This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Lakisha Sarbah who is the founding Executive Director of Uniquely Coordinated, LLC. Spending the winter in Atlanta, Georgia and the summer at her home in Alabama, Lakisha set up her business in March 2009. This is her VA story.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
Before starting my VA business, I was director of training and development for an insurance company. I created the training program and curriculum in addition to training insurance claims customer service representatives. Moreover, I managed and trained the audit and compliance team and was instrumental in the development of the main claims system used daily.
When did you first hear about the existence of VAs?
I went on a trip to Las Vegas with a few friends back in 2008 and met a young lady poolside. We started chatting, and she told me that she was there on business and that she was a Personal Assistant to several people in California. She explained that some of her work was done virtually and some she did in person.
What was the trigger for you setting up your VA business?
Shortly after my trip to Las Vegas my mother’s only sister died of cancer. It was very unexpected and my family took it extremely hard. Returning to working after my aunt’s death was somewhat forced. I’d worked in corporate America for 18+ years and worked my way up the proverbial corporate ladder and, for the first time, I started to ask myself if this was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Although I loved training, there was just something about teaching people new things that really brought me joy. I also had a real knack for developing curriculum, systems and programs but, after my aunt’s death, it all just seemed so trivial. I begin to think about how my skills and talents could help others.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
I stepped out on faith, left my job and jumped in with both feet! During that time, my daughter was in college, so when I moved back to Atlanta from Chicago, I moved into the cheapest smallest one bedroom I could find and lived off my savings for the first year. That first year was a struggle and I thank God for supportive friends and family.
I do NOT recommend anyone to do what I did and jump in with both feet unless you have a very hefty safety net. Building a business is hard work and I was on a budget so I did everything myself – website and all. I would recommend growing your business gradually; if you are working a full-time or part-time job keep it until you have enough clients to replace your income.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed to set up?
I reached out to other VAs for advice and help. I even offered to work for free so I could learn the ropes but I was turned down by everyone I asked. I felt like I was being shut out and that just fueled my fire. I researched everything from starting a business, to website building, to SEO, to rates, to time tracking, to project management software. I read lots of blogs, watched several YouTube how-to videos and attended every free online training I could find.
Who was your first client?
My very first client was Executive Clothiers owned by Miguel Wilson who creates custom-tailored clothing for men. I had fliers made and stopped into his shop to introduce my business and the manager Milton Dodson said they had a few small projects like scanning business cards and organizing their mailing list.
I offered my services for free for a short period of time so that I could not only prove to them that I had what it takes to assist them, but I needed to prove it to myself as well.
Shortly after working with them, I met the owner Miguel Wilson. He saw my value and allowed me to work with him on other projects and paid my very well for my time. I’d like to mention I’d already been in business and looking for clients for about 6-8 months before landing Executive Clothiers as my first client.
Do you have a niche?
I wouldn’t really call it a niche but we are a full service business support firm that provides Virtual Assistants, on-site executive assistants and a virtual call centre that offers telephone answering services to our clients. We have a wide range of VA experience from basic administrative support to website development and graphic design.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
We’re different because we hire women and men who are financially challenged. Over 40% of our VA staff work to bring additional income to make ends meet.
Many of them have full-time or part-time jobs, but after paying their bills, they still struggle to put food on the table or provide their kids with the necessities needed for everyday living.
By offering them a source of additional income along with coaching and training, they may one day be able to start their own businesses and/or get a better job.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
I love helping people not to mention being able to work from anywhere in the world is an added bonus.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
The hardest thing was starting and not having support from follow VAs. I make it my business to help as many start-up VAs as I can. I answer questions – no matter how many – and I encourage the VAs on my team to start their own business.
I’ve never felt threatened by helping another VA and I truly believe we all have something special to bring to the table. What God has for me, no one can take away.
How virtual are you?
We offer both virtual and on-site services. We have Virtual Assistants who work on our virtual support team, and we have Executive Assistants who work with clients at their homes or offices.
In addition to my Executive Director role with Uniquely Coordinated, I provide business coaching and training to other VAs that are struggling to get their businesses off the ground. I also provide business consulting and training to many of our clients.
How do you find your clients?
We get 50% of our business from referrals, 30% from website traffic, 10% from social media and 10% from networking events I attend. We don’t do any advertising besides our website, social media and interviews like this one.
How do you manage your work/life balance?
I work from an office daily and have office hours. When I leave the office to go home, I leave work behind. When I’m home, I’m a wife to my husband and a mom to my 18 month-old son Ayden and 23-year-old daughter Alyshia. There are times when I have to bring my laptop home, but I only do it when absolutely necessary and after my son is down for the night.
I love helping people. Coaching and training are my passion and, because it doesn’t feel like work to me, I have to be extra careful not to burn out. Keeping a balance is the key.
How do you manage your clients and their expectations?
Our Virtual Assistants work in small teams therefore our clients never have to go without a VA if one is sick or on vacation. There’s a lead VA for each team and we have a Project Manager who’s our gate keeper for all new tasks and project requests. Our Virtual Assistants manage our client’s tasks and projects in Teamwork project management system.
What technology, websites or apps are invaluable to your working life?
I love everything technology. I could not do without Google Apps, Teamwork, Harvest, Ring Central, Evernote and Hootsuite. I’m a PC girl so I couldn’t go very long without my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone and Samsung tablet either.
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
Absolutely not. Everything I’ve done has led me to this very moment in life. However; I do wish I would’ve had a mentor/business coach sooner.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
Research, research and research some more and learn as much as you can. Join different VA groups – there are wonderful VA groups’ available now that weren’t around when I started my business. Get a mentor or coach; I didn’t have one when I started, but I wish I had. I have one now and it makes all the difference in the world.
Connect with Lakisha Sarbah on Facebook.