This is a Virtual Assistant case study and interview with Victoria Tretis from My VA Rocks. Victoria lives in Nottingham in the UK, specialises in offering executive-level assistance, and set up her own business in the summer of 2016 after realising that life was far too short to be unhappy.
What did you do for a living before you became a VA?
Funnily enough, I worked as an employed VA for nearly three years prior to launching my own business. And yet I had no idea that being a VA was an actual thing – I simply thought I worked from home as an executive assistant.
And before I became a VA of any description, I had been in kick-ass executive assistant roles for 15+ years. I worked in the Midlands, UK, for a while, then headed over to Australia and supported the CEO of an amazing insurance company for six months, before moving to London where I became an office manager and then global project coordinator in the finance world.
When did you first hear about VAs or became aware they even existed?
Back in 2009, while I was still working in London, a friend and I had dreams of ‘working from home as an EA’. Both of our personal lives were far away from London (my other half was up in Nottingham – about three hours door to door by tube, train and tram!) and I was sick of the distance. That friend and I dreamed of doing the same executive assistant roles that we truly loved, all from the comfort of our own homes.
But it wasn’t until I became a home-working executive assistant that I discovered there was such a thing as a VA.
What was the trigger for you becoming a VA?
I found out I was pregnant with our second child in early 2016. When we went for an early scan due to an abnormal bleed, the sonographer advised that there appeared to be a heterotopic pregnancy: twins – one was in the right place but without a heartbeat, the other was ectopic (in totally the wrong place).
We were back and forth to the hospital over the coming weeks because the pregnancy in the right place wasn’t growing and still didn’t have a heartbeat, and the one in the wrong place was thought to be a cluster of fast-growing cells. In fact, they didn’t know what it was exactly.
There was talk of keyhole surgery, full-blown surgery, a hysterectomy, and even chemo. In the end, I had a medical miscarriage and the second “mass” slowly decreased in size and life was supposed to go back to normal.
Except it wasn’t for me. Life was suddenly really freakin’ short.
I remember reading, “If you don’t build your own dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs” and it was shortly after that that I decided to resign from my stable day job and start my own business.
Did you just leave your job or start VA-ing gradually?
Because I was already employed via a VA agency of sorts, I couldn’t set up a business alongside my full-time job. Therefore, I did as much research as I could in my spare time, built a website with a “coming soon” holding page and officially went live on the day I was officially “unemployed”.
That leap of faith was REALLY scary and it’s not an approach I would EVER advise to others – do set up a new business alongside a regular income wherever possible.
Where did you find the help or advice you needed when setting up?
Now that I’ve been supporting Jo behind the scenes at The VA Handbook for quite a while, it sounds a little serendipitous to say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t stumbled upon her content, but it’s entirely true!
I joined the free Facebook group after coming out of hospital in 2016 and I immediately felt inspired and empowered to start my own business. There were thousands of new and established VAs already in the Facebook group, and people were willingly offering little old me advice and guidance, and I really did believe that if they could do it, then I could too. So I reasoned that I owed it to myself to give this VA malarkey a bloomin’ good shot.
Who was your first client and how did you get them?
My first client was a friend (read: very old boyfriend) and he needed help with a data mining project. He’d seen me mention the launch of my VA business on Facebook and was keen to outsource the project to free him up to do the stuff he did best. It was a one-off job of about 10 hours and I spent all darn weekend doing it because of a super short deadline. BUT sending out that invoice gave me a little confidence boost at the realisation that I was adulting to the max and actually running a business.
Do you have a niche?
The Virtual Assistant job title is so broad that it doesn’t necessarily cover the wide range of skills and experiences we each offer. I specialise in being far more than helping hands for hire – I provide wing-woman support to clients who have an ongoing need for support, ideas, and advice, as well as being a confidante and an ambassador of their brand.
I gain far more satisfaction and fulfilment from working with clients on a regular basis – it allows me to build rapport and gain a greater understanding of their business and the associated needs. Because of this, I can be far more proactive and add masses of value (read: indispensable. Cue evil laugh: muah-ha-ha-ha-ha.)
As a result, I’ve recently pulled the plug on hourly pay-as-you-go clients – it’s just not where I gain satisfaction.
How would you say you were different from other VAs?
In addition to the above, I have a little team of associate VAs so I’m never in a position where I feel like I’m overstretching myself – there’s always a buffer thanks to the support network I have built around me.
From a client perspective, it means they can refer me with confidence knowing that I’m never personally going to be too busy to take on their work. It also means we have more flexibility to cater to the (sometimes) unpredictable peaks and troughs of client productivity.
It’s also really important to mention that we’re ALL very different from one another. We all bring different values, experience, skills and personalities to the business table – and that makes us each entirely unique.
What’s the best thing about being a VA?
The fact that I’ve set my working hours of 9am until 3pm means I can do the school run every single day without having to beg for time off or compromise my career ambitions. I also love the fact that there’s always something new to learn.
It’s usually around the two-year mark that I start to get bored in a job, but running my own business means that every day’s a school day because the learning potential is never-ending.
What’s the hardest thing about being a VA?
When I first started I was worried about feeling isolated. I was completely comfortable working on my own at home, doing the billable work and motivating myself to do so. However, I didn’t have a clue about running a business or negotiating with clients, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t have anyone to turn to when I needed advice or support.
That’s when the VA Handbookers Facebook group came in hugely useful. The number of questions I would post there?! Oh boy! Yet I was made to feel welcome and everyone was eternally patient with me, offering sound advice or pointing me in the direction of resources that could help me.
Now my issue is that I crave personal development to such an extent that I’ve had to enforce a training course embargo to keep me on track! I would spend all day working on my business if I could!
How virtual are you?
Several of my clients are in Nottinghamshire so I do pop by to see them if I’m in the area, and I’m hoping my US-based client will insist on face-to-face meeting one day!
From working as an employed VA for three years, I know it’s entirely possible to support clients remotely and never see or meet them, but I have to admit that meeting people face-to-face, or at least having a video call every now and then, definitely fast-tracks the success of the business relationship.
How do you find your clients?
Most of my clients have been recommendations – either through existing clients or by connections tagging me in social media posts. OR they have found me thanks to my cyber-stalking via LinkedIn (and Jo’s guide on how to get new clients).
How do you manage your personal/work life balance?
I set up this business because I wanted to see my family more and therefore didn’t want to be forced to fork out a small fortune on childcare every month. It’s important that I stick to my core hours of 9am until 3pm so that I can do the school run in the mornings and afternoons.
Evenings are also precious because I want to spend quality time with my other half. In my previous role, I would have clients calling me out of hours – one time the phone rang at around 8:30pm while I was mid yoga class and the client needed to find a reprographics company to complete an urgent (as in that night) print job.
I’m more of a morning person than a night owl, so if I do need to fit in self-development (working through training courses, watching webinars etc), it’s not unusual for me to be at the desk at 4am to make some extra time without impacting on my working day or family commitments.
How do you manage your clients, their work and their expectations?
When I go through an initial client consultation, I make sure that the client’s needs are aligned with my own. If the client needs someone available to them 24/7 or on a very reactive basis, then I’m not the right fit for them and I’m not afraid to say this. I turned down a prospective client who referred to their previous assistant as a “slave” and who openly admitted they’d expect me to answer the phone at 10pm.
I’ve also declined someone who told me, several times over, that they were surprised I was running any kind of business as a “working mum”. Funnily enough, there wasn’t any comment about how my other half holds down a teaching role as a “working dad”!
So when I have found a good match with a client, I’m very clear on my core working hours and make a concerted effort to only respond to emails during those office hours.
If I do work early or late one day, I’ll use the time delay function to ensure that the email doesn’t actually go out until my core working hours. Also, if a task comes in, clients won’t hear me say that I’m focussing on another client’s work. I have masses of respect for every single one of my clients and I want them to feel like they’re my number one focus.
The way to do this is by understanding what causes them the anxieties in their business and then to mitigate that risk by being empathetic and gently suggesting alternative ways of working to streamline communication.
What technology, websites, or apps are invaluable to your working life?
The VA Handbook website and the VA Handbookers Facebook groups are both lifelines. Obvs.
I’m a slave to Todoist and regularly download my entire brain straight into that – business, personal, client… ALL the stuff goes in there and I’d be lost without it. I tried project management systems such as Trello and Asana but I just couldn’t get on with them.
Some of my clients use Trello, so I’ve hooked up Zapier to automatically update Trello whenever I add a task – that way I’m not duplicating effort, and the client is kept up to date with what’s on my pending list.
Because I support multiple clients, I also have a handful of inboxes to manage. To help with this, the time delay feature in Outlook and Boomerang for Gmail are invaluable! This means I can prep emails if I’m ever awake at silly o’clock, but the client doesn’t receive them until my normal working hours.
Also, the Outlook app on my iPhone has a snooze function which means that an email can come in out of hours and I can ‘snooze’ it until the next day, meaning that it disappears as an unread item in my inbox and reappears at the time I’ve set it for. Genius! The app works with any kind of Exchange and IMAP accounts – not just Gmail.
Would you do anything differently if you had to start again?
I wish I had invested in training sooner. I spent those first few months just bumbling along, second-guessing myself and not really knowing what I was doing. At the time, money was so tight and I was using a credit card to stay afloat so I didn’t see the extra expense as an investment.
However, if I had invested in training sooner I would have saved myself so much time and effort.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a VA?
For aspiring VAs I’d like to stress that there’s NEVER going to be a good time to launch a business, so just take a leap of faith. Do research in your spare time, invest in Jo’s DIY VA course to fast track your way to success, and then take logical action to move forward.
For new and established VAs I’d like to emphasise that other VAs are not the competition. We all bring very different values, skills and personalities to the table and there’s more than enough business to go around.
I’d also encourage VAs to actively seek out others in their area so that they can create alliances and a support network. The skills could well turn out to be complementary and it may be possible to create referrals between one another, creating a win-win scenario.