Carmen MacDougall on how to make the move from employed assistant to virtual assistant.

The world of the assistant today is a far cry from when I started working at the tender age of 18 using a typewriter as my tool to carry out my secretarial duties. Now, we are living in a world where technology has advanced so much, which, even though some see this as negative, I see this as the best thing to happen. Why? Because it has helped to create a world for the PA where they no longer have to miss out on opportunities due to not being in the right location. With the creation and developments of the online world, the era of the Virtual Assistant has dawned upon us.

As a new columnist for Executive Secretary, I will be covering the world of Virtual Assistant working. When I started my own VA business in 1999 there was little or no knowledge or understanding of this term. At the time of setting up I contacted the newly launched International Association of Virtual Assistants ( and still going strong today) to identify what a VA was and how to get started. I had recently been made redundant for the 5th time from my Executive PA role and wanted to see how I could use my skills and experience working for myself.

It was explained to me by one of the then Directors, that a Virtual Assistant is a self-employed PA or Secretary who provides the support you would expect from a PA in the office environment but you work for more than one person (your clients) and you communicate via email or phone, whilst being based at home. The concept seemed to have been created, from the research I conducted, in the US but was slowly being introduced in the UK.

Back then, the VA was mainly providing a traditional PA service; from copy typing to arranging meetings, as that was the demand. Due to the lack of broadband facilities and a slow internet service, there were some limitations.

Fast forward ten years and the changes are mammoth. With the existence and development of broadband, social media, cloud computing as well as much more awareness of the VA, the industry has experienced a turnaround.

The definition of the VA today is similar to how it has been in the past, but now includes the fact that the VA can pretty much help manage their clients’ entire businesses; marketing, social media, sales and even accounts (where the VA has gone through the correct training processes first). What this means is, that being a VA, as long as you have the foundation of the PA support, can be moulded into whatever clients wish their business to be. I have been running the VA Mastery Course for a number of years now and trained over 900 VAs, and I have seen an evolution which is very exciting. One thing to bear in mind is that the additional skills I have mentioned here such as Social Media have been based on training undertaken by VAs once they have already set up and established themselves and many VAs still choose to solely provide the traditional secretarial support, which is still very much in demand.

However, we must not forget the employed VA. This is the PA who is employed by an organisation, but perhaps due to a downsize of the organisation, or the fact that the company’s Manager/s travel much of the time, the VAs are working from home.

(One thing I really have to slip in here is the fact that the relationship between a client and a Virtual Assistant is very different in a lot of cases to the relationship between a PA and their Manager. I think part of that is because the client is seeing you as a business owner rather than a PA that they are employing – so there is a different element there. The fantastic thing is that when you are working with people you choose to work with, the dynamics of that relationship is amazing, you always have a great energy.)

I do remember that during the time when I was employed in the corporate world that even though I worked for nine Managers, I hardly ever saw them. They would be travelling all over the world. We would communicate by e-mail if they were in different time zones or by phone. It meant that listening skills and questioning skills had to be at an all time high. This stood me in good stead as a VA.

Now if you are thinking of making the transition from PA to VA, perhaps because you wish to have more independence, greater earning potential, or due to being made redundant, whatever the reason is, there is much to prepare before you take the leap.

No doubt you have lots of questions. You may even have been conducting your own research. You are feeling quite excited about this possible new venture, and yet, you are hesitating slightly due to the ‘What If?’ questions. These may possibly be affecting your confidence in yourself, perhaps, in taking the first adventurous step in this world which is so new to you. This is a perfectly normal feeling to experience as it is stepping into the unknown. Reading up on it will help you to start feeling more confident about this new journey. You just need your questions answered by an expert who can give you an honest outlook and realistic advice about what you need to know. ‘Follow the leaders not the followers’, as many millionaire mentors I know tell me.

When PAs come to me when they are looking to become a VA, I am regularly asked questions such as “Can I really earn a good income from this?”, “Is the industry not saturated?”, “How do I get started and get clients on board?”, or “I don’t have the confidence to do something like this.”
The industry has changed both in the way it works and in becoming smarter, as well as in the realisation that, in order to succeed business owners must focus on the key activities that will enable them to achieve important goals. These cannot be reached if Managers try to do everything themselves. As a result, the VA service has increased significantly in demand.

And in any case, we really have not reached saturation. It is believed that there are around 35,000 VAs worldwide – and many of them are playing at it rather than running serious businesses – which really is not very many compared to the number of businesses out there requiring their support.
Earning potential can be very good, but as with most things, “you get out what you put in”.

As long as you follow a proven model, then goals can be achieved. As this is such a flexible career to have, many are choosing this way of life, with the support of other VAs to cover you in the eventuality of sickness or holiday. You can have your cake and eat it.

And finally, if this is a journey you wish to take, you should never expect to take it completely on your own. This is where having people around you; VA trainers, business people, mentors, coaches, whoever you choose, can be there for you. Take one step at a time, because nobody climbs a mountain in five minutes. You must plan and prepare, you must ensure that you possess all the tools to be able to take that journey – in the right way.
In coming articles we shall look at the role of the VA in more depth. Please contact me if there are specific areas you would like me to cover.

Carmen MacDougall came from a corporate background as a PA and Office Manager before establishing her VA business over 12 years ago after redundancy. She since established herself as one of the leading trainers on setting up and running a successful ... (Read More)

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