I almost didn’t write this and I may not be popular in certain quarters, maybe even amongst people that are my collaborators and friends – but this week my cage is rattled, and I’m coming out!
In March next year my VA business will be 15 years old. That’s quite a milestone in the small business world. Four in ten small businesses don’t make it to five years. I love what I do, and I’ve always wanted to share with you the best tools, the ways to work and how to market yourself to clients when you’re likely working alone.
Normally I’m supportive of anyone that champions the way we work, but I feel different about this thing. Maybe I’ve been around so long that I’m just an old dinosaur and I should update my thinking for the new world. You can be the judge.
This week the buzz on the VA industry forums and social media is about “accreditation”. I noted a series of tweets that claimed that without standards or regulation, anyone can call themselves a VA, that the poor ones are giving the industry a bad name and it’s time to regulate it.
But I don’t agree. I know. What?
I think you should be able to call yourself whatever you like. If you’re not up to your job it’s likely you won’t be in business very long anyway.
So anyone can be a VA, right?
There will always be people who annoy those of us who are doing the do in a professional way.
You’ll be told at gatherings with friends that so and so has just had a baby, could you tell them about being a VA – or it will be in the national media that you can set yourself up as a VA in five minutes flat and earn £1,000s before Christmas.
Business “Gurus” will tell their groups that they don’t need to pay much to get work done, they can get cheap VAs from abroad. Mobile phone manufacturers call their annoying automatic woman voices Virtual Assistants.
Yep, it’s annoying.
But anyone can call themselves a VA, it’s true and it will always be true. That’s because Virtual Assistant isn’t a job title that can be protected.
It’s not a job, it’s a way of working.
And no two VAs are the same.
One will happily answer the phone for someone all day, one will type up notes, another will keep the bookkeeping records, another will design a website, yet another will be creating great graphics, someone will be planning marketing campaigns, researching social media posts, writing copy…
The list of support work we do is absolutely endless, the range of skillsets infinitely wide.
It’s just the way we provide those services that is the same.
Once upon a time
In 2002 I first found the term Virtual Assistant when browsing the internet using my little dial-up modem. I think we’d just purchased a “fast” one, running at 56 kbps. My family wanted me to “get off the phone” but no, I was excited. In America they were describing a new way of working, supporting other business owners but never setting foot in their office, because the internet was here, and here to stay.
I got to work, I decided I was going to help business owners by being a bookkeeper and doing general admin, but it could have been any number of services that business people need (I don’t do either of those things now btw). I started, and completed, an AAT bookkeeping course. I had to set up business on my own, and I used a variety of resources to help me do it.
The Chamber of Commerce ran week long courses in setting up a business alongside Business Link, alas no longer in existence. I went along to learn about how to set up as a sole trader and how to get customers. The trainer went around the room asking people what they were going to do. When he heard my proposed business he laughed, and said “Well, you’ll never be rich!”
Actually, thinking about it, he may have been right there… but I do know that I’ve paid my share of the bills since I’ve been doing this and had a fairly good balance of home and work too.
Then there were more
With the growth in the concept of remote working along came specific VA trainers, and a lot of VA training providers have been, and gone again, in the last 15 years.
Some of them are very good. Some of them have a huge amount of experience and deserve your money to impart all the knowledge they’ve learned along the way. It may well save you oodles of time and research in setting up your own business.
Others were not so good. Some were setting up as a trainer when they weren’t even working this way themselves, or becoming a coach when they’d only just finished the coaching and training course that set them up.
You can imagine what I thought of those but, no matter, I and many others ignored them and quietly got on with doing what we did best.
Working virtually is a lonely old life sometimes though. Four walls, a computer and 26 bosses all sending their super top priority work at once. Sometimes this freedom is harder than we thought it would be.
So then VA organisations started to set up, and it was discovered that collaboration with other solopreneur VAs was a good thing. Forums appeared, and we could chat to one another in our breaks. Quite a few groups have been and gone in the intervening years too, but the good ones remain.
We all love to belong to a group, it’s fun and you get to find out if you’re on the right or wrong track with lots of things. Lots of the best membership clubs have admission criteria, such as proving you’re a bone fide business – then you get a badge to show that you belong to the club. You even get the benefits of being on the list of members of the club, and standards should stay high through collaboration. That’s a good thing.
And is there room for a professional body or two in the VA industry? The answer to that is yes, but I’d put some caveats on that.
Professional bodies are usually non profit making organizations (note that in terms of reasons for existence) and they arise from groups of people coming together to further a profession. They provide skills updates and education and they provide somewhere for the public/your clients to find out what best practice is.
And how could an organisation stop someone calling themselves a VA?
That requires a qualification, that once passed, allows you to practice and call yourself a certified or chartered whatever. For example, you can call yourself an engineer, but you can’t call yourself a chartered engineer unless you pass an exam. You can call yourself an accountant, but you can’t be a chartered accountant unless you pass an exam. You can call yourself a nurse, or a doctor, but you can’t be the registered medical kind unless you pass the right, legally recognised, medical exams.
So now we have a problem. There can’t be any exams in being a VA, because we don’t all do the same stuff!
Training and courses exist but really they are courses in setting up a business, and the content would actually apply to any business you’d choose to set up.
All any organisation or group in the VA industry can do is provide lists of lists.
Lists of businesses who have done legally required things, such as register for data protection, money laundering, have insurance, have legal documents etc.
But all businesses have to have these things. Do you really need to be on a directory to prove you have?
If they want to, clients can quite easily check you’re on the original, legally required list where it’s appropriate.
To be honest they don’t. I’ve never, ever, ever, once been asked to prove my bookkeeping qualifications, or that I’m insured, or that I’m registered for anything. Does that make you think that most clients are worried about accreditation?
They probably should be worried about protecting their business from dodgy contractors, but the education required for clients hiring outsourcers goes deeper than needing to be on a list of virtual service providers.
Btw, I’m not suggesting you don’t have all the right legal stuff to be in business just because no-one asks. You should be telling potential clients what you have covered off so that they know to ask about it the next time around.
So what’s the point of this article you might be asking by now?
Being a member of a VA organisation can be a great thing. Built in collaboration, support, belonging to a group of like-minded souls. Wonderful.
If you’re going to pay to be a member of any organisation, or pay to have some stamp of approval, make sure that your business will be better tomorrow as a result. Will you have, or potentially have, more clients, better clients, higher revenue?
Invest in yourself
I suggest you invest your money and time in mentoring and training from the right people. If you want to have support on running a successful business you might want to find a decent coach, but they don’t necessarily have to be a VA trainer.
If you want to offer a particular service, find the top rated training course available in the service you want to provide.
If you want accreditation, my advice is to get accredited in what you do.
If you’re a bookkeeper get accredited by AAT or ICB. You’ll have their protection and endorsement in everything you do professionally.
If you’re providing services using office software, get certification from Microsoft.
If you specialise in another popular software get certified by the software provider – Xero, ConvertKit, Infusionsoft
You get the idea.
Use those accreditations and endorsements in your marketing to excite your potential clients that you know what you’re talking about in your chosen field, the field they care about.
Don’t hide away amongst a list of other VAs and wait for someone to pass you a little job.
Don’t further someone else’s business without furthering your own.
Get out there and market yourself as the best in your field to your potential customers and then prove you are the best thing that’s ever happened to them.
You’ll never be short of clients and you’ll give both your business and the virtual assistance industry a great name.