As a relatively new VA I wanted to find out all the much needed  ‘newbie’ info easily to help me get going and build that all important Client list as quickly as possible. But it proved to be harder than I’d anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of brilliant advice out there in forums, associations and social media channels, but fighting your way through the ‘noise’ to get to the real nitty gritty is hard. Time is money as they say, and when I started out I wasn’t sure what to continue reading, what to take with a pinch of salt, and what to completely ignore.

Now I’m certainly no expert and everyone is different in what works for them and what doesn’t, but I thought I’d write about my experiences whilst they’re still fresh in my head.

So I’ll start with what I tried, tested and moved on from without the success I was hoping for – this is easy since there was really only one technique that did fail for me.

  1. Paid advertising. Being new and knowing that I needed exposure for my website I naively made the mistake of jumping in with both feet and spending money on Google Adwords. I thought this would be the best way to get my business in front of the people who would want to use my services. But for me not having a niche or a big enough budget was a real problem as I didn’t get my ads appearing on the right websites, at the right time, or often enough to make a difference.

My caveat to the above would be if you do specialise or have a niche, or at the very least a large budget behind you then you’re likely to have more success since you can appear on targeted websites that charge more per click therefore potentially giving you a better ROI than I had.

So on to what I hope will be slightly more helpful information for any new VAs reading this. What has worked for me and other VA’s I’ve talked to?

The channels outlined below are where I concentrated my efforts and by doing so built up a strong Client base within 2 months.

  1. Existing Contacts: This is a bit of an obvious one but that can often get overlooked. By getting in touch with all your existing contacts; be them friends, family, ex-colleagues, or neighbours, and letting them know about your new business could win you your first Client and bring in your first real project. Make sure you tell them what services you offer, perhaps a bit of background on the reasons and benefits for choosing a VA, along with any introductory offer information (if applicable) to entice people who perhaps aren’t sure. Finally, don’t forget to ask them to spread the word about your new business for you as well – every little helps and you never know who they may speak that is in need of or some business support.
  2. Online networking – forums:  Sign up to any forums that are relevant to you and your services. Small business forums, niche forums (if applicable), and VA forums (IVAA, SVA etc). Upload all relevant information about you and your business and start networking. Introduce yourself to other forum members, get involved in any discussions where you can add value or that interest you, and when possible promote your services – but in order for this approach to be successful you must be active on the forum before self-promotion otherwise you’ll be ignored.
  3. Online networking – social media: If you haven’t got a Twitter, Facebook or Linked In account, get one now! Whilst this can be a bit of a slow burn and a case of ‘what you put in you get out’ (eventually) it is a hugely important step to building your business reach. Start building followers, friends and contacts through your business niche, small business groups, successful VA businesses, ex-colleagues, and once you start becoming active you’ll start growing those contacts. If you want positive LinkedIn responses quickly you could check out Cleverly. You can then begin building relationships by chatting and discussing industry related news. Then finally you can add in some self-promotion tweets, status updates or comments. Just remember the ideal social media split – 80/20: 80% of the time network and build relationships, 20% of the time self-promote.
  4. Offline networking: Find out when your next local chamber of commerce event or small business event is and get yourself along. Don’t forget to bring business cards and mingle. This can be hard if you’re uncomfortable in these kind of settings, and if I’m honest I haven’t actually gone down this route, but I felt it was an important one to cover since I know plenty of very successful VAs who started their businesses in this manner and to this day still have those Clients after building and maintaining a great relationship. In fact with offline networking you are in a stronger position to make a great first impression, build up a rapport and win the business. If you’re a strong communicator, good at selling yourself, enjoy chatting with new people, then this is a great choice for you.
  5. Cold calling: (Although I prefer to call it ‘Pro-activeness’!). Research businesses in your niche or approach already established VA businesses to offer your services. This approach has been pretty successful for me, but to be clear I don’t pick up the phone and call out of the blue, since I find this can be very irritating myself particularly if you’re right in the middle of something, and instead I send an email to the businesses and/or people I would like to work with where I feel my services complement theirs explaining who I am, what my skills are, and why they should hire me. If you get the business or person at the right time you’ve just saved them the expense and/or time it would take them to try and find someone themselves; a win-win situation!
  6. Freelancer websites: This is a bit of a last minute addition and I’m sure there are plenty of VAs who would disagree with even trying this approach, but I won my first few Clients this way and all of them I still work with today. The upside to using sites like KoffeeKlatch, Cleverly, Elance, PeoplePerHour and oDesk is that there are so many jobs being posted daily. The downside is you will be competing with people who are prepared to work for very little money. However as I experienced it is possible to cut through the vast quantity of postings to find Clients who are willing to pay you what you’re worth, you simply need to review each job description well and filter out the Clients who seem like they are looking for experience and skill above cost. A rule of thumb I followed when starting out was if the posting states something along the lines of ‘must have a good grasp of the English language’ my advice would be not to bother as the Client is most likely to accept contractors who can speak English but not necessarily fluently. Whereas if the posting states ‘must be a native English speaker’ then already you’re ahead of the majority of people applying. I will say that whilst this is a good approach for ‘quick wins’, networking and pro-activeness are where I still recommend concentrating the majority of your time.

So as I mentioned from the outset these techniques are what have worked for me and of course will differ for everyone depending on skillset, who the target audience is, and personality types. But once you’ve obtained a few Clients and are doing a fantastic job, being flexible and adding value you are most likely to retain them. Then if you’re lucky those same Clients will refer you and your business will start to flourish through becoming indispensible.

Are you an established VA? Perhaps you could share some of the techniques that have worked to grow your business?

Are you a new VA just starting out? What have you tried so far? What successes have you had? We’d love to hear from you, so please leave your comments below.