This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Toks Coyle (née Adebanjo) from TAVA Services. Winner and runner-up of a number of VA awards, Toks lives with her husband in East Lothian, Scotland and set up her business in the Autumn of 2016 after struggling to find a career path she was truly passionate about.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
I grew up in London and when I first moved up to Edinburgh in 2014, I went to college as a mature student to study HND Administration and IT. I had no idea about VAs whilst I was doing it, so I thought that when I graduated I would just go do an employed admin job, which I had worked in previously not long before I moved.
When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?
After graduating my college course with top grades in 2016, I went down the typical route of looking for employed work as I thought that was the done thing. I was never really that crazy about the whole 9 to 5 rat race thing, but I didn’t really know much better at the time. I just wanted to get moving with my career and make a living.
I was doing my job search one day when I stumbled across an article about work-from-home jobs. It was from there that I first came across the term ‘Virtual Assistant’. I didn’t know what it was, so I Googled it and a whole new world opened up to me!
What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?
As I mentioned, I was struggling to find a career path that I was passionate about and I’d also struggled to get work when I was younger. I went through a couple of periods of unemployment and underemployment in the past and it was pretty crap.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the reasons why they happened without employers honestly telling me, but I think it was a mixture of lack of experience, lack of networks, lack of passion for the jobs, my depression, my social awkwardness, and I’m sure some racism too.
Employers don’t always want to want to hire black people or people with foreign names – I was also told this was a barrier in both the UK and Australia whilst I was on a working holiday in 2013.
Anyway, since it was quite hard for me to get employed work, because of not finding the right opportunity or being able to fit into these boxes that they wanted me to, I decided I had nothing to lose by trying this VA thing.
Deep down, I did have a vague idea from childhood about running my own business.
I’d always really admired the likes of Richard Branson and Sir Alan Sugar – I just never really knew what I wanted to have a business in to be able to properly pursue it. Then I found out about VAs and the pieces of the puzzle started to come together.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
During college I had a casual job working in security, so I had still that to tide me over whilst I grew my business. The hours were perfectly flexible and not working a full-time job meant that I could go to plenty of networking events, which was great for building up my network and learning about business.
I actually went a little backwards and ended up getting an office job after I’d set up as a VA. So, long story short, I had a wobble two years into my business, grew tired of the feast and famine aspects, and decided I wanted something stable for a bit to get my confidence back as well as pay for my upcoming wedding.
It was initially going to be just a one-year part-time contract at a great charity that I’d previously volunteered at, but I’ve ended up getting my contract extended twice for doing so well there. I’ve been there almost two years now and it’s a great place to work. It doesn’t pay brilliantly but it gives me a nice stable income that I know is coming in every month.
It’s also handy that it has flexitime so I balance it easily with my VA work. Plus, with it being an admin job, it really complements my VA business (my VA business really helped to impress them in the job interview!) and vice versa – I’m gaining a lot of skills and experience that can transfer from one to the other.
I guess I’ve fallen into what you might call a portfolio career.
I don’t know how long I’ll carry it on – I guess till the charity get fed up with me and stop extending my contract! I can get quite busy and I have to be good at managing my time, but it suits me for now. I do have bigger plans for the future, but one step at a time, eh.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed when setting up?
I looked at quite a few of the VA training websites out there, reading their blogs, and joining their mailing lists and Facebook groups. The VA Handbook was the source I used the most though, and I did the DIY course to get started.
I also completed The Princes Trust Enterprise Programme and Business Gateway (Scotland only) course, which both provide more general advice about starting up a business.
Who was your first client and how did you get them?
My first client was actually my dad. He manages residential properties and gave me the small task of helping him sort some stuff with his accountant. My next client (and first ‘proper’ client) was someone I met at a networking event who asked me to do some customer research for him.
I remember the excitement when I got off the phone call to him – in fact, I even still get that now whenever I sign a new client!
Do you have a niche?
I always found the niche thing quite tricky because my scanner personality (also called renaissance soul or multipotentialite) means that I can find it hard to choose what should be my favourite industry or service.
However, I find that I gravitate towards working with coaches, trainers, creatives, social enterprises and charities. As for services, I lean towards doing general admin, although I really enjoy editing websites and doing social media support – so would love to keep enhancing those skills.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
I’m just quirky, friendly Toks. I’m really proud of my Nigerian roots and know a lot of nuances about Black British culture that perhaps many other VAs wouldn’t, so I do work well with businesses aligned towards that.
Otherwise, I’d say I’m very resilient in overcoming a lot and not giving up.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
The flexibility! I love the flexibility of working with lots of different businesses and people. I find it really interesting and a great way to build up my skills by doing different things.
I also love the flexibility of being able to work in whatever location I want. I’ve worked at home, at various client offices, on the train, in airports, in cafes, in libraries, in the UK and abroad – wherever I can get an internet connection and plug socket!
