This week it is my pleasure to introduce you to Jennifer Chamberlin of My Bilingual VA. I still remember the first Jennifer and I spoke about her becoming a Virtual Assistant and it has been an absolute pleasure to watch her business build and grow.
I founded My Bilingual VA in 2016 after working as a Personal / Executive Assistant in Paris for 15 years. I grew up in England but was always passionate about Europe and learning foreign languages. When I began my first fulltime job in Disneyland Paris in 1999, I knew it was the beginning of a new life in France. After a couple of years, I looked for a more permanent job where I could evolve and was offered a job as a bilingual junior secretary with Deloitte. So began my PA career.
Today I use all the skills and knowledge I acquired during my time as a PA/EA to help my clients: multilingual entrepreneurs with their general admin, social media, translations, project management, and before Covid-19 hit, event organisation. Over the last four years, I’ve been able to grow my team through the connections I’ve made so we can now offer our services in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Instead of being just My Bilingual VA, we are YOUR multilingual VAs!
What or who inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant?
I was made redundant from my last salaried position and it was a tough time when I really doubted myself as a PA. At the same time, my kids were still small and I’d just launched a Brownie Guide unit with one of my good friends so I really didn’t relish the thought of commuting back into Paris (a 30-minute train ride each way, plus the commute in Paris itself) or explaining why I’d only want to work till 4 pm on Wednesdays.
I’ve always loved making connections, especially with other assistants so when I saw discussions in the Executive Secretary Facebook group about virtual assistance I was intrigued, although I confess I was very apprehensive. Having always been an onsite PA/EA, how could I possibly do my job without being in the same building? Talking to Amanda Johnson for just one hour left me feeling on fire, and that this was something I could do. Over the weeks that followed it felt like everything I’d ever done had brought me to this point.
Today I’m still inspired by other assistants: Sarah Jane Heath, Victoria Tretis, Charlotte Louise Owen and Kathy Soulsby but I’m also inspired by female business owners like Carrie Green, Bianca Miller-Cole, Maggie Giele, Rachel Rodgers and Mel Robbins as well as so many of my clients who are a joy to work with.
How did you go about establishing your business?
Building my network was essential, I saw every encounter as an opportunity to share my business idea with people and as I’ve grown the know, like and trust factor people have come to me for either ad hoc support or for more regular assistance. I built a FB page, learnt how to improve my LinkedIn profile, set up a website with my hubby and after a few months working as a consultant with an umbrella company and taking on ad hoc tasks as an associate VA, I dived into the world of French entrepreneurship.
Did you have any savings or financial support in order to start your business?
I was lucky that I had some savings from my previous job, but even more important that the French unemployment system is incredibly generous. I was entitled to 75% of my former salary for up to two years! It didn’t take long for me to turn over more than my previous salary, although I made the most of the first two years to invest in my business rather than pay myself. I also love being able to put so many expenses through my business account (did I mention I love notebooks and A4 lined paper?!).
I’d love to pay myself more and I’m working on growing my rainy day fund, but right now my goal is to ensure that I have all my ducks in a row and that my business has a solid foundation, so this year I’ve invested in redoing all my legal documents (thanks GDPR), a NAS to protect my data and will be looking at trademark registration next.
This year has been a real slap in the face though, and many of those investments wouldn’t have been possible without the incredibly generous French state aid again, especially as I’m no longer with the French unemployment system. I really am flying solo now!
Was there ever a point when you thought it wouldn’t work out?
Yes, around 8 months in. I was talking to so many people and they were so positive about my venture, but I was only signing small contracts and most of them were as an associate VA. I remember going into a FB group and writing a post saying ‘Heads up universe, I need a break, and not something tomorrow, but right now!’
I don’t quite know what happened, but the universe heard me and I quickly became fully booked, and in a few more months had to grow my team to cope with all the clients who came my way.
What support did you have around you to set up your VA business (family and friends, Coach or Mentor)?
From our initial conversation to today Amanda has always been there, like a guiding North Star and I really value her training and continual support. It took me a few months, but as soon as I could invest in VACT’s Kick Start training I did, and it’s one of the best investments I’ve made in my business to date. I was also lucky to have a fabulous VA buddy in Rose Donnelly, and even though our businesses and lives have now gone in different directions, she’ll always be one of my best business buddies.
Closer to home, my husband has been amazing, he’s been in this adventure with me from the very beginning, he built and maintains my website and he and our two children keep me grounded when things get tough. I can also count on so many friends, both old and new. I’m sure some of them think I’m completely crazy, but some of them totally understand my decision and are always ready with good advice or to cheer me on when I need it. Today I’m excited to be launching my own mastermind group with the brilliant Jo Brianti, so I’m looking forward to writing the next chapter with her.
If you could go back and change one thing that you did when starting out, what would that be?
