This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Michelle Rødgaard-Jessen. Michelle is Danish but has lived and worked in various different countries including Spain, Morocco, Brazil and Chile since she became a freelancer in August 2014. She is, therefore, the first (but hopefully not the last) Digital Nomad to be featured on my site. This is her VA story.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
I started my Virtual Assistant business right after I graduated from university with a Masters degree in Innovation Management and a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration and Psychology. Before becoming a VA, I was studying which was an advantage as I was used to living on a low budget.
When did you first hear about VAs or became aware that they even existed?
Some months before graduation I decided that I wanted to become self-employed and freelance while travelling around the world with my boyfriend, who is also self-employed. He runs a company arranging camps and adventures for entrepreneurs.
I had no idea what to offer, but when I found the term “Virtual Assistant” online and I knew that this was it. I have always been very structured with a getting-things-done mindset and I knew I would love to help people with all sorts of tasks. So I started mapping the skills I had from previous student jobs, internships and volunteer work and started by offering administrative tasks and some online marketing tasks such as copywriting.
What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?
The trigger was absolutely the idea of becoming location independent but being able to work with meaningful projects and inspiring people as well.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
I jumped into it the first day after graduation when I got my two first clients. Of course, I made a few preparations such as setting up my website and telling a few people, but that was pretty much it.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed when setting up?
I was lucky to have a boyfriend who is also self-employed and had been freelancing before, so he gave me a lot of advice and shared his experience with me. Besides that, I did some research online (that was actually when I found The VA Handbook website) and I invested in a few courses within online marketing.
Who was your first client?
My first client was a guy from my network who is actually a balloon artist. He needed help with his newsletters. I offered to help him for free to get a case. Luckily, he appreciated my work and he is still one of my clients today.
Do you have a niche?
I started out thinking I could help everyone with everything. Of course, that is not a good strategy, but I’m actually happy I started out that way. After working with a bunch of clients, I quickly realised what kind of tasks I enjoyed and more importantly what kind of people I enjoyed working with.
I struggled for a long time to find my niche and people kept telling me to focus on only one service such as email marketing or similar tasks. The problem was that I really liked sorting out all different kinds of things. When I realised that I could find my niche by focusing on a specific type of client I was so relieved.
I decided to focus on experts, consultants, speakers, authors (people with a personal brand) and primarily helping them with online marketing. I also have a few clients where I have the function of a Virtual Personal Assistant, which I really enjoy.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
Compared to other Danish VAs I would say that I’m quite different. I am the only one who is specialised in online marketing and the only one focusing on the specific target market of consultants, speakers, authors, etc. I guess I’m also the only one who is a Digital Nomad and doesn’t offer to work from clients’ offices if needed.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
The best thing about being a VA is definitely the freedom – I get to work from wherever I want and I can decide who I want to work with.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
The uncertainty. You never know exactly how much you will earn the following month (at least in the beginning) and I had no clue. But it really depends on the stage you’re at.
In the beginning the uncertainty and fighting to get clients was the hardest part, now it is much more about managing work/life balance, managing tasks efficiently and balancing client expectations.
In the beginning, I was being way too flexible and I wanted to be the perfect VA by solving tasks as fast as I could – even if it meant working late nights or on weekends. I wanted to be available all the time, so my clients got used to that. Now I’ve realised that it’s too much and that it was at the expense of my social life, freedom and happiness. I needed to draw a line.
How virtual are you?
I’m a Digital Nomad so I’m 100% virtual. I am currently travelling around the world, so many of my clients have never met me personally only via Facetime and Skype.
How do you find your clients?
My first clients came via my own network – I asked a few of them if I could work on a few tasks for free to get cases and build up a portfolio and some of them are now actual clients.
I also contacted many people myself – people I admired and would love to work for – by identifying a few tasks I thought I could help them with and offering some hours of work for free. Now people are increasingly contacting me via my website and through recommendations from my clients and other people in my network.
How do you manage your personal/work life balance?
That’s a hard question. I don’t think I really do. There’s always some work I CAN do. This is something I’m working on but part of me is also accepting that that’s life when being a freelancer and I’ll just have to deal with that.
How do you manage your clients and their expectations?
I make sure not to take on tasks which I cannot handle and I inform my clients about my processes, so they always know how I work, how they can contact me and how often they will get updates from me.
What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?
Toggl (found it via this blog actually – thanks Joanne!) and it has been invaluable to me. I tried many other tracking systems, but nothing beats Toggl.
Canva for simple graphics is a really nice program to make articles, newsletters, Facebook ads, etc. just a little more professional.
Buzzsumo – when I need to write great content I always start by using Buzzsumo to see what has been most popular on specific topics to get an idea of what works and to get ideas in general on good angles on different topics.
Trello – I use it to keep track of my clients and in general to gather all kinds of information I need for my business.
Boomerang (send later) for Gmail – especially when working in different time zones than my clients, Boomerang is a great tool to schedule emails for later so I don’t disturb my clients by mailing them in the middle of the night.
It can also be used to resend emails to yourself if you prefer inbox zero, but there’s an email you can’t handle right now. Then you can schedule a resend to yourself as a reminder the next day or the following week when you know you have time to take a look at it.
And of course Skype, Facetime, Gmail and Viber to communicate with clients and family.
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
I guess I should have been less afraid of selling myself in the beginning than I was. You can be a lot more “aggressive” than you actually think. I was too afraid to brag and about what people might think.
What advice would you give to anyone considering becoming a VA?
Think about what you want to gain from becoming a VA. What is important to you? For me, the most important thing was to work with various kinds of tasks and work with inspiring people I could learn from.
In the beginning, people kept telling me only to focus on one service such as email marketing or social media – but that was exactly the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted to gain experience with various things as I’m also a new graduate and realising that I could just increase my target market was such a relief for me.
So like Joanne says: find your niche – whether it’s your services, target market or even both.
Also, make sure to set up systems for everything you do so you don’t have to reinvent everything when starting a new task. For instance, I have a list of different models of newsletters – every time I start writing a newsletter for a client, I start by choosing the best model/template for the specific situation.
Connect with Michelle Rødgaard-Jessen on Twitter.