After giving birth to her son, Suzy Sanders’ return to work felt somewhat lacking. “I no longer felt content or really challenged by my role,” Suzy explained to us recently when we were lucky enough to sit down - virtually - and talk about her career to date.
“Motherhood brought with it great strength, resilience and incredible clarity,” she continues. “All the clichés are true; becoming a parent changes you on every level and it’s not something you can prepare for!”
Driven by desire for more fulfilment, flexibility and freedom, Suzy soon founded Alchemy VA – a unique virtual assistance business which has flourished in the “long and rewarding” years since 2016.
In the following interview, Suzy pulls back the curtain on the inner workings of Alchemy VA, shares the challenges of going it alone, and offers her honest advice to the Assistants thinking of starting their own virtual business.
Hi, Suzy! Thank you for taking part in an interview for the SecsintheCity blog - it’s great to have you here. Could you start off by telling us a bit about your career prior to establishing Alchemy VA?
Thank you so much! It’s great to be here! Ok, so, in a nutshell… My first ‘real’ job was in a pub when I was at college studying photography. That’s where I first met Paul, my husband and now my business partner too. I didn’t pursue a career in photography as it’s something that’s always felt quite sacred to me. It was something that I wanted to keep as a hobby, something just for me.
My first ‘proper’ office job was in telemarketing. I then went on to work at a small local technology firm. Whilst I held the title of Marketing Assistant there, as it was a start-up company, I had the opportunity to get involved with a whole host of things – managing the office, client and customer support, coordinating national and international events, supporting the directors with travel, meetings etc.
Then I got offered my first true Assistant title, supporting a Managing Director. It was a huge leap; I was really over the moon to land this job. It felt even more poignant that it was for a global recruitment company and they knew a thing or two about selecting the right people for the right jobs! It was a big confidence boost, and I went on to be Executive Assistant to the Training & HR Director.
I’ve always had an interest in people development, and I had the wonderful opportunity to have a real ‘birds eye view’ of how large, industry renowned L&D and HR teams functioned. I supported my Executive through a lot of transition, most poignant was his progression to Group MD and later Global Chief HR Officer. Then Paul and I were fortunate enough to fall pregnant and that changed absolutely everything! That was when I first started seeking more freedom, flexibility and fulfilment in my professional life.
In 2016 you founded Alchemy VA - could you tell us about the services that Alchemy VA provides?
Yes, absolutely. My goodness, it’s been an incredibly long and rewarding few years! As Alchemy VA has grown and evolved, my purpose has deepened too, and I came to realise that I was driven by inspiring and facilitating freedom, fulfilment and flexibility for other people too. It wasn’t just about my dream.
There are three main ways that I do this now. Firstly, via Alchemy’s award winning Virtual Assistant services – we provide our clients with adaptable, flexible and efficient admin, marketing and PA support. It’s low commitment yet high impact.
We love working with people-centred businesses, as we call them, and the majority of our amazing clients are solo, online entrepreneurs, micro or small businesses. To a smaller enterprise, resources are so limited and precious. You have to be resourceful, adaptable, innovative and that means you demand that from your team too, whether you’re outsourcing or not. Those are the things that I am immensely proud to say that the team at Alchemy VA are particularly focused and skilled at.
We naturally work best with likeminded business owners that share our values, ambition and ethos too – to me that’s way more important than a specific industry or demographic. It all comes back to fulfilment – it is not always just about making money.
We’re very fortunate to have a diverse and growing client portfolio ranging from historic venues to prestigious, award-winning business coaches and even Olympic athletes.
Our Virtual Assistant franchise is another way we make a difference – we enable others to replicate and build their own successful Alchemy VA business by adopting our proven business model which is reinforced with our insight, guidance, training and support.
Lastly there is my book - The Alchemy of Virtual Assistance: creating a successful Virtual Assistant business around your family. My book was a real soul project that I completed during the first lockdown in 2020, and the main purpose of it is to give curious, aspiring VAs real life insights into what it really takes to be a successful Virtual Assistant. I also share the personal highs and lows I’ve experienced growing Alchemy with an energetic small boy in tow! I’ve had some truly wonderful feedback, but I obviously don’t give away all my secrets!
