With a degree in Equine Studies, and an ambition to be an event rider, running her own Virtual Assistance business couldn’t have been further from where Steph Middleton imagined that her life would end up. But after circumstance lead her through a series of jobs as a PA, secretary and project co-ordinator, working with many different people from board level executives and CEOs to small business owners and then most recently for local government, Steph realised that a lot of her skills were very well suited to such a career. In 2010, a combination of staff re-structuring at her place of work, and personal circumstances which required the ability to be flexible with her career, sent her on the look out for work that could be carried out remotely. Having previously come across the concept of Virtual Assistants through a friend who runs an online digital transcription business, she decided to give it a go and Outhouse (www.outhouse-uk.com) opened it’s doors in August 2010.
We dig a bit deeper into the workings of Outhouse…
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 am a very big believer in education and training, and am always looking to learn new things, however, having previously been working in various administrative roles for a few years, and also with a good understanding of business and marketing, I felt there really was very little else that I needed to know in order to get Outhouse off the ground. I was also very lucky in that my previous employers were keen on professional development and as such, I already have qualifications for a number of my skills, ranging from project management, to fundraising skills and Advanced Microsoft Excel qualifications.
Even so, I did start off with a long list of training that I wanted to do to expand my knowledge and the broaden the services that Outhouse can offer, but a shortage of time and funding has meant that I am having to spread these out over the course of the next few years! I did undertake training in Microsoft Access which was something that I wanted to do in order to offer database creation & management as a service. I also attended a few free Business Link and HMRC run courses for start up businesses, which were brilliant for some initial networking and meeting other newbie business owners. These gave me a lot of confidence in getting the business off the ground and helped with the initial scary paperwork that goes with it!
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
I actually landed my first client before starting Outhouse – it was part of the reason that I started, and this really helped in the early days to keep me ticking over and keep the faith that the business would succeed. It was typing up property inventories for a transcription business, but the catch was that most of the work involved a same-day turnaround and so it would come through in the afternoon/early evening and need returning the same night. This resulted in me spending my days concentrating on writing business plans, marketing plans and all sorts of others plans, and then working all night, which did take it’s toll after a while and resulted in a tired and grumpy Steph! Nonetheless, it was a great little job and did mean that when I needed to be out of the office on my various training courses or trips to the bank, my days were free. As the business has grown, I did have to eventually admit that it’s not practical to work day and night every day of the week, and so in July, I had to stop taking on this work. I gave the client plenty of notice though, and she also has a number of other freelance transcriptionists on her books, so I didn’t feel that I was letting her down, which is always a good thing!
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
I’ve developed a few! With such a varied background, there are a few industries that I really would like to target. Coming from an agricultural/equestrian background, I really feel there is a large gap in the market to be ‘The Farmer’s VA’! This has proved to be a tough cookie though, as farmers and horse riders tend to find it much harder to understand the concept of virtual working, as they rarely work from an office themselves! I know that they have plenty of paperwork that needs doing though, and so this is something that I’m working on for the future! At present my niche is actually ‘not having a niche’. I simply provide top quality fast and efficient business support to small businesses. Job done.
I do actually have a couple of sideline skills that have brought in the majority of my income over the past year. One in particular is my advanced Excel skills and I spend a lot of time designing bespoke Excel spreadsheets, often using macros or VBA code to automate regular tasks carried out in Excel. This is a skill that is on the whole self-taught, but having always been pretty good with a computer, it is something I really enjoy. I was affectionately know by my colleagues at work as ‘The Geek’ and did also undertake some training to consolidate the skills that I already had, so now I have the piece of paper to say I can do it, which is aways a bonus!
How many clients do you work with now?
I currently have 14 clients on the books, however the majority of these are ad-hoc clients that send work through now and again. I work with four clients on a regular basis who provide my main workload and have quite a varied client base, who range from a personal trainers and business consultants to a telecomms company and another virtual assistant.
Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
On the whole, I work alone, but have had periods where things have been so busy that I have outsourced work to other VAs or freelancers that have specific skills that complement my own. Recently, I have been building up a small team of other VAs who are waiting in the wings. I’ll be outsourcing more work to them as the business continues to grow, which is both an exciting and slightly daunting experience! Having a team behind me is something that I feel is very important. Even when I started out, it has always been the intention to have a bit of back-up because I don’t want to be in a position where my clients are without cover if they need it. Although I haven’t yet needed to take any time off sick, I did recently take a holiday (for the first time since setting up the business!) and having people I can rely on, who I know will work to the same high standard as me, meant that I could go away with total peace of mind that I’d come back to happy clients and no backlog of work to catch up on.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
My biggest and best strategy has been to simply tell the world who I am and what I do. When I started Outhouse, I began with £50 in the bank and a marketing budget of zero! I gave my business card to literally every single person that I know, had my mum handing them out in the supermarket, and my family handing them out to all of their friends and customers. I had it written into my business plan that by year two, I want to be able to reduce my (now existent) marketing budget due to an increase in word of mouth advertising and I’m so glad to say that it does appear to be working! I’d say that nearly 50% of my clients have come through referrals from other people in the past 6 months and so I think that’s testament that a strategy like this really does work.
