“It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it”: SmartPA

SmartPA co-founder and MD Sarra Bejaoui speaks to GrowthBusiness on her vision to grow her network of skilled and empowered women to return to work after career breaks.

Sarra Bejaoui left the world of project management with a brand new business idea. Where others saw barriers, Bejaoui saw opportunities when she co-founded SmartPA, a virtual assistant company working with entrepreneurs and large corporates for their administrative needs. Off the back of the most crippling recession to hit Britain in recent times, Bejaoui built the bootstrapped business from scratch to bring affordable and flexible admin support to time-poor businesses, as well as to empower women to return to work after a long career break, whether post-maternity or redundancy. Now her team has over 150 trained and vetted support staff, from translators to time managers. This is her start-up story.

What does your business do?

SmartPA provides the business community access to a pool of talent that deliver smart PA services. We’re supporting organisations of any size; whether a start-up, a high growth SME or a large corporate. “Personal assistant” is such a wide term. It’s literally any type of business support. We want our SmartPAs to support these businesses through growth spurts to manage their balance and demand for resource. It’s a really flexible support system that works with the businesses through its ups and downs.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I started off with a project management background supporting high-net-worth individuals who happen to be time poor, with PA support. That was great. I was selling our current CEO our service, and he really liked the concept, but for real growth, he suggested we switch to B2B. it was around the time of the recession where the business need really came through. Businesses needed flexible, cost-effective support to make it through that time.

Technology is at the core of our business.

In terms of our two key pieces we built from the ground up, we have our client management system where we log all our activity with our client, and that’s how we report back to clients. It’s our operating system, if you like. The other piece of tech is our learning platform, which is fundamental to our success. It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it. It’s how we build and design the training and community posts.

For us, those two pieces of tech are fundamental. We’re also currently developing a more customer-facing SmartPA app. That will be released towards the end of this year, and that’ll be a key piece in terms of our growth and customer experience. You’ve got to be tech-savvy now! Our workforce is remote so the SmartPA hub is where our talent comes to for continual development. We have regular monthly bite-sized modules based on leadership and various skills, to ensure they’re engaged and motivated.

We have a learning and development team at the head office. We identify the needs for training and then release programmes to develop that, through online modules in a bite-sized format. The idea is to keep the user engaged through the easy transfer of knowledge. We have videos, assignments, face-to-face sessions delivered through video conference, and more.

We still have a lot of B2B clients we pick up naturally. For owner-managed business, they’ll have personal requirements as well, so we do sometimes have consumer clients as well. Honestly, it’s always more fun!

How did you know there was a market for it?

We recruit returners and high calibre predominantly female workers who want to work from home and see having a work-life balance as a priority. We put them through a rigorous 10-week accreditation programme. The talent is high and the size of our team is huge. Whether it’s bookkeeping or translation, or experience in typing up board minutes or defining a process, we have wide skills under one roof. We work with a franchise model, but it’s more of a partnership, as well as recruiting and training people who want to work from home.

We get approached for our franchise model a lot. We provide the training, all the skills and tools, including the bespoke technology to help our partners work within the SmartPA brand. They invest in the business, which is another USP. These franchisees believe in the model, they believe in the technology, and their passion and engagement are exceptionally high.

How did you raise funding, and why?

We very much bootstrapped. We reinvested in the business, and continue to do so because we’re very ambitious. We’re doing a soft launch in the US this year. However, with our plans in the coming three to five years, we may require investment. We’ve grown pretty organically as well. And I said we’re ambitious, but we do a lot of testing, whether its a piece of technology, or how we deliver the service, or how we recruit or train. We always ask ourselves how can we test, refine and roll out new ideas. Maybe that’s had an impact of not requiring a lot of cash.

What was your first big milestone and when did you cross it?

There have been so many memorable milestones! I think getting our first corporate account, one of the big four, was huge for us. When we first started, we had a lot of SMEs as clients. Getting a big corporate on board was definitely big. Also, reaching 150 partners in terms of our workforce, and being number one in the search engines for ‘smart PA’ and business secretarial services—all highlights for me.

The funny thing is I didn’t have SmartPA until about two years ago. It’s so ironic. I realised I was just so busy running the business, I could do with that admin help. Then I engaged one of the girls and it has really has transformed how I work, my productivity, my focus. I don’t want to sound gimmicky, but it’s really helped me. And even when I meet with clients, I know just how much having that support has helped, so I can talk from experience.

Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

We see ourselves as the number one service provider for business support, secretarial and admin services, both on a retainer basis as well as a temporary, flexible basis. We’d like to be that household name. Within our talent pool, we see that growing to 2000, from our current numbers of 250 trained and accredited partners, and a waiting list of 7,000 people, either interested in becoming a part of our remote team, or part of the partnership.

If you weren’t an entrepreneur, you would be…

Would I still be in the project management world? Well, one of my passions is fitness, and I love working with people, so I would probably do something that involves both by the way of creating a fitness and wellbeing programme or so. I think it’s always got to be about people. I love working with people and being around people.

What is your philosophy on business or life, in a nutshell?

Again, it’s the development of people. The SmartPA vision is to empower women, to help them be as successful they can be in business. Whether it’s through coaching or development, the support you give a person can transform the success of a business. It’s so important to make sure your people are engaged, happy, and inspired, whether you’ll selling a product or delivering a service.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.