Donald Spann: My goal wasn’t to have a giant company or even be an entrepreneur. The only reason that I have pursued entrepreneurship is because it is the most effective vehicle for being able to eventually have control of your time and hopefully enough money to enjoy that time.
Some founders get into the game because they’re passionate about a particular business idea, or a problem they’re eager to solve. But many of us, well, we follow this path because of the lifestyle it allows us to create.
Donald Spann is one of those people. When he needed a team of receptionists for his growing cleaning company, he spun off a business called Vicky Virtual Receptionists — and it launched him into a new phase of life. One where he had complete autonomy over his time.
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I’m Lexi Grant and you’re listening to, They Got Acquired. A show about life-changing business acquisitions, and founders, who don’t follow the Silicon Valley narrative.
Today, you’ll hear from Donald Spann, a serial entrepreneur with four acquisitions under his belt — including a call center, Vicky Virtual Receptionists. He shares the long road of trial and error that brought him to this business, and how an exit over seven figures gave him the time freedom and financial stability he craved.
Lexi Grant (L): Can you share with us anything about how much the company sold for, or what the terms were and how you felt about it?
Donald Spann (D): All I’ll say is that it was over seven figures, and it was a multiple of revenue.
Typically companies in this space sell somewhere between 3-6x revenue multiples, and we were in that.
L: And your revenue at that point was seven figures. Right.
L: Cool. Well, that gives us a sense. How did you feel about selling your company for over seven figures?
D: Yeah. It’s a game-changing thing. But this enabled us to start to think about the significant things we can do investing as an angel investor, thinking about philanthropic things, having future generations cared for, and what I want to achieve outside of simply handling my personal life expenses and requirements.
L: You’re really careful about talking about how much money you’ve earned and I know you’re pretty humble and just a little bit private about that. Can you talk a little bit about why you take that approach or why that’s part of your nature?
D: I guess I don’t want to the source of all my intrinsic value to be based off of how much money I made.
When I was younger, I was so focused on making my first million. I’d tell everybody at 16 years old that I’m going to make my first million by 21 years old because I was broke and I wanted to be rich. I grew up around a bunch of rich people and I wanted my life to be like that.
But once I got older and recognized the implications of having some money, my mindset changed.
Don’s mindset about wealth may have changed from when he was 16 years old, but something else hasn’t: he still sees entrepreneurship as the best path towards the lifestyle he wants.
Because even as a kid attending an exclusive private school in Chicago on a scholarship, Don dreamed of building businesses. But back then, he had no idea what kind of businesses that might be — or how he would get there.
D: Being a middle-class Black kid growing up in a rich white school system, but having a home life that was middle, almost lower-class. When you see the possibilities, it certainly made me more optimistic and it gave me a different ceiling in the clouds than I think a lot of people have.
So as Don watched his classmates take the opportunities laid out for them, he read about ways to create his own financial opportunities. His parents and peers expected him to go to college like everyone else, but Don? He was drawn to a more unconventional route.
D: I dropped out of college. I went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a year. When I dropped out, I didn’t have much of a plan other than, if I finish college, I’m committing to more time in a short life dedicated to a degree whose main role is to provide me with the ability to secure a job.
I figured that you don’t need a degree to start a business and that it’s better to make risky mistakes when you’re young, versus when you have kids and possibly a mortgage.
So at 19, Don looked for a job that was as entrepreneurial as possible, one that would allow him to earn money while he figured out what kind of business he wanted to start. He landed a commission-based sales role at Cutco Knives. It required him to use network marketing, selling knives to people he knew. For many young adults, this might have been intimidating. But Don found he was really good at it.
D: There were 1,200 sales rep that came to that office in the first summer, and I finished number one.
That summer, Don proved he’d made the right decision by dropping out of college. And over the next seven years or so, he got better and better at sales, as he practiced in different industries. With each year that went by, he also dabbled with different businesses — trying to figure out which one would get him closer to complete financial and time freedom.
D: During those years trying all kinds of not-very-great business ideas—multi-level marketing, Amway, am:pm shoes, and things like that. It was just some random things. This seems ridiculous now, especially with the information we have now for new people who want to be entrepreneurs.
I was not aware that you could start a traditional, registered-in-your-name business for less than like $30,000. I didn’t know that you could go get an LLC or even start as a sole proprietorship and just hit the ground running.
I was trying to figure out something that was better than a job with the goal of eventually having enough success in a “pseudo” business to have the money to start a “real” business.
In 2012, Don got his first taste of working in a startup. He joined a company called Rentobo, founded by his high school friend, who had gone through an accelerator program. Don helped him build Rentobo, a software that allowed property owners to complete the entire rental process online. But he learned that type of company didn’t align with his long-term goals.
D: The main thing I learned is that there’s creating and building a company, and then there’s creating and building a company that investors like, and those are entirely—or they can be entirely—different things. One of the things that I learned is that I didn’t want to take an outside investment if I didn’t have to.
So Don kept looking for other opportunities. And that same year, a Reddit comment caught his eye. A few clicks and rabbit holes later, Don discovered an entrepreneur, Rohan Gilkes, who had built a business that aligned with what Don wanted for his own life.
D: Rohan grew his business from $4,000 a month to $100,000 a month in revenue in like a year and a half. So I clicked on it. I dove in and thankfully Rohan wrote out an entire breakdown on how to start a cleaning business. It was one long post.
I read it, and three weeks later, Companion Maids was born.
L: It sounds like you didn’t really have any experience in creating a cleaning company. You learned a lot from reading this Reddit thread—how did you know what you were doing?
D: Once of the nice things in building Rentobo was learning that building a company in general is really just a series of individual tasks. I think a lot of people, when they think about or imagine a company, they think of the entire completed project. Sort of like a large building that’s been completed and looks beautiful and massive. People don’t think about the individual bricks or individual blocks of cement that eventually created that large, beautiful structure. I approached the cleaning company as my first from-scratch exercise in that lesson.
The Reddit thread was very helpful, but it’s a very simple concept: you get a website together, you get a booking system together, you find a way to accept payments, you hire cleaners, and you get people to request the cleaning from your company.
L: You make it sound easy. Was it easy for you?
D: It is easy to get started. It is not that hard to start a company. It can be hard to consistently get clients, build it up, and have profit, but it’s not hard to start a company. If you just follow the steps that someone outlined for you, you can launch.
While his cleaning company, Companion Maids, was a traditional service business, Don layered on tech and marketing.
It was one of the first companies in the Chicago area that offered online booking. He also brought a wealth of sales and management experience. That gave Companion Maids a competitive advantage despite being brand-new to the market.
D: You see a company and think that they’re so competent and that they know what they’re doing in every aspect, but a lot of times they don’t. Some of them just know how to clean and have a Yelp page that they established that has a good amount of reviews. Because of that built-up reputation on Yelp, they’re getting business.
But they don’t always know how to hire or effectively manage employees. From the outside looking in, it looks like they have it all together. But being able to achieve or perform as well as a lot of competitors in our space is not as high as many people believe, and there’s opportunity in that.
Don knew that having competition was a good thing — it meant there was a real need for what they delivered. He didn’t fall into the trap of thinking they had to offer something completely new or different — they just needed to offer something better.
D: My approach for any business to this day is trying to find things that just make sense, rather than novel, crazy ideas. A lot of the existing people in these spaces are not marketers; they’re not people that have great websites.
So when we have a great website, market ourselves well online from the start, are proactive about being on different review platforms, and solicit reviews—which have a huge impact in the local service business space—we are able to hit the ground running a lot better than a lot of the companies that already exist.
Don would eventually grow Companion Maids to $45,000 in monthly revenue until he sold it in 2017. But even before that, he would add a long list of other companies to his portfolio.
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D: We also had a photo booth company. I had a painting company. We did one in Chicago and one in Miami. That was cool. It was typically residential homes and it’s a high-margin business.
I also had a virtual assistant company. These were Philippine-based agents that were assistants for small businesses. So, not just taking call, but more task-focused.
I also had a review management company called 200 Reviews. The purpose of that was to make it easier for businesses to solicit reviews from their current clients. It was a bunch of different, random things over there.
