This week I am delighted to introduce you to Jennie Rook of PA Solution Services and when I read this contribution in advance of it going live, I was like you can see the writer in Jennie – so the best advice, I can give you right now is to sit back, grab a cup of coffee and prepare to be inspired.
My name is Jennie, originally from South East England but relocated to Paphos, Cyprus 18 years ago. Graduated from Nottingham, UK. I had worked as an EA and PA, I managed retail stores in towns across the UK. My degree is in Fashion and Textile Management and I also won the National Student of 2002, Personal Assistant Award in the UK from Angela Mortimer Plc’s agency. After burning out in Retail, I took another diploma in Executive Personal Assistant studies at a local college. I realised I had a talent and passion for this work. Later the same year, my family migrated to Cyprus. I worked for nearly 10 years at PwC Ltd in Cyprus prior to launching, and it was clear that many small businesses were struggling financially, through the banking collapse. The ways in which businesses operated were changing too, and I saw enterprises of all sizes, unable to afford a reliable, full-time secretary, even less a team of qualified administrators. Here was an opportunity and a gap in the market I could fill. I was inspired to create the company because I had seen the role of the secretary morph into what I like to describe as, a type of “Managerial Superwoman!” I love to help and solve problems that to the overloaded business person they appear insurmountable. I have run my business PA Solution Services for 4 years, though it was 2-3 years in the making. Of course now, with the emergence of a pandemic, more and more businesses are asking for exactly the kind of expertise a VA can offer. Business owners are crying out for knowledgeable assistants that know how to work efficiently and effectively, online. I’m no different from the next VA in the industry, but I am Jennie. I have my own signature style in how I work. I love to dive deep into my client’s business. I am still, the only VA on this little island and even though times are difficult now, I can’t wait to take on the next challenge.
What or who inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant?
Having worked for 15 years in a top Executive Assistant role in London, UK and PA to the International Business Unit’s Partner-in-charge, at the PwC Ltd Paphos office for 10 years, in Cyprus, I found that I loved helping clients save time and most of all, money. I was lucky enough to keep my job during the housing slump and banking crash in Cyprus, in 2012/3. Well, it wasn’t really luck, it was the fact that I made myself as useful as I could, even running errands a PA should never be asked to do.
It was a very bad situation for all businesses and many lost €1000’s which was never returned. Imagine one morning the bank has withdrawn €10,000 from your account and then not being able to withdraw more than £30 a day at a cash point. The country was on its literal ‘knees’. You went to work not knowing if by the end of the day you’d be leaving with a cardboard box in hands. It was during those days, sitting at my desk, whiling away the hours with only one thought in my head: Can I set up my own business to work from home, helping these small, struggling-to-pay, business owners with their tedious admin or any other lifestyle tasks, they just didn’t have time or techie knowledge to get done?
I knew I had years’ of experience with front-facing customers. I had a good solid base for potential clients, who knew and trusted me already. I had the focus and the passion for solving problems that often the business owner prefers to ignore, ‘I just don’t have the time to fix that!’ was the usual response. Short conversations with friends and family about whether I could make it a viable business and my motivation was set in stone. I had nearly everything to make it a success.
How did you go about establishing your business?
Of course, it wasn’t an instant start. I needed to update my software and apps knowledge. I knew there were plenty of systems I needed to set up, like time-saving and tracking apps and accounting software etc. I needed to think about who I wanted to assist, which industries or sectors, local or foreign markets or both, how to market myself, how many hours would I want to work, and where from: home or an office. Tip number one for newbies: take your time analyzing as much about your ‘whys, how’s, when what and where’s’.
I was a long-term subscriber to the Executive Secretary magazine, from the UK and when I moved overseas, I continued to keep subscribed online with the fabulous Lucy Brazier. It made sense to reach out to Lucy before anyone else. With one email, explaining my situation and plan, she recommended the Virtual Assistant Coaching company run (at that time) by Carmen MacDougall. Our super awesome Amanda Johnson was her VA. I arranged an online skype call with Carmen, to discuss my options to set up my VA business. It was the most prosperous 3-hour skype call I had made, up to that date. It took me about a week of scouring the internet comparing other training programmes, none of which appeared to be legitimate, certified or hold a decent reputation within the Admin industry. I can say that VACT Limited, now run by Amanda Johnson, is still the industry leader in the UK for anyone wanting to train seriously to become a reputable Virtual Assistant. And yes, I still use that description, as many newbies ask, ‘what do I call myself?’ VA, or PA online or online Executive Assistant?
From the start, my business cards and website state, Virtual Assistant, and it still works today. Yes, you need to explain in more depth, but it’s a great conversation starter. I did also explain exactly which type of services I offered, as in Cyprus business works a little differently from the UK. They love business cards and keep them forever. Cypriots have very short memories too, so I put my photo on the front which influenced a many, as I was a known face locally. Tip number two: Don’t spend hours deliberating on your company name, business cards’ design or detail: I can guarantee you will change it after Year 1 of your business establishing.
In the first month of my VA training with VACT, I was referred to a client, by Carmen, who was in desperate need of admin support. And there it was, my first work as an associate VA. From then I continued to do odd admin work for this client and then worked as a fill-in VA for that client for two years.
One thing led to another. I completed my training in a year, at my own pace and word was getting around locally that I was in business, virtually. I had requests via LinkedIn from ex-colleagues in the UK and Cyprus. I found clients from the VACT group that I studied with, one of which is now leading another VA training business successfully. Most of us from that year are still VA’s or have diversified into training or consulting in the Admin industry. We are still supporting each other, which I find fantastic help when you need to brainstorm or just chat with someone in your situation as a VA. You will always find a use for everything you learn on the VACT course, so if you’re just starting out and wondering how this is going to help you, keep going, it will.
