Privileged to be the 1st guest on Gayle Alexander’s VA Today podcast/video series on the topic of being a Virtual Assistant!
Privileged to be the 1st guest on Gayle Alexander’s VA Today podcast/video series on the topic of being a Virtual Assistant!
Privileged to be invited to be a guest blogger for Louise Brogan’s Social Bee Academy on the topic of becoming Virtual!
Who is VirtuAli? The skills I have acquired over a long career have forged the services I offer and how I now help to take away the admin pain from a diverse number of businesses
When I studied French at Queens University Belfast, we read as many people did Albert Camus ‘l’étranger’. The definition of ‘étranger’ in Collins French Dictionary is : ‘foreign, alien, strange, irrelevant’. It has been a month now since Brexit decision and as someone who has freely lived and worked around Europe and now has been running a small business in NI for last year , this is my take on Brexit.
My granny had a tapestry on her wall with a passage from the Bible that read ‘Never Forget to Entertain Strangers for Some have Entertained Angels unaware’ (Hebrews 13:12) and she lived her life by that proverb. I remember as a small child her giving cash to strangers in shops if they were short (although she had little herself) and of her walking with gifts to neighbours if they unwell (she never learnt to drive). What I didn’t witness but know to be true is that at the end of World War II she also welcomed a German Prisoner of War called Hans to help work on her farm (there was a Prisoner of War camp run by Allies close to her in Waringfield, Moira waringfield military hospital).
What is point of my story? Well on 24th June 2016 when Brexit decision was made, I was with friends from Luxembourg where I spent 9yrs of my adult life working. I was able to work there because 1) I belonged to a country that was a member of European Union 2) I had freedom to study what I wanted and where I wanted and chose modern languages 3) I had the travelling bug from my father who in 1950’s (as 1000’s other did from Northern Ireland) went to work in Canada. As I had spent almost half of my adult life living in a country that announces even when you arrive at the airport that you are in ‘Capital de l’Europe’ , I was devastated when I heard the Brexit decision.
Europe to me is about mingling of languages, cultures and ideas and my lasting impression of Luxembourg will always be of standing in the middle of a field in lush green landscape listening to my Irish and Canadian friends who run a non profit organisation called BeeTogether explaining to a Portugese lady married to a Welsh man, to Swedes, and a French/ English couple about their hive of bees and how it is diversification that keeps bees thriving. For me it that diversification that personifies Europe yet now here we are in Northern Ireland in a situation where already very excluded geographically from rest of Europe, we are a risk of further insularising ourselves.
I had a very interesting conversation with a Canadian at Digital DNA conference in Belfast back in May about the immigration policy Canadian government has. He recalled that back in the day when Canada first opened its doors that the Irish and the Norwegian (he was of Norwegian ancestry) were considered lower than low (mostly because of their fondness of alcohol and brawling). I’m glad that when my father went to Toronto he didn’t have that experience and in all the places I’ve travelled and worked in around the world that I’ve always been treated with respect. I hope in Northern Ireland, we continue as my granny did 60 yrs ago to ‘entertain strangers’ who have come to know Northern Ireland as their home and not taut them or terrorise them no matter what the uncertainity of Brexit brings. As the ominous closing words of video of BBC reporter said back in 1960 in his report about Waringfield -let’s hope we don’t have to build another Prisoner of War Camp -nor do we have live life with no regards to circumstances as Camus’ protagonist did.
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:
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:
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’
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.
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.
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…