We were looking through our records and we realised that one person who’d never been a VA in Profile is Jo, so this month we thought we’d get her to answer the questions we normally get you to answer!
Jo started her business, Expedio Virtual Assistance in early 2003. Her son was 4 years old at the time and she was plotting an escape route from her job as a Medical Physicist in the NHS so that she could be at home with him a little more. It would soon be time for him to start school and since she lives in a rural part of Herefordshire she had limited other options for help after school was over. Though she had been lucky enough to take her job at the hospital to 3 days a week, this still wasn’t what she needed as she wanted total flexibility and control over when she worked and when she didn’t. With her two days at home she started to look for that right something. At the time her only internet connection was on very slow dial-up but she’d been trying to research how the internet could help her work from home. One day she stumbled across a website in the US where they were offering remote personal assistance and book-keeping services, marketed as Virtual Assistance which sounded really exciting. In the UK there weren’t very many people calling themselves Virtual Assistants, even if they provided freelance admin – so she decided to be one of the first.
Did you do any specific training before you opened for business and was it useful?
I’d started an AAT course in accounting and payroll running at a local college in the evening as I thought this may be something that could give me some more flexible opportunities. It took me two years to get qualified but handling the accounts has been a great way in to help clients with their business as it’s often one of the biggest things they struggle to stay on top of. Once I’ve started doing the books we’ve then found other ways I can help. Once I’d decided to open for business The Chamber of Commerce and Business Link ran courses in setting up, which I attended. These were fantastic and it’s quite sad that Business Link doesn’t exist anymore. I also went on a few of the courses that HMRC run and this has given me a lot of background information. I’m a bit of an online course junkie and have taken a few over the years but mainly in separate topics such as Web Design and Marketing. I always want to learn more than I’ve got time to commit to so I’d probably say I’ve done lots of half courses!
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
My first two clients came along at about the same time. One of them needed a book-keeper for a few hours a week and had advertised in our local newspaper. Being so naive at the time I let him dictate what he was going to pay me. I quickly realised my mistake but I did work with him for a year and I had a really good grounding in to looking after the records for a small business. The other client had advertised on an online jobs board called ‘Services Wanted’. He is an Architect based in London and needed some help with audio transcription and converting his daily work diary in to invoices. I’d answered his posting then promptly gone on holiday to Devon. He called me on my mobile whilst I was in a Dinosaur park with children laughing and screaming all around me. Luckily that initial lack of professionalism didn’t put him off and I’m pleased to say he’s still a client 12 years later!
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
With my scientific background then as more clients came on board they realised I could help them with analysing their business data and provide charts and statistics for them. I’d always built my own working tools in the NHS, had created Access databases and knew how to program Excel macros with Visual Basic. I hadn’t really thought that this would take off as a business on its own to start with, but now realise they are skills that are not found everywhere and this has really become my area of expertise and I’ve found myself working with consultants in the Medical and Pharmaceutical industry more and more so I do still have a link to my past life.
How many clients do you work with now?
We have just over 20 clients on the books. About half of them need help most days or at least weekly, the others just need things now and again. My spreadsheet projects are usually one-off things now and that’s the way my business is moving.
Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
I have a fantastic little team supporting me and we’re remote from one another, in fact based all over the world now. I also have some help in my home office once a week. About 6 years ago I rented an office and employed an assistant. Sadly, after about a year, I realised this wasn’t working for me as I was being dragged back in to a lifestyle of being in the office for someone else all hours of the day and was taking me back to square one, even though I thought it was the right way to grow my business at the time. I took my office right back home and started to build my team remotely instead. It’s definitely been a bumpy ride.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
Networking was the big catalyst for filling up my client list from the beginning. There used to be an online networking website called ecademy, which I was a member of from the early days, and they had a local meeting in the next town from me. At the first one I met someone who later referred me to someone he used to work with, even before he’d used me himself, which led to a lot of work back and forth to London too. I also met someone who introduced me to a ladies’ networking group and then things snowballed from there by word of mouth. It took me nearly a year and I had enough work to replace my NHS salary and make being a VA a full time job. I now have clients in the US in addition to the UK but it all stemmed from that first meeting. Conventional advertising has never worked for me. I don’t advertise in phone directories anymore, though I did at the start.