Did you have any savings or financial support in order to start your business?
When I did finally leave PwC Ltd, I had a substantial payment, and only when I was fully qualified as a VA, certain where I was going. So I used some of this to buy equipment, books, short online tutorials, Insurance and other payments required for setting up a business in Cyprus.
I used as many free apps as I could find. I still don’t pay for LinkedIn or Dropbox. After your first 2 or 3 years in business, you’ll learn which apps and software you really need to pay for. It will depend upon who you are assisting and which industries you choose/fall into. For example, I am currently working with authors and editors, so I have invested in apps that I use on a daily basis for these clients. So, tip number three: Don’t waste your money on the most up-to-date laptop/printer or an accountancy package in your first year of business. If you are not earning regular income each month, able to pay your bills and cover your outgoings, you should suppress every urge to spend out on your business. Spend any money you do have spare on you, and develop your skills instead. You will be hired for the skills you can give to your client, not the pretty logo you can print on your digital invoice.
Was there ever a point when you thought it wouldn’t work out?
I never felt that ‘it wouldn’t work’ but at the end of year 2 I was struggling mentally and financially for a short while. I lost a high paying client. I did have a wobble. When I got over the shock of losing my first client, I realised that she didn’t leave because I couldn’t do the work or that we didn’t ‘fit’, but because I had given her all the help she required. With help from other VA’s in my circle, I saw that as a success, not a failure on my part and that it now opened me up for another fresh, high paying client. Tip number four: When things do get tough or you feel alone, reach out to another VA or your mentor and share the highs and the lows.
What support did you have around you to set up your VA business (family and friends, Coach or Mentor)?
You may have understood by reading so far, that having a good support system is also a necessary requirement of running a successful VA business. Not only do you need to brainstorm and talk to the ‘go-to VA in…’ for a problem you encounter and need an instant/fast answer too. You need to be able to socialise if you are truly working from home. It can be a very lonely business. Your time is precious so some friends may not be the kind to help you
I live on the tiny island of Cyprus and I am the only VA here. So when I set up, my only support were ex-colleagues, family and my VACT trainees in my year. I now belong to a digital nomad group and an international digital business group here, as well as the original training group. We all work online and we all need to meet with a human just now and then. I also have a superb network in the VA community worldwide, in particular the U.S. My nearest VA is in Thessaloniki, Greece and we make time to Skype regularly. In the early day’s support from a direct ex-colleague and family were essential, though the family support was more emotional and the ‘kicking up the backside’ type of support rather than business support. Family were for the face-to-face coffee or lunches outside and a physical hug. This will be particularly necessary with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Tip number five: Be selective in who you brainstorm with. It won’t be the school friend you’ve just reconnected with on Facebook and meet for a coffee after 20 years. Likewise, the person you need to shout and scream at because your printer has just blown up partway through a 3,000-page manuscript won’t be your bank manager. This will be your old school friend.
If you could go back and change one thing that you did when starting out, what would that be?
As mentioned above, I wouldn’t put so much energy into worrying over small aspects of setting up in the first year and realise that each aspect of your business grows, year after year.
What is your best advice for someone who is just starting out or someone who is considering becoming a Virtual Assistant?
See all tips above but also invest in a VA course which is reputable and learn all you can during this time, before you set up. It’s not wise to ‘just wing it’ with whatever knowledge of admin and skills, you may think you have.
How would you describe the good, the bad and ugly of being a Virtual Assistant?
See above but for me personally,
Good: Being able to choose your own clients, most of the time.
Bad: Can be a lonely business.
Ugly: Your finances and income depend solely on you and your ability to do the job as well as run a business. You must wear all the hats and that can get messy.
How do you stay on top of your own professional development?
Each year, I take some time to look over what went well and what didn’t go so well and how I can make changes to the business and myself. So, I will invest in a course, as long as I can complete the course in my own time, I feel I will be adding to my skillset and able to make use of it.
I like the Executive Secretary online publication to keep up with what is happening in the PA/Executive Assistant world. I follow and attend online conferences and training from PwC Ltd locally and from London. I’m a member of multiple groups on social media and follow a wide range of business people, whom I admire or find interesting.
I use LinkedIn to read articles and I also use Quora as a platform for factual information on a world of topics. If I read of a new piece of software or an app that is trending in the admin market, I will check it out, read about it, even try a demo. I keep up to date with colleagues in my field and we chat about what’s new, what’s ‘old hat’ and share with others how we’ve helped clients.
What do you love to do when you’re not working?
Because I live on an island in the Mediterranean with around 300 days of sunshine a year, you’ll probably find me doing something outside; meeting friends at a beach bar, walking along the harbour, swimming in the sea or yoga in the garden.
I also love to create with my hands, so I tend to cook, write, sew, embroider, paint, garden, etc. If my work in the week is concentrating on admin, I tend to want to use my brain to create something at the weekend. I try to do the opposite of what I’ve been doing in the week at work. If I’m creating or designing marketing products for a client, I’ll probably want to do something more menial at the weekend like housework or something that doesn’t require my brain to focus on creativity.
Tell us one thing you can tell us about you that not many people know?
In year one to three of launching my VA business, I lived with 10 cats, one dog and no humans.
What does the future hold for your business?
Hopefully, more of the same; healthy growth, being able to choose my clients, and still able to have a flexible life outside the business. It is almost certain that the business will diversify, reflecting how the market is changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Learn more and connect with Jennie