Interview with VA and business operations architect, Cydelle Stewart

This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Cydelle C Stewart, owner and founder of Onit! Communications which is a UK-based VA agency with global reach. Based in London, Cydelle has been in business support for 26 years and recently transitioned into a business operations architect, which she runs alongside her VA agency.

What did you do for a living before you became a VA?

Before becoming a VA, I spent my time as a career EA supporting executives in global corporations. I mostly contracted, because I loved the variety of going into a business, problem-solving then moving on to the next. I earned a great reputation for being a ‘fixer’ with a few permanent roles thrown in for good measure.

When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?

I was a VA for six years before I even knew the term existed! I had been supporting independent entertainers in London and happened to attend a PA event where I heard a VA trainer speak. Everything she described, I realised I was already doing.

I went home and looked up ‘VA’ online and was my mind was blown!

Not only had I been working in this way, but there was a whole new world in online business that I discovered as a result. The possibilities for me became infinite at that moment.

What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?

Having worked as an EA for so many years, in multiple industries, I loved my role. I enjoyed adding value wherever I went, but I’d also become very bored. I was unmotivated and unchallenged. The work I was doing wasn’t stimulating me in any way and I needed to find a new challenge or figure out an alternative career path.

Going self-employed was a decision that was propelled as a result of my role in investment banking being made redundant – it was SUCH a blessing. I got paid for four months to go on gardening leave and had some training and development opportunities made available to me.

In addition, and coupled with my interest in communications, I did a qualification with the UK’s Institute of Public Relations, which led me to initially set my business up as a one-woman PR Agency. This unique positioning gave me the chance to use my PA and organisation skills alongside my newly-honed comms skills, which was a great way to get started.

Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?

By the time I realised I was a VA, I was actually coming towards the end of a nine-month stint as an EA for an exec at an international newspaper where I’d been covering for the full-time, permanent post-holder who was on maternity leave.

I was in the midst of a rebrand of my business (moving away from PR) with the intention to focus on working with service-based business owners. So although I’d been doing it for six years with a different client group, it felt like I was starting from scratch because I had a very different approach and target market.

Where did you find the help or advice you needed when setting up?

Interestingly – as I appreciate this may read as corny – I found all of the guidance and advice I could have needed from the VA Handbook website. I was hooked! There was so much invaluable advice that I kept thinking ‘Why is all of this valuable info free?!’

At that stage, I didn’t understand content marketing and funnels, so didn’t have that level of insight around digital content marketing strategies. I just thought it was crazy that one website could give so much. By the time I received details about the DIY VA course, I was completely sold and purchased it.

Who was your first client and how did you get them?

My first client was a performing artist that I vaguely knew. I’d emailed my list (I used to be a performer, so had an extensive list for news about my shows, which I naturally used when I launched my business to my initial audience of independent entertainers). We met in person at the Southbank Centre in London and I remember feeling SUPER nervous about the prospect of ‘selling’ to him.

We chatted quite informally and I explained how I envisioned being able to help him. He was excited to get started and wrote me a cheque right there and then, to cover three months support on a retainer.

I was frozen with fear.

I objected and made him re-write the cheque for 50% instead! He was a brilliant client and paid on time every month, but I quickly learned a harsh lesson – not to turn money away because getting paid in arrears rarely ends well!

Do you have a niche?

Yes, I do have a niche; coaches and consultants.

How would you say you were different from other VAs?

I believe I’m different because I’m able to offer a rounded perspective that most potential clients seeking a VA don’t realise they need – until they speak with me.

What tends to happen is that coaches and consultants find themselves overwhelmed and stressed out having done everything themselves for years; funnels, programmes, courses, digital marketing and all of the tech that goes hand-in-hand.

By the time they reach out to secure a VA, they’re at their wit’s end, spinning plates and trying to keep on top of things – all whilst attempting to still show up in their zone of genius to serve their clients.

Something has to give!

When they come to Onit! Communications (usually via referral or social media) they find that I offer something different than what they’re expecting. I explain that a VA should not be their first hire because, if their business is chaotic, hiring a VA and inviting them to step into the chaos then find their way through it with little to no guidance, is rarely an effective solution.

Using my ESTI methodology, I demonstrate to them that by laying the foundation of systemising their business first, they set their VA up for success, which ultimately means that they’ll get the results they want and need.

With my cross-sector experience coupled with my life as a service-based business owner and systems geek, I’m in a unique position whereby I’m able to offer them an end-to-end service where I work with them from a business operations perspective, looking at the business holistically to see where the support is needed, how much can be systemised and automated and then outlining how best to utilise the support of a VA.

