Wednesday 11 December 2013

2Inspire Business Profile: Caroline Wylie - Founder of The Society of Virtual Assistants

The 2inspire Network was inspired by Caroline Wylie recently who started her business because she "wanted to wear jeans to work"! With a fantastic business journey and superb network Carol is truly an inspiration.
Caroline Wylie
Please tell us what is a typical business day for you?
Virtual Assistants or VAs complete administrative tasks remotely for their clients.  They are a remote secretary, a freelance worker and typically work with several different clients at a time, charging only for the time they work on that client's materials. 
My day usually starts with a cup of tea at 9am by checking work and sending it back to clients for our 10am deadline - that might be audio typing, social media updates or formatting PowerPoint presentations. For a VA, I'm quite old fashioned as I like to mark my day out on paper, noting who we have available, what projects we're working on and the day to day tasks I need to complete.  The day tends to quieten down after the deadline, with clients tending to send work in towards the end of the day as they work on their projects and realise they need some help.  I might do some of my own business admin in that time, pop out for a walk, check social media updates etc.  It's a good job to combine with other family commitments such as the nursery run or domestic tasks as it is usually done from home. 
And then as new work comes in, we allocate a virtual assistant to work on it, make sure we understand the task and what is required and then it's a race to hit our next working day deadline. 
I save Fridays for admin - this is a free resource for UK based VAs to help them set up and stay in business.  I started it because so many aspiring virtual assistants got in touch with me every time I did any PR for the business - there just wasn't the information available for them back then. 

What made you start the business and how did you get started?
The short answer: I wanted to wear jeans to the office.  (That first year in business, I wore my suit more frequently than in any other part of my working life as I networked, went for business planning sessions and found new clients.  I can now happily say the suit is consigned to the back of the wardrobe and rarely gets worn!)
The more complicated reasoning behind starting the business was that I wanted more control over my working environment - working for a company doesn't offer any of the protection that it once did, my job now is far more secure than being an employee who can be made redundant.  Not wearing a suit was symptomatic of the lack of control you have as an employee - I wanted to have a really fast computer, a nice desk, be able to turn down clients who I found morally questionable, and to work with fantastic people. 
The idea of being a virtual assistant first came to me when my dad was talking about an office building he owned and maybe turning it into an internet cafe.  At the time in 2003, most people had the internet but very few had the knowledge of how to get their computer to work to its full potential with email marketing, mail merges and remote working.  I went to a Business Gateway exhibition, met PSYBT and never really looked back as they guided me through the whole process.

What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in the business world to date?
I am immensely proud when we do the UK Virtual Assistant survey each year and we get people telling us how helpful has been in helping them set up their business.
I'm also fortunate to still be in business nearly 10 years after starting - so many people go back to having a job as it's an easier option than running your own business and the responsibility that incurs.  The perks are definitely that you can work flexibly and it's interesting and challenging. 
My favourite award was from "The Naughty Table of Virtual Assistants" and they gave me a little trophy which says "Caroline Wylie - Most Ethical and Respected VA of the Year 2011" - they sent me a small presentation video and I did shed a little tear at this thoughtful and sweet gift. 

What has been your biggest challenge in business so far?
In my own business, getting enough good virtual assistants - the good ones invariably get too busy with their own work to continue being subcontractors and it's very difficult to find good staff.  Our fail rate for our tests sits around 90%.  We need to keep the quality high in order to make sure we're delighting our clients.

Threats to the industry are that clients have a bad experience with rogue or inexperienced VAs - perhaps they don't have proper data back up or are working from an insecure email address or aren't suitably experienced to carry out the work. Clients having a bad experience with a VA reflects badly on the industry as a whole.

Surprisingly, the offshore assistants aren't a major threat, as they can't compete with what a UK VA will offer - it's a bit like comparing car buyers - someone who is in the market for a top of the range brand new Mercedes won't be looking in Exchange And Mart and expecting to pay £200!

What are your future plans for the business?
SVA will be continuing to do the UK VA Survey (a vital resource for new VAs writing their business plan), we'll be involved with the VA Conference next year, and there will be more hints and tips for VAs on the blog. 

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I don't think I would change much - the business has evolved as the technology has become available and we've kept up with it.  I would probably advise outsourcing earlier, but it was important to know how to do all the things I was asking the outsourcers to do so I could check them and ensure standards were consistent. 

Why is it so important to inspire young women in particular to follow their dreams?
I think women are less risk averse than men in general - starting your own business is seen as being risky and complicated but it needn't be. We need more people starting up on their own to boost the UK economy, small business is our backbone. Red tape puts so many people off hiring or expanding their business, using a VA is a way to circumvent that without risk.

What advice would you give to somebody who wants to start a business in your industry?
Most of the information you need is available for free, so be careful about spending a lot of money or courses or books without doing some thorough research first.  I know lots of virtual assistants who have worked with an old computer and with minimal start up costs bootstrapping until they have built their dream into a thriving business.
You need a fair chunk of time to set up properly, I always recommend having at least 20 hours a week to work on the business and some of that time should be within traditional office hours. 
Quite a lot of mums believe they can be a VA save money by taking their kids out of childcare - this is a myth, less than 4% of the industry has kids with no form of childcare.  You will need that nursery place!
Tell everyone you know what you are doing - mostly you'll find your first client in amongst your friends or family since they already know and trust you. 

What or who inspires you in business and why?
I love my job - each day brings new challenges and it's exciting to be involved with different industries and clients each day.

What is your favourite inspirational quote?
"Done is better than perfect" - which seems an odd one but I can be a bit of a perfectionist and invariably you will have to tweak systems or processes as you grow and therefore it's more important to get the ball rolling than attempt perfection on a first try.
Caroline Bio:
Caroline Wylie worked in marketing before escaping the rat race in 2004 to launch her VA business. The lack of resources for UK assistants prompted her to found the Society of Virtual Assistants in 2005 including a forum, Approved VA Scheme and various templates for UK VAs. She is the UK representative of the worldwide VA accreditation, has previously judged the Outstanding VA of the Year Awards and has organised Global VA Week and the UK VA Survey for the last few years. As a VA who runs a “real business which pays the mortgage” rather than a lifestyle business, she’s keen to promote the professionalism of virtual assistants and the value they add to their clients’ businesses. 

Contact Caroline at:
Twitter: @socityofvas

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