So what is a Virtual Assistant?

So what is a Virtual Assistant then? Lots of people ask me this when I tell them what I do.  So how do I describe it? The best description I have ever seen comes from Barbara Adams website, ClassicVA:

“The term Virtual Assistant (VA) is an entrepreneur who provides administrative, technical and social assistance to clients from their own professional office”

Basically I like to think that I take your headaches away!

To me, a virtual assistant is like having your own PA; I just don’t work from your office.  The majority of PA’s have years of experience as PA’s or Office Managers, they bring with them the knowledge they have acquired over those years, the contacts they have cultivated, the shortcuts they have learned, and an extremely professional attitude to business.

In my experience no two employers require exactly the same from a PA.  It’s the same being a Virtual Assistant.  You have a standard scope of services, but you work to the clients’ requirements and needs.

A Virtual Assistant can work for any size of company from a sole trader to a large PLC. I have been approached by all of them.  From the traditional PA roles such as managing your diary and email, to writing your confidential mail, making follow up calls to your database, to more specialised skills such as managing your social media accounts and Facebook page, designing your website, and even managing your SEO for you.

You hire a Virtual Assistant for a specific project, a set number of hours per month, or on retainer basis.  It’s a bit like having a pay as you go service, something you can switch on and off as you require, but I suspect, that like many clients, once you have tried it you won’t want to give it up.

Some Virtual Assistants have a particular niche, it could be specialized knowledge of a particular industry such as HR or medical, some have foreign language skills; others are expert at transcription, bookkeeping or credit control.

A group of us now work together for the benefit of our clients, the VA Support Group covers pretty much every skill you could ask for, so that if as an individual we don’t cover that aspect of your business, we can probably utilise the skills within the group to ensure your task is carried out, we can also call upon each other for assistance to ensure that urgent tasks are able to be carried out at short notice.

We even have our own call answering service which I will cover in a future blog.

Don’t be afraid to outsource, it can save you time, money and headaches.  Look at the tasks that consume your time, are you working in your business or on it?  Could someone else carry out that task for you in a more efficient or time saving manner? Ask yourself these questions, and then look at how much additional income you could generate for your business by outsourcing.  Consider the impression this additional resource would have on your clients and their perception of your business.  For example, when I make a call on behalf of a client I introduce myself as their PA or credit controller, immediately their business is perceived as more professional and larger than it actually is.

A couple of my Clients just like to know they can phone me when they need to and bounce ideas off me.  They will still go ahead and do whatever it is they wanted to do, but they like the fact they have someone they can talk to, in confidence, who understands their business and their situations and is on call when they need me.  I can also ask the odd question which they may not have considered.

Others like the fact that I am on the end of the phone when they are in a panic! Be it stuck in the middle of a shopping arcade and needing to find an urgent birthday present that day that is out of stock, or asking me to ring and arrange a surprise golfing present before they arrive at the golf course with their client, or looking at their diary and rebooking an appointment they can no longer get to.  Remember what I said earlier, it’s like being a virtual PA.

So please feel free to contact me should you have any questions about how a VA could help you or your business, or if you would like me to help you find your own Virtual Assistant.  Remember, because of the support of the VA Support Group we can now cover pretty much every requirement you ask of us – put us to the test today!

My Follow Friday Recommendations 27th November 2009

This week my blog is all about collaboration.

I would like to start by repeating one from last week, huge thanks to @EmmaWarren1 for introducing me to @HiHoTweet who sent a very generous jewellery gift for the Help for Heroes auction in memory of Matthew Hatton, and helped us raise a fantastic £6,800.00 on the night.

I have come across a new site @TopTenTips via Twitter over the last couple of weeks which is a really refreshing site; people who are experts within their fields are sharing their knowledge freely in articles covering many topics. Their website states:

“Developing the best resource for UK small business through relevant, reliable and reputable information to build business success is an online resource for people interested in the “how to’s” from business.

Provided by independent UK practitioners written for the UK market. Donating to UK charity”.

It’s the sort of site I would have liked to have found several months ago when I was just starting out, but it is relevant to all stages of business so I will be following it with interest.

I have had a great deal of pleasure from supposedly having encouraged some fellow tweeters into blogging this past few weeks and look forward to reading their blogs, @kipfxdesign, @creditmandotnet and whilst on the subject of blogs and articles that are always of interest to me have to mention @lawyer_coach, @Richard_White, @mattchedit and @efficiencycoach

Another one that has been mentioned before is @oddjobswap, a site where people can trade jobs or services, its such simple idea but such a good idea as well, remember to join before the weekend and complete the survey for your chance to win a £30 gift voucher.

Huge congratulations to @NikkiPilkington who made it onto the Forbes Thirty women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter list this week!

In terms of someone who deserves a huge well done this week I have to mention @ElizabethWells, she has just completed her first year of trading from her lovely shop in the Shambles in York, and was interviewed by local radio this week, as an example of people doing well during the recession. I have had the pleasure of meeting her and she really is lovely, she has been very supportive of charity this year and is just a great example to us all when everyone else is moaning about recession, she has just gone out there and made a success of it.

Talking of being interviewed I had my first ever interview this week, in a teleseminar with @efficiencycoach (my first experience of a teleseminar as well). It was all about saving businesses money on their IT and marketing costs in the first year, and I would like to thank @efficiencycoach for her help and support. I will be covering some of these savings In my regular weekly blogs starting next week so do keep an eye open.

I would like to say thank you to some people, they either make me laugh, or RT a lot for me, or are generally just really nice people to follow and make Twitter such a nice place: @amyaccountant, @markbnorwich, @yourfirstpa, @confidentladies, @ToniHunter, @befabulous and @fuzzyduck

So enjoy your Friday, hope you have a great weekend and look forward to seeing you all on Twitter later!

To blog or not to blog?

Okay, I am a relative new comer to blogging.  I confess that I received some one on one coaching from @efficiencycoach  which gave me a little confidence, and helped me focus on my blog more, however, I don’t claim to be an expert at it.  I just feel slightly more comfortable with it than I used to.
So why should I blog? Well as much as I like twitter it isn’t always easy to get your idea across in those 140 characters.  To me, my blog should be an extension of my website. It will be soon when I move blogging platforms.   It’s a tool for sharing my ideas, my knowledge, my experience, my recommendations and my opinions with my audience.   I would also like to think that it was a tool for two way communication as well.  The blogs I have posted that have received comments really make it worthwhile, and reading the comments that have been posted is  a great way of seeing things from someone else’s perspective, or reinforcing what I already believe.
I don’t always want it to be deadly serious; I would like to think that an injection of humour is allowable, when appropriate.  After all, I am a northern lass!
And, I am sorry, I make no apologies for expressing my opinions in my blog, after all it is my blog, but I will listen to what you have to say, consider it, and still go off and do what I want anyway J
I would love it if my blog inspired someone else, perhaps to try something new themselves, to follow someone new on Twitter, or to consider an alternative opinion.
But most of all, I would like to think that people will enjoy reading what I have written, that it will add value to someone’s day in some shape or form.  
So I look forward to your comments, to seeing you post your own blogs, to interacting with you on yet another virtual level.
And in the meantime… I hope you have a great day!

Follow Friday Recommendations 20th November 2009

My follow Friday blog today really follows on from my blog earlier this week about community spirit.

I would like to say a huge thank you to @EmmaWarren1 for introducing me to @hihotweet who are about to launch a new range of exclusive Help for Heroes silver jewellery. The only person who has a set at the moment is the lady who runs the Help for Heroes project as it doesn’t actually go on sale until 30th November.

Imagine my surprise and delight today when I was asked for an address to send a full set of the Help for Heroes jewellery to for the auction on Sunday! What a fantastic auction prize, and how suitable for this particular auction. Matt is delighted with this very generous donation and I am sure the winning bidder on Sunday will be over the moon with it.

20% of sales from this range of jewellery will go to the Help the Heroes charity so I am more than happy to share a link to the website where you can pre-order these items.

I was really touched this morning when one of the mums from school came up to me, having read my post on my facebook page and handed me a raffle prize for Sunday night as well.

If you would like to still support this event and can't make it on Sunday you can either email Matt on or you can make a donation to the JustGiving page.

Between the lovely comments on the blog itself from : @TheWordWell, @MattchedIT, @SJAbradley, @kipfxdesign and @creditmandotnet and the donations from friends, Clients and @hihotweet above I am so glad that I have been able to help this great cause in some small way. It brings a warm glow to your day, you can have that too, just do one small act for someone else and for no reward and your week will hopefully feel as rewarding as mine has.

What's in it for me??

Growing up I remember hearing a lot about the “good old days”.  When neighbour meant more than just the person who lives next door to you, and people still had a sense of community spirit, you could leave your door open all night, and you could look to your local community for help and support when you needed it.
I didn’t have a particularly good start to the year for one reason or another, I was in a job I didn’t enjoy, I had some health issues and frankly life could have been a hell of a lot better.  However, I got through this by realising that no matter how hard things get or how bad a hand of cards life deals you there is always someone worse off than you.  Every day I got up I found some example of this.
In today’s society too many people think only of themselves. What’s in it for me?  You know, sometimes it’s nice to just go out there and do something just for the sake of it. Okay you might not get paid or get anything out of it, but sometimes that warm fuzzy feeling you get from helping someone else is enough.
I think I have had this on my mind for a while now, as it seems to me that my Follow Friday blog last week resolves around the same theme.  So what has prompted me to blog about this.
I had a conversation this week with Matt Segar, a local lad, who despite his young age, has really stepped up to the mark and it has impressed me greatly.
Sadly, Matt’s best friend Matthew Hatton was the first York soldier to be killed in Afghanistan earlier this year. A tragic and unacceptable loss for his friends and his family.  However, Matt’s family and friends didn’t just sit and dwell on their loss; they decided to do something in Matthew’s memory to help raise funds for Help for Heroes instead, a charity that was close to Matthew’s heart.
They didn’t exactly go for anything easy either! As a group they decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in March next year.  This has meant they are trying hard to raise the minimum sponsorship required.  Matt has organised an auction which will take place this Sunday at the Hilton in York.  Tickets are £10 each and are available from The Black Horse in Wigginton and the Dormouse in Clifton, or from Matt.
He has arranged live music from Jim Harbourne and Alistair Griffin, and the night will be led by Minster FM’s breakfast team and the Right Honourable Lord Mayor and Civic Party will be in attendance.
There are over 54 auction lots, with some pretty great prizes and I know from talking to Matt that this number is increasing daily, if you can’t get there on the night then pre-bids are welcomed so that you don’t miss out.  There will also be a raffle on the night as well.
Talking to Matt was humbling, the amount of time and effort that he has put into this auction is amazing, and he still has his biggest challenge ahead of him in actually climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.  Just looking at the list of auction lots it was lovely to see how much the local community had rallied together.
More information can be found here on Matt’s Facebook page for the auction, or contact me and I will pass your message on to Matt.
So today instead of asking yourself what’s in it for me, ask yourself what small thing you could do for someone else to make their day better instead.  It may be something small, looking after a pet, baby sitting, going to the shop, or something a little bigger such as visiting an elderly neighbour to offer a bit of company and conversation.  It may be helping a business colleague in some way. But trust me, when you do, that warm fuzzy feeling is worth it.  Let’s bring the community back to our neighbourhoods.

It's all about sharing this week. Follow Friday recommendations 13th November 2009

This week’s Follow Friday blog is slightly different in that my first two recommendations are more about the websites than the twitter personality.

The reason I would like to recommend these first two is that to me both concepts really get across the message that they are all about sharing rather than selling.

The first is a novel site which can be found at

At first glance I mistook it for a site where you would look for a handy man or decorator, but it is so much more than that. Peter and Julie Bruce wanted to boost community spirit and beat the credit crunch at the same time, according to their website. I think it is this community spirit that attracts me to the site. I also had to laugh when one of the services being offered was air traffic control! I cannot see that I will ever need that as a service but you never know! There are plenty of services on there that I could be in the market for though, from marketing, accountants, athletics coaching, gutter cleaning and the rest.