I’m not sure I would change anything, I’ve learnt so much, from all my experiences, including my mistakes, and they’ve made me who I am today. And as hard as rejection can be, whether it’s personal or professional, I’m a huge believer that it’s redirection to something better if we only have to courage to get back up, dust ourselves down and get back in the race.
What is your best advice for someone who is just starting out or someone who is considering becoming a Virtual Assistant?
My three top tips would be:
- Know yourself: your strengths, your points to improve on, your likes and dislikes, the services you want to offer and for who.
- Know your why: if you don’t have a solid reason for launching your business and serving your clients, you won’t stay the course during the more challenging moments.
- Build your network. Talk to anyone and everyone, even if you think they won’t be a client, stay positive, honest and you never know where each contact will lead. And whilst you build your network you’ll be able to build your tribe, that inner group of people who get you, who value you and who have your back no matter what.
How would you describe the good, the bad and ugly of being a Virtual Assistant?
The good: that feeling of elation when you sign a new client, finish a task, get good feedback on your services, being in control of your time and money and free to decide who you want to work with and when.
The bad: the down days, the mind monkeys, working by yourself from home is so different from going into an office. In an office, we tend to just get on with the job, probably because we clock in and out again at regular hours and are surrounded by colleagues and our hierarchy. Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’m much more in tune with my moods and emotions now, and I’ll have days when I’ll be on fire and get loads done, then other days when I feel like I’m wading through treacle. I’m sure that did happen when I was employed, but I don’t remember it. I wish I could be on fire every day, but am learning to give myself some grace.
The ugly: This year has probably been my hardest yet, seeing clients reduce their hours or end contracts completely has been devastating. Watching acquaintances and friends close their businesses has been soul-destroying. As a business owner, my business is on my mind 24/7, 7/7, 365. I might take time away from my desk, and shut the office door behind me, but my business is my baby, and it follows me everywhere.
What is the best business book you’ve read and how did it impact you and your business?
This won’t win any points for originality I guess, but I love Carrie Green’s book ‘She means business’. I think it really helped me shift from my mindset from employee to business owner. Her paid membership is amazing, with masterclasses on everything you could ever need to know to run a business that you can dip in to as and when you need them and a fabulous Facebook community with so many members from all over the world in different businesses but a real ethos of coming together and supporting one another.
How do you stay on top of your own professional development?
I don’t think we ever stop learning and 4 and a half years in I’m still learning so much. I think it’s important to invest in your business, and that’s what I’m still doing. I have ongoing memberships with Gemma Went’s Consistency Club, the FEA, the APVA, IMA and the VACT and have also invested in one off trainings this year. My biggest investment to date was a mastermind in Florida earlier this year! In 3 days I learnt what it might have taken me all year to learn otherwise and I have no regrets, although it was surreal when Covid-19 hit three weeks after my return to Paris. We all had a sense of getting in under the wire!
The biggest challenge is finding the time for my own development and to do the training I sign up for! I’d love to spend a day a week on my own development, but I tend to spend all week firefighting for my clients and then tend to pick masterclasses and modules up when I need help on a specific subject and that inevitably happens on a weekend, when the phone messages and notifications slow down!
What do you love to do when you’re not working?
My first priority is spending quality time with my family: my husband and two children who are my everything. In our house, it’s all about quality, not quantity so time together is vital, even if it’s only to eat pizza and watch a film on a Friday night. I also recently became County Commissioner for the Benelux & France region of British Girlguiding Overseas on top of running the Brownie unit in Val d’Europe. A fantastic opportunity to take the lead after so many years as ‘the assistant’. I love Girlguiding and it’s an activity I enjoy with my daughter, even though she’s a Guide now, and it’s my way of giving something back to the future generation.
I love travelling too, there are so many parts of the world I would still love to discover. I had so many plans for this year which included Berlin, Prague and Luxembourg. I can’t wait to be able to travel freely again and have all of the above and New York and Florida on my vision board.
Tell us one thing you can tell us about you that not many people know?
I’m a huge Anne of Green Gables fan!
What does the future hold for your business?
2019 was such a good year for My Bilingual VA and all I wanted in 2020 was ‘stability’, to stay at the level I’d reached and ideally grow the business again by 5-10%. Instead, Covid-19 arrived and I’m back down to 2018 levels which has been really hard. So I think my word for next year will be ‘growth’, but not only in terms of turnover, but also my own development. I’m still working on launching a new service that I’m really hoping will be successful and a long-term project to help support French-speaking VAs.
I’d also like to be able to offer more regular work to more of my team, I love giving back and I owe my success to the ladies who have my back. Having said that, I’m incredibly grateful to have navigated the events of this year and to still have a business, next year will be My Bilingual VA’s fifth anniversary, so I’m hugely excited.
Learn more and connect with Jennifer: