Interview with Danielle Armstrong, founder of ExecQua

Read how Danielle Armstrong was inspired to start ExecQua, a platform that helps virtual assistants get found – and why she was selected as a finalist in not just one, but two categories of the prestigious UK StartUp Awards 2024: AI StartUp of the Year and Innovative StartUp of the Year.

What’s your career background?

From as young as I can remember, I wanted to work and earn money. I got my first job when I was 15 in a Bradford city centre shop and, after my A Levels, I refused my university place as I knew I wanted to go full-time into work.

I’ve worked in customer service, which I loved, and was Regional Customer Services Manager for Newsquest. I then went on to be Operations Manager for Serco, responsible for the taxi provision for special needs children across the Bradford district. 

While on maternity leave with my first child, I applied for a School Business Manager position in a large primary school. I got the job and spent eight years there – don’t ever let anyone tell you working in a school is easy! 

Did you ever think you’d start a business?

Absolutely not! When I didn’t accept my university place, it felt like school disapproved, and there was certainly no mention of the idea of starting a venture ourselves.

I started my first business at age 39 because I loved the idea of having something that I could shape and grow, and employment had given me a fantastic foundation to do that.

What is ExecQua and where did the idea come from?

ExecQua is a platform that helps brilliant self-employed administration professionals (aka virtual assistants) get found. It also helps business owners, who want to work with a VA, cut through all the confusion to find brilliant business support.

The idea took around a year to form and, over that time, came in several distinct flashes. I’d been running my own VA business, Edge EA, since 2021 and at the beginning of 2023 I knew I had to pay attention to artificial intelligence (AI). 

It felt to me that if the VA industry stood still, there would be business owners at real risk of losing what they’ve worked so hard to build. Not only that, but many of these VAs chose self-employment to meet a personal need; a desire to travel, childcare or working flexibly for health reasons. I had a huge urge to develop something to help these people keep their businesses strong and future-ready.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

The first thing was trademarking the name – I knew that ExecQua was the name that represented everything I hoped to achieve.

Going from idea to an actual business felt really messy, but I pushed through and conducted market research with virtual assistants and other business owners. I also started an online community, AI for VAs, to raise awareness regardless of whether my idea took off or not.

Things felt real when I built a landing page and started a waiting list. I was strict with myself about only taking the very next step and not spending time on things that were further down the road.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Having zero startup funds has both been both an obstacle and a super power. Every business cost has to be scrutinised and it’s amazing what weird and wonderful ways you can get things done when there’s little or no cashflow!

An example is my first landing page which cost absolutely nothing, but instead was an accumulation of my time invested in market research over several months.

And your proudest moment so far?

ExecQua being named as a finalist in two UK StartUp Awards categories. North East, Yorkshire and the Humber 2024 finalist for AI StartUp of the Year and Innovative StartUp of the Year.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) You don’t have all the answers and that’s fine

Thinking you need to know everything can stop you moving forwards. Accept that you won’t know what to do in some situations and be prepared to ask for help, or get the answers to your questions from somewhere.

2) Be inquisitive (aka nosy!)

Ask people about themselves; find out what they love, what drives them, what worries them, what excites them. 

3) Try and fail

Business is often messy and can feel uncomfortable, but doing new things is crucial to growth. I’ve come to accept that failure is part of the journey and I try to learn the lesson it’s teaching me every time.

Find out more about ExecQua.