What was the catalyst that made you want to start your own business and overhaul your career in such a significant way?
My little boy is why. After maternity leave, I went back to work, but I no longer felt content or really challenged by my role. Motherhood brought with it great strength, resilience and incredible clarity. All the clichés are true, becoming a parent changes you on every level and it’s not something you can prepare for!
I started Alchemy Virtual Assistance as I was seeking more fulfilment, flexibility, and freedom from my professional life.
I have always been very career-minded and I wanted to work; motherhood didn’t negatively impact my professional drive. In fact, it made it stronger, but if I was leaving my little boy, I wanted work with tangible impact. I felt I needed more meaning, to support people who lit me up and I wanted to know that I was truly making a difference. I also wanted flexibility. I didn’t want to have to ask anyone’s permission to take the day off if my son was ill or to take him to the park if the sun was out. I wanted the best of both worlds: a chance to pursue meaningful work, further develop myself and still do the school run.
Paul and I took hypnobirthing (birth preparation based on Neuro Linguistic Programming) classes when I was pregnant, which set me up for an incredibly empowering birth. I brought my son into the world at home with Paul by my side with no intervention or pain relief. I had learned to harness the power of my mind and foster a complete trust in my body to make and birth a human! I felt limitless. I remember thinking to myself that if I could do that, surely, I could forge my own path in the business world too.
You’ve also set up several Alchemy VA franchise hubs across the UK which have thrived during a year when many small businesses have struggled. Why do you think they have been so successful?
The practical (and emotional) support is what the Alchemy team consistently tell me is the most impactful and meaningful part of our Virtual Assistant franchise. That’s been even more poignant and valuable throughout the pandemic.
We were already a virtual, home-based business – being already established in this way was a big advantage. But above all else, our franchisee’s successes are a real testament to their incredible grit and grace. The team have dug deep, come together and really pulled out all the stops to not only continue to support their clients but each other too.
Their mindset, passion, focus and sheer determination is what’s made an incredibly demanding and uncertain period memorable, in all the right ways. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by such resilient and inspirational people.
I think part of it is also the confidence and time saving that comes from adopting a proven, structured and profitable business model. Having the ‘weight’ of an established award-winning brand behind them has had big impact too. I like to think of our Virtual Assistant franchise a bit like a springboard. It allows people to get a powerful head start, to really hit the ground running with their VA business and get earning as swiftly as possible.
To the right person, it’s a game changer. It’s the best of both worlds. Our VA Hub Managers (as they’re known to us) get to enjoy the vast benefits of running their own business with the backing, guidance and support of a wider, established family business. Starting a business is tough, even more so given the current uncertain economic climate. Now more than ever, we are seeing the real value and impact of what we do at Alchemy and I am immensely proud of everything that we’re achieving together.
Read more about the recent success of VA Hub Manager Sarah Damani here.
At what moment did you know that going self-employed and starting Alchemy VA had been the right decision for you and your career?
Oh, that’s a great question! I think on some levels I’ve always known. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial fire in my belly, it just took me a while to allow it to start to burn bright.
When I think way back to the time when I was trying to find the courage to take the leap to self-employment, one of my friends asked me what I would tell my son to do if he were in my position. That was a powerful question that landed heavy with me. In that moment everything became clear. I knew that I wasn’t truly happy or fulfilled and the thought of my son being in that position made me really sad. Of course, I would encourage him to follow his heart and his dreams – take the leap, spread his wings and figure out how to fly. So, having done a lot of thinking, researching and preparing - I took my own advice and I have never looked back.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced in setting up your own virtual assistance business?
My biggest personal challenges have always been the blurred boundaries that come with running a homebased business. The feeling of isolation when you work from home and the weight or responsibility of running a business can be incredibly overwhelming.
