In this episode special guest Nathalie Lussier, who has been making websites since she was 12 years old, takes us through her journey of starting her own business and using virtual teams to help her grow her business to what it is today.
Nathalie takes us back to the beginning when she started with just one VA who was working 5-hours a week, and how she has grown her team to include seven specialists, who span the globe.
Some of the areas covered include:
- The importance of good systems and processes
- The need for a project management tool
- Allowing your team to step-up and perform
- The importance of meetings with your virtual team
- Tips on engaging the ‘right’ virtual team member
- Why it is important to adopt the mindset of ‘let it go and have somebody else do it’.
Let us know in the comments below what your key take out has been from this episode or why not join the continuing conversation over in the Virtual Success Facebook Group.
In this episode:
01:50 – Who is Nathalie Lussier?
03:25 – Nathalie’s virtual team
04:40 – Her first real hire
05:53 – The importance of using a project management tool
07:47 – Good systems and processes already in place
8:23 – Write down your processes, step-by-step
10:57 – Growing the team
13:26 – Allowing your team to step up
16:31 – Managing a big virtual team
18:16 – The importance of meetings
21:54 – Nathalie’s tips on engaging a VA
24:27 – Investment vs expense mindset
26:58 – Share your business vision with your team
28:19 – Wrapping things up
Barbara: Hey everyone, and welcome back to another show of Virtual Success, where we give you the inside scoop on outsourcing success for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. I’m joined as always by my fantastic co-host Matt Malouf. Matt how are you?
Matt: I’m well, how are you Barb?
Barbara: I’m great thanks, excited about today’s show as always. Because we’ve got a new guest on the show today.
Barbara: Nathalie Lussier who a lot of listeners will be very familiar with. Because Nathalie is someone I followed myself, in my own entrepreneurial journey for a long time. She is the founder of Ambition Alley, which has the software tools, “Access Alley” – which is a membership site, a fantastic membership site plugin, I think if I’m using the right term. She also has Popup Alley, which is a popup forum builder on websites.
I love the fact that Nathalie … not only does she have a team, a virtual team that we’re going to talk about today. But she is also a female really going for it in the tech space, which is not that common, getting more common. Nathalie, welcome to the show.
Nathalie: Thanks for having me here guys.
Barbara: Great, so Nathalie just to kick off, can you just give us a quick idea of what you’re up to today? A quick synopsis of where you started, and this whole virtual team thing. You started out as I think a web developer?
Who is Nathalie Lussier?
Nathalie: Yeah. I like to go way back to how I got started on the web. I started making websites when I was just 12 years old. I studied software engineering, and I had this job offer on Wall Street that I turned down to start my first business. That very first business was in the hub space and the info-product marketing space.
I quickly learned that my gift was technology, but for some reason when I was in the corporate world I didn’t really enjoy my work in that space. I realised, “okay, let’s go back to tech, let’s focus on that.” So I did do web design in those early days. Then I switched off to doing more website building and more training in the tech space and marketing space. Then eventually I came full circle and I started designing software where instead of teaching people how to use tech tools, I design the tech tools to make it easier for them to achieve their results. So that is how I got to where I am today with our Ambition Ally products for ambitious business owners.
Barbara: What I love about what you’ve done is that your products are very beautifully designed. They make everything look good. Ambition Ally makes everything look good on your membership site. I’ve had a look at it.
Nathalie: Exactly. Thank you
Barbara: Very good, talk to us a little bit then, I mean obviously we’re here to talk about virtual teams, and I know you’ve got seven people on your team, including your husband. They’re all virtual, which is great, perfect for this show. Talk to me a little bit about what the team looks like today. Who are they, where are they based?
Nathalie’s virtual team
Nathalie: The only people who work together in person are my husband and I. Because obviously, we live together. Those are the two of us, then we’ve got people in- we’ve got one person in Canada, one person on the west coast, two or three in the central timezone, and then one in the Philippines. Basically how it works is, we have a project manager– she really helps to make sure everybody is working on the things they should be working on. It helps progress our different goals and different projects that we’re working on. Then we have development, editorial marketing, and support, there is a lot of things going on. Also editing and project management stuff too.
