This article is one in a series called Start up Stories. These stories are about women I’ve come to know and admire who are successful in the Virtual Assistant industry. My hope is that they serve as inspiration for you, proving that, regardless of your current situation or obstacles, it is truly possible for you to live the lifestyle you want.
Tess Strand began freelancing as a virtual assistant in 2005 while traveling and living in India for an extended period of time. Interested in facilitating others’ business goals Tess founded the popular online community for VAs, Virtual Assistant Forums. In an effort to continue to bring quality information to aspiring VAs, Tess authored the Become a Virtual Assistant eBook, available at the Virtual Assistant Forums website. She is also the founder of Virtual Assistantville, a premium directory of professional virtual assistants dedicated to evangelizing the industry and educating business owners on working with professional VAs. Tess recently authored The Smart Business Owner’s Guide to Virtual Assistance a guide for business owners considering professional virtual business support as an alternative to in-house employees.
Here’s her story:
What inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant and how did you get started?
I believe in serendipity wholeheartedly and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I discovered the virtual assistant industry right around the time I was running out of funds to continue to pay for my portable lifestyle. I’d been in India for about two years at that point and while the fashion shows and Bangalore radio voiceover gigs I’d been doing for a few months for income had been a lot of fun I knew that if I wanted to remain in the country for the long-haul I needed American dollars.
I started looking on Craigslist for something I could do and there was a consultant to the New York publishing industry looking for a ‘virtual assistant’ – a term I’d never heard before. In reading through her job description I realized I would be perfect for it. I sent her an email with my information and we were working together – me in India, her in NYC – within the week.
Did you have any savings or financial support in order to start your business?
Because I was living in India when I started working virtually I wasn’t burdened with the usual credit card debts, high rent/mortgage costs, etc. that we’re used to in the west. I think my apartment cost about $85 a month and the internet connection I had installed so that I could work was maybe $30 a month (VERY expensive by local standards). I had the laptop I’d brought with me from the States and learned very quickly to utilize free or inexpensive online faxing and file sharing services. It was literally just me and my laptop at that time – and given the inexpensive lifestyle in a country like India (even as a traveler) I didn’t feel the strain of startup that I know some of my colleagues have had to endure.
With all of that said, one thing those early days taught me is that you don’t need a decked out home office, a pricey phone system, an expensive printer, or a fancy scanner to get up and running. I didn’t even have a cell phone at that time but used Skype instead. While I have certainly grown accustomed to having an iPhone now that I’m back in the States I still don’t use a printer and I am essentially a paperless practice. It’s still pretty much just me and my laptop. 🙂
Was there ever a point when you thought it wouldn’t work out?
When I first moved back to the United States after living in or traveling to and working from places like India, Nepal, Iran, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Singapore for the previous four years I was a little nervous about the transition. Would I be able to raise my rates appropriately and still keep all of the clients in my now-full virtual assistance practice. I had been taking clients by referral only for nearly three years at that point so I had done zero marketing – and it was a concern, knowing that I would have to charge a lot more, and manage a pretty complicated move while still keeping client projects moving and upcoming deadlines in mind.
In the end though, it was fine. With open communication with my clients about rates, the move, and what would be intermittent availability while I got settled, it all worked out. And I didn’t realize how widespread wi-fi was in the U.S. – so I landed at my hotel and was able to get to work on a few loose ends that first night back.
What is your best advice for someone considering becoming a Virtual Assistant?
Because of my role as founder and curator of Virtual Assistant Forums, I see people enter (and leave) the industry all the time – they often come in timid, uncertain, feeling intimidated by what they see as a community of successful VAs. And while many of the members at VAF are very successful (there are numerous 6-figure VAs on our boards) there are members at all levels of business development and we all work together to share information and support. Some of those VAs make success look easy, and that can be intimidating – but it’s important to remember that even those 6-figure VAs started right where you are. They had a first day, first consultation, first client, first project… we’ve ALL been there.
I remember looking at another small business forum (before I’d started VAF) and feeling like every single person on that board knew a million times more than I did and had so much more experience than I could ever hope to have (and I’d been working as a VA at that point for a few months already!). I understand the self doubt – even if you’re really excited about working toward your dreams to open your own virtual assistant business those fears naturally creep in. But it’s so important not to let that fear be the driving force behind any decisions you make about what you are capable of doing.
There are no hard and fast rules about who can or can’t call themselves a virtual assistant (although there are some who would like you to believe otherwise.) The internet allows people to reinvent themselves every single day. As long as you have the drive, the commitment, and the fortitude to either hone or learn the skills your potential clients will be relying on your for there is nothing that can stop you from being an awesome VA and a very successful business owner.
To connect with Tess (and an entire community of awesome virtual assistants) sign up for a free membership at Virtual Assistant Forums!