Susie Skinner started her Virtual Assistance business, Susie Skinner VA, in July 2004 She left school with no fixed idea of what on earth to do for a living, just relieved to be finished with school! She worked in shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels (which she enjoyed so much that she managed her own small hotel, with her then husband) before falling into a secretarial role – purely because the chap who employed her couldn’t get on with his current secretary and thought she would be fun to work with.
Despite never having even switched a computer on before, she managed to become a highly proficient legal secretary, slowly working her way up to become personal assistant to an event producer and manager in the concert and theatre world. He was also manager to various performing artists, and opened the door for to new worlds and new skills for Susie. When he and his business partner decided to go their separate (very amicable) ways, she took the opportunity to try her hand at freelance work. Within a very short space of time her previous employers were her major clients and she hasn’t looked back since. Susie also qualified as a teacher of English language, both general and specifically for business clients, and soon found that she was busier than she had ever been. We asked her more about her career path.
Did you do any specific training before you opened for business?
No, although I do believe it would have been very useful. I have learned ‘on the job’, when a client asks me to register a new company, for example, I have had to rapidly learn how to do it! One of my favourite quotes is Theodore Roosevelt- “Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.”
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
I e-mailed out to every solicitor in the area (since I knew that demand for legal secretaries was high and demand for entertainment secretaries very low) wth my CV and offer of freelance admin assistance to cover holidays, sickness, etc. and one of the first ones to respond suddenly had an urgent need for my services., so I was launched immediately.
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
I think as my major client is the one I have worked with for so many years, my main USP for him is my knowledge and experience and the fact that I don’t cry, no matter how difficult things might be! (At least, I don’t cry in front of him!)
How many clients do you work with now?
I have one major client, and usually two or three others at any one time. A new client has just launched a new business and that looks set to keep me very busy for some time to come.
Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?
I work alone.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
So far I haven’t needed to grow my business – it seems to do so without my assistance. However, I am aware that a large proportion of my eggs are in one basket and I do have minor concerns – if that client decided to retire and go surfing all day, I could be in a tricky situation.
What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
The hardest aspect is time management. I am wary of setting out to acquire more clients in case I then find that I can’t service them all efficiently. Is that rather pathetic?
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
My typical day starts the moment I drag myself out of my bed – the first thing I do is fill the kettle and turn on my laptop. I check any e-mails that have had the dashed nerve to sneak into my inbox between going to bed and getting up – anything urgent I deal with immediately, even before my first mug of tea. I like the thought that the outside world is impressed with my early hours, and I’m very pleased they can’t see me in my jim-jams with bedhead hair, blearily peering at my screen. Then I check my to-do list from the day before and promise myself to complete all the horrid tasks that I just ‘didn’t have time for’ yesterday. These might include reconciling the bank account for a client, chasing up replies to my questions, following up on projects that I am managing. For instance, I’m working on a Business Partnership project for a client and this involves endless telephone calls, leaving voice mails and researching potential targets. I’m also involved in a huge data entry project, which is tedious but vital work, for a company launch that is virtually hanging on this input, so time is an issue. My day can involve negotiating deals with hotel groups, product suppliers such as drapes and furniture, maintaining social marketing initiatives, and a great deal of persuading people to do things for me that they had no intention of doing. Although I am technically a PA, I have worked with my main client for over 13 years and my role has expanded greatly over those years. I think it would surprise me and my client if we sat down and listed exactly what I do.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
Mostly being able to negotiate better deals with suppliers – everybody loves a bargain.
Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes about jobs you’ve done?
We used to produce a huge charity show every three or four years, with performers such as Chris de Burgh, Cliff Richard, Lulu, Leo Sayer, all sorts. However, the line-up was a strict secret, the audience didn’t know who was performing until they came out on stage, so we used pseudonyms for all the artists, such as £30 for the Three Tenors (geddit?). We had a top female performer one year and part of her contract stated that there was to be no prior notice of her appearing, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to do the show, so we were all under threat of execution, it was like working for MI5. We gave her the pseudonym of someone like Bette Midler so that even the crew didn’t know who it was. However, the production manager lost the plot and believed that it really was Bette Midler and set up the lighting, music, etc., exactly as Bette liked it and then had to undo it all when he realised that it wasn’t her appearing! And then he blamed me! Doh.
One year we were producing a fourteen night run of a show at the NIA in Birmingham. Backstage the corridors go around the entire building, miles of them. One evening I was dressed in my smart assistant producer’s gear and walking with the catering manager to sort out the evening’s hospitality. Suddenly I slipped on something, skidded along the floor, battling to regain my balance and then as I went down, my arms flailing, I caught my companion in the face with my fist and almost knocked her out. There we were, the two of us flat out on the floor, she with a blossoming black eye and me with a very bruised posterior and – as it was gravy I had slipped in – a very dirty skirt. Five minutes before curtain-up saw me racing back to my hotel (well, okay, hobbling like a little old lady) to change into another outfit so that I could meet my public. I returned to general hilarity as it appeared that security had caught sight of the incident – on CCTV, I presume – and were threatening to put it onto the internet! I think it was only when I started muttering about industrial injuries that anyone thought to ask me if I was okay. Since the damage was to the base of my spine, it wasn’t something I felt I could share with the group!
What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
Skype for group calls, Outlook tasks and reminders, and my iPhone.
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
The flexibility to take off for a walk on the beach whilst the sun shines and make up the hours when it doesn’t.
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
The lack of work colleagues. I’m a very sociable person and used to enjoy the camaraderie of colleagues and the ability to let off steam with a chum. The cat doesn’t quite fulfil that role, though he does try.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
Networking. I am lost in admiration of those people who seem to effortlessly make contacts anywhere – meetings, conferences, Sainsbury’s……. Those contacts are so valuable.
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
Patience, good humour, enthusiasm for a client’s projects, good organisation and time management skills.