As my energy dips at certain times, I would struggle with this in a static 9 to 5 job, so I also love the flexibility of being able to work at times that suit me, instead of being stuck in someone else’s schedule or doing long commutes.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of looking for work. I know running your own business means you have to constantly market yourself, which of course I do, but it can be very tiring at times.
When I get an enquiry and clients are signing up, it can be quite an elating feeling and it makes all the hard work and marketing worth it!
I also have this problem with depression and all-or-nothing thinking where I can too easily focus on all the bad things sometimes instead of noticing the good things that I’ve achieved in my work and life in general.
I could get my knickers in a twist about a certain VA not picking me to join their team or people in my network who aren’t passing work on to me. But then I remember that there are plenty of people who DO work with me and support me, and they’re who I should be focusing my energy on.
But I guess they do say that “nothing worth having comes easy” so that’s just the way it is!
If I look all at the positives, I’m actually doing quite well to run a business and undertake part-time work alongside it, so I should give myself a pat on the back for that!
It’s very easy to compare yourself with other people and wonder why you’re not doing as well as them, but we’re all on different journeys and dealing with different things in life.
We also only see what people want us to see and know about. So, for all I know, maybe a VA who I perceive to be doing super well has a bunch of struggles of their own that I have no idea about. It’s best to just focus on yourself and what you need to improve on.
How virtual are you?
Right now during the pandemic, I’m 100% virtual. Before that, I was maybe 90%, 95% virtual, depending on what clients I had on at the time. Some would ask me to physically help at their event, work in their office or take minutes at a meeting.
This is all being done online now and I’m assisting and minute-taking at virtual events. I quite liked the variety of going to physical locations sometimes, so I am missing that a little at the moment.
I’m not a digital nomad (having a mortgage and husband in Scotland would make that quite a challenge!) but I briefly trialled digital nomadism for a month in Bali in 2018, and that was a great experience. I love travelling and want to do more at some point, though.
I’m glad that now I have the option to work online with clients and go anywhere in the world – there is no longer any need to connect work with location!
I would probably lean more towards being location independent – going on lots of trips but returning to my home base.
How do you find your clients?
If I’m feeling brave, I will prospect clients using Jo’s direct marketing method, but I prefer my current method of posting on LinkedIn, connecting my ideal clients and engaging regularly with them every day.
This gets me noticed and brings in a decent amount of leads. I’ve also landed clients from Facebook groups, networking events and referrals.
How do you manage your personal/work-life balance?
Well, I don’t have children so my time is pretty much my own. My husband goes out to work so I have the house to myself all day.
I’m not really a morning person so I tend to work from 10 am to 6 pm or even later – just whenever I feel like it! I try to down tools by dinner time and then have a restful evening doing leisurely things.
I sometimes work one day over the weekend to get ahead of the week but I think I generally manage my work/life balance quite well, especially nowadays. There may have been a few times in the past when I’d taken on too much work and become stressed and overwhelmed as a result.
Thankfully, I have a couple of trusted associate VAs that I can call upon if I need to outsource excess work. It’s lovely to have the benefit of doing that to make sure work is done on time – I don’t necessarily have to turn down any work either.
It’s also good practice for if and when I decide to make a bigger business and have a proper team one day.
How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?
I agree with each client whether we are working together on a retainer, ad-hoc or project basis. We also agree deadlines for particular tasks and schedules for more regular work.
I use Trello to record the tasks I need to do for each client and any related info and deadlines. This helps keep me on track as I can see everything I need to do for the week ahead and plan accordingly. I also keep clients updated as needed and send them regular timesheets so that they know how I’m spending my time on their work.
I’m fairly flexible with communication and can be reached by phone, email, WhatsApp, social media, or video call. I prefer calls to be pre-scheduled and encourage my clients not to call me out of the blue unless they really need to (like an emergency), just because it can disrupt the flow of my day and I want to be well-prepared to deal with their issue.
I try to keep communication between about 9 am and 6 pm, just to set the boundaries of not being available 24/7, and my clients tend to understand this.
What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?
Zoho, G Suite, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Microsoft Office, Canva, Toggl, HelloSign, Slack, Hootsuite, ColorPic – and probably countless others too!
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
I think I let impostor syndrome and low confidence get the better of me way too many times, to the point that I got a part-time office job (the one I mentioned earlier at the charity), which I found through a young people’s job scheme.
I wish I’d known about that job scheme much earlier, as doing that right at the start of my business would have probably made more sense and created a stronger foundation while I built up my business.
But never mind – you live and you learn, and better late than never!
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
This probably goes without saying, but you should definitely do a lot of research into what being a VA entails, as well as what it’s like to run a business if you haven’t already. I don’t know anyone who says that running a business is easy – it’s certainly not! However, if you have the aptitude and a passion for it, then it can certainly be a very rewarding path.
I sometimes get people asking me how they can become a VA and I just refer them to the VA Handbook website as it pretty much answers all the initial questions they have. I would also recommend joining VA Facebook groups to read what other VAs are doing, ask questions and have conversations with them.
Connect with Toks Coyle on Twitter.