YOU Are the Captain of Your Own Ship

YOU have to decide–specifically and clearly–what you’re in business to do.

If you fall to pieces and think you have to start over the second one uninformed client doesn’t get it or looks at you cross-eyed…

If you blow with the wind every time a client thinks you should be doing this and doing that, you’re never going to get anywhere, and your life and business will be anything but your own.

You can’t please everyone. Not everyone is going to get it. And you can’t be in business to do everything that everyone wants.

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You Aren’t Truly Partnering With Clients If…

I posted this on my forum a couple weeks ago and thought it was worth sharing here as well…

You aren’t truly partnering with clients if you are running a “team VA” business. And if you have other people and Virtual Assistants supporting you while YOU partner with your clients (which I fully support and advocate), you shouldn’t be calling it a multi/team VA business.

People who run their own businesses are not part of your team. And I’m willing to bet that languaging is going to cause those folks real problems with the IRS (and corresponding agencies in other countries) shortly.

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Dear Gritty VA: Can I Collect Unemployment While Starting My Virtual Assistant Business?

I am new to the Virtual Assistant world. I have been laid off so many times in the past 11 years that I have just lost faith in employers. I was given this idea back in 2003 to start a Virtual Assistant business, but was too scared. I was laid off again in September 2009 and my idea came back, but this time stronger, so I decided to pursue it and start my business. I am currently on unemployment and would like some advice on how to run a business while on assistance. My state’s Department of Licensing is no help to me and I am hearing that I have to be very careful having a business while getting benefits. As you all probably know, while on unemployment insurance, you must do job searches and this takes all day. Looking for a job IS a job in itself and is very time consuming. I am single and I have no other income so I need my benefits. –GA

This is a great question and I’ll bet there are lots of folks in the same boat so hopefully my answer will help guide them as well.

Unless they are from your state or local Employment Insurance office, it would be irresponsible for anyone to give you any advice regarding your unemployment benefits. Your state’s Department of Licensing is naturally not going to be any help because it’s not their place. You have to direct those questions to your local/state unemployment agency. Only they can tell you what the rules and guidelines are when it comes to collecting unemployment insurance benefits. Find out whether you are allowed to work on starting a business while collecting benefits. You should also ask how it works if you do happen to get a client and they pay monies to you. Are you expected to report that income? Will it affect your benefit amounts?

Many years ago, I had a friend who started a hair salon after getting laid off. She was able to collect unemployment benefits while still running the business and receiving payments from customers. This was because she was not personally collecting a paycheck and put everything back into the business. This was allowable under our state’s employment insurance rules at that time.

Who knows. Your state agency might have similar allowances. But again, I want to emphasize that you MUST talk with your own UI agency to get the facts pertinent to your state and your particular situation since different states may have different rules.

Starting a business in any circumstance is going to have daunting aspects. At the same time, someone who starts her business under more optimal conditions (like having savings and capital set aside or some other source of income to live on and run the business until money starts coming in) is naturally going to have an easier time of things than someone who just lost her job and has no other money to live on. It can be done, but it’s going to be a more difficult road.

If you get clearance from your UI agency, this will be a great time to really work on setting up your Virtual Assistant business foundations (policies, contracts, going through the business planning process, writing your marketing message, getting your website up, etc.). You’ll of course always be honing, tweaking and improving upon things as you go along, but getting the basics in place now will instill greater chances of success for your business once you are ready to start accepting clients. Once you know from your UI agency how to report client monies should you receive any and how that affects your benefits, that will help you decide how to proceed from there.

Either way, you’ll still need to comply with whatever job seeking requirements they have for you, but as they say, “One day at a time.” Plus, with today’s technology, people can also hunt for work electronically instead of wasting gas and literally spending hours beating the pavement. Find out what qualifies as job-seeking. How many contacts are you required to have each week? Do phone calls to employers and emailing resumes count? And who knows, depending on what you find out from your UI agency, they may allow your business start-up work to meet some of your job-seeking obligations. They may even have some further resources and programs to help you in that effort.

