Don't forget the finances!

Most people aren’t aware that when I started my business earlier this year I did so without any start-up capital at all.  I already had the software and office supplies I needed so it was a case of doing the best I could on a budget of nothing, as I was already on a reduced salary from my employer.

So what lessons have I learned that will benefit others from this?

I have always been known for shopping around for a bargain, particularly since I first got access to the internet, and setting up my business was no different.

I hadn’t heard of a Virtual Assistant until this year, I just knew that I wanted to do what I do well, and ideally based from home. It was during a lot of internet research that I came across the term, and also a variety of sites wanting to support me as a Virtual Assistant, but all at a price!!

If I had signed up with all these sites and training courses I would have ended up bankrupt! 

Instead, I spent time really researching what I wanted to do, found forums that were full of people already doing it, and listened to what they had to say.  The majority of listing sites I came across were all American based, which really wasn’t any good for me. 

In terms of software again I searched the internet, listened to what people were using, and utilised the knowledge I already had.

Whilst I would love to upgrade various bits of my office equipment I am realistic, it’s more of a want than a need right now, and I am choosing to wait till I can afford it.

So what did I invest my hard earned cash in? Not a lot really. I ordered a small amount of business cards from Vista Print, but paid for the upgrades so that they didn’t look like Vista Print cards.  Again, a small print run for your first batch is a good idea as you will probably decide to change something before they have even arrived.  I changed both my trading name and logo quite early on.

I felt that one of my main priorities was a website, as I am marketing to a virtual market, this would be my main point of contact.  Again, I couldn’t afford to go for the bells and whistles CRM site that I wanted, but I have a monthly rental website instead.  When my business grows my website will evolve with me.

I decided that I didn’t need an additional BT line, I wanted the flexibility that a VOIP phone number would allow me, and the cost for this was minimal.
I shopped around for a business account that offered free banking and internet access.  To me, it is important to keep my business and personal transactions separate.

I listed my business on free listing websites; again I researched this before choosing them.

I created my own letter head in Word; I don’t need to have reams of printed paper lying around. I do however print on to a good heavyweight paper, if I have to print, as most of my documents are issued in pdf format and emailed.
I attended several free Business Link and HMRC workshops covering everything from cash flow, marketing, business planning, VAT, and self-assessment.

Quite early on I created a cash flow and an invoice timetable to ensure that the business was a viable proposition, this became critical when deciding to take it full time back in September.  I input my invoice projections into the cash flow, then allowed for all the business expenses that I could think of, as well as budgeting for the amount of money I need to put away each month for the tax man.  When all these had been taken into account the figure that was left would hopefully cover my drawings and leave some money in the business moving forward to cover the costs of replacing office furniture and equipment.

The beauty of a cash flow is that it adapts as your circumstances change.  As new clients come on board the figures in the income section are adapted, and as new expenses are incurred so are the expenses.

I tried to incorporate four weeks paid leave into the cash flow, just in case of illness or holiday.  Holiday I hear you laugh, you’re self-employed you don’t get holiday, but as the mother of a small child I do have to allow some time off for out of school care.  This was great until I fell ill too early into the cash flow!  Luckily, I had built up enough of a reserve to cover the few days I hadn’t been earning.  More importantly I had also built into my personal expenditure for income insurance, something I think many small business owners over look.  Also in my personal expenditure were the National Insurance contributions I need to make.

As the business has progressed so have the expenses, I now have online accounting from Xero, file back up and synchronisation from Sugar Sync, an inclusive call package on my VOIP phone, and utilise my own call answering service for when I am out of the office with Clients. But they have all come on board slowly and when I could afford them.

I also regularly review my cash flow and invoice targets to ensure that I am still on track.  It is vital that you keep reviewing this, how else will you know if it is working.

My next task is to write my business plan and targets for next year.  My goals need to push me, yet be achievable.  Without the constant desire to improve and move forward your business will remain static. Hark at me, self-employed for less than a year here and talking about businesses moving forward.

So what goals have you set yourself for next year and how do you propose to monitor them? I would be really interested to hear.

Microsoft Office Live Sync

File Synchronisation
I visited a Client the other week and was surprised to see that he was able to network his machines without the benefit of a server.  When looking into it further he was using Microsoft Office Live Sync.  The files on his computer were being synced in real time with three other machines in his office. 

All you need to do is download a small piece of software to your machine and create a Microsoft Office Live id.

