You’re ready to start your solo business — you’re craving the freedom, the versatility, and the chance to put your passion into play — but you’re not quite sure where to start. You’ve come to the right place. In our So You Wanna Be a… series, we highlight entrepreneurs who’ve built successful businesses doing what they love.
This month, we’re chatting with five virtual assistants — Kelley Alexander-Kruger of Kelley and Co, Julienne DesJardins, Shay Orlena Brown of My Bliss Publishing, Billie Gardner of Desire to Done, and Christine Funke of Spark Virtual Assistance — to get their inside advice on how they got their virtual assistance careers started.
So you wanna be a VA? Here’s what you need to know…
Tell us exactly what a person in your role does.
Julienne: I support business owners by handling the details, often in recurring tasks like social media scheduling and email marketing. That means they're able to check that item off their to-do list and free up brain space to focus on the big picture stuff.
Shay: My version of a VA might be a little different. I like to refer to myself as a Project Manager. When a client has a new product or service they need to develop, market, launch and run, they contact me. I break it down into step-by-step tasks that need to be completed. My clients create all of the content and I take that content and implement the payment, marketing and email funnels needed for launch. (In addition to my project management role, I also wear the website and branding hat for many of my clients.)
Billie: I’m a virtual assistant, specifically an online business manager. I help busy entrepreneurs get organized, automated, and running smoothly so that they can focus their “biz time” on tasks that make them happy and make more money. I also help with product launches and social media management. There are tons of different types of VAs. I chose to go the route of management because that’s something I enjoy and have experience with.
Christine: A virtual assistant provides all kinds of administrative, online marketing and/or design support to business owners, companies and freelancers. They take on tasks that their clients don't have the time, interest or skills to do and are a cost-effective solution compared to a part-time or full-time employee. They usually work remotely and can provide as much or as little help as their clients need.
How did you get your start? What are other ways someone else can get started?
Kelley: I wanted to work for myself and have a flexible schedule. A friend shared with me the virtual assistant concept and I loved it. I determined what skills I had that could be used to do virtual work, purchased a domain name, built a simple website and started networking.
Joining IVAA (International Virtual Assistant Association) is great. They offer great information to help grow your skills as a VA.
Julienne: My freelancing start actually began with grant writing. (My background is nonprofit communications and management.) My first client as a VA, though, was through a VA placement company. This helped me get my feet under me -- someone was with me to explain the industry as I got started.
Shay: I got started in the very, very beginning as a social media manager. This is a great way to get started as so many people are looking to outsource this. It also is a great foundation for getting to know how to craft content and automate items.
From there, my clients started asking me to help them in other areas of marketing and managing their business. I started to learn different automation softwares and took some online courses to beef up my knowledge base. When you're looking to get started, think: social media management, email marketing, and copy editing. Those are some areas that people are looking for a VA for.
Billie: I first took on a few free clients for one month to make sure becoming a VA was something I wanted to do. It also helped me fine-tune the direction of my business and learn which tasks I enjoyed and which ones I didn’t. From there, the referrals started pouring in and I took on my first paying clients! To get started, I recommend listing your skills, talents and software knowledge to get a feel for what type of VA you’d like to be. Then, figure out the types of clients you want to work with and map out some service ideas you can offer.
Christine: My full-time job was coming to an end and I needed to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. I handled all of the online communications for the American International Women's Club in Cologne (Germany) and loved the work and one day came across the term "virtual assistant" and knew that was the name for what I wanted to do. Many VAs get started by doing pro-bono work and then transitioning over to getting paid.
Is there a certain kind of person that would thrive in your role?
Kelley: An introvert! I am not an introvert so often times I feel very isolated. I force myself to plan social events to get out with people.
Julienne: An organized, self-starting, and driven person. It's a lot of independent work; producing deliverables for clients and living by deadlines.
Shay: You must be organized and detail-oriented. I know that sounds like cheesy things you put on a resume. But honestly ask yourself if the role you want to be in is something where you need to manage a lot of tiny pieces that fit together to make up the bigger picture. Your clients will be relying on you to be their second pair of eyes and to make sure the technical side of things work.
Billie: I feel that someone who is detail-oriented, takes initiative, and constantly builds upon his or her skills will have a leg up in the industry. As a VA you are taking over someone’s baby, their business, so you have to be mindful of how you treat it. Being detail-oriented means always looking at the little pieces to make sure it’s all going smoothly and that things are done correctly. Business owners appreciate someone who can take initiative and offer solutions or ways to improve things without them asking.
