Despite the proven benefits of working with a virtual assistant (VA), many still have their reservations about hiring one. There are ingrained misconceptions about VAs being unable to do skilled work, speak fluent English, or effectively work from a different country.
But all of this is far from the truth according to the founders of Coconut VA. “Virtual assistants should simply be called remote team members because anything you can do from a laptop they can do from theirs. And it goes far beyond just sending emails and scheduling appointments,” Eric Espinosa, cofounder and CEO of Coconut VA, says.
Coconut VA is breaking the stigma of virtual assistants. They’re doing so by helping small business owners and entrepreneurs offload the daily tasks that keep them working outside the nine-to-five. Alongside finding the perfect virtual assistant, Coconut VA also takes care of legal, payroll, and benefits.
In its first six months, Coconut VA generated six figures in revenue and they’ve continued to grow ever since. Now, after eight months in business, Coconut VA has hired 50 virtual assistants and helped 60 entrepreneurs. Their customers range from small business owners and marketing agencies to psychiatrists and life coaches.
When One Startup Leads You to the Next
Eric Espinosa developed his passion for entrepreneurship while he was at Brigham Young University, studying entrepreneurial management. He says, “I had a couple of false starts, but ended up coming out of the entrepreneurship program with a consulting business. The company was called Venture Validator and it helped founders validate their startup idea. We ran product-market fit surveys to help people iterate much faster and build the right MVP for the right target group.”
Coconut VA’s cofounder, Tyler Leber, actually started as an intern at Venture Validator. Eric hired Tyler full-time after his internship ended and he became Eric’s right-hand person. Tyler then worked his way up to becoming a Venture Validator cofounder. “He went from being an unpaid intern to being a founder. He worked very hard and deserved it in every way,” Eric says.
The founders built many of Venture Validator’s operational systems with the help of virtual assistants. This caught the attention of fellow entrepreneurs who reached out to Eric and Tyler for help finding the right virtual assistant for themselves. The results were nothing but positive, as these entrepreneurs could finally get out of the weeds and truly focus on scaling their business.
“We felt like there was something of real value there. And since Venture Validator was a company that conducted research into product-market fit, we used our processes to test for a virtual assistance agency. We ran five tests surveying over 500 entrepreneurs and the results were higher than almost any other startup we had ever tested,” Eric says. Having validated their idea, Eric and Tyler put Venture Validator on autopilot and started Coconut VA together in August 2021.
Harnessing the Power of Virtual Assistants
With rising costs, high inflation rates, and The Great Resignation, entrepreneurs are finding it challenging to build a talented team or outsource work. All of these stressors put more pressure on business owners to take on everything themselves and work 80-hour weeks. But getting help could be the difference between the success and failure of your business.
Eric says, “Once you have experienced working with the right virtual assistant, it changes your life. All of a sudden there are processes that you can take off your plate as a founder. I struggled to complete all the manual, operational activities needed to run a startup and saw this as a path towards freedom. But founders aren’t so quick to hire virtual assistants of their own.”
The stakes are high: If the VA you hire doesn’t work out, you’ll have wasted a lot of time and money – both of which are in short supply (hence the reason you’re interested in outsourcing). It’s no wonder, then, so many are fearful of taking that step. Even Eric, who was aware of the power of VAs, spent a full year weighing up the pros and cons before he hired his first virtual assistant.
One of the biggest barriers is the expensive hiring fee agencies charge and the long-term contracts they require. Most entrepreneurs don’t even know if they’re ready for a virtual assistant, let alone spending a couple of thousand dollars to hire one.
Coconut VA takes eliminates these hurdles. The company doesn’t charge a hiring fee and offers a trial commitment of 20 hours, allowing a business owner to try a virtual assistant for only $250. Coconut VA performs the hiring process for free, including determining the type of VA you need, vetting each candidate, and conducting interviews. On top of that, they take care of all the legal, payroll, health insurance, and other VA benefits to make it as easy as possible for their customers.
But Eric and Tyler understood they needed a win-win situation for everyone involved to have a successful business model. So, Coconut VA doesn’t only decrease the risk for the business owner to hire a VA, it also increases the quality of life of a virtual assistant.
Coconut VA specifically hires virtual assistants in the Philippines. “We’re able to change the lives of many people in the Philippines. A lot of people there don’t move out of their parental house until their mid or late twenties. My first VA was able to move out at age 19 because she was earning a stable income. She now makes twice as much as her college-graduate friends,” Eric says.
“Our VAs are being compensated much better than I could ever afford to compensate my US employees, and with a salary two to five times more than the local wage, they’re getting compensated far better than what local employers can afford.” With Coconut VA, virtual assistants also receive health insurance, paid time off, maternity leave, and a yearly bonus equal to an extra month’s salary.
