This is a VA case study and interview with Joanne Manville. Currently living in Devon with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, Joanne launched her business Joanne Manville Virtual Assistance in October 2015. Outside of the office, Joanne spends a lot of time walking on the moors and is also on the committee of the Exeter Districts Scouts.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
On leaving university, I went on to work in an estate agency on the mortgage side. This progressed to being a mentor for new consultants and then on to become an area manager.
When I was a mortgage consultant, it was clear that many of my colleagues were just amazing at selling but didn’t retain clients very well as their admin and customer service was atrocious.
This is where I spotted my true love of admin.
When I left financial services, it was to start a career in administration, as an admin manager and then onto being a PA …. you probably know what happened next.
When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?
I was working in a role as EA to the chief executive and chair and had been doing so for several years. A couple of people said to me how I’d be great at being a PA but for self-employed people. Neither they nor I had heard of VAs then.
It wasn’t until I attended a meeting of our local PA Network where they were hosting the UK VA Awards for the south west, that I really learned about VAs and I realised that what people had been talking about was exactly what I wanted to be doing.
What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?
There were two things.
The first trigger: It was another month preparing board papers, hours at the photocopier producing mountains of paperwork. As usual, someone had decided to make a change to their paper (the most important one for the meeting with all the performance information and key metrics in) after I had finished, so I had to stay late and reprint the whole section and swap it over in the pack.
It was probably around 7 or 8 at night by this point. Then I went out to the photocopier to refill the paper to find out the cleaner had unplugged it to do the hoovering.
I just lost it.
There were a lot of things leading to this point, but this finally tipped me over the edge. Changing the papers last-minute happened a lot and I got fed up with the lack of consideration of the impact on the PAs.
The second one was over a meeting venue. The company I worked for had a huge geography. The board had decided that so members of the public could attend meetings from across the whole patch, they would vary where the meetings were held.
The geography (the entire south west of England) was so vast that there was no way on earth I could reccy the venues. My boss decided as one was so far away, he would travel up the day before and stay the night, having a few meetings at the hotel the day before the board meeting.
When he got there, there were renovations going on in part of the hotel and in his words, the rest of the place was a s*** hole. He flew off the handle and I had to find a new venue.
The first day he was back in the office after that, I took him his morning cuppa with a side order of a resignation letter.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
When I resigned, I had other offers from within the business to do different roles. I could not decide if I wanted to still be a PA or whether I needed something different, or whether I just needed a change of company, so I took a job as PA to the MD in a different firm.
That lasted about six months, it confirmed to me that I wanted to work as a PA but I didn’t want to work for one company … and Joanne Manville Virtual Assistance was born.
I resigned in August, took three months to research and set up and launched mid-October 2015.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed when setting up?
I did a huge amount of Googling, joined every VA group going and attended free online learning about every subject under the sun. I also attended every free business support class offered by my local council.
Who was your first client and how did you get them?
When I set up, I swore I would NEVER EVER take minutes again. Having worked in the public sector as PA to the chief and chair, I felt like I was constantly taking minutes. My first client was someone referred to me by a lady I met networking. It was minute taking.
Turns out I’m quite good at it!
Do you have a niche?
When I set up, I decided my niche would be mortgage consultants, as from experience I knew how some of them found the admin side a challenge, but when I had a client in this field, I remembered why I left the industry.
I then changed my niche to utilise my experience of working with boards, and targeted larger organisations- but that didn’t work either! I ended up mainly minute taking!
Now I don’t really have an industry niche, I market the team we have and the added value and resilience that brings.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
I believe that my experience working at board level and in both the public and private sectors has stood me in good stead, as I had to be very strategic in these roles. This is a great asset to clients as often they find it hard to look inward – I don’t just do, I offer solutions and ideas too.
This means that not only can I offer ideas day-to-day, but I can help clients look at their whole business, and what they are trying to achieve and share my experience to help put this into practice.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
That I am totally accountable. Everything I do or don’t do has a direct impact on my business. I can’t complain about not enough work, as I am responsible for the marketing. I can’t complain about problem clients, as I probably went against my gut instinct when I took them on.
My success is completely down to me.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
Turning away business when they are not your ideal client. I have taken on too many clients against my gut instinct and never learn!
How virtual are you?
I started off working from home and also going to client’s offices, but now I am 100% at home, although would be prepared to visit a client’s premises if it could be beneficial but only as a one-off, as it takes too much time out of the day!
How do you find your clients?
Most of my clients come from referrals from other of our clients, but I have been in business for almost six years. I also get them through my website and networking.
How do you manage your personal/work life balance?
I don’t work weekends, those are sacred. I have a separate work phone and turn that off when I leave the office. I never used to work evenings either but as my husband works from home now too, we are both guilty of going back to the office once our daughter is in bed!
We must both get better with this!
How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?
Expectations are set right from the beginning, from what you share on social media, to the discovery call, through to any interaction you have with the client thereafter.
Sometimes if they leave things last minute and need a quick turnaround I have to push back, but I (touch wood) generally don’t have any issues due to the initial discussions and taking on the right clients.
What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?
I use Avaza to project manage the work for both myself and my team, this saves such a lot of time. I also rely on Xero for my accounting, I love all the financial reports and analysis I can do within it (that’s the finance background!), and Canva as a design tool.
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
I would probably have spent less time trying to work it all out myself and instead get on a VA course which would talk me through and support me setting up a lot faster. I would also invest in a VA coach a lot sooner.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
Think carefully. What transferrable skills do you have that you could bring to someone else’s business? Are you ready to be a business owner as well as a PA to others?
These require two very different skill sets.
Be clear about what your goals are – whether that be work/life balance, or financial, or something else and keep an eye on your numbers to monitor what you are doing and if what you are doing is sending you in the right direction.
Be brave. Do it!
Connect with Joanne Manville on LinkedIn.
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