Christine: People who want the flexibility and independence to work for themselves, but have the discipline to work from home and on their own are well suited to be a virtual assistant. They should be detail-oriented, organized and creative when it comes to providing solutions to clients.
What do people need before they can get started in your industry?
Kelley: A good set of marketable skills, a great LinkedIn profile, a basic website, the desire to network and the ability to follow through on deadlines.
Julienne: Not much! It's fairly easy to launch. I started as a sole proprietor, and operated my business under my personal name. That meant I did not have to file for a Fictitious Business Name, or DBA. I also used my own social security number in the beginning for tax forms. Now I've filed for an EIN with the IRS. It's not necessary, but it is a bit of added peace of mind for me. Instead of sending my personal info through email, I have that number on the 1099s I receive from my clients.
Shay: Not a whole lot! I would recommend taking some online classes and getting to know the different software people will want you to manage, such as MailChimp, AWeber, YouCanBook.Me, ScheduleOnce, Asana, Canva, PicMonkey, ConvertKit, and more. Really you only need your laptop, an internet connection and some knowledge of setting up business process funnels.
Billie: Insurance and certificates are not necessary. What I recommend is getting clear on who you want to work with, what you want to offer, and what your niche is. Building a solid foundation with these three things will help you thrive and keep you focused. You can always change these, but knowing them before taking on your first clients is uber important!
Christine: There are no official certifications or degrees; VAs come from all backgrounds. You should establish yourself as a freelancer or a small business, and get all the official paperwork that comes with that status. Having contracts and insurance is a good idea (for all business owners) but isn't required to get started.
How do you currently seek out clients or customers? What are some ways you've considered seeking out clients or customers that you haven't tried yet?
Kelley: Most of my clients come from referrals. I also reply to RFPs (requests for proposal) on IVAA, find clients on Craigslist, or through other electronic job posting sites.
Julienne: My client base is just about an even split of connections I make in Facebook groups and referrals from past clients. Just a few are contacts local to me in my community.
Shay: Almost all of my clients come from referrals because I've carved out a niche for myself with online coaches. They are all a part of the same Facebook groups and take each other's recommendations. A couple of times, I've done some cold messaging to potential clients through contact forms on their website. That's produced an 80% conversion rate for me and only takes 20 mins a day for a couple days to book me out for six months. Another way I've considered seeking out clients is through partnering with a client of mine who has access to my client base. She would like to add my services as an add-on service to one of her packages.
Billie: I’ve been blessed that I’ve never had to seek out paying clients! They’ve either been referred to me, have come from my website, or have seen my info in the B-School community (B-School is an online business course I took a few years ago). I also see a lot of people referring me in Facebook groups when someone asks for a VA referral. (Joining Facebook groups is a great way to get your name out there.)
Christine: Most of my clients come from my association with local American women's clubs or women's networking groups here in Germany. I am American so mostly work with English-speaking women. I also network in VA Facebook groups or other groups of women like me. In the beginning, I did a survey letting contacts and friends know I was getting started, which helped build interest for my first clients. In addition, I am planning to do some workshops and webinars with American women's clubs all over the world to help them with social media, and I hope to get some new clients from those activities.
How do you normally work with clients or customers?
Kelley: I work with my clients via email or Google Hangout. Sometimes, if they are local, I will meet with them in person.
Julienne: For my direct clients, I tend to organize most of their work on a weekly basis. We have quick, weekly chats where we set a game plan for the coming week. We organize and assign tasks in our project management system. And then I'm able to work on those tasks on my own schedule -- using our next meeting as my deadline.
Shay: All of my clients are online and I use a project management system called Asana. On big contracts, I meet with my client once a week for an hour to discuss project timelines, deadlines, deliverables and future projects. I use Skype or Google Hangouts for our calls.
Billie: I generally work with clients online. Some prefer weekly calls to touch base on what’s going on that week. One of my clients and her team communicate through a phone app called Voxer (it’s like a walkie-talkie), where we Vox each other when we have questions or just to say hi. Other than that, I communicate through email and/or Basecamp.
Christine: I work with all of my clients 1-on-1. Most of them are in ongoing monthly support packages, where I do regular tasks for them. Others come to me with short projects, like website or print flyer design, or just tweaking their websites.
