The latest of Mike Caridia’s Spotlight interview series
Mike Caridia (MC):
Carmen, you are, without question one of the best known characters of the VA profession in the UK. Over the years, you have done a great deal to promote the Virtual Assistant sector and have helped many an aspiring VA to success through training and mentoring via your business, the Virtual Assistant Coaching & Training Company (VACT).
So tell us: how did it all start – what lead you to initially become a VA?
Carmen MacDougall (CM):
Just over 20 years ago, I was working in the Investment Banking industry, and had previously been made redundant on four occasions and I started to think about what else I could do where I didn’t have to commute or worry about being made redundant again – and one day I would want to start a family. This led to the thought of being able to work from home.
As time went on, I had had to take six months off due to stress and it was during that time that I decided to revisit the idea, and completed some research that uncovered people in North America, calling themselves Virtual Assistants.
I was still employed, which gave me, or so I thought, security! So, I decided to go back to work, and whilst working, I would launch my new VA business. When I returned to work I soon had a phone call from my boss saying I was going to be made redundant, yet again!
On the one hand this was a fantastic opportunity because I would have the benefit of redundancy pay. On the other side I was very scared at suddenly having no full time, secure, employment.
But, because I could see that in the USA the VA industry was really blooming, I was convinced it was going to take off over here. So I launched my VA business.
I understand you qualified as a Life Coach – what decided you to do that?
One day my own Life Coach did not turn up for my appointment. They had thought they needed to be somewhere else. So I said to her that she needed my services as a VA to help with her business.
I then decided to create a niche for myself in the Coaching industry and I ran that particular VA business for about three years and took on board a couple of associates. The industry, as I’d predicted, was growing and so was my business was as well.
To answer why I became a Life Coach, this actually came about through my clients.
Several of them said there was something about me that would make a great coach.
I believe that one of your strongest convictions has been that Networking is essential – why was that so important for you?
No man or woman, is an island. Whether you are employed or whether you are self-employed.
Networking can be such an advantage in so many ways.
As a PA and Office Manager in the Investment Bank industry, I created an internal PA network.
The reason was that every department was seen as, almost, a separate entity. Creating a PA network gave the opportunity for everyone to learn from one and other, so that when support was required, we could bring in PAs from a different departments, to work on overloaded projects and so on.
From my point of view, as a business owner, networking has been tremendous and very positive to my business. I have not only connected with a wealth of expertise in the business community, I have also learnt from these people, many of whom have subsequently become what I call my ‘Dream Team. They have mentored me, they have supported me and likewise, I have supported them. Networking has also helped from a referral point of view. The work that has come in for my business has been based on networking and on referrals.
When I talk about networking correctly, I mean that you are not networking in order to sell. It’s about supporting your VA community or your business community. It’s also about being able to spot opportunities to connect people where you can see potential. As an example, through my own strategic partnerships, we’ve been able to promote one and other and reach a much wider audience.
Finally, as we all know, people will do business with you when they know they can trust you and that’s why networking has so much potential value.
What made you decide to create the Virtual Assistant Coaching & Training Company and what do you think has made it such a success?
In 2003 when I had just qualified, I was going to do Business Coaching and also Confidence Coaching, the latter partly because of my own experiences of having my confidence knocked through that period of being off work with stress. I thought I could help others who had suffered like me.
I decided then to sell my VA business. I also started to give motivational talks at various events and as I was out networking and speaking, people started asking how they could become a VA.
I had already created an operational manual for when I had to take maternity leave – this had been the recommendation of my accountant – he said don’t employ anybody; just take on board associates, note down everything that you do, everything that enables you to win a client, like your marketing process, the way you answer the phone and so on, so that your associates can follow that process and hit the ground running.
So, in a sense, I already a VA training course. Then I was approached to take over a course called the VA Mastery Course. It was very small, about one percent of what the VA Mastery course is today, but it confirmed that there is a need for it out there and that was how The Virtual Assistant Coaching and Training Company (VACT) got started and I’m delighted to say, it grew very quickly.
I think one of the key things is that I always listened to what people wanted, to what they needed. To do this I’ve run webinars, Q&A sessions and consultations and I’ve always have tried to innovate something that will fit in with that market, with what people say they need Additionally and importantly, I’ve specialised in working, purely, with the corporate PA, Secretary or Executive Assistant, training and coaching them in making the transition into becoming a VA. I believe, all these things have helped to make VACT a success.
I suppose it’s an obvious question, but as a trainer, you believe strongly in Continual Professional Development. Is it right that you practice what you preach and since you started VACT, you have trained to be a Neuro Linguistic Programming Practitioner?
I believe that having some sort of support is crucial if you are going to succeed. You see a lot of entrepreneurs who are extremely successful and who still have a coach or a mentor.
And when you are looking at what you want to achieve, you’ve got to look at where you are now, where you want to be and the gap between the two. Having someone there to guide you can help you keep focused, create accountability and take the right action at the right time.
We all know we get busy, we put things on hold. But if that holds us back, in achieving not only what we want to achieve, but when we want to achieve it, that can have a negative impact on people close to us, on our own confidence and on our creative development. This is one of the reasons why I have always had coaches and mentors, and why I continue to attend training courses myself to keep me on track to what I want to achieve, and it means the clients I am supporting are benefiting from my learning, as well.
