Claire White established Claire White Associates back in 2005. Her background is rich and varied. Claire started out working for her father’s business – a national enquiry agency – in a role involving tracing missing persons to repossessing children from errant parents. After 8 years working her way up through the ranks Claire was running the company and managing a large team of staff. Looking back she says “I wish I’d known then what I know now because I can now see what massive opportunity there was in the business.”
After a short spell in local government (where she “found out it’s impossible to ‘shine’ no matter how good you are”) and a short baby break, she completed a Higher Diploma in PA Studies and landed a coveted job as the PA to a national motorcycle chain – something her husband particularly loved as he benefitted from all the perks!
Claire quickly established herself there, continuing to increase her skill set by moving into an Events and Internet Manager role.
However after sometime Claire decided she wanted to work as a freelancer eventually running her own business, so whilst working as a Fundraising Manager for a national charity, she enrolled on an 8 week course run by the local Chamber of Commerce for start up businesses. That alongside her stint as a self-employed Motorcycle Events Consultant, and working in her father’s company for 8 years had given Claire a lot of small business knowledge which she felt she could put to good use running her own Virtual Assistant business.
Read on to find out more about Claire and her VA business.
Did you do any specific training before you opened for business and was it useful?
Quite soon after starting up I did a year of study to become a qualified bookkeeper, took a couple of website coding courses and did a further year in a teaching qualification. I was already a Microsoft Office Master so the IT side was a doddle, but at that point I had no real marketing knowledge and like most people have just learned on the job.
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
When I first started the business I did quite a lot of freelance IT teaching. Then by chance I was sat at a Women In Business meeting next to an ex boss and on her other side was a lady complaining about not being able to find a decent self employed PA – Voila! My first PA client.
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
We specifically provide comprehensive business support services to Independent Professionals in the South Yorkshire area and 1:1 remote Executive PA support to Senior Executives across the UK and beyond
How many clients do you work with now?
We currently have 10 clients whom we support on a full time basis.
Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
At the moment we have 12 in the team, each with their own specialism. I make a point of only engaging with an associate for one skill so that if their circumstances change and they move on I only have to replace that one skill within the team. In corporate I experienced how someone can become so integral to every part of the business that when they choose to leave it has a massive effect on the whole function.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
I’m a big believer of building solid foundations before expanding. I spent far too long doing that because I didn’t want to get back into managing teams, but I’m really glad I did because I was able to build a great reputation which gave clients the confidence in my judgement. Shutting myself away completely for 90 minutes each morning has helped me implement tons of things –it took quite a while for family and friends to learn that they couldn’t disturb me unless the building was on fire and I’m sure I growled like a tiger when I first started and they didn’t think I was serious. But these days everyone knows not to come near me for the first 90 minutes of the day, then after that they know I’m available for them. It’s worked a treat.
What hasn’t worked is some type of clients. I now avoid working for entrepreneurs with other staff on board as in my experience they flit from one way of working to another depending on which business book they’re currently reading, which guru they’ve been to see or who they’ve been speaking to that day. The ones I’ve worked with really have been like magpies – attracted to the latest shiny object and moving the goal posts constantly. But that might just have been my bad luck.
What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
Allowing team members to work directly with clients – when your business is your baby and it’s built from your own great reputation, it feels like a huge risk to bring someone else in to do what you were doing. I’ve definitely ‘kissed a few frogs’ along the way but I’m now hugely proud of our expert team.
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
The very first thing I do every morning is spend 90 minutes on business development. That’s followed by an hour or so in the project management system and dealing with emails and the rest of the morning is spent speaking to the team and clients and dealing with the running of the business. I try to get out for a walk or a swim at lunch times (except one week a month when I group together all my client meetings) then afternoons are spent on client work (my own specialism is business and marketing consultancy and working as an accountability partner to clients to keep them on track). I’m doing some professional marketing exams at the minute so one afternoon a week is spent at college, and I’m a member of Toastmasters International who are helping me to become a better public speaker, which is one evening every fortnight. Then I have networking some afternoons or evenings throughout the month, and a bi-monthly business growth conference which is a couple of days away from home.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
I have a client who is quite high profile and well known to be difficult to work for. I didn’t know this when I started working for him and we actually get on really well. Over the years he’s learned that he rubs people up the wrong way. He’s very highly educated and admits to being frustrated when us lesser mortals don’t immediately understand what he’s thinking. Some years ago when he was launching a new website, he fell out with the developers at the last minute. I was able to talk them around to agreeing to finish the job if they had no contact with the client and worked solely through me. We eventually finished the site at 2am the next morning. I sent my invoice as normal but I got an email back that started “I’m really not happy with your invoice…” My stomach fell through the floor until I read on and saw that he was actually complaining that I hadn’t charged enough was adding another £500 on top because of the excellent service he’d had! This client has brought me lots of work in over the years by referring our services onto others, and although there have been times I could happily throttle him, he’s actually one of my favourites.
Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes about jobs you’ve done?
I had a client, a serial entrepreneur who, like many highly successful people had often staked his last pound on an idea. The idea this time was space energy and I used to marvel at the fact that I was often sat around a kitchen table in the Midlands working on a project with 5 men, all of different nationalities, one of whom was the Chief of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office! It was quite surreal but I’m glad to say the project was a huge success.
What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
My iPhone, iPad mini and 13” laptop are essential to keep me completely mobile but still fully in touch. I couldn’t run my business without the project management software TeamworkPM, and of course Hootsuite, Dropbox and CapsuleCRM. I also use Gocardless for taking payment by direct debit, something that has dramatically improved my cash flow as well as reducing admin costs from having to chase outstanding invoices. I use Camstudio to record instructions to team members and LastPass password management software to allow me to share client’s passwords with my team without them ever needing to know what the password actually is.
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
Being able to choose who I work with, where I work and the kit I use. I remember in corporate life how frustrating it was when you were using old tools that weren’t up to the job, sitting all day in uncomfortable chairs and not being able to concentrate due to all the noise. These days I try to keep all my client meetings to one week of the month so that during the other three weeks I can work from wherever I choose. And who hasn’t experienced the horrendous boss who makes life difficult but ultimately pays the wages (and doesn’t he/she know it). The pleasure of being treated as an equal rather than a minion and being able to turn work down or ‘sack’ a client who doesn’t work out is very empowering.
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
Working from a home office I find it really difficult to switch off. I’ve tried having an external office but I eventually slipped into just using my laptop at home while my neat little office sat unoccupied! But I’ve stopped beating myself up about it and accepted that for me at least, having a business is a way of life and gives me a great deal of fulfilment. So what if it’s 2am when I’m writing this. I don’t have any early calls tomorrow so I can sleep in if I want to and no-one will be any the wiser!
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
That doing absolutely everything myself means I don’t really have a business, just a job! One of the reasons I went self employed in the first place was to get out of the hassles and politics that come with managing teams of staff, so for many years I was dead against bringing anyone in to work with me. But I was eventually worn down by the amount of work and lack of hours in the day and I developed a team. I’m so glad I did and I now wish I’d done it much sooner! Now, as well as managing various projects for my clients, the team also manage my accounts, social media, website etc and I even have my own PA. It was great advice and I’ve never looked back. The eMyth by Michael Gerber was an excellent and very easy read on this subject and really helped bring the point home.
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
Professionalism, drive, attention to detail, a can-do attitude and a big smile!