77: Scaling Small Businesses | Danielle Cuomo, CEO Virtual Assist USA

by | Jan 30, 2022

Succession
Stories
Podcast

77: Scaling Small Businesses | Danielle Cuomo, CEO Virtual Assist USA

by | Jan 30, 2022

Given today’s talent wars, have you considered virtual assistants? Danielle Cuomo is the Founder and CEO of Virtual Assist USA – the largest VA company in the United States. Danielle shares how she took an entrepreneurial leap from bootstrapping the company to growing to $4.5 million in revenues today. This insight-packed episode provides fresh ideas for scaling small businesses.

Listen in to learn more about:

  • How virtual assistants augment teams at fast-growing businesses
  • Why large companies are using virtual assistants
  • Setting up your business to scale
  • Deciding when to take the entrepreneurial leap 

Show Links:

https://www.virtualassistusa.com/

Subscribe and leave a review to share what you like about the show!

Succession Stories is hosted by Laurie Barkman, the Business Transition Sherpa– guiding business owners how to capture more value and transition with success.

Schedule a call with Laurie to begin your process from “transition to transaction.”

Transcript

Laurie Barkman:

Entrepreneurs don’t start and build their companies on their own, and neither should they plan their business transition or exit strategy without trusted experts in their corner. I love bringing their stories to you on this podcast, and have decided to put these insights into a book. I’ll be sure to share more details soon! Stay tuned on the book, events, and more by signing up for our newsletter at SuccessionStories.com. And be sure to follow the show in your favorite podcast player! 

One of my favorite things about hosting this show is talking with entrepreneurs like today’s guest Danielle Cuomo. She’s the CEO of Virtual Assist USA – the largest virtual assistant company in the United States. I talked with Danielle about her entrepreneurial journey, from bootstrapping to running a $4.5 million business. We had a great conversation about how small businesses scale, and how they help other small business owners grow and succeed. In today’s talent wars, it’s great to have more options at your disposal. You’ll want to learn what her company can offer to help your business grow. 

Enjoy my conversation about scaling small businesses with Danielle Cuomo.

Laurie Barkman:

Danielle Cuomo, welcome to Succession Stories. I’m excited to talk to you today because you are an entrepreneur who’s created a really interesting business that helps small business owners and larger companies also, which is called Virtual Assist USA. Welcome to the show.

Danielle Cuomo:

Thank you very much for having me.

Laurie Barkman:

Why don’t we start by you introducing yourself, and tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey?

Danielle Cuomo:

Certainly. So my name is Danielle and my company is Virtual Assist USA. I started this company 13 years ago. It was right at the time of the recession and so probably in most people’s minds, not the best time to start a business, but things ultimately worked out. 

What we do is provide services to mostly small businesses that need support, but they don’t have a need for a full time person in office. So they might need admin support, they might need marketing or social media, maybe bookkeeping. They have this need, but they don’t have a need for someone 40 hours a week, they don’t want to make that commitment, so we provide on-demand services. It’s as much or as little as they need, it can change week to week or even day to day, and so there’s some flexibility there for them. 

When I started this in 2008, not a lot of people had heard of virtual assistants, it was sort of a foreign concept. But in the past five years or so it’s become more popular, it’s definitely something that is more widely known, and even larger businesses are using virtual assistants in different ways now as well so it’s been exciting to see the growth in the industry.

Laurie Barkman:

What made you take the leap, and, talk about your background. Do you come from an entrepreneurial family? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur? Was it just a factor of the times? How did you literally say, “Hey, I’m gonna create this virtual assistant company”?

Danielle Cuomo:

I know a lot of people have an entrepreneurial story where they were, like selling lemonade on the corner when they were five years old. That definitely was not mine. I was working in corporate America, I was in IT consulting, and as I mentioned, this is sort of the beginning of the recession and ultimately, my entire department had been laid off. We had all lost our jobs, just one Friday, it was not even something that I could conceptualize at the time, it had been a job that I loved, and loved going to every day and I was absolutely devastated for the first few days, and then I thought, “Okay, I have to, you know, pick myself up and figure out what I’m going to do,” but at the time, the job market just was not great. And so I was applying for some jobs, but just wasn’t really finding something that I was passionate about. 

