Privileged to be invited to be a guest blogger for Louise Brogan’s Social Bee Academy on the topic of becoming Virtual!
Please follow the link Episode 43 – How Alison Matthews built a virtual assistance business
I was recently at the excellent Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council workshop delivered by Digital DNA (part of the optimise 2.0 programme) about writing web /article content and the speakers suggested always writing about topics that you have a certain amount of expertise in, so I’m writing this article on Top 10 places to meet for business outside the office. This is written from several perspectives:
- As a Virtual Assistant with several steady clients including one whose diary I am a managing and another for whom I’m researching coffee (variety is the spice of life for Virtual Assistants –www.virtuali.uk/services )
- As a freelancer who likes to meet my own regular clients at least once a month face to face to maintain a good working relationship
- Seeing my clients, who are also sole traders often working from their own premises, deliberating about where is the easiest place to meet prospective and existing clients
As most of my regular clients are based in a 15mile radius of where I live (Moira), I thought I would concentrate on Co. Armagh/Down area ( a lot of debate about which county Moira is actually in, that I won’t go into here!).
My research about coffee for one of my clients, unfortunately, doesn’t involve me sitting trying out lots of coffee shops around Ireland but I’ve come to realise that freelancers have at least 7 criteria when it comes to choosing a place to meet clients outside the office:
- How easy it is to park
- How good the Wi-Fi connection is*
- Supply of plugs (as our laptops/phones are constantly running low)
- Good space between tables and comfy chairs so you can talk without fear of someone overhearing your empire building conversations!
- How much light there is ( as we freelancers are busy running around like headless chickens and never see the light of day)
- How good tea/coffee is (and how many times they refill your cup for free)
- How good the goodies to go along with your tea/coffee are
(If anyone is organising a workshop or conference I’ve been reliably informed that tastiest savoury item available at the moment is Belfast Bap offered at Crumlin Road Gaol)
*Justin Bentley from JCB consulting has made me very paranoid about sharing documents on open Wi-Fi in coffee shops so if you want to find out more about how to protect yourself online please check out upcoming Create Digital NI workshop Tuesday 17th May http://www.createdigitalni.com/upcoming-events/be-cybersafe-and-sound-online-security-and-marketing-workshop
The importance you place on these items, of course, varies from individual to individual, which is what us makes as unique as humans, but as Lynda Willis from Customer Sense Training and Consultancy will tell you the most important criterion wherever you choose is good customer service that will bring you back even if the other variables are missing. I used to work in a building with 1,800 employees and one of the cafeteria ladies –Ondina –knew everyone’s names, their drink of preference every morning and what’s more was able to converse in English, French & Portuguese- now that’s customer service!
These are my 10 top places to meet
Moira, if you didn’t realise already, is, of course, the epicentre of Northern Ireland (easy to reach from north, east, south or west), famous for Battle of Ireland fought here in 637 and more recently for our award winning sausages (and now also white pudding!) and you are spoilt for choice, as there are no less than 6 coffee shops (all independent no less).
I’m listing Moira meeting spots in order of entering the village from the Motorway exit, not in order of preference, as I know better than to offend my neighbours.