Barbara: Great, that sounds like a well-oiled machine.
Nathalie: Everybody has their strengths and I think that we work really well together. I’m more than happy to talk about how we make that happen virtually. Because that can be tricky sometimes.
Barbara: Yeah, and I definitely want to get into that. But to kick off, can we just take a step back to your first hire. Did you always know you were going to have this virtual team? What was the first step into that, for you?
Her first real hire
Nathalie: The first real hire was virtual, and she’s actually still with us today. Really it was when I was reaching this point where I couldn’t do everything myself anymore. At the time I was doing a lot of consulting, and doing a lot of client work, and I realised, “Okay, like I just can’t handle everything anymore. I need to at least take some of this stuff I’m doing and complete it, or get it ready to go out into the world.”
I hired my first virtual assistant. She worked I think five hours a week at most. It was very minimal. We actually had one phone call when I hired her and she was recommended to me. Then we basically did not have a phone call for almost a whole year after that, and we worked together very well surprisingly without any actual phone conversations. We did everything through our project management tool. Which we still use today, which is called Asana.
Obviously, any tool you use is going to be great as long as you’re really using it. We basically assigned things and reviewed things through that tool. That was my first hire, kind of … the business that we have today. I did contract with other people before then, but that was the first real deal hire.
The importance of using a project management tool
Barbara: What I want to- I just want to- I know Matt’s probably salivating at this point as well, over the fact that … I just want to focus on this area for a second before we move onto the bigger team thing. You’ve mentioned Asana, both Matt and I are huge advocates of Asana, or Trello, or whatever people want to use. The key thing to making this sort of stuff work is using a project management tool. Now you got away with not even having a phone call, so talk to me about that.
Because some of clients over at Virtual Angel Hub – We’ve said, “Look, you definitely need a project management tool.” And for those who still struggle we recommend huddles and ten-minute catch-ups each day, and things like that. But talk to me about, how did you … you must have had everything very detailed in Asana if you were able to not even have a phone call.
Nathalie: Yeah, and today we definitely do have phone calls. I’m not saying that I recommend that method. But yeah, definitely we had things very well oiled in Asana. What we had was a lot of recurring tasks. Especially for those early days, some of the things that my virtual assistant did were kind of the same things in and out. Scheduling the newsletter, or handling certain things in support or whatever. They were very specific step-by-step type things.
The other thing that we had, that we still have to this day, is our wiki. On the wiki, I tried to detail and obviously, the team also helps detail, the steps for doing things, so that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time. If we get a support ticket, and its like, “okay, how do you handle this specific case?” Usually there is either a wiki, or in our case these days, a canned response. Something that we can use, so that we’re not off the top of our head trying to come up with a solution every single time.
Matt: Nathalie, when you hired your first VA, five hours a week. The projects or tasks that you asked her to do, did you have systems already for those?
Good systems and processes already in place
Nathalie: I sort of did. I didn’t really think of them that way. But I did in my mind. I always did things a certain way. When I realised, “Okay it doesn’t have to be … the works system can be daunting for people.” When I just realised, “Let me just write down how I do things every week.” And she can just take the parts that she’ll handle, and I’ll take the parts that I will always handle. That just made it so much easier. I had to actually write down those things, and how I did them. Sometimes I did record little videos too, or it was like, “Okay, well this is how I click around and do these things.” That way I didn’t have to do it every single time but somebody else could just watch the video and do it.
Write down your processes, step-by-step
Matt: Fantastic. That’s a really interesting point that you make. Because I think many business owners that are starting out with a virtual assistant and the like have a certain way that they do it. But they may not have it documented yet. I like that the way you framed that, I just wrote down how I do it, and then we had a discussion, we worked out who would do what and away it went. I think that’s a big mistake many entrepreneurs make is actually not taking the time just to write that down. It’s either assuming that they will know to do it, or you can have a quick conversation and they’ll get it. I think that’s a very interesting point.
