The My Freelance Story interviews are a chance for us to celebrate and share stories from the world of self-employed careers. Get inspiration and advice from a wide range of people who work for themselves, at various stages of their journey. We spoke to freelance virtual assistant (VA), and the founder of Indigo Eleven , Louise Richman about her journey from tennis coach to business owner, and her advice for anyone thinking about becoming a freelance VA.
When did you first become self-employed, and how did you get started?
I started on a part-time basis in 2011, working with a local virtual assistant around my full-time employment as a personal assistant (PA). I did that for the next two years, along with doing research, building a website, and getting a feel for what it would be like to start working for myself full-time in the spring of 2013.
Why did you choose to build your career and agency as a virtual assistant?
My previous role was as a project officer within education, on a government funded project but unfortunately I was made redundant before the project was due to end. I signed up with some recruitment agencies in the hope of finding a new job as a PA but demand was dropping for these roles. At the same time, I met my cousin at a family event. He was self-employed as a freelance graphic designer, and asked if I’d ever thought of becoming a VA.
I’d never heard of virtual assistants before, but when I looked into it, there was a big and growing demand. And after the funding was pulled from the education project, I know I didn’t want to become redundant again. I’d also previously worked at a tennis centre as their tennis development officer, coach, and assistant manager – but when I went to the agencies, they were struggling to see past the tennis.
I’ve built up a lot of skills in my career, so I wanted to find something to get my teeth into and develop for the next few years. Also, when you’ve worked as a PA, you’re not directly part of a team, so you don’t have the same support network, or working relationships as other colleagues. Being in an office environment, listening to colleagues’ gripes and office politics meant I was looking for a positive change.
What does your average work day look like?
It changes all the time, but the one consistency is that I’ll typically work for two or three clients each day. As the business has evolved, we’ve moved away from doing ad hoc, pay as you go tasks to working with clients on an on-going monthly basis, which means I have a more focussed set of tasks to work through each day.
Examples include working with a Peterborough-based CRM business, supporting their Sales Director by performing diary management, CRM updating and other associated client tasks. I also work with a property business, the owner is based in London and his portfolio is within the Midlands. I support the managing agents and oversee the properties by co-ordinating maintenance, finances, insurance, contract renewals, and by providing PA support to the director and landlord.
Other members of the Indigo Eleven team support our clients with more specialist services such as marketing, graphic and web design projects.
We take care of the smaller, time consuming but important details that might otherwise get missed or forgotten. For example, sending out thank you cards, arranging 1-2-1 client and prospect meetings and follow-ups, or collecting business testimonials at the end of completed projects for use within the client’s marketing collateral.
A typical day will start with checking emails, updating my task list, and then everything is structured around the client’s daily, weekly and monthly project activities. So, I might start by filing and updating any CRM tasks from the previous day, and then move onto work for the property company.
I keep Monday to Thursday focused on client work, and have Friday set as a day for my own business and meetings. Generally, I’m pretty good at keeping work between 9am and 5.30pm, and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
It’s really all about how you set out expectations from the start, so there’s never been an issue with our clients about sticking to our regular working hours, as it’s always been in our terms and conditions from when I first started the business.
If you’re a freelancer, it’s great to take advantage of the flexibility around your business. But what a lot of people forget is that it’s your business, so it shouldn’t be your clients controlling you.
There’s a great saying “your lack of planning does not constitute my emergency”. Clients shouldn’t be expecting any business owner to be sat with nothing to do and ready to jump on to any request straight away. If you get into the habit of replying to emails immediately and at all hours, clients will come to expect this as the norm!
What skills or talents does a good VA tend to have?
You definitely need strong organisational skills to deal with multiple clients and their tasks. You should also be a good communicator, committed, dependable and patient.
Being proactive is really important. If you’re not able to find a solution for something (even by Googling it), you probably shouldn’t be a VA. We’re able to charge a high hourly rate for our work because we can work independently, without clients having to micromanage us. Clients are busy company owners and directors and they simply don’t have the time to hand hold, chase, or delegate to people who are not proactive and skilled in the required areas.
A proactive VA will review systems and processes, spot potential issues, and prevent these from becoming a problem. Which in turn, will save the client time and money.
Are there any qualifications required to become a Virtual Assistant? Or any that help attract clients or higher rates?
