Wednesday VA Wisdom: Caroline Wylie of the Society of Virtual Assistants

This week, I am lucky to be able to feature Caroline Wylie of the Society of Virtual Assistants, many of us know of her, or are part of the Society, but actually we don’t really know the person who is the driving force behind the Society so I am chuffed that we can share this insight into her; and the background into the origins of the Society.  Caroline has been a Virtual Assistant (VA) since 2004 in her business, Virtually Sorted.  With a background in music and advertising, she worked in the creative industries for over 10 years, both in London and Glasgow.  Trying to avoid wearing a suit every day, Caroline switched into entrepreneur mode and has never looked back.  

Virtual assistance in the UK was a fledgling industry in 2004, so she worked with a collection of Scottish VAs to educate the business community about virtual working which grew rapidly into the Society of Virtual Assistants in 2006.  SVA is the largest organisation of UK virtual assistants with over 1,800 active members, a forum, regular newsletters, the virtual assistant diary, and regular features to help promote best practice in the industry.

Along the way she has lectured at various universities in the creative industries, appeared on conference panels, conducted workshops and presented at exhibitions such as Office* and The VA Conference. In her role as founder of SVA, she has previously judged the VA of the Year Awards, runs the UK VA Survey each year and is the UK representative of the world’s first virtual assistant certification programme, VAcertified.  Proudly she continues to earn her income solely from being a VA.

Caroline lives in Glasgow, with her husband Craig, their two young children and her crazy Burmese cat. Her mantra remains “I must wear jeans to the office”.

What or who inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant?  A chance comment: My dad was thinking of starting an internet café and I pointed out that whilst more and more people had their own computers, very few knew how to use them properly so it would be better to have operators who could do the work for clients.  The idea started niggling at the back of my brain and it just wouldn’t go away…

At the time I wanted to have more control over how I worked and who with – so I started looking into the idea seriously.  My dad still thought it was a big joke.  I don’t think he realized it was a “real” business till I won the region’s best start up business a year later.

How did you go about establishing your business?  I started out by going to a Business Gateway Start Up event – they were so helpful about explaining working capital, where to access funding, what help was out there.  I registered for The Princes Trust, and I also happened to meet a fellow VA there too.  She had been in Canada working and was looking to cut down her hours, but she convinced me she had plenty of clients and that there was enough work out there for everyone!  In fact, she even referred me to my very first client.

SVA started as a Scottish resource with just 7 VAs trying to collaborate and raise our profile… It sort of mushroomed from that first meeting and now has over 1,800 VAs from across the UK.

Did you have any savings or financial support in order to start your business?  Yes – Business Gateway gave me a grant of £1,000 to start up and Princes Trust gave me a flexible business loan of £5,000.  This sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that back in 2004 VOIP was in its infancy, WordPress did not exist and all websites were hardcoded in HTML.  Now, the same set up would cost about £500!

As a singleton though, I had to pay my mortgage from Day 1 – as hard as it was, that pressure has forced me to reach out of my comfort zone every day.  It’s a common theme in successful VAs: having to pay the bills!

Was there ever a point when you thought it wouldn’t work out?  I think everyone goes through this – it’s something we should be more open about.  Even when I started, I had a bit of a horror story surrounding the name of the business.

My crunch points were about 2-3 years into starting up, I was still only just covering my bills, money was tight and I was working insane hours with ridiculous deadlines.  I revamped how I worked significantly and got rid of the onsite em

ployees, who were draining my profits without really contributing anything.

The next big one was when my eldest was about 2 and I was paying out money for nursery hand over fist… The temptation is to drop childcare and try to juggle the work, but it just doesn’t work when you do that – the business stagnates and clients get peeved about turnaround times for work.  It got a lot easier once we finally got some free childcare hours.

When people think of a business failing, they think of debts and credit cards and desperation… But usually what happens when a VA business fails is that the VA just ends up going back to a proper job.  And I see the temptation of that all the time: to be able to switch off in the evenings, to have someone else arrange cover, of a regular income… And then I attempt driving in rush hour traffic whilst wearing a suit and it galvanizes me into making the self-employed thing work!

I got headhunted a while back for a really nice, well paid, nearby role… And whilst I went to talk to them about it, the morning I turned them down was a beautifully frosty, bright morning which I spent with my son in the park.  This is the picture I took – and every time I look at it, it reminds me of why I do what I do. I would never get the chance to do stuff like this with a 9-5 role!

What support did you have around you to set up your VA business (family and friends, Coach or Mentor)?  Princes Trust have phenomenal business support including a mentor – they also managed to successfully get me to do my own bookkeeping, a feat which seemed impossible when I started.  (I don’t do numbers!)

My dad has been self-employed for years, so he was a great help – but he also respected this was my business and that I had to do it my way.  He was very good at only giving advice when I asked for it.

I paid for business training about 3 years into the business with Action Coach.

If you could go back and change one thing that you did when starting out, what would that be?  I’d like the say that I would outsource sooner…  But there was a merit in learning how to do everything myself so that I knew what I was asking of other people.

What is your best advice for someone who is just starting out or someone who is considering becoming a Virtual Assistant?  Be selective about who you listen to – the last decade of seeing trainers come and go has made me a bit of a cynic.  There is so much advice out there which looks genuine and is just plain wrong! It’s heartbreaking to see someone wanting to start up as a VA, investing a lot of money and struggling because what they’ve paid for is simply not based on any sort of reality.

Read this first:

How do you think the VA industry has changed in recent years?  The technology has changed so much from when I first started and it continues to evolve.  The way I work now is completely different even from 5 years ago.  The types of tasks that clients want to outsource changes over time, the kind of clients change over time.  And what VAs charge has massively changed – up 35% in the last 10 years, which is in part to do with improved professional standards within the industry which SVA championed over a decade ago and continues today.

That’s why the UK VA Survey is so important in keeping us all connected and flagging trends within the industry – you may well be missing out on easy money!

What is the best business book you’ve read and how did it impact you and your business?  I’m a huge fan of “Get Clients Now” by CJ Hayden.  At its core, it’s about building marketing into your business, and we’re all guilty of having it slip off the bottom of our To Do Lists.

What do you love to do when you’re not working?  I have a serious murder mystery book habit…and two kids who keep me very busy!  Alongside running SVA I also volunteer with MCR Pathways helping young people from deprived backgrounds as a mentor. It’s an awesome project to be involved in.

Tell us one thing you can tell us about you that not many people know?  The obvious one is that Will Young used to be my PA… I think quite a lot of people know that now, so I’ll give you another Sony story – Gary Barlow once made me a cup of tea, because as he said “you look very busy, let me get you one!” True story, lovely guy!

Learn more and connect with Caroline and the Society of Virtual Assistants:

Society of Virtual Assistants Website:

Facebook URL:  SVA have 2 groups for members, one for newbies which is private so you can ask all sorts of daft questions, and one general one which is public – to join, details are available via the SVA website.

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