On Starting A Virtual Assistant Service [From India]

Published: January 18th, 2022
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from Bangalore, Karnataka, India
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Hi, I Am Sunder, the founder, and CEO of GetFriday, the world’s leading organized virtual assistance service serving busy individuals and small businesses across the globe. Our company had been running a concierge service for expat Indians living overseas, to get things done in India, since 2004. As a result of our exceptional service, we were referred to A.J.Jacobs, editor-at-large, Esquire who happened to be toying with the idea of outsourcing his personal life to a distant land back then. So when he wanted a virtual assistant from India to handle his personal life in NY, we took it up as an experiment and it turned out to be a great business opportunity that grew into GetFriday, the Virtual Assistant Service. So GetFriday started rather serendipitously in 2005.

It became immensely popular after being written about in the NY Times bestseller book “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferris. Tim had used our service to experiment with a lifestyle design that allows you to productively work less, even while being able to achieve your weekly goals. GetFriday has also been featured in numerous worldwide publications such as The Wall Street Journal, NY Times, NPR, CNN, Good Morning America, Der Spiegel, etc.

While our company has multiple lines of business including Concierge Services for Expat Indians (YourManInIndia/YMII), Immigration Services in India (TTK Global Mobility), Real Estate (HomeShikari), etc, GetFriday is a service that is truly global in every aspect. We serve clients in more than 40 countries, across 4 time zones and make their lives better. The service helps clients to offload their time-consuming and mundane tasks to an assistant. Our clients include people from all walks of life, professionals, academics, artists, lawyers, teachers, doctors as well as small business owners and startups. We provide people the flexibility to use the services for both personal and business tasks.

GetFriday is the only service that has lasted well beyond a decade and continues to grow even during COVID. It has stayed relevant and is helping people cope with their tasks and stress in life better. It has also helped people launch new businesses and develop second streams of income virtually.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I graduated with an Engineering degree, followed by an MBA, and was working in a normal job as a Project Management resource with a company, when the dotcom boom of the 2000s happened. A few of us, including some friends in the US, were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

We were already helping our Indian friends (students) in the US to communicate faster with their parents back in India through a hybrid method of communication (email-to-post and post-to-email) with a Hotmail-like interface. It was a period when Internet connectivity in India was extremely sparse and two-way communication could take a month or more. With our system aptly called ‘Bharatmail’, people were able to communicate both ways within a week or two. Word spread and within a year, we had close to half a million people, Indian expats, using the online service. We were processing close to 5000 physical mail a week from the bedroom of our rented house in Chennai, India. It certainly was a heady time packed with 16-18 hour workdays.

The explosive growth made us look for external funding because it was getting beyond our means to sustain it. Despite a tight situation, I took the plunge to get into it full-time and we were able to raise seed funding within a month in the year 1999. We started our first venture with two founders (including myself) working full-time and 3 co-founders, who were in the US.

Though our business volumes and people accessing the service registered impressive growth, back then the Internet was still in its infancy and monetization models were almost non-existent. And when the dotcom bust happened, the funding dried up and it put tremendous pressure on the company. It eventually made us merge our startup into a much larger organization. So my initiation as an entrepreneur did feel like a baptism by fire but we managed to learn quite a lot. We also made quite a few big mistakes that in hindsight should not have been done at the starting stages.

It is also important to note that we were all first-time entrepreneurs at that time, aged less than 30 and none of us came from families with an entrepreneurial / business background. The dotcom area spawned a whole lot of first-generation entrepreneurs in India.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

The entrepreneurial journey that started in the 2000s continues to this day. The startups and the businesses handled may have changed and transformed over the years.

The first startup merged with an organization that was part of a large conglomerate in India, the TTK Group. Even after the merger, though we were focused on the same market (expat Indians living in different countries), the services we were targeting remained niche or too early for its time. So we had to pivot our business in a different direction that led to the founding of YourManInIndia.com, a concierge service for expat Indians in 2004. This service aimed to handle a plethora of tasks in India on behalf of these clients. With a broader set of services, it helped us scale faster. It was also featured on international media like the ‘Christian Science Monitor’ and the ‘Sunday Times.’

In the year 2005, because of our proficiency in handling concierge tasks across India, we got an opportunity to be part of an experiment with Esquire editor-at-large, AJ Jacobs. At that point in time, he was interested in exploring personal outsourcing and pushing the envelope by evaluating how global talent can be used in different ways. He came to know about us through a casual conversation at a dinner party with an NRI friend (expat Indian). This led to a very unique personal outsourcing experiment with AJ where he used our staff in India to get his personal errands and other tasks accomplished in the US. This included organizing a birthday dinner party in Central Park, NY, managing the guest list, the food, and everything out of India. We did remarkably well despite the nascency of the technology in those days. It led to a very humorous article in Esquire magazine which was picked up by other news media like Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, etc. Sensing the opportunity, we christened that service as ‘GetFriday’ and it became instantly known across the globe.

GetFriday got a second inflection point when it was again a part of a lifestyle design experiment at improving productivity. The experiment became part of the NY Times bestseller book “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss.