One last thought… I do want to tell folks to keep in mind that while employer paid, unemployment insurance is a benefit you earned by working. It’s not welfare so never feel ashamed about that. I mention this only because I know there are lots of folks who think unemployment is a handout. Those who didn’t work for a living are not eligible for UI, which means those who get it, get it because they were contributing members of society in the workforce. Plus, the goal of UI agencies is to get people back to work. I’m sure there are some backwards agencies out there with their heads up their bureaucratic butts, but I know there are just as many that offer a great deal of assistance and programs to help you in your business starting efforts, not hold you back. I know it might be a lot of work, but keep fighting to get the info and help you need. Good luck!

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Stealing is Not Love

What does love mean to you? How about in the global sense, toward people who aren’t your family or friends? Strangers even.

I mean, we probably don’t “love” people we don’t know in the same way we do our family,  friends and those closest to us. But isn’t it safe to say that most of us wish our fellow human beings well?

I think so. If you spend any time on the Internet, you really gain an overall sense of what I think is a predominant sentiment: That we are all here on this Earth to help each other and do good. Get to the core of anyone’s passionate purpose and my bet is you’ll see that as the root (well, maybe most of the time, LOL).

Fame and fortune aren’t what make people truly happy. They are often byproducts of finding one’s passion and purpose, but it’s doing something good and helpful for others where people find their true purpose and sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.

Would you agree?

This is how I see the world. That we are all here to help one another. It’s a form of love, if you like. It’s what makes the world go ‘round.

Those of us who have been in business awhile, who have actual expertise and success, often create products and training that we charge for. And rightly so. There is nothing wrong with making money from the expertise and intellectual capital you have fairly and squarely earned and want to share. In fact, it sets a good business example for those who would like to become successful in their own businesses as well. Catering to the poverty mindset is not helpful to anyone whatsoever.

Unfortunately, there are many folks out there who aren’t experts, who have no background, who haven’t accomplished any level of success in their own business, who haven’t in any way, shape or form put in the time and sweat to earn and develop their own intellectual capital, but will stoop to stealing from those who have and offering it as their own.

Stealing is not love, folks. It’s not a form of flattery. It’s not a compliment. It’s theft of the recognition and remuneration of the rightful owners. It breeds distrust and dishonesty. And we can’t tolerate that kind of thing in the world, much less our profession, if we expect to make it a better place.

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Dear Gritty VA: How Do I Figure Out What to Charge?

Dear Gritty VA:

How do you go about getting the pricing of the services offered? What do I need to take into consideration to have rates/pricing in accordance with the market and services? How do you work out the hourly rate you should be charging as a Virtual Assistant? –HJ

The answer to this question is a bit involved. It can’t be done in a blog post. Rather, pricing is a field of learning unto itself, one that will be ongoing throughout the life of your business. However, I’ve written a little guide called Danielle’s Pricing Primer to help get you started in the right direction. It’s free–just click on the image link below:

Danielle's Pricing Primer (click to download free PDF)

Feel free to share it with others or give them the link here.

:)

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Dear Gritty VA: Do I Have Enough Experience to Be a Virtual Assistant?

Dear Gritty VA:

I only have 2 years experience as an Executive Assistant and 6 years as a Receptionist/Data Entry Clerk. Could I still be a Virtual Assistant? Any suggestions are helpful. –BT

Well, it’s not really for me to say. It’s what the marketplace has to say.

What I mean is, yes, the Virtual Assistant/Administrative Support Consultant profession definitely has ideas, opinions and expectations about what the qualifications should be of those who want to enter its ranks. The Virtual Assistant community generally wants to protect the reputation and credibility of the profession in the interests of clients and VAs alike. But ultimately, this is an unregulated industry so no one can tell you that you can’t open a Virtual Assistant business if that’s what you want to do.

That said, clients have very demanding expectations. So the better question might be, do you have enough experience that you will be professionally qualified enough to meet those demands? Business savvy also plays a critical role here because if you don’t know how to run and manage business well, that also will directly impact your service to clients and their satisfaction. If you don’t have a sufficient level of these things, are you prepared to deal with the extra difficulty and rejection you might face? Do you have the stamina, perseverance and tenacity to keep working on whatever you need to work on to get to a level that is marketable? The less skill and experience you have, the much more difficult a path you face. It will be much harder for you to command the kind of fees that will earn you a real living and it may take you much longer to get established. You can be the most likable person on the planet and have no problem developing rapport with prospective clients, but when it comes right down to it, the proof is in the pudding. Clients get frustrated (and do not work long) with VAs who don’t have a business level of skill and ability.

