Tracy Baker launched Coffee Not Included in May 2011 after running a secretarial and bookkeeping business for approximately 6 years. Prior to this she worked in the corporate world for a number of business ranging from charities, financial institutions and IT companies. Ever conscious of the growing popularity of the internet she wanted to take her skills and expand the services available to small and medium sized businesses as well as entrepreneurs, so made the decision to investigate the world of virtual assistance. We asked her a bit more about how she made the transition.
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?
Although personally I have many years of Secretarial/PA experience and I am a qualified bookkeeper, I really didn’t have any VA experience ie, taking my skills online at all and felt extremely fortunate at the beginning of 2011 to have been chosen as an Apprentice to beta test a phenomenal Virtual Assistant Programme called The VA Apprentice (http://www.thevaapprentice.com/) run by an extraordinarily passionate entrepreneur Michelle Dale. This catapulted my knowledge and skills beyond belief and gave me the confidence to take the plunge into launching my own Virtual Assistant Company. Honestly I cannot recommend this Online Business Programme highly enough!
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
My first client and job came from a fellow Apprentice on the VA Apprentice programme. I was tasked with setting up his online billing processes but I have since found clients from Twitter and other social media platforms as well as offline networking
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
I would probably say that the online bookkeeping is a niche but my primary aim with Coffee Not Included is to provide businesses and entrepreneurs with one point of contact for a whole host of services that are able to support their business seamlessly whilst they grow. It takes time to find the right people, of the highest standard, who actively understand your business and you as a person so to be able to go to one company who is able to support you in many areas of your business whilst you concentrate on obtaining clients and planning the way forward is very powerful and that is what Coffee Not Included is all about – taking the tasks that you need to do so that you can concentrate on those task you want to do.
How many clients do you work with now?
At the present time I work with between 5 – 6 clients, some are more regular than others but each receives the highest level of customer service regardless of whether they have a one off project or require our services on a more regular basis.
Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
We are a multi VA Company. I do not believe in being a “jack of all trades” and whilst I have many years of business experience my core skills are in the administrative, project management and bookkeeping arena so I work with other team members to provide the website design and development and graphic design elements.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
The vast majority of my marketing is, as you would expect, done online and I use social media A LOT to grow my business – this has worked really well and I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” some amazing people via social media. The main platforms that I focus on are Twitter, Facebook and Linked in. I’ve also found that actively engaging in discussions and helping others on LinkedIn and online business groups such as Ecademy and Business Biscotti has proved very effective.
Recently I have also taken to doing some offline networking as well as I wanted to raise Coffee Not Included’s profile locally so I attend a couple of networking groups on a regular basis and this has been fantastic for building beneficial relationships and obtaining leads – it also gives you a chance to speak to real life human beings!!
There are so many ways to market your business and personally I think you have to find the ones you enjoy engaging in most to get the best return, it’s like anything in life if you enjoy it, you will put more energy into it and the returns will be much more consistent.
I can’t say that I’ve found anything as yet that doesn’t work but some methods are definitely slower than others for example, commenting on other people’s blog posts in your particular target market or getting involved in forum discussions – yes they work but they take a lot longer – for me, social media is 24/7 worldwide and the fastest way of interacting with your audience and potential clients.
What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
I think the most difficult thing for me in growing my business has been in educating people as to exactly what a Virtual Assistant can do for them and how. Specifically with the bookkeeping this has been a major factor as accountancy as an industry does tend to drag its heels a little in the technological world. Some business owners still believe that they HAVE to have a person sat in their office completing their tasks and projects. I’ve found it best not to try and explain too much and send potential clients into overwhelm – now, I simply ask them what tasks they complete on a regular basis that they would love to have someone else do for them, then I go onto explain how this can be done!