Barbara: I love as well Nathalie that you mentioned a lot of people are afraid of systems and processes, because they are. But I think it’s because it sounds more awful than it is and boring. But a process can be three steps. It can be open this, login, click this button, go there. That can be a process, or a video to show someone how you are doing something on a screen can be really easy to put together as well. I guess in your first person, you were already very busy by the time you took that person on.
Barbara: In order for it not to be another job for you, you had to get your thoughts down on paper, or down into Asana about how to do stuff. Would I be right?
Nathalie: Absolutely, yeah. The Asana project, it was pretty simple. But in that Asana task it had the full description of what to do. That was a recurring task, so we never lost that information. If it is like these days, if we create something that seems like a more one time thing we’ll always save how we do it in the wiki page somewhere, so that we don’t lose that information. The next time, maybe it’s like a year later, we have to do the same thing. At least we still have all that information.
Nathalie: Throwing away work.
Barbara: Yeah, so you got off to a good start there. I just want the listeners who are starting out to know that we talk about this all the time. A project management tool is key. We get clients saying to us, “I don’t want to use one. I just want to ping them on Skype.” And I just go, “it’s going to fail.” It’ll fail. If you are running virtual anything, you need to have something that brings everyone together, even if it’s only two people.
Matt: Even beyond that Barb, even if you’re not running virtual. It’s so essential in every business I believe.
Growing the team
Barbara: Yeah, so Nathalie then – so you had your five hours a week … got this person five hours a week, and then all of a sudden, how quickly did you realise that you could probably have this person for a lot more, and get a lot more done and do a lot more business?
Nathalie: Yeah, it’s interesting, because she stayed at five hours. I think she went up to 10 hours a week. I think we stayed like that for about a year, about the 10 hours a week. But quickly I hired my husband. That was my next real full time hire. That really helped a lot. Obviously it was a little bit easier to be working in person with him. He was brand new to the business, and had no idea what we were really doing.
He had to really be wrapped up, and after that we hired a lot of the other people. We hired another developer, and then actually it was the year that I was pregnant is when we really had a big hiring spree. That’s when we hired a project manager, support, and another editorial person. Then my VA from the very beginning came on full-time at the time too.
Barbara: I think I remember you writing about this. I remember you being pregnant and writing about this. You hired a lot of people all at once. How overwhelming was that? Was it okay because you had kind of come through a sort of- you started out slow, got your VA your husband and one more person, then all of a sudden boom, you were able to hire- because you had a process, maybe, for being able to delegate?
Nathalie: Yeah, exactly. Actually the person that we hired, our project manager, did a lot of the help and the hiring for us. She helped do the hiring stuff, which is interviewing and making sure they are right fit, and helped on-board them. Even though I had just given birth when one of our new team members came on board, and my husband was still available to help her, and answer questions and guide her as she came on board. But the project manager and the rest of the team trained her more than I did at that point. I think having enough people on board that know what’s going on, and then also the other interesting thing that happened is, because I did take some time off for maternity leave, the team basically told me that it was some of the best learning that they did in the business. Because they had to figure things out, and they had to ask each other questions. Really kind of document stuff, learn stuff, and have it all. They were having to be resourceful for themselves.
Allowing your team to step up
Barbara: You know I had the same experience in my business when I gave birth. We had our biggest month in our business, the month that I gave birth and I wasn’t actually there. And I thought, “Am I the biggest roadblock?” Was I the roadblock? Because your team actually have to step up. They feel this sense of responsibility all of sudden, because you physically can’t be there. As a woman entrepreneur, I think sometimes having a baby is the best business growth thing you can do if you set it up right beforehand.
Matt: For all the guys listening out there, who can’t have babies…If you actually acknowledge the concept here, it’s actually firing yourself from your current role, and actually making it non-negotiable. To be honest, it’s a concept we talk about regularly in business. Which is to fire yourself from your role, but unless there is an actual number one great desire, or number two and actual need for that to happen, often you can just find yourself doing the same things over and over again, day in day out.
