This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Rachel Brown from Secretary Outsource. Rachel lives on the south coast in Peacehaven, East Sussex, her business operates locally from Newhaven Enterprise Centre, and she started trading in October 2007 when she was “the wrong side of 45!”.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
My previous two employed positions (spanning 10 years) were as an Office Manager. I’d been responsible for supervising several staff members, overseeing two office relocations and generally ensuring the smooth running of a busy office on a day-to-day basis which included being responsible for petty cash and various contracts for stationery, office equipment and arranging team-building events.
When did you first hear about the existence of VAs?
April 2007. I attended an event held by my Professional body (IQPS – now known as IAM Institute of Administrative Management) where Kate Bacon was a speaker and her presentation was about being a VA. I wasn’t aware of the concept before this.
What was the trigger for you setting up your VA business?
My last employed position was a fixed-term contract which I knew would end in March 2008. Therefore, I was aware that I would need to find another job at that time but, after almost 30 years working in administration, I wondered about doing something different.
I considered doing a TEFL course as I thought I might work abroad for a while – but I quickly established that this was quite a tough challenge. My marriage was breaking up at the time so I didn’t want anything that needed a lot of studying. I also considered buying a burger van and going into catering but the capital outlay required was far beyond me.
So the option to stick with doing what I do best, but on a self-employed basis really appealed and hearing Kate Bacon’s presentation was a definite eureka moment for me.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed to set up?
Kate Bacon had written an eBook on ‘How to be a VA’ and she offered it as a prize in the raffle at the event I attended. Guess who won it!
I felt it was meant to be.
About a month later, I had a small operation and had two weeks off work. Whilst recuperating, I read the book from cover to cover, highlighted the bits that were relevant to me, did the research, set up documents and generally found out about being self-employed.
Who was your first client?
Although I started trading in October 2007, I was still employed part-time until the contract finished in March 2008. I’m really glad I did as my first client didn’t materialise until January 2008 and it was just a one-day job. I believe my first client found me by my website and she needed help getting her expenses organised and setting up a new printer.
I wasn’t sure whether I could help the client but I feigned confidence and turned up on the day! All went well and I set up various Excel spreadsheets and showed her how to input her receipts – apart from me spilling coffee on her carpet walking up the stairs to her office.
Even to this day, I still get nervous when working in someone’s house and carrying a cup of coffee upstairs!
Do you have a niche?
My speciality is taking minutes of meetings. There seems to be a lack of resources for this service in my area and even if people don’t come to me first, other VAs know I offer this service and often refer clients to me.
I offer a broad range of services to clients and will pretty much tackle anything that helps a business run more efficiently. That even includes clearing out old files and getting dirty!
But the huge variety of things I do means that every day is different and never predictable. That’s what I enjoy most.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
My main difference is that I go out to clients and work on their premises if required. I do also work virtually, but only about 20%of the work I do is virtual, the rest of the time I (and my assistant) work on clients’ premises.
Because I get to know my clients well, I take a more holistic approach to their work and often spot opportunities to improve other aspects of their administration because I’m there and can discuss it with them.
So whilst I might start working for a client doing just one thing but can often I develop the role and make more efficiencies for them. In marketing terms, I think that’s called cross-selling!
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
The flexibility of being your own boss! I like the fact that, if it suits me, I can work at weekends and take a day off in the week without having to ask anyone.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
Cash flow! It’s hard at first when you’ve always had a fixed salary at the end of the month. To not have that security is scary. Because I’m on my own now with a mortgage to pay and no-one to support me if I have a lean month, it makes me work harder.
How virtual are you?
About 20% of my work is virtual. The other 80% I work on client’s premises.
How do you find your clients?
Networking. I firmly believe that the best person to sell your business is you – so I take every opportunity to go and meet people who may need my services. I’ve never been a ‘sales’ person, in fact, I once went on a sales training course but couldn’t hack it!
So I don’t have a problem with trying to ‘sell’ my services, I just talk to people, ask them questions about their business (people love talking about themselves!) and gradually establish whether they have a need for any of the services I offer.
Often it’s a gradual process, where you attend networking events on a regular basis and get to know people. If you can establish yourself as an expert in your field, people will come to you with queries and that’s when you have an opening to offer them your service.
How do you manage your work/life balance?
I don’t! I work far too many hours – but that’s my choice. My son has left home and I’m divorced so I don’t have to worry about anyone else. I can afford to be selfish about when I work and my business has benefited as a result.
I was unlucky enough to split from my husband just after I went self-employed and, although that seemed like a double-whammy at the time, it made me very determined, very focused and very resourceful! Every cloud has a silver lining…
How do you manage your clients and their expectations?
I don’t think I need to manage my regular clients as they know what to expect from me and I know the limits of my purpose to them. In terms of a new client, I spend a lot of time when I go to meet them for the first time – asking them questions about what they have difficulty with, their barriers to doing administration themselves, what they hope to achieve by engaging my services etc – to get an understanding of how they run their business.
What I have found over and over, is that clients don’t really know what they want themselves so it’s often up to me to spot the gaps and come up with suggestions on how to fill them! I very much make the point that I work WITH them, not FOR them and that is a huge difference.
Do you work to set hours?
As already stated, I work a lot of hours. However, when working on a client’s premises it’s usually for set hours. This is necessary because I have to be organised.
My diary is always very full and I only have limited slots that are not filled. I use these to do my own admin or book in someone who has an emergency and needs help. Or sometimes I do the virtual work which can be fitted around the ‘booked-out’ hours.
The trouble is, when you already have a fairly booked-up week, you have to slot the ‘emergency’ work in the only time not filled, which means you have to do the virtual work on weekends or evenings as there’s no other time available.
What technology, websites or apps are invaluable to your working life?
I think it’s necessary to be proficient in all aspects of Microsoft Office if you’re a VA as this is the main tool of the trade. Knowing the shortcuts in Word and Excel, together with PowerPoint and Publisher are pre-requisites for what I do.
And you need to be proficient in different versions of the software too – I have three clients who are still using XP, one who uses Vista and another who uses the Mac version of Word and Excel! With my own computer on Windows 7, it means I have to be versatile enough to be able to switch between three different systems in one day!
Using social media has been a struggle for me but I’ve mastered Twitter and have a presence on LinkedIn. I use Facebook but not for business as it doesn’t fit the services I offer.
The best advice someone (Jo actually) gave me was using Buffer to schedule my tweets. I also schedule blog posts on my WordPress website. Being busy and away from the office so much of the time means I have to schedule a lot of this stuff in advance.
I also use the scheduler on my mobile phone as it’s so easy to just put a reminder in at a certain time/day when I know I’ll have the time to make a call or find out some information. It takes the strain off me having to remember or write endless notes and it also makes me look very efficient!
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
Probably not. Being self-employed and having to go out and find clients is a steep learning curve and there are no short-cuts. I was lucky in having a couple of breaks which helped me early on, but when I started out I used every opportunity I could to network and that has paid dividends since.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
Be prepared to work hard! If you’re starting from scratch it’s not easy and finding clients takes persistence. But it is worth it in terms of flexibility – as long as you are prepared to put the hours in and work late into the evening or at weekends if the need arises.
The one thing no-one told me when I first started out is that it’s not just about doing the ‘work’. When you’ve been employed you don’t see that someone else does the marketing, the finance and sorts out the computer problems when it goes wrong.
When you’re self-employed you have to do all this (and a lot more if you’re going to do social media) AS WELL as the work! That’s where you have to graft.
But I’ve made a success of it and so have many others, so the rewards are there if you put in the effort.
Follow Rachel Brown on Twitter