This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Michelle Dowsett from Discovery PA Solutions. Specialising in providing a bespoke personal service, Michelle lives with her family in Kent in the UK and set up her VA business in August 2018 so she could ditch her long commute and spend more time with her children.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
I was a retail store manager and worked in retail for 20-years in various roles across the country. I loved my job, being around people and customers and the variety of my role but due to family commitments and the demands of my role, I became an administrator for a Regional Director.
It was the perfect role where I could use my experience to support store managers and still have quality family time but I was made redundant and then went to work for an estate agent.
When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?
I’d never heard of the term “Virtual Assistant” until a colleague, who was made redundant at the same time set up her own VA business and had real success from day one.
The VA mentioned to me about the possibility of starting up as an associate and supporting her with her clients but to be honest the risk of leaving a well-paid, stable and enjoyable job at that point – and being quite risk-averse – meant I didn’t take any action.
What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?
After a year working for the estate agent, I had a real ‘light bulb moment’. I’d enough of my routine of dropping my kids off at 7.30 am, working a full day, picking them up at 6 pm, rushing them to bed to just switch on my laptop and continue working.
I had a long commute and was not able to spend quality time with my young family. I was tired of trying to balance my life and compromise my family. Life is just too short and too precious, and it was then that I first started to think that being a VA could be a possibility for me with the experience I had.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
I handed my notice in and took a whole summer off with my children and had an amazing time reconnecting with them. During this time, I got myself set up with business insurance, technology and office space and then I started taking on associate work from September 2018.
Would I recommend doing this?
Probably not. I had spent three months, saving as much as I could, so that I had some financial support when I left my job as I knew that I wouldn’t have enough client work straight away.
I had an incredibly supportive husband and family, and this really, really helped because it was a huge risk to leave a job that I enjoyed – and was secure – to literally start a business from scratch.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed when setting up?
The VA that I started as an associate for gave me a lot of support and advice in the early days and she also introduced me to Joanne Munro’s website and the VA Handbookers Facebook group. I was amazed at how much free advice Jo gives on the website, but I was also daunted by just how much information was on there.
I joined the Facebook group but again, imposter syndrome kicked in while reading everyone’s comments and it made me really doubt whether I could do it.
Before the doubt built up any more, I signed up to Jo’s DIY course and, honestly, I’ve never looked back.
Not only does she give you the information on how to set up but she plans it in a methodical way, taking small steps so it isn’t that daunting, and you have all the tools that you need. You can really feel that you’re making progress.
As a result, I finished the course quite quickly. It’s a year and a half later and I still regularly use Jo’s resources to keep my business – and my mindset – on track.
Who was your first client and how did you get them?
When I started, I supported the VA as an associate with one of her main clients and her own admin. She was invaluable in guiding me with any queries I had, and I also marketed my services as her associate.
One of my first clients was a previous employer and I was able to help with some small ad-hoc projects. The client was also someone who knew me and just needed some admin support to help them during busier times in their business.
It was all about just making sure that those who already knew me knew about my new business venture. It was quite difficult at first because I didn’t have a website or business cards, or anything to market myself and looking back, I wish I had set up fully and not just relied on the associate work.
Do you have a niche?
To be honest, working out my niche was a real daunting thought to me. In all my roles, I have worked with large numbers of people; coaching them, recruiting them and supporting them to drive profit and drive business processes. I found it hard to choose a single niche, so I just listed all my skills and it’s probably only now that I see my niche.
I’ve been working on a one-to-one basis with my clients, either helping them with some technology set up or sharing software apps. I find it helps to build rapport with my clients and gives me a better understanding of their business. I talk to them about their business and I am a sounding board for any thoughts that they may have.
I can give them open and honest suggestions. I also assist them virtually with their basic admin, diary management, email management and research – generally any kind of admin.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
I think I am different in how I offer a bespoke personal service to my clients. When I meet them at networking events, I quickly build a good rapport with them. I am passionate about their business as much as I am of my own business and I’m keen for them not to stress about admin and to be able to use that time better and invest in their own business.
