As we start the New Year and look ahead to what it holds for our businesses I think it’s important to consider some useful tools.
This first one is the difference in mindset between being an Entrepreneur and an Employee. It’s one of the hardest tools to master, and I can speak from experience there, not just for me, but for nearly every VA I’ve spoken to over the last ten years.
The thing is when we set up as VAs most of us know our job inside out. We’re go-getters, or we wouldn’t have got up and set up our own business to start with, but we’ve still been an employee for so many years that it’s hard to change the mindset. We’re used to doing what we’re asked without question (okay I occasionally let my boss know I doubted him, but that’s what we’re there for isn’t it?), to do whatever comes across our desk to the best of our abilities whether that be business related or sorting out the boss’s Christmas shopping yet again.
I found it quite hard to make the mindset adjustment, my careers officer at school having told me that I should work in a shop or as an office junior, never once letting me believe that I could be anything other than that, that it was wrong of me to aspire to be more.
I’ve always wanted to push myself, to learn more, to progress, but a series of jobs working for the wrong employers soon knocked that out of me. I earned opportunity after opportunity through sheer hard work, being sent on H.R and I.T courses and even Quality Management training, coming back, setting up systems, getting the whole thing working, only to see it taken off me and given to someone with no idea of how to do it. I watched them get paid for the hard work I’d put in (that I hadn’t been paid for), and I watched them undo the hard work I’d put in as well. And the reason? Every time I was dragged back to my little admin desk and told that no one could do it as well as me. Is this false flattery? It happened to me so many times I lost belief in myself. I also lost trust. The day I left one employer they were so desperate to keep me they offered me my dream job. I wasn’t tempted even for one minute as I knew that within six weeks they’d have found a way to take it back and I’d be sat back at that admin desk watching someone else follow my dream. I walked out and never looked back.
The next two roles weren’t much better if I am honest, especially the last. Again I aspired, I worked my butt off, I improved things and then the recession hit and my job went from being a PA to being no more than a glorified receptionist/filing clerk. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against receptionists, but it’s not me. There was no challenge, no thrill in the role for me.
Being put down so often left me with no confidence at all, and yet I was getting mixed messages. Management were holding me back and colleagues were telling me to go for it. Between a series of bad employers and a school that left me with no ambition it’s a wonder that I ever found the courage to take that first step.
Perhaps it’s this very negative experience as an employee that encouraged me to make the change and become an entrepreneur. I know the word has so many meanings, but to me it’s someone who sees an opportunity and grasps it, and then does their best to make a success of it. That’s what a VA should be, an entrepreneur.
One of the biggest mistakes that I see when a new VA sets out her stall is one that I was guilty of for many years. They keep the employee mindset, they constantly compare themselves to an employee, be that in their mental attitude or even the language that they use.
We’ve talked about this quite a bit recently in our coffee mornings and it’s a lot more common than I’d first thought.
I think nearly every VA I have spoken to lacks confidence in their own ability to run a successful business. They all know that they are good at what they used to do, but they let the fear of success hold them back from achieving their real potential.
Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and now I have the right mindset I look back and wonder why on earth it took me so long. It also means I sometimes look at VA websites and shudder. I see so many comparisons with an office worker or employee that I truly feel sorry for the VA. I know how liberating it can be to change this mindset and what a huge difference it can make to your business.
So what are the differences? What does it take to stop being an employee even though you are now running your own business?
You dictate how you work
Never, ever, advertise a 24/7 service. Are you going to be at your clients’ beck and call? You’re saying you’re available when they have a whim for it. You’re putting control of your business in someone else’s hands here. You have an obligation to all your clients to allow them the time their individual project requires, not to allow one client to monopolise you.
Set clear guidelines on when you will work for that client, when you need the work with you, and make it clear when that work will be returned completed.
Have opening hours so that you control when you can be contacted. We’ve all had the PITA client (pain the a**e otherwise known in polite company as the High Maintenance Client) who rings at 9pm on a Friday night needing something done urgently!
