When I set up my business back in 2014 I didn’t necessarily expect that seven years later I’d be working with a team of sixteen associates. I thought that I might eventually have enough work that I’d need one. This definitely wasn’t the business model I’d planned. But then so much of freelance life hasn’t turned out as expected so that shouldn’t be a surprise!

If you are at the point of taking on an associate, or even thinking about it in the future, I hope this article is helpful. This is my experience and by no means the right or only way to do things. There are many other VAs out there with teams bigger than mine and many more years in business and they almost certainly do it differently. This is just my take and will not be the same for everyone. As always, there was a lot I didn’t know. There still is. I just feel I’ve got to grips with one aspect and another will soon be along to cause me sleepless nights. The ever-expanding comfort zone is a big theme in freelance life, I’ve found.

When do you need an associate?

There might be any number of reasons why you decide to take on your first subcontractor. The most obvious is when you are at capacity and another lead comes in. Your options are: say ‘no’, get an associate or pass the referral on elsewhere.

Let’s just talk about option three for a moment; the referral. I do this a lot with work that is totally not my thing. Usually social media management. Generally, I do it early on in the conversation and I just suggest someone I know who is good. Typically, these are small pieces of work and I simply send them on to a VA I know that is good out of the goodness of my heart. I realise that because I’m VAT registered it makes me super expensive for non-registered microbusinesses and social media management isn’t something I offer. But there is a reasonable argument for asking for some kind of commission for doing this. What that looks like is down to you to agree with the person you are referring on to, but I have several substantial clients that have been referred to me and I pay a commission on those for around 6 months to the VA that made the introduction. If you’re a great networker and you don’t have the time or inclination to manage a team or a large stable of clients, this isn’t a bad model. You get some income; the client gets the right resource, and everyone is happy.

If you decide that you want to keep the client in-house and have an associate manage it, the first challenge is having that conversation with the client who has come to you. It can be tricky those first few times saying “we can absolutely do that; I’ll check availability across the team and come back to you” or however you word it. It does get easier after the first, ten or so! I had to practise saying “we” instead of “I” for a good six months before every call.

Another excellent reason to use an associate is because your skillset or experience aren’t a great match for the client. I have some limits on this, I am a very hands-off manager, but I worry if people are doing something I really don’t have the first clue about so I tend only to stretch it so far. Also, my insurance doesn’t cover me for some things, and I don’t want to extend it. I know some VAs who run the most amazing one-stop-shop for businesses and across the team they can build websites, do marketing and bookkeeping as well as more general VA tasks. This is a great model if it works for you because it saves clients having to make more decisions when they need something extra, they will always call you!

Ad hoc or ongoing?

Most of my associates are ongoing, they work with me and the client for the long haul (hopefully!). But there are occasions when I just hand out odd tasks. This is a great way to test the waters with an associate and get a feel for how you work best. I liken this to an accountancy model. I’m sure I’ve made that up, but in my head, you have “your accountant” and that’s who you speak to and email. That’s you, lead VA. But beavering away in a dusty accountancy office are the worker bees who are the ones pulling in the data, running reports and giving your accountant what they need. These are your associates. So, the client only “sees” you but the work gets done elsewhere. You check it and send it on yourself. For many lead VAs this is their entire model. It’s fantastic when you are a little overloaded and have something that’s easy for someone else to pick up without a lot of background or access to software. Tasks that are great to outsource in this way are things like research, copy or audio typing, data entry and formatting documents. In this way you have more control of the quality of work and you don’t need the associate to talk to your client.

A more ongoing associate model would usually involve the associate having the day-to-day connection with the end client. They would have a lot more responsibility for managing that relationship (and need to be paid accordingly) and you can be more hands off. This is largely how I work. My associates are brilliant, they do not need me breathing down their necks. They run their own businesses and are able to manage the how of what they are doing. I focus only on the results of what they do to make sure the end client is delighted.

