Archive for August, 2009

Dear Danielle: What Is Your Start-Up Advice?

Dear Danielle:

I am starting a Virtual Assistant business to augment my income. I have a full-time job that I am intending to keep. I’ve been working remotely with a client for more than a year (limited hours; I have a lot more on my hands). I consider that as a Virtual Assistant client. I want to expand. I want to have a couple more clients. I do tech stuff (web/blog set-up, SQL server database, report development, computer upgrades, etc). Is there any advice you can give me? —RM

The first thing I’d advise you to do is get clear about what category of business you are in.

Just because you work “remotely” doesn’t mean you are Virtual Assistant.

The kind of work you just listed is not Virtual Assistance. Virtual Assistance is administrative support. The things you listed are more IT/tech support.

Here’s what I mean:  If someone needs a plumber, they aren’t going to go looking for one in the Yellow Pages under “lawyer,” are they? Of course not.

You have to use the proper terminology so people will understand instantly what you do and where/how to find you.

Also, consider how much of a commitment you have to offer clients if you are working part-time. Their business is important to them. How much time and energy for them are you really going to have after working all day? How long do you think you can keep up a pace like that?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it can be really difficult, not to mention stressful and exhausting, to provide a professional level of service and delivery to clients if you are still working a part-time job.

I will tell you that if IT stuff is what you do, one of the biggest advantages you could have over other IT freelancers is starting an actual, real live committed business.

One of the HUGEST frustrations I’ve had in business is trying to find and work with IT pros on a freelance basis. They were so flaky and inconsistent most of the time. And because they weren’t in actual committed businesses, they didn’t have business-like policies and procedures in place and their service was really spotty and it took them a long time to get things done.

And if their priorities or interests changed, I was left holding the bag when they decided to move on to other things.  I’d have to start all over again with someone new (after pulling my hair out once again just trying to find someone else).

(Knock on wood–I’ve got a FABULOUS, WONDERFUL programmer and IT pro now.)

As an IT pro, you would give your would-be customers so much more trust and peace of mind if you offered them a committed business, one that wasn’t just working for some extra side money and they could rely on being there today and later down the road whenever they needed you.

Turning Money Away (I Know, Crazy, Right?)

Something must be in the water.

A couple weekends ago, an internet marketer paid for advertising in our client ezine without getting approval first (the correct steps are all spelled out very clearing in our advertising section).

When I saw what he was wanting to advertise, it was one of those contemptible sales pages for, guess what?

ARTICLE SPINNING!

(As many of you know, rampant, blatant plagiarism on the Internet is on the rise lately.)

I promptly refunded his money. I could barely keep myself from adding a note: “We don’t support this kind of garbage!”

I think we’re going to see more of this, folks. And I guess they now even have software programs that will do this “article spinning” automatically.

What a sad freaking state of affairs.

Plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism. You can do whatever you want with your own stuff.

Repurpose to your heart’s content. You should, by all means.

But you don’t get to do that with other people’s stuff.

No way, no how, and anyone who promotes and condones the idea that you can and should is completely unethical.

Then one recent morning, I get an email from a business owner wanting to purchase a couple of contracts because she is hiring a Virtual Assistant, but wanted a free preview first.

(First of all, if you can’t afford to pay $7 for a product and instead want a free preview, you shouldn’t be in business.)

I don’t normally respond to these requests, but I had to let this person know that our forms are for Virtual Assistants, and that it is not the client’s place to be providing contracts. That’s the role of the VA as the service provider to present HER contract to clients. Clients are not employers.

There are some places that would be more than happy to take this kind of money and not give a darn.

I’m not one of them.

Obviously, I can’t tell who is buying stuff (whether they are misguided clients or actual Virtual Assistants), but if the opportunity arises to properly educate these business owners, even when it means I don’t make a sale, that’s exactly my first and utmost priority.

I’m in this to actually help Virtual Assistants in business and help our industry gain some improved professionalism and respect.

Where Is Your Arrow Pointing?

