This week it is my pleasure to introduce you to Charlie Lester of The Arts VA. Charlie supports an industry that has been massively hit by Covid-19, but I have loved her positivity and her passion for what she does. Interestingly, I still remember the day that Charlie named her business and it’s moments like this, I love about my role as a VA Coach – it’s those lightbulb moments that really make what I do so worthwhile and exciting.
Hi, I’m Charlie Lester and my VA Business is called The Arts VA. The Arts VA provides bespoke virtual assistant services to the arts industry. I work with creative individuals and businesses from all sectors, including but not limited to, performing arts, visual arts, design, music, writing and photography. I started my company in 2018, after 8 years at Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, where I worked on West End and international productions of Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Hamilton and more. I am the go-to VA for the arts because I am passionate about creating time for the people and things my clients love. I take care of the time-consuming admin tasks to enable my clients to focus on what they really want to be doing.
What or who inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant?
My work as a Theatre Administrator was work I loved but unfortunately meant I was away from home a lot. I felt I was missing out on such an important time in my young son’s life and I wanted to find a way of integrating my work into family life. I started to explore the possibility of becoming self-employed and discussed this with a couple of former colleagues that were now Freelance PAs. This seemed like quite a good option, and one evening while I was researching this idea I stumbled upon an old article in The Guardian about Virtual Assistants. I’d not heard of a VA before. Further research led me to SVA, which was an amazing source of information, and eventually to Amanda, VACT and the VA Mastery course. I was inspired by all the VA success stories I read and started to believe that with a lot of hard work I could also be a successful VA.
How did you go about establishing your business?
I did a lot of research in my lunch breaks and in the evenings and signed up for the VACT VA Mastery course. This course was so valuable and provided me with a step-by-step approach to setting up my business. Amanda was also so helpful and would reply almost instantly to my messages asking questions and wanting to run things by her. I spent 7 months working full time and setting up my VA business in my “free” time (which is hard to find when you have a 3-year-old!) I was very open with my company and my plans and they were really supportive. They even bought some of my home office equipment as a leaving gift. My first client came when Amanda encouraged me to create a survey for market research. I sent it to all the freelancers and small businesses I knew in the arts, with the idea that they could help me to understand the type of services I could offer. A freelancer asked if I would consider negotiating deals on his behalf as he found the back and forth of emails with producers awkward and time-consuming. Although it wasn’t a service I’d thought about initially, it is now the main service I offer, and work I love and find very rewarding.
Did you have any savings or financial support in order to start your business?
No, I didn’t. I found the start-up costs were minimal and we understood that it would be a while before I earned what I had in employment. However, I think in hindsight, although we managed, savings would have made life easier for us.
Was there ever a point when you thought it wouldn’t work out?
Yes, I felt quite overwhelmed when I first started out. I was so fortunate to have clients straight away but it meant that all my working hours were taken up with client work, and I struggled to find time for my business set up and development. Marketing was non-existent for the first year for me and I took much longer than I anticipated to finish the VA Mastery course, so there were a few times during the first year where I thought it wouldn’t work because I wasn’t very good at putting my business owner hat on!
What support did you have around you to set up your VA business (family and friends, Coach or Mentor)?
As I’ve already mentioned, I found Amanda’s support invaluable. Running ideas past her and asking her to check documents I created, gave me, and continues to give me, confidence in my abilities as a business owner. I have two young children now and family and friends, in particular my husband and mum, have been so supportive looking after the children while I work, and also being a sounding board for my ideas.
If you could go back and change one thing that you did when starting out, what would that be?
The only thing I would change is to schedule the time for my business development and marketing – to create a system, habits that I stick to. I still struggle now, two years on, to put my business owner hat on and make time for marketing.
What is your best advice for someone who is just starting out or someone who is considering becoming a Virtual Assistant?
Talk to other VAs who are doing what you want to be doing. My experience is that we’re a very friendly community. I regularly make time to talk to VAs that are just starting up or considering starting up. Also, consider associate work to get you started. You can learn a lot from other VAs.
How would you describe the good, the bad and ugly of being a Virtual Assistant?
As a Mum, the ability to integrate my work and home life is equally as rewarding as it is frustrating! It is a challenge to prioritise and I’m forever writing lists and plans for my week to make sure I give everything the attention it needs. But I don’t have to miss a school assembly, I regularly have quality time with my children, and my child-care costs are minimal.
What is the best business book you’ve read and how did it impact you and your business?
“The Go-Giver. A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea” by Bob Burg and John David Mann. I do believe that the secret to success is collaboration and not competition. I try to spread positive messages on my social media platforms, and regularly make recommendations, leave reviews and kind words for those I’ve worked with.
How do you stay on top of your own professional development?
I find VA events a great source of information so I try to attend these when I can. I am a member of VACT’s VA Membership group which gives us access to really valuable webinars by industry experts. I’m always looking to develop my social media and website design skills so sign up for Instagram challenges and listen to podcasts for advice.
What do you love to do when you’re not working?
As a family, we’re happiest outdoors, so our weekends are usually spent making the most of our National Trust membership. I love coffee and supporting local independent coffee shops, and pre-covid would attend the theatre regularly.
Tell us one thing you can tell us about you that not many people know?
I am 33 and only learned to drive last year. I had no interest in learning to drive at all, which I know is quite unusual, but I used to work in London and live a short walk from a train station so never felt the need. However, when my son started school it was either a 45-minute walk to school every day or I learn to drive. With only a few months until my son started school, I started lessons. I passed just weeks before his first day at school.
What does the future hold for your business?
The arts have really felt the effects of Covid-19 and most of my clients work in theatre and don’t have many if any, productions opening this year. My workload has reduced quite significantly, but I have used my time to build my website, I have learned a lot about Instagram and I am now a regular poster! I have finally learned to wear my business owner hat! I also have been fortunate to find associate work that I’m really enjoying with some really lovely VAs.
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