How did you decide how to set your pricing when you were starting out?
Kelley: This was the most difficult part of the process. When researching "how to be a VA" there were people suggesting really high hourly rates but most of my connections couldn't handle those rates. I had to consider my value and what the market could bear based on the connections I have. You may have to start out lower than you'd like but increase as your business increases. One caveat: If you totally depend on referrals, you may find yourself stuck to that pay range because the referrer will mention your rate.
Julienne: When I first started out, my pricing was determined by the VA company I was working with. Because these companies take a percentage, you tend to earn less than if you booked the client directly. Now I book all of my own clients, and have raised my rates as I've added more skills. (I raised my rates twice in 2015, in fact.) As an aside, a typical range for a North American-based VA is usually between $15-$30/hour. There are, of course, outliers -- but you can use this is as a good rule-of-thumb.
Shay: When I started out as a VA, I took a look around to gauge the average of what other VAs were offering. I compared that with my university background, experience, confidence and value of my services to choose my rate.
Billie: I decided to go with the mid-range of what other VAs charge. I didn’t want to charge too much because I was new to the industry and wanted to get some experience first. This rate worked out for me beautifully and I recently raised my prices to reflect my experience. I also decided to go with a retainer rate so that I would have consistent income (a retainer rate is when a client pays a monthly rate for a set amount of hours each month).
Christine: I did some research in some virtual assistant resources (ebooks, blogs, FB groups) and asked around here in Europe since it's a bit different than in the US. I started with a range, got feedback from clients, and adjusted from there.
What is an industry-specific tool that you couldn’t live without?
Julienne: I love Asana. I use it to organize my own business tasks, and I use it with my clients. You can upload huge files, create an unlimited number of workspaces, set deadlines and assign tasks -- and it's completely free! I really like that it integrates with Google Apps, too.
Billie: I couldn’t live without Google Drive. I have my own business docs and spreadsheets organized there, plus my clients’. It automatically saves my work and I can share docs with anyone. Love it!
Christine: We use everything, but Freshbooks has been my most important investment for tracking time, sending invoices and logging expenses.
What are some great resources for people looking to learn more about your industry?
Julienne: The Freelance to Freedom Project will give you a lot of support if you're looking to go full-time. Freelancer's Union has a lot of practical support, like a sample contract and discounts on tools for your biz. And, of course, the One Woman Shop blog has a ton of content about running a successful small business. I also offer an e-course for new VAs who want to have someone explain the basics of small biz ownership and the VA industry. It was really born out of my philosophy that you can launch a business pretty quickly.
Billie: I have a few resources on my site. I have a checklist of all the basic tools needed to get your business up and running called Tools of the Trade. I also have an ebook Start Your Virtual Assistant Business that goes through the basics like mapping out your services, pricing your offerings and registering your business. You can find articles on my blog, as well, that cover various topics on being a VA.
Christine: I used The Bootstrap VA ebook by Lisa Morosky the most. It walks you through everything you need to get set up. The accompanying Facebook group has been a lifesaver for asking "newbie" questions and networking. Amy Lynn Andrews' blog and Useletter are really helpful for general online marketing know-how.
What is something that someone getting started in your type of business would be surprised to hear?
Kelley: It's hard to be held accountable to yourself. This is why I love OWS! It can be isolating if you don't put practices in place to keep isolation from happening. (Editor’s note: Espresso level members receive access to a monthly accountability group.)
Julienne: I truly believe it's simple to launch your business. You can perfect things like your pricing and website later. Just identify what value you can bring to people and find prospects who need what you have. You'll gain more confidence the more you engage.
Shay: Everyone who runs an online business will hire a VA at some point. It's a never-ending pool of potential clients. (Unless the internet breaks! Haha.)
Billie: I’ve created a few businesses over the years and I’ve struggled to make enough money to justify quitting my job. That is, until I became a VA. I was able to quit my job three months after landing my first paying client. It went fast! There are so many business owners out there looking for honest, hard-working VAs that once you make it known that you’re a VA, you can have a full-blown business in no time!
Christine: You really don't want to work with everybody! As you get started, really hone in on the industry or type of business or professionals you'd like to work with and target them. It'll make finding clients easier and you'll become the expert VA for that industry or niche.
Thanks, ladies! Your turn: What questions do you still have for our fantastic contributors?
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