My aunt at the time was a coach, a life coach, and she had told me about a virtual assistant that she had and some of the things that this VA was doing with her. And I thought it sounded really fascinating. I loved the concept of it. From some of the things she was telling me, I thought, “Well, there’s ways I could do this better, or maybe in a more efficient way,” or “Here’s something I could do that would be a little more inclusive,” and so I thought to myself, “Okay, this is a great time to to start a business. I have no 40-hour-a-week job, I can just dive right into it and spend as much time as I can,” and so I gave myself six months, and I said, “If I haven’t at least replaced my salary in six months, I’m going to go and get a regular job,” if you will. In a few months, I was able to replace my salary, and I was hiring employees and staffing up, and it really just snowballed from there.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s fantastic. A lot of people want to take that leap, but it does take time and six months – that’s great. That’s excellent. Six months is not a lot of time and for you to already scale. Let’s talk a little bit about that. I want to hear about how you’ve scaled the business. Have you put thought into that? You’ve come from an IT background, IT consulting, it’s a services business, it’s a people business, but how did you ultimately set it up for scalability?

Danielle Cuomo:

When I started, I knew that providing virtual assistant services, as you mentioned, my background was in IT consulting so I didn’t have the administrative experience or the marketing experience and so my idea was to hire people that were a lot smarter than I was that were really skilled in these areas and that could put forth the best product which would basically be like our service to our clients and so I was able to hire a few people right away. 

When I started, I knew that providing virtual assistant services, as you mentioned, my background was in IT consulting so I didn’t have the administrative experience or the marketing experience and so my idea was to hire people that were a lot smarter than I was that were really skilled in these areas and that could put forth the best product which would basically be like our service to our clients and so I was able to hire a few people right away.

Since then, in the past 13 years, we now have a team of 64 virtual assistants. Everyone is a full time employee here and we’re continually growing. We’ve grown year over year as virtual assistants have been something that is more commonplace, that is more popular for small business owners to be engaging in. Even with the year that COVID happened in 2020, which I know was very difficult for a lot of businesses, we still continued to grow and we were able to keep moving forward. We’ve been just growing year over year, ever since we started.

Laurie Barkman:

I noticed that you are an EY Entrepreneur of the Year award winner, which is really a nice achievement so congratulations to you for that. Whatever statistics you’re able to share about your growth might be interesting. You obviously started at zero, can you share roughly what revenue you’re at, or a range of revenue?

Danielle Cuomo:

Yes, so when I started, I also just bootstrapped the company. I didn’t have a lot of upfront expenses, other than a few $100 for some software, getting the LLC set up, that sort of thing, but I just continued to bootstrap in those first few months. After about, I guess it was three years, we hit six figures and then a few years ago, we hit seven figures, which has been terrific. It’s something that I had not anticipated when I had started. This year, we’ll probably do about four and a half million, which is, again, something that I did not anticipate when we first started.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s incredible, great, great success to you, and let’s talk about the benefit to the clients. Because that’s I think, where someone listening might learn from this conversation and think, “Oh, well, how might a virtual assistant help me in my business?” In your introduction, you talked about larger companies, too and let’s talk about the Great Resignation. People are looking for different types of work so it makes sense that in your line of business, people who are virtual assistants get a lot of flexibility in that work and then likewise, for the clients, if they don’t want to have a full time employee on staff, then your team can provide that as the skill set. There’s something happening in our environment with the gig economy, and just people looking for flexibility. Talk about it from the client side, what are you hearing?

Danielle Cuomo:

Even the client side, especially with more and more companies and entrepreneurs starting businesses that operate remotely, so many more companies now operate out of home offices and so in a lot of cases, someone doesn’t want to have an employee coming into their home office with them. With the adoption of so much technology, now, you no longer need to sit next to someone in the office to be able to communicate with them. There’s apps that we use, like Slack, for example, where that’s real time communication, it really replaces just like you would with someone in the office. Also, clients might not want to hire someone for space reasons, for example, also just the compliance and the legalities of hiring someone. They don’t want to deal with different regulations, benefits, insurance, workers compensation, that sort of thing. A lot of clients just would rather someone else deal with that, so we take care of all that for our clients. 