What has been the most difficult thing about growing your business?
The hardest thing has been finding good people to help me, with a technical skillset and a proactive attitude. When I find them I don’t want to lose them but I realise that great VAs are also growing their own successful business and one day they’ll likely be gone. I probably need to consider employing someone, but remotely, and I’m still pondering on the logistics of that.
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
In any day there’ll be a huge variety of tasks and that’s what I love about what I do. In a day I could be doing some email marketing (creating newsletters or emails for generating leads), I could be updating blog posts on WordPress sites or planning the following week’s social media posts, I could be manipulating data and creating reports in Excel and PowerPoint or I could be sorting out receipts and doing Accounts. At the moment I’m also helping a client edit a book, formatting it and adding in all the references. We’re going to create the marketing for the book, which will include a new website and a video to be made.
I do try and be strict now about the hours that I keep. In the early days I’d stop at the end of the school day and then catch up a bit later on. However, this meant that some clients got used to me replying to emails at 11pm and I realised I’d got in to the habit of jumping to it no matter what time the original email came in. Now my son’s older I can keep more regular working hours and I don’t answer emails that come in late now, until the following day.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
A few years ago a client was stuck in Italy after their flight was cancelled but they wanted to get back to the UK as they had a big birthday party planned and everyone was waiting. I hired them a car and had it delivered to their hotel and also worked out the route for them to get home so they could drive back. This information had to be sent in pieces to their phone. That was quite an exciting day. A member of my team also delighted another client after they’d seen a pair of boots in an airport shop that they really wanted but didn’t have time to buy and couldn’t get once they got home. After some hunting the same ones were found online in Switzerland and so two pairs were shipped to them.
What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
I’m still on the hunt for an application that can help run my entire business for a remote team. Our book-keeping, task management, CRM and emails are all in different systems linked together – but I do like Xero, Teamwork and Google Business Apps the best at the moment. If I’m not at my PC then I’ve probably got my iPhone or iPad in my hand. All of those applications work on everything I’ve got and I also update Twitter and Facebook from there, but if I think there’s no-one watching then you might also find me on Farm Heroes Saga – but don’t tell anyone about that!
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
Working at home, the freedom to work when I want and wearing whatever I want. Hours or days off without asking anyone, when I live in a beautiful area for a walk. Deciding what I do and don’t want to take on. Best of all, I love knowing that what I do is really helping someone else grow their business too. I love that I’m able to implement something for them that they either can’t do or don’t have time to do and watch how that increases their own business.
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
Having over 20 bosses that all think their work is number one priority this morning. This is understandable but can be hard to juggle sometimes. Being able to take a day off sometimes becomes in theory, not practice, if I’m not strict about the work I can realistically fit in during a week. If I don’t take time out to meet some friends and go for a coffee then now and again I can feel a bit isolated. In the last couple of years I’ve taken to visiting a local client to do some of their work as they have quite a busy little office now and I can get the buzz back.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
Try to get to a point where everything going on doesn’t rely on you personally. It’s a sure way to reach burnout and still feel like you have a job. Keep looking for the right people to support and help you and keep planning how you can share everything you have to do with some other trusted people.
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
Someone once sent me a job description for the perfect PA and it starts “can take 2 phone calls, set up an excel spreadsheet, book a conference call and send several emails – all at the same time.” This is quite close I think! Other than that I think curiosity and proactivity. It’s important to keep up to date on new things and new technologies. Find out everything you can about your client’s business. Know what they are going to need and want before they ask you – and offer it to them. If they ask you to do something and you can’t do it then at least make sure you can do it next time you’re asked, because they won’t be the only person that needs that service.
If you would like to be featured in a future edition of Virtual Assistance Professional as the ‘VA in Profile’, please contact us with your name & business details.