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From PA to VA: office* show interview with Michelle Smith

On day two of the office* show, PA Life Editor Amelia Walker held a Q&A with Michelle Smith, the award-winning founder of Value Add Business Solutions, to discuss the logistics of starting your own business as a virtual assistant.

Michelle started off by explaining how she got into the VA business. She had been made redundant three times during her career and said she couldn’t take it anymore. She didn’t have a degree, so she decided to work part time and do a degree in her spare time, all while having a child and moving house. She later saw an article about VAs and realised she had the exact skills to start her own business. She took a course in 2010 and started Value Add Business Solutions in 2011.

Value Add Business Solution provides full back-office support, including admin and bookkeeping. She believes about 70% of her work is bookkeeping. The business has some retainer clients and quite a few that come to her on an ad hoc basis when they need extra support.

The business was originally only a part time venture for Michelle because she was never sure it was going to be viable. She worked part time at a firm and came home to work as a sole trader. But soon the pressure of the risk she faced as a sole trader got too much and Michelle realised she needed to become a limited company and take on some associates to spread the workload.

Michelle said the biggest shift for her was the loss of personal time. “I became very selfish about my time,” she explains. “A lot of the things I enjoyed socially took a back seat because I had to devote my time to building my business. I was so used to people giving me work and found myself having to go out to find it. You have to make an effort and go out of your way when it’s your business. Step out of your comfort zone to bring in clients.”

She believes networking is key for VAs – not just social networking online, but going out to face-to-face events. “For me networking isn’t just about selling my business. It’s a great way to meet other people doing the same thing to find out how they build packages to help their clients.”

Her advice for those who are thinking of starting their own business is to firstly visit their local Business Gateway. “There may be some funding available for entrepreneurs. I was lucky enough to receive a grant and they helped me develop a business plan and put me in touch with other networking groups.

“Always look for courses and networking opportunities that can teach you how to set up your business. There are plenty of resources out there for VAs that can take you through the process step by step.”

Of course with every business comes a legal risk, which is part of the reason Michelle decided to become a limited company. There is a particular risk to companies providing admin support because employees are given access to sensitive information. Michelle’s advice? “Get indemnity insurance and do your research. Because of our bookkeeping services, I have to be registered with HMRC. Look into the procedures for data protection and cover every avenue to safeguard yourself from incidents that can harm your business. But don’t register for anything until you know you’re going to need it. Save yourself the cost until it becomes apparent it will be needed.”

Michelle said VAs also need to consider the technical aspect of their business. Is their internet fast enough? Do they have the right software? “And it’s not just about the software. You have to make sure you have the right license,” Michelle explained. “A lot of people don’t realise that you can’t use a home license for Microsoft Office for business use. There’s a special business license for that.”

Another tool she found especially useful when she first started was call forwarding and an answering service. “Get the appropriate mobile and be sure you have everything you might need to go with it.”

When it comes to networking, Michelle said her strategy is to get to an event early so she can meet the people running it and have them introduce her to others when they arrive. “There’s nothing worse than getting to an event and everybody there is already clumped into groups.”

Giving testimony to the value of networking, Michelle commented: “I met my first client at a networking event for Scottish women in business. He was the only man there and I started chatting with him about my business. He later asked me to work with him.

“The first client is the hardest, but the rest come easier because word spreads and your existing clients recommend you. I’ve had a lot of business through recommendations on LinkedIn and Twitter. I highly suggest you get people to recommend you on LinkedIn because it’s linked to their name. It’s easy enough to come up with a quote from somebody for your website, but on LinkedIn people can go to that person’s profile.”

Michelle said she loves the atmosphere at networking events for VAs. “Even though we all have our own business, there’s an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition.”

And when it comes to applying for awards, Michelle said she can’t put into words how valuable they can be. Michelle herself was named Scottish VA of the Year in 2014 and went on to receive a national title at the Be My VA Awards in the same year. “It has helped the business enormously. We started out based in my garage conversion, but we’ve just moved into a new bigger office. Applying for awards, even if you don’t win, is a great way to grow recognition and it gives credit to the value of the work you do. But always think very hard about your applications and find a way to stand out from the competition.”

Her best piece of advice for those who have decided to go it alone as a VA? “Stay calm and don’t panic. Taking things slowly worked for me, but some people might find it easier to jump straight in. If I had to change anything, I probably would’ve made the decision to go full-time with the business sooner. You’ll make mistakes along the way like I did. I didn’t vet people enough and took a few hits financially, but I recovered and kept going. Market yourself. Get your name out there and don’t be afraid to talk about what you do.”

Which software does Michelle recommend? “The free ones!” she joked. “Seriously, there are free versions of some very useful software out there. I use Gmail for email management and Asana for project management. Always look for free versions first to save yourself the cost.”

And above all: “Remember your time is valuable. Be choosy about the events you go to and be sure to get the most out of them. I personally like chatting with people rather than preaching to them about the business. You have to be committed to your own development and take every situation as a learning opportunity.”