You’re hiring the wrong overseas operators, here's why.

If you’re thinking about hiring overseas talent but unsure how this could help you, start here. Otherwise, skip to the section “Why you’re hiring the wrong overseas operators” for tips on hiring the best talent.

Why you should hire overseas operators

If you’re spending a lot of time as CEO buried in cold outreach and email follow-ups, you probably need a chief of staff.

Most advice is to either 1) hire a US-based chief of staff who is fairly expensive, or 2) hire someone on Upwork who does speak English well. US-based chief of staff's can be expensive to hire and are often not very efficient at the data entry work that’s commonly require. Upwork-based EAs don’t have enough context to do a good job and tend to be flaky.

I have different advice. Hire an incredibly qualified candidate (maybe someone who currently works at KPMG or Deloitte) for $9/hr, and get them to do everything you don’t want to do.

Here’s how I came around to this perspective, and how you can do the same.

I had previously founded a proptech company in Canada, and I realized as I hired more people everything that fell through the cracks went to me. I was scheduling meetings, drafting post-call emails, forgetting follow ups, and forgetting friends birthdays. I was overwhelmed, felt I was doing my team a disservice, and was doing the opposite of what I enjoyed and was good at: building relationships.

I was born and raised in the Philippines. I knew really sharp people back home. The only difference between us was I went to college in the US and they stayed back home. I called up a few friends in Manila and was refyerred to someone I ended up hiring as my EA. He was an ex-chemical engineer who went on to work as a product manager at the largest bank in the Philippines. This guy was brilliant, and his going rate of $6 was already 1.5x was he was being paid back home.

To reiterate: I could pay a guy who knew his way around nanoparticles twice his normal salary to handle my inbox. Great for me, arguably even better for him.

Within a month, people couldn’t tell if they were speaking to me or my EA. He drafted post meeting follow ups, ran outreach to find new clients, and reminded me to send happy birthday messages. (Occasionally to my mom.)

A properly trained executive assistant should be able to save you up to ~15 hours a week. But it’s not just saving you time. They will allow you to focus on what nobody else can do – your superpowers. That will increase your energy and accelerate your progress.

The best EAs act more as your Chief of Staff than someone who does menial tasks. Here are some projects you should be able to give your EA to save you time:

  • Write emails you to someone you don’t like, but need to communicate kindly to
  • Run your initial candidate screening
  • Draft detailed post-call emails, including action items for each person
  • Create a 4 step cold outreach sequence in your voice and follow up with thoughtful responses that convince a potential client

If you haven’t been able to trust your EA with projects like this - somethings wrong. Either your EA isn’t the right person, or you aren’t delegating to them enough.

Meanwhile, some EAs I’ve hired have become Chiefs of Staff. One became the head of an entire Philippines-based division, hiring and scaling the company all on their own. Another, a practicing lawyer, navigated the legal issues involved in setting up a startup’s 60-person back-office.

The best EAs should be able to do most of what a US-based ops hire can.

Where should you hire EAs from?

The Philippines is unique in its combination of a low cost of living and a high average level of English proficiency.

We were a US territory for 48 years and English is taught in all schools in the Philippines. We write in English for our college research papers. Our ads are in English. Our shows are in English. Our laws are in English. Many of us speak it everyday.

It’s pretty awesome. Take a look at this BBC article about how Filipinos are taking over international English teaching, and this video wherein Filipinos speak about their use of English.

However, not everyone’s English is exceptional. If you’re looking for an ops hire, you only only want those from top colleges who have the best grasp of English.

I’ve helped hire folks from the Philippines that SF-based founders have found super helpful - see for yourself:

Mike N.
I cannot recommend Catena’s services enough. The quality of candidates he was able to provide us with was unmatched. I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness of Monty's screening process and how responsive he was to all of my requests. From start to finish, the experience was fast, easy, and exceeded my expectations.
The VA [we hired] had high integrity, problem solving horsepower, and desire to deliver excellence. Consequently, she was able to upskill quickly and take a lot more work off my plate than I originally thought possible. I am looking forward to continuing to work with Monty for all of our company's VA needs.
I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness of Catena’s screening process and how responsive they were to all of my requests.
Chris M.
Catena helped us quickly fill an executive assistant role. She onboarded quickly and since then, has taken over running the logistics of my and other C-suite executives' lives at our company. I have so much more headspace now to focus on sales and growth with the hire Catena found for us.
These are two founders now wholly focused on doing the things they want to do.

Why you’re hiring the wrong EAs

The way you’re thinking about hiring an EA from the Philippines is probably wrong.

Most people’s first instinct is to look for EAs who have already worked in support roles for US-based corporations. Think of a Cigna, T-mobile, or Amazon support agent. Hires from this background already have experience working night shifts, communicating in English, and presumably are versed in Western working styles. You might be using Upwork or where profiles like this are abundant.

These are not the best people to hire. Why?

Generally these aren’t super ambitious folks, although they have skills. They’re trading independence and growth for higher pay and steady hours. They’re not currently prioritizing autonomy and growth, most of the time.

From my experience hiring dozens of EAs from the Philippines, ideal candidates have a totally different background.

First, they’ll come from select educational institutions. There are three best colleges in the Philippines to look out for when hiring: Ateneo de Manila, University of the Philippines - Diliman (UPD), and De la Salle University. In 2019, UPD had a ~13% admissions rate across all campuses - in comparison, Berkeley had a ~17.6% acceptance rate for the same year.

The top 1% of graduates will work for local startups or for local offices of multinationals like Deloitte, Proctor & Gamble, and KPMG. They might get paid less, but these roles give them more capacity to grow.

These candidates are real sharp. Here are some of the most recent ones I’ve hired into VA roles at startups:

  • A chemical engineer who used to work as a product manager at a bank
  • An ex-BCG researcher who’s worked at multiple startups
  • A financial analyst proficient in SQL and R

Why would they work for you?

  1. Higher earning potential. Managerial roles in the Philippines often still pay less than an entry-level EA role at a US-based company. The difference between $5/hr as a local bank manager or $7/hr as an EA at a startup adds up.
  2. Desire to WFH. COVID lockdowns are easing up in the Philippines, and employers are forcing people to go back to offices. Traffic is horrendous in Manila, and most folks don’t want to spend 2 hours everyday commuting to work.
  3. Prestige and ability to scale. Working at a US-based startup is seen as prestigious, and can give hires a lot of room to grow their skillsets.

To recap: Someone who works for you gets paid more, saves on 2 hours of transit time, and gets more upskilling opportunity. Win-win.

To find candidates from the best schools, go directly to private Facebook groups like DLSU Jobs & Internships. They’re far less noisy than Upwork or (that one will give you an aneurism). Alternatively, screen for only the top 3 schools I’ve mentioned above.

You’re hiring the wrong overseas operators, here's why.

If you’re thinking about hiring overseas talent but unsure how this could help you, start here. Otherwise, skip to the section “Why you’re hiring the wrong overseas operators” for tips on hiring the best talent.