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Back to the future-1st year of VirtuAli

Despite virtual nature of my job, I am still of the generation that likes to send snail mail and was writing a card to my former boss in Luxemburg the other day who has just retired.  As I was writing it, I was thinking if someone had said to me in May 2013 that I’d be leaving Luxembourg to go back to Northern Ireland by May 2014 and that by May 2015 I would have started my own business, I would have laughed. Yet here I am in Moira, Co.Armagh, May 2016 an entrepreneurial business woman and not totally broke!

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!

Rewind 3yrs

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.


juggling entrepreneur

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

Lessons Learnt

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Be like the Finns and work for 45mins and then have a break
  5. 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…)
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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!)
  9. 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
  10. 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’


Location, Location, Location
Making my video debut for Women in Business Power4 programme

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