Balancing family and personal commitments alongside my work hasn’t always been easy, particularly this past year. The juggle is real! I cover this in more detail in my book, I like to refer to it as ‘the bamboo effect’. Essentially, it’s all about having the mental strength and agility in order to really enjoy the flexibility and freedom, to make it work for you.
Self-doubt has been another beast to conquer. I have definitely been my own worst enemy in the past. I’ve done a lot of work on myself to understand and work through my self-limiting beliefs, fears and unhelpful thought patterns.
What do you consider to be the three most important attributes of a successful Virtual Assistant?
When I first started my virtual assistant business, I was so caught up in all the practical worry – how would I find clients? Did I have ‘enough’ business acumen? Would I be able to figure out all the different elements like marketing and accounting? But I didn’t really give much consideration to my mindset. I believe success as a virtual assistant really comes down to mindset. With the right attitude, drive and outlook, you can learn what you need to, then apply and refine different skills to overcome your challenges.
The top three things I always look out for in people considering joining Alchemy VA are a strong growth mindset, the highest integrity and an abundance of emotional intelligence. Adaptability and resilience are incredibly important too. I know that’s more than three things but it’s really difficult to narrow down!
How do you anticipate the VA role and the wider business support profession to change in the coming year?
I think the business support profession (and I do include the VA role here too) has been evolving for years thanks to so many inspirational, passionate and courageous assistants speaking out to elevate standards, champion the profession (and each other!) and most importantly to challenge and change perceptions.
Sadly, many people still hold outdated or misinformed views of our profession. Only recently I got asked at a networking meeting if a virtual assistant makes the coffee like a ‘real’ assistant would…
Having said that, I do think that the stereotypical, archaic view of the assistant role is dying. The businesses that view their support roles as trusted and valued strategic business partners instead of an ‘overhead’ have the right idea!
Homeworking is obviously now the new ‘normal’ and most organisations have been adopting successful remote or online processes in the last year – this will obviously continue throughout 2021 and beyond.
Companies are far more open to the idea of outsourcing now too, being free to access a global talent pool. Many businesses have been able to refine and improve how they operate to become leaner and more efficient, and these new processes and ways of working won’t change, even when office spaces are able to reopen.
I think we will all continue to evolve and explore more flexible and fulfilling ways of working together, placing a bigger focus on wellbeing and outputs, and further releasing the shackles and rigidity of traditional working patterns and cultures. To me, 2020 was all about demonstrating grit and grace, 2021 is about alignment, flow.
What does Alchemy VA have in store for 2021?
2020 was a wilder ride than any of us expected, that’s for sure! COVID-19 has meant lots of painful uncertainty and devastating loss. As a Virtual Assistant company, we are incredibly fortunate to be thriving.
The world suddenly feels so much bigger, or smaller, depending on how you see it. Organisations and people no longer feel restricted by location and are seeking more flexible ways of working and living.
We’ve seen a huge influx of interest in what we do at Alchemy from both potential clients and franchisees. I believe this has been mostly driven by a dramatic shift in focus and priorities, and with so many being forced to adapt to new and different ways of working.
It's always been about quality over quantity to me and 2021 will be no different. This year our business goals and strategies are focused around sustainable and profitable growth in a meaningful and impactful way. People are at the heart of Alchemy; we strengthened our virtual head office team in late 2020 so we are well equipped and incredibly excited to welcome yet more wonderful people, both clients and franchisees, into the Alchemy family.
Finally, what advice would you give to any Assistants out there who are thinking about starting their own VA business?
There are three key things I would always advise anyone considering the big leap to self-employment:
- Define what success means to you. Success is so personal and deeply subjective. Before you set out on any path, first establish what it is YOU want to achieve. What does success look like to you?
- Do your homework. Research and explore all your options. Get your numbers and finances in order and establish which possible avenue will lead you to your personal definition of success in the most fun, efficient and fulfilling way.
- Once you’ve chosen a path, stick to it. Draw on your resources, believe in yourself wholeheartedly, show up for yourself and take consistent action - every single day.
Visit the Alchemy VA website today to find out more.