Where Is Your Arrow Pointing

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague who was struggling to get out of nickel and dime project work and find more reliable, consistent clients and income. She isn’t new in business, but so far, hasn’t had any success making the leap to retained clients. This is really what she’s wanted all along, and she simply can’t live off what she’s earning doing project work.

A quick look at her website told me that part of the problem was she wasn”t making it clear that that’s the kind of clients and relationship she wants (retained clients who pay a monthly fee for an ongoing relationship of administrative support).

As the saying goes, you won’t get what you don’t ask for.

She was also having trouble wrapping her brain around the idea of narrowing her sights down to a specific target market. She couldn’t understand why you would want to do that. In her words, “All I want to do is work with anyone who needs administrative support.”

There isn’t anything wrong with wanting that. The problem is, as she is continuing to experience, you can’t be everywhere, talking to everyone, and make any kind of effective, expedient, compelling, unique impact.

My conversation with her is what inspired the following article…

Where Is Your Arrow Pointing?

Are you a small business owner trying to connect with people you can help? How do you know who you can help? What exactly do they need help with? Where can these people be found? And once you find them, how can you craft a unique and compelling message that will resonate with these folks?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, more than likely you’re trying to do business without any direction. The result is that getting clients is haphazard at best and the clients you do get are not particularly ideal for you. You expend an enormous amount of time and energy marketing and networking all over the place in the hopes that someone, anyone, (pretty please?!) will need your services. You’re shooting your arrows in all directions and not hitting much of anything in the process.

Are you exhausted yet?

Fear is usually what keeps business owners from focusing on one specific market. New business owners are naturally eager to get clients and fear that narrowing their sights will limit their opportunities. It’s seems completely counter-intuitive, but the crazy thing is that you will fill your practice much more quickly and easily AND create MORE opportunity by simply narrowing your trajectory.

Benefits of Pointing Your Arrows Toward a Target Market

  • When you know who you’re concentrating on, it’s much easier to learn everything you can about a particular market and its common needs, pains and objectives.
  • When you know exactly who your audience is, you can create a message that will be music to their ears.
  • You’ll be able to tailor much better, more attractive solutions just for them.
  • It’s much easier to find your would-be clients online and off.
  • When you have direction, it’s far easier to identify what actions to take and where.
  • Instead of trying to be everywhere, talking to everyone, you can focus your best, most fruitful efforts mixing and mingling with your target market.
  • In turn, you’ll have much more time and energy for actually working with clients once they start coming in the doors.
  • It’s much easier to systemize and manage your business when you cater to a specific clientele.
  • Your work also becomes much easier and your expertise in serving that market increases, allowing you to make more money.

So what’s not to love about having a target market? The only opportunities you’ll be missing out on are those that would have taken forever to come your way anyway.

Take aim and start building your business more quickly today by focusing on a target market!

RESOURCE: Download the free ACA guide, How to Choose Your Target Market

Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better

Why do some folks think bigger is necessarily better when it comes to business?

Some of the absolute worst quality and service comes from big companies.

Bigger can mean less service, less personal attention, less devotion to detail, less care and love for the work, and clients being treated like numbers instead of human beings where each is viewed as a transaction instead of an opportunity to serve and deliver with craftsmanship and pride.

Bigger also very often means more difficulty and complexity in managing, with less effectiveness and control over the quality of the end result or work product, and the need for greater profit margins just to break even.

So why do so many solopreneurs (including those in our own industry) try to sound bigger than they are? Why do many put on airs and try to pretend they have a “team” when all they’re doing is referring clients or subcontracting work out to colleagues? What do they hope sounding “bigger” will achieve for them?

After pondering this, I’ve concluded that they think it will make them come across as more capable, more legitimate. That somehow “sounding bigger” will imbue them with credibility.

