Husband-and-wife duo Bryan and Shannon Miles somehow bootstrapped their way to creating a $100 million business together — without filing for divorce. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
The Atlanta-based couple behind BELAY, which pairs clients with remote assistants in addition to bookkeeping and web services, gave notice at their hyper-demanding corporate jobs in 2010 (she was in management, he was in sales for a church construction company) to pursue the vision they had discussed and finally felt ready to take on: starting a company that would be theirs. They also happened to have two children, ages two and five at the time.
While it may sound like a plan for chaos, this transition actually came with crucial perks for their home life.
During their pre-entrepreneurial days, “I would say Bryan was on probably two to three flights a week. It was very taxing for our family,” Shannon, 42, tells Money. “[The transition] was remarkable. Once he got off the road, we saw the dynamic between him and our two-year-old son change. They started connecting and bonding. We didn’t even realize what was missing.”
Cashing out a 401(k) for a "nuts" idea
They started with an idea, but the "how" of putting BELAY together was messier. The Miles cashed out their 401(k)s from their previous careers and used the $160,000 (after the heavy tax penalties), to provide seed capital for their nascent startup. (They’ve never taken outside investment for their company.) They also gave themselves 50% pay cuts and greatly reduced their monthly expenses.
“All of our friends and family thought we were nuts, especially when unemployment was [higher than 9%],” Bryan, 44, remembers. “But it just turned out to be the right time.”
The Miles sought out advice from successful entrepreneurs and developed their specific idea. Bryan had a virtual assistant in his old job, so he understood the process, “though no one was calling it a virtual assistant” at the time, he says.
“We realized virtual assistants could be great in the recession when companies weren’t adding as much to payrolls and were more likely going to outsource.”
“The prevailing model [in our space] was to hire overseas assistants,” adds Shannon, but tried a different tactic: All their remote workers are based in the U.S., and quality connection between clients and assistants is key.
“It was an uphill battle in 2010. Working remotely was definitely a thing, but not as commonly accepted as it is now. A lot of our early conversations were about how this would work and now we get to talk about how it can change your life.”
In the current digital churn of the economy, they turned out to be ahead of the curve. One client told them that with the addition of a remote assistant, he lost 30 pounds and got his life on track. He also checks his email a lot less frequently.
How to work with a loved one (and still love them)
Bryan and Shannon are co-owners, but they’ve established their different unique talents and “lanes,” as Bryan puts it. He handles the sales, and Shannon runs the operations side of the business, though they converge on top-level decisions during weekly owner meetings.
And they have plenty of thoughts on couples going into business together, based on their own tumultuous experience.
In the early days of BELAY, with long hours and endless hustling, “We were running on adrenaline, jumping off this cliff, and learning how to fly,” Shannon says. “As the months went on, financial tensions mounted. We saw our 401(k)s ticking away. We had some really stressful times, and we worked remotely so there was no separation between work and home. We definitely had times where I was like, ‘I just want to sit and watch American Idol and not talk about finances right now.’”
“We had to carve out specific times to go out on dates,” Bryan adds. “We signed a contract, and the amount of money we would make in that one month we blew all in one night on a date. We said, ‘Screw it. Let’s go out and celebrate.’ A lot of married business folks don’t take time to celebrate and that was something we really value.”
They’re also firm believers in owning your company, not running it, and are launching a new concept in 2020, Own Not Run, that will provide services to help business owners thrive in their mold.
“We’ve hired sooner instead of waiting. We’ve replaced ourselves over and over again to the point where we’ve got a team of leaders to run the day-to-day so we can think big picture,” Shannon says. They announced they're exiting their roles as CEOs and promoting their COO to the chief executive job effective next year. “A lot of business owners want to be heroes. That’s not us. We realized we can find great people and get out of the way,” Bryan notes.
Conflicts, unsurprisingly, still come up — at work and in life. “We’ve never had a disagreement ever,” Shannon jokes with a full-throated laugh. “Yeah, right.”
But they seem to know how to get over the bumps. “We’ve been able to have an aligned vision and when there isn’t alignment, we defer to the person who’s closest to the problem,” whether that’s one of them or another team member, according to Shannon. “We have to just physically walk away and cool off and come back with a clear head.”
Another key tip: “Truly be equals and partners in business,” Shannon says, even while distributing tasks. “Don’t have the wife as an assistant or doing the books.”
What happens after you hit $100 million in revenue
BELAY has come a long way from vanishing 401(k) cash. It will soon hit that elusive $100 million figure in total revenue, according to the Miles, and has consistently seen 30-40% annual growth in recent years. It’s reached 1,000 team members in the company, serving leaders in 30 different industries who turn to BELAY for a boost (the name refers to a term in rock climbing for supporting a climber), with a minimum cost of $1,800 for a full of month of virtual assistant work, equating to about 10 hours of help each week.
Meanwhile, the owners have moved on to other projects. In addition to the forthcoming Own Not Run, they started a local brewery called NoFo Brew Co., in Georgia’s Forsyth County outside Atlanta, which Bryan calls “an incredible business model once you break even.” They’ve once again relied on experts to execute the operation, and are moving to the sidelines.
“While business success and growing assets is awesome, that’s not really what we’re aiming at,” Bryan says. “When we’re in our seventies and our kids are fully adjusted adults, we want to have the means in order to do the things we want with them.” And making millions, well, happens to help get them there.