What made this stand out to me is that there are so many professional services being offered. I understand that the site is aimed at work at home parents, perhaps this is why it hits a cord with me, but I can also see it being an excellent resource for a new start up to gain some work, and some Client testimonials as well, to help build their reputation.

The other site I would like to recommend is, a new networking forum set up by @kipfxdesign. It’s Twitter id is @NetworkinNow In its first few days it has had over 7000 page views. As a start up business myself believe me when I say I have trawled the forums looking for advice and assistance. It was a pleasant surprise to join this forum and find a group of people so willing to share their advice and knowledge. It’s a great atmosphere, lacking the petty bickering that is often found on forums, and is ad free, which means you are not distracted from what is being said. Okay, it could change over time, as sometimes happens, but I would hope that some of you will join now in its infancy period and help shape the forum, so that it remains an easy going, educational and enjoyable site for all.

To end I want to tell you about a Twitter success story! Someone I follow made a comment to @MissFitUK. I was curious as they weren’t the sort of person to follow what I assumed to be a bikini clad babe! (Spent ages trying to preen my followers of bikini clad babes and Britney’s). I was really pleasantly surprised to find out that she is actually a young entrepreneur who has a clothing and lingerie range for bigger busted women, and her bio also describes her as a skydiving fruitcake! Not only did I think this is someone I need to follow, I also thought I know someone who she should talk to, @ElizabethWells who has gorgeous lingerie shop in York, which caters for bigger busted women. One tweet later and they are working together! @MissFitUK has told me she is bringing out a range of Xmas dresses, I really look forward to seeing them, as have had some awful experiences trying to find Xmas frocks each year, and always seem to end up in trousers instead!

So next time you come across someone on Twitter that will be useful to someone you follow don’t assume they will find each other, make a suggestion, and see what grows from it!

I hung up on Efficiency Coach...

...obviously not on purpose! Honest Coachie!  We were having one of our brilliant Skype video calls.  I was flitting between the video call and an IM with an associate who was answering a technical query for us, and whoops, instead of returning to the conversation I killed it!

This brings me to the subject of this week’s blog. Skype. What a fantastic product for business.  I am a true convert.  If I had to ever decide between Skype and Twitter I honestly don’t know which I would choose.

So what is Skype? Well in a way you could ask what do you want it to be? It has so many uses.

You can IM – this is like an Instant Message, the sort you would get on Messenger etc. but you can also create groups for group conversations. Some of you may have heard of the VA Support Group.  It’s a group of VA’s who are working together to help and support each other. We have a group conversation permanently on the go on Skype so we can drop in and out and ask each other questions, share work when needed, bounce ideas off each other, or just be allowed to rant about whatever has wound us up just now.  I suppose you could compare it to the office coffee machine in a way.

Why would you IM rather than call or email.

Well if you have an email conversation with someone other emails will arrive in your inbox, your replies go to sent items so you don’t really see the full thread of the conversation.  The beauty of Skype is that you can start a conversation, go off and do something else and the other person can reply in your absence. If you are both online at the same time you can have a live text conversation.

Did you know that your laptop, if it is pretty recent, probably has a microphone and speakers built into it.  I don’t bother with headphones and speakers for Skype calls if I am in my office at home as I don’t need them.  I can have a call using the built in kit and it is perfectly clear both ways.

Video calling is still something I am getting to grips with, purely from a comfort perspective, if you look at photo albums in our house I am always the one behind the camera not in front of it.  It can seem a little daunting at first but trust me, it really is a wonderful invention.  When Efficiency Coach and I are on our video calls it’s great to be able to see the expressions, the gestures etc, they make it so much more personal.  Saying that I hardly ever switch the main light on so poor Efficiency Coach probably only gets to see a shadow (trust me that is by far the best view of me!), and all my hand gestures appear to be below the eye level of the camera!  I do seem to try and explain things with my hands for some reason.  It is worth spending a few moments just setting up your webcam properly, you can see on Skype what the other person can see in a small box at the bottom of the screen so it is easy to adjust.

Skype also has a fantastic share feature.  In the VA support group we use this for sharing pdf’s, pictures etc all the time.  However, I was recently introduced to the share screen function, something I was able to then share with Efficiency Coach (nice to know she doesn’t know everything!).