Coconut VA focuses on building a long-term relationship between their customer and the VA. Unlike interns that come and go every semester, business owners can invest time into training their VA and then delegate long-term tasks that bring in ROI. “If it’s a win for you in the long run, it’s a win for our virtual assistant and us,” Eric says.
“Outsourcing can be messy, so we take on that risk in the beginning and focus on the long term. Our VAs aren’t just cogs in the system. We nurture our relationships with them and their clients and try to improve lives.” Coconut VA only makes a profit in the long run through a monthly contract where they get a portion of the virtual assistant’s hourly rate.
While it’s a win-win setup, very few entrepreneurs needing a VA have one. There’s a learning gap that Coconut VA needs to close by educating its target market about the wide range of roles that virtual assistants can fill.
“We have a huge supply side in terms of available virtual assistants, with hundreds of talented people applying every week. And I know that it would knock the socks off of business owners if they knew this level of talent existed for just $10 to $16 per hour. I’m talking about graphic designers, SDRs, cold callers, office admins, remote receptionists, and even B2B sales reps,” Eric says.
“The truth is that most positions we hire for are unique to the founder’s business and the VAs are wearing multiple hats. So there’s an additional step in selling our services, and that’s helping business owners see what we’ve outsourced to virtual assistants and how they can apply the same principles in their organization.” The founders have been positioning Coconut VA as a thought leader on the topic of virtual assistants, with LinkedIn proving to be an effective way to share their message to other entrepreneurs.
Don’t Get Lost in the Details, Just Get It Out
There’s a constant battle between perfectionism and getting things done in the daily life of a founder. Eric, who used to be a perfectionist, says, “The way to overcome founder perfectionism is with operational minimalism. This means building a company in a way that it has a minimal operational structure until you have proven product-market fit.”
“Especially in the beginning, we focused less on building the perfect system that could scale and instead on building the minimum system that would allow us to learn. Only once our learning was validated by cash in hand did we turn to scalable systemization and automation.”
Following that approach, Coconut VA started as a demand-generated business where the founders focused heavily on getting their first customers and building a referral network. Eric says, “We hardly even had an entity until we had our first client sign up. For us, it was all about getting our customers to pay us before we started investing in process, automation, and branding.”
They scaled Coconut VA very quickly, and within four months, they grew to 30 clients and $30,000 in monthly recurring revenue – completely bootstrapped. But how did they grow so fast? “Perfectionism makes it difficult for a founder to release something before they feel it’s ready. You can get stuck in the weeds of how your website should look, what your customer experience should be, the colors you use, etcetera. You get trapped in this cycle where you keep redoing it until it’s quote-unquote perfect,” Eric says.
“We made those mistakes with our last company, so we weren’t going to make them again. Here’s the saying we go by: If you aren’t embarrassed about it, you’re releasing it too late. We took that very much to heart with Coconut VA.”
One lesson the founders learned was not to focus too on branding at the beginning. Eric says, “We had a bare-bones website and our logo was just our name in green. It was super simple. But we understood that that was not going to make or break our offering. Of course, you need to have credibility, so we worked on getting referrals through our personal connections, but we didn’t waste time on things that weren’t going to bring in money.”
Right now (eight months after its conception), the founders are officially turning their focus to Coconut VA’s branding. Before they invest in paid advertising, they want to establish their brand identity, redesign their website, and get a professional logo. “We’re at a point where our systems are running smoothly and we can invest in our brand. If our advertising brings in 50 new clients tomorrow, we’ll have the systems to service and support them,” Eric says.
Can Your Startup Survive Without Its Founders?
According to Eric, a crucial part of operational minimalism is building a business that can scale without its founders. Coconut VA got there by “switching off” founders at different times to stress-test their startup’s systems. As a virtual assistance agency, Coconut VA also uses virtual assistants themselves to do everything from sales and account management to payroll and hiring. All of those operations are now run 100 percent by VAs.
“Our company’s goal is to help business owners go on vacation without their laptops. We go by that same philosophy when it comes to running Coconut VA. I went on vacation a month after we started the company and shut myself off from work for two weeks. We wanted to see which systems would break while one of the founders was not there,” Eric says.
“We ended up doubling business while I was gone! And then all of those tasks I had delegated were taken off my plate permanently and I could focus on higher-order tasks. We did the same with Tyler when he went on vacation, handing off even bigger responsibilities like payroll.”
Eric and Tyler can leave their laptops at home and enjoy time off – unlike a lot of founders who are just starting on their journey. In addition, they have removed themselves as the bottleneck in business systems and can focus their energy on strategy, which will allow them to scale the company more effectively. VAs are an integral part of running Coconut VA.
At the moment, Eric is traveling through Southeast Asia. For one month, he will live like a virtual assistant in the Philippines would, with the same salary and work hours. The founders are doing everything in their power to empathize and understand what virtual assistants go through to help them build a better company. Eric says, “Coconut VA focuses on people instead of profit, and as a bootstrapped business, we can put our efforts where we think it will make the biggest impact for others.”
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