- Rebecca Newenham, 50, didn’t want to return to the corporate world and became a virtual assistant.
- It has grown and now has 50 virtual assistants in Great Britain and Spain.
- That’s how she turned her business into a franchise, as Claire Turrell recounted.
This essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Rebecca Newenham, the founder of the Get Ahead virtual assistant franchise. It has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2010, after an eight-year career break to have children, I decided to return to work.
I had been a buyer for Superdrug and Sainsbury’s, but never felt particularly comfortable in a corporate environment. I wanted more flexibility.
My mother ran a tutoring agency when I was younger and worked from home. She inspired me to look at what other roles were out there that could give me the same flexibility. I did a lot of research, and when someone mentioned that I should consider being a virtual assistant, I was immediately hooked.
I liked the entrepreneurial spirit and I liked the idea of being my own boss. The VA industry was already well established in the US, but the term was still relatively new in the UK. I found a one day training in London on how to set up as a virtual assistant.
In eight hours, we learned the breadth of support you can offer, how to find clients, how you can work with clients, and the best ways to market yourself.
In September 2010, I launched Get Ahead
I had seen that some people used their own name as their business name, but thanks to my experience in marketing, I knew from the start that I had to create a brand.
I started the business with a second-hand laptop, a printer, and a handful of cash that I could use for networking. I turned my guest room into an office and painted my logo on the wall.
I used word of mouth to advertise. A friend of a mom from my kids’ school introduced me to someone who ran a networking group. He became my first real paying customer. I provided them with administration services.
Then an online business asked me if I could link. I remember sitting at a small desk by the window, wrapped in a cardigan, because it was really cold, but I felt really satisfied running my own business while my daughters were in school.
For the first two years I worked on my own, as I needed to understand what the role entailed, but I knew that if I wanted the business to scale quickly, I had to move from delivery to sales. In March 2011, I started hiring virtual assistants to support me. I initially ran an answering service for customers in-house, but in January 2015 I outsourced this to an answering company in Glasgow.
The volunteer advisers I have hired specialize in diary management. Then I brought in experts from Excel and social media. Our social media department has grown significantly, as this is where customers needed a lot of help. They were on the wrong platform for their business or had trouble staying consistent.
We hired both male and female VAs, but the majority were mothers looking for flexibility. Customers pay £30 to £35 per hour for support.
By 2015 we had clients based all over the UK, and I started researching how we could grow the business even further. Since I was the person in charge of generating sales, I now needed someone to support me.
I found a woman in Bristol on Twitter who was looking for freelance work. A former marketing manager herself, she wanted to test the company for me in her region.
She took our business cards and flyers and started promoting Get Ahead.
Around the same time, I had gone to an exhibition and won a session with a franchise consultant.
The consultant showed me that Get Ahead had a framework that could be franchised
We were established and had shown there was a demand for our support elsewhere in the UK. It took 18 months to do the legal work and create a reference manual for franchisees that discussed everything from how to handle customers to what the Get Ahead office should look like.
My first franchisee was one of our VAs in Hampshire who wanted to take over her own business. We now have nine regional hubs across the UK. The majority are based in the UK, but we also have a VA in Spain, and in September 2021 we sold our first franchise in Australia.
Unlike our competitors, our franchisees do not deliver — they match the customer to our 50VA database.
We helped our customers switch to a virtual world in 2020
When the pandemic hit, we developed a
– a facilitation service for those organizing conferences, and one of our VAs who works with a team of actuaries helped them transition from their central London office to working from home.
It has become so valuable to them that it looks like they will now use it. It is not uncommon for clients to want to hire our VAs. I’m always sad to lose amazing staff, but I’m proud when it happens in some way.
We’ve proven to someone that they have that need, and we’ve also proven that we have the ability to find the right person.
My role now is to develop the Get Ahead brand. When I’m not meeting franchisees or attending networking groups or workshops for the brand or my own personal development, I accept invitations to participate in podcasts and talk about Get Ahead.
I love spreading the word about flexible working and empowering people to have a second or third career.
I probably work more hours now than when I was at a company. When I was in a company, I could turn off my computer at the end of the day.
Now, I am not completely extinguished. But it’s much more positive; I don’t mind thinking about work. However, I try to make sure I don’t work in the evening — at 7 p.m., I’m in my boxing class.