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Interview with Bucks-based VA, Shirley Cottam

This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Mum of three, Shirley Cottam. Based in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, Shirley set up her business, Virtual Office Box after being made redundant whilst on maternity leave so she could spend more time with her ten-year-old daughter and seven-year-old twins.

What did you do for a living before you became a VA?

I started my career at the age of 16, straight from school, working in a clerical role at a high street bank. To this day, I recall the Deputy Manager asking if I could type… From that moment I became a Bank Secretary and my surprise career was forged. That was in 1988.

I knew I was destined for more and I enjoyed a career that saw me working in Watford and London for a decade, commuting daily to my role as PA to the MD of a rail industry company.

In 2005, I quit the commute and settled back into Milton Keynes as PA to the Supply Chain Director of a large retail business. It was an incredibly challenging role but it tested my skills beyond my own comprehension for several years. It was a role I loved and the Director, whilst demanding, was a tremendous mentor and friend.

When I had my daughter in 2008, I skipped back to my role. Even in 2011 when my twins were born, I still contemplated returning to work, even if it was absorbed by the cost of childcare.

I had always felt it important to earn my own income.

Sadly, however, the decision was made for me, and I was made redundant whilst on maternity leave. I remained at home with twin babies and a 3-year-old toddler. It was likely one of the most challenging roles I had ever experienced, but I knew the mist and fog would lift and we would all be ok.

But doing what? I had absolutely no idea.

When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?

I became aware of the VA term when I researched ‘Remote PA’ and ‘Virtual Assistant’ kept appearing in my search results!

I wasn’t familiar with the term and almost resisted investigating what it was all about for some months. I believed I was a Remote PA, not Virtual. I had a real bee in my bonnet over it!

What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?

I was at a park with the three children one day when I received a call. It was my former Director wanting my help.

He needed a Powerpoint presentation pulling together ahead of an important interview he had. He trusted me, and I was delighted to pull out the laptop again. I had another purpose in life, albeit for an hour!!

He insisted on paying me for the completed presentation. It was the first time I had earned any money in what felt like years, and it was excellent, and I liked it. I liked it a lot.

He called me, “Shirley, why don’t you work freelance, get a few business cards, a website and let me have the details? I will tell everybody you are available for freelance work!”.

I really thought it was that simple. Hadn’t my former trusted Director just told me it would be?

This Director had been the most influential person throughout my long career. If he said I could do something, I felt anything was possible.

He knew there was another career ahead for me. Any confidence I had lost throughout the years bringing up a young family melted away as I began to research becoming a Virtual Assistant.

Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?

I started immediately, as soon as the children were newly in school.

I set up all the basics such as a bank account, registered with HMRC, paid somebody £30 to design a logo, and then decided on a company name. Virtual Office Box was not my first company – I spent a year poring over web development, trying to build my own site, set up my business, decide what services I would offer, and trying to find clients.

It was horrendous and I was failing miserably.

I knew what I wanted to achieve, but no idea how to achieve it. I consoled myself that at least I had a role as a mummy of three young children. I wasn’t a complete failure, but I really felt it.

Where did you find the help you needed?

In spring 2016, I discovered Joanne Munro. I Googled the term ‘Virtual Assistant’ and The VA Handbook website hit my screen. It had everything that I needed to set up my business. But I was already set up, wasn’t I? Surely it was too late for help.

I spent the next few months busy with the children, trying to market the business by posting random messages on my social media. I just assumed everybody would see my posts – I had no idea about marketing. It was disheartening.

In the autumn of 2016, and after a few email chats with Jo, I bought the DIY VA course.

The weight literally lifted from my shoulders; it was the beginning of a new chapter for me, and it felt wonderful.

Everything I really needed was in DIY VA course: how to set up my business, how to decide on my niche, where to find my clients, and how to decide my rates.

The course provided the most amazing training, and I found the confidence to start my business again – from scratch!

I re-branded with Virtual Office Box, had my logo and website designed and built by a professional this time, and even ditched my “Remote PA” title, embracing that of a Virtual Assistant which, to be fair, makes me feel more part of the team and VA world.

The VA Handbook gave me the tools and support to become a Virtual Assistant AND a business owner.

I also made very strong friendships with other VAs through the course. We have amazing chemistry, respect and support for each other daily. I no longer feel the need to work in an office to enjoy colleague interaction as I have this from home!

Jo has been the most amazing mentor, ass-kicker and supporter. She is phenomenal. She brought us together and helped us achieve the impossible.

It turns out, it’s not so impossible when you know what you’re doing!

Who was your first client and how did you get them?

My first client as Virtual Office Box was a national new home inspection company.  I was introduced to them by an employee and friend who knew I could offer support in their time of crisis. I undertook digital transcription of many internal grievance hearings.

Do you have a niche?

I especially enjoy digital transcription. The simplicity of the resource is what stands out for me, and I first learned to transcribe in the late 1980s at the bank.

Clients are strapped for time, and they have varying reasons for needing audio transcribed.

