I'm Sam Wilson, the Co-Founder of Virtalent.
Each month we shine a light on one of our successful clients or talented Virtual Assistants, but this time we're changing things up. As we approach our 5th birthday I wanted to take a turn in the hot seat to share our own story with you.
Coffee in hand? Ok, let's go.
Finding an idea
Virtalent started in the Summer of 2014. My business partner, Ellie, and I were looking to go into business together, both unhappy with the career options we had in front of us.
Having already tasted entrepreneurship by launching a handful of (failed) business projects -including a social media marketing agency and a clothing brand – we knew that getting ourselves behind a new idea and doing things 'properly' this time was the way to go.
We were hungry for a life away from grey cubicles and standing-room only.
So that Spring we put our heads together and tried to solve a problem. A juicy problem that no one else was tackling and one we felt we knew enough about to make a real impact.
And the big issue was?
After countless nights going round in circles, we took a moment to reflect. We came to realise that our business shortcomings to date had actually come from being too determined to live the entrepreneurial dream. We clutched at it so hard, so desperately, that we completely crushed it (and not in a Gary Vaynerchuk way).
We thought we knew best, always taking on too much. Our ambition got the best of us. We were doing everything ourselves – juggling far too many tasks and doing many of them too badly to make any real progress.
But then we had a thought: we were doing everything ourselves because it was so difficult to find talented people, at a price we could afford, without any scary commitments involved.
Marketplaces like Upwork are a race to the bottom, with thousands of unvetted freelancers bidding against each other to win your business – sacrificing quality bidders who quite reasonably won't compromise on their values in the process. It felt like the Wild West and we were tired of being let down.
But as a small business, hiring an employee is daunting. National Insurance, pensions, holiday cover, sickness, maternity leave… setting a competitive (but not too competitive) salary, keeping them motivated, somehow carrying out a performance review on someone far more talented than you… And if the business doesn't work out? You'll have their solicitor to answer to as well.
The big question
We asked ourselves this: why wasn't someone out there combining the convenience and speed of hiring talent online, with the reliability and expertise that a fully-fledged employee brings to the table – without the risk?
That's when we came across the fledgling Virtual Assistant industry in the UK. Finally, a way to hire a reliable right-hand person to help you grow a business – at the click of a button.
But actually, we felt the two main industry players left a lot to be desired.
Both were chasing a bigger market in the US, leaving their UK clients to wilt. One was excessively expensive and exceedingly corporate, whereas the other treats their clients like just another number in a long line of other clients – taking hundreds of faceless Virtual Assistants and then relying on algorithms to do the hard work for them in helping their clients. Stack them high, sell them cheap(ish).
We knew we could do it better. British businesses like yours wanted more and we were determined to deliver it.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, that's what our competitors still look like today – 5 years on.
The big launch: Virtual + Talent = Virtalent
So we came up with Virtalent. Virtual + Talent combined.
We got to work on giving birth to our business baby. The long evenings sat deciding on rigorous interview questions, the early morning web design sprints that made my eyes square, the business cards we took far too long to design (and then promptly left in a drawer)…. it was a start that many of you will recognise.
And then we launched.
And nothing happened.
Somehow new clients didn't magically land on the website I'd lovingly crafted, coming to pay their respects to our painstakingly designed logo or bow down to our awe-inspiring (although obviously fabricated) customer testimonials.
They didn't throw money at us, pleading desperately for a Virtalent Virtual Assistant.
Wow. So this start-up malarkey is going to be a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.
The investors and the press
So like any good start-up founder, instead of doing the actual hard work, instead of deciphering why business owners weren't beating down our virtual door (hint: do more marketing than posting a few lame Tweets once in a blue moon), we looked to raise investment.
Somehow we entertained a few serious people, with real money, nice suits and the flash-looking saloons to match. Maybe because we were young and ambitious, but more likely because we were naive and didn't know any better, we clung on to their every word.
Meeting after meeting, we faced the interrogations and pitched our idea like there was no tomorrow. We even won a few awards (from Venturefest's Investment Pitch Finalist to several RBS pitch awards) in the process.
We also got picked up by the press – BQ, The Sunday Times, The Mail On Sunday and This Is Money to name just a few.
Is this right for us?
Something felt off. It wasn't the serious demand for a highly accurate 5 year cash flow forecast for our brand new business hobby with all of 2.3 clients, or the 60 page wire-bound business plan which was as much use to anyone as reading the leaves in my morning brew.
It was the clear intention of anyone we spoke to to rip up that plan and stamp all over it.
The ever-present elephant in the room was that we weren't only going to give away a juicy chunk of our business in return for the equivalent of that guy's ski holiday fund, but that we were going to lose absolute control over how our little baby was going to grow up. Forever.