Another thing is where clients are just not sure of how much time they have to offer someone. They might not be able to or want to hire someone that’s even part time because they can’t commit to part time hours, they can’t commit to 20 hours a week and they don’t want to be on the hook for paying someone for hours when they don’t have any work to do, and they also don’t want to stress themselves out trying to make work for someone if they don’t have anything for a week or two and so there’s that flexibility in there as well. 

I like to say that we’re an on-demand service for our clients so as much or as little as they need. A lot of clients will use us as a long term solution so they’ve used their VA for years and years and they intend to continue to do that. Then some clients will use us more for a short term gap assistance. So maybe someone is out on maternity or paternity leave. Perhaps they are launching a big project and they need some additional support. Perhaps they themselves want to take a sabbatical and they want to outsource a little bit more so their business can keep running in the background. There’s lots of different situations where VA can come in handy.

Laurie Barkman:

I totally agree and I think it’s a great option for people to explore, especially for small teams that are looking for specific skill sets and some of those that you mentioned, so that’s great, that’s really helpful. I noticed in your bio, that you are also an author, did you write a book?

Danielle Cuomo:

I did, I wrote one book, and then I co-authored another book, and both about 10 years ago or so. It’s something I would love to do again but I’ve been so busy with the business that I haven’t had time to really focus on that but my COO, Nicole, and I are talking about writing a book in the next year or two, about working remotely and how to make that work for companies.

Laurie Barkman:

What were some of the titles of the other books that you wrote?

Danielle Cuomo:

The one that I co-authored was called Inspired Entrepreneurs. It was a collection of stories from female entrepreneurs about their journey and then the second book was called How To Wheel and Deal in High Heels and that was about, again, being a female business owner, and entering a space where you’re learning how to negotiate, and just some tips for doing that.

Laurie Barkman:

What’s in the future for your company? You said in your bio, too, that you’re the largest virtual assistant company in the United States and I’m not sure what the distinction is there, I guess it’s by revenue or by number of employees, perhaps. What are you setting your sights on?

Danielle Cuomo:

We distinguish that by revenue and by number of employees. We have a three to four times larger team than most other companies in this space do and so eventually, we will look to, in the next probably two to three years, acquire some of the smaller companies so that we can, again, gain a bigger market share.

I just also see that there’s going to be a focus, I see sort of two focuses. One is that I think, post COVID, a lot of individuals are going to want to take their success into their own hands, their future into their own hands and start a business. It’s really easier than ever, with all the technology that we have, and you can start a business from home with your laptop and your phone and you don’t need much more than that so I think that we’ll see a lot of that and we’ll focus on those solo entrepreneurs and startups and growing businesses. 

I see as well that there is a market for this in the corporate side of things. We have a few clients that are larger corporations, they’ll do beta tests with us where they’ll see if they can outsource an entire department to us. For example, we have a client that is a large law firm over a few states, and they have hired us to do their paralegal work so we have a few paralegals on staff that are doing their paralegal work so they no longer have their paralegals in office, it’s a little more cost effective for them, and less compliance and red tape on their side. I think that we’ll see a lot of that to where corporations will be looking at this alternative model.

Laurie Barkman:

Really interesting, the concept about the beta testing. Do you, is it a push or pull system? In this case, you mentioned paralegals, if you didn’t have paralegals on staff and a client wanted that service from you, would you go out and hire or do you only take on clients where you already have the skills in house?

Danielle Cuomo:

In our case, we would only take on clients where we already have the skills in house because our new VAs have to go through a training program and a probationary period with us and so we also like to be able to, if a client wants a virtual assistant, we like to be able to get them assigned to a VA in a day or two. It’s designed to be a really quick ramp up process for them. Quite frankly, if they wanted to take weeks or months to hire, they would be hiring someone in house so they generally want someone you know right away. It’s not the staffing agency model where we will go and get the requirements from a client and then go round and sign someone. We’re just using folks that are already here on the bench, so to speak.