As far as the Neuro Linguistic Programming is concerned, that was important for me because I have always been fascinated with how the mind works. I have learned to understand how the subconscious mind works; how we communicate; how we can be successful.
Now life hasn’t always been easy for you – you’ve had setbacks and family challenges to deal with – could you tell us a little about that and how you coped?
It’s important to know that everyone is human. I think I went through a period where I felt under pressure to be seen as perfect – sounds very silly, I know, but when you achieve a certain amount in your business and personal life, people place you on a pedestal and you feel you have to keep up that appearance.
In April 2010, I found out I was pregnant for the third time. Now, my two daughters were aged nine and eleven and I thought I’d done my bit, so that was a slight challenge! One thing it did do was to remind me of what some of my clients were going through in launching or running a business and suddenly falling pregnant. How do you run a business when you’ve got a baby?
I’d already set up two businesses whilst I was pregnant before, so I thought, OK, I can do it again I can work round it. Unfortunately, in December of 2010, the month before I am actually due to give birth, my husband had a series of MRI scans and was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
I remember, to this day, sitting in the consultant’s office, being told the news, at which my husband broke down and I went into overdrive. How would we deal with this? I had two children and one on the way, my husband was told he had a one in five change of survival, he could die if he didn’t have the tumour removed but he could die if he did have it removed. I’ve always been very positive and I just had this feeling that everything was going to be OK. I don’t know where that feeling came from, but it was there. I think sometimes, we just know. For me, it was a very challenging time because, suddenly, I had to let my guard down. I had to let people know that I was not perfect, that I had family challenges. I thank my lucky starts that I have worked with such amazing people as my clients and I’m truly grateful for that as they were all extremely understanding.
So, during that time I really had to think about where I was going with my own life and I realised how precious life is. Aside from having to emotionally support my two daughters, I gave birth to my son in one hospital while my husband was in a different hospital. That, in itself, was very emotional. I have to say we pulled through it. How we pulled through it, I’m not quite sure but we did, and for the first time in my life – and I would urge everyone to listen to this – I asked for help. I had never asked for help before because, again, I felt I was put on this pedestal where everyone thought I perfect and that I knew everything. Now I had to let people know that I was a human being and I needed help.
I believe that by taking each day as it came, not planning too far ahead, focusing on my family and knowing that I had the support of my clients and my dream team of business contacts and friends, was what kept me going. Asking for that help meant that I didn’t have to do it all myself.
What was amazing was that, during that time, I didn’t do any marketing. I still wrote blog posts and I carried on supporting my clients as best I could but, suddenly, my next courses which I forgot that I had actually put on my website, were filling up. I thought, how on earth am I going to run these courses whilst I’m in this situation? So I asked for help with the children and I asked for help with running the business and I was very lucky because I had my own VA who was helping, at the time. Essentially, I just got on with it. I suppose it was a bit like the famous sign ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
So I’m not perfect, things do happen. I hope no one else has had to go through that situation. We have pulled out the other side and, touch wood, my husband is recovering well and actually, in a bizarre way, it has made us look at life in a very different way. We live for today and take opportunities, as they appear.
One of the tangible things you are famous for is the launch of the first ever National VA Conference in 2007 and the National VA Awards. Could you tell us how this came about and how well the event and the awards were received?
I can’t take all the credit. It was a conversation with my husband who, I have to say, is one of my best mentors. He’s got a great mind and has been very successful in his own career and as a mentor to others. So, I was having this conversation with him one day, saying I felt there needed to be something to help get the awareness of the VA industry out there.
I realised there was still this question of – what is a VA?
At various PA events, there were always awards for outstanding PAs. I discussed this with my husband, he said “They’re all working from home; no one gets to see each other, and getting people together in this industry will build their confidence and the potential for strategic alliances, and networks?” This was a really great observation – he continued ”Well, go and set up a conference and awards then!” But he said it in such a way that I thought it was my idea – but actually, it was his.
When the great day came, I thought we’d probably be lucky if we got about twenty VAs to the event. We had one hundred and ten arrive at the first VA Conference in Milton Keynes in April 2007.
It just didn’t sink in at first until I realised the success of what my husband had suggested and I and my colleagues and friends had created. I went on running it for seven years.
But now you have decided to take a step back after so many years and you have recently sold on the rights of the VA Conference and Awards to BeMyVA, the leading online directory for VAs – why and do you feel that it is in safe hands?
I met John Palmer, CEO and founder of BeMyVA at the VA conference back in 2010.
BeMyVA became one of the sponsors and John is someone I have the utmost respect for as I could see what he was also doing to help boost the profile of the VA industry by helping VAs become connected to entrepreneurs. I think he has done a wonderful job in creating BeMyVA.
In April 2013, my husband had a slight setback with a complication that had arisen, so I had started to streamline my organisation.
I had a lot going on. I had launched my second VA business, I was managing my training business, the VA Conference and the VA Magazine, It just got too much for me and something was going to fail if I didn’t streamline. I gave up my partnership to the VA Magazine, and I sold my VA business.
