In today’s episode I’m interviewing my own personal VA, Aleena Brown. Aleena is a freelance virtual assistant specialising in websites, mailing lists, and all things tech. She is passionate about supporting female entrepreneurs to achieve all the business success they deserve by removing all their tech headaches. If you’re not sure what a VA is, or how you can get more done in less time by outsourcing to a VA, Aleena has shared some of her top tips.
Can you share with us exactly what a VA does, and how did you actually become one? I’d love to hear your story.
Sure! So a VA can be a huge wealth of things, but literally they do exactly what it says on the tin; they assist you, virtually. Virtual Assistants can take on a whole spectrum of tasks, from managing your business admin, website maintenance, creating graphics, social media management, to your email lists and so much more!
Some VA’s are ‘all-rounders’ meaning they can take on a variety of different tasks, whereas some VA’s will specialise in on, two, or a few specific areas. There’s a real wealth of knowledge out there, and the beauty of the internet is that it’s made it possible to tap into all of that.
In terms of how I became a VA, I actually started out writing a parenting blog, and very quickly realised that I enjoyed all of the tech that went a along with that. Quite soon, people in the blogging world and circles that I was in were coming to me and asking for my help with lots of different tech based tasks. For a lot of these women, I could see how much the tech behind their blogs and businesses was really stressing them out and holding them back, and I really felt the pull to take that headache away.
So I spent a lot of time helping people, and playing with lots of different areas of tech and websites, an found a real love for mailing lists and automations. But the big business leap for me came around the time that GDPR was being introduced. I could see in the online world that almost everyone was really panicking and worrying about GDPR, and I felt really passionate that I wanted to help calm people down because I just didn’t think that GDPR was going to be as scary as people thought.
I decided to go away and read the entire 97-odd page regulation! From there I pulled together my research and put together a GDPR package that was designed to get bloggers and small businesses GDPR ready without the overwhelm. Between April and July that year, I took on around 50 GDPR services! Since then, the majority of my work has come through word of mouth and recommendations, but that one service really kick started my virtual assistance business.
How did you learn how to build your own website as a blogger?
I sat up for hours and hours countless nights in a row playing with things! I’m the kind of person that can’t leave something until I’ve found a way to make it work, so having come from almost zero tech background one of the first things I decided I was going to do was turn my home PC into a server. This obviously involved a lot of really complicated coding that was totally new to me, but after a few sleepless nights I actually managed to do it! It was only then that I realised I’d need a whole room of PC’s for it to actually be of any use!
Once I’d done that, I really felt that if I could teach myself to do something like that, I could teach myself to do anything else that I needed to do. So I spent a lot of time playing and learning, exploring new platforms and really going as deep as I could into each of them.
And that’s still really a huge part of what I do now, things are always evolving and changing, and I thrive on the consistent learning process that goes along with that, and keeping my knowledge and skills fresh.
What made you want to start the blog?
It was really born out of my frustration as a parent and not being able to find anything online that spoke to me the way I wanted to be spoken to, or aligned with my values as a parent.
I come across a lot of women who really want the flexibility that self employment gives. What was your main profession before the business now?
I actually ran retail businesses and pubs in London. Once Amelia had come out of the initial baby stage where she slept a lot, working those hours became next to impossible. When I fell pregnant with my son, William, I really felt that pull having missed a lot of my daughter’s early milestone moments. I didn’t want to repeat that, and I actually called my regional manager at the time on a Friday and told him I wouldn’t be back to work on Monday!
I then decided to retrain as an Early Years Practitioner in a private nursery, and that was when the blog started to form. I was working with children, developing my own parenting ideals as I went along the journey, and then obviously falling pregnant with my second, and that all played into the blog starting.
So yes, I wanted to share my journey, but like a lot of women I wanted to create an income that I could fit around family life. It physically would have been possible to continue with my career, but mentally for me it wasn’t at all!
There’s a big difference isn’t there? Physically as strong women we’re capable of doing anything, but if you’re in a job that’s exhausting and unfulfilling it’s just not a great place to be.
And that’s the beauty of the internet isn’t it, you can create these businesses that enables you to work from anywhere.
The thing that has made the biggest difference in business is deciding to outsource. Reading Rob Moore’s book Life Leverage really helped me to release some of the fear around outsourcing.
What are some of the fears around outsourcing, and what are the benefits?
As you’ve said, it’s really about handing over tasks that are holding you back in your business.
One of the biggest benefits of outsourcing to a VA is that you’re not only gaining time by removing tasks from your to do list that aren’t bringing you joy,or aren’t bringing money into your business, you gain even more time because what you find is that a VA will complete tasks in much less time than it takes you.
Usually this is for a few reasons; we tend to be more focused on the task because we’re not being distracted by life happening around us, or all of the other tasks on your to do list. Another factor is that VA’s are usually skilled and practised at what they do. It’s what they do every day, they will have systems and processes in place to be as efficient as possible, and they likely have been doing these things for a long time.
Every task is money, isn’t it? All the time you spend in your business is money. So what kind of things do people outsource to VA’s?
Really so many things. It could be anything from basic admin, managing your emails, to managing your website. I do a lot of website work, creating things like landing pages and sales pages, keeping websites updated and all the behind the scenes tech up to date. It could be scheduling, or managing your blog if your business runs a blog. I also personally do a lot of mailing list work, and this can include managing weekly newsletters, lead generation, making sure pop ups and sign up forms work, and so much more.
So it’s all the things that need to be done, or need to be kept running, but aren’t the things that are actively bringing money into the business. Again, in terms of making the most of your time, you might notice that something isn’t working on your website and it could take you hours to work out what it is and fix it, whereas a VA with tech skills will usually be able to sort that very quickly.
How would you know if you need a VA with specialist skills or a more general task VA, and how would you know who to approach?
The same as you would if you were approaching anyone for a service, check out their websites and their social channels. That will usually give you a good idea of what they do. All VA’s will have their contact details readily available, so don’t be afraid to reach out to a few. Just dropping them an email to ask about their services isn’t committing yourself to anything.
I often find that clients come to me not even really knowing what they need or want to outsource, or what they can. So a really great idea is simply to almost brain dump into an email – these are the things that I’m spending a lot of time doing in my business, what from this list could you handle?
The VA community is quite close knit, so you will generally find that even if the VA you’ve reached out to isn’t able to take on your work for whatever reason, they will know someone who can, or who specialises in what you need and will point you in the right direction. So really don’t be afraid to reach out and make that first contact.
What tips would you give to someone looking for a VA? Where would they begin?
Social media is a great tool, searching specific hashtags on Instagram like #VirtualAssistant will bring you up some starting results for example. And ask around in your business circles, if you know anyone who uses a VA ask them. And also look at the people in business around you who just seem they’re nailing everything – it’s highly likely they have help!
There’a really big fear in handing over the tasks that we do all day every day in our businesses. We’ve been doing these tasks since the day our business began, we think we know how to do them best, and that no one else will be able to do the things the way that we do.
As with any working relationship, your relationship with a VA will build and grow. So it could be that right now you just need some help fixing some things on your website, but as time goes on and you begin to build that trust you’ll start to feel more comfortable handing over more and more. The VA will get to know you and your business better as time goes on.
So the key is, if you’re feeling any kind of fear, to just start slow. You don’t need to jump in at taking a VA on for 70 hours a month, you can start with 1 or 2 hours and build from there as the relationship and trust grows.
Yes, I think building a relationship is really key here. Ultimately, although they’re self employed, a VA essentially becomes a part of your business, so it’s important to put in place some kind of regular contact.
And then the other thing for me would be documenting processes and having those processes available. This way if the worst case scenario happens and you do want to maybe move to a new VA you have those processes to share.
How can you document those processes?
Yeah absolutely, One of the simplest things you can do is for maybe a week every time you do a task in your business is to open up a screen recording app, chrome extension, or something that will allow you to record what you’re doing and make a video of that task process.
These videos are a great resource when you’re taking on a VA too, because you can then easily share your tasks and processes showing the VA exactly what needs to be done. If there’s an easier way, they’ll let you know, and if not then they have a really clear understanding of exactly what you need them to do and how.
You’ve mentioned the fear of outsourcing for entrepreneurs and that’s certainly something that I think hold people back. What tips would you give to anyone is fearful of giving away some of that control in their business?
I think it’s always worth remembering that VA’s are running their own businesses in much the same way that you are. It’s very rare that things go completely wrong, because it’s never going to be in the VA’s business interests for that to happen either!
If you find that you don’t quite gel with your VA or tasks aren’t being completed as you need or want them to be, the beauty is that they’re not a hired employee. Most will ask for a month’s notice to terminate a contract, so the worst that’s going to happen is you decide the relationship isn’t working, ask them to finish up their hours for the month and move on.