Because apparently being older and having a bit of cash to spend, means they must always know better.
Taking a moment
Let's face it. Anyone who seriously wants you to get out a crystal ball to tell them what your bank balance looks like half a decade from now, or tells you – with less knowledge about your industry than you have in your little finger – that they will be acting as your most trusted confidante for all future business decisions from then on, should be branded as RAVING MAD and kept as far away from your business as possible.*
So we left the shiny business accelerator we had worked so hard to get into – with all its promises of fame and fortune (if you'll just sign here please). We dropped the endless investment discussions which were sending us around in circles.
Instead we put our time and attention back into finding real customers with real pulses, and working crazily hard to solve their most painful problems.
And you know what? Funnily enough, swapping endless coffee meetings with fellow entrepreneurs and dreamy blue-sky thinking sessions for actual hard work, actually, well worked!
* Rant over. I'll save more reasons for why we've deliberately bootstrapped Virtalent from day one (and why the relentless focus of all business accelerators on raising investment alone – whether the business sells burgers or Bitcoins – is just plain insanity) for another post…
Virtalent in 2019
Fast forward to today and the company we launched is completely unrecognisable. We don't often blow our own trumpet, but now seems like a good moment to do so.
Each year since launch day, Ellie and I have more than doubled Virtalent's revenue, year-on-year, without fail. All without any VCs or comfortable savings accounts to fund anything at all. We continually reinvested any profit and occasionally took a trip to the bank (I know – I can't believe they actually lent money to us either).
We've done all of this entirely remotely, never renting an office and always managing a team across the breadth of the UK. From our accountants in Durham to our Client Success Managers, Marketing Manager and Sales Manager in the Home Counties, we've never met each other in person but it's clear to us that we have built a team we can always depend on.
We now have close to 50 ambitious, extraordinarily-talented Virtual Assistants who really dig our cloud-based culture. They can reach for the stars doing a job they excel at, but with no commute and a flexible schedule that gives them the ultimate work-life balance. Need to pick up the kids from school one day? No problem. Want to go for a morning run before settling in to your comfy home office? You got it.
We also support a client base of successful, productive business owners. Some big blue chip names, but mainly small innovators fighting for their dreams. Business owners who we have truly made a lasting impact on in both their professional and personal aspirations.
Because it isn't 'just admin' we do.
Some kind words from our clients
"The impact of hiring a Virtalent Virtual Assistant is greater than you could imagine. It’s like someone throwing a rope ladder down to you and letting you walk up it. It has been better than joining the gym in terms of the impact on my life – I've immediately felt five years younger!"
– Martin, online business owner
"I am finding that I have the time and energy to take up more opportunities – I feel much freer in what’s possible, because it’s no longer just me. Having a Virtalent Virtual Assistant has also made a big difference to the people around me. They are better able to get my time and attention. Having a Virtual Assistant also helps me get the attention of other people too!"
– Jennie, consultant
Wait, there's more?
Last quarter we welcomed a new Client Engagement Manager (Michelle) and Client Success Manager (Alice), expanding our internal team to deliver ever better service.
Last month we smashed our sales records and this month looks to take us even further.
We're working hard on overdelivering on our clients' expectations and keeping our talented Virtual Assistants as happy as can be. It's going to be a busy month…
- We've just launched a new Task Portal – from discussion boards to G Drive and Dropbox integrations, it's a big step up from the past.
- We're on the cusp of launching a shiny new website – one that does a much better job of explaining what we do and how we can help, with a professional copywriter on board to make it stand out from the crowd. We've even tweaked our branding to match!
- We're going overboard on the marketing – finally we've got a proper digital marketing strategy to boot. We've found our voice, dived deep into our clients' biggest problems and now we're going to make some noise. So you'll see more stuff like this from Virtalent going forward.
- We're embracing our unique, innovative culture – from a new Culture Bible and overhauled induction training for new Virtalent Virtual Assistants, to a brand that shows off our personality, we're making it count.
Are you excited? I know I am!
The future – Virtalent 3.0
Right now I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do what I do every day.
I get to work on exciting projects, work with super smart people and tackle some scary, but incredibly rewarding goals. When it pays off, there's no feeling like it.
And you know what? We don't have any grand plans in the pipeline here.
We just want to do more of what we're already doing: onboard more awesome Virtual Assistants, welcome more successful, productive entrepreneurs and help them work together as efficiently, effectively and enjoyably as humanly possible.
We're going to continue to put people before profits because it works.
We've come a long way over the past 5 years and ultimately I've realised that it's only been fairly recently that we've really got it right this time.
So that's our plan. To just keep doing it right.
Want to join us on that journey?
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