How do you find the right associate?

This is the million-dollar question and one that I fret about often. I’ve recruited from within my network and placed ads to get the right resource and each has its place.
I have now got an entire recruitment process to ensure as best I can that the people joining my team are the right fit. That’s not necessarily just their skills and experience, although that’s where I start. I want them to have the same values as me and the same commitment to client satisfaction. They also need to be a fit with the existing team if there is one in that client. I have to be able to work with them!

Ideally, I like them to know someone I know so I can get a reference from a trusted source. I always take references and follow them up.
For me there’s a real balance in getting someone who is a new VA versus a long-standing VA. In theory, a new VA is likely to have more capacity and therefore be around longer if they like the client and the work. On the downside, they often need more hand-holding if they are new to the VA world. That’s not a strength of mine and I honestly don’t have time for it. Newer VAs are also more likely to go back to a full time job if one comes up as they aren’t as far down the line with existing clients.

Established VAs are ideal and it’s so much easier working with people who are used to managing clients – they just get on with it. However, they usually attract higher rates, if they are good, they often won’t have the capacity for much if any associate work as they can fill their books without it and earn more with their direct rate. I consider myself remarkably lucky to have my team of very experienced VAs. They stick around because the end clients are delightful and they really enjoy the work. It would be much harder to keep them if the work wasn’t fun as they could all easily find direct work if they chose to.

Being a Lead VA

Previously, I’ve managed teams but being a lead VA is somewhat different. (I used to manage restaurants so chefs throwing hissy fits, bar staff nicking bottles of booze and waiters spilling soup on customers were the biggest day to day challenges!) Every day is a school day on this and for 2021 this is certainly an area I am focused on.

Managing a team takes time. It’s not passive income. As my team has expanded, I’ve had to take on less client work so I can do this.

I want my team to love working with me. In practical terms that means I pay them fairly, I let them get on with it without micromanaging them to death, I do the scary bits with the end client and support them if there is an issue. Hopefully, I create a team that supports one another and has some fun. Being a VA can be lonely, being part of a team is a massive bonus for some of us more sociable folk. That is by a long way my favourite bit about working with associates, creating a team that is more than the sum of its parts. A client that we support as a team of seven, in December 2020, mid pandemic, described us in their yearly review to the whole company as “a team of champions” – that certainly made my year!

Final Thoughts on Trust

One of the biggest blocks I see to people taking on associates is trust. You have to trust someone to let them loose on your client. And that is not always easy.

I joined a webinar yesterday with a group of highly experienced business owners and entrepreneurs. All of them said that they trusted their instincts in business. A group of people who are driven by growth and numbers (in the millions) all talked about how invaluable their gut feeling has been in getting them where they are today.

Certainly, when you’re talking about people, listening to your gut is vital. A really amazing associate relationship is made up of more than just skills and experience. You have to have shared values, a similar work ethic, standards of client work and huge amounts of trust for it to be successful. Usually there isn’t a way of testing those things until they are on the job. So, take a tip from some much brighter folk and go with your intuition.

Kathy Soulsby

Kathy became a Virtual Assistant in 2014 fitting it into the evenings and weekends alongside two PA part time PA roles which made a whole one! She went fulltime in 2015 after shedding first one job and then the second as the business grew.

Working mainly with consultants, coaches and trainers, she takes on all kinds of work, from diary management, blogs, CRMs and invoicing to cake ordering and voice-overs. She now works with a team of 12 associates and works with businesses from 1 – 200 employees.

In May 2017, she published Virtually Painless, a humorous and slightly bonkers book about moving from employed PA to freelance VA. Covering the highs and lows of freelance life, it’s aim is to answer the questions “Can I do that?” and more importantly “Do I want to do that?”

When she isn’t sweating over an online timesheet, Kathy can usually be found in a field with a collie or two.

Find Kathy Online: www.personallyvirtual.co.uk