I suppose I’m different because I do support in a face-to-face or one-to-one capacity whereas some VAs only like to offer remote support.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
The variety of knowledge I’ve acquired. In the last year, I’ve worked with over 30 different clients and although the tasks are very similar it’s great to learn new things about new industries.
Every day, I learn something new, whether that’s shared by another VA, something I’ve found out from a client, or it’s something I’ve needed to learn to be able to support a client.
I love the buzz of being able to continuously learn.
I have found the VA industry to be incredibly supportive too, especially the trainee-only Rock Stars group and my local Kent VA network. I have personally helped a number of women help set up their VA business by sharing my experiences with them.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
I think, at the moment, probably trying to switch off. It can also be challenging to balance client work with the time that’s needed to invest in your own business; whether that’s marketing, social media, networking etc.
It can sometimes feel like I’m still working the long hours I used to do when I was employed, however, I know that these hours are for me and for my business and I’m investing in myself.
How virtual are you?
Probably a good 50% of the time, I am with clients on Zoom calls or physically on-site with them and I really love that. I love being around lots of people, but I also do enjoy the clients where I am purely virtual and I am at home in my lovely office behind a screen, just focusing on whatever tasks they need support with.
How do you find your clients?
I find my clients in various ways but mainly at networking groups. I have found that attending groups regularly gives you an opportunity to build rapport with members and like to share tips and advice to help members. I also get clients through referrals and through my social media posts, especially via LinkedIn.
How do you manage your personal/work life balance?
For me, it’s all about planning at the end of every week. I plan in detail for the following week, balancing my clients’ needs and my family commitments. I plan my retainer hours for my clients and then I plan the ad-hoc projects that I have from other clients.
I also plan some time for myself, whether that’s to go for a run or to have an hour out to listen to an audiobook, or go to do something leisurely.
How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?
I’ve built a team of associates who are incredible and who help support me with my own business admin, as well as supporting me with my clients. That has given me a much better work-life balance, over the last three to six months.
Managing a client’s expectations is so important.
My retainer clients take priority, so I like to plan my week based on the projects and tasks they have for me and whether I need to be on-site with them. I make sure that they know the work is completed for them and regularly update them.
Communication is so important, and when I first meet clients I find out whether they prefer to use text message, voice message or email. For some clients, I use apps like Trello so we can add and tag each other into notifications.
It really is about the client and using the method that suits them best because after all, you don’t want to add to their workload.
What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?
I have so many websites and apps that are just invaluable. When I’m doing any presentations for small businesses, I share my top ten invaluable apps and these include Toggl for time tracking, Grammarly for spelling and grammar checking, and the LastPass password manager.
I like Zoom as it allows me to share my screen with clients and there is a ‘virtual background’ for when I am out and about. I also use Buffer for social media scheduling, Canva for anything creative, Loom to create training videos, and Doodle to create a poll to help plan appointments in the diary with various people.
There are so many great apps and websites – too many to list!
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
If I could go back to those early days and give myself a little bit of advice, I’d say that it’s not going to be an easy journey being a business owner and if being a VA was easy then everyone would do it.
I’d warn myself that there are going to be lots of highs and lows and not to be too hard on myself – that mistakes only make me stronger.
I’d encourage myself to chase my dreams and show my children that if you work hard, you can achieve them.
I would also say to not underestimate the importance of marketing yourself, whether that’s at networking events, on your social media or just talking to people.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
You don’t have to have a long history of working in admin. My experience was predominantly in management, retail and sales, with only a few years of admin experience but don’t underestimate the life skills that you have in order to be able to support your clients.
Just use the experience that you have and make sure that you are working with the right clients in the right industry, doing something that you enjoy!
Connect with Michelle Dowsett on Facebook.