But listen, you aren’t going to fool anyone. What happens when you do get a client on the phone and they realize that you truly are a solopreneur or small business? Big or small is irrelevant when it comes to expertise. But you’ve just started a new relationship being less than truthful. And now the client knows you are willing to “fudge” things. You think that’s a good thing? How do you think that might affect their trust and confidence in you? And what if your absolute best, most ideal clients are completely passing you by because they’re looking for personal service, not big and impersonal?

Stop trying to manipulate and seduce and trick people. It doesn’t work (and the world is a less trustful place because of those behaviors).

You don’t have to be dishonest in order to convey credibility. Credibility comes from expertise, authenticity and truthfulness, regardless of how many people are in the business. Projecting credibility comes from demonstration and accomplishment.

If you’re not educated, educate yourself. If you want to be a business person, study business by any means you have available to you (even if that’s simply checking business books out from the library). Become well-read. Speak like an educated, knowledgeable person. Focus on and emphasize your expertise without any false modesty.

Have a professional looking website. Have professionally crafted marketing collateral. Run your business like a business, not a hobby.

Don’t hide who or where you are (like your photo or your address/location). Putting your face on the business is the very best way to establish rapport and give prospective clients someone to relate to as people.

Dispense truth and education. Write your content in way that shows prospects that you know what you’re talking about, understand their problems and obstacles, and have the chops to help them.

Put people and your craft first; the money will come. And when it comes to money, charge like a professional who honors and values their craft and represents truly helpful and solution-full expertise and service.

Every one of those things and more, in whole or in part, will project the credibility you’re looking for. And none of them is dependent upon lying.

Who Are You Attracting?

Way back in the beginning days of my practice, I fell into the niche of providing administrative support to the local small retail biz scene, which was fine for then.

After a few years, however, I realized I didn’t enjoy that niche.

Too many of the biz owners were too new, too green, too flaky, always having cashflow problems in a feast or famine (mostly famine) marketplace… and me having to chase after the money they owed me far too often.

At the time, I also had a separate bookkeeping division of my practice that came into being for no valid reason other than, besides administrative support, all the biz owners needed and wanted this work.

One of these bookkeeping clients was always “threatening” to hire me for my administrative support as well. This client was FAR from ideal, but I was still green myself at that stage and didn’t know how to turn away those folks.

One day she finally decided she had to do it, needed to do it and couldn’t avoid it any longer and asked me how we could get started.

So I sent her the preliminary questionnaire I had at the time and we set a date for an informal consultation.

I use the word “informal” because she was already a bookkeeping client and my ignorant thinking at the time was that she didn’t need a full, “formal” consultation.

Wrong. Now that I’m smarter and know far better, I would tell my younger self to never take shortcuts with my consultation process. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known a client, that consultation process is there for a reason.

Anyhoo, the consultation date came around and she still hadn’t returned the questionnaire.

Geez, I was getting so freaking tired of clients like this! (Sadly, she wasn’t the first).

So I told this client that before we could meet, I needed her to complete the questionnaire and get it back to me at least 48 hours in advance of our meeting so I had time to review the information. Then I set a rescheduled date/time.

I figured, hey, I’m not going to enjoy life anyway dealing with this kind of crap all the time so I really have nothing to lose by standing firm on this issue.

Well, she ends up getting the questionnaire back to me before the meeting, but only just barely and NOT within the 48-hour advance time I requested, AND not only is she late, but the thing is incomplete!

Oh, I could just knock myself upside the head now at even indulging in a client like this, but being the dumb, naive rookie business owner I was then, I didn’t want to rock the boat.

I felt like I’d be “harping” or “nagging” about something she seemed to think was unimportant if I insisted on rescheduling the meeting yet again “just” because she didn’t complete the form fully.

I stuffed my needs and instead decided to make do, be flexible, and elicit the info during the meeting.

So we met on the phone and as the conversation started going, it quickly became clear that most of what she was wanting wasn’t administrative support at all, it was design work.

I pointed this out to her, indicating that if that was what she needed most, we could certainly switch gears and talk about that.

Her indignant response was, “Well, I don’t know if I’m okay with that!”

You see, at the time, I was barely charging for my service.

