This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Jane Oriel. As well as being a VA, Jane wanted to freelance as a writer, copywriter and editor so kept her brand identity options open by using her name as her business name. Jane is originally from Kent but now resides in Caerphilly, South Wales with her husband and son.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
Since submitting my first CD review to a Cardiff listings magazine in 1998, I have remained involved in the music scene as a music journalist, before incrementally expanding into other organising and support roles within the wider arts and media in the UK and West Indies. I remain a juror for the Welsh Music Prize and a judge for the Dance category of the Welsh Theatre Awards.
When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?
In about 2013, I caught an article on Radio 4 about retired people still working. There was a retired PA who said that she worked three days a week from home as a VA because of the internet. Light bulbs went on because, at this point, I had developed a wide skillset functioning as a casual, almost volunteer PA for a media chap based in Amsterdam, and another in London.
By now, a health issue within my family demanded I focus on my role as a carer, and the need to work from home became imperative. I needed to find a way to provide better for my family, and these were some pretty tricky years.
What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?
After drifting for a couple of years and having decided I couldn’t possibly rise up and start my own business, I started listening to a serialised novel on the radio in March 2015. “Ladder of Years” by American author, Anne Tyler (1995), wherein short, the middle-aged protagonist changes her comfortable but mundane life instantly, on impulse, walking away from her old life without looking back – and only then deciding what she wanted to do.
She stepped into the void. I felt so exhilarated by her autonomy, her self-directed freedom that I had to feel it too.
By the end of the week, I had come clean to my bestie and then my family and hit the internet like a complete maniac trying to learn everything, instantly.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
I wasn’t in a full-time job at that point because of my carer responsibilities, so my big challenge was how to get myself from one side of the tracks to the other with no-one starving on the way.
Where did you find the help you needed?
I soon found that there were a number of VA advice and training portals on the net (including the VA Handbook) so I joined the mailing list of a few and read all the materials on their websites. Bit by bit, I found myself unsubscribing from most as I got the feeling that a) the advice on offer wasn’t as grounded in real life as I would have wanted, or b) there were too many allusions to the kind of cliched persona that I could never identify with.
I saw too many pictures of slender, pencil-skirt suited women perched on the corners of desks. That’s never going to be me, and I don’t want it to be either. Sooner or later, I had binned the lot with only one remaining.
In complete contrast to the idealised representation of the VA that I kept being exposed to, stood the refreshingly down to earth VA Handbook, which by default, had become my main VA training resource.
Once Jo Munro had called out her readers on the lure of watching cat videos while sat in your jim-jams all day, I knew I’d met someone who knew about real life and would not only prepare me for my new role as a VA but also help me to kick self-doubts and procrastination into the long grass.
Who was your first client and how did you get them?
My first client was a (now award-winning) graphic design company in the same co-working space as myself. We both started there at about the same time and one them had kindly designed my business card. The project was to research target prospects in the brewing industry.
Do you have a niche?
For a long time, I worked on trying to find a niche but I love variety so felt reluctant to pin myself down. It did occur to me recently though, that my niche is only to work with people who make me feel great every day, and I’m thrilled to say that all my clients do that in bucketloads.
Having the final word on who I work with is a massive bonus to being a VA, I must say. Those who work for an organisation rarely have that luxury.
Returning to the idea of not having a niche, a client in publishing recently recommended me to one of her associates because, as she put it, “it’s really hard to find VAs who ‘get’ the copywriting game. So it’s a bonus that you do!”
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
I think it’s having a hugely diverse field of experience to draw on. Possessing key knowledge of a range of industries (museum/art gallery, TV production, youth music provision, journalism, TalkSport/World Cup, international fine arts, TEDx, and more) has made it possible for me to identify more quickly with the varied business cultures that I support.
To start work already having an understanding of the aims and aspirations of my various clients has been a great benefit to both sides. This also fits with the way I like to work as a VA because I am not at my most content if only vaguely engaged as a resource.
I come into my own once I’m immersed in the client company as a sort of Lieutenant, and invited to have input into best practice as part of a more executive assistant role.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
Self-determination. I run this show. And when I don’t (see next answer), I still run this show.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
Ooh, all’s gravy until a retainer client gives notice, as happened to me recently. It’s not that I wasn’t confident in attracting new clients (I brought three new ones on board within a month), but not knowing for certain if enough money will come in during a month, is pretty scary.
Basically, it’s just fear of the unknown and the only way to conquer that – is to know!
How virtual are you?
I’m happy to perhaps do an afternoon or full day at a client’s place of business but have never been asked. So yes, I am completely virtual.
How do you find your clients?
Most have come about through networking. But by networking, I mean just having conversations and knowing people and what’s going on with them. I have also been blessed by a number of referrals too.
How do you manage your personal/work life balance?
With quite a bit of difficulty actually. With caring for a family member still a part of my life, yes I have the flexibility to work my own hours spread through the day and sometimes evening, but I am pretty rubbish at removing myself from work-related activities.
Part of it is because I enjoy my work so much but I know that I must do more to designate “tools down” days more often. And of course it’s not just client work that keeps me busy, but a whole host of other activities that a business owner needs to juggle too.
How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?
I always keep clients updated with how their workflow is going. Although this doesn’t mean checking in each time an email is sent on their behalf, it’s incredibly important to keep everyone in the loop so they can plan for their next move, once I have delivered a portion of work.
This can range from a written or edited post being ready for them to pass to their designer, the final version of a Schedule of Works that they can now send to the architect, or informing them that all travel and meeting details are in the diary.
Because a strong deadline can be set by one of them (or their own clients), I check in with everyone to make sure I won’t be delaying any of their less urgent deadlines. Our mutually courteous relationships have even seen an occasion where it’s been granted that retainer hours for one month can spill over to the next, as a way of helping me to balance my work life.
As to setting personal boundaries as a way of managing client expectations, I have not yet had the need to set out “office hours” because of the great relationships I have with my regular clients. If I need to go the extra mile, I will do so, but am rarely asked.
What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?
I suppose Trello and Todoist are my faves. And of course the VA Handbook, which goes without saying.
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
For far too long, I was emotionally crippled by the belief that no-one would actually pay me properly for my services.
Since launching, time and evidence to the contrary have continually proved me wrong, but to think that my insecurity had me actually feeling hand-wringing grateful for early contracts at the start of my business, is a bit bizarre to say the least (as well as being a pretty sad state of affairs).
So, if my basic confidence had been stronger at the start, I feel I would have begun my VA life a lot sooner than I did.
Looking back, if Jo Munro had not taken me to one side for some stark truths one afternoon, after month upon month of procrastination, my lovely life might not ever have been started.
Looking back to the person I was in 2013 compared to who I have become now (still with plenty of room for growth and development) the change is profound. I feel I am continually growing into myself and I feel so happy.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
It is never too late to become a VA. In fact, the worldwide demand for highly skilled, independently-thinking administrators is set to increase as the work world continues to change. Also, the freedom and flexibility that comes from running a business that’s not dependent on creating, making or distributing a product mean demand for your services won’t fall with any change in the markets.
If you want to work around your kids? Do it. If you need to be available for perhaps, elderly relatives? Do it! If, for the first time, you want to be the one running your own shizz? Then just do it!
All the resources and advice you need are here, just one click away. So, what exactly are you waiting for?