- Pimento Coffee Shop (101 Main Street, Moira) http://pimentocoffeeshop.com/
- Quirky Bird Tea Rooms (4 Meeting Street, Moira) http://www.thequirkybirdtearooms.com/
- Fat Gherkin (57 Main Street, Moira) https://www.facebook.com/thefatgherkin/?fref=ts
- McCartneys Bistro Deli (56 Main Street, Moira) http://www.mccartneysofmoira.com/
- Cairo’s Coffee Shop (1aBackwood Road, Moira) https://www.facebook.com/CairosCoffee/?fref=ts
- Fine Coffee Coffee (70 Main Street, Moira) https://www.facebook.com/thefinecoffeeco/
- Edenmore Country Club (70 Drumnabreeze Road (outside Moira/Maralin) http://www.edenmore.com/ (excellent if you are also looking for a round of golf )
- Ichthus Café, Lurgan (18-21 High Street, Lurgan) (car parking entrance to the side) https://www.facebook.com/Icthuslurgan/?fref=ts
- Quails Fine Foods, (13-15 Newry Street, Banbridge) (car parking to the rear) http://quailsfinefoods.co.uk/banbridge-cafe.php
- Vic Ryn is also a very handy place to stop at between Lisburn and Moira on Moira road http://thehouseofvicryn.com/
- And lastly, if you want to treat yourself to lunch in an award-winning restaurant check out Wine n Brine (59 Main Street, Moira) http://wineandbrine.co.uk/
I’m gluten intolerant, until a year ago I cycled or took public transport everywhere, lived abroad for 10yrs and drink coffee occasionally so my preference for private or business is somewhere a) accessible to train halt b) has lots of light c) lots space d) does really good coffee in continental sized portions (hard in NI) & e) has savoury gluten-free snacks which are like gold dust apart from in cafés no. 4&8 mentioned above.
As this is Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink, why not buy local and at the same time support NI economy. A lot of establishments in Moira as well as Quails Banbridge & Vic Ryn stock produce from local artisan makers such as Abernethy Butter Company & Hollah Preserving and salted caramel sauce- to die for -produced in Ballinderry by Brambleberry jams .
Location, Location, Location
Parking is always a touchy subject in Northern Ireland with our poor infrastructure so if you are entering Moira from the motorway, you can turn right into Moira Demesne and park behind the Main Street. There is also a car park opposite Boots the chemist beside Moira Library. When you are there, why not take a walk around the park and get some fresh air at the same time (circuit around the park takes a brisk 20minutes).
So as Kirsty and Phil from Channel 4 programme of the same name would say its all about the location! which is why when I decided to move back to Northern Ireland, I chose to go back to my roots and chose Moira. The aim of a Virtual Assistant is always to help their client save time so I hope this article helps you the busy entrepreneur, whatever your occupation, to do exactly that.
When I was writing the card it made me think of the YB12 (Your Best Year Yet) workshop that I did with John Higgins last September and one of exercises was to write an email to your future self. I found mine the other day and am proud of what I achieved in the last 12 months, though of course there is still lots to do to build my virtual empire!
I was living in Luxembourg, working in a building with 1,800 employees with onsite catering, concierge & sporting facilities in a challenging but somewhat passive mono functional role, taking holidays pretty much when I wanted and not worrying too much about where money was coming from every month.
Fast Forward to Present
I’m back in Northern Ireland working in my own office with only William Crawley for company at lunchtime, taking all the decisions, wearing the multi-hats of Sales person, Accountant, IT Support, Marketer all in one and juggling trying to be successful, profitable and squeezing in some kind of downtime and social life at the same time.
I don’t think any amount of preparation really readies you for the exhilaration but also stress of being a sole trader and running your own business wearing all the hats you have to.
When I tell office based people in the administrative industry what I do, they often reply ‘oh I’d love to do that and have the flexibility of working when I want’ but the reality of being self employed is not always so rosy as you still have to be available for your clients and not disappear up a mountain for a few days (though some days you’d like to disappear and totally disconnect from all your electronic devices…)
If people ask me what its like being self-employed this is how I reply:
- Be prepared to work harder than you have ever worked before
- Be prepared for lean times as well as abundant
- Be prepared for moments of tearing out your hair as well as shouting from the rooftop
- Be prepared for moments of isolation and wishing (for those 10 secs) that you were back in a ‘normal’ office environment
- Be prepared to draw on mental reserves you didn’t even know you have
There have been umpteen articles written about traits of entrepreneurs and how to be successful so am not going to repeat them here but after 6+years of working in facilities management and doing progress reports, here are the lessons I’ve learnt in the past 12 months since I became a sole trader and launched my business:
- Exercise, breakfast and get dressed if you can before 08:00 and then you are Ready for anything. Early bird catches the worm and all that. Otherwise you’ll be starving, still in your PJ’s and stressed out at 16:45!
