When should you NOT become a VA?

The VA industry is getting more popular year on year. As more and more people go freelance and look for freelance support and office workers are getting weary of spending hours on packed trains it seems like a natural progression for many.

But, going freelance isn’t for everyone. So how can you tell if you are just (quite naturally) nervous or whether this is just the stupidest idea you’ve ever had? How do you know if it is the right time? Well, here are some pointers.

Do you have transferable skills?

Contrary to popular opinion, being a VA isn’t just “a bit of admin” and not everyone can (or should) do it. If you have never worked a day in an office in your life and don’t know one end of a laptop from the other, chances are, this is a stupid idea. That’s not to say skills can’t be developed, of course they can, VAs are continually learning as technology changes all the time but most of us started with the basics. Whether you come from a PA background or project management, marketing, IT or another profession, chances are you will have skills that can be used to support others remotely and enough technical knowledge to do that. If you come from a non-office background and don’t have that then you will almost certainly need to get more experience before you even think about setting up in business.

Do you need a fixed income?

Well, most of us do. I daresay there are a few people who just work for fun or for some pin money but for most people earning a living is pretty key in their choice of work. Freelance work is risky compared to a salary. Of course, there are ways to manage the peaks and troughs that are the nature of life as a freelancer but ideally you want a bit of a buffer when you set up or you might need to stay in the day job for a bit longer and work part-time on your business until you have a few more clients.

Have an honest conversation with other VAs about how much work they have to do to make the income they are on. You aren't going to miraculously earn the same as you did before working15 hours a week!

Are you ready for the legals?

It’s not horrific, but there are regulatory things you need to do, even if you are only doing “a few bits here and there”. Whether you are working 2 hours a week or 50, chances are much of the same stuff applies. You need to register with HMRC as self-employed, you potentially need to register with the ICO and Anti-money laundering brigades (a bit like the Girls Brigade but without the baton twirlers) and abide by their regulations. You’ll need insurance, contracts and have to comply with GDPR. If these letters all sound like gibberish, get onto Google and have a look. This is the kind of stuff you need to be aware of.

Are you prepared to spend money?

Many of these things above come with costs. That’s just to get you compliant. You will still almost certainly need a domain name, website, business cards and possibly some software and to update or upgrade your tech. You might decide to invest in some VA training to get off to the best start which is another cost (although will likely pay dividends in the long run as trained VAs typically make more money than untrained).

Are you prepared to look for clients?

Strange as it may seem, clients won’t drop into your lap ten minutes after you put your website up. You have to actively market yourself, whether in person or online. It takes time, dedication and can be really bloody hard work when people say no. If you aren’t used to being out there promoting yourself it can be a shock to the system. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t go for it – it’s something that makes most people nervous. Just be aware that it needs doing!

Are you ready to go it alone?

As well as skills and experience, you will also need the right mind-set and attitude. And to some degree character. As a freelancer, no one is going to stand over you making you do stuff. Also, when things go wrong, the buck stops with you. It can be scary and lonely and very isolating. There are support networks out there but if you are the type who needs everything to be given to you and you don’t like autonomy in work this isn’t going to suit your way of working.

No one is going to tell you how to do this.

No one can do it for you.

Are you OK with that?

Are you going to take it seriously?

I’ll tell you a story to illustrate. I own a pair of hairdressing scissors. I’ve occasionally cut my own fringe and I’m pretty good at cutting tangles out of collie tails. I decide to go freelance as a dog groomer. How hard can it be? I have dogs so I know which end is what. I own brushes and scissors. I won’t bother getting my scissors sharpened, I don’t want to spend money, I want to make money. At first I do a few mates dogs. They introduce me to a few more people. I stick a post on Facebook about how I can groom your dog. I don’t have the same overheads as established places so I am cheaper by a mile. The problem is, I’m not trained. Not in technique, not in health and safety or in any other way. I don’t have any insurance or a full set of kit. I do a job somewhere between iffy and adequate, all of which is fine until I accidentally slice through a bit of dog. I have no experience or training in how to deal with this – practically in the moment, legally or emotionally afterwards. The dog goes to vet for stitches. The owners go (rightly) nuts. Costs are involved. There is talk of suing. I have no insurance… Do you see where I am going with this? Obviously, VAs don’t physically harm their clients (I hope!) but the principles are the same. Whatever you do, you need to do it safely and at a decent standard. Just as you wouldn’t let some random with a pair of scissors loose on your favourite pooch, neither should people trust any old VA with possibly sensitive data, hard created IP and valued client relationships. And you shouldn’t be that VA!

Excuse the rant, but it’s frustrating for serious VA business owners to see people online who think they can make a quick buck calling themselves VAs when they haven’t any skills or experience or any safeguards in place for themselves or their clients. It makes our industry look bad which irritates me.

(And FYI, VA groups are NOT Google. Don't be lazy. If you want to be a VA you are going to have to sort yourself out a lot of the time and research things. If you fall at the first hurdle by asking ludicrously basic questions you could and should have Googled or looked for in the files as a starting point, this is not for you! For example "Hi, I'm new to this and I don't know where to start" Not good, far too vague. "Hi, I'm new to this and I don't understand exactly what I need in terms of contracts, what are the basics?" Sensible question to get some views and recommendations on).

Run for the hills yet?

No? Good. It isn’t my plan to put you off. I just find myself wringing my hands as I see posts by people who are clearly struggling – either to find work, or to keep motivated or just even to have the faintest idea what they are doing and didn’t think it through in the first place.

 If after reading these you have just a vague sense of unease and that this isn’t going to be easy, that’s fine! That’s where you should be. Only very stupid people don’t feel fear…

If you still aren't sure if this is for you, read my honest and gin-soaked take on how I found life as a new freelancer here