I was definitely doing some things right, like having different divisions in my practice and separating specific categories of business from each other, but I look back now and can hardly believe I had so undervalued all that I offered. It just makes me cringe.

And in turn, the mentality of a large majority of the clients I was attracting at that time were of the “get something for practically nothing” variety and all the unhappy-making characteristics those clients bring to the table.

And this client definitely fell into that category.

She thought she was going to get a ton of design work and all these other different categories of service (bookkeeping, admin support, etc.) lumped into my administrative support and get away with paying barely anything for it.

She knew what a bargain she’d be getting if that was the case. She knew what it would have cost her for those design services at a dedicated design house. And she wanted to take advantage.

That exchange was one of the primary turning points early on in my business. It was one of the driving forces in how I changed and adapted my practice to serve MY needs first, become a client snob and not give a moment’s notice to anyone who doesn’t get it or who doesn’t honor and respect me and my needs as a business in the same way they value theirs.

As my own mentor so succinctly puts it, “Partners do not take advantage of each other!”

BUT, and this is very important, I recognized that the fault here didn’t necessarily belong to these unideal clients.

It was me. I was attracting exactly the kind of clients my message spoke to.

Let me say that again:  The problem wasn’t the clients; it was me.

I needed to improve my message. I need to get clear about the kind of clients I wanted to attract (and the ones I didn’t). I needed to get clear about what I was in business to do and what I wasn’t.

I needed to write for the kind of audience I wanted to attract.

I needed to speak of and value what I offered more appropriately so I would draw the kind of clients to me who valued it as well.

I needed to continue to learn how to market better and understand the correlations between the message I give out and who and how it attracts.

I needed to improve my explanations about things so that prospects better understood what I was offering and how so they could then decide whether or not the solution I was in business to offer was what they needed or not–and I wouldn’t have to waste time and aggravation trying to make a fit out of the ones it wasn’t.

So if you’re getting contacted by prospects who only seem to want project work, not administrative support, if they all seem to be looking for the cheapest provider, discounts and freebies, if the clients you take on never seem to be ideal, don’t immediately blame the clients.

It’s not them most of the time.

It’s your message and the standards, ideals and solutions it portrays.

Fix that and you’ll start attracting a different (better) kind of client. 😉

Rush Projects Are an Opportunity to Improve Business Policies & Operations

I came across a post on one of the listservs I belong to that I thought was interesting from a business perspective.

The writer, an independent paralegal, was trying to deal with a huge, two-sided document given to her by a client.

Her dilemma was that while she has a scanner, it doesn’t scan two sides at once.

So before she could begin on the project she was hired to do in the tight deadline she was given, she was having to spend hours on end scanning a page, flipping it over, scanning the other side, and so on and so forth for each page.

She lamented that she her only other option was to take it to a copy center and have them scan it into one PDF document at a cost to her of 5 cents a page which “cuts into my profit margin,” as she put it.

Beyond the immediate issue, these situations are always excellent opportunities to recognize where business improvements can and should be made. Here are a few things I would advise if you find yourself in similar circumstances:

  1. Don’t take on projects with such tight deadlines that they don’t allow room to troubleshoot issues that arise.
  2. If you do take on projects with tight/rush deadlines, charge a premium for the immediate time, attention and potential issues they come with. The rush turnaround is a value you should be charging for.
  3. Part of setting yourself up for business success is establishing policies and protocols that support you in delivering great service in a timely manner. In this particular case, that might mean requiring the client to submit documents and other working materials to you in certain condition or format in the first place.
  4. On the other hand, if this is a common occurrence in your line of work, it’s time to invest in the proper, state-of-the-art equipment that will allow you to take these kind of situations in stride, work more expediently and effectively, and provide an even greater level of service. This isn’t the kind of thing that should have you stumbling.
  5. Make sure you are charging sufficiently and professionally.
  6. Expenses such as necessary copying and/or collating are not your business burdens to bear. Charge an upfront deposit for those expenses (and don’t do anything until you get it) or set the project fee sufficiently enough to cover them. If you can feel the cost in your “profit margin,” you don’t have a profit margin and you’re not charging enough.

Dear Danielle: Is It Legal to Republish Content I’ve Gotten from Subscription Services I Pay For?

I am in the works of getting my administrative support business together. Many of the resources I am going to offer to my target market include papers from other sites that I either pay yearly subscriptions for or can have free subscriptions (things like plans, articles, worksheets, etc.). Is that legal: getting paid for something I put together for another person with materials from another site? And if so, how do I validate that? –TJ

Thanks for your question. If I understand correctly, what you want to do is republish content (intellectual property) that you’ve obtained or subscribed to, but which you don’t own and didn’t write or create. Is that correct?

If that’s the case, what you’ll need to do is ask each individual source what you are allowed to do with their content under the license and terms of use you were granted.

In the case of subscription-based sources, don’t be surprised if they do not allow you to do that.

The idea is that each end-user is supposed to pay for their own subscription. If you disseminate (often you’ll see the word “transfer” used) information/intellectual property that they expect to be paid for, you are depriving them of rightful income. They could seek legal action against you if they find you transferring data in any way that is not permissible under their licensing/subscription agreement.

Now, there are some resources that deal in PLR (privately labeled rights) that will allow you to use their content in the manner you are intending. But again, each is going to have their own protocols, policies, fees, licensing and terms of use so be sure you contact each individually to make sure you don’t open yourself up to any liability.

PS: Just a little disclaimer here, I’m not an attorney obviously. None of this should be construed as legal advice, only as my personal knowledge, experience and understanding of these issues as a longtime businessperson. Always consult an attorney for the final word and advice when it comes to legal matters.

Copyright Infringement: Lorean Tuff

Did my regular monthly plagiarism sweep earlier this week and discovered that a Lorean Tuff has taken whole sections of content from my personal business Home page and placed it on her site here: http://www.myownvirtualassistant.com/Home_Page.html

Here’s a PDF of the screenshot taken (note the yellow highlighted parts indicating the infringing use of my copy).

Here’s a PDF of my personal business Home page with the sections she took highlighted in yellow:

Also noticed she had appropriated EA to VA’s graphic and alerted Syndi Craig Hart to that fact as well, which Sydni was none too pleased about.

I placed a call to Ms. Tuff, informing her of the infringement and letting her know that I expected it to be removed immediately. That was two or three days ago and she still has not removed it even though she assured me it would be taken down that day.

I will be having a DMCA filed to take her site down. In the meantime, you might want to run through her site and see if she’s taken anything from you.

Dear Danielle: Should I Give Away Free Work or Offer Free Resources to Start Getting Clients?

Dear Danielle:

I am very interested in becoming starting an administrative support business and want to focus on schools in my city. There are many private schools here that operate the choice (or private) school program and need lots of information from the state and Dept. of Public Instruction. Would you advise offering these potential clients newsletters prior to offering services to them? I want to offer them information on what they need from the state, mini reviews of educational programs, etc., until I am able to properly offer them services. I read your post on not giving anything away for free, but would this count as a free service or as a client builder? School starts in about four weeks and I’d like to get started on this yesterday. Thanks for the help! –KM

Oh, client builder absolutely!

When I talk about not giving away free service, I’m talking about actual work — what you are in business to do and the thing that earns your income.

Don’t confuse marketing and networking and creating your client pipelines with free service. Sharing useful information is not giving away free admin work.

Remember, you’re going into the admin support business. You sharing industry information that is relevant to your target market doesn’t compete with that in any way. What it does is demonstrate to your target market that you know their business and understand their interests — which is exactly what is going to attract them to you over the competition.

So, be a resource. Be a fountain of information. Freely and generously share with your target market your insights, opinions, helpful advice and resources that are of value and interest to them.

If you ever worry about where to draw the line in making sure you aren’t giving away the farm, a good general rule of thumb is this:  Share with folks the “what” not the “how.”

I really like seeing how you have applied some thinking about your target market. I always tell people to be sure to do some research to make sure an industry will be a viable market and has a need for the type of solution we provide. It looks like you’ve done some deliberation on that by distinguishing private schools from public schools.

It also sounds like you have some inside knowledge and experience about what information will be useful and of interest to this market. And you can never do too much homework. Go out there and talk to some of the people who would be your clients. Ask them what information would be valuable to them, what would make them sign up for your newsletter.

While you’re at it, find out what would make them consider working with an outside administrative expert.

I can imagine that one selling point might be that they can streamline and pare down their administrative operations, have you get that work done more effectively, thus allowing them to put more in-house staff focus on community outreach and relationship-building with parents.

Learn as much as you can about what kind of administrative work they do so you can hone your message and offerings to them in a way that will clearly and meaningfully resonate with them.

As far as when to do your newsletter, you might want to weigh that with how soon you think you might be ready to open your doors.

On the one hand, now is as good a time as any. It takes a while to build up a subscriber base so you probably have plenty of time to do that before anyone contacts you about actual services.

But do have a plan for how you’d handle it if someone did want to talk with you about your services before you were ready to take them on. This might be an opportunity to also build some anticipation for your official “door opening.”

One way you could do that is to set a “my doors are open for business” date and then promote that in your newsletter.

Encourage folks to get on your waiting list and maybe even conduct some consultations in advance for anyone who contacts you before the date.

Meanwhile, your newsletter will be working to build the anticipation while at the same time helping establish the “know, like and trust” factor and start those relationships growing.

Keep in touch and let me know how it goes. I love seeing smart people entering our business!

You Know What? Bite Me

Just kidding! (How’s that for passive aggressive?)

So I get an email from a colleague who informs me that she has been in the administrative field for 10 years (and your point is? I’ve got 15 more years than that on you, sweetie) and our last ezine issue was “fraught with spelling and grammatical errors.”

Mind you, this helpful person didn’t bother to point out a single misspelling or grammatical error so it could be reviewed or corrected on our online version.

This tends to make me think the person wants to gloat rather than be helpful.

Sorry, sister, but I never do anything “fraught” with spelling and grammatical errors.

Typos maybe. Which is what happens when I have to throw an article together myself 10 minutes before publication because people are too intimidated by writing and putting themselves out there.

So there’s just no time to send anything to my proofreader when that’s the case.

I actually think I should be praised to kingdom come on my ability to pull articles out of my ass at the very last second and singlehandedly keep our ezine going until we can draw more of our newer members out of their shells and have them start leveraging our article marketing opportunities.

But spelling and grammatical errors, no.

I very often write colloquially on purpose, in the vein of “write how you speak.”

Or I will bend rules to fit online readability.

The difference between me and someone who is illiterate is that I know the rules and choose to bend them of my free and fully knowledgeable will. The uneducated ignoramus doesn’t know any better.

So the grammar Nazis can have a picnic if that’s how they choose to spend their time. It really doesn’t concern me.

And spelling… I can outspell most people on my worst day… with a hangover… on two Excedrin PM.

Typos happen to everyone. It’s really nothing to get all pedantic about.

You do your best and make corrections when you find them or as they are brought to your attention.

Avoiding typos is important from the perspective that your words are your dress in print.

It’s like seeing the most well-dressed man or woman with a stain on their shirt (or for the grammar Nazis, his or her shirt). It’s noticeable. But it’s hardly the end of the world.

If every other evidence and demonstration indicates that this is a person of knowledge, competence, intellect, and creativity, an errant typo once in a while is not going to detract from that.

Now what does matter is when a person uses words incorrectly and consistently misspells words (not typos, but actual misspelling).

That is indicative of a lack of literacy and poor command.

So if I ever use a word incorrectly, that’s when you can send me your self-congratulatory, unconstructive messages. Mmmkay?

Otherwise, how about being helpful instead and kindly letting me or my administrators know where you spotted typos so we can get them fixed up? 😉