What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
My situation is slightly different to other VAs as I consider myself a truly virtual VA. Personal circumstances and a search for the perfect work-life balance means that I do spend part of the year working from my other property halfway up a mountain in Italy! This quite often makes people a bit green, and prompts them to ask “how is that difficult??” but whilst the lifestyle is pretty much perfect, it does make business more complicated. The beauty of being a virtual assistant, is that the tools I use mean I can run my business as if I am in the UK, even when I’m not, and nobody knows any different. I have a UK phone number and work on UK time zones but one thing that I really miss out on is business networking. For me, this is something that is incredibly important, and my own personal experience has proved that it works as my last 3 clients have come through people that I have met at face to face networking events! When I’m not able to do this, I spend a lot of time networking online, through forums and social media, but I personally feel that even as a ‘virtual’ worker, people still want to know that you are a real person. Not being able to attend more breakfast meetings and face to face events has made finding new clients more difficult for me, but I am also finding now that word of mouth is starting to take over and the people that I have met face to face are my best marketing tools when I’m not there to do it myself 🙂
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
Typical of the industry, it’s rare that any two days are the same in my job, and it depends on where I am and who needs me as to how the day turns out! The day generally always starts the same. Working from home, it’s way too easy to get into a habit of actually never going out! So I try to fit in a walk or a run first thing in the morning. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful area with a lot of great scenery, so it’s not much of a chore to be out getting a bit of fresh air in the mornings!
Once I’m back home, I usually switch the computer on around 7.30am and start with a cup of coffee and an hour of doing my own business admin before I start with that of my clients. I check emails, update a few spreadsheets and follow up on any other necessary tasks. I also update my social media sites, and if there’s time, browse a couple of forums or get involved in some discussions. I guess you could call that my alternative to a breakfast meeting! I’m always more productive in the mornings, so I try to get through as much of my to-do list as I can before lunch.
At around 9am, I make a start with two of my clients, and repeat pretty much the same things that I have just done for my own business, for them! I check emails, update Facebook and Twitter, scan some forums for some questions to answer, upload blog posts and check the bank to see which payments have come in. On a normal day, this will all be done by around 10am and from there, what happens next is anyone’s guess! I could be speaking to people about technical queries with their phones, writing macros to automate tasks in an Excel spreadsheet, following up on sales leads or booking appointments for a client. I also answer telephones for two of my clients which are pretty hit and miss with the calls. Some days the phone won’t ring at all, and other days I won’t get anything else done because the phone doesn’t stop ringing!
Afternoons often have a little more consistency. I check emails again for my two regular clients, follow up on any enquiries and do any of the other tasks they need from me. I also try to fit in an hour for myself most days to do a bit of marketing, write a few blog posts or update my website, which is really important in terms of keeping the word circulating about who I am and what I do. Occassionally I’ll get interupted by the cat at about this point, who gets quite bored of being ignored all day long while I’m working, so a coffee break & ten-minute cuddle is quite usual! I try to finish my working day at around 6pm, although this is often easier said than done and it’s not uncommon for me to keep working until I’ve finished, although I’m getting better at turning the computer off and walking away at the end of the day now!
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
It would be easy to answer this one with “being able to be out of bed at 8.55am in the morning and still in the office on time!” but actually, for me, the thing I love the most about being a VA is seeing the effect that I have on my clients and their business. I feel very strongly that effective business support is a key factor in the success of any business, no matter where they are or what they do. That’s not just my strapline, it is actually something that I passionately believe in. Seeing it put into practise, and hearing my clients acknowledge that my knowledge and services have had a positive impact on their own business is why I do what I do.
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
… have you ever had anybody not answer this question?! There’s not really anything I don’t enjoy about my job right now. Perhaps at a push, I do miss the social interaction of coffee breaks and office banter. It can get quite lonely in a little home office all day everyday. There are ways around it though, I’ve just replaced my coffee breaks with ‘Twitter and Facebook breaks’!
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
The best advice I could give to another virtual assistant is to have faith in your abilities and be a professional in your field. Take every opportunity to learn as much as you can about your industry and the services that you offer, and keep up to date with all of the newest technologies. Give advice as well offer services which adds value for your clients, helps give them confidence in you and makes them feel that they can rely on you to be a part of their team aswell as just a useful ‘add-on’.
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
Without doubt, the most important quality of a virtual assistant to be incredibly organised. The difference between being a VA and an employed PA or secretary is that a VA will usually be working with 4 or 5 clients at the same time. Imagine taking your highly demanding, scatter brain executive and then having 5 of them!! All with different demands and different ways of working. You need to be able to keep every single one of them in line, at the same time, and be able to get to know their businesses inside out to become part of the team. If you can’t be organised and multitask effectively, then being a VA is not for you! Having the patience of a saint and the ability to laugh when things don’t go plan helps a lot too!
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