Tamra Johnson is solving the pain points of entrepreneurs everywhere. From onboarding to building a financial model to invoices to market resources to keeping track of expenses, Tamra's two ventures have found a way to solve all of those problems. She's the co-founder of FlexTeam and Liquid with her fellow MIT alumni. Tune in to learn how you can outsource all of your daily headaches and focus on the parts of your business you enjoy.
Table of Contents
- Starting Two Businesses
- Identifying Usual Pain Points in Business
- The Value of Prior Experience
- Being Specific Matters
- How The Finances Work Across Both Companies
- Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
- Juggling Family and Business
Starting Two Businesses
Mimi: Hi. Welcome back to the Badass CEO. Today we have Tamra Johnson. She's the co founder of FlexTeam and Liquid with her fellow MIT alumni. FlexTeam is a mission based micro consulting firm doing on demand business projects, including market research, competitive analysis, financial models, and analysis and business strategies. FlexTeam puts together an optimal team of vetted experts who can provide quality, useful results for your needs. Liquid facilitates the onboarding process, controls expenses with work orders, automates invoices, secures payments, and streamlines your work today.
Thank you, Tamra, so much for coming on today. I'm super excited to hear about your two businesses and how you can help our listeners as well as they grow their businesses.
Tamra: Thank you for having me.
Mimi: The first question. I remember you were originally starting out the business. I don't even know how long ago when I first met you. You were talking about the idea. Was that six or seven years ago?
Mimi: I'm excited to hear how you got the idea and how you jumped in to do it.
Tamra: That's exactly the right timeframe. I think the idea probably was about a decade ago, but then sometimes it takes a little time to get the idea and get it to start moving. But when we met and were talking about it, it was wanting to bring together kind of population of peers and friends that I saw who were really experienced professionals who had done a lot of things, but were starting to have families, and wanted to have time for families while also still being engaged professionally.
That was where the idea for FlexTeam came from. And my business partner, she had people coming to her wanting C-suite help, "Hey, can you come and help my company part time?" Or, "Can you come help me with some business strategy?"
We just saw a chance to kind of marry the two sites together. And we started. It's funny. We sent an email to my sorority alumni list, and got 50 women to respond to that and fill out a survey.
Tamra: We were like, "Whoa, there's a ton of totally untapped talent." We knew that, right? But it was a very quick confirmation of what we thought there. That was the beginning of it, just very manually, people we knew that were running businesses that needed help matching that together with the experts that we had access to from our peer network.
Identifying Usual Pain Points in Business
Then through over the course of five years or so have developed a lot related to how to best screen and find the best candidates to work in that way, how to package up the projects for the clients to lead to success in terms of doing things on a micro project basis. And also built some software to help us scale and manage projects since we were, from the beginning, was always distributed teams. Now with everybody working from home, people are, we're much more used to, we're not all sitting in an office together, but five years ago, the work from home population was quite a bit smaller, and people weren't quite as used to working that way. That was the story of FlexTeam and how that came into being.
Mimi: Oh, that's great. Now, so tell me where does Liquid fit in?
Tamra: So then that's kind of continuing the story. We, in building FlexTeam, learned a ton of things. Still learning things, but learned a ton of things. And one of the things we learned and realized was what were the challenges for clients in tapping into outside vendors, in terms of people that are not your normal full time employees, but people that are working on, whether it's an ongoing contract basis or just bringing somebody in for a short amount of time. We started to see the issues kind of from the onboarding and contracting through defining your work order project really clearly, and then doing the invoicing and payments. Kind of what were all the pain points along the way.
Part of why people don't tap into individuals for smaller projects is there's an overhead in doing that, like there's a lot of paperwork, and there's a lot of things you have to do. And if you're only going to engage somebody for a short amount of time, maybe it's not worth doing it.
About a year and a half ago, we spun out a separate company called Liquid, and it's a software suite to help you better manage your Liquid workforce. And so your Liquid workforce is anybody that's not your full time employees, but people that you work together with an in a liquid way. Literally Liquid came from FlexTeam and our lessons we learned there. And funny, we're talking – this is the 16th, or 15th of October, we literally launched Liquid two days ago. Good timing on-
Mimi: Oh, you just launched it?
Tamra: …literally launched it two days ago.
Tamra: Thank you. It's existed since last fall, but we did come out of beta just on Tuesday of this week.
Mimi: Yeah. So exciting. Do you have a whole separate team? Or are you kind of doing both?
Tamra: FlexTeam, it's a workforce of contractors that do all the work and projects there, so I'm still managing it, but not spending a ton of time. I have some great project managers that the work comes in, and they're the ones actually managing the projects and making sure that it gets done and that our clients are happy.
Tamra: Myself and one other person are there kind of as general overseers, but it's really the project managers and then the FlexTeam workers that are doing the meat of what's happening there. And then Liquid, it's myself and I think we have six other full time employees now, as well as some contractors. That's the size of the team over there right now. But ended up making them two separate entities legally, and then it's primarily two separate groups.
The Value of Prior Experience
Mimi: Can you talk a little bit about your background before you started these? Or is this completely out of left field for you? Or is this-
Tamra: So background, I'M an engineer by background, an aerospace engineer. I worked in the aerospace industry for a decade. That was my first career. I left that about 10 years ago. At the time, I knew I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial. It's actually, to me, when I think about it, it's like, "How did I spend 10 years working at a big company?" Because I always wanted to do something on my own, but then I think you just, I don't know, you start doing things, and work is interesting and stuff. And then time goes by.
I did decide, okay, if you're going to make a move, you need to do it, right, so more time doesn't pass and go by. Left, like I said, about 10 years ago now. I had the idea for something like FlexTeam at that time, but I couldn't quite figure out the best way to do it. Meaning what exact type of work do you go after, and how do you facilitate and manage all the interactions?
What had been just a consulting project that I was working on right after being in aerospace turned into a different company that I was a co founder in providing rural internet access. That was something I did for about three years or so, three or four years. I basically, became a bit more entrepreneurial in name 10 years ago. And then since that time, have been doing assorted businesses. Not totally out of left field. I mean, in terms of the, I don't know, would you know that an aerospace engineer would go make the business I'm doing right now? Not necessarily.
Mimi: … When you decided to start, and you were doing this, what was the hardest part did you find?
Tamra: I think this is probably true for a lot of businesses. In terms of FlexTeam, there absolutely is a large untapped brain power in the form of mid career women. And that is still true. And that's something I'm really passionate about, making a difference on and giving people opportunity to stay engaged on their own terms. We definitely, getting the clients I think is often a challenge in a business, but I would say even more specifically, really refining what it is you're selling, and being super focused on what it is you're selling. In the beginning, it's funny if I go back and look at some of the stuff we created, whether it was the website or one-pager or a deck, we were trying to be everything to everyone, because it's like, "We can do this. We can do that," because, yeah, we had 50 people right off the bat. Then we had 100 people, 200 people.
Tamra: In terms of our workforce, we could do a lot of different things, but then if you're out there saying, "I can do all of these things," then people don't know when to think of you. Like if you're too general in what you're offering you, you are not top of mind ever for anything. And so then it's tough to the go to for what you're doing. And then it's also tough, because when a potential client comes in is interested, and you just have to do more work, right? You don't have a standard, "Oh, this is this service offering," right? You're having to go make a new proposal and make changes to it and things like that, because you're offering something different.
Being Specific Matters
Tamra: I would say, yeah, the biggest thing, going back in time, what I would tell myself is "Don't be afraid to get really, really specific on the services that you're offering, and know that that's actually going to make the job of selling easier than harder," because yeah, then you're not wasting time and not trying to be everything to everyone, and that the right people will come to you as a result.
Tamra: What that ended up meaning on FlexTeam is, and at one point we did this analysis and looked across the 100s of projects we did, could fall into 40 different categories. Right? And it's like, "Wow, that's a lot of categories." That's too many.
We ended up in the last year and a half or so, market research, financial models, competitive analysis. That's our service offerings, right? Can we do other things in that? Of course we could, but we don't need to say that, right? Because that's not helping us find the right clients, and it's not helping us in scaling up what we're doing.
Mimi: How did you find your original clients? Did you already have contacts with past companies that you've worked with or just word of mouth?
Tamra: Word of mouth. And then my business partner in it, she had people coming to her, wanting literally her, right? They wanted her to come help them part time. When she and I started working together, we were friends from undergrad. We had known each other a long time. And we were both at a career transition point. I had sold part of the broadband company that I had worked on for a few years. She had left a venture backed company she had been at. That was timing wise. At first we were just bouncing ideas off of each other. "Hey, what do you think about working on?" That was actually where our business partnership came out of, but people, because they knew she had left, she was kind of a free agent at the time.
They were asking for her to come and help. And for her, a lot of this stuff, she's like, "I don't personally want to spend time on this. It's not exact fit for me, or I just am not interested in it, but I can bring that work in, and then we can have FlexTeam do it." And so that was where the first word came from.
