Melissa Derbyshire of League City, TX was tired of her daily one hour commute each way to work. After all, having two children and a home to take care of, the time away was forcing Melissa to ask that question so many of us ask ourselves everyday: “Isn’t there a better way?” Fortunately for Melissa, she took that extra step and looked for work that she could do from home that would enable her to be close to her family. Not only did she find work as a virtual assistant, her entrepreneurial spirit led her one step further–to start her own virtual assistant firm.
I had the opportunity to interview Melissa and to ask her how she got her start as a virtual assistant, and what led her to start her own company. As you will learn from the interview, she is excited about the virtual assistant industry, and about her future opportunities to serve clients in this growing market.
-What is your background?
“My resume is probably one of the most diverse you have ever seen! I have been in office administration, sales, massage therapy, and weapons maintenance of the U.S. Navy. I guess you could say that I crave variety! I also learn very quickly, so it seemed ideal to start a business where every day will bring something new.”
-What made you decide to pursue a career as a Virtual Assistant?
“My last “regular” job was as a sales manager, and my commute was one hour each way. After having my second child, I was desperate to spend more time with my family. Many people told me that it’s not possible to have your cake and eat it too, but I didn’t believe them. Of course you can! You just have to think outside of the box!”
“While researching possible career moves, I stumbled into the Virtual Assistant industry. I had never heard of it before, but the more I learned about it, the more perfect it seemed. I can create my own schedule, have an eco-friendly business, and enjoy as much variety as I want, all while helping others achieve their own dreams.”
-What skills do you have that helped you in this role?
“I didn’t realize it before, but I definitely have the entrepreneurial spirit. I am an excellent idea-generator, which works well for my business as well as my clients’ businesses. I also have excellent customer service skills and a commitment to quality, allowing me to build trust with my clients. Networking is crucial to developing a client base, and I honed that skill while working in sales. In terms of technical skills, I cultivated various administrative skills and software capabilities while working in the many jobs I’ve had in the past.”
-Do you feel like your past experience has helped you in this career?
“Absolutely. Since I am only twenty-nine years old, I can’t claim twenty years of secretarial experience like some other VA’s do. But most of them spent more than a decade in the same office, and I have the skills of working for many different types of people and businesses. I maximized every moment in every job, and learned as much as possible about different office solutions and different management styles. My past experience with Quickbooks, for example, is in high demand in the virtual assistant arena.”
-Were there any skills you needed to acquire before you started your business?
“No! That’s why I chose this field!”
-How did you get your first client?
“My first several clients were other virtual assistant firms. This has been the fastest way to build my business, because it is easier to apply as a subcontractor than to convince small business owners that they should hire a virtual assistant. This is especially true now, since most of the world does not yet know about virtual assistants. However, your hourly rate as a subcontractor is significantly lower then if the clients were your own. My business model was to start out as a subcontractor, and then gradually shift to developing my own client base.”
-What kind of marketing and/or advertising do you do to promote your business?
“We are in the process of launching a new website, and are learning as much as we can about search engine marketing. We will also be writing blogs and participating in social networking media. The internet is now the cheapest and most effective way to market.”
-How are you getting subsequent clients? Is it by word of mouth or through your marketing and advertising efforts?
“So far, we have grown through networking and referrals. It’s great to know that we’ve come this far on our own merit. By taking the next step of actively marketing our services, the sky is the limit!”
-Do you market both online and offline?
“After we make the final tweaks to our website, we will be starting our online marketing campaign. Our offline marketing primarily consists of networking.”
-Tell me about your website. Did you do it yourself, or did you hire someone to do it? How did you come up with the name, “36 hours in a day?”
“The name “36 Hours In A Day” came from my vision of a solution for all of the small business owners in the world that are overwhelmed with running their businesses. Most small business owners work extremely long hours, and their family and personal lives suffer for it. How often do you hear someone say that they wish they had more time? I wanted a name that speaks to the heart of my clients.”
“At first, I tried creating my website myself. I tried using a template, and I also tried learning how to design a website from scratch. But I couldn’t make it look really GREAT, and I wasn’t willing to accept anything else. The problem was that I couldn’t afford to pay someone $1000 for a magnificent website. But my job is to be resourceful, so I found a website designer that was willing to barter our services for a website. It’s in the works, and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s going.”
-What are your fees? Do you feel that you can make a full-time living from being a Virtual Assistant?
“My fees started out at a very low $15 per hour. That sounds OK when you’re working as an employee, but as a virtual assistant, only around 50% of your time is billable. The rest of your time is spent on administrative tasks, marketing, and so forth. So, if I work eight hours in a day and bill only four of them at $15 an hour, it averages to only $7.50 an hour! That’s hard to live on. However, I saved money on gas, meals, and daycare because I was working from home. But as I built a reputation and refined my professional image, I was finally able to raise my rates to a respectable $35 per hour.”
“You might think that $35 per hour is not affordable for small businesses, but since there is none of the overhead associated with employees, and they only have to pay for the time that they need me, they actually save money. I am building a comparison chart that I will display on my website to explain how this is possible.”
-What types of services do you offer?
“We offer secretarial services, sales & marketing assistance, creative services, and personal life management. Our services run the gamut, with everything from creating reports, to research, to desktop publishing, to event planning.”
-What are your hours of operation?
“Good question! We don’t exactly have official hours of operation. I check my email several times a day during the week, and at least once a day on weekends. I also have my phone on me at all times. But my work hours stay flexible based on the workload and my personal life requirements. Sometimes I work until three a.m., and sometimes I take the whole day off. I have complete control of my schedule.”
-Where in your home do you work?
“As I said before, I crave variety, so I find it hard to work in the same place all the time. When at home, I usually work in my home office. However, sometimes I need a change of scenery, so I simply move my laptop into the kitchen or the living room. My son is in day care two days per week so that he can be around other kids, and that also gives me some flexibility. On those days, I’ll usually go to a café or a park to work.”
-What equipment do you need to be a Virtual Assistant?
“I have a good laptop computer, a printer, and a scanner. I also have a cell phone with unlimited minute usage. I try to run an eco-friendly office, so I don’t have a fax machine. I just scan and email instead.”
“It’s also important to have good software, including security software and accounting software. But when you’re just starting out, you can get by with the free versions for a lot of things. A free version of anti-virus protection is better than none at all.
-What was your best assignment? What was your worst assignment?
“My best assignments have been doing research for my clients. I love research, and until I started this business, I didn’t know I was so good at it! It’s just something that I enjoy, and it always provides the variety that I long for.”
“My worst assignment was for a client who didn’t really know what he wanted, and in the end, I don’t think he even used the work he paid me to do. It’s important to me that I am accomplishing something. I believe that if I’m not helping a company grow, then I’m not doing my job.”
-Did you incorporate your business or are you a sole proprietor?
“Actually, after working on my own for one month, a close friend of mine decided to join forces with me. We are now partners. We’d like to incorporate eventually, but that’s a big step that we’ll take when we’re ready.”
-What is the best part of the job and what is the worst part of the job?
“The best part of the job is control. Not only do I create my own day, but I create my own destiny. If I want to shift focus to a different type of client or a different type of work, I can.”
“The hardest part is the responsibility. As an employee, if I really screw up, I can get a second chance and my paychecks keep coming. It doesn’t work that way when you own a business. You have to be aware of your weaknesses and figure out a way to overcome them or work around them.”
-What is your advice for anyone just starting out or wanting to pursue being a Virtual Assistant as a career?
“There is no reason why you can’t start this job on the side, and figure out if it’s what you really want. Taking it up slowly allows you to figure things out as you go, and you don’t have to worry about having enough capital to get started. And I highly recommend subcontracting with other VA’s before acquiring your own clients. It can be a great learning experience!”
To contact Melissa Derbyshire, please visit her website at 36hoursinaday.com (Melissa’s website is no longer operational).