CEDAR FALLS – Mackenzie Thomas is “living the dream” along with her clients.
She’s a multi-tasking mom with two young boys, ages 5 and 3. She’s working at home and trying to navigate the slings and arrows of the brave new world of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But her business may be just the answer to individuals, businesses and nonprofits trying to make order out of that seeming chaos.
She is the chief operating officer Cascade Virtual, a Houston-based company that is in the “virtual assistant” business, founded in 2016. It helps small businesses with administration and organization; social media management; website and content development and research.
For entrepreneurs developing a new product and service, but overwhelmed by the “business” end of the business, a virtual assistant may be a godsend.
“The assistants are all over the United States and the clients are global,” she said. Assistants are hired through a screening process that includes interviews and a resume review and then paired with clients. They’ll communicate through the Cascade Virtual website, or direct contact through phone or text messaging depending on clients’ preferences.
Thomas has a master’s degree in public administration, having worked with chambers of commerce and local governments. But with a young family, the virtual assistant business “was an opportunity for a person like me who has skill sets, who has an education, to still be in the work world and helping other business owners, professionals, perfect their craft with the skills I have.”
She is originally from the Houston area but moved to Cedar Falls, where her mother has worked in teacher education at the University of Northern Iowa the past couple of years, in order to enroll her children in schools here when Houston-area schools encountered difficulties at the beginning of the school year due to the pandemic.
“Our family’s always been kind of entrepreneurial,” Thomas said, and she saw that her firm, Cascade Virtual, fills a niche in that it provides an administrative platform, screening and oversight for both virtual assistants and clients.
“We background-check everybody,” she said. “We vet them based on their resume to get a feel for who they are, who they’ve been with, what they’ve done, before we pair them with a client that comes in and says, ‘Here’s what we need.’ That takes a little time. But we have found it to be extremely successful, in that the people that hire these assistants keep them.
“We kind of take the hassle out of hiring,” she said. “We do all the processing and payroll, they (clients) just purchase their hours. All the assistants are contract employees, but we operate as if they’re employees. We do have a chain of command and oversight.”
A virtual assistant is “basically an administrative assistant or executive assistant, or in super-lay terms, a helper,” Thomas said. “They are able to accomplish for you anything that can be done using a computer or a phone. We’ve had assistants coordinate and manage entire conferences that they never actually attended; they livestreamed it, they managed all of the setup. Anything that can be handled virtually they can handle for you.
“It’s not just business related,” Thomas added. “We have people contact them now to help with personal tasks. Especially now, during COVID. People are home. They have to work. And they have kids doing school. And they still have doctor’s appointments, things that happen. We have people that will manage schedules and make sure appointments are made and not missed. We’ve had parents ask us with help making sure first-time college students aren’t missing things. You’d be surprised what people say they need an extra set of hands for.”
The firm has also been asked to help make sure elderly people who may be receiving some level of assisted living are still in touch with families in the face of COVID, when direct personal contact may be limited.
“With COVID it’s changed things a lot,” she said. The pandemic has encouraged the firm to come up with different ways a virtual assistant can help.
Fledgling entrepreneurs also seek out virtual assistant services, Thomas said. “We have a lot of small businesses that come to us. Typically, they’re like, ‘I opened this business because I’m passionate about’ offering a product or service, “but now I have to do all this paperwork; I have to do social media; I have to do marketing; I have to have a website; I have to manage clients.
“They come to us and say, ‘I just want to make (drinking) mugs,’” for example, she said. “We kind of dive into their business and say, ‘Okay, here’s where you are right now; here’s what we can do to get this far; and after that, let’s review to get this far,’ — kick them further down the road so they can focus on why they got into the business in the first place. Recently, we’ve worked with attorneys, people in sole practice, (with) scheduling; people who have multilingual clients; making sure the communication is correct and secure.”
Nonprofit organizations also have utilized the agency’s service on a project-by-project basis.
“I would say there’s been a spike in interest” in the virtual assistant business as of late. “People are still coming around to the idea. For a lot of people; particularly in the United States, it’s very new. COVID has brought people to the idea. Overseas, it (the virtual assistant concept) is pretty prevalent,” particularly in the United Kingdom.
“As long as we have internet and a laptop, we can service clients and connect them with assistants,” she said.
“People, especially people in business, with genius-type ideas have a difficult time delegating” because they’re protective of their enterprises, Thomas said.
The company tries to show how virtual assistant services can lead to their success. For example, the company offers an initial package with a fixed number of hours to organize their enterprise, then determine how virtual assistant services might be utilized after that.
“People that are coming to us, we really try to foster that relationship and really wrap ourselves around what their ideas are,” Thomas said. “We also know what it’s like to have that business, and have that dream, and want it to succeed. It’s difficult to do on your own.” And a lot of the virtual assistants are entrepreneurs themselves.
The company has 37 virtual assistants right now. “We only hire as we need them” she said. “As we get more clients, we vet more assistants,” compared with some firms in the U.K., which may have virtual assistants in the hundreds. Cascade Virtual has taking more of a “boutique” kind of approach.
“We kind of intended the slow growth,” Thomas said. “It breeds that opportunity for people to hire that one time, and grow with the person they have, as if they were hiring somebody who was going to be their assistant in their office for years. We are available even if people have questions about what virtual assisting is and if it fits with what they’re doing. “
The company already had a couple of clients in Iowa prior to Thomas moving here. “We’re just glad to be here,” she said, noting that the quality of life in the state and the community seems to be like a well-kept secret.