Jennifer Chamberlin and Suzanne Ekpenyong share the joys and challenges of leaping into entrepreneurship

The Virtual Assistant (VA) industry is one of the most rapidly-growing businesses that can be run from home, or in some cases, from a café, a library or even a beach – anywhere with a good enough internet connection. VAs provide executive and personal assistance, similar to in-house Executive or Personal Assistants (EAs or PAs). However, as the name suggests, they work remotely and, importantly, they are skilled and savvy business owners, with a wide range of different specialist services. They often provide business management services to other businesses – a step on from standard EA and PA tasks.

An EA or PA with language skills, or an international profile, can easily reinvent themselves as an International VA, providing clients with a range of different organisational services as well as multi-lingual communication skills – perfect for globe-trotting business people who don’t have the time or the language skills to manage their busy global lifestyles.

We are two such Virtual Assistant business owners, Jennifer Chamberlin, based near Paris and Suzanne Ekpenyong, based in London. We have both made the transition from Bilingual EA to International VA.

What we do and how we achieve it…

In addition to traditional executive support services, such as diary and event management, we also put our language skills to excellent use – that’s the particular skill that sets International VAs apart from other VAs. For example, we offer translation services and are able to consult and coach on the intricacies of international and intercultural communications. Our international knowledge makes us super-efficient at scheduling meetings across different time zones and booking complicated travel from one side of the planet to the other; not to mention our experience, which means that we’ve got great global contacts in our address books too: we know who to call if you need to be rushed across Paris by motorbike or if you need a local interpreter in Berlin…

International VAs find training to be an essential part of their personal and professional development, for example, keeping up to date with latest technology, especially communication technology. After all, communicating internationally in a cost-effective, efficient way is vital for the smooth running of the VA business as well as being able to offer the best solutions to one’s clients.   Being able to benefit from the best training around in both English and French, our working languages, is definitely an advantage for us and opens doors to so many new adventures.

Being part of international associations can offer you these kinds of opportunities and are great for networking too, a couple that we’ve had personal experience of are IVAA (International Virtual Assistants Association) and IMA (International Management Assistants).

Connecting with other VAs has formed an integral part of our success. There are many online forums and groups, on Facebook as well as on LinkedIn. The answers to almost all our questions can be found on these groups, be it recommendations for an insurance provider, which software to use to track your time or just to share the successes or challenges of each week. What’s more, when work comes in, and we don’t have the capacity or skillset to handle a particular task, it’s so much better for business, and the VA community overall, to be able to pass work on to another trusted VA, rather than say no to the client! In Suzanne’s case, she uses other International VAs with translation skills to assist in providing translations to clients in the language combinations that she doesn’t personally cover.

Online support groups are also great places to find training and coaches, but it’s advisable to look at a few before you make a decision and choose one that’s the best fit for you.  We’ve also found it essential to have a business success buddy, in Jennifer’s case, a London-based VA who was a few months further along her journey to becoming a VA and in Suzanne’s case, a business development coach. Success buddies share regular Skype calls where they hold each other accountable and bounce ideas off each other.

Our Clients

As an international VA, your clients can come from anywhere and everywhere, national boundaries no longer matter. It’s therefore important to narrow down your niche as early as possible, think about the services in which you would like to specialise, or the type of clients with whom you would like to work.  By making your offer as specific as possible you’ll find it’s actually more effective in the long run.

The key to finding the right clients can lie in your profiles on social media, one of the first ‘rules’ of promoting yourself internationally on LinkedIn, for example, is not to have one profile with two languages, but to learn how to create a secondary profile for a foreign language.  The profile will then be shown in the language of the person looking at it and they have the option of clicking through to change it.

The Transition from EA to Business owner

Why not give running your own business a try before you make the big step? You could begin to create your business whilst still in full time employment, or you could simply test the water and take ownership and approach your EA career like a business. As an EA is essentially an in-house service provider, what if you continually approached your career like a business and treated your manager like a client? It may seem like a strange idea, but facing each day with clear targets and tackling catch-ups like a business review, even ‘upselling’ new and relevant services to your manager is a perfect way to get into the mindset of being a business owner.

One of the first challenges of being a VA can be fixing your rates, but as an EA you should already know your worth. Take your hourly rate, add on the social charges and taxes and look at what your company are actually paying you. Then look at the annual figure you want to earn as a business owner and work out how much you need to earn per hour.  The two figures may not be so distant!

As you make the actual transition, start to build your online profile; clarify your services and rates; seek advice from established VAs; grow your network and reach out to your ‘ideal’ clients. You’ll never look back!

In whichever country you choose to be based, as an international VA, it’s important to be well informed on international banking, insurance and contracts as well as data protection laws. Protecting not only yourself, but your clients, is essential. The more your activity becomes internationally diverse, the more you will need to have smooth international practices. The flexibility offered by working for clients across different time zones can be very beneficial. Clients in Australia for example, can be very keen to pass work over to a UK VA so that it’s done while they’re asleep and is ready when they get back to work the next day.  It can also be cheaper than paying an Australian night secretary!  We can also be flexible about the hours we work, if we need to take an hour or two off during the week we can catch up in the evening or on the weekend. Independence and flexibility are two of the most attractive elements of running your own VA business!

Sometimes as an EA or PA we can feel that we’ve gone as far as we can in our careers, this is especially true of young people who access senior positions early on.  As a VA, you’ll be able to take on roles you can’t even imagine and every day becomes a juggling act, but one where you’re in control and you make the decisions!

Jennifer Chamberlin has worked as a bilingual PA/EA for a wide range of companies in and around Paris for 15 years and obtained her BTS Assistant de Manager (equivalent to an HND secretarial diploma) last November through the French VAE system. After ... (Read More)

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