Claire Fisher and Claire Aikman are the directors of The Invisible Assistant, started in Februrary 2010. They had both been self-employed for a long time but worked together for a headhunting client for 2½ years before deciding they would pool resources and start up a business together.

Claire Fisher came from a financial background initially working for a premium cosmetics house and eventually heading up the Treasury function for one of the largest telecommunications companies in the UK. Following the birth of her 2nd and 3rd daughters she was looking for a career that would give her more flexibility around her family and became self employed 10 years ago. Claire worked on her own for 2 clients prior to joining forces with Claire Aikman.

Claire Aikman had come from a varied background – starting out as a bi-lingual secretary for a German merchant bank in London and then moving to two American investment banks where she ended up running a 24/7 presentation centre hence acquiring top-end skills in Microsoft Office software. She then became self-employed as an IT trainer after her children were born (and continues to do some IT training) but also worked part-time in business development for a headhunter which was where we both met.

As you will see, they had varied experience but also knew a lot of people with other skills and so decided to set up a company offering complete business back-up solutions. It appeals primarily to small businesses, startups and one-man-bands but they have done work for companies of all sizes.

We asked them a few questions about their business:

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?

Our background meant that we had most of the skills and expertise necessary for the activities we were going to undertake or, importantly, we had other contacts with complementary skills.

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

We each had a legacy client which kept us going in the early days, but our first Invisible Assistant clients were two headhunters and a group of entrepreneurs specialising in startup management. The first jobs we did were mailings to do with a special offer, candidate research for a couple of headhunting roles and sorting out a graph in Excel for the entrepreneurs.

Have you developed a niche area and what is it?

Our roles are still very varied, but we do a lot of work in last-minute formatting and proofreading of reports and proposals and general day-to-day management of processes for some of our clients.

How many clients do you work with now?

We have billed 34 different clients since we started but some of them were one-off projects. There are probably about six clients that we bill every month on an ongoing basis, a further dozen or so for whom we work at least once a quarter and the rest are more ad hoc and like knowing that we’re there when they need us.

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

The two of us work together but one of us manages each client. We also outsource some services to trusted contacts who can provide skills that we can’t, for example, Arabic translation!

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

We have had some clients whom we have never met but largely our business has grown through networking and also through referrals. People who have got to know us and therefore trust us to provide consistently high quality work will refer us on to their contacts when they find a situation where we could help. We signed up to some of the “pay-per-hour” websites for work, but found that people wanted work done as cheaply as possible – they don’t seem to understand that we can’t run a business for £5 per hour! We spend far less time applying for those roles nowadays!

What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?

We often come across people who have a genuine need for what we do and who could spend much more time generating revenue and let us get on with the things that prevent them from getting out there. Getting them to “let go” is the hard thing and they often have to reach crisis point before they will turn to us. Another limiter has been people’s perception of our hourly rate. We are probably more expensive than a temp but they don’t understand that they wouldn’t be paying us for a whole day. We recently covered for another virtual PA for two weeks, dealing with problems that arose, some phone calls and diary management. The client was billed for 15 hours’ work even though we were in contact on a daily basis and helping him run his life. The hourly rate may seem high, but the end bill is low.

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

One of Claire Aikman’s clients is a not-for-profit organisation for whom she provides IT training, so approximately three mornings a week, she is on site for them. On returning she will pick up any emails to do with the firm of entrepreneurs and any other work, such as final formatting, proofreading and perhaps an hour of research into a role for a headhunting client.

Claire Fisher’s clients include the regional arm of a national membership organisation for whom she works for one branch arranging events and also takes all the South region event bookings. This means that there is constant workflow from the client and requires balancing with work from her other clients which include a high net worth ladies group and a document management solution provider.

Around all of our commitments we are also constantly looking for marketing and business development opportunities and following up with emails, phone calls and meetings … plenty to keep us out of mischief!

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

We met a client from Sussex through networking and followed up with an email as usual. The following week he hit a crisis – on the Tuesday he contacted us with a PowerPoint presentation that needed serious tidying up and proofreading and then printing and binding ready to go to a meeting on Wednesday evening. In the meantime he was in constant meetings. He handed the presentation over to us; we finalised it; found printers near the train station in Sussex ready for collection on his return from London on the Wednesday afternoon; he collected the presentation seamlessly and went on to win the business for which he was pitching. The perfect outcome and the client now uses us every month, sometimes purely for 15 minutes spent proofreading and tidying formatting of a proposal but other times for more lengthy projects. We were also included in his team Christmas lunch as he regards us as part of the team – a real treat!

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

We were in London for meetings one day and one of us had managed to leave our mobile behind which was the only source of numbers for people we were meeting later that day (pre-Dropbox … see the next question!). Luckily the first meeting was with a potential client who had been referred to us by another contact, so we were able to get the referrer’s number (didn’t feel terribly professional, but the rest of the day was going to get worse without it) and the referrer had the number of a mutual contact for the next person we were meeting so that we could phone to arrange a location for that meeting. We’ve also had trips to London where one of us has left a purse at home … or was that deliberate?! We now run through a checklist before setting off to make sure we have everything we need for the day!

Sometimes the fact that we are both called Claire works to our advantage and definitely makes us memorable. We often get called Claire Squared or referred to as “The Claires”. It can also be confusing if someone calls us and then launches into a conversation before realising that they have the wrong Claire!! At one stage we almost started working with a contact who was also called Claire – that would have been really scary!!

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

Discovering Dropbox was a life-changer – fantastic tool for sharing files between us, with people to whom we outsource and with clients. There’s also an iPhone app for it, so we always have access to the information wherever we are!

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?

We enjoy the variety of the day … the unpredictability of what’s coming next and the interaction with our clients – we’re very lucky that we’ve only had one or two for whom we wouldn’t choose to work again. We know we make a difference and our clients are very appreciative of what we do.

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?

The sales and business development work can be tough – we can see a need and know that we can make a difference, but as mentioned before, it often takes a crisis before a potential client will make the leap to being a client! You can lead a horse to water …!

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

Someone once said to us that it was a brave thing to take an idea/concept and try to turn it into a business. Whether you succeed or fail, you can at least say that you’ve tried. There are plenty out there who aren’t brave enough to take that step!

Having some sort of mentor has been excellent – in our case, we had each other to sound off to or talk through things and stop us heading down a path which didn’t make sense. You should also persevere and not over-sell … we just recently converted a contact to a client after 2½ years of networking with him – make sure people know what you offer and work at building relationships with your contacts.

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

Confidentiality and discretion are absolutely vital qualities and being unflappable helps too. If your client has a crisis and is panicking he/she wants to know that you’ll take over what is required of you calmly and reliably and deliver the end-product he/she needs.