- After living for 10yrs abroad I’ve been conditioned to eat ‘Breakfast like a King, Lunch like a Prince ,dinner like a Pauper’. I try to prepare my lunch the day before so I can have a proper brain break at lunchtime and have the fuel when my brain most needs it
- If you are mentally exhausted, and can’t do one more task STOP, switch off all electronic devices and take an hour, take a day, take a weekend but STOP. My 1st client gave me this advice at start when I was trying to be everything to everyone and running around like a headless chicken! Tomorrow trust me, you can come back refreshed and do same task in 1hr that you were slogging over the day before for 3hrs
- Be like the Finns and work for 45mins and then have a break
- Find a passtime that doesn’t involve any electronic equipment. I practice yoga, go out with a walking group and have joined a community gardening project which helps take me back totally to basics and hopefully will supply me later in year with all veg I need to keep brain alert (also important when times are lean -see point above…)
- Take the advice of others- there are 2 pieces of advice I’ve received that have really stuck in my head 1) ‘be professional with everyone’ (this was expressed somewhat more irrelevantly than written here..) given during an events management course at Blick Studios and which is true in all aspects of life and 2) ‘Keep your head down and your tail up’ from my friend Peter who over last 10yrs has successfully built a private physio practice in London
- Don’t isolate yourself. I heard a very interesting radio interview recently with members of Ulster Orchestra and how important it was to practice in a group as you will only learn so much by yourself. I was very lucky at start of my entrepreneurial journey to meet Dawn & Allen of WabiSabi Belfast who are freelancers building a co-working community. The co-working tribe has taught me there is always someone to talk to if you feel isolated and to help boost your confidence. Their new co-working space is coming soon to Belfast–please support their campaign
- Surround yourself with people at different stages of their entrepreneurial journey so you can learn from others and have people you can trust to use as soundboards. I recently joined Acordia Networking Group and have found it very useful. As Dollie and Kenny would say ‘ we are islands in the stream’ but sometimes we need little bridges to connect us (my sister and I spent a childhood singing country and western songs with my dad in the car-they somewhat more tunefully than me!)
- Make sure your friends & family understand what you are doing so they can be your champions and spread the word about your business. We were told at a Women in Business Power4 workshop just casually drop into casual conversation with everyone you meet from the train conductor to your local fruit and veg owner (mine is tortured) what your business does
- Set out your SMART objectives, make a 3-6 month plan and then try to find the time to measure if you are actually achieving them. This is hardest part of course
Writing the above, I realise a lot of points relate to mental health which I think says a lot about mental strength you need as a freelancer and the fact that like running a marathon you will have DIG DEEP into mental reserves you didn’t even know you had.
I chose to become self employed because of the #freedom #flexibility & #independence and I suppose also to challenge myself to see if I could make it happen. I can’t claim be the most creative around but I am fairly stubborn and have lots of curiosity. I realised in the last year that I have a lot more ambition than I thought I had and that I love connecting people -stayed tuned to see how I hope to progress that in the future!
When I talked to my career advisor in school a long time ago, I certainly didn’t visualise being a Virtual Assistant (mostly because the career didn’t exist 20+yrs ago!) but in the wise words of my birthday date-sake Steve Jobs :
‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life’
What does it take to make the leap to self-employment?
This is the question on the lips of anyone who’s ever thought about leaving the security of a full time job to go it alone. Making the decision is the first step, but how to turn that into a reality and stick at it is not always as clear cut.
Three years ago, I was working as a Personal Assistant (PA) to a senior Director in the headquarters of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg where I’d gone to work 9yrs previously as a bi-lingual Project Administrator. I’d got to the stage in my career where I could go as far as I wanted in my grade and had already taken a sideways step to get more experience. I knew I wanted to use the skills I already had developed in 14yrs of varied administrative posts: customer –orientated , knowledge sharing, adapting to different personalities , evolving with new technologies and working with a high level of autonomy but I wasn’t quite sure which way to turn as I couldn’t find a role which was demanding and interesting enough.
So I started working on my LinkedIn profile and whilst doing this, I happened to see an interesting workshop called from ‘ Personal Assistant (PA) to Virtual Assistant (VA)‘ run by Susan Moore, a successful VA who had set up her business 10yrs previously. My curiosity (as is always the case) got the better of me and off I went on the 1 day course in London. The workshop outlined the steps of becoming ‘virtual’ and the challenges being self-employed would bring. By the end of the day I was convinced becoming a virtual assistant was the chance for me to use the PA skills I had developed over 7 yrs (being highly organised, diplomatic, discreet, trustworthy and pro-active) whilst allowing me the much craved flexibility and creativity to choose my clients and the projects I was working on so that I was constantly learning and evolving.
(Hays Recruitment have recently published a report on what makes a successful PA which makes very interesting reading and certainly the fact of being assertive and knowing how to juggle many balls in the air at the same time, struck a cord with me!).
Where to leap to? Do your research/know your market/network
I realised as a Virtual Assistant that my target client would be either a well-established sole trader or micro/small- businesses just starting out who would need ad hoc or ongoing administrative assistance but who wouldn’t necessarily need/afford a full time recruited in-house PA.
Initially, I did some research in Luxembourg about whether it was the place to set up but quickly realised there were relatively small number of business starting up there. As a Queens University Belfast graduate and with my heart strings pulling me back home, I decided Northern Ireland with its high constant number of micro/small-business start-ups up was place to be. So as inevitably all us nomads do, 4 months later (and not without a few share of tears shed), I packed my belongings and returned to my roots and my native County Armagh.
When to ask for help
Since mid –Autumn, I’ve been enrolled on the Women in Business NI (WIBNI) power#4 programme with other female start-ups; as even we high flying independent women need a helping hand at times! and advice from others who have taken the leap to self-employment and made a success of it. This course has been especially important to me as after spending 11yrs abroad (Luxembourg, France, Australia), I had to start from scratch building a business network and as the power#4 name suggests we are exponentially spreading the word about each other’s businesses.
When to leap
My fellow female entrepreneurs are all at various degree of fledging. Some are still in full time employment exploring their new business idea; some working part-time and a rare few have fully taken the leap to be 100% self-employed. We often discuss when is the best time to leave the comfort nest of full or part time employment to become fully self-employed and the answer we came to realise is there is never/always a good time. Sometimes you need someone to force you and sometimes you need to force yourself to see if you and your business idea has wings !
After a nine month gestation period :)) working full time and trying to set up my business in the background, I then changed to a part time job to allow me to spend more time on my own venture. It wasn’t easy juggling the two, from a time management perspective or in terms of focussing my attention. I often ended up doing many more hours in a week than I would have with a single full time job and because of my high expectations of myself, I felt I wasn’t giving enough attention to either.
As of 1st February, I have taken the exhilarating (and slightly terrifying) step of being 100% self-employed. 2 weeks in and I’m loving it!
As one half of a very wise couple said to me recently (Gilchrist & Co) ‘A freelancer is someone who jumps off a cliff and builds an airplane on the way down!’ thinking of that imagery you have to a) make sure you have skills to build that airplane and b) surround yourself with those who can help you in case of engine problems in transit. In this regard, we are blessed in Northern Ireland as we are by nature a very creative and collaborative lot and I’m very thankful for people who have helped me since my return (you know who you are).
So if you haven’t jumped yet, what are you waiting for? go for it! I won’t lie it has taken me about 3 years to get to this stage but so far I’ve few regrets. Being freelance and now working 100% from home will of course bring a whole new set of challenges but that’s something I’ll come onto in my next blog…