Shannon Miles is the CEO of BELAY, Inc. an INC 500 Fastest Growing Company and winner of CultureIQ and Entrepreneur’s #1 Company Culture awards. Since 2010, the company has grown to nearly 700 team members and serves nearly 1,000 clients on a daily basis.
Whether through team development or Balance Mentoring, Shannon is passionate about serving others and inspiring them to live life more fully, while firmly remaining her own worst critic. While on Necker Island with Richard Branson, she learned that if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough. Shannon loves yoga and spending time with her family, whether that’s on the front porch of their home in Georgia, on the beach in the Panhandle of Florida, or snowboarding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Shantel: Hi Shannon, welcome to the show.
Shannon: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Shantel: Yeah, of course. Thanks for bearing with me on some technical difficulties up front.
Shannon: You have to love technology when it works.
Shantel: Yeah. Well, we are so excited to have you on the show and learn more about your company, how you got started on your book launch. To kick things off, do you mind telling our listeners a little bit more about Belay and what you guys do?
| HELP OTHERS ACHIEVE THEIR VISION |
Shannon: Yes, I'd be happy to. Belay is a services organization that my husband and I started in 2010 to provide virtual executive assistance, bookkeeping and payroll, website support and design, and content writing. We do all four of those core services with the help of team members around the country that we source for our clients. Basically, our goal is to help ... Our vision really is to help others achieve their vision, whether that's our clients who are trying to get started in a new business, or run a non-profit, or it's a contractor who's really looking for a way to continue in a profession and do it in a flexible work from home manner. That's Belay in a nutshell.
Shantel: Okay, and how did you get into virtual assistance and that outsourcing world?
Shannon: Yeah, it was kind of just bred out of our own experience. In 2010, I had worked for a company called McKesson for about 10 years at that point. My husband was working for a church construction company, a very niche-y industry, right? He and I live in the Atlanta metro area. His assistant was based in Charlotte, and his home office for his company was in Ohio. Very used to the concept of working remote and working with a virtual assistant. They had, Bryan and Trisha had such a successful relationship where she really helped him like transcend himself with the amazing services that she provided; that we thought, 'Man, there are so many other people who could benefit from having an awesome virtual assistant,' but there just wasn't a good model out there for delivering it at the time. There were virtual assistant companies, but not in the way that we wanted to deliver amazing customer service and relationship management, and really teach people how to work well with a virtual assistant. That didn't exist yet.
Shantel: That's so interesting. So are you, you and your husband, and a team, ... I mean do you use your own services as well, kind of drink the Kool-Aid?
Shannon: Yeah. Practice what we preach. My assistant is in the Atlanta area, but she's virtual also; as are all of our team members. We have 60 employees, nearly all of us are in the Atlanta area, but all of us work from our homes.
Shannon: In addition to over 500 contractors around the country that provide the virtual assistant or bookkeeping, writing, or webmaster services to our clients. So yes, absolutely. It's funny, we toyed with the idea over the years to get an office, because there's almost a notion sometimes, 'Oh, you're not a legitimate company if you don't have an office.' But the truth is, everybody on our team is like, 'No, I work here because I can work from home. Like why do we sell virtual services, yet feel this compelling need to have an office?' We're like, 'You know what? Let's just do it differently.' We don't have an office at all. We all work from home now. We get together face-to-face in different capacities, but nobody's going into an office every day.
Shantel: I love that. Can we dive into the different ... I'm just fascinated. Of course, I'm in a similar field, but everything can be done remotely, for the most part; working on our computers. I've also toyed with the idea of going virtual, but struggled or wrestled with that a little bit from a culture standpoint of how can we still create this space where people are excited? Is that something that you guys feel has been a conversation, and then what is the meeting frequency for the remote team?
Shannon: Yeah, you know culture's one of those funny things. Every company has a culture, whether you're intentional about it or not. When Bryan and I started the company, right from the beginning we wanted to create the kind of culture of an organization that we would want to work for. Like both of us had great jobs, but not necessarily amazing cultures. From day one, we've been very intentional to identify our core values and make sure that they're being lived out. It's kind of cliché sometimes, but like for us, it's heartfelt and real. Even though all of our team is just, we're working across the city. We have an award-winning culture. It's crazy. We get asked this question all the time, so much so that Bryan just wrote a book called 'Virtual Culture,' that addresses this very thing. How can you all be in different locations of the country, or different areas of the city working from your homes but still work together with an amazing culture? I mean the first obvious thing is you have to be intentional about it, right? You have to keep culture front and center. It's really a function of not just writing out your core values, but living them out every single day and celebrating when you see those lived out. Here's a great example. One of our values is team. That we're all in this together, we run to our challenges, our problems, and our opportunities. We had an event in January that is an annual event for us called a summit, and that's where we pull together all 60 of our team members for two and a half days of meetings, and fun, and team building, and planning, and guest speakers, and a little bit of partying; like the whole deal. One of our assistants was really kind of taking the lead on creating that. Then, all of the other assistants that served the various leaders in our organization came in and just totally rallied around her, and created this whole event team to pull this off. Nobody like said, 'Hey, I need you to do this. Everybody else was busy.' They all just recognized the need and ran to it. It's funny. Even though we're virtual, some of the relationships that have formed amongst our team members are friendships that transcend the organization. They get together to have lunch, or maybe to take vacation together. Some have gone on yoga retreats together. While we're working virtually, the relationships are very, very real.