And that’s also where communication becomes really vital. Often clients will come to me totally overwhelmed, and not really knowing what they want to outsource but knowing they need to outsource something! I will start by just getting them to brain dump an average day or week, and then from there we start pulling out tasks that I can take off their hands.
So don’t be afraid to have those conversations, and be really open and honest. Even if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed about it all, we’re very much about making the lives of business people easier, so we tend to be pretty good at looking at things logically and working out exactly where we can help.
That’s a great idea actually, to track your tasks for a week and then look at that list and decide what you’re happy to pass over to someone else.
There’s a great Chrome extension called Toggl that I use to track time. You can name each task that you do and assign it to a group too, and it’s a really simple click of a mouse each time you start and finish a task. Then at the end of the week you can just go in and look at the tasks and groups and see exactly where all your time is going.
What other fears do you find come up before you start working with entrepreneurs?
Money is always one, especially if you’re in the early stages of your business. It can feel as though you’re spending what feels like a lot of money when maybe you’re in a position where not a huge amount is coming in to your business.
But I will say that I very often get the feeling from clients that actually the fear of investing that money is actually a bit of a mask for the fear of losing control.
Financially, it doesn’t have to be a huge amount of money. You can start with as little as an hour a month as I said, and most UK VA’s will cost between £20-£35 an hour depending on what they do. There are also overseas VA options which are another channel to look at too.
I know lots of people who use VA’s from abroad, particularly the Phillipines,and there are pros and cons. It’s definitely worth exploring if that could work for you. There are also VA’s who run teams, so they have lots of VA’s working together and work is completed that way.
For me it’s really about building that relationship with your VA.
What tools can we use with a VA to keep that line of communication open?
Between us we’ve tried lots of them! It really comes down to personal preference, so it’s worth exploring a few of the many free platforms that are out there. I really like Slack, particularly it’s mobile compatibility. That’s a big thing for me, because these days we’re often working remotely, and our phones are just important as our PC’s.
There are also things like Trello and Airtable which are great for project planning, and have lots of ready to use templates for a variety of things. Asana is another that is great for sharing work, notes, plans and ideas, and communications.
We often come back to a very simple communication through WhatsApp or text messaging, and I think once you’ve developed that relationship with your VA it doesn’t always necessarily need to be any more high tech than that.
Slack really is great isn’t it, we use that quite a lot. I think it’s key to note that if you are going to use the likes of Whatsapp that you have some boundaries in place for that. So between us, for example, we know that if a brain dump of tasks is sent in WhatsApp it doesn’t mean that all needs doing right away, but when the clock is running all those things are in one place ready to be worked through.
I use Trello boards a lot in business too, and even use them to map things out and share training with my Inner Circle for example.
What do you use to track your time as a VA?
I use a combinations of Toggl and a very low key spreadsheet. So I track my tasks weekly using Toggl and then I spend some time each week collating that time on a spreadsheet that I have for each client. The spreadsheets are separated by month so that I always have a running total of hours used and hours left for the month.
The reason behind the spreadsheets is also so that I can pre-log recurring tasks. For example, if I know that I re-purpose a podcast into a blog once every week, I will know how much time that takes and I can pre-load that time into that spreadsheet. That then allows me to look at the time left for the month and plan my diary around that.
And then I have a second set of spreadsheets that are where I store ongoing tasks for clients. Again, they’re very simple spreadsheets and I just add and remove tasks when they come up or when I complete them. So actually I keep it very simple, because the reality is that you don’t always need a complicated tech solution, you just need a system that works for you and that you stick to!
And the same goes for communication between you and your VA. I try to make sure I schedule in at least a monthly call with all my clients, and I think that simple phone call is so important. The more you speak to your clients as a VA the more you get a feel for who they are, how they speak, the kinds of words that they use. And that can be really valuable and useful as a VA – I think a good VA over time will almost be able to mimic your ‘voice’ in the tasks that they do for you, and that’s a great place to be in.
Yeah I think that’s such a good point! I mean at this point you could probably do my Facebook lives and people wouldn’t notice!
A lot of the work that you do is around mailing lists, and that’s where that ability to know your clients voice and be able to use it becomes really valuable.
If your branding is going to be consistent in your business, then your messaging and your marketing needs to be too. So I would say when you initially start working with a VA, take the time to check things over before they go out, and as time goes on they will find and know your voice if those lines of communication are kept open.
On that note, how can people contact you Aleena?
My website has everything you need to get in touch, or you can simply pop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your brain dump and we’ll go from there!
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Rob Moore – Life Leverage