Caroline Wylie started her own VA business in December 2004 and so reaches 10 years in business this year.  At the time she started there was little awareness of VAs in the UK, nor was there very much information for aspiring VAs. As she was fortunate enough to get some good PR surrounding her launch she found herself inundated with aspiring VAs who wanted information. Shortly afterwards a group of Scottish VAs got together to see what they could do to raise the profile of VAs as a whole rather than just their individual businesses. It quickly became clear there were more English VAs than Scottish VAs and so Society Of Virtual Assistants launched in 2006.

The idea was to put all the information centrally so that the same questions weren’t being answered over and over again. Caroline believes very strongly that everyone should have affordable access to best practice materials so that clients are not left with a bad impression of the industry. There’s then no excuse for a VA not to know what they should be doing as a minimum.

We asked Caroline some more questions about her business and about the Society of Virtual Assistants.

What did you do before starting your Virtual Assistance business and what made you start out on your own?

My background is in music and advertising, both industries work very fast and involve juggling lots of different priorities, so it was good training for being a VA. I got quite frustrated with the corporate environment – I hated wearing a suit, I’m not a morning person at all, and the technology was evolving to allow more people to work remotely.

The real catalyst though was my dad mentioning that he was thinking of opening an internet cafe – at the time it was becoming more common to have the internet at home, but there was still a massive need for help with getting the most out of your computer and doing simple tasks like mail merges and spreadsheets properly. The idea niggled in my brain and I ended up going to a Business Gateway Start Up event – the rest all fell into place very quickly!

Did you do any specific training before you opened for business e.g. book-keeping, web-design, start-up business, something particular to VAs and was it useful?

Part of my funding was via The Princes Trust and they offer help with writing your business plan, a free bookkeeping course and also a post launch mentoring service. Beyond that, it was really a question of learning on the job – according to the UK VA Survey 69% of UK VAs have no specific VA training. Back when I started there was one American course, but a lot of the technology, contracts and marketing were not applicable in the UK. Over the years there have been courses popping up all over the place – occasionally I get to see the fall out from inexperienced trainers and it’s not pleasant. You really need to ask the right questions when thinking of doing a course.

The latest UK Virtual Assistant Survey 2013 has just been published and the results make interesting reading. Click here for more information

How did you find your first client and what was the first job?

Because I was a happy singleton when I launched the business, it had to pay my mortgage from Day 1. Therefore I made sure I had a couple of clients before I launched. The first one was a therapist who wanted his calls answered 9-5 Mon-Fri, for which he paid the princely sum of £50 a month…

Have you developed a niche area and what is it?

Not really – everyone bangs on about how important this is, and whilst it can really help you hone your marketing, it also places your business at huge risk if you concentrate solely on one industry. Look at the property market circa 2007 – I know several VAs who specialised and who saw their income drop from £5k/month to £0 overnight.

How many clients do you work with now?

I have about 40 different clients – some are more regular than others.

Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?

I work with a team of VAs on a subcontract basis and the call answering team on an associate basis.

What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?

I used to have employees sitting in the office but this didn’t really work… I tended to find that the majority of our work came in post 4pm when they were just finishing for the day so I still ended up doing the majority of it myself, it started to sound like a call centre (something our clients definitely didn’t want), and I found it annoying to be dealing with employee problems all the time. We had one employee who worked for us for 3 months and took over 30 days sick leave!

One thing which really worked was setting out in my mind what the rules of the game were… At first I was much too nice about people who didn’t fit in with what I wanted to do – they would want to work awkward shifts or mess about with what jobs they would take or give really awful excuses about why they were late with work.

What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?

I think separating myself from it for long enough to plan… I’m often so busy doing that I don’t make time to take a step back and see what it is I am so busy with!

Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?

I describe my job as being The Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine – it’s my job to make sure I know what is going where and to who. It’s actually quite rare that I do much client work.

What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?

Occasionally we have some really tight deadlines – we had a client who was doing a celebrity magazine interview and had real trouble getting the wifi to work in order to send us the audio files – she sent it to us finally at 9pm and she had it back the following morning for 10am.

Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes about jobs you’ve done?

We once transcribed 10 hours of focus groups on handbags… To this day if I mention the word to the VAs who helped me, they will roll their eyes!
I had a meeting with a client who we do call answering for and they introduced me to their neighbour – who was under the impression that I worked in their building and remarked “I’m surprised we’ve never met before – you must work really long hours”. A great reflection on the level of personal service we were able to give, the neighbour really believed I was sitting next door.

Do you think you have achieved your aims with SVA, and what do you still want to do?

Certainly I very rarely come across people who don’t know what a virtual assistant is these days… The awareness raising has done its job.
Although we have a programme of Approved VAs who agree to abide by our rules, I would like to make this much easier for clients to search and the first point of contact for anyone hiring a VA. It would hugely improve standards – we still see VAs working off Gmail accounts and 33% of VAs don’t have offsite data backup – that’s unacceptable. Professional standards are hard to define though – we had so much discussion about what was and wasn’t acceptable even in the very loose definitions we have for SVA’s code of conduct.

What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?

I really do love my Galaxy Note 3. Yes it’s huge, but it can do pretty much everything a computer can do – I am very impressed with it.

I use Kashflow as my accounting system and their customer support is excellent. I ask all sorts of stupid number-phobic questions and they come straight back without making me feel silly.

But my number 1 gadget has to be Smartsheet – it’s like a giant spreadsheet with workspace facilities and I use it for pretty much everything behind the business. Clients often remark about our document storage being better than their own, and I love the shareability.

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?

The flexibility. That word encompasses being able to wear jeans to the office, squishing the nursery run into the day, having really cool gadgets, being able to work from anywhere…

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?

The hours and unpredictability… I do find myself working late at night when we get a sudden influx of work. It can be quite antisocial!

What big things do you foresee happening for the VA industry in the future?

Right now is a very exciting time to be a VA – small businesses are realising that it is madness to hire an employee when they could hire a VA. The way red tape is affecting business, it won’t be long before big business wants that flexibility too. I think we’ll see larger businesses outsourcing their work to teams of VAs rather than individuals. We’ll also see more VAs earning a replacement salary income rather than it being a hobby or lifestyle business. I think we will also see some form of accreditation or training which becomes the accepted standard.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given / you would give to others about growing your business?

The only way to get more hours in the day is to outsource.

What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?

Common sense. It’s not that common actually!