Our very own Sarah Begley started Virtual Miss Begley in 2012 after moving to SW France. Two years on and with a full client list, she’s found her niche. We asked Sarah a few questions about how she’s built up her 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?

No, I didn’t do any specific training before starting out as a VA. But I had worked in a broad spectrum of roles across multiple sectors for over 15 years, so felt that this had given me a large enough skill set to be able to provide business support services to small business owners.

I also like to think of myself as proactive, able to use my initiative and a fast learner, so I knew deep down that all of these attributes would give me a good basis to serve my Clients well. Anything I didn’t know, I could pick up along the way!

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

My first Client was in fact (like many perhaps) my partner. He runs an online business enabling holiday rental owners to easily build their own website and better promote their accommodation online. It was at a stage where the customer-base was growing quite significantly so he needed to recruit a customer support manager. I took the job!

At the same time, I used PeoplePerHour and Elance to get my first ‘official’ Clients. I know that many VA’s aren’t sure whether using freelancer websites are a good idea. But for me I would highly recommend it. Yes you have to bid on projects and often the hourly rate you submit will be lower than you’re worth, but to get your foot in the door and build up some confidence to realise that becoming a VA is a viable option, then it’s definitely a great place to start.

My first job from Elance was as a project manager working for a computer software entrepreneur, liaising with his virtual staff in various corners of the world to ensure projects were delivered on time, to brief and within budget.

Have you developed a niche area and what is it?

For the first 18 months of getting started I was most definitely classed as a ‘General VA’. This suited me down to the ground whilst I found my feet, and in all honesty I don’t necessarily believe you have to specialise to attract more (or higher paying) Clients.

I do believe, however, that specialising can give the working day greater clarity and purpose.

So over the last few months I’ve completed a copywriting course and am currently working toward making that my niche. I already have a few Clients and am working on a variety of projects, including website content, blog articles, email autoresponders, etc. In fact I’ve just received some fantastic feedback about a recent company sales brochure that I created, which is soon to be distributed nationwide. It was such a joy to work on and their reaction made me realise a) that perhaps I can write afterall, and b) I love it!

How many clients do you work with now?

I have seven regular Clients and an additional five ad-hoc Clients. Moving more into the copywriting world will obviously change things slightly, since I’ll be looking for individual projects as well as ongoing work, but for now my VA business is fairly solid.

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

Primarily I work alone. I do hire VA’s for support during busy periods or for more specialist requirements that I’m not as familiar with. And in fact over the last year or so, I’ve formed a great mutual working relationship with another VA in France – we support each other when one of us is taking some much needed holiday or when things simply get a bit hectic!

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

When I was starting out, my strategy was to find and bid on at least one job per day via freelancer websites, spend 30 minutes to one hour networking on small business forums and LinkedIn, and starting a blog to be able to use social media to direct traffic back to my own website. This combined effort seemed to work well, as within the first month I already had two regular Client’s!

Later, I realised that word of mouth was also a powerful tool, so by giving each of my Client’s 110% I meet and exceed expectations which has resulted in a few of my Clients’ referring me to their business network. I’ve continue this strategy today.

The only strategy that didn’t work was trying Google Adsense. In all honesty though, the fact it didn’t work was most likely down to a combination of not understanding it fully, and being too broad in my targeting. I know other VA’s where Adsense campaigns have worked brilliantly for them – so don’t rule it out if it’s right for you!

What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?

Fortunately I haven’t found it too difficult to grow my business (touch wood!). Possibly down to luck, but I also find a fair bit of finding and retaining work comes down to ones own work ethic. I’m a grafter. I’ll work hard at finding new Client’s until my books are full.

I also believe in giving 110%. And as I said already, I’ve been fortunate to have many of my Client’s refer me on, so I’ve managed to grow my business fairly steadily.

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

A typical working day for me starts by checking email with a cup of tea. Then I write my action list for the day and prioritise.

Knuckling down and getting on with it will go something like this:

  • Respond to any urgent emails.
  • Do the social media schedules and daily feeds that are required.
  • Carry out my regular customer support for my first Client – aka my partner!
  • Travel management.
  • Event organising.
  • Website content creation.
  • Blog article research and creation.
  • Project management.

In between all that I try to get out and do some exercise (I love my Spinning classes), chat to my neighbours and grab a bite to eat!

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

Ooh, where to start? Just kidding …

I guess that one that stands out is for a relatively new Client (which is possibly why it stands out!). She is a Nutritional Therapist and is extremely busy, all the time. She was trying to manage everything herself, but finding that it resulted in her work-life balance being all wrong. Understandably.

After liaising with me over a year before but for various reasons deciding that she didn’t (or couldn’t) use a VA, she finally took the decision to let go of the reins and get back in touch. In the last couple of months I’ve assisted her with project management, website development, content creation and social media activity, and from day one she has done nothing but sing my praises wondering how she ever coped beforehand. It feels good to get such regular positive feedback from a Client and above all, makes you want to give them all you’ve got. Ahh, perhaps she’s formed a very good strategy herself!

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

As a Virtual Assistant I couldn’t live without Hootsuite, Buffer, Google Drive, Toggl and my VPN – the latter because I travel round so much, the rest for obvious reasons.

As a Copywriter, I couldn’t live without Quora, Whitenoise Player and Write Monkey. All help me to formulate ideas, focus on the job at hand and cut out distractions.

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?

The freedom, flexibility and variety of work.

I love getting up in the morning, wandering downstairs in my PJ’s, grabbing a cuppa and sitting down to go through my hit list for the day. I love not having to put on a suit before heading out the door, or sitting in traffic or on public transport for an hour.

And I love supporting small businesses – giving the owners time to work on expanding their business whilst I work away in the background. And most importantly I love seeing their business grow.

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?

The stress that can come with fending for yourself. Completing tax returns, marketing yourself, spreading yourself too thin. Each of these, and million and one other things besides, can be a little more stressful than I had originally thought setting up as a VA would be.

But … I still wouldn’t change things.

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

The advice I would give is to just get out there and do it.

Don’t worry about the skillset you have, since you can learn things as you go. And don’t worry about the competition, just approach people through freelancer websites, online and offline networking channels and through social media.

And don’t give up.

To be a Virtual Assistant takes perseverance, determination and hard work. There are a million different ways to find Client’s and there are a million different business owners needing support that you can provide. As long as you know your skills, know who you want to work for and the type of work you’d like to do, just get out there and go for it.

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

Firstly I’d say a Virtual Assistant needs to be personable, good natured, naturally supportive and honest. Having these attributes will make it easier to attract new Clients.

Secondly from a business perspective, a VA should be super organised, responsive, hard working, reliable and confident. Without these qualities, retaining Clients may prove trickier.