The person who is going to share their screen needs to initiate the call. They then click on share screen and the other party to the call can see what you can see in front of you. They can’t control your machine but they can see your mouse moving and the changes you make on your screen.  My database developer has been using this to show me how my database works. I also think this would be ideal for designers etc. Why travel 200 miles to sit in an office with a Client and a laptop when you can share your screen on Skype and make instant changes dependent on their feedback.  It works for any type of design, in terms of print, why email proof after proof when perhaps a five or ten minute screen share would allow the Client to comment on what you’ve done, and allow you to make a couple of tweaks to get where they want to be. Then send the proof for sign off.

It works the other way as well. Get your Client to share their screen with you and talk them through how they access a particular service or software.  Most people learn more quickly by doing it themselves than watching someone else do it.

Skype isn’t just for business. Use it to connect with friends and family who have moved away.  We have used it for video calls to family down south and friends in Cyprus. It’s great when you have small children as relatives can see them growing and interact with them in a way you can’t on a phone call.

So what does this amazing piece of time saving software cost you? Nothing. The download is free, and as long as you are calling Skype to Skype there are no charges. So go on, give it a go today, and if you need to chat with me on Skype my user name is hstothard

I won the Efficiency Coach!

It's not a traditional follow friday blog this week as its all dedicated to one person!

You may have heard that I recently won a fantastic prize for my business which includes coaching and support and services from several renowned experts in their field.

Well since I entered the competition I have been joking with Heather, the Efficiency Coach that I wanted to win her. I am not sure she was as thrilled at the thought of being “won” as I was with the idea of “winning” her, however, many a happy tweet has been had on Twitter over the subject.

I received the email announcing I was the grand prize winner and tweeted poor Heather straight away. We arranged a Skype video chat the following afternoon.

I confess to being rather disappointed that she wasn’t bedecked in red ribbons and gift wrap as any real prize should be, but then again, I had hardly made an effort for her either! She did comment that my office seemed rather dark on this occasion, (I was working by the light of my table lamp) and of course I replied that bright light would only show up all my lines and creases and the bags under my eyes! I think she was a tad disappointed that I hadn’t run round finding my lipstick, hairbrush and heels this time in honour of our video chat, but hey, it was our second chat and like a second date, it didn’t require the effort that had gone into the first one! (Only joking – rest assured I will make more effort for our future Skype calls!).

I had already had a “taster” session with Heather last month, knowing how much I wanted to win her she kindly got in touch and gave me some of her time to see if it would be of benefit to me. We had a brief chat about the subject in question before having a much broader chat about how we could work together on an upcoming project (more on that in a moment), and it is amazing how much difference just that brief chat has had on my business.

Was it a painful experience being coached? Not at all! Heather asked me some simple questions which made me focus my attention, it actually felt more like I had come up with the answers myself, but I think that is the sign of a good coach. She knew which questions to ask.

I came away from that meeting feeling much better about the subject in question and got straight on with making the changes we had discussed. The effect was unbelievable.

I believe that between that video chat with Heather and some subsequent tweets with each other on Twitter I can say I have seen a massive improvement in my business. I am pretty sure that most of those improvements would never have happened without her influence, so huge thanks go to her. Just think what our future coaching sessions will lead to!

Anyway, back to that other project we discussed in our video call. Heather is holding a teleseminar at 8.00pm on Wednesday 25th November, and she is going to interview little old me! The subject of this seminar is how start up businesses can save money on their IT and marketing costs in their first year, though I suspect that it will also be of value to other small businesses as well.

More information can be found on Heather’s website

Have a little confidence!

I have won an amazing prize for my business. It’s worth over £5,000.00. Some of the best people you could work with are going to be working with me over the coming months in terms of business coaching, business planning, sales training, and branding, social media and VAT training.

And whilst I am incredibly excited and proud I am also a tad pensive.  They are going to ask me lots of questions that I am not sure I have the answers for.  Where do you want your business to go, what do you want to achieve.  It’s a bit like being introduced on a training course and having to introduce yourself, or those training courses where you have to analyse yourself.