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L: I’m not going to ask you how many companies you had in total because I don’t know if you’ll be able to count that. It sounds like you had a lot, but how many acquisitions have you had?
L: Okay, cool. So let’s talk about how you built that company. How did you decide to start it?
D: Vicky Virtual?
D: It was an interesting project because it was born out of a need that I haD: when running our cleaning company, we got to the point where we were sick of answering the phones ourselves. Eventually, I remembered that there are services that exist for this problem and I started doing some research. In the first day of research, I’m like, “Man, this is such a cool business model.”
Don found a lot of call centers that did what he needed — but none with a niche focus on cleaning companies. Which got him thinking… he wasn’t the only cleaning business owner with this problem. Don knew this because of the people he’d met through that fateful Reddit post back in the day, who he’d kept in touch with through a Facebook Group.
D: My research in finding a vendor quickly turned into reverse engineering it to provide the solution to myself. That’s essentially how Vicky Virtual was born.
But to pull this off, Don knew he needed a partner. He already had Companion Maids and a slew of other projects going on, so he enlisted another cleaning business owner named Micah Horner to come on board as a co-founder for Vicky Virtual.
D: One 10-minute conversation and he was in. That was late October of 2014, and within a few days we set a launch date of January 1, 2015, and we ended up launching that day.
L: Wow. How did you get all the people who are going to work for you? How’d you hire as many people as you needed.
D: That was actually the easiest part. We did not have a centralized office and, because they work from home, we were able to post a job as a work-from-home job.
I think my partner posted on Reddit’s Work From Home subreddit once. But we created a job page on our site and my partner wrote it. He was sort of neurotic, so he wrote a very long, exhaustive description of the position and put the pay down at $10 an hour. But it was very descriptive and complete.
We got picked up by a very large work-from-home blog. I think it was a mom blog. And the way these blogs are set up is that whoever posts something, it appears as though all the other large ones are scraping each other’s listing so that they don’t miss out on it. What that meant was that our page was posted on all of these high-value, extremely high-traffic websites.
Another beautiful coincidence was that the job was for a virtual receptionist and our service offering was a virtual receptionist company. If you understand SEO, you would say, ‘Vicky Virtual is looking for a virtual receptionist’. Then you’d have a link to our website with a dofollow link, and the keyword was the job title and it was the same one that we were providing to our businesses. Because of this work-from-home blog, we ended up inadvertently ranking nationally on the first page of Google for the term “virtual receptionist” six or seven months in.
Over the course of five years, we never ended up posting one actual job listing on Indeed, Monster, or anything, and we had over 65,000 applicants.
D: So, that’s how we got our applicant pool. When you have that many applicants topping a hundred per day, it’s never that hard to pick some good people.
Months into the business, Don and Micah had the workers they needed for Vicky Virtual — but where would they find their customers? And how would they navigate managing a completely remote workforce? And once they figured out those challenges, how did Don find a buyer for the business?
We’ll share that after the break.
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L: Can you explain that at a basic level? What the value-add was—what did the company provide to its clients?
D: A traditional answering service. They’ll just answer the phone and take a message. They’re not usually very helpful. They’re not answering questions. They’re certainly not booking appointments, scheduling consultations, taking payment information, or any of that type of stuff. What we wanted to do was go beyond a traditional answering service offering and emulate an in-house receptionist—without being in-house.
That means not only answering the phone and taking the message if necessary, but also answering questions, booking appointments, or doing an outbound call on a one-off basis (i.e., “Hey, can you call this person and remind them that the appointment is tomorrow?).
And we’re priced in a way that we’re able to provide a premium level of service. We didn’t have an agent taking 150 calls a day; they’re taking about 50. So, they weren’t stressed out and were able to spend a few real minutes on the phone with people.
That level of service enables us to be an advocate for your small business, as opposed to just a warm body that doesn’t actually help advance the relationships you have with clients.
Don and Micah reached out to the Facebook group of other cleaning business owners before they launched. They posted about their plans for Vicky Virtual, and how it was exclusively for cleaning business owners. Out of about 12,000 members, about 50 signed up for their email list.
D: We did a few emails saying that we figured out what our pricing is going to be, we’ve selected our phone system vendor, and we’re really excited about what we’re going to be able to provide for you guys. And we made sure that we stuck to that initial launch date of January 1, which is always an exciting launch date.
When we launched, we got like five clients the first day. By the end of the week, we had ten clients. From there, that was probably worth about $1,500 – $2,000 a month in revenue, which is not game-changing, but it’s enough to validate.
By year two of being in business, in 2016, Vicky Virtual had about $20,000 a month in revenue. Don bought out his partner that same year and, seeing the long-term potential for profitability, planned to hold onto the business for the long run.
In the meantime, he sold his other businesses: the cleaning company for about $250,000, the photobooth business for about $150,000, and Rentobo, the VC-backed business where Don was a partner, also sold for around $1 million. This allowed Don to focus completely on Vicky Virtual.
L: What was one of the biggest challenges that you faced in building this company?
D: I guess one of the challenges was managing a growing remote workforce. Even though no one was in an office with each other, there was still a lot of camaraderie, There were situations where we could have had a pretty political dynamic, and we had to sort of nip that in the bud.
We had to figure out the right balance of making people feel like they’re part of the team, while not being all over them and making them feel micromanaged.
L: Were they employees or are they contractors for you?
D: Contractors. Eventually we had to switch to W-2 because it’s the dynamic of the role. You’re going to get a classification lawsuit eventually, or a fine—whatever it is—if you don’t switch it to W-2.
By 2018, Don had finally achieved his entrepreneurial dream: he had financial stability and time freedom. He put only 10 hours a week into Vicky Virtual. With 130 employees, and over 1,000 clients, the company was bringing in seven figures of revenue.
D: All of our clients were reccurring. We didn’t have any huge client that could drastically impact us. I thought maybe I would slowly build up at no specified pace because we weren’t beholden to investors looking for an exit. It was literally just me, and I thought I was going to run the company forever, and pass it down to my offspring.
But, maybe when you’re entrepreneurial or a dreamer, you’re always sort of thinking about new things and what the next day is or evolution in life.
So, I was talking to one of my entrepreneur friends, and I mentioned to him that maybe in a certain scenario I would sell Vicky Virtual, and I could almost hear his eyebrows raised on the phone and he’s like, “Are you serious?”
I’m told him maybe, and he begged me to let him send me an offer. He asked me to send him some screenshots of my revenue, and that he would send me an offer. So I sent him some screenshots of revenue for maybe a few months and he said he’d get back to me.
I had a number in my head, and he came back about 10% higher than that. In my head, I knew that I didn’t shop this and maybe my valuation was wrong, but I’m still happy. Just for the sake of it, I came in at 20% higher, and he said yes to that.
But this buyer wasn’t just a friend of Don’s. He was also a long-time client of Vicky Virtual. So he was intimately familiar with the pain points the company solved, and how they did it. In fact, he’d been one of the first cleaning company owners to sign up.
D: Literally, when I sent off that first “We’ve launched the company” email, 11 minutes later, he signed up. So he saw everything. We built it from zero to where we were, and he knew a lot about the business already. So I knew it would be a peaceful transition and that made me a lot more incentivized to just go through with it. That’s how it happened. I mean, crazily enough, we got the deal done in like three weeks.
L: Wow. For a lot of people finding the buyers the hardest part, but it sounds like that part was pretty easy for you. Were there any tricky parts or any parts that felt sticky about the acquisition?
D: In this case? No.
I had developed a friendship with a lot of my agents and employees, and I knew this guy knew that. I knew he had the resources, that the transition would be good and that the people would be taken care of after I was gone. That was important.
So Don handed off the company he’d built over the previous five years. While he couldn’t tell us the exact terms of the deal, here’s what he’s publicly shared about it: The company sold for over seven figures. His revenue at the time was in the seven-figure range. And the sale price was a multiple of revenue somewhere between three and six.
While the journalist in me always prefers specific numbers, for private sales like the ones we cover, I’ll take any clues the seller is willing to disclose.
L: What did it feel like for you?