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
Wow well I think most VA’s would agree that there is no such thing as a typical day which is why we love the industry so much – you’re never sure what’s coming next! I can be organising travel arrangements, managing client e mails, transcribing coaching calls, constructing spreadsheets. I maintain social media for a couple of clients in the US so that tends to be done in the afternoons although some of it is scheduled in on a weekly basis there still has to be some real time interaction too. I have an online booking system which allows potential clients to book consultations with me and some days I can have a few of those to do. I always set aside time during every day to work on my own social media and marketing too and I keep in regular contact with my own team members to ensure smooth project management for my clients. Never a dull moment!
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
I think that would have to be a construction client who called me late on a Friday afternoon, absolutely panic stricken as they did not have enough labour to complete a large refurbishment job and asked if I could source 20 extra labourers for that evening’s night shift! If they didn’t complete the job by the end of that week they were going to be liable for some very large penalty payments.
I pulled out all the stops, made an extraordinary amount of phone calls to recruitment agencies, job centres and similar and managed to source 20 additional labourers who were able to be on site within hours much to my clients relief, lowering his stress levels as well as saving him a small fortune!
Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes about jobs you’ve done?
Hmm not so much a funny story but a bizarre/fun place to visit would have to be the sound editors at Pinewood Studios. I did their bookkeeping on a regular basis from my own office but visited them fortnightly to collect paperwork and have discussions with them on progress in their business. It is without doubt one of the most surreal places I have ever visited.
I could visit on any given day and be sat at my desk with the Director and whilst collating their paperwork would hear screaming and very loud dramatic music from a horror movie they were editing at one end of the corridor whilst at the other end of the building they were working on the sound editing for the children’s tv programme “In the Night Garden” and there would be children laughing, funny sound effects and nursery rhymes; then if I looked out of my window I would see ladies dressed in Edwardian costume queuing at the burger van for their lunch – it had to be seen to be believed but I absolutely loved it !!
What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
Goodness there are so many!! Dropbox is without doubt an essential for me as well as my smartphone for picking emails and social media messages on the go. My flipcam would have to be on this list too as I blog three times a week and try to do as many video blogs as possible to help people see and get to know me as a person.
The other vital online application that I could not be without, and I don’t think my clients would want to be without, is the secure client area that each new client is provided with at Coffee Not Included. For this we use Active Collab and it is fundamental in collaborating with our clients in discussions, emails, uploading files and audios as well as keeping a running history of everything we have done for them in addition to outlining projects going forward. It’s really important to me that the client enjoys that seamless experience and has the knowledge that everything we work on is available at the click of a mouse.
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
There are lots of things I enjoy about being a virtual assistant. I enjoy the fact that no two days are the same and that I am able to set my own rules if you like. Whilst not knowing what is going to happen in the day can be a little scary at times I have the ability, because it is my own business, to choose who I wish to work with, when I wish to work and in what direction I would like to take my business – there is a lot to be said for having the choice. If I need to be somewhere for my children or decide that I would like to go for a long walk in the Common with the dog then I can do that.
I also LOVE learning and within the Virtual Assistant industry this is essential, You have to want to keep up with the latest technologies and not be afraid of trying new things. I can honestly say I never tire of learning new technologies and get an immense sense of satisfaction from having researched and learnt something new that I know will benefit my clients and make their lives easier.
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
If there was one thing it would be the guilt factor, as I call it. Working from home I have a separate office but when I’m very busy and the children need me for something I do sometimes feel caught between a rock and a hard place. I take my business very seriously but ultimately I am a mother too. I think this is something most work at home mothers would relate to and is not necessarily confined to the VA Industry. My children are teenagers now so it’s not quite so bad but when they were younger and I had my own offline business it could be a real juggling act at times.
The other thing that can be difficult is feeling isolated at times. Because we work via the internet, whilst we connect and talk to people all over the world it doesn’t compare to having face to face interaction – this was another reason I decided to get involved locally with business networking groups and I make sure that I take regular breaks to venture out into the real world during the day too!
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is to find a mentor, someone who is doing and achieving what you wish for your own business. By learning from someone who has already taken that path, made the mistakes and is willing to share their knowledge and experience you will grow your business much quicker with less heartache.
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
To be consistent, always honest and to act with humility and integrity in everything you do.