Then from that really has continued to be word of mouth and referrals and people kind of knowing what we're up to. She's here in LA as well. A lot of it, I'd say half our clients, are LA based. The workforce is all over, all over the US and a couple of people international, but the client base does tend to be in LA. And just purely network…
Ensuring top quality products and people
Mimi: Right. Talking about workforce, that for me, I think is a great idea, but it brings up a lot of stress, just because managing people, and making sure quality control. Have you had issues? Are they coming to the table already knowing how to do what you'Re asking them to do? Or are you having to train them and tell them specifics of, "Okay, this is the quality I want?" Or, "This is how we're putting the presentation together." And has any of them left kind of hanging?
Tamra: There's tons and tons of lessons related to that, and there's actually another person who she's been working pretty much almost from the beginning on this as well. And she's also now working on Liquid with us, but she had been really focused on the people operations side of it, and came up with a pretty rigorous screening process from, part of it knew going in we needed to be rigorous about screening people, because the quality of FlexTeam is only as good as the quality of the products we put out-
Tamra: … But then definitely things we learned along the way, we, FlexTeam people have never physically been together in person, right? It's always been a distributed workforce. From very early on, there was always a project manager and a main contact point for the client, but the project manager could have a team of people they're managing. Right? Sometimes the project manager does the whole project. Sometimes they're working with a group of people, and so needing to make sure that both you have a really, really good project manager as well as the workforce that's supporting them, have all been things that we've had to screen for and make sure that we are figuring out, and having really great and solid people working on things.
There's questions that we ask. We have people provide work samples ahead of time. We have people do trial projects before doing a project. And I shouldn't say not a real project. People do trial projects on real projects, but we'll have two people working in parallel, so we can see, literally they're working on something that this is you want to develop real product for it. And perhaps we can end up delivering some of the real product that they are creating, but want them to have the experience of working on a project like this.
Then I'd say another big part of it is the asynchronous communications, meaning we use Slack for a lot of our project management, as well as some tools we built ourselves. And being able to get your point across clearly and concisely in the written word is not a skill that everybody has, but that's a very important skill for the workforce we have.
You have to be able to get to the point. You have to be able to understand directions. Most of our stuff, we're not picking up the phone and talking to people, right? It's all just, we're working in shared documents, working in chats and stuff like that. We definitely, those are skillsets that we're having to screen for and make sure people have.
Part of the beauty of, and this was also intentional from the beginning in FlexTeam, is that from our client's point of view, you're buying services from FlexTeam. You're not hiring a specific resume or hiring one person. And part of our reason for that is we wanted to have the ability to plug people in and have them come out, both over the lifetime of engagement with the client, as well as on a particular project, because we've had some times that it's, for whatever reason, something didn't go well, and we need to recover from it.
The client should not have to know that. Right? That's-
Tamra: … We have a project manager managing the project, whether it's what that person wasn't the right fit for this, or life happens. Right? And that's not just because these are moms dealing with other stuff. Life happens all the time, right? You need to be able to suddenly this person was not available to finish the engagement. Well, we can come and bring another FlexTeam person who can finish that.
That's how we have handled that and have recovered from the times. It doesn't happen that often, but yeah, definitely. There's some times that it's like, "Ah."
Tamra: But then, guess what? We've got a lot of awesome people. You're able to bring somebody else in to get it done.
How The Finances Work Across Both Companies
Mimi: You have back up. Have you self financed this? Both companies?
Tamra: FlexTeam has primarily been self financed. And then from the money of projects that have come in to continue to develop the company. We did, we spun Liquid out from FlexTeam, and last summer got our initial friends and family funding. And then last fall, we actually, Liquid last summer went through the Techstars Accelerator program here in LA, and then got some additional funding in the, I guess it was October or so timeframe. Anyways, we've gotten pre-seed funding in Liquid. That company is on the external investor venture funded path. And then FlexTeam is continuing to live off the cash that it generates.
Mimi: Right. When we met, obviously in the angel investing world that we started in seven years ago, and putting my angel investor hat on, looking at this, both companies are amazing. FlexTeam, I see it more as it's great for you, because it's like a bread and butter that's just a cash-
Tamra: Right. Nope, totally. Can scale up and down. Right.
Mimi: … Right. Whereas Liquid, I look at it, like the economies of scale, if I understand it correctly, because you said it's a software [crosstalk 00:16:26] at this point, it sounds like. That's the economy of scale there, is huge.
Tamra: Right. Yeah. Yep. Exactly.