Laurie Barkman:

Gotcha. Now, I also noticed in your bio, you wrote about your passion for your bucket list so I’m curious what’s one or two things on the list that you have crossed off and then maybe share one or two things that you have not crossed off yet?

Danielle Cuomo:

Well, I only have one thing – I have a list of 100 things and I only have one thing that I have not crossed off yet which is to go scuba diving, which my family and I are going to Mexico in January and I’m hoping that I have the opportunity to do that then, but some things I have crossed off have been skydiving and whitewater rafting. Those were some that I had wanted to do for a long time. Another one was visiting all the National Parks was something that was on my bucket list as well. I was able to achieve so, and the pandemic was great for that, because those were a very popular place to go.

Laurie Barkman:

But you’re pretty young to have a bucket list that’s almost complete so I’m guessing you’re gonna take 2022 and maybe make a new list.

Danielle Cuomo:

Yeah, I think that after I get the last thing, the scuba diving crossed off there, I definitely want to start a new list.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s awesome. Well, is there anything that you want to share from your experience as a CEO and as a woman founder, that I haven’t asked you about?

Danielle Cuomo:

I think one of the most important things to look at if you are starting a business or wanting to start a business or even grow your existing business… I was pushed into this and it was sink or swim because I had to make money and replace my salary or I had to go get a job, and I think that if I would have waited until I felt that it was like the right time and I had all my ducks in a row and everything like that, I probably never would have done it and so I feel like a lot of people have this dream to be an entrepreneur, maybe even to expand their business, but they’re waiting for the right time or the right time in the economy, or they want to have the most beautiful website first, or they want to have their logo nailed down, or all these things that really in the long run do not matter. I think the biggest thing is just getting started wherever you are and so that’s something that I would just pass on to anyone that’s thinking about starting a business or even growing their businesses.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s great advice and that leads us to my last question, which is if you have any words of wisdom to share, like a favorite quote.

Danielle Cuomo:

Well, my absolute favorite quote, and I use this one all the time, is a quote by Thomas Edison and it says that “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up,” and so if I’ve had hard times or lows in my business, and I’ve just felt like giving up over the years, that has been something that I’ve constantly thought of. You don’t know how close you are to success and if I would have given up at any of those points in time, I wouldn’t be having the success that I am today so that’s something that I keep in mind all the time.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s awesome. Danielle, if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to reach out?

Danielle Cuomo:

They can go directly to the website, virtualassistusa.com, and I answer all the inquiries from there.

Laurie Barkman:

Perfect. Thank you so much for joining me today. It was great to speak with you.

Danielle Cuomo:

Thank you for having me.

Connect with us

Ready To Take the Next Step?

We’ll guide you through the process. Schedule an initial call today.

Sign Up For SmallDotBig Updates

Get updates on insights, events & more

More Succession Stories Episodes

103: Don’t Ignore The Ultimate Finish Line with Mark Fujiwara, Baird

103: Don’t Ignore The Ultimate Finish Line with Mark Fujiwara, Baird

Business owners race hard to maximize monetary returns, but is it the ultimate finish line? This week on Succession Stories, Mark Fujiwara joins Laurie Barkman for a conversation about the succession journey. Mark Fujiwara is a Director at Baird, bringing solutions to 8-figure and 9-figure families and businesses.

103: Don’t Ignore The Ultimate Finish Line with Mark Fujiwara, Baird

103: Don’t Ignore The Ultimate Finish Line with Mark Fujiwara, Baird

Business owners race hard to maximize monetary returns, but is it the ultimate finish line? This week on Succession Stories, Mark Fujiwara joins Laurie Barkman for a conversation about the succession journey. Mark Fujiwara is a Director at Baird, bringing solutions to 8-figure and 9-figure families and businesses.

Ready To Take the Next Step?

We'll guide you through the process. Schedule an initial call today.