After that initial step, they’re ready to be supported and I’m able to match them with a VA from my agency.

The model is working out really well.

What’s the best thing about being a VA?

I think the best thing about being a VA is the autonomy. There aren’t many support roles where you get to show up in your zone of expertise, do the work you love – in your own, unique ways – and steer the business alongside the business owner.

It can be a very rewarding role if the business owner is open to your ideas and if you’re proactive rather than simply reactive, you really can create a dream role for yourself.

What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?

I think the most challenging aspect of being a VA is learning how to run a business. It’s not the work – by the time you decide you want to go down the VA route, chances are, you already know what you want to do and what you bring to the table.

The difficult thing is adapting your mindset from one of an employee to that of a business owner and dealing with the stuff that comes with that; operations, marketing, people management (that’s clients, as well as team members if you work with associates).

Plus, it can get lonely or feel isolating, so it’s important that you build your network – other VAs or simply other self-employed people – can make all the difference.

How virtual are you?

I’m usually 100% virtual and have been a bit of a digital nomad in the past couple of years having had the pleasure of working from the Caribbean over a six-month stint; Barbados, St. Lucia and Trinidad all featured in my VA journey.

At the moment, I’m working 50% virtually, as I’m assisting a client onsite from their beautiful home garden office.

How do you find your clients?

The majority of my clients come via word of mouth and recommendation, which is amazing and makes me really feel good. It’s a privilege to know that people find such value in what my team and I do, that they’re willing to vouch for us to others. That makes up approximately 70% of our revenue. The rest are via digital content marketing on social media.

How do you manage your personal/work life balance?

Agghhh, this is such a tough question for me, because I completely suck at managing my work/life balance! Pre-2020, I managed to maintain a really good groove where I was working Monday to Friday from 10-6 and half days on Friday which was my business development day.

But, post-Covid 19, that went out of the window and after a brief lull, business began to soar exponentially – so balance is something I’m seeking again!

It’s a great problem to have though and I’m thankful that I’m fortunate enough to work in an industry that is thriving amid such uncertainty in the world.

How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?

Client management is all about boundaries and it’s something I’m really passionate about! In my experience, I’ve found that having a work mobile/cell phone is integral to striking a balance, as is setting out my stall in regard to expectations BEFORE clients even come on board.

I’m super clear about methods of contact, working times, ways of working and go out of my way to ensure that we’re on the same page to avoid any disappointments. We manage client communications via Slack (which is a fantastic comms channel and like WhatsApp but more professional), client work is managed via a project management tool and we have a set SLA (Service Level Agreement) on turnaround times.

That way, we all know where we are and it minimises unmet expectations.

What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?

Being the geek that I am, I’m CONSTANTLY exploring new tools, but the tech and apps that are invaluable to me, at the time of this interview, are Dubsado, Acuity Scheduling, Zapier, GSuite, Slack, Airtable, Milanote, Evernote, Stripe and Xero. That’s my winning tech stack right there and I use all of those every. single. day!

Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?

If I had to do anything differently, I’d have had more belief in myself from the beginning! I already knew what I was doing, but convinced myself that I had to be ‘in business’ for a certain number of years before I could be taken seriously.

Major fail!

I’d wish I’d known that having a coach or a mentor exponentially increases your chances of success. I began working with coaches from a business and personal development point of view, years later than I care to admit! However, when I did, it changed my life.

I went from having three-figure months (yep, really) to five-figure months, which brought a whole new level of confidence and willingness to explore new ways of doing things.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?

The world has finally come around to the idea that you can, in fact, work 100% virtually, with zero issues, stress or skiving! As the World of Work continues to change from traditional ways of working, the world of Virtual Assistance and support will only increase.

So, my advice to anyone who is considering becoming a VA is, NOW IS THE TIME!! And yes, I’m shouting!

It’s a fantastic time to take your existing skills and hone them, to do the work you love for people who will appreciate it, but also, to really see how your input can have a DIRECT impact on a business’ bottom line.

There’s nothing more rewarding than knowing that you helped a business to grow 40% by simply being yourself and doing what you do best. It’s a rewarding career that affords you the opportunity to be completely location independent, self-sufficient and autonomous.

What more could you ask for in life?!

Follow Cydelle Stewart on Instagram.

As with all the other VA interviewees, Cydelle set up after completing my flagship DIY VA course. If you’d like step by step instructions on how to set up and run your own successful Virtual Assistant business you can read more about the course here.

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