Competitors in the field
Mimi: Who would you say Liquid's competition is?
Tamra: Yeah. It's funny. That's a conversation we have very often. And especially as you're getting ready to launch the product. The thing that we've realized that's pretty important this year in terms of what clients care about the most is the payment, like actual payment of their vendors. And what's out there right now, there's a few different things. A lot of people have used bill.com for a while to pay vendors. A lot of startups to medium size companies use bill.com. Definitely would say that that's one.
There are some others that are newer companies that have gotten funding recently, one called Deal. And then one called Melio that are more focused on payments. Payments or international, paying people internationally. Those would be the ones that are a little newer companies, but trying to kind of go after the same market that we're focusing on.
One of the things that we'Ve been able to do this year, in the time period of Coronavirus happening, we were actually going to be launching, I don't remember the exact date, but within a month or so after Coronavirus lockdown happened. And then we were like, "Is this a good time to launch? Maybe not."
We pulled back a little bit in terms of, we're not doing a public launch at that time, but realized was an opportunity for us to do our own internal payment function. Rather than using a third party provider to do the payment processing, we kind of over the course of the summer, built that out ourselves. We're working with the bank and now we control and have the ability to pay both US based vendors as well as international vendors. That was a big-
A good outcome from Coronavirus
Tamra: I want to say a good thing to come out of Coronavirus, because if that hadn't happened, it was something we knew we wanted to do. I don't know that we would have gotten it done at this point, because we would have gotten caught up in whatever else-
Tamra: … In terms of launching, and yeah, then what are your customers asking for type of thing. But yeah, realized that we could use that as an opportunity to get that part done.
Mimi: Yeah. Now, how long did it take you to build a software for Liquid?
Tamra: Liquid, there has been software since last October, November. There had been users since that timeframe. To get it from that point to the point that we wanted to tell the world was then October whatever. October 13th, close to a year, I would say. We were able. I mean, one thing that was nice from having the experience of building FlexTeam is we already knew a fair amount of what was important, like what does the user need? We did, the FlexTeam software is separate from Liquid, but we were able to use things we had known and learned in building the FlexTeam software for the basis to build Liquid.
We were able to get something built relatively quickly in the first place, but then it's the, "Okay, here's all these other features, and here's all the things you need to do to make it really user friendly and add in backend capability and functionality and stuff." That has been kind of the almost year timeframe from when it first existed to now, that it's something that you're proud of, and you want people to come in and understand how to use it.
Mimi: That's great. Now, obviously, because you're going to want to get more clients quicker, your strategy has to be different than word of mouth, I would assume.
Leveraging social media and relationships
Tamra: There's a few different things that we've been doing there, and yeah, definitely different than what we had been doing on FlexTeam. We've been doing some kind of growth hacking of reaching out to people on LinkedIn, other social, not paid social, but literally just trying to reach out to interested parties, telling them what we have to offer and then trying different messaging, offering up demos, offering up videos. We have a lot of content that's been created to bring people in with different keywords. And if they're looking for how to manage vendors, how to pay internationally, what does it mean in the state of California?
All these different things that people might be looking for that they can then discover Liquid and come in. That's one thing we've been doing for a little bit. Another part that we're really starting to focus on now is using the networks we have and sending emails. Kind of the same, like offering up demos, offering to hand hold and get people start up in the first place. My LinkedIn, the people I'm working with, their LinkedIn.
So it's a very aggressive word of mouth, in a way, but I guess one nice thing, we're all in our 40s. My point of that being it's we all have decent networks, right? We're not brand new. Maybe we don't have the crazy young energy of people in their 20s starting a business, but we also have a lot of contacts of people that this product will be great for.starting with that and being pretty aggressive on that.
Then I think the goal is by the end of this calendar year to be really then refined in on, okay, our hypothesis is these are the people we want to go after, and guess what? It's exactly these people with this job title and companies of this size serving this industry. And now let's go more broadly and really target going after those people with more paid methods.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Mimi: That's great. What advice would you give an entrepreneur? Anything that you've learned at this point?
Tamra: I think when I go back to 10 years ago or so when I was still working at a big company, there's probably never a good time. You can always be like, "Ah, I don't know if I should go or not go," meaning leaving a normal, steady job. If you keep coming back to this, "I want to do something on my own," or, "I want to build something on my own," you just have to go and give it a try. There's never going to be a perfect time. You can have an idea, and you can put stuff down on paper as much as you want, but until you actually start doing it and start putting it in the world and getting real feedback, you learn by putting the product or service in the world and seeing how the world responds to it.