What I might personally recommend is that it might be a good idea to stay in the workforce a few more years. Grab every opportunity to grow in your administrative and support skills and at the same time become a student of business (and I don’t mean enrolling in an MBA program–simply start reading business books). Use this time now to start thinking about a target market and studying what kind of administrative needs and challenges that market has and how you can support those needs and solve those challenges. Lay the foundation of your business now so that when the time is right and you’ve got enough business knowledge and marketable expertise under your belt, you will be more prepared for success.

Then again, maybe you feel you’ve already got what it takes. If so, go for it. ;)

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There’s No Such Thing as Social Networking

Ha! That got your attention, didn’t it. Let me explain…

Social networking is nothing new. It’s simply the latest catch phrase for something that has always existed and will continue to exist in business: networking and relationship marketing. The only thing that’s different is that we have new technology tools available for nurturing and facilitating those things.

Now, I’m not saying social networking is bad or not to use social networking tools. Not at all. Just be smart about it. Use your head. Know your target market. It makes little sense to expend days and months twittering away if that’s not where your serious clients are spending their time and all you have to show for your effort are a few nickel and dime project customers.

So here are some questions that might help you gain some productive direction in your social networking efforts:

1. Is your target market there?
If not, you might as well be blowing smoke in the wind. If your target market has its own, more concentrated industry forums and groups, your time and energy might be more productively spent in those places.

2. Are the interactions meaningful?
If you and your prospective clients aren’t able to really engage, might there be quicker or more effective means to get in front of them and really connect?

3. What’s the ROI (return on investment)? You want to engage in networking activities that yield the highest, greatest return for your marketing/networking time, energy and budget.

4. Is your effectiveness being diluted by spreading yourself too thin trying to everywhere?
You can do a lot of things not very well or you can do one or two things super duper well. Don’t be afraid to buck the bangwagons and stick to your favorite platform for better results.

5. Are you being interesting?
Remember what you’re there for. Prospective clients are interested in how you can help them. Tie your conversations to that interest whenever possible. Provide good info and also ask questions to learn more about them. Clients are also people: don’t bore them. They don’t care what you had for breakfast or that you are now taking the garbage out, but sharing a funny anecdote or the day’s pet peeves can be great conversation starters that also let them see you as a real person.

Social networking can be a great leveraging tool for finding and getting to know new prospects and drawing them into your own pipelines. Done without any thought or intention, it can also be a complete waste of time. Do your homework so the former is the case for you. :)

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Dear Gritty VA: Should I Point Out Errors on Other Virtual Assistant Sites?

Dear Gritty VA:

I can’t tell you the number of times that I have looked at another Virtual Assistant’s website, taken a deep breath, sighed, and just continued reading.  But 5, 10, even 15 minutes later I will still be struggling with whether or not I should have emailed the VA and told them about the error.  You see, I am an administrative professional who has been in the business for 20 years and am now starting my VA business.  One of my special talents is proofreading.  So I think…this person is NOT going to appreciate me, the newbie in town, emailing them to point out the spelling error, grammatical error or formatting problem on their VA website.  Yet…it bothers me.  This is our profession and our website represents who we are and the work that we do.  I learned the hard way to review, review, and once again review.  I worked in the actuarial field for the last 5 years and let me tell you…those folks are very difficult to communicate with and they demand perfection the first time that you return a document to them.  I refused to make mistakes and be caught. So I walk away wondering if I should contact the VA and take a chance that they think that I am being rude by pointing out the errors or do I disregard it?  I know that my work is NOT always perfect but if these websites had been reviewed these errors would have been caught because they are obvious errors.  I prefer to do what I think is the right thing, take screen shots and send the VA the info.  I have found three websites with errors in the last two weeks and the Virtual Assistants all appear to be well spoken and high level (some of these websites were created by Virtual Assistants who are members listed in the VACOC Directory – I found some of these errors while doing research for my own company).  Personally, I think that these Virtual Assistants should hire me to proofread their websites (totally tongue in cheek there but I just had to say it). So…what do you think?  Do I contact them, or not?  By the way…I proofread this email several times before sending it (and pasted it in Word and performed a spellcheck on it).  Yes, I am a perfectionist but my name is on this email after all. –KG

The first question that pops into my head is why are you spending so much time on other Virtual Assistant sites? The people and sites and businesses you should be studying and getting to know are those of your core target market.

What will be helpful in this situation is getting really honest and clear about the underlying intention. The danger here, as you suspect, is that your approach may engender resentment, rather than appreciation. And the reason it could is because there’s a different feeling and tone between a) randomly reading someone’s site, finding a typo and shooting off a quick, friendly email to let them know, and b) going out of your way to find every error, spending an inexplicable amount of time and energy taking screenshots, and doing what really amounts to free work for people who aren’t even your clients. All that effort and energy would be more productively focused on developing your own business and clients.

As you mention, no one is perfect. One of my mentors is a multi-millionaire consultant renowned the world over who takes great pride in his vocabulary and command of the language. He can be quite pedantic when it comes to grammar and even he has typos and misspellings on his websites and blog posts now and then. It doesn’t bother me. It’s certainly always the goal to “dress the part” as much as possible, but a few occasional typos here and there do not diminish his standing and wisdom nor detract from the message. Those are cosmetic things that are quickly and easily corrected.

Personally, I always appreciate someone who takes a moment of their valuable time to let me know of little innocuous errors (which can happen even when you have your own proofreaders) as long as it is done in the spirit of helpfulness. Yes, it is true that there are always a few people calling themselves Virtual Assistants who have very poor grammar and communication skills. But it’s probably safe to say that the last thing you’d want is to be viewed as a busy-body. There can be a very fine line between being helpful and being presumptuous. It’s one thing to discuss standards and expectations in an industry, entirely another to barge into someone’s house, so to speak, via an email pointing out their personal gaffs and shortcomings (which is what that might feel like to the recipient). Ultimately, their business is their responsibility.

If you have impeccable grammar and proofreading skills, emphasize those attributes to your own prospective clients. If you come across a typo on someone’s site, let them know about it as a friendly favor if you are so inclined. Beyond that? Let it go. It’s not your kettle of fish to fry. Save your energy and focus for your own business. :)

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Administrative Support IS a Speciality All Its Own

Guess what, people? Administrative support IS a specialty in and of itself. You CAN specialize in just administrative support and do as well as any other kind of specialized service professional. The problem, the reason why clients don’t get it much of the time and why Virtual Assistants as an industry are not earning well, is because they continue to call anything and everything Virtual Assistance and lump everything under the sun under the Virtual Assistant umbrella. When something doesn’t have any definition, then it isn’t anything at all, least of all a profession. And clients don’t pay well for something that is nothing. They view it as merely gopher work.

If VAs would simply stop trying to call everything Virtual Assistance and learn to identify, define and separate business categories for themselves (and not let clients define that for them), they could begin to earn better. They could charge one retainer for administrative support and then charge separately for work and projects that fall under different business categories entirely.

A good example of this is the argument I hear new Virtual Assistants put forth constantly. “Well, when I was an executive assistant, I also did bookkeeping and web design and copyrighting and this and that and the other.”

So, you’re saying that because employers piled a load of other work onto the shoulders of administrative staff because they were trying to save a buck at your expense, that means as a business owner you should lump everything you know how to do under one banner and offer it as all one and the same? As an employee, you had no say in the matter and trooped along like a good soldier. And hey, learning new skills and tinkering with new programs can be just plain fun. But it is neither smart nor profitable to carry that kind of employee mindset over into your business. If you do, I guarantee sooner or later you will realize the consequences of this and the wisdom of the advice I give you today.

Just as a doctor is different from an attorney, there are different classifications of work and business. For example, Web design, a separate profession in its own right, is inherently project-oriented work. So, it immediately differs from administrative support in that respect. More importantly, it is something that requires entirely different skills, processes, knowledge and talents from administrative support. For this reason, it is a completely separate category of business and expertise for which you can charge separately as an additional income stream.