To everybody out there, understand the concept that Nathalie and Barbara are talking about here which is, force yourself to fire yourself from your job or jobs in the business and leverage it out. It’s amazing what will happen.
Barbara: Yeah, allow people to step up I guess. On that point Nathalie, were you nervous? People stepped up, but how much leeway did you give people. Was it sort of go for your life sort of thing, or?
Nathalie: Well I was still obviously like … I was offline. But if something did blow up, they could get in touch with me.
Barbara: Yeah that’s like what I did.
Nathalie: It wasn’t completely disconnected. Actually the team did reach out a couple times. But usually it was with an opportunity or something that felt important enough to put in front of me. It wasn’t like a problem, or anything like that. I thought that was really interesting to see what came out of it. It wasn’t like, “Oh no, I’m not sure what to do.” It was more like, “Hey, we really think you should jump on this. Because it’s going to be a great opportunity.” So one of them was a speaking gig that they wanted me to apply for. It ended up being a great fit in speaking there. That was kind of fun.
Barbara: Good. So let’s talk now, you mentioned at the beginning of the show, and I agree with you, when you got one VA there is major challenges with that as well, with communication. But then what I noticed is, once people start building teams they have to realise that there is an up levelling first for you as a business owner if you’re starting to go to two, three, four people. Then once you get past about, I find, three people, you’re starting to get into managing teams, which is a whole other gig.
Then you’ve got people … all of a sudden, it’s not just everyone reporting to you, they’ve got to report to each other, and they’re working on things together. How do you manage this structure now, with the seven people that you have?
Managing a big virtual team
Nathalie: We do a couple different things. One of the things that we do is kind of what you mentioned. We have a daily stand up meeting. Every day we have a quick 5 to 10 minute call where we go over what everybody is working on. If there is any roadblocks or any questions. Where people can say like, “Hey, you know, are you done with this thing?” Or, “I’m wondering about that.” That can quickly get us unstuck if we do get stuck. Especially because we are sometimes in slightly different time zones. It’s important to have a time where we can all connect very obviously during the day. That’s something that has been really helpful.
The other thing that we do is we do have in our Asana tasks we use a lot of sub-tasks when we’re doing projects. We’ll have one thing assigned to one person, and then you know that, “Okay, once I’m done with my piece of this work, it’s going to get passed on to this other person on the team.” When you check it off, that person will get notified. Sometimes you can do a “Depends On”, thing in Asana. Someone will know, “Okay, I can start working on this now, because this other piece is done.” We try to have a clear flow between all the work that needs to get done.
Also, we do have sub-meetings. For example, we have a marketing meeting, so all the people are responsible for more marketing and editorial ads and that kind of thing will meet. Then we have a development meeting, so we talk all about new features and all that stuff, prioritise things on that meeting. We do communicate a lot more than in those early days for sure.
Barbara: Are you in all of those meetings?
Nathalie: Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. It really depends on the main focus.
Barbara: Yeah, so sometimes your team are now having meetings by themselves. Which has actually happened to me recently as well. It’s great when they have a meeting by themselves and just tell you the outcome.
The importance of meetings
Nathalie: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the best thing for sure. Also, speaking of meetings, I do have- our project manager actually has one-on-one calls with everybody on the team. If they have concerns, or if they’re going through anything or are working on their personal development inside the company, that it happens with her, and then she’ll report to us and tell us how the team is doing, and how everything is going. That kind of saves me a little bit of time. Because I do have the baby and all these other things going on too.
Barbara: Absolutely. Matt I’m sure when we had Taki Moore on this show, we had Taki, he’s sort of a big name in the Coaching area. He talked quite a lot about giving responsibility to other people for meetings. I know Matt you’ve got quite a lot of connection with Taki, so I’m sure you’ve got a couple of things to say here.
Matt: Absolutely, I think as always, I was just writing some notes as you were talking to Nathalie. It’s a common theme that I think Barbara, you and I hear regularly. As you develop with your team, the importance of meetings becomes more and more important. It just heightens. I like what Nathalie- you were talking about, that daily meeting. That’s been a game changer across all the businesses I’ve had over the years now. The businesses that I’ve helped implement the daily meeting, the daily huddle.
