Hi, I’m Carly Stringer, founder of Keystone Virtual. I made the decision to set up my VA business towards the end of 2016. Here I share the reasons why I did this and my top tips for those wanting to do the same.
The tipping point
After having my second child I returned to work in my role as marketing manager for a global healthcare communications agency. I was fortunate enough that they allowed me to work flexible hours, mostly from home. But when my daughter started school in September I realised that it wasn’t enough. The reality was that I still needed to be at my desk during the hours of 9am to 3pm, childcare presented an issue when I did need to be in the office (nearly two hours away), juggling work with school events wasn’t easy and I had absolutely no idea how we’d manage childcare during the long school summer holiday. It also meant that I couldn’t do simple things like fit in a decent lunch break, or have the time to walk to and from school, instead making the mad dash in the car so I could fit my working hours into the time available. Something had to change and owning my own VA business was the ideal solution – it plays to my strengths, gives me total flexibility and as my own business is something I’m completely passionate about, and can nurture and grow.
So, where am I now?
Four months down the line I’ve now launched my business. I’ve successfully set up my website, social media channels, have started networking and have taken on my first client, with several more in the pipeline. I am looking forward to focusing on Keystone Virtual full-time when I finish my marketing manager role in the next month.
And what have I learnt?
I’m not going to lie, I found the prospect of going at it alone extremely daunting. Although I’m tremendously organised and have experience working first hand with a leadership team of a global organisation, I knew that starting and running my own business was going to be a whole different ballgame. At first, I had absolutely no idea where to begin and have invested countless hours researching, researching and researching some more. I know I have driven my husband mad by working late into the night on more than a handful of occasions! However, I now feel confident and I am proud of how far I have come in the past few months, and the direction in which my business is heading.
From my research and experience so far, here are my five top tips for anyone thinking of embarking on a career as a VA.
1. Network with fellow VAs
Networking with other VAs through Facebook groups, events such as the Office Show and social media has been invaluable. Through these channels, I have had the opportunity to ask for advice on setting up my business as well as specific questions on the best tools and software to enhance how I work. VAs at all stages, from those just setting up to others who have been in the industry for years, as well as coaches and mentors are on hand to offer their support. There are also plenty of associate opportunities advertised in these groups, which is a fantastic way to dip your toe in the water. Most VAs I have come across have a very collaborative, not competitive, ethos – which is extremely refreshing.
2. Get organised
This sounds obvious given VAs are born organisers, but it can be easily overlooked. It is critical to have a distinct vision for your own business, from your goals to what tools and processes you’ll use. I’ve found that thinking like a bigger business from the outset, with a defined business plan and a clear idea of how I will organise myself and my work, has given me clarity on how to move forward with my business. Take the time to research and test the different tools available to you to see what best suits your needs. Websites like this one, as well as the various Facebook groups, have a wealth of valuable information on recommended tools, apps and systems to support virtual working and streamline your processes. You may also want to think about your ‘niche’, or ideal client, to help you hone your marketing and understand who it is you want to work with, or what specific jobs you want to work on.
3. Understand your legal responsibilities
Don’t overlook your legal responsibilities. If you’re based in the UK (like me) you’ll need to decide whether to go into business as a sole trader or set up a limited company. I’ve gone for sole trader to begin with as it is the simpler and less costly of the two options. Once decided, you’ll need to register with HMRC so you can pay tax on your earnings. Professional indemnity and public liability insurance is a must as soon as you start working with your first client. And it’s best practice to have a thorough understanding of your responsibilities regarding data protection, especially ISO 27001, and register with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as a data controller. Finally, it’s critical that you have a clear contract and terms and conditions drawn up before you get your first client – you can find ones available to buy online, specifically tailored for VAs, which you can further refine to suit your needs.
4. Leverage your current connections
One of the most daunting things about setting up as a VA is finding clients. I’d recommend starting close to home, ensuring that all your friends, family and work connections know about your new venture. You’ll soon find that one enquiry leads to another – word of mouth and referrals have great power in this business. Social media is a great way to spread the word, which brings me to number…
5. Refine your online presence
Having an online presence will be essential to your networking and business development strategy. While a website isn’t critical to begin with, I found that having one has helped me immensely. It houses all the key information about my business and forced me to think about, and articulate, my proposition, client niche and service offering. It’s also important to set up a Google My Business page and optimise your website for local SEO, so that those searching for virtual assistance in your area can easily find you. Beyond this, I refined my LinkedIn profile as a priority. I ensured that it was connected to my website, had a strong summary outlining my skills and service offering, and included some great testimonials. I also regularly update my business Facebook page and Twitter profile to share information that my potential and current clients (and fellow VAs) will find useful. Think about your ideal client and where they are likely to ‘hang out’ online. This will help you decide where to focus your efforts in the first instance.
So, there you have it. My top tips for starting your VA business. From my experience, if you have these things in place the rest will naturally follow and you will be in a great position to find your first client and start to grow your business.
What’s next for me?
Deciding to leap into the world of freelancing is never easy. It is, after all, extremely unpredictable. But I don’t regret it for a second. My next priorities are to fine tune my marketing and social media plan and attend some face-to-face networking events. But I’m most excited to begin working with my first clients and helping them work smarter, achieve more and build businesses that thrive.