You're going to learn a lot more from that than sitting there, trying to keep thinking over the idea and trying to make the idea better. I would say that's the other. You have to, at some point, just go do it, and then you're going to learn, and that's okay. And that's good actually, right? I mean, even right now, what I just shared we're doing with Liquid, the beauty of it is our customers and potential customers are going to help inform us on the right way to sell our product, right?
We have a hypothesis, and this is what we're going after and trying it first. But it's cool in a way to think about it as a lot of experiments. Everything we're doing, it's experiments, and you're learning from that experiment, and then doing the next thing and doing the next thing. And from all of that, you're building this bigger and bigger business of learning off of what you've done.
If you enjoy doing that, then maybe entrepreneurship is good for you. If that seems super scary, maybe not, right? I don't know.
Juggling Family and Business
Mimi: Now, you're a mom. How do you juggle it all? Do you have a morning routine? Are you getting up at 4:30 AM and making sure you have time for yourself?
Tamra: Yes, I get up early. Partly, I like to exercise in the morning. Especially since this school year started, I'm usually exercising by 5:00 or 5:15. That's my time alone every day. Which for some people maybe that makes them think, I don't know, that's crazy, but I love it. And it's just a great, I don't know. It is my time alone. I know it gets done. I just physically feel so much better, and I've done that.
Right now, with the pandemic going on, my son, I have a son in first grade and then a three year old. The son in first grade is on Zoom, doing school, which has worked out pretty well. He does a great job, and I'm impressed that a six year old can do what he's doing and hang with it.
We're kind of used to things on that front right now. I do have a part time nanny that helps me with the younger son, because there was no way. I mean, even honestly, my six year old would have a hard time doing class if his brother was around, right? She comes in the morning and helps me with the younger one as well as some stuff around the house. And the younger one takes a great nap still. In the afternoons, that's part of how I'm able to have a part time nanny is the younger one sleeps in the afternoon, and I can keep working.
I'd say the other… My husband, during pandemic times has shifted his schedule. He always has gone to work early. He physically is going into work, but he tries to be home by 4:00 every day to then take the kids. And I get a few more hours of alone time. And that alone time is work alone time, not fun alone time. But it's a lot right now trying to make sure that you pause and take some time for the kids, I guess, is one of the things for me, because when you're doing your own business, there's always something to do. I know that's true of a lot of jobs or any job, but when you're trying to make strategic decisions and think about the right next steps, as well as the list of a lot of not glamorous, just crap that has to get done. There's absolutely always something to do.
Ways of organizing tasks
Mimi: Do you keep a list? Is there an app that you use, or is it-
No. I have a bullet journal. This is as fancy as my bullet journal is, but yeah, I just write the things down and then cross them off when I do them. As much as I'm super-
Mimi: … And do you do that every day?
Tamra: … Yeah. I don't know, I'm not the hardcore bullet journal person, but once a month, I will go through and, I mean, I'm always kind of, things that are not crossed off still have to be done.
Mimi: You don't do that all in a day?
Tamra: No, no, no. But this was yesterday today's to do list that I haven't done. Right?
Tamra: But then you see stuff from earlier, whatever. Earlier in the week has Xs on it. No, it's not a get up and what has to happen today. It's just, these are things I need to take care of. And then when they get done, you cross them off. And then at the end of the month, everything that didn't get done, either you intentionally never do it, or you copy it to the next month. Right? Which actually for me has helped some with the things in the back of your head that you think or know you should do. If you haven't done them in a month, do you really have to do them? Let them go. Partly the act of writing it down, then I let it go. You know?
Tamra: I don't know. That part has been good for me, because otherwise, I'm the type of person that'll kind of keep it in the back, that I never did that thing. And then it's like the world moved on and didn't care that you didn't do the thing, right?
And if it was really a priority, you should have had found time to do it in a month.
Mimi: You would have done it.
This has been awesome. I thank you so much. Congratulations, and good luck with your new company.
Tamra: Thank you.
Mimi: And I appreciate your time.
Tamra: Great catching up with you.
Mimi: Okay. Take care.
Mimi: If you wanted to learn more about Tamra and her two companies, please check out my website, the Badass CEO. We have notes from the show notes and the transcript. It's there for you. If you didn't take notes, and you wanted to go back and hear some information, you can go to thebadassceo.com as well as subscribe to our newsletter, where we send out who did podcasts this week and also some articles that are of interest to you. Thanks again for supporting the Badass CEO. And we'll see you next week.