Shantel: I love that, and I love when you touched on celebrating and acknowledging when the core values are being lived out in the organization. We do something similar. Do you use Slack?
Shannon: Some members of our team do, yes.
Shantel: Okay. Well, we have a Slack channel specifically. We call it kind of our wall of fame Slack channel. When anything comes in great from the client, or good feedback, or amazing supportiveness from the team, we shout out the team members through that channel; but we lead with what core value ... they captured when they did X, Y, Z. It's just our way to continue to kind of reiterate the core values and the importance of them, and share how the team continues to live them. So I loved that you touched on that.
Shannon: That's so practical. It makes them real. It makes them tangible. It makes them inspiring to other people. I didn't answer your question about the meeting cadence, do you want me to-
Shantel: Yeah, that'd be perfect.
Shannon: Because I think it matters. I mentioned the summit, right? The two and half a day face-to-face meeting that we have in January every year. Then, this year we're having one-days, which are just that: one day of the team getting together every quarter thereafter. April, July I think, and October. Then proceeding that, we have our managers and our leaders that get together for the day before the one day; so I guess that makes it like sort of like a two day.
| IT'S GO TIME |
Shannon: In addition to that, our leadership team has a zoom meeting every week that ranges from an hour to an hour and a half, depending on whether it's a tactical or a strategic meeting. Our managers get together once a month and then they're also going through 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team;' so that's a separate meeting that they have. Our various leaders have one-on-ones, either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly depending on their role. We have on Belay calls every six weeks, and that's what ... besides the one days and the summits, that's where the corporate team gets together on Zoom and we celebrate those core values, and talk about stories that are happening with our clients, and our contractors, and give them an opportunity to ask questions, talk about upcoming events, things like that. Those are the meetings. One thing that we started to do this year that I think might be interesting for the listener, we started giving ... providing bi-weekly video updates. Our COO, which actually happens to be Trisha, Bryan's assistant from his old job. ... How about that? ... And our CFO take turns to create these usually less than ten minute, but pretty detailed videos to update the team on where we're tracking for the year. We set out 2018 with a rally cry of 'It's go time,' and some very clear defining objectives that are underneath that rally cry but let us know if we're actually heading in the right direction. We really want to be transparent with our team, which I think is another element of our culture that has made a big difference. Every team member knows what those defining objectives are and where their role lies within accomplishing it. Those bi-weekly video updates have really kept the team connected, and engaged, and allowed for a whole new level of transparency in our organization. I would encourage your listeners to maybe have a look at something like that, or something similar that might provide that level of transparency for their teams.
Shantel: Well, I mean it sounds like it's so structured and intentional, and I love it. It seems like more of a possibility just even hearing the way that it's broken down, so I appreciate you sharing that. The calls, the every six weeks, the Zoom calls are all 500 contractors and the 60 employees on those calls?
Shannon: Great question, that's just for our employees. We have different methods of communication with those contractors. It's tricky, 500 people on Zoom, right?
Shantel: It's like little bubbles.
Shannon: Right, and we always record our calls so that those who aren't able to attend for whatever reason don't miss out on being able to listen to them. For our contractors, we actually have a closed Facebook page for that. We're engaging and interacting, and they are able to post questions. 'Hey, my client's researching this project management tool. What have you guys used? What suggestions do you have?' So that really one virtual assistant has the collective brainpower of all of our virtual assistants. It's kind of cool. Then, we're providing value added content for them through our contractor care department where we're providing webinars on current technologies, or how to have courageous conversations, or what do you do if your client's not delegating well, or the importance of follow-up. Like all sorts of things so that they can continue to be fed and connected in our community also.
Shantel: I love that. When you mention 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,' that book, that meeting cadence in particular and the way you guys communicate reminded me of a few other things I've read, like the book 'Traction,' or 'Rockefeller Habits.' Are these things that you just ... You guys rolled out naturally, or did you get some guidance on some of those execution pieces through?