I thought about trying to re-launch the VA Conference, it but it just wasn’t going to happen. It was a conversation with John Palmer where I asked him if he knew of anybody who could keep it going because I actually felt guilty to the VA industry that I wasn’t running it.
I thought there are people out there in the VA industry who should be recognised. I sold the rights to John and I am so delighted with what BeMyVA has done with it, taking it regionally as well as nationally, and I’m very excited about what’s going to be happening at the VA Conference this year.
So how are things progressing towards the National VA Conference and Awards in November this year?
I think it’s great that BeMyVA has been taking it regionally because there are VAs in certain areas that haven’t always had the opportunity to attend the VA Conference. The new format now gives VAs the opportunity to be recognised, in their own region, so that they stand out in their local area and not just on a national basis.
That’s actually fantastic for them from a PR point of view. PR is great for raising people’s business profile and for people and their confidence in themselves.
I have spoken to people who’ve told me they have entered into the awards or they’ve become a finalist. They’re very excited and many have said they can’t believe it. It’s just amazing.
I know that the speakers at the event will be fantastic and, again, brining VAs together from all over the country is important because everyone is working virtually. Yes, they’ll be able to network in their local areas, their own business groups, but to get VAs together, nationally, is just phenomenal.
Everyone learns from one and other. You’ll have VAs at the conference who have been in business for different periods of time. Some will have just started, some will be just thinking about it and there will be some who are the veterans of the VA industry who can inspire another.
I know it’s going to be fantastic and I’m very much looking forward to it.
So, before we end this ‘In the Spotlight’ interview, I must ask you, what do you predict is the future for the VA and what advice would you give to VAs who want to grow their businesses over the next decade?
I know the industry will continue to be very successful.
I have taken on board three new trainers who will be taking the Virtual Assistant Training and Coaching Company, (VACT) forward. I see that because of the way the world of business is changing. We talk about recession as a bad thing, and I know it has affected a lot of people, but actually, I feel, in some but not all respects, that it’s a good thing. What it has done is to give companies a wake up call. When I was in the Investment Banking world, the money that was spent was just phenomenal – not just in terms of the offices where we were located in the City, but in terms of spending on the business; on clients and on getting the right people – relocating people from different parts of the world, a process, which in itself, at that the time cost over one million dollars.
So this wake-up call has made people look at the way they do business, how they operate, where they operate and who is operating in their business. The Internet has made the business world that bit more competitive, and that’s a good thing; competition is healthy. What this also means is that the opportunity for the VA industry is massive. Businesses are starting to look at the way they operate, where they operate from – a lot of them have relocated to different areas – some have cut down on the number of staff they employ and outsource – they can now choose who they outsource to, to someone who is a great fit for their business, but anywhere in the world.
Today we have people like Chris Ducker who is the author of Virtual Freedom. We have Michael Gerber who is the author of The E-Myth Revisited – also Timothy Ferriss who wrote the 4-Hour Working Week. All of these authors talk about the fact that you can have, as a business owner, virtual freedom by focusing on what you do best, on where your passion lies, on what people are paying you for. Everything else should be outsourced to someone else, because they are the expert in that. This is where the opportunities come from for the VA world.
Because of this wake up call to businesses, because of people like Michael Gerber, Chris Ducker and Tim Ferriss, who are successful in the own right at educating business people, and because highly successful entrepreneurs like James Khan, are all talking about downsize; not of your business but of your operational costs and how outsourcing to people who are the best fit for your business is the secret of staying ahead of your competition, making more profit and becoming more successful.
So that is why I, very much, believe, the VA industry will continue to grow – I can’t see any of that changing and this will give more VAs more opportunity, which I am very excited about for them.
Finally, do you intend to retire completely or will we still be seeing Carmen MacDougall in the VA world?
I almost want to say – watch this space – I have taken on board, three new trainers – they are all running the VA Training and Coaching business as their own business. They are three very driven, wonderful, amazing ladies who have all got their very successful VA businesses as well.
For now I am supporting them to help them grow their business and grow the profile of the VA Training and Coaching Company, taking it to a much wider hemisphere if you like, because it has pretty much been me most of the time. I have had other trainers aboard in the past and it’s a great compliment to them that they have gone off and operated their own VA training companies which is brilliant.
For now, I am going to remain as consultant to the VA industry. I have got clients who are working with me on a private basis as a consultant and I’ll still be offering that service.
John Palmer has invited me to speak at the VA Conference this year. So, where the opportunity arises, I will continue to offer my support and continue to drive the VA industry whenever I hear of an opportunity to promote it. I will always be a fan of the industry because it has been like family to me for the last fifteen years. So do watch this space and you never know!
Thank you Carmen for making this such an interesting and rewarding interview. We all wish you the very best for the future and I’m certain that the BeMyVA team will do more than justice to the inspiring legacy they have inherited from you, and all the hard work you have done to help develop the VA profession as in the UK over the many years you’ve been associated with it. We look forward to seeing and hearing you at the VA Conference and Awards event in November this year.
Article by Mike Caridia and Carmen MacDougall