Don’t Live Your Life Inside of a Box: An Interview with Maren Kate Donovan

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This interview is part of our Entrepreneur Interview series.

Inspiration generally comes when you least expect it. It’s a funny thing really, you could be doing anything at all when your next big, life-changing idea pops into your head. Maren Kate Donovan just so happened to be sitting in a 24-hour cafe in Las Vegas when she thought of the idea for Zirtual.

Take a look at our interview with this inspiring entrepreneur and see how she’s leading an ultra busy lifestyle without losing her sanity.

Outsourcing Is Kickass!

1. Every entrepreneur needs a great origin story. Why did you start Zirtual?

Outsourcing is something that I have long been super passionate about. I’ve always felt that my energy should be spent on the things that I could only effectively work on, and everything else should be delegated. I started researching virtual assistants in college. My first assistant was based in the Philippines, and immediately had a huge positive impact on my productivity. The impact was so apparent that people started coming to me, asking if I could help find them an assistant of their own and this is where the base idea for Zirtual sparked. I realized how big the market really was. The problems I always came across though, were that outsourcing to an individual overseas came with no guarantees of skill/ability, turnaround issues, and possible communication setbacks. That realization is what led to the next idea stepping stone for Zirtual: college educated, US-based assistants. It all kind of just started piecing together after that.

Balance Is a Tough Concept

2. What’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?

I’d have to say, balance. There’s always work to be done, ideas being cooked and needing polished, problems to solve, goals to be reached, and the list goes on and on. Eventually, you find your work and personal life melting into one pot and your calendar becomes your reminder that you need to eat and sleep. It’s exciting, but also exhausting. This is why delegation is so, so important. Once you step into the delegation waters, you will start seeing balance swim back into your life. That’s actually Zirtual’s motto: “Work. Life. Balanced.”

Get Inspired Every Day

3. Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?

Honestly, a lot of people inspire me. I become inspired almost every day. Something as small as excellent customer service from a barista at my favorite coffee shop will spark something in me, and I’ll bring that experience to Zirtual. I share this quote from Calvin Coolridge as often as I can, because it’s my mantra and inspires me every time I read it again: “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Build Trust – Fast

4. Letting go of control and trusting your team to “own” their tasks is one thing, but a virtual assistant you’ve never met? How do entrepreneurs get over the initial trust gap? What are the most popular things entrepreneurs outsource to ZAs (Zirtual Assistants)?

This can be a really tough thing for a lot of people, and it’s something that we have kept in mind since day one. Zirtual prides itself as being built on culture, relationships, trust, and of course, a kick ass experience. We make sure to only bring on the best and brightest assistants through our challenging application process. We utilize NDA’s and a third party security system to ensure all client information stays secure, and we forbid any sensitive information being shared through possibly insecure methods like e-mail. It’s our goal to make the experience as comfortable and easy as possible, and we support our clients from the very beginning with any questions/concerns that may come up. The most popular delegation trends definitely fall into the realms of travel planning and calendar/e-mail management, however, our ZA’s can rock a plethora of tasks including everything listed here: (bit.ly/1fkLTuo).

Don’t Let Email Rule Your Life

5. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before starting Zirtual?

I wish I would have known everything then, that I know now! I’m a sponge when it comes to learning, I love soaking up information. Seriously though, I wish I would have known how incredible it feels, and how positively it impacts life, to have set times for e-mail sorting. In the beginning of my Zirtual journey, I was constantly feeling burnt out from what felt like endless e-mails needing taken care of. I’d wake up knowing that I had at least 100 to take care of right away, and that made my mornings pretty monotonous, pretty fast. When I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, I researched ways to fill that stress pothole and wound up with a rule: NO checking e-mails before noon, use that time for creative work. NO e-mails late at night, and NO e-mails on weekends. This immediately lifted a ton of stress from my shoulders and also resulted in the increased relevance of e-mails being sent to me. People now know that if it’s urgent, call or text me, otherwise e-mail and I’ll get to it during my normal routine.

Pull Inspiration from… VEGAS, BABY!

6. The idea for Zirtual came out of a 24-hour cafe on the Las Vegas strip and now you’re living in San Francisco. What’s the Vegas startup culture like and how does it compare to San Francisco’s?

Vegas is an excellent place to pull inspiration. There are so many opportunities out there because it’s such a melting pot of business and culture, yet it (at the time) didn’t really have much room for tech to settle in. Tony Hsieh really lit up a beautiful change in Vegas with the Tech Fund. There are some seriously awesome networking opportunities in SF, specifically because Zirtual is in the tech realm, and I have taken full advantage of the potential. I’ve met some incredibly bright, knowledgeable, helpful people here who have contributed to Zirtual’s success.

PR Is Clutch

7. In understanding what Onboardly does and what our readers are interested in (PR and content marketing), how have you used either strategies (or both) to grow Zirtual?

We have been word of mouth since day one and its been really cool to watch our biz progress through such a natural process.  I’ve always trusted my friends and colleagues more than any ad, and its been awesome to have that validated in my own business as well. With that said, some of the incredible press and PR we’ve received has without a doubt played a valuable role in keeping people talking about us and boosting sales.

Don’t Live Your Life Inside of a Box

8. Any tips or tricks you have never shared before that have helped you launch or grow your company?

My biggest tips would have to be: be persistent, step outside of your comfort zone and break past your own limits, think outside of the box, and delegate everything you can. Write down every single idea you have, delegate the research involving competition/need and crowdfunding and/or bootstrapping, and focus on growing the ideas you have that ‘gut feeling’ about. Once you create a solid idea, increase your delegation to having meetings set up for networking, e-mail management, and calendar management. When you have everything in place, delegate anything and everything you possibly can so that you can focus completely on your company. Most importantly, as cliche as it may be, never give up. Persistence is key.

About Maren

Maren Kate Donovan is the Founder & CEO of Zirtual, a virtual executive assistant service that matches busy people with dedicated personal assistants. Maren has a background that includes biker bars, Chaucer, and has a penchant for science fiction—she’s also never met a cat she doesn’t like.

Shanelle Mullin - April 23rd, 2014 / No Comments

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