Shannon: Through resources? Yeah, a lot is trial and error. Some of it works for a season and then that season passes because your team grows, or your company grows, or whatever. Our current meeting cadence and the agenda and intent behind the meetings is crafted a lot from another one of Pat Lencioni's books, 'Death by Meeting.' We also actually consulted with a member of his team from the table group in 2007, and our leadership ... Nope, not 2007, 2017. That would have been a really long consulting engagement. Rishi came in and kind of helped us structure the agendas for our meetings, and the cadence for our meetings, and the whole concept of defining objectives. A lot of that is from the table group and the resources that they provide. A lot of which are available online, like you don't have to have a consultant come in and do it. For us, 2017 was a formative year. Prior to then, we actually had five different companies. They represented the four different service lines that I mentioned, so EA Help, Mag Bookkeeping, Render, and Ellipsis. Then, Miles Advisory Group was the parent company that oversaw them. We decided in 2016, like, 'Man, we have made things way more complex than we should have, like we're confusing the market. We're creating a confusing customer experience for those customers who might have more than one service. Our team was managing a fair amount of complexity.' We decided to bring all five of those companies into one and become Belay in 2017. What that meant for us is that all those different companies had different leadership teams. Some of them were one person was serving on all of them, and some of them were just unique to that company; but we had to blend all of those leadership teams into one. We really wanted to spend 2017 to come together as a team, to be one company, one organization where we hadn't been before. That's why we felt like, 'Okay, this is the right time to bring in somebody from the outside so we can really forge this new way of working together in a very intentional way.'
Shantel: I love that. I would love to switch gears, so you and Bryan work out of the house. I'm eager and interested to hear how you've divvied up responsibilities and which hats you guys wear. Then, kind of talking about being at home with family. Is that ever difficult to unplug? Yeah.
| BE INTENTIONAL |
Shannon: That's the million dollar question, isn't it? It is hard because we both love what we do so much. We don't want to unplug. We love our jobs and we love our company. But yeah, sometimes you do have to give yourself the freedom and permission to say, 'Okay, no more work talk. Like can this conversation wait until the morning, because I'm done.' It's funny, it's evolved over time. I would say when we first got started, as you know, starting a business is stressful. Starting a business with your spouse is doubly stressful. Starting a business when you've used your 401k money to start it is strictly stressful. I think there were seasons like in the early days of the business where we were talking about the business all time, but it wasn't the fun stuff. It was the, 'Oh my gosh, how are we going to pay this bill? Let's ... We're having this client issue,' or whatever. Now that the organization has grown so much, we've really been intentional, and this is a mantra that Bryan and I have. I think I'm saying 'intentional' a lot. I'm sorry. I guess that's my word for the day.
Shantel: It's okay.
Shannon: Bryan and I have a mantra that we want to own, not run. Our whole goal in the lay for us as owners is to get out of the way of the other leaders that we're grooming up so that they can really run and lead the day-to-day. We're still in the business, but not every decision has to come through us. We don't set all the directives and the initiatives for the company. That's really what we're formulating and developing this leadership team for. All that to say our roles and responsibilities have changed over time. We've replaced ourselves with other leaders in the organization, so the functions in the early days that would either be him or I are now given to other people who own those disciplines. At this point in time, Bryan's kind of externally focused. He's been heavy on promoting his book. He's an amazing networking, so he naturally gravitates toward that. He's an amazing vision caster, so he's always like five years ahead of the industry and the business in terms of where we need to head. I'm geared much more operationally, so I kind of oversee and I lead the team calls, and the on Belay calls, and things like that in partnership with our other leaders. He's kind of more externally focused. I'm more internally focused. We both share the role and the title of CEO.
Shantel: Well, let's talk about your book. You both are launching books, but let's talk about yours. Can you tell us a little bit about that, the book, 'The Third Option?'