Around the same period when GetFriday started (2005), our firm also got its first breakthrough at providing immigration services in India to enterprise clients. And that business had steadily grown over the years and it is called the Global Mobility Services (GMS) division.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We have been a profitable and self-sustaining business for the past 10 years. COVID impacted the revenues in the past 2 years but we managed to sustain without impacting jobs. We are hopeful of a revival with international travel about to resume soon.

Today, GetFriday is one of the leading organized Virtual Assistance Services globally and serves clients in more than 30 countries across 4 time zones. In the past decade, we would have assisted more than 15,000 busy individuals and small business clients. We have democratized support and virtual assistance to make it affordable to just about everyone.

We haven’t done much on the Marketing front since the good reviews in the Press and strong word of mouth have helped us with a steady flow of business. Right now, we are on the verge of kickstarting advertising to scale our growth post COVID.

GetFriday operates out of a single office in India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore. But during the COVID phase, we have been forced to operate with staff doing WFH (work from home) for the past 2 years. This posed some challenges initially but is working really well now and we intend to continue it. We may eventually turn it into a hybrid platform allowing staff to work from anywhere and support clients anywhere in the world. That’s the goal for GetFriday.

The Global Mobility Services Division has since evolved to become one of the leading immigration service providers in India supporting top-tier IT companies. Our company is involved in handling documentary requirements for work permits to different countries for employees of these organizations. Each year, we handle more than 40,000 long-term assignments to more than 80 countries. We are investing heavily in technology and getting ready for a transformation.

This division operates out of 6 offices spread across the major cities in India. It also handles work globally through its partners in 40 plus countries.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Startups teach you a lot of lessons for life. Two key lessons I have learned are that one needs to have a risk appetite and should not panic if you are running your own business. There will be tough times when all will seem lost. But patience and perseverance can definitely help you survive and come back into the game.

A favorite quote of mine “When you come to the edge of all the light you have and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on - or you will be taught how to fly.”

The second thing I have learned is to be comfortable with people smarter than you, around you. Because in business you need the best of talent to be successful and growth cannot be achieved without an A-team.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

There are so many wonderful tools out there that would help a startup. All our core business applications are built from scratch including our CRM system which is the heart of our operations. We have always preferred it that way.

But our assistants in GetFriday are well versed in using a plethora of productivity and collaboration tools on behalf of their clientele. We may also use industry-specific tools to accomplish certain tasks for our clients.

  • Productivity / Collaboration - Slack, Asana, Trello, Google Workspace
  • Communication - Google Chat, Skype
  • Bookkeeping - Quickbooks, Freshbooks, Kashoo, MYOB, Xero, Sage, Kashflow
  • Vacation Rentals - Airbnb, Homeaway, VRBO, Vacasa
  • Real Estate - MLS, Zillow, Trulia, Condo, Foreclosure, ApartmentRenting
  • More on industry specific tools that we use can be found here

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ is right there at the top. We are all on a search to find something or do something and we seldom relish the experience of it. Life and Entrepreneurship are both similar in the sense that the journey is the experience. Another philosophical fiction writer who influenced me a long time back was the American writer, Richard Bach.

In recent times, I have been influenced by Dan Pink on the puzzle of what motivates us. And I do follow Simon Sinek’s podcast with a bit of optimism.

Am also greatly interested in a better understanding of the human body and its limits and do listen to podcasts on the Diet Doctor by Dr. Bret Scher and read a lot of research articles in publications like ScienceDirect etc. In my opinion, food plays a more pivotal role in our health and longevity than we ordinarily think. So I kind of call myself a biohacking hobbyist.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Entrepreneurship or running a business is tough, it certainly is not for people who prefer to remain in their comfort zone. But for those who love to take risks and would like to try their hand at entrepreneurship, here is some advice that comes from the learnings of the past 20 years.

  1. Cash is king. When you have the money, use it prudently because you will learn the importance of it only when you run out of it.
  2. Don’t be stuck to your ideas even when they don’t seem to work (despite best efforts). Review them rationally and make changes.
  3. Have a strong team in place and be a leader who is capable of leading people smarter than you.
  4. Any business is likely to evolve and pivot over a period of time. But one needs to keep the spirit of innovation strong to survive and grow.
  5. Some businesses and opportunities that convert may happen by accident (like GetFriday). But one needs to have a prepared mind to be able to identify and cash in on the opportunity.
  6. And tough times never last, tough people do. So even during the toughest of times, dig yourself into the trenches and wait for the storm to pass.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

There are always some positions that are open at any given point in time. Right now, we are looking at embarking on a big digital push with the GetFriday services in an aggressive manner. So we would certainly be looking for people in positions for Digital Marketing, PPC, content writers, etc. Students (undergrads) who want to join us for an internship are also welcome. The big difference with GetFriday now is that we are all virtual and we will continue to work in that manner. So people from any part of the world are welcome to work with us (provided the remuneration works out!).

Further, we are embarking on converting our service into a hybrid platform that can provide virtual assistance with virtual staff. That is an area where we would be hiring a lot of people in the next 1-3 years. We would also be needing technical developers to transform to a platform model.

For more info, check out our Careers page.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can know more about our services at: