Michelle Safo started Timewise Virtual in April 2005 having gained her initial business grounding and knowledge from studying a Business Administration degree. Shortly after she decided to focus further on a key business area; marketing, so she also studied for the CIM postgraduate marketing diploma. After graduating she entered the private sector to balance her business knowledge with relevant work experience and worked in a variety of positions ranging from Administration, Personal Assistant/Secretary, Recruitment/Sales and Executive Marketing positions. The combination of her business qualifications and experience enabled the development of a marketing and business management specialist.

The desire to have a flexible lifestyle as result of juggling a career and raising a young family was the driving force for her to start out alone and becoming a virtual assistant was a natural decision at the time as she was able to draw from her business knowledge and skills developed whilst working in the private sector. She was able to start up on the business idea with low costs.

We asked Michelle more about her business:

How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
I placed a free entry listing in the yellow pages and received a call from a freelance consultant to process reports. Five years later, the client stills uses us today on a regular basis.

Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
Initially when we started out in 2005 there were not many Virtual Assistants, however now the market is very competitive. I am constantly looking at new ways to stand out as Virtual Assistant whether it is the combined range of virtual tools we use with our clients, working around the clock, our range of virtual services including telephone answering and our Virtual Business System which is our internal process – the way we work with clients. I am constantly looking at new ways to stay ahead with a competitive advantage.

How many clients do you work with now?
We currently work with around 25 clients.

Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
Initially I started alone but found myself over-stretched. We currently have 2 internal support staff and a database of freelancers and virtual assistants to tap into as and when required.

What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
Marketing our business online has been an effective strategy in growing our business, mainly using social media platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn and getting involved in relevant groups, discussions and forums online. We also attend business networking events and offer trial promotions to prospective clients. Registering with online business directories has helped us with our search engine rankings, however over the last few years published directories have not really worked for us. Client recommendations have also been very effective in helping us grow our business.

What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
1. Managing resources – Trying to get the right amount of resources in on a flexible basis to work on a project and to manage the minimisation of resources when times are quiet.
2. Managing cash flow and chasing bad debtor clients who do not pay on time.

Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
The work we do varies and is rarely the same. We start by signing in to Skype making ourselves available for our clients. We check our emails for any urgent requests from clients and act on tasks as a priority. The team logs into the secure project management portal and begins the day by prioritising the client tasks and projects that need to be completed. Virtual assistants’ update the Virtual manager on progress who ensures everything is running smoothly and the client is debriefed and updated on progress of projects and tasks. Typical tasks include managing social media campaigns online, processing complicated reports, conducting online research and organising an event.

What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
We recently worked on an email campaign for a couture fashion jewellery client. As a result of the campaign, the client was able to get front coverage of Vogue magazine and press articles in Elle and Harpers magazine. The client was delighted as business was generated as a result of the press coverage.

What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
Blackberry, Twitter, LinkedIn, Outlook, Skype and project management software

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
I enjoy the variety. The variety of tasks we work on and the variety of clients we work with.

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
When some prospects complain about the rate we charge and try to haggle down to pay what could be paid to a temp or to someone overseas.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
Growing a business is extremely hard in this difficult climate. To stay afloat I have learnt to manage my cash flow effectively. It is the lifeblood of the business. If clients do not pay on time and you are not able to cover your expenses i.e telephone, broadband, hosting, tax and NI then there is the risk of the business ceasing trading. Using book-keeping software to has helped me stay on top of finances and have a clear picture of financial situation. The information is also used to help me plan my goals and milestones. Luckily a VA doesn’t require large overheads to start up. It is best to look at cost effective ways of doing things trying best to keep costs as low as possible. With the internet, there are so many ways to market a business without requiring large marketing budgets. Try not to grow the business too fast. Focus on keeping costs down, get clients to pay on time and market your business cost effectively enabling the business to grow organically and hopefully sustain for the long term.

What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
From my experience, I believe the most important qualities a virtual assistant should have are excellent communication skills, extremely organised and efficient, very driven – to keep going when it gets tough and professionalism as virtual assistant and service provider.

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