Sharon Schulz started her virtual assistance business, SES Business Solutions, in March 2009. We asked her lots of questions about her business and why she took the decision not to have her own website.
Why did you decide not to have your own website?
When I decided to start my business I thought long and hard about where to allocate my budget in order to have the biggest impact locally and I decided that for the local business community to get to know about Sharon Schulz and the services she offered, I put my money on networking, networking, networking!! I whole-heartedly believe that “people buy people” as much as for their service offerings. I use Linkedin as my website which has recommendations, qualification and experience easily available for clients and other VAs to check me out
What did you do before starting your Virtual Assistance business and what made you start out on your own?
I was a very target-driven, ambitious 20 year old junior secretary who decided a language was needed to climb up to the top PA positions. So I took myself off to Germany as an Au-Pair or “Kindermaedchen” with the sole purpose of learning German, coming back to England, getting language qualifications and climbing that ladder to the top! As life generally is – along came a lovely man, children and 5 years of happily being a mum – BUT – the whole time I worked towards extra qualifications because I wanted to get back to my career when the children went to primary school.
I worked as a PA for the NSPCC, East Midlands Development Agency and for the last 8 years for Robert Bosch – the international German engineering manufacturer. I worked in Stuttgart on secondment at their fantastic Head Office and returned to the Leicester offices in the UK. When the company relocated to Coventry and I got the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy, I decided to start my own freelance secretarial business offering bi-lingual business support and became a VA.
Did you do any specific training before you opened for business?
I used all my experience and qualifications as a base but decided to study for an Advanced Medical Secretary qualification as I wanted to target the Health sector with audio typing services.
The Business Link free courses on everything you needed to know about starting your own business were brilliant – I went to every workshop I could and they certainly helped me start up with a little more confidence.
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
My first client was a school Governor’s Board – they wanted to outsource the minute-taking for a variety of sub-meetings. At one of these I was approached by a Governor – she worked for the County Council and had a big project she was outsourcing. This was my first big job – PowerPoint presentations and training documentation for the Governor Development department.
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
Yes – word is out that I love taking minutes! I minute-take, sometimes verbatim, for disciplinary hearings, grievance hearings etc. as well as working for various organisations and minuting their Board meetings. If this wasn’t enough minuting – I am also a volunteer Secretary for the charity Crimestoppers – I belong to the Leicestershire and Rutland group – and yes! – I take minutes at our Board meetings too!
How many clients do you work with now?
At present I have three or four retainer clients, the same amount of semi-retainer clients and the ad hoc projects seem to be flowing in these past 6 months too. I work at their premises and undertake work via the web for other clients which I complete in my home office.
Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
I have a strong network of other VAs and my longer term objective is to get some premises and then employ an apprentice. This way I help someone get on the career ladder and I can train them to my own high standards.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
We’ve come full circle now! My best, ever strategy was not getting a web site at the start up stage of my business but networking, networking, networking! I tried advertising my services in one or two publications but didn’t get any work from this at all.
What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
Getting those all important retainer clients. Our work as VAs is sometimes self-defeating as we may go into a client’s office, consult with them about what they do, trouble-shoot their processes and procedures and do it too well! Clients may find that they can then manage their admin and office work but – hey – we offer a flexible, pay as you go service – and if you impress – they remember and call upon you in the future as their needs change.
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
Routinely getting ready for the day, working for half an hour WITHOUT logging onto the PC – I use this time to forward plan how I want to grow my business. After this session I look forward to logging on and seeing what new work has come in, replying to emails, booking onto networking events. If I am booked to work at a client’s office for the day and new work has come in via the web, I work for a few hours in the evening and early morning if necessary to meet the deadlines. I might be working with a client on gaining accreditation for some new service they as a company are offering, sorting them out on Linkedin, creating forms and templates for them to use, designing a new process for a client to quote for his work or I might go to a three hour meeting and take the minutes somewhere!
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
I came up with a process to enable a client to quote for electrical work in half the time by looking at how he did this, defining the process and simplifying the quotation writing process and at the same time providing documents for the employees working on this job. He was reluctant to change his ways but when he say how much time and effort it saved him – he was amazed! We have now moved into a new office with a desk for me and him – and I only go there a couple of times a week but he sees us a team for the future growth of his business.
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
I have always enjoyed business for business sake and love being the Chief Executive, the sales team, the PA and administrator – all in one. I enjoy getting new business and delivering over and above the client’s expectations and giving all round business support by teaching and advising them all I learn about new media, systems to help them cope with all that paper – but most of all I get to play tennis on Wednesday afternoons (well most of them) if I plan my workload properly!
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
I am a very sociable person and enjoyed working for big companies and having lots of colleagues to bounce ideas off. Networking supplies this to a certain extent but I would be happy joint-working with others in the future.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
I know we are advised to find a “niche” market but I feel my skills are transferable and I target various market sectors i.e. medical / health, language sector – I speak fluent German and although not a translator, I do read and write German – especially business German – this is attractive to clients working in engineering.
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
Innovative, pro-active, confident in their skills and experience and being discreet. As we tend to work locally, a lot of businesses know each other and it is essential not to talk about clients to each other – especially if they are competitors!