Confidence is wonderful, but often it’s a mask we use. Are we really as confident as we portray. When it comes down to it, wouldn’t we rather curl up and hide in a corner than analyse ourselves or our business.

This type of training, coaching and support won’t guarantee my business will be a success, but it will help support it and give it that extra chance. 

Like most people I am pretty proud of my brand identity, a lot of thought went into it. I did the best I could on a limited budget and I personally like my logo and my website.  How will I react to someone coming along and commenting on them? Or the content of my website, I sweated blood writing that content!  Do I want someone to come along and possibly change it all?  Criticism is hard to take, but there are different types of criticism, there is the jealous type, where someone is jealous of what you have achieved and just puts you down to make themselves feel better, but then there is the constructive criticism.  This is where someone who knows what they are talking about comes along and offers their unbiased feedback.  They make suggestions or comments that will help your business move forward.  Even though you know that what they are saying is right, it can sometimes still be hard to listen to.

The way for any business to grow is to seek out these coaching opportunities, to embrace new ideas. Don’t lose who you are as part of that process, quite often, especially with sole traders, who you are is key to what your business is, but be open to change and new ideas.

I had a trial session with The Efficiency Coach last month and it was amazing how a simple conversation suddenly made one small problem I was having disappear. 

I guess this prize is really making me feel like I will be a business now, rather than just working at something I enjoy, there is a huge difference.

So huge thanks to Romany Thresher(Direct Assist Online), Richard White (The Accidental Salesman), Heather Townsend (The Efficiency Coach) , MariĆ©me Jamme, Ces Loftus (Creatively Minded Design), Robert Killington (VATark), and  Robert Zarywacz ( Zarywacz) for providing these fabulous prizes.

Now whilst I am on a winning streak anyone know where I can win that netbook I am after...

Ineffective use of your bookkeeper!

As a part qualified bookkeeper and owner of my own business I see many different variations on how people think they should keep their accounts.

There are those who keep immaculate records and, like the old joke, there are still those that put everything in a carrier bag and hope you have psychic abilities!

It's no laughing matter though, if you aren't on top of your books how can you possibly understand how your business is performing.

I therefore thought I would share with you just some of my observations from the last few months:

• keep your personal and business transactions separate -you may feel you don't have enough transactions to bother, but is scrutinising receipts for personal transactions really an effective use of your bookkeepers time, particularly if they are paid by the hour

• keep your paperwork in a reasonable order, again time spent sorting it out into date order or transaction type is not an effective use of time, and unscrewing receipts and sorting invoices from a pile dumped in a bag will not endear you to your bookkeeper

• do you know what you owe and what is owed to you?

• do you review your outgoings to make sure you are still getting value for money

• do you do a cashflow forecast so you know what is coming up and how change will affect your business

• if your bank charges you by transaction type look at how you pay people, is that cheque really easier than banking online, as it could cost you a lot more, switch to paying by bacs and it could save you money

• send your invoices out in a timely manner, if you don't issue them you can't chase them for payment, consider issuing them by email to speed up the process

• if you want to get money in your account more quickly make sure your bank details are easily available, again I often have to phone for this information in order to pay people

• make sure you chase your debtors regularly and enforce your credit terms, make sure your credit terms are made clear at the start of the contract

• if you are not sure what information you should show on an invoice check out the business link website, it is surprising how many people fail to show the necessary information

• if you are issuing an invoice under CIS remember to deduct the tax not add it back on!

• when you get receipts for goods or services if it isn't clear what it is for then write it on the receipt, you may not remember by the time you come to do your books

• if you do write cheques remember to fill out the cheque stub! Don't just write who to, write what for as well

• if you are not sure whether an expense is allowable ask your Accountant or phone the HMRC helpline

• do you hold management reviews with your Accountant? Do you discuss where you want your business to go and how you can get there

• even if you have an Accountant or Bookkeeper you should understand the processes, at the end of the day you are the person liable in a tax investigation

• check your bank and credit card statements when they arrive, mistakes do happen

• keep an eye on payment due dates and ensure payment arrives in sufficient time as penalties or charges may become due

• check out the free training courses available from both Business Link and HMRC

And most important of all remember that your Accountant or Bookkeeper doesn't have a crystal ball!!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone