Sam Wilson: Co-Founder & CMO
Ellie Wilson: Co-Founder
The journey so far
We run a business called Virtalent (virtalent.com), which is a UK-based Virtual Assistant service provider specialising in PA and marketing support. Ellie and I founded Virtalent just as we graduated from Aston, back in the summer of 2014. We had spent final year seeing many of our friends apply for graduate schemes and corporate careers we had no interest in doing ourselves.
We always knew we wanted to do something “different” and would love to run our own business, but didn’t quite know what that looked like. We stumbled across the Virtual Assistant industry and realised that it was a fairly young industry, but with an increasing number of people working remotely and more business being done online, it seemed like an interesting concept. We researched our competitors and thought “we could do this better”. We felt that we had nothing to lose and no commitments, so may as well just “go for it”!
- How did BSEEN help?
We joined BSEEN that summer and they helped us define the concept and learn some of the skills needed to run a business. It was incredibly difficult to run the business to begin with. You have a lot of assumptions to test, theories to prove and you really need to hone your offering until you are left with a business that can really take off. We’ve certainly had a lot of sleepless nights to get to this stage! Year on year, we have more than doubled our turnover (135% growth between 2016/17 and 2017/18). This is entirely “bootstrapped” as we made the conscious decision early on not to accept external investment (and the pressure/agenda that comes with this).
Statistically, we now have the most experienced Virtual Assistants available to hire in the UK and perhaps even the world! Each has an average 16 years’ professional experience before joining our team.
- What have you achieved?
Over the past 4 years we have:
- Despite all of our clients and staff being in the UK, because of our “remote-first” culture at Virtalent, Ellie and I have now run the company remotely full-time from sunny Malaga in Spain for the past 2.5 years (and got married here last year). It certainly helps us get up in the morning! We’re very fortunate to have a great work-life balance and be able to enjoy our free time outside of the office in such a beautiful country. We now have plans to scale up significantly over the next 6-12 months.
- By the end of 2018, we’ll hire 2 new internal staff, launch a new website and launch a completely new marketing strategy.
- Been hired by blue chip companies such as the Marco Pierre White restaurant chain, Countrywide (the largest property company in the UK) and Mills & Reeve, as well as helped hundreds of small businesses across UK, Europe and North America.
- Won “Virtual Assistant Company of the Year 2017” and a number of other awards from RBS NatWest, Venturefest, Santander, Baldwins Accountants and Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Been featured in The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday (a double page spread about our career as graduate entrepreneurs), as well as BQ and other more local publications.
- Why did you decide to study at Aston Business School?
We both studied IBML Spanish. The programme seemed unique to us in that there wasn’t modules in Spanish and entirely separate modules on Business (in English), but actually the opportunity to learn about business subjects in Spanish. We both visited other universities and Aston’s small campus and friendly atmosphere stood out. I remember looking a little lost on an Open Day and a student coming straight over to me to ask if I needed any help! It was a great first impression.
Birmingham is an amazing, young city! We both wanted to develop our Spanish skills and also work in business, so IBML Spanish offered the perfect combination! The opportunity to spend an Erasmus year abroad as part of the course also stood out.
- What was the highlight of your Aston experience?
Making so many lasting friendships, all of which live very “international” lives. One of our friends is in Singapore, another in Munich, we live in Spain -it feels like we have really taken the principles taught on our course to heart! Ellie and I met each other on our IBML course at Aston -now we’re married and run a business together (in Spain!).
Putting our Spanish and business knowledge to the test during our Erasmus year in Malaga and Madrid really laid the foundations for the life we live now. Our course tutors were true experts, but a real pleasure to be taught by! They genuinely cared.
- How has your time at Aston helped your business?
The course was very challenging (and varied), so I think it taught us to adapt well to overcoming challenges. I (Sam) was President of Aston Entrepreneurs in my second year and we did quite a lot of group work, so think it helped develop leadership skills ready for running a business (we now have approx. 35 people to manage!).
Having access to “extra-curricular” programmes such as BSEEN gave us the tools, expertise and finance we needed to launch our business.
- What is next on the career horizon for you?
To scale up Virtalent more aggressively over the next few years. Ellie and I are taking on more strategic work than ever before, always working to improve how we do things as a company (our culture, our service levels, etc.) than actually working in the day-to-day running of the business. We’d like to do more of this!
Perhaps we’ll launch a second business... watch this space!
- What advice would you give to someone looking to start or run their own business?
Growing a business has been the single most challenging thing each of us have ever done, but it is a life changing experience and also the single most rewarding thing we have ever done. It’s impossible for someone who hasn’t run a business to relate to the experience in any way... so just do it! BUT starting a business is the easy part. It’s fun to design a logo, brainstorm business ideas and pick out colours for your fancy new website.
Eventually the novelty wears off though and the hard work of marketing the business and constantly refining (or overhauling) absolutely everything begins. This is what we call “the grind”. The successful business owners we know are those that push through this, sacrificing absolutely everything possible (sanity included) to do the work required. One day you’ll wake up one day and your hard work has paid off. Then you have to do it all again to reach the next level. It never stops.
We’d say it’s 1% about the business idea and 99% about the strength of your execution -bringing the idea to life and growing a sustainable, profitable company. Most new entrepreneurs forget this and spend far too long designing pretty business cards and spending countless hours aimlessly “networking”!