Log into Office Live on the internet and add the folders you wish to share.  One piece of advice here is to share folders on an individual basis rather than one folder containing everything as you may find going forward you want different people to be able to have access to different files.

Once you have created the folders on Office Live you can add other users, this means that you can share your folders with colleagues or clients.  You can allow several people access to the files, and allow them different permissions.  There are options for view only, amend, and amend and change permissions.  If you grant someone ”amend and change permissions”  option then they can share files with other users.  It is important that you get this bit right, as you don’t want to allow everyone access to confidential files but may want to allow everyone access to particular files. This is all possible with Microsoft Office Live Sync.

Using this service I have access to this particular Clients files, because they are stored on my hard drive it is just like working on any other file on my pc, however, when I click save a few moments later the file is updated on the clients’ pc.  No more worrying about forwarding files by email back and forth or file sharing services.  It’s instant, and you really cannot tell the difference to working on a networked server.

You can use this to sync files between your desktop, laptop and netbook as well as with other users.

And best of all, this is a free service!  Microsoft also offer Live Mesh, another syncing service which I am currently trialling as well, but as I have only just started using it cant offer any feedback on the service yet.  It was recommended by someone via the comments on my blog about backing up your files.

I would love to hear how others use these services and what their opinions are on them.

My Follow Friday Recommendations 18th December 2009

This week I looked at who I had interacted with on Twitter, as I always do to see who I should select to mention in my blog, and I decided to try something different, especially as its Christmas next week.

H - @hlsbs (well it is Christmas after all, lol)

There are always so many wonderful people to select from on my Twitter feed, that it is hard to pick just a handful, apologies to those not shown on the list this week, but a huge thank you nonetheless.  You all make twitter such a positive place for me, be it making me laugh, offering advice, educating me, entertaining me, sharing your knowledge, ideas or thoughts. 

I would therefore like to take this opportunity of wishing all my followers, and all those I follow, a very merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous new year, and hope that your hopes for the new year come true.

Collaboration not Competition

It’s all about collaboration!
I recently had the opportunity to meet up with several members of the VA Support Group in Birmingham for a bit of festive cheer.  It was lovely to actually meet the real people behind the virtual personas I have been talking to on Skype and Twitter this year.

Through working closely with each other we have all enhanced our own businesses by being able to offer clients services that previously we would not have been able to offer just working alone.  I have some great working relationships with the team and as a result my clients have benefited.

Starting out in the VA industry earlier this year I was surprised at just how helpful and friendly a bunch of people I found them.  There was no competition, just a genuine desire to help each other, wherever I happened to come across them, and was even more delighted to be invited to join the VA Support Group, which is largely based on Skype.

How do I describe how it works?  I guess that whatever it is I need, the group is there for me, be it some assistance at short notice on a client project, or just somewhere to drop in and chat for five minutes.  I described the group today as being like a virtual office.  You can have a chat around the coffee machine, discuss what latest trial the kids are putting you through, or just like in a real office, you can shout out and ask someone to remind you of that shortcut in word or check a formula in excel. 

Someone also commented on just how similar we are in person to how we come across on Skype.  I suspect that this is because it is a private discussion, not an open forum where you have to be more guarded in what you say, and so we speak on there just as we would if we were face to face, though it was quite novel not to have to have a typed conversation and constantly check your spelling!

It was even more hilarious when all the mobile phones came out and the Skype and Twitter activity carried on after lunch!

Sometimes in business, particularly for a sole trader just starting out, and working from home, it can get pretty lonely.  Surely ours isn’t the only industry where people can support each other virtually, offering collaboration instead of competition.  We are all the stronger for it both as individuals and as businesses.  Yet all too often we come across forums and networking sites where everything is guarded and closed off, I’m not asking you to give away trade secrets, but perhaps there is someone out there that you could collaborate with, making your business stronger and better suited for the journey ahead.

Sometimes you just need someone who understands, someone you can bounce ideas off, or simply someone to listen when you have had a bad day, and to give you that virtual hug.

I hope for your sake that you find that support, in the meantime, I will carry on appreciating the support and assistance that my colleagues give me, and look forward to the next occasion when we can get to meet up.

Who would have guessed!

Who would have thought that in just a few days since writing my last blog I would have become victim to a faulty computer!

That lovely shiny sexy new netbook I got as an early Christmas present less than a month ago developed a glitch.  I thought the power pack had failed on Wednesday night, just in time for my trip to Birmingham today.  Very unlikely I could get it replaced and even less likely that I could carry out the work on the train that I had planned.

Anyway, off I toddled to the shop where I bought it, and lo and behold there wasn't a single power adaptor in the shop that would fit that particular model.  Just my luck.  Then, and this was very lucky for me, one of the guys with some IT experience pointed out it wasn't the power pack at fault, it was my lovely shiny sexy new netbook.  The power pack was fine till it went near the netbook which shorted it out.  

Okay, so they had sold out of the netbook and couldn't do a simple exchange, they could send the old one back for repair, or they could sell me a new netbook but the only ones that met my requirement for an 8 hour battery cost more money.

So I am now the proud owner of a new new netbook with a 9 hour battery! (At a negotiated price!).

Anyway, what you really want to know is what has this got to do with my last blog?

Well you remember I told you all about backing up files, using SugarSync etc.  Well it meant that when I left my old netbook in the shop I didn't need to retrieve any data from it.  Not a jot.  They can wipe the hard drive before returning it and I won't have lost anything.  They seemed rather surprised at this, not sure if it's just because I am a woman, or more likely they are so used to people not ensuring their data is safely backed up.

The end result is that yes I did have to reinstall some software on my netbook, but I downloaded my SugarSync and now all the files are happily syncing with my laptop again.

I am also having a quick look at Live Mesh as well, as suggested by Mike Knight in the comments on my last blog.

Now how stupid would I have looked, extolling the virtues of backup to you guys earlier this week and not doing it myself, and how glad am I that I do backup.  Who would have suspected that a netbook less than a month old would fail on me.  But these things happen, and its even more reason to backup your files safely.

So no, it's not a traditional follow Friday blog this week, it's a reminder to not leave it any longer before sorting out your backups.

There are several ideas mentioned in the comments on the previous blog and for these I would like to thank @micahelmknight, @mattchedit and @creditmandotnet for the time they took to share their knowledge with you, and for commenting on my blog.

So what are you waiting for - Christmas? It's nearly here, don't delay backup today!!

Do you back up your files?

Well do you? I should, I once had a pc crash on me and I lost three years’ work in seconds.  To say I was mortified is an understatement, and I confess the language was pretty choice too.

Okay it was back in the bad old days of Windows NT, but I did learn an important lesson.  Don’t store anything of importance in the My Documents folder.  My profile corrupted and everything from My Documents was lost. I was advised that I should have stored everything in a folder on C drive.  Don’t you just love hindsight advice.  I was very good; I didn’t hit the poor man, even though it was all his fault for fiddling with my machine.  After all, I had only spent three hours writing my beloved spread sheet in the first place.  All my templates, reports, correspondence, training notes, gone!

I suppose I was fortunate in that I had shared several documents with a colleague in a different branch via email, so she was able to send me some of the work back, including my beloved spread sheet, and many of the training notes I had sweated blood over.

But did I learn? Did I do a weekly back up? Well partly no because there was no suitable media to back up on to. The server was so old you could only have a file name 6 digits long and I swear there was more storage on a blank DVD than on that thing.  I wasn’t allowed a CD writer; it cost money you know, even though I offered to install it myself.  I managed to obtain a USB drive and save some of the important things and eventually, my pleas were answered and I was allowed to install a CD writer.

But the problem with that was firstly remembering to do it, and more importantly finding the time to do it.  Now tell me who hasn’t been there!

Now how many of you have automatic backup systems in your corporate environment, do you remember to check that they are working? I went on an IT course once and they logged on to my company server and advised me my backup hadn’t actually worked for six months! How embarrassed was I, despite me regularly swapping the tapes, no one had ever shown me how to check it was working.

Since then, I have had two hard drives fail on me. It’s not nice, it’s very inconvenient and you can guarantee there is always something you forgot to back up!

I have portable hard drives, CD and DVD writers, USB sticks and what good are they if you forget to actually back up!

So when I set up the business it was vital to me that I found some way of backing up without thinking about it.  But I wanted more…I know, typical woman, never happy!

I tried a few systems and looked at costs and recommendations and then did my usual and went off and did my own thing anyway.  I chose to use Sugar Sync.  It does backup without me thinking about it, as long as I don’t do all my files it is within my budget, and best of all, it syncs files between my computers and my iPod Touch/iPhone.  I can also share folders with clients as well.

I download a small piece of software on each machine I want to sync with. That’s all. I then set up the folders I want to sync.  I personally chose not to sync music and pictures as these are all personal and take up a lot of space and try and remember to back them up to a portable hard drive every so often.  Most of the pictures are on CD anyway or stored on Photobox website from when I ordered them.

I can access my files from any pc with an internet connection, I can email a file to a client from any pc.  I am sat writing this blog on my netbook but the file will be there, in the blog folder on my laptop just a few moments after I hit save.  I don’t have to mess around with usb memory sticks, cart around a portable hard drive or pay a fortune for it either.  And it will sync files between a Mac and a PC. You can find more information on Sugar Sync here, including a free 2GB storage to start you off. Sugar Sync

I also have the Outlook add in for backing up outlook, which came in very handy after the last hard drive failure, which can be found here

So listen to someone who has been there, done that and has the tshirt. Back up your important files.  Write a diary note if you have to, stick a post it to your screen, do whatever you need to do, but back up!

Follow Friday Recommendations 4th December 2009

Wow, I cannot believe that it is Friday already again! Where has this week gone?

Okay, let's see, who have I been interacting with this week on Twitter? 

Firstly, an old friend has made herself known on Twitter, @Den_Interior , she is only just getting used to Twitter but is a great Interior Designer who has some amazing projects on the go including hotels and restaurants, and someone I really enjoyed working with, and who's cheery smile I miss each day.

I have to say a huge hello to some of my fellow York Tweeters, we had a mini tweet up last week by accident and it was great to see the real people behind the tweets.  @elizabethwells @confidentladies @vhavercroft they also deserve a special mention as they have all done fantastic work for charity this year.

I had a lovely chat with @amyaccountant this week, following on from the teleseminar I did with @efficiencycoach, and she has shared some really good advice on Twitter this week.

Thanks as always to @kipfxdesign who is helping me sort out my newsletter which will be launched shortly, you can sign up for this if you would like using the link on the right of this blog.

I cannot end this blog without mentioning @toptentips, a new site aimed at getting the best experts in each field to share their knowledge with the rest of us, I really wish this had been available earlier this year when I was starting out, it's what I love best about social media, this great exchange of information.  They now also have a group on LinkedIn as well as their website, I really think that this is going to be a fantastic venture, so experts be warned, get in now while it's starting out, don't miss the boat!

On the same note the concept behind the #12DOC on Twitter is fantastic, each day a new topic is proposed and we are asked to submit via email our best tips for that topic, at the end of the #12DOC these will be published, some of the contributions have looked really good and I for one am awaiting the results with interest. For more info on this follow @rebeccaintuit

I could go on forever about the people that I love from Twitter as there are so many, but I will just have to keep sharing them with you each week.

Hope you all have a great weekend!

Call Answering Service launched

Well as it's coming up to Christmas what better time to launch our new call answering service!  We could have made you wait till the new website is launched, but we thought we would treat you to a sneaky advance peak of what is coming!

HLS Business Solutions has joined forces with Call Team, a group of professional Virtual Assistants, to offer a new call answering service.

Did you know that 1 in 10 callers who hear an answering machine hang up? You could be missing out on calls while you are travelling, in meetings, away on holiday or simply trying to get some work done.

Can you really afford to lose out on these important calls?

Let us answer your calls for you, our experienced team will answer with your company name, portraying a professional image, and allowing callers to believe that they are talking to a member of your team.

Our team of experienced Virtual Assistant professionals, work together to provide a very high standard of call answering for our Clients.  As Virtual Assistants we have experience up to PA level, and will add value to your business.  Call Team offer an intelligent call answering service.

Remember, if you don’t answer your calls your competitors will!

So what does this cost you? 

The monthly fee of £20.00 includes five phone calls, and additional calls are charged at just £1.00 each. We email your messages to you. If you would like to receive messages by SMS as well as email the cost is £1.20.

How it works
You provide us with some basic profile information on your company, and we provide you with your own telephone number to divert to.

When your clients ring your number they are greeted by our team of experienced call handlers, who answer the phone in your company name.Your caller will be informed that you are not available and they will be asked to leave a message. All the necessary details are taken and your message is relayed to you instantly via email and/or SMS.   

Should you need more than just a basic call answering service we are able to take orders, bookings, manage appointments etc as long as we have the necessary information from you.

Want to Sign Up
Just drop an email to with any questions that you have, or to request a sign up form.