Mallory Underwood first got started in online business when she came across Horkey Handbook’s 30 Days or Less to Virtual Assistant Success. Less than a year later, she had quit her 9-5 job to focus on virtual assisting. She soon after onboarded her first two team members, and started the More You Agency. She later went on to co-create the Virtual Assistant Agency course with Gina Horkey to show others how they can start their own agency!
In this expert interview, Mallory shares with us some tips about how to start a virtual assistant agency, how to find reliable team members, and how to make the transition from a solo act to a team operation.
Whether you’re just starting out as a VA or looking for a way to scale your existing biz, you’ll enjoy this inside look at what it’s like to run a VA agency!
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Hi Mallory! Can you tell us a bit about how you got into virtual assisting, and how that grew into a VA agency?
I like to call it a nibbling at my soul. That's what I dubbed it anyway. That persistent little feeling simply wouldn't go away. Not until I finally said, “Okay, I hear you, and I'll do something about it.”
I spent my career up to this point working in the nonprofit sector after graduating with a public relations major and journalism minor. For most of this time I was working for a large, national nonprofit in the health sector, and I was working for a cause I was passionate about. I met amazing people, and I had some of the most inspirational experiences of my life.
Then we moved cross country, and I could no longer do the job in person. I was fortunate enough to move into a virtual role with the company and was wrapping up my sixth year in that position.
But, I felt removed from the mission by not getting to see people in person or attend the events that filled my bucket the most.
The nibbling was basically an understanding that I was ready for my next step. I was searching for something that allowed me to once again feel passionate about my work, purposeful in how I spent my days, and allowed me to connect with people in a meaningful way.
I did some soul searching, started daily meditation again, and opened myself up to new opportunities. During a random internet search, I came across the concept of virtual assistant (VA) work, and I swear one of those lightbulb emojis popped up over my head.
A virtual assistant is typically a contractor who provides admin support services to clients virtually.
I am chronically organized, deeply reliable, and have a wide range of professional experience having worked in nonprofit where you wear many different hats. Plus, I had been working virtually managing a team for over five years, so the idea of remotely helping other businesses with behind-the-scenes work was a perfect fit.
Also, my work could deeply impact and support clients and their goals, and I could once again develop meaningful relationships with clients.
I enrolled in a course to learn how to set up a VA business and three months later I had my first client. Three months from then, I was burning out working full time and supporting clients on the side while also having a 3- and 1-year-old. I took a leap of faith, nerves and all, and resigned from my 9-5 to focus on taking my business to full-time.
Four months later, I was maxed out on my client load, but I knew I wasn't maxed out on how many people I wanted to help. I knew the entrepreneurs we were supporting deeply needed help in order to keep living their dreams and running their businesses while still having some semblance of a life outside of their work, and there were more of them out there who needed support. I brought on two team members so we could do just that and my agency was born!
What are the advantages of going from a VA to an agency model?
Bringing team members on board means you will be able to support more of your dream clients which in turn means you are making a larger impact for your community. It also means you can support a lot of different industries if you go that route.
Ultimately, the benefit is that you can increase your profit if you scale correctly. You want to avoid increasing your income and your expenses at the same rate. You’ll be able to make a percentage of every dollar your team members make without actually having to do the work yourself.
You’ll still have expenses as the business owner, additional risk, and team member support, so although it isn’t “free” money, it no longer means you are trading your time for income.
Is it challenging to find reliable VAs for your agency?
It certainly can be, yes. When I brought on my first two team members, I brought on two people from my personal network. I had worked with them in the past so I knew their work ethic and personalities which was great.
I would recommend inquiring through your personal network first and then if you aren’t able to find the right fit, you can use the Horkey Handbook VA Finder or other online communities to find your superstar.
Be sure you are clear on who you are looking for and what the requirements would be. Will they be a contractor or employee? How many hours do you estimate they will be working and what times of day does the work need to be done, plus can they be flexible with this? What is the hourly rate, and what type of person are you most comfortable working with?
All of these thoughts should be reviewed prior to looking for your team member.
Is the role of an agency owner to be the customer-facing primary contact who delegates the work to their team, or is it more “matchmaking” your clients to a VA?
This depends on how you set up your agency. I started out still handling all of the client contracts and delegating tasks to my team. This proved not to be as time efficient with me handing tasks back and forth and it wasn’t concise for the client either having more “hands in the pot”.
Now our agency is set up where each client is paired with a VA and the VA handles the relationship which includes communication with the client. I still handle the client onboarding with contracts and getting set up in our systems plus ongoing billing, and I’m available to my team for support as needed.
In order to stay connected, my team members email me weekly with brief updates, I have a monthly meeting with my team members, and I have a quarterly team meeting.
Is it tricky to transition from VA to an agency model with your existing clients?
Yes, I will say this can be a challenge. My advice here is to ensure the new team member you are introducing is well versed on the client’s business. You should handle all of the training to get the new team member up to speed.
Depending on your client, you can determine the best way to bring this up with them. Perhaps you want to bring it up way in advance and slowly bring the team member on board, or maybe you bring it up then set up a three way call and then do the transition.
It will likely take some time for you to fully transition off as you will be supporting your team member behind the scenes.
The trick is to instill confidence in your client about your team members. Talk them up, send them their bio, and let them know you’ll be around to help them as they get used to working with them.
Can someone who is interested in becoming a VA agency start off as an agency from the get go, or is it better to be a VA first and become an agency after you have some clients?
I’m sure you could be successful this way, however, I found that I personally needed my experience as an individual VA and a business owner prior to bringing team members onboard.
I don’t feel I would have been able to support my team members without having done the work myself first, and I don’t think I would be able to have the confidence to recruit more clients. I also know for a fact I wouldn’t have had the systems or best practices in place to make it an easy transition to bring on team members.
I would recommend starting your business and bringing on a few clients as an individual VA first, then once you have some experience you can bring some team members into the fold.
What kind of weekly time commitment is needed to start and run a VA agency? Is it suitable for side-hustlers and busy stay-at-home moms?
The time commitment can be completely up to you and what your revenue goals are. I started my business as a side hustle while working full time with two little kiddos. I could have started the agency as a side hustle, too, but I didn’t want to keep working every evening and on weekends.
Most of our team members are stay at home moms or they have kids starting to be school aged, so I definitely think you could run an agency at this point in your life.
The benefit is it is flexible and you get to set your schedule. You could set up client calls around your children’s schedules and complete work at various times throughout the day, so I believe it is possible to make it work if you are committed.
What are the top services that a VA agency can offer its clients?
The list is endless! Bringing on team members means you can have specialists available for even more services than you could personally offer as well.
I have found personally that we’ve been most successful handling business operations and systems, project management and various administrative tasks.
What is your favorite thing about running a VA agency?
I love that we are able to help even more clients now that I have team members. We are able to increase our clients’ exposure which means more of their message is out in the world, and there are more people out there living more fully which makes their communities better.
I also love having a team behind me that believes in the brand, can serve as thought partners, and who are amazing women I can invest into as a close-knit community.
What’s the hardest thing about it?
For me, the hardest part has been getting enough of the right clients to fill everyone’s schedules to the capacity of how much they’d like to work. We would get new clients, then we would lose a client or two so we couldn’t ever get ahead.
Finding the right clients still proves to be the hardest thing for us. But with a rebrand and some new plans in place, we are confident we can get there!
Is there ever a scenario where it would be better NOT to turn your VA business into an agency?
I’m sure there are some times when it wouldn’t be the best fit. If you aren’t interested in training or managing a team member, then this obviously wouldn’t be the right move for you.
You also need to be open to having others represent your brand. So you need to have trust and confidence in your team members. You also should have some extra funds saved up to cover training hours for your team member and likely more expenses for either software or onboarding gifts, etc. If any of that isn’t in line then you may want to pause scaling to an agency.
What are the most important skills or character traits that a VA agency owner should have to be successful?
These are similar to what it takes to be a rock star VA. But the list would include being reliable, professional, and a quick, capable learner. You’ll likely run into things that require you to figure it out on the spot or research the best options to make it work.
You’ll need to be tech savvy and a self starter since no one will be there pushing you to do the next step. You’ll also be in charge of handling any client concerns or large mistakes. So you should be good at conflict resolution and hard conversations.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s interested in starting a VA agency?
If you are ready to take this next step, make sure you bring on someone you fully trust who is also very good. Then make sure you show her how much you appreciate her and support her every step of the way. This will make everything easier and more enjoyable down the road.
We talk about all of this and more in the VA Agency Course, so that’s also a great resource.
Thank you Mallory!
What’s so great about the VA Agency model is it allows you to scale your business and transition into a passive income business model. It may have more moving parts than a typical freelance business but the rewards are well worth it!
If you’re interested in learning more about VA work, check out our interview with Mallory’s course co-creator Gina Horkey to learn about how to make a living as a VA, or our in-depth review of Horkey Handbooks flagship course for beginners, 30 Days or Less to Virtual Assistant Success.
Do you have any questions about this expert interview on how to start a virtual assistant agency? Let us know in the comments!