Anna Merrall founded Virtuelle early this year after being made redundant from her role as HR Manager, and decided to use her redundancy as an opportunity to set up her own business working as a Virtual Assistant and HR consultant. This also coincided with relocating from Brighton to Shropshire so the last 6 months have been a massive change, a challenge but also really exciting. Anna had been a board-level Executive Assistant in various international organisations prior to working in HR, so felt that offering a virtual assistant and human resources service would allow her to make full use of the skills she had acquired over the past 15 years.

We asked her more about her business and how she’d gone about building success in a short time.

Did you do any specific training before you opened for business and was it useful?

I didn’t do any specific training but spent 3 months researching absolutely everything about being a Virtual Assistant. This included setting up my business and registering a business name (I did this through Companies Made Simple which makes it really easy), registering with HMRC, setting up my own website (something I knew nothing about – I used Wix but am now thinking of transferring to WordPress as it is easier to SEO) and writing copy, creating profiles on Facebook, Twitter and Google +, updating my LinkedIn profile, identifying my niche, researching networking, marketing and potential clients, as well as learning how to conduct client consultations and create contracts and invoices. There is loads of great information and tips to be found online, as well as really useful and friendly VA Facebook groups. Networking with other virtual assistants is a mine of information and I found out about LOADS of useful sites that I would not have known about otherwise.

How did you find your first client and what was the first job?

My first client was my boss from my previous company. He is now a consultant and it made sense for me to be his VA. I manage his email, collate documents and presentations, arrange travel and undertake research and any other ad hoc tasks he needs. I also am employed by my previous employer as their HR consultant, as, as my role was redundant they have no dedicated HR person in their UK office.

Have you developed a niche area and what is it?

My niche area is HR – I have a CIPD qualification in HR Management and had been working as an HR Manager for 5 years prior to being made redundant. I also speak French fluently so do some research for consultants working in francophone countries.

How many clients do you work with now?

I have seven ad-hoc clients and one monthly retainer – as well as several things in the pipeline which are all quite exciting!

Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?

I work alone at the moment but I have built relationships with other VAs for support and advice.

What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?

Mostly through networking. I have had some success identifying and targeting prospects through LinkedIn but rely more on networking and word of mouth. As well as networking online, I have joined local networking groups for freelancers and women in business and am building up contacts that way. I also regularly attend CIPD events as I am an associate. I have also registered my business on Google and on lots of online directories.

What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?

Finding clients and having the confidence that I can do this! I still have days when I feel discouraged and think I should go and get a job but I strongly believe that when you work for yourself, resilience is key and you need to get through those moments of self-doubt.

Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?

I check my emails and social media as soon as I wake up and then have breakfast with my daughter before taking her to school. I start work just after 9.00 and will work until it’s time to collect my daughter at 3.20. I do all my client work during the day and then carry on in the evening, from about 8, if I need to, as well as catching up on social media and doing my own business related admin. I use Toggl to track the work I do for each client. My days can be quite varied – some days there will be a lot of admin, booking travel, arranging meetings, other days will be focused on research or HR related work. I also have a few Skype calls a day and often deal with ad-hoc queries, usually HR related. It can be a bit hectic but I like the variety. I always end the day by making a list of my priorities for the next day – I use Scribble to make notes of all the things I need to do in different categories. I also have a permanent to-do list of things I do on a monthly basis, like identifying groups of interest on LinkedIn, researching local businesses, entrepreneurs and consultants and sorting out Twitter follows and lists.

What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?

My clients are always really appreciative of what I do. From an HR perspective, I know my clients appreciate knowing that they have expert advice on hand if they need it. The clients I do VA work for know they can delegate non-essential and time consuming tasks to me and just get on with what really matters.

What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?

Scribble for to do lists, Toggl for tracking my time and Invoiceable for invoices, GoogleDrive for sharing client documents and Tweetdeck for monitoring my Twitter lists. Also LastPass for keeping track of passwords and Email Hunter for Chrome.

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?

The freedom! Having worked full time since my daughter was 9 months old, being able to arrange my life and work around her rather than having to fit her in around my work has been fabulous. I am much more relaxed and less stressed and don’t feel like I am constantly rushing from one thing to another. Also the variety of working for different clients on different projects. And not having to work in an office!

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?

Nothing! I can honestly say that there is no part of it that I don’t enjoy.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?

A fellow virtual assistant recommended a book by Jack Canfield to me, “How to get from where you are to where you want to be: The 25 principles of success”. Some of the key points the book makes are taking 100% responsibility for your life, and that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got – so if you want something different, you are going to have to do something different. I always repeat this to myself when I feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Since starting my own business, I have had to do lots of things that have taken me out of my comfort zone and it has been challenging but also really rewarding.

What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?

Being resilient and self-motivated, being able to manage time well and deal with several conflicting priorities at once, as well as being professional, discreet and friendly.