And I did. And after the 10th hire, I thought, “Wow, there's obviously a need.”
And that’s the origin of Oceans.
Jack Raines: That's wild. How did you find the first Oceans employees, and then going forward as you have grown, has it been a referral system or are you guys marketing at all?
Ian Myers: I had made a lot of connections by working at my former company, and I knew enough people on the ground there that we'd started to build a team around the idea. The hard part was convincing the good talent there to jump ship and join me to build something cool. The biggest thing was they wanted an opportunity to show the world what kind of talent the country had. And that was the big motivating factor.
Jack Raines: My knowledge of “outsourcing” consists of dealing with customer service reps from India. How has outsourced labor evolved over time, and where do you see it going next?
Ian Myers: Early outsourcing was simple tasks. Credit checks at banks, background verification, and other tedious activities that were outsourced to international call and data processing centers. This was in the 80s. In the 90s and early 2000s, we hit the age of the internet, and you could exchange information and data back and forth.
But the tasks stayed simple. Customer service became the primary outsourced activity. You created a script. Workers followed a script. If customers say one thing, you respond with something else. None of it is free thinking. The companies that hired people during those periods, they didn't know any of their outsourced employees. The deal was simple: when someone calls American Express, they’ll talk to someone from a foreign country. And it will cost less money.
As the internet continued to evolve, you started getting into the individualization of outsourcing, thanks to companies like Upwork and Fiverr. Enterprising firms could also now set up smaller-scale, interactive customer service operations abroad.
So now you go from these massive, faceless, nameless call centers to more specific solutions. If you needed a website built or a financial model created, you could now outsource that task. This was also when we began seeing Virtual Assistants take over some administrative tasks.
However, early “freelancers” were not really part of the organization that they worked for. They had a set of tasks, then they were done. But now, we’re entering a global talent era. One of the biggest shifts in the current era is that these “outsourced” employees are no longer separated from the organizational structure. They are in the Slack groups and on the email chains like everyone else.
That’s where we are today: many “outsourced” employees are often on the same level as domestic employees.
Jack Raines: What are your thoughts about how COVID-19 changed remote work and the global workforce?
Ian Myers: Everyone wants to ‘predict the future of work.’ It's tough to predict. I think you can only look at what happened, which is that every single organization on the planet that wanted to continue functioning (besides cafes and restaurants) was forced to allow for remote employees.
Pre-Covid, some companies already offered some niche, specific remote roles. Usually these were developer roles. Sometimes they were sales. Then the pandemic sent everything remote, and companies that aided in this transition did quite well. You saw that reflected in the stock prices of DocuSign, Zoom, etc..
The biggest outcome of the pandemic was that companies now have more freedom to choose what they want to do than ever before. We didn't even realize the norms that were previously there. You had to have an office, you had to have perks. You had to have people come in for X, Y, and Z. You could only allow X% of your team to be remote, and they could only work in certain roles.
Covid broke those norms. At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was like, oh, work from home forever. Everybody is going to love it.
What we have seen over the last six months is that not everyone loves remote. Some people wanted to go back to the office. A fully-remote team was not going to appeal to everyone on the planet.
CEOs now face more choices than ever before, and the flow of talent is going to reflect which workers are attracted to which scenarios.
I think you're going to see most organizations trend remote, with two exceptions. There are going to be people that, and Elon is a great example of this, that feel like they need people in the office. They're kind of control freaks. They believe that being in person is the only way to do stuff. They're going to force people to go back to work. There are also companies that signed multi-year leases on huge amounts of real estate, and they don’t want to waste their money.
Going forward, I think both in-person and remote companies can thrive, and both will have benefits. The one thing that's not going to work is trying to split remote and in-person down the middle. You have to be 80-20 one way or another. It’s impossible for your employees to know the norms for success if you are 50-50. How does the organization value this, that, or the other thing? You need to have those policies in place. People need to understand the machinations of the company. You have to make a call to lean in one direction, or you will underperform in both.
Jack Raines: Let’s talk about Oceans specifically. Are Oceans employees considered “your” employees, or employees of the firms that hire them?
Ian Myers: We like to call them ‘Divers.’ But yes, Oceans employees work for Oceans, and they are hired out on long term contracts. We handle searching, hiring, HR, benefits, and everything else.
Jack Raines: That’s a good play on words. “Divers.”
Ian Myers: There are a lot of puns to be had with a company named “Oceans.”
Jack Raines: I remember reading Tim Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Work Week, and that was my first introduction to the idea of using an Executive Assistant (EA) from another country. But you guys have workers doing everything, not just EA work. Besides the typical EA, what other roles?
Ian Myers: Well I think it's worth talking about the EA for a second. One interesting thing that I picked up on when starting the company was the people that were most shamed for having an EA were the people that needed one the most: early-stage founders. If you are an early-stage founder, you have a million admin things to do.
You have to set up your entire HR practice, and you don't have an HR team. You have to pick all of your vendors, and you have to get them onboarded. You have to deal with invoicing. You have to deal with payments. You have to set up billing and health insurance. You are constantly recruiting. You have to write job descriptions. You have to set up interviews. You are fundraising.
The idea is that yes, early-stage founders need administrative help, but they don't need it if it's just scheduling. They need people who can complete more sophisticated tasks like recruiting, market research, picking vendors, creating prospective lists of new companies for you to reach out to, and sending messages on your behalf on Linkedin.
People underestimate just how valuable one of these assistants can be. But beyond Executive Assistants, we decided to specialize in an area that wasn't crowded. Everyone always asks us, “Oh, do you have software developers?”
There are software developers and staffers all over the globe; It’s a super crowded market. I thought the innovation was on the operations side. You can have your accounting, marketing, sales, and admin teams in other countries now, and no one was addressing this opportunity.
So we focused on operations, which we break into three broad categories:
Admin Operations: This is our Executive Assistant (EA+),
Sales and Marketing: Everything from content marketing, to copywriting, to digital marketing, and business development.
Finance: Basic accounting and bookkeeping all the way up to like equity research and investment banking.
We've done it all. We work with funds. We work with, you know, family offices. Et cetera.
Jack Raines: I guess this is kind of a meta question. Have you hired any of your own employees to be your own executive assistant or like roles within Oceans?
Ian Myers: Oh, yeah. I'd be the biggest hypocrite on the planet if my entire team was in NYC. My co-founder Katie and I are in the US. The entire rest of the team is in Sri Lanka. Ops, marketing, account management, recruiting, finance. Everybody is there.
Jack Raines: Okay. So as far as an executive assistant, or somebody working in a marketing, sales, or finance gig, what's the cost difference on the company side between hiring somebody from like Colombo, Sri Lanka vs. New York City?
Ian Myers: On the EA side, you’re looking at $30k per year for full time support through Oceans. In the Midwest United States, you could probably get away with $65k - 75k, but if you're looking for someone in-person in New York, you’re talking $120k. So it's roughly a quarter of the cost. Once we get into functions like marketing and sales, it gets even crazier. We’re talking $36k per year through us, and $150k in New York. For finance, it’s going to cost $45k per year in Sri Lanka for someone that would be $250k+ in the US.
That’s $45k to hire private equity people from Oceans that have, no offense to you Jack, a skillset very similar to yours.
Jack Raines: That’s pretty scary, considering I’m in business school right now.
Ian Myers: Thank God you became a writer.
Jack Raines: You’re not wrong. A lot of people like to dunk on outsourced labor by saying that you’re “underpaying” your workers. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Ian Myers: There is a lot of criticism about outsourcing. “Why are you paying them less? If they are doing the same work, you should pay them equally.” Well, it works the same way in the US. I make more in New York than someone else does in Kansas City.
Your pay shouldn’t be tied to a dollar amount. It should be tied to the type of life it enables you to live. Like any other outsourcing company, we know we’ll catch flak until the end of time. But the reality is that we pay 20% more than anybody else in the market, and our employees enjoy a great quality of life.
And it’s not just quality of life, we offer opportunities that these workers wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We have an EA that works for Austin Rief, Morning Brew’s CEO. Joe McCann, the founder of Asymmetric Finance, is one of our clients. So is NFL defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The list goes on and on.
Jack Raines: Pretty good list of clients there. Another question: what does the typical outsider not understand about the outsourcing industry?
Ian Myers: One thing is the loneliness problem. It affects US workers, and it impacts our workers too. For example, one of our current employees used to work for a UK real estate startup. He was the only Sri Lankan worker in his company, and one of his friends worked for Oceans.
He worked at the startup for six months and it was going great, but he was sick of being the only person in his country working for that company. Anyone who works remote knows how isolating it can feel, being stuck in your apartment all day. Now try being the only person on your team in your entire *country*. That’s reality for many international remote workers.
Unhappiness can sink the relationship between a startup and a foreign contractor.
We want to create an environment where our employees feel like they're part of something in Sri Lanka. We do weekly co-working and bi-weekly events. We sent our entire team to Oktoberfest Colombo a few weeks ago.
Jack Raines: What has surprised you as Oceans has grown?
Ian Myers: The most interesting thing to me has been that companies don't just want one person. Our average client has four people with us. Our biggest client has 10. And that number keeps climbing.
Jack Raines: Do you think that Latin America is another area that will benefit from this shift, especially given the favorable time zones?
Ian Myers: It’s going to be everywhere. I do think South America is super strong in an area where Sri Lanka is weak: designers. Creativity is not Sri. Lanka's strength. They stand out in finance, marketing, sales, and admin functions.
So yeah, there’s definitely going to be movement in South America. The reason I like this business is that it’s an infinite market right now. There are millions of potential clients and workers across all time zones that will benefit from this increasing globalization.
Jack Raines: What do you think is the most important trend to watch in the labor market over the next few years?
Ian Myers: One of the most interesting transitions right now is that manufacturing is coming back on shore, while white-collar jobs are going offshore. Historically, blue-collar jobs all went abroad. Now there are so many security and supply chain complexities abroad that onshoring labor makes sense.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing a ton of white-collar outsourcing because the costs make sense. You don’t have the same CAPEX costs and supply chain issues.
Jack Raines: One more question before we wrap this up: where should a startup founder (or anyone) go if they’re interested in hiring someone through Oceans?
Ian Myers: They can check out our website (which I put together myself on a Saturday so go easy on me folks), but honestly the easiest way is to go right to our intake form and get in touch with us. I’ll promise to take any calls that come in through here personally, so people can ask me about this interview.
Alright, the first Young Money interview is in the books! These posts will definitely evolve over time, and I want some feedback from you guys to help make them as interesting as possible! Did you like this, dislike it, or was it somewhere in the middle? What other questions should I have asked? If you have some thoughts, shoot them my way in a reply to this email.
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- I recently came across an October essay from Paul Millerd about the opportunities that creators have online today. A long, but really good read.
- Paul's piece also linked to one of Packy McCormick's best posts: The Great Online Game.