“Well, it’s just like being a freelance PA…”
Lots of people in the PA world at the moment are thinking of making the move to being a VA. I love it and would genuinely recommend it if you think you have the right skills and mindset. But it may not be what you expect….
When I decided, more or less on a whim, to try this VA malarkey, I really thought that as a PA it was just a matter of working in a different way, freelancing instead of being employed. And on paper this is entirely the case. However, the reality is that I didn’t have a CLUE! Not a Scooby about how different it would be. There are a million ways in which working for yourself is different. Some are, without doubt amazing (working in PJs, getting to have a dog, not having an actual boss, going to the gym at 10AM and so forth). But some are really hard. Really hard. This is a very brief summary of the “oh God I wish I’d twigged that” moments that I have had since making the transition.
And, FYI, this isn’t just a PA VA thing. I’ve met HR consultants who were previously in corporate life and decided to go it alone, they have the same pain. Probably more money in their back pockets to buffer it, but the same pain!
The work is different. Yup. All those shit hot PA skills I have, juggling insane diaries, booking mental travel schedules all totally unused. The kind of clients I have just don’t want that kind of support and conversations with other VAs would seem to support this. Running a diary as a VA is very very different and actually, the one time I did try it I quit after a week – on the hours I was booked it was totally impossible to provide the cover needed (“can you cancel that meeting in an hour?” and other last minute requests that are totally doable as an employee are really not workable as a VA. ). That thing you have when you are a PA or EA and you know every move your boss makes and precisely where he’ll be at any given moment is a real hard one to pull off as a VA because it is so time consuming. How many times did I look at that diary in a day, lots, maybe 20 even 30 time if I was booking lots of meetings. How often did I get calls or emails to book or move things? Loads. That just isn’t cost efficient for many clients to have that level of cover. Some VAs do it, but not as many as you might think. That’s the downside. The upside is that actually as well as the pile of usual admin things that are more junior than I might have done as a PA/EA after a time I have become in many ways a more respected colleague and do much more advisory work. Being paid for an opinion!
No work, no money. Yeah yeah, redundancy money. It doesn’t last forever. There will come a point where no matter how many networking meetings you haul yourself to, no one is biting. The few leads you have fizzle into nothing and you have to keep motivating yourself and getting out there even when you are pretty convinced it’s all pointless and you might as well just stack shelves in Tesco. And what about when you’re ill? Or want a holiday? Or someone in the family is ill and you have to drop everything? Or just can’t be fagged to get out of bed because it’s all too hard? I knew this intellectually, of course I did, I’m no muppet. But how it feels is scary. And even when you do have work, most VAs work based on client billed time so literally, you can sit at your desk for 10 hours and only be paid for 5. Trust me, it happens! There’s a whole other blog on that one of these days.
People don’t get it. Most of us have fabulous support in the form of family, partners, friends and they will back you to the hilt. But they won’t really get how it works or how it feels unless they have done it themselves. I had one well-meaning friend sending me jobs ads that were paying £12 an hour! If you have self-employed friends then brilliant, there are also some great Facebook groups for VAs where you can find a tribe to hangout with. They will get the traumas. There are also coaches, business buddying (formal or informal), training courses and local face to face groups for VAs. They are life savers and have kept me sane many times. (A cautionary note on FB groups. Firstly, some are USA based and they will fry your head with a load of tech crap no one here has ever heard of and freaky online courses designed to get you 10 clients in 10 days and the like. In addition, these guys often work for pitiful rates through Upwork and People per Hour and these sites are really all about people getting insanely cheap labour, not trusted ongoing high level support. However, that is where their industry seems to be, more’s the pity, in the UK we need to fight to keep industry standards high and rates that are enough to live on! Secondly, most Facebook groups are open to anyone who asks to join. Before you spill your guts about your pricing, latest client who turns out to be a psychotic witch and whether you are storing your data safely REMEMBER WHO COULD BE READING IT! The online world is a funny one and VAs are (largely) a collaborative bunch but use your brains, if you wouldn’t want a client to read it, don’t put it anywhere unsecure.)
Rates. Hilariously, when I set up I thought I could work out my rate by doing annual salary divided by 52 weeks divided by 40 hours. Or some such lunacy (I was in the pub at the time on a Friday night, that’s my only excuse). Happily, a friend VA gently explained to me that if I did that I would likely be in the workhouse in about a month. Freelance rates are not the same as employee rates. They are not! If you want to earn what you did before (and still sleep) then you will need to charge appropriately. There are lots of ways of working this out just don’t try it my way! Yes it sounds like a lot when you first hear it, sense check it with a trusted UK VA advisor if you are aren’t sure or send me a message and I’ll suggest some people to talk to. Remember this has to cover your work time AND your sales time, admin time, holidays, sickness, equipment, insurance and other bloody things HRMC and Data Protection expect you to fork out for and the light, heat and teabags for your office.
“Hello, IT? My Outlook seems to have frozen” . As a freelancer you are now the boss. Hurrah. However, you are now also the IT Department, Sales Department, Marketing Department, Finance Department …. Everything. All you. If your laptop dies (or a puppy hurls it onto the floor and kills it dead) not only do you have to get it fixed or replaced, likely you are earning no money until this is done. You can of course have others to do your IT, bookkeeping, social media etc and I have some great suppliers, but they all cost money and, especially with IT or broadband, it may not be very timely when you are under pressure in a crisis. After the puppy incident I was simultaneously on the phone to my IT guys and climbing on a ladder to get my 1990’s desktop out of the attic trying hard not to hyperventilate at the thought of all the work I was not doing. FYI I now have 2 set ups, it’s just that key that I can’t be without something to work on.
So that’s my quick and dirty download on what it’s like versus what I thought I was getting. There are probably loads more things others have experienced. What was your biggest shock to the system if you started as a PA/EA?