Personally, I don’t have any formal qualifications to be a virtual assistant, and no-one has ever asked me about them. I’ve got a wealth of administrative experience, and like to keep myself up to date with new technologies and other relevant training sessions in various areas of business. I spend a lot of time reading and watching Youtube videos to develop new skills.
If you were considering becoming a VA in a specific niche, qualifications might help. But don’t be afraid to find an associate with the necessary skills and experience to match your service offerings. If you’re charging a high rate, you need to deliver high quality work, with the relevant skill set for that project rather than trying to cover all areas haphazardly.
(For more advice on skills and preparation, why not take a look at our dedicated guide on How to become a freelance Virtual Assistant)
You meet a lot of VAs who will take on any job. But social media, for example, is a marketing task that needs to demonstrate a return on investment. You’re not going to keep getting work just by putting out some pretty pictures without a larger business and marketing strategy.
We work with directors who are focused on growth and support them in the areas that we’re good at, or skilled in, rather than trying to cover everything. And if you’re known for a niche, you can market yourself much more effectively, and at a higher rate.
How do you tend to find clients? Has finding work changed since you started Indigo Eleven?
In the early days, I didn’t have a lot of money behind me when setting up the business, so I was going to all the free local networking events and business meetups. They were great for getting used to networking and meeting people, but weren’t ideal for finding the right clients.
After a year, I thought I should try joining the Chamber of Commerce to find larger businesses who would have more need for a VA, but again, that was a little disappointing. After seeing so many successful and busy VAs, it’s easy to start to panic. But it generally takes 1-2 years to become established and begin getting more word-of-mouth referrals, which has driven our growth since then.
You do need to give networking groups a bit of time, at least 6 months, to see how it works for you. But after a year or so, if you’re not seeing the right results, don’t be afraid to move and try a new group.
Many of our clients have now been with us for a long time, so we don’t rely on constantly bringing in new business. But I have made some good contacts via networking, LinkedIn, and also by being a virtual tenant at the Allia Future Business Centre. This has allowed me to meet people, and network, through the co-working space and events.
What are your favourite freelancing tools or equipment?
Probably all the usual software systems and apps you might expect, such as Google, Dropbox, Trello, and invoicing and accounting systems etc.
I do think if you run a small business, you need a CRM – I use a free cloud based system called Capsule CRM to store contact information, set reminders, track business prospects and manage new clients on-boarding. And it helps to keep everything in one place. I also have all my devices synced via iCloud, and if I have access to WiFi, I can work from anywhere, although I do prefer to sit by a window or view!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a freelance Virtual Assistant?
As I was told, don’t be afraid if there are already other local VAs in your area. It’s good to meet up for a coffee and chat if they’re open to it. They might need additional help, or you might be able to collaborate with them if you offer different services. Invest in a bit of research, and be proactive, but if you take the time to ask the right questions, most people will be happy to give you some tips and advice.
And don’t think you’re going to be successful overnight. Depending on your financial situation and experience, it’s going to take a bit of time to reach a sustainable income. Everyone thinks being a VA is easy, because there’s no barrier to entry. But that’s why so many virtual assistants vanish off the face of the earth after setting up their businesses. It’s a big change from employment, and one you need to seriously think about, because it doesn’t suit everyone.
How can you see freelancing changing in the future for Virtual Assistants?
I thought we might see a bigger surge in demand during and after the initial Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, but so far work and new enquiries have stayed fairly consistent. But given how unpredictable the world is at the moment, it may be that it’s too early to see changes occurring.
What’s the best thing about being freelance or self-employed?
Having a flexible lifestyle, and being an online business, the ability to be able to work from anywhere in the world as long as you can connect to the internet.
As an employed PA, you’re not guaranteed to see any sort of reward for all the effort and hours you put in. Whereas working as a business owner, directly with clients, I can see the results and difference our input makes, and how this supports the growth of our client’s businesses. There’s no price you can put on that, and it gives you more motivation to keep going.
If you’re self-employed you know when people really value what you do. And in some cases, you can even help people’s mental and physical health by removing some of their issues and stress. If someone is a sole director of a business, everything ultimately rests on their shoulders. So being an external resource, one in which they can rely on to share and solve problems and lighten their load can make a big difference.
To find out more about Louise and her VA business, you can visit the Indigo Eleven website. If you’re inspired to want to start a career as a VA, why not also check out our guide on how to become a virtual assistant (VA).
Or why not check out more inspirational and educational My Freelance Story interviews, including with SEO Consultant Steve Morgan.