Catherine Walter (Cath) started up DiamondVA just over a year ago in June 2010, having discovered the VA concept whilst lying on a beach in Turkey in May 2010! After reading a book where the heroine was a VA, she couldn’t wait to get home to hit Google and investigate further! Shocked to discover this whole, large, world of VAs that she would have known nothing about if she hadn’t picked up that particular book to take on holiday, it wasn’t long after that she decided to start her own business.

We delve a little deeper into the workings of Diamond VA…

What did you do before starting your Virtual Assistance business and what made you start out on your own?
I started off my working life as a secretary and had various jobs, mainly in the IT industry in secretarial and PA roles. I then joined the police and spent 15 years as a beat and traffic police officer before changing areas due to my husband’s business. I decided not to transfer to another police force and found a job as a part time funeral co-ordinator; mainly arranging the funerals and sometimes conducting them – it’s a bit like event management really. My administration skills came back into the fore when I discovered Virtual Assistance and I started my business whilst still working part-time for the funeral director.

How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
I found my first client through networking – proof it does work! My second client was found in a petrol station(!) and subsequent clients have almost entirely been through networking – it just proves how important and vital networking is.

My one and only client via LinkedIn was actually a telephone consultation with an American consultancy firm who were interested in the UK funeral industry who’d found me on LinkedIn because of my previous employment history listed in my profile, so nothing at all to do with VAs. I am, however, a great believer in the power of social media; LinkedIn in particular.

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?
I didn’t attend any courses prior to starting my business as my background in administration was pretty strong anyway; even the fifteen years ‘out’ as a police officer still saw me typing up statements and putting files together for the CPS. In fact, it didn’t take long for colleagues to realise my typing skills and ask me to do theirs too! I am only just starting to take courses now; I have attended a LinkedIn course and have other courses coming up, including e-newsletters and copy editing.

Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
I do market my funeral experience as a bit of a niche on my website. I obviously don’t organise funerals; that’s for funeral directors. However, I offer the bereaved a service whereby I carry out all the myriad and tedious paperwork that’s necessary when someone dies; I try to ease that particular burden from a family who are already dealing with the loss of a loved one.

I think it’s important to decide where you think your niche might be and take appropriate courses after your decision. Otherwise you can spend a lot of time and money doing unnecessary courses and not end up using that particular skill. Don’t waste money when you’re just setting up! It’s free to read on the internet (well, apart from your ISP fee of course!).

How many clients do you work with now?
I have 4 ‘continuous’ clients and various ad-hoc clients who may or may not become permanent.

Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
I don’t work with any other VAs as such, although I network with one and we have passed each other leads. I think it’s important to work together rather than against each other.

What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
Because I have only been going one year, and only been full time for 3 months, I am not doing anything to grow my business other than networking and ensuring a web/social media presence. This I do by trying to keep up daily entries on Twitter and LinkedIn for example.

What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
The most difficult thing about getting going is time; some people are lucky and hit the ground running with a client already on board; others, like me, have to work for it by getting a website, getting a social media presence and networking.

Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
A typical day for me is to check emails and have a look at LinkedIn, maybe answer some relevant questions. I have an online diary that I check everyday too; I use this to enter tasks I’m due to do, like print out course materials for the training company I work for. I also switch on the 2 phones I monitor; one for the training company (a VOIP phone provided by them) and the other, a mobile phone I answer for a tree surgeon. One thing I have learnt is that I’m not answering any more phones for people. For me, it is too tying.

What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
I recently sent some documentation to a senior executive at a company where the training company I work for were going to be running a course. The gentleman in question was new in his role and I wrote on the accompanying compliment slip that I hoped his job was going well. This was well received and fed back to the training company and it’s now become a bit of an expectation that I write a jokeily-polite compliment slip each time!

What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
Apart from my PC and laptop, I couldn’t live without my iPhone, enabling me to check emails on the move.

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
The best thing about being a VA is the flexibility

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
The worst is doing drudge work like database maintenance, but beggars can’t be choosers!

What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
I would say keep costs to a minimum when you start; check out your local Chamber of Commerce for subsidised courses and networking – there are lots of networking groups around who won’t charge you exhorbitant fees to join them! Also check out the various VA groups on LinkedIn and the VA forums. I would advise someone looking to become a VA to get a web presence and network, network, network!

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