I receive recorded interviews that can be turned into blogs, grievance hearings, court reports, building inspection reports, or quite simply – somebody that has left a meeting, and dictates a summary for themselves whilst in the car!

How would you say you were different from other VAs?

I may have three children, but I manage my time to suit my family whilst honouring my client requests. I can work until 1am when the children have been in bed for hours or set the alarm and manage a 4am start.

I really love doing an amazing job and making the client happy. I have great testimonials, returning clients and I do this whilst raising a family.

It really is possible to have it all – but only if you put the work into it.

What’s the best thing about being a VA?

Aside from the enormous flexibility, earning potential, independence and pride I feel, I have been able to return to a career I have always loved without having to compromise the time I spend with my children or the expense of childcare.

As a Personal Assistant, it was always my remit to make life easier for the person I supported. To make them better organised, more productive, proactive, and manage their time more efficiently. I have the amazing opportunity to do this as a Virtual Assistant and see my children.

Life is incredibly busy, but you really can have your career, income and lifestyle. I can watch my kids grow up and be there for them. I can also slip out for a run around the lake when I feel like it or meet friends for lunch. Maybe because I started work at 5am, I feel no guilt.

What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?

For me, the challenge was how to undertake services remotely. I had always managed my Director from outside their office! It sounds crazy but setting up delegate permissions etc for a remote client was something I lived in fear of doing. To this day, I don’t know why that niggles me.

Secondly, confidence. Even if you have confidence emanating from your every pore, you can be overwhelmed with anxiety and self-denial. Some of it can come from judging yourself against others and their VA success.

You mustn’t do this.

Everybody, especially once you have bought the DIY VA course, works together to support one another. It happened to me but Jo and my VA colleagues gave me a stern talking to and a bucket load of support, and I was back on track with renewed confidence in no time.

How virtual are you?

Until now I have been working virtually. That said, I have had a few local client consultations and am happy to offer support to local businesses in Milton Keynes. But currently, I am virtual.

How do you find your clients?

My clients have found me via referrals, and the first page of my local Google. But I am increasing my LinkedIn and Twitter followers as my social media marketing strategy is being rolled out and tested.

I do, however, want to network more. People do business with people and I haven’t done enough local networking.

How do you manage your personal/work life balance?

I work very hard but I am, by nature, exceptionally well organised. I use Outlook 16 for my calendar and apply overlays to separate my life into ‘home’, ‘work’ and ‘me’ time. I’m very visual and it works.

Frustrating as it was, I used to spend the first hour of the day cleaning the house and washing the breakfast dishes, sorting laundry etc. after the school run.

Now I have a new daily habit – I sit for 20 minutes after the school run and have a cuppa and read the paper.

Afterwards, I feel refreshed and ready to undertake client work or my own business due diligence. I am a stickler for a clean and tidy house, but it really is important not to become all consumed with domestic chores when working from home. I must close the door to the kitchen now or the jobs would never allow me to do my work! There was no rule to say I can’t leave them and get the kids to help!

When I am heavily involved in client work, I decide to find ad-hoc help. If I spend, say, £25 for my grass to be mown by the local gardener, and (when I am exceptionally busy) I pay for the ironing to be brought up-to-date for say, £25. It costs me 2 hours of my hourly rate yet has likely saved me 4 hours in total.

You must try and outsource.

How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?

With great communication, pre-agreed objectives and deadlines, a known budget and buckets of flexibility. If I commit to doing something for a client, I shall do it.

A client once left me a voice message at 5pm to tell me they had made a mistake and that the 120 minutes’ worth of recorded audio they had sent me needed transcribing by the following morning.  It was urgent.

Unfortunately, they had then left the office, without giving me an opportunity to advise them of my availability, and that I would be applying an emergency rate.

I had to decide how to progress, but really, it was inevitable. I chose to work from 7pm until 1am that night and get the job done for them.

What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?

I work with Office 365 business premium and Dropbox for file sharing. Canva (a paid subscription) for my social media image templates, LastPass to safely store my 98 passwords I’d obviously never remember. I also like Todoist and Outlook’s to-do list.

I have used Trello and Asana project management apps – Trello is my favourite as it is ridiculously simple and visually straightforward, with the scope to upload files and add members to each project.

My Scanner app on my mobile I couldn’t live without and I’m always using Hootsuite and Feedly.

Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?

You probably know by now that my advice would be: buy the DIY VA course. I am evidence that it works. I did not do well without it – I am living proof of that!

I wasted so long setting up on my own. It was quicker to start again from scratch.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?

Join the VA Handbookers Facebook Group. Get to know many of the members. Consider why you want to do it, and how you would manage to be a business owner. Read Jo’s blog posts and research, research, research.

Then buy the course and come and say hello to your new VA colleagues!

Say hi to Shirley Cottam on Twitter.

Ready to set up your own business?

Then follow in Shirley’s footsteps by signing up for my flagship DIY VA course.

With lifetime access and an incredible trainee-only support group, I hold your hand through the entire process and support you all the way.


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