Shannon: Yes. I am a little bit obsessed with it. It's called 'The Third Option: Why a Woman Doesn't Have to Choose Between a Career and Family, but can Actually Have Both and Succeed.' This has been something that's been on my heart to write for about four years. When you're starting a business, there's no time to be writing. There's 7,000 other things that have to be done. But the idea of sharing my story, sharing the stories of other women that we've partnered with throughout the years, and really challenging the reader to look at their work and their life differently. Finally, I went to a conference in 2016. That for me, in my head, the book was the theme; like 'I got to get this out there.' I think what was holding me back was fear. I was afraid that there's no new ideas under the sun. I didn't create the idea of working part-time virtually. It's been done before. What do I have to say in this area? Somebody that I spoke with at the conference said, "Yes, but the world hasn't heard your story and your voice." I'm like, "Ah, dang it. You're right. I got to get this out there." So I spent last year writing it. It comes out April 10th. I'm just super excited about this community that's kind of forming around it. It's kind of geared toward the avatar for our contractor base. These 500 plus, really over a thousand over the course of the seven years, people who have chosen this third option for themselves. It started with my journey when I was at McKesson and I was working full time, and selling. Bryan was working full time and selling. We were both traveling. Then we're like, 'Hey, let's have a baby.' We had a nanny. She worked with us for about four months before we decided, 'All right, this is not sustainable. Something's got to give.' I crafted this part-time work from home opportunity in the company that I thought, 'I'll just do for a season of time and then I'll quit,' because I really thought my only options were work full time or stay at home. Then when this part-time thing happened and it just kept working, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, like this is the best of both worlds. I can still have the time that I want with my little girl, and then also continue to be a professional,' which I love working. I never wanted to be a stay at home mom; but I definitely wanted to be a mom. Yeah, I think it's a story that probably a lot of people can relate to. One of the things that I've loved about this journey is that the third option looks different for every person that pursues it. It's the career woman who has the journey like mine, for family reasons, they need to take a step back. It's the stay at home mom who misses working and wants to get back into a profession. It's the woman whose parents are aging, and she just can't go into an office every day with a two hour commute because she needs to be more available and accessible for her family. I don't know. I'm just ... I could talk about this forever, but I'll stop talking about how-
Shantel: No, I mean I think that's great. Have you ... I'm sure as you're writing this and developing the book, and I know it's been a couple years now; but have you ... has it been easier now to kind of internalize that? Because now you're in a different spot. You're not working for someone else. You're working for yourself, but still applying all of the things that you're writing about in your own business and in your own life again. Does that make sense?
Shannon: Yeah. It-
Shantel: No, I just wanted to-
Shannon: Sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off there.
Shantel: I don't think I'm doing a very good job of articulating what I'm trying to say, but ... This third option, at least from my point of view, and I'm sure some of the entrepreneurs listening, is also an option. It's not just ... Yeah, I guess I'm trying to say like how have you now internalized it into your own life as an entrepreneur?
| THE EVOLATION OF THE THIRD OPTION |
Shannon: Yes. You know, it was a tricky book for me to write because I feel like I wear a lot of different hats. When I first started writing it, it was kind of like what it is now plus also to the business owner. I realized that I was trying to make it more complex, so maybe there's another book in it somewhere; I don't know. But you're right, entrepreneurs who are listening to this probably have crafted their own third option. It may not be part-time, right? But it is probably a ... different situation, or a different work environment than what they traditionally thought they would be doing. It's breaking out of the expectations that maybe your family, or your professors, or your advisors put on you to know, 'That's not going to work for me. Like I have to create my own way.' That I think is transferable. If you're a business owner, you've already taken the risk and decided to create something of your own. You're owning your career. Hopefully, it's not owning you, but if it is, it doesn't have to be forever. I can attest to that for sure. Yeah, it looks totally different for me now than it did when we first started, but it's just a different third option.
Shantel: Well and I'm sure if it's owning any listener, your business is owning you right now, you just need Belay. You just need your services to help. ...
Shannon: You do not have to do it alone, ...
Shantel: Okay Shannon, I just have a few more quick questions for you to wrap things up. The first is how do you stay inspired day-to-day in owning your own business?
Shannon: I love a good podcast. I love to listen to founders' stories, or business leaders, and learn from their principles. I also love just interacting with my team. They inspire me every day to be a better leader. Honestly, a lot of our clients, too. Like any time I get to interact with a client, it is such a tangible reminder of the big work that we're up to in this world collectively as an organization.
Shantel: Love that.
Shannon: There's just some things that inspire me-
Shantel: So second question, is there anything that you haven't outsourced yet that you're excited to one day get off your plate?
Shannon: Oh my gosh, that's such a fantastic question. Can I outsource working out? Like can somebody else do cardio for me? If we could figure that out, that'd be awesome. I'll keep the yoga. They can have the cardio.
Shantel: When you figure that out, you let me know. ... Last, how can people get in touch with you and the company if they're interested in learning more about Belay, your book, and/or your service, and your journey?
Shannon: Okay, a few different ways. For me personally, Instagram, ShannonKMiles. Our company and website is BelaySolutions.com. If 'Third Option' is something you're interested in, go to MyThirdOption.com and that's the same for Instagram. To get a quick overview of 'The Third Option,' if they want to go to MyThirdOption.com/Manifesto, that will give a better description of who this resonate with. That's a good place to start.
Shantel: Great, and can you order the book now? Purchase the book?
Shannon: It will be available on April 10th. We may take some pre-orders in advance, but yeah. It can be downloaded either the eBook, audio book probably will be after April 10th, and then the physical book, too.
Shantel: Great, well thank you so much for being on the show. We really appreciate it.
Shannon: Thank you so much. I am so grateful.