Don’t be afraid to ask for payment in advance or to dictate your own payment terms. You are a supplier not an employee, and this would be expected and accepted of any other supplier.
Don’t compete on hourly rate
Come on, you’re not supposed to base your hourly rate on your old employee rate. Apart from the fact you now have overheads etc you just cannot afford to run a successful business this way, but that’s a lecture for another day. If you compare yourself to an office worker or a temp then that’s how you’ll be perceived. You’ll be just like an employee who works from home rather than being in the office, or more likely they’ll want you to work from their office because they still don’t get that you’re not an employee.
Think like an equal
From the many people I have spoken to a true client/VA relationship is one where you consider each other equals. There is mutual respect and understanding. The best VAs don’t just react to a clients requests, they go beyond, they’re proactive. Most clients don’t actually know what they need or what you can truly offer them. Most clients like to be told what to do by their VA and when they need to do it by.
Think back to when you worked in that office environment, what made you stand out? I’m guessing if you were anything like me you were always looking for the next challenge, how you could add more value, how you could contribute more to make your boss’s life easier. Why should that change now you work for yourself?
If you go back to just doing what you’re given to do then you’re no longer the PA you were. Remember how you anticipated your boss’s needs and were ahead of the game. That shouldn’t change now you’re in business for yourself.
Most clients love a VA who can look at their business from an outside perspective and make suggestions for improvements that they would have been too close to the business to see. I once heard this role described as being a Trusted Adviser. The moment I read about the concept I knew that’s what I wanted to be for my clients.
Learn to say No!
The biggest, and possibly one of the best differences between being employed and running your own business is the ability to say no. Can you imagine looking your old boss in the face and saying no, I don’t want to do that. I think mine would have had a fit. But that’s what I do now. If I don’t like the thought of a job, or I get that gut instinct that tells me no, then I turn work down. It’s so scary the first time that you do it, but it’s so liberating.
When you work for yourself I’m pretty sure you’re putting in more hours than you ever did as an employee. In order to succeed you need to love your job. You can’t do that if you’re taking on work or clients that just don’t give you that warm vibe.
Listen to your gut
Sometimes you just have a gut instinct that someone or something isn’t right for you. Again, talking to a lot of VAs over the years this is something everyone goes through, and time and again they agree, listen to your gut instinct. It might even be a gut instinct to take a chance on something, to gamble.
The hardest part of the whole employee to entrepreneur journey is the belief in yourself. I think the lack of confidence we all have deep down is what actually makes us so good at this. We’re not conceited. We always want to do our best, to achieve more, to offer such a good service the client will come back for more. It means we always strive for more and that’s a good thing.
Surround yourself with a great support network and they’ll lift you up on the down days and celebrate with you on the good days. They’ll also help you grow your business because they’ll introduce you to new ideas, new skills, new technologies and sometimes even new clients. Don’t be afraid to collaborate as this support network will become one of your biggest strengths.
Never stop learning, there is such a wealth of information available to us now via different media such as video, books, audio and the internet, that we can continue to learn and grow. It’s a lot easier than it was when you were employed and time for learning was scarce. Plan it into your calendar and use it. Your business will grow and flourish the more you learn, and you will be able to offer a more comprehensive service to clients as a result.
For many the annual appraisal will have been a negative experience, but in your business customer feedback is essential. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. It’s not about telling you how wonderful you are, it’s about asking if you’re meeting your client’s expectations. It’s asking where you could add more value, what else your client needs help with, and it’s a perfect opportunity to ask if they know anyone else who would benefit from your services.
I like to think you’re like a rough diamond when you first start out on your VA journey. As you grow and become multi faceted and polished your shine comes through, you become that hidden gem! It won’t happen if you don’t lose that employee mindset, so shrug it off, pull on your big girl pants and go out there and knock them dead! I believe in you, now it’s time for YOU to believe in you.