No one is saying that you can’t be a VA if you also do Web design (or bookkeeping or copyrighting or marketing or social media or whatever). You can be a VA and also a web designer (or bookkeeper or ghost writer, etc.) if that’s what you want to do. It’s just that they are not all one and the same thing. Once you start grasping this, you’ll begin to gain more clarity about which business you intend to be in and what to more appropriately call yourself. This will start you on the path to better earning because you’ll be able to see and think more clearly about what should fall under your administrative support umbrella and what falls under another business category altogether (you can call these “divisions”) and should be charged for separately.

YOU have to make these distinctions and classifications in your business. Don’t let clients dictate these things. Because that’s the other part of the problem–VAs doing (and giving away) all this other work beyond administrative support because clients keep trying to pile everything on without paying extra for it. And it’s keeping you in the poor house.

Of course, this is happening with your consent if you refuse to get conscious about these things. It’s not a partnership if you are being taken advantage of. By the same token, you aren’t being taken advantage if you are allowing it. If you keep lumping everything under the Virtual Assistance/administrative support umbrella, you will continue to deprive yourself of opportunities to earn better and grow your business in profitable, sustainable ways.

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Another Way to Supercharge Your Virtual Assistant Help

I was talking with one of the attendees of my Pricing & Packaging business intensive last month who mentioned that she wasn’t sure what to do with a couple clients she wasn’t feeling very energized by. I asked her what the problem was, and she related that she much preferred big picture work, and while she enjoyed these two clients as people, they were low-commitment as far as hours go–only 5 hours per month. The work always ended up being transactional, sporadic and disjointed, and she never felt like she was really and truly helping them get anywhere other than taking care of busy work.

I’ve spoken with hundreds of Virtual Assistants who experience similar issues and feelings. Administrative support consultants enjoy big picture work because it allows them to understand the client and the business much better. In turn, this allows them to apply critical thinking, grow in their knowledge of the business and the work, and thus complete work in ways that make much better sense and fit better in the overall scheme of the client’s operations, goals and objectives. This is much more gratifying and energizing. But with such a low commitment of hours, it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to gain any kind of big picture sense of the business. It’s verrrry slow-going at best.

So there are a couple choices you can make. One, you can decide that in order to provide the kind of work that allows you to really and truly help clients AND which also keeps you energized, motivated and interested, your ideal clients must make a higher minimum commitment. And then simply decline to work with anyone who can’t make that commitment.

Alternatively, what you can do is take charge of the delegation process by consulting with the client, finding out what one of their most immediate goals or objectives is and then focusing the support exclusively on that one support area.

For example, let’s say the client really wants to get an ezine going. Well, implementing an ezine requires some initial project-related design and set-up. Once you’ve got that going, it requires ongoing management. So what you could do is charge a project fee for the design and initial set-up and then focus the retainer hours on establishing the publishing schedule, setting deadlines, formatting, editing and proofing articles, uploading issues, managing the delivery platform, scheduling issues for broadcast, not to mention taking care of all the details of managing subcriber lists and utilizing tracking and reporting features.

As you can see, when you sit down and map all the activities that go into implementing  and then managing/maintaining a support area, it’s a lot. And by focusing that small 5 hour retainer on just that one support area, you can help the client actually accomplish something that’s both tangible and important to them. They can clearly see results from your support and this is exciting to clients.  Once you’ve got that area of support all whipped and under control, you talk to the client about taking on the next support area and increasing the financial commitment.

Commitment requires a measure of trust. And trust isn’t handed over on a silver platter. Trust is something that is earned and just like relationships, grows in stages over time. You can help clients grow in their trust and esteem of you by taking charge of the delegation process in this way and focusing the work on a support area where you can better show tangible accomplishment, and then keep growing with the client from there. Most clients simply don’t know how to move forward and are unsure of what should be delegated. This is why it’s your JOB as an administrative support consultant to take charge of the delegation process, form support plan recommendations for them, and take that burden off their shoulders. It’s still ongoing support as it’s not project work or specializing in doing one thing–this is why I call it a support area. It’s just that it’s a much more focused and intentioned way to really help clients move forward in accomplishing the things that are important to them while also growing the commitment.

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