Thinking of Becoming a Virtual Assistant?

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We are thrilled to introduced this month's blog post from Kathy Soulsby, Virtual Assistant and author of the fantastic book detailing life as a VA, Virtually Painless.

Lots of people in the PA world at the moment are thinking of making the move to being a Virtual Assistant. I’ve been doing it since 2014 and I love it. I would genuinely recommend it if you think you have the right skills and mindset. But it may not be what you expect so here are some things to think about.

(Note: when I am talking about VAs here, I am talking about individuals who run their own businesses, rather than an employed VA who is a home-working PA.)

When I decided to become a VA, I really thought that as a PA it was just a matter of working in a different way, freelancing instead of being employed. And on paper this is sort of true. However, the reality is that I didn’t have a clue about how different it would be. There are a million ways in which working for yourself is different. Some are, without doubt amazing (working in your PJs, getting to have a dog, not having an actual boss, going to the gym at 10AM, being around for school pick up and so forth). But some are really hard.

The work is different. Yes indeed, all those hard-earned PA skills I have, juggling insane diaries, booking mental travel schedules all totally unused. The kind of clients I have just don’t want that kind of support and conversations with other VAs would seem to support this to some degree. That’s the downside. The upside is that actually as well as the pile of usual admin things that are more junior than I might have done as a PA/EA, after a time I have become in many ways a more respected colleague and do much more advisory work. For some clients, I am a very valuable resource to bounce ideas off and be challenged by. Even as a very well-respected EA, that didn’t really happen.

As a VA you need to know a lot more about technology than you ever did in corporate life. There is no real end to what is out there, and no one can (or should!) know fully every single CRM system or mail automation site. But clients will expect you to understand enough about the main ones to have a conversation about them. There is also a reasonable amount of legal “stuff” that comes with running a business. At the least you’ll be needing insurance and to do a self-assessment for tax. But you may well also need to register for data protection, anti-money laundering and other things. Again, as well as what you need to do to protect you, your clients, and your business, when new things come in (like GDPR in May 18) your clients will expect you to at least know the basics but potentially they’ll want to you to help them navigate it as well.

The worst part – no regular pay. And if you don’t work, you don’t earn. There will come a point where no matter how many networking meetings you haul yourself to, no one is biting. The few leads you have fizzle into nothing and you have to keep motivating yourself and getting out there even when you are pretty convinced it’s all pointless and you might as well just stack shelves in Tesco. And what about when you’re ill? Or want a holiday? Or someone in the family is ill and you have to drop everything? Or just can’t be fagged to get out of bed because it’s all too hard? I knew this intellectually, of course I did, but the reality of how it feels is scary. And even when you do have work, most VAs work based on client billed time so literally, you can sit at your desk for 10 hours and only be paid for 5. Trust me, it happens!

“Hello, IT? My PC seems to have frozen”. As a freelancer you are now the boss. Hurrah. However, you are now also the IT Department, Sales Department, Marketing Department, Finance Department …. And you make the tea. All you. If your laptop dies (or a puppy hurls it onto the floor and kills it dead) not only do you have to get it fixed or replaced, likely you are earning no money until this is done. You can of course have others to do your IT, bookkeeping, social media etc, but they all cost money and, especially with IT or broadband, it may not be very timely when you are under pressure in a crisis. After the puppy incident I was simultaneously on the phone to my IT guys and climbing on a ladder to get my 1990’s desktop out of the attic trying hard not to hyperventilate at the thought of all the work I was not doing whilst fixing this mess. I now have two identical set ups - it’s that important that I can’t be without something to work on, so I have a desktop and a laptop.

It can be really lonely going from being in an office to being on your own. If you aren’t busy, it can be very hard to motivate yourself when you have all the time in the world and no one breathing down your neck. Most of us have fabulous support in the form of family, partners, friends and they will back you to the hilt. But they won’t really get how it works or how it feels unless they have done it themselves. If you have self-employed friends then brilliant, there are also some great groups for VAs where you can find a tribe to hang out with. There are also coaches, business buddying (formal or informal), training courses and local face to face groups for VAs. They are life savers and have kept me sane many times.

I wouldn’t go back to being a PA or EA now that I’ve been a VA, I am too used to the freedom! If you are thinking of making the change, I hope this has given you some things to think about.

Kathy has been running Personally Virtual since 2014 and in 2017 published Virtually Painless, a book about the realities of VA life.

Essex PA Network works to promote the profiles of PAs, VAs and administrative support staff, and to help people make connections and to nurture their careers.

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