What’s really interesting is, that it can be done in what Nathalie is describing, in a virtual way. Not just in an office, with people standing around and having that meeting. It really comes down to your mindset to take the theory of these, the concepts, and implement them into your style of business. Nathalie, does each meeting have a strong agenda?
Nathalie: It does. The daily meetings have a very clear structure, where we just go around and everybody shares what they’re working on, and if they need help on anything. Then we usually go over our numbers for the day, or the previous day. For the other meetings, when it comes to marketing and development, it’s very clear, and we basically create- and actually for the daily, we also have a weekly meeting, which I didn’t mention.
The weekly meeting we have topics that we want to discuss that have come up over the past week or looking forward towards what’s coming up. We always have an agenda before we have those meetings. Again, my project manager is amazing, and she creates all of those before we have our meetings. Everybody has to go in and update, either the topics they want to discuss, or see what we’re going to be chatting about before we get on the call together.
Matt: Yeah, fantastic.
Barbara: Nathalie where did you find that project manager?
Nathalie: She’s amazing. That was actually a very interesting journey. We had hired somebody, and she ended up getting another job and leaving, and I was devastated. Because it was a couple months before I was about to give birth, and we worked so hard to find her. She was like, “But, you know, you should try hiring my friend.” I was like, “I don’t know, we had spent all this effort doing all these interviews.” And finally I was like, “Okay, I’ll talk to her.” And we did, we hired her, and she has been amazing.
So it was kind of a blessing in disguise, even though it was very stressful at the time. It ended up working out beautifully.
Barbara: I see, very good. Matt sorry I cut you off there.
Matt: No, no, no all good. Nathalie, knowing what you now know, in using virtual teams. What would say be your top three pieces of advice to people who are just about to start engaging their first virtual assistant?
Nathalie’s tips on engaging a VA
Nathalie: Okay, I like this question. The first thing I would say is be very clear what role you are hiring this person for and also what their skill set needs to be for that role. I think sometimes all of us can make this mistake. Where we’re like, “I want somebody who can do everything!” It’s very unrealistic to expect somebody to be able to, for example, like write-copy, handle tech stuff, do customer support, do sales, do project management, and walk your dog. I’m just making that up, but you know what I mean. It’s a lot to expect one person to be the jack of all trades that can do everything. Having a really clear role, and what tasks and projects this person is going to be working on is key. You can find the right person who can do it.
The other thing is that when you are hiring somebody, I would recommend, take however much time it takes you to do something, and pretty much double or triple it for the first little while. Because you’re going to be training, and sometimes we think, “Oh, I’m going to hire somebody, I’m going to have instantly twice as much time as I had before.” But actually, I think it’s the opposite. You’re going to have less time until they’re fully on boarded and running with things by themselves. Just have that expectation going in, that you will be not as productive, and yes, you probably can still do things faster if you were doing it yourself. But the whole point is to let it go, and have somebody else do it. That would be number two.
Then number three, I would say, probably hire somebody who has experience for what you want help with. A lot of times we think, “Oh, I’ll hire somebody who is very young and inexperienced and I’ll train them.” But, depending on where you are it in your business that can totally work. But you could also hire somebody who knows what they are doing and save yourself some of that headache. That’s been another learning experience for myself.
Matt: Fantastic, thanks.
Barbara: That’s great. I love the fact that you said point two, it really resonates for me. Because I see so many people hire someone and not realise that their workload is kind of almost going double in the first little bit. Because they have got to on board this person. Typically what happens is they get frustrated, annoyed, and fire the person, and say, “You know what, it’s just easier to do it myself.”
That’s a massive mistake. Because it happens with anyone that you hire really. If you spend the time and make it work, in 12 months time your business will be much further along than if you give up and go back to doing everything yourself.