D: I think there’s always a feeling that happens whenever the money hits. It’s surreal. On one hand, because it was only me and my partner for the first year and a half, and we built it from zero without any investment—I was only in for $500 the day I launched the company, and the most my partner and I were ever in a hole was with $3,500 in the second month—and we were able to create what I eventually sold.
You sort of feel everything—you feel each client come in and that the company is gaining in value and size. So, it’s not like I was eating ramen noodles and then won the lottery. But if I look back and remember in 2010 I had dreams and hopes about where I would be, and then I see things come to fruition and it feels really good.
The one thing I’m most proud of is telling everybody that I’m dropping out of college and I’m going to figure this out—and eventually figuring it out.
L: Yeah, that’s big.
D: And, also, making my parents proud. I’m an only Black child and my mom was really intense and on me all the time. But it was really just out of worry that her son is not going to be able to achieve his dreams.
The reality is that she also didn’t go to the same school that I went to growing up. Both of my parents grew up in the projects in Chicago. Even though they had a lot of success relative to their upbringing. Especially my mom was like, “The only way to ensure success is to do things a certain way, and if you don’t do it that way, you’re pretty much ensuing failure.”
It got to the point where she was like, “Okay, you know what? Now I feel good. Now I can have a peace of mind.” That has completely impacted certainly every conversation I have with her. It’s really nice to be in that place now.
L: I find it really inspiring that you built and sold the call center, which obviously relies on audio. And you did that as a hearing impaired individual. So I’m curious whether it posed any challenges for you that another entrepreneur might not have experienced or just how your mindset is around approaching that type of challenge.
D: Yeah, I was born two and a half months early and the one lasting impact that it had on me physically was that I have a small hearing loss. The hearing loss is specifically in the high frequency range, which mostly has an impact on the dictation of speech.
In order for me to understand what someone’s saying, I generally take the full sentence in context. Oftentimes I’ll hear a sentence wrong, and I’ll sort of replay the audio in my head until a version that is correct comes out.
L: Well, you’re hearing impaired and you started a call center and you sold the call center.
L: Have you thought about the irony of that? How cool it is?
D: Yeah, I thought it was cool. I thought it was funny. It was also funny that I had a sales career. Most of my sales career was over the phone, so it’s a matter of working a bit harder to listen to people maybe makes me a better listener, although my wife would argue that.
L: It tells me that you’re not afraid of challenges.
D: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Now, Don teaches other entrepreneurs the ins and outs of building virtual call centers through his course, Call Center Cash. He wants to help other dreamers reach their life goals faster and knows first-hand how lucrative virtual call centers can be. Because Don believes that building a great business can be the path to an amazing life.
D: Everyone’s saying if you’re passionate about something, you need to monetize it. I don’t think it’s necessary to monetize everything and you don’t have to work on the business that you’re passionate about; work on a business to get to your end goal, and that’s it.
As long as you’re willing to say, “Okay, for the sake of getting this done, I am going to absolutely commit even though it goes against my nature.” If you’re able to win those small, daily mental battles, then you have a much better chance of success.
Don’s story shows that you don’t need a flashy idea or outside investors; you don’t even have to be super passionate about a particular industry to build a successful business. You simply need to execute — and you need to execute consistently.
As we wrap up this first season of our podcast, I hope you hold onto that.
Because hearing from Don, as well as the seven other entrepreneurs we learned from during this first season, has served as a powerful reminder:
You can build your company in your own way. The way that works for you, and your life.
The only prerequisite? Is that you put in the work.
If you do that, you’re on the right track.
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Thanks for listening to They Got Acquired. I’m Lexi Grant, and if you want to learn about more business acquisitions like Don’s, go to TheyGotAcquired.com and sign up for our email newsletter. We share lots of resources for founders, professionals in the M&A space, and anyone who wants to sell an online business.
If you’d like to learn more about Don, look to the show notes for all the ways you can connect. And for more information on our sponsor, Chicago Partners, visit ChicagoPartnersLLC.com.
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This episode was produced, written and sound designed by Laura Boach. If you liked this story, there are two things you can do to support us while you wait for Season 2: share this podcast with a friend, and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time.