E567: Maren Kate Donovan’s Zirtual connects high-quality, remote EAs with entrepreneurs, breaking wide open new opportunities for employment & hiring




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about this episode

Today Jason sits down with an incredible entrepreneur, Maren Kate Donovan, Founder and CEO of Zirtual. Maren’s startup provides remote EAs (called ZAs) for entrepreneurs, small teams, and professionals. Zirtual connects high quality professionals with companies desperate for help but not necessarily in a position to hire full-time, on-site staff. Jason and Maren discuss how the idea for Zirtual was born, what it was like moving 400 Zirtual Assistants from independent contracts to employees (and incurring 20%-30% more costs because of this), how most Zirtual Assistants have a “helper” personality type (helping others provides a lot of personal fulfillment), how the recent launch of Zirtual for Teams will be the product that 10x’s this business, how they have an $11 million run-rate after just $4 million in investment and four years operating, an upcoming beta test offering the 3-5 most specialized service requests soon (i.e. PowerPoint, etc.), what it was like to get Tony Hsieh as their first investor, what challenges Maren has faced as a female founder, and much more!

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  • Paul Towers

    Great to see such a passionate and driven female founder dominating the market. Virtual Assistants have promised so much for so long, but I think Zirtual has the answer. In the past people have tried outsourcing to other countries like India, etc, but I have never really been comfortable with that as a solution as there is always going to be a limit on what they can do for you (i.e. would you trust them with your credit card details and organising your travel plans). What Zirtual is doing with US based workers who are paid as employees sounds like a very smart way forward.

    I also think their 24 hour service when it launches will be a game changer, especially for CEO’s and executives. Instead of getting to the end of a work day and having a heap of tasks you want your assistant to work on first thing in the morning, you can schedule them to be done overnight and be waiting on your in the morning.

  • AMA

    It is interesting that this was posted on Friday, sounding like it is a promising company. Yet, today (Monday), everybody that works at Zirtual was let go via email, stating that the company is now closed. Not to mention, the clients are now abruptly without an assistant. This is very distasteful and nobody has gotten any answers.

    It is too bad that they ended in such a cowardly way!!! They will not be trusted in the business again, I’m sure!

  • I have a feeling this may turn out to be one crazy story. I don’t how the they (Zirtual) could possibly recover their reputation. Kind of sad. Seemed like they still had runway.

  • Paul Towers

    Well my interests on their 24 hour service being a game changer proved to be short lived with the company shutting up shop on Monday. I guess the views for this episode shot way up given it has been quoted in pretty much every news article I have read on the subject. Obviously you have to feel for the employee who lost a job (hopefully they can work direct with some of the people they were ZA’s for). I also hope there is a bit of a postmortem so other Entrepreneurs can learn a few insights about what went wrong and how to avoid similar situations.

  • Danial Ahchow

    wtf happened here @Jason? Did you just take all of your loyal listeners/viewers for a ride? https://medium.com/@marenkate/zirtual-what-happened-and-what-s-next-f9bd493ecc49

  • ranndino

    I listened to part of this episode in podcast form on the way home last night. As soon as I arrived decided to check out their website and the first thing I saw were news stories about its sudden demise. I was absolutely stunned! Some unicorn there, Jason.

    What I really don’t get is how this so called incredible entrepreneur could sit on your show just a few days prior to the sudden shutdown and tell everyone how awesome things were going. Was she outright lying or did something earth shattering happen in the few days since?

    I saw your tweet about hoping that Zirtual will make a comeback, but I don’t see how anyone will ever trust its founder again.

    I’ll tell you what will be a true unicorn. Getting her back on the show to explain WTF happened.

  • Brad Rhoads

    Can’t wait to hear @jason give an update on this.

  • ranndino

    Listening to the rest of the show on the way in today (was curious what else was said) while already knowing what happened 2 days later (like I was from the future) was like being in the Twilight Zone. Phrases like “this is a unicorn”, “what I like about the founder is that she would pull through even if there were another 9/11 & the economy crashed”, “lots of runway”, “it’s about to go 10x due to teams feature”… Truly stunning.

    Having said all that read her explanation. It could have all been handled better probably, but…


  • ranndino

    Read my latest post here. It has a link to her explanation. Basically, while their run rate was great, their burn rate was much greater. The runway quickly ran out on them.

  • Stephan

    I doubt he does. He’s probably too embarassed :O

  • Paul Towers

    Why would he be embarrassed? Angel Investors invest in startups knowing that 7, 8 or 9 out of 10 startups could fail. As an Angel investor they essentially make a decision on the smallest amount of information/traction out of all professional investors (excluding maybe accelerators). VC’s investing in Series A, B, C, etc have the added insight of seeing growth/revenue over time and how the team is performing over months/years.

    As a result Angels have to make their decision on the strength of the team, their ability to execute, the potential market, the idea and traction received to date (potentially only a very small amount). Based on the information available at the time it was obviously an investment he was happy making. And from what Jason has spoken about in the podcasts on the topic and from the articles that have been written on the company it seems like people loved the product and the service(s) offered by Zirtual.

    Where mistakes made? yes, obviously they were and obviously its sad to see the demise of the company but I don’t see how any of that rests on the shoulders of an Angel Investor? Perhaps the CEO feels embarrassed, but even then they were probably making the decision that they thought was in the best interest of the company at that particular point in time. In this instance it didn’t work out, but had Zirtual secured that extra funding on the Friday then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And in addition to that the Founders/CEOs have all learnt something and given the nature of startups and Silicon Valley I don’t think it necessarily means that they won’t be a success in the future. Maybe they step out of the spotlight for a bit, work somewhere else and then figure out what idea they want to pursue next.

    Armed with the additional skills and insight they have gained during this period they will now be better prepared than before to execute on the idea at a higher level and avoid the pitfalls that led to their undoing this time round.

  • Sorry to see this happen to Zirtual. I feel for the employees who got such a sudden shock.

  • Stephan

    Because he repeats again and again, many times, that it is such a great investing opportunity, when things where going so wrong. He looks as very uninformed, and incautious investor.
    I agree though with what you say about Angel Investing (in general). Though he is talking about Series B+.