Investment vs expense mindset
Matt: You took the words right out of my mouth Barb. I was about to make the exact same point. Just to add to that, this is really the difference between what I would call an investment mindset versus an expense mindset. If you’re viewing having these people on as an expense, then I think you’ll quickly get rid of them. Because the additional time it takes to get them up and running, it will be a cost. But if you understand that you are investing in this person, and by investing the time and the little bit of money to help them understand the tasks that you want done and the way you want them done. It will make you 10 times the investment long run.
Barbara: Well, I mean look at you Nathalie. You’ve gone from being a consultant doing everything yourself, to having a team of seven people, having a baby, and having a thriving business that is scalable.
Barbara: That’s what you have achieved in how many years? It’s only been a few years. I think that’s absolutely amazing, the journey that you’ve been on, and continue on.
Nathalie: Yeah. I wanted to go to what Matt was saying about that investment mindset. I definitely had that similar mindset in the beginning. Where I was like, “Oh man, I should just keep doing everything myself.” But what I realised is, if you think about the stock market, if you invest in the stock market, a return of 5% to 10% is all you can really expect, right?
If you invest in an employee, first of all you don’t have to give your whole investment up front. You pay every month, which is kind of nice. Then secondly, you are practically guaranteed 100% or 50%, or however much higher percentage return on that kind of investment. To me that’s been a no-brainer, once I got that, things started to change.
Barbara: I love that analogy. Coming from the investment background myself. That makes total sense, in fact that would make sense to anyone listening to that. Matt you’d be the same.
Matt: Absolutely, I’m just writing, I’m just drawing a picture of it. That’s brilliant, that’s awesome … Nathalie is there any other advice you would love to share with the community? Any tips or tricks in enhancing their experience with virtual assistants?
Nathalie: Yeah, I think the more you can document, I know we kind of talked about that in the beginning. I think the more you can document how you want things done, then it can really just start to happen without you, which I think is great.
Share your business vision with your team
The other thing that we started doing, which I think is also really helpful is, how can you explain to the people who are going to be working on a task, what it means in the big picture of your business. The why behind this thing, so that people are a little bit more engaged and aware of the context of the task or the project.
For us, we try to think about it, you know, how is this going to make us make and sell software better, that can really help our customers do better in their business. If that’s our big picture and our big context, then it makes it really clear. This little thing that I’m working on today actually fits into this big picture, is a lot more motivating, and a lot more likely that the person will come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things that are going to help you reach those goals. To me that has been the big game changer.
Barbara: I just did a little fist pump in the air as you said that. Because it’s something that I talk about a lot, and I think it’s a beautiful message to end on. What you are essentially saying there, is you’re bringing your team into the vision of your business, and where the whole strategic thing is going. Not just firing a task at them, and that’s just their job and it ends there. You want them to feel like they’re part of the entire vision.
Nathalie: Yeah, absolutely. We’re building amazing stuff for people, so lets do it. With that intention in mind, I think it’s a great way to go for sure.
Wrapping things up
Barbara: Nathalie, thank you so much for your time today. If people want to, look Access Ally is a fantastic piece of software. If people want to get into the Access Ally, Popup Ally thing, where should they go to find out about you and your business.
Nathalie: Yeah, so they can go to AmbitionAlly.com and then they will see Access Ally, ProgressAlly, PopupAlly, all of our tools there. Also, I have a podcast called ‘Off the Charts’, so if you are enjoying podcasts, and you can download them. Just go to ‘Off the Charts’ business in iTunes or whatever, Stitcher Radio, or whatever you use to listen to podcasts, then you’ll find that there.
Barbara: Brilliant, thank you so much. Matt that was fantastic.
Matt: It was, thank you so much Nathalie.
Nathalie: Thank you for having me.
Barbara: Okay, and you know guys, if you enjoy this show, and you want to hear more amazing guests, remember to follow us on our Virtual Success Facebook group. Let us know your feedback, give us comments on the show. We would love a rating and a bit of a review on iTunes if you can. If you are enjoying the show, share it with your people. Let us know anyone you would like us to interview or any topic you want us to cover, and Matt and I will get straight onto it. Until next time, thanks everyone and enjoy your week.
Matt: Thank you everyone.