An aspiring Virtual Assistant contacted me recently. She is actually taking college courses and wanted to interview me by email for a paper she was doing. I thought it might be fun to share my answers to her here as well.
1. How did you become a Virtual Assistant?
While I was still living in the world of employment, friends, family, co-workers, bosses were always coming to me to type up personal documents, make flyers, help them with term papers, proposals, reports and transcriptions, their resumes–you name it. I’d been itching to get out on my own for years–in fact, I’d even had an earlier foray into business as a freelance grantwriter for several years. With the number of requests I was getting (and charging for), I thought this might just be a great avenue for self-employment. An opportunity arose during a round a company layoffs where I was able to negotiate my own lay-off. I used my very nice severance check to fund my start-up. I had already taken my business license out in 1997 and was operating my business part-time on the side for three years by then so this was just the shot in the arm I needed to really make the leap full-time.
Now when I originally started my business, what I was really operating at the time was a secretarial service, where piecemeal projects was what I did–a continuation of the kind of one-off stuff I’d been doing for family, friends and coworkers. But it was absolutely grueling trying to chase down new work, new projects, more clients constantly and not ever making anything that I could actually live on. Eventually I realized that the real money was in providing ongoing administrative support. That’s when I stumbled upon the Virtual Assistance industry and began to understand how that was different from providing secretarial services. That learning revolutionized my business and it’s when I really began making any kind of real money.
2. What type of education and experience did you have that prepared you for this position?
I have always loved secretarial type work. I mean, I just truly and absolutely love typing and organizing information and working on computers and using software–just everything about it. As humble as it may seem to some, I always wanted to be a secretary (the term at that time; I know I’m dating myself, LOL), and I took every class along those lines that was available: typing, bookkeeping, office administrative, shorthand, etc.). From an early age, I’d worked in my family’s businesses as well, which led to the beginning of a 20+ year administrative career in roles such as secretary, administrative assistant, office manager, legal secretary and paralegal.
3. What personal qualities are necessary in order to be successful?
First and foremost, you have to have a high level of administrative experience and skill levels. You can take all the college you want, but nothing gives you the knowledge and sensibility for knowing how to competently support businesses administratively like real-world experience. There are just things you can’t learn or know any other way. Book smarts, while good to have, is just not sufficient. You also have to be a critical and creative thinker as you are often called upon to help clients brainstorm and problem-solve. You have to be someone who takes initiative; not someone who waits around to be told what to do. You have to be realistic in your goals and expectations. Growing a business, any business, takes time and effort. You will need to be dedicated and have great perseverance while you work on becoming established. You won’t get clients or make money overnight. I think every new business owner should have at least a year’s worth of capital saved (or have some other kind of income) to live off of for the next year or tw0. Being in a position where you don’t have money to live on and pay the bills will put you at a great disadvantage because it will cause you to make decisions or take on less than ideal clients or work that you wouldn’t if you weren’t in a place of lack. Being a business owner will require you to stretch beyond your comfort zones. You will need to be able to speak to people, promote yourself and put yourself “out there.” You can’t be a wallflower in business. That said, being in business will have you growing in ways you never imagined. I can’t tell you how many shy people I’ve seen come out of their shells and gain confidence and self-assurance because they went into business for themselves. It’s a wonderful, exciting, exhilarating thing!
4. Where is your workspace located? What equipment do you have? What software do you use?
My workspace is a dedicated home office. We travel quite a bit and I’ve got things set up so that I’m able to remotely access my office via laptop and still work away from home, which I really enjoy. I have all the usual equipment needed in this business: state-of-art computer system, fax, scanner, printer, phone. I use VoIP technology through Vonage so I am able to bring a portable phone with me when I’m away from the office. It plugs right into the laptop and I can make and receive local calls from the States even when we’re in Europe! I also use a virtual PBX service called RingCentral that gives me a fax line and two dedicated toll-free numbers–one for my personal business and one for the VACOC. The service allows you to set up custom calling days/hours and record custom greetings for regular office hours and after-office hours. It’s great! I also use an online shared virtual office service called HyperOffice.com. It allows me to create a shared online collaborative space where I can separate clients and organize and share their documents, calendars, tasks, projects, etc., with them. I have a ton of design software and other odds and ends software, as well as all the usual basic office software (things like Word, Excel, etc.). These are all acquired throughout the life of your business as you find is needed to work with and support clients and their needs. Don’t feel like you have to have it all at first. Just get your basic Office suite of software and go from there.
5. What do you find the most challenging about your work?
In the beginning it was overcoming employee mindset. Working with clients as if it was still up to them to tell me what to do. I had to learn that clients want and expect me to be the leader in my own business and guide them as to how things work. This gives them comfort. They feel they are in good hands. I also had several hard lessons that taught me a lot about how important it is to work with ideal clients and defining the work that I did (as well as the work that I wasn’t in business to do). I also had to learn about pricing properly/profitably and how to differentiate business categories so that I wasn’t giving things away for free and could create several income streams. For example, design work is not the same thing as administrative support; it requires completely different training, skills sets, processes and talent and should be charged for separately/differently. Nowadays, since I’m still running my own personal Virtual Assistant practice AND running a professional association for Virtual Assistants, my challenge is juggling both and accomplishing the goals/projects that are important to me. I’ve had to get help—I have my own VA and my daughter also works in my company with me.
6. What do you like best about being a Virtual Assistant?
It didn’t happen overnight and I still work really, really hard at times, but I love the kind of life being my own boss allows me to live. That said, hard work doesn’t ever really feel like work when you really enjoy what you do. Plus, when you get a lot of the unnecessary kinks and complications worked out, it can be downright smooth and effortless. I love being the master of my own destiny and my own fortunes. My success or failure is entirely up to me. I love being able to travel and still take care of clients. I love that I make way more money than I ever did as an employee. I love working with technology and learning/working with different software. Freedom and quality of life are the two most important things to me in having my own business and which my business gives me back in spades. I am completely ruined for ever being able to work for anybody (as an employee) ever again, LOL.
7. What tips would you give a potential Virtual Assistant?
Understand and always remember that a Virtual Assistant is not an employee. It’s difficult to get over employee-mindset, but you have to understand that this is a business. You have to run it like a business (not a hobby). You have to charge professionally, be the leader and expert in your own business, and have a professional level of skills in order to be successful and profitable. Do your homework. Don’t expect other people to do all the work for you. You have to immerse yourself in it. Become a student of business. Set up your foundations before you start taking on clients (such as establishing some basic policies and procedures; deciding on a target market and researching that market, getting your website, forms and contracts in place, etc.)
And don’t forget… If you’re a Virtual Assistant, you simply must take part in the 2009 Virtual Assistant Industry Survey. Stand up and be counted!