This week I am pleased to introduce you to Penny Cooke of Virtual Ms Friday for our Wednesday Wisdom piece.  I think Penny’s introduction of herself is great and very little I can add to it. Although. I will say – that when Penny stands up to or for a challenge – she nails it! What an amazing skill and attribute to possess – she calls it stubborn, but I think there is an element of tenacity and resilience there too, as evidenced when I challenged her to start writing blogs for her business. Now let’s hand over to Penny…

It was easier to write the About Me page on my website than this!  I’m going to start with saying that I never ever wanted to work in an office.  And, apart from my first job, I’ve worked in an office ever since!  Two of the Penny Cooke Virtual Ms Friday Headshotendorsements I’ve received both mentions my sense of humour – it is rather keen, to say the least.  The one I like best is this one: “Penny is the ultimate Personal Assistant.  She is highly intelligent, pays exceptional attention to detail, exercises superior judgement and does it with a real sense of humour too.  She’s somehow always operating several steps ahead and she understands businesses and non-profits equally”.

What or who inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant? 

There’s both a what and a who answer to this one.  The “what” is that after I left a job I loved in September 2018, it took six months of job searching before I decided that I would make the job I loved, rather than settle for a bit of love for parts of a job, and that was after I met the “who”.  This is a fabulous lady called Jennifer Williams – she was one of the two speakers at an EA/PA event organised by one of my recruitment agencies, in June 2019.  I went along to listen to what she had to say, to hopefully talk to her, we clicked (I’m now one of her associate VAs) and I left that evening having made two major decisions.  The first was that “this is what I have to do” and the second, made on the Park & Ride bus back to my car, was “I can get a dog now!”

How did you go about establishing your business?

The first thing I did was start looking at websites, seeing what was offered, seeing who could build one the way I wanted it to look.  In hindsight, that probably shouldn’t have been the first thing I did – research, research and a bit more research should’ve come first but that was the next thing I did, and am still doing.  I never stop looking at what or who is out there, and take great inspiration from other VAs.

Did you have any savings or financial support in order to start your business? 

When I left my last job, I took redundancy – I’d been there over 12 years, so that was a largish pot, and I negotiated a few other things, too.  I also cashed in a pension pot, and used a fair bit of that to set up, and to carry on living the way I was used to living, and not having to scrimp – I don’t do “scrimp” very well!

Was there ever a point when you thought it wouldn’t work out?

No, never.  Like a lot of people, I have those occasional Imposter Syndrome moments – but I’ve had those for years, just never heard the term previously.  I used to call it FOBFO – fear of being found out!  I’m a bit stubborn – I hate to fail, once I’ve set my mind on something.  Failure wasn’t an option.  And, of course, by this time I was really enjoying answering only to myself.

What support did you have around you to set up your VA business (family and friends, Coach or Mentor)?

It’s not easy, doing it all on your own, having to make those big decisions.  To be honest, not much support from family – of course, they were worried that I’d made a bad financial decision – but they don’t really get it.  Only my nephew regularly asks how business is going.  I don’t have a huge circle of friends, but those I do have were all for it: “that’s right up your street” and “this will really play to your strengths” – I never did get around to asking that person what my weaknesses were… And, of course, the support from the amazing Amanda, and from the Facebook groups, is invaluable.  The community spirit is probably the strongest I’ve ever come across.

If you could go back and change one thing that you did when starting out, what would that be?

Start sooner!  I really wish that I hadn’t “wasted” those first six months looking for a job and, by extension, “wasting” my redundancy package.  But, also, during some fairly unhappy moments during my last job, where I toughed it out (I don’t quit easily, either!), I wish I’d known about the wonderful world of VAs and looked into it sooner.  Of course, if I had, I wouldn’t have had that redundancy package.  All things happen when they do for a reason.

What is your best advice for someone who is just starting out or someone who is considering becoming a Virtual Assistant?

To quote Amanda, JFDI!  Don’t let Imposter Syndrome (or FOBFO!) hold you back.  Do your research.  Then do more.  Ask questions.  Then ask more.  Join Facebook groups and get amazing support.  And network – get out there and meet people, don’t confine yourself to the house – you may have to leave your comfort zone behind (I did – I’m a high-functioning introvert) and walk into a room full of strangers.  But the Virtual Assistant world is all about people.  You can’t hide behind your screen in your spare room.  Go meet them.  Be awesome.

How would you describe the good, the bad and ugly of being a Virtual Assistant?

The good.  No more commuting!  What was a 45-minutes-on-a-good-morning drive into Oxford is now 15 minutes via the sofa for breakfast and back upstairs to my office.  The flexibility is absolutely brilliant.  I can meet friends for lunch or tea & cake whenever I want – workload and deadlines permitting.  And, of course, being at home all the time meant that I was finally able to fulfil a decades-long dream – I could offer a home to a rescue dog.  Bella came home with me on 26 October; she has her own hashtags on LinkedIn – my favourite, not coined by me, is #bellathesupermodel!  She makes me laugh and cry in equal measure, and sometimes cry with laughter – the best kind.

The bad.  I know that some VAs find life quite isolating, but I don’t.  And, of course, in the age of Coronavirus, so many people are having to keep themselves confined to their homes but, for me, it’s really no big deal and “business(life) as usual”.  Having had 30+ years being All Things to All People, it’s rather nice having no-one else rely on me apart from Bella.  If I had to pick one thing, it’s leaving behind my comfort zone and having to put myself out there to network; having to talk about myself – sell myself.

The ugly.  I’m not sure I’ve come across the ugly yet.  I’m pretty strong-willed, I’ve had a client try and herd me towards a decision that wasn’t in my favour, so I know how to stand my ground.  Oh, sometimes I do wish that someone else would make the decision for me.  Any decision.  But I think that that’s down to Imposter Syndrome again, so I just ignore the fear & doubts and carry on.

What is the best business book you’ve read and how did it impact you and your business?

Ah.  Yes.  Actually, I’ve never read a business book.  I love reading – I consume vast amounts of fiction, or history, but not a business book yet.  If only Amanda would go and write one, I might read that one!

How do you stay on top of your own professional development?

If I want to do something – learn something new, whatever – I will do it.  I did a proofreading course (not a particularly recognised name, but what I could afford at the time (and sent back to them a document with all the typos that were in the course!)).  I’m working my way through the KickStart course and learning a lot about me whilst doing so.  Social Media Bootcamp is next.  I make the time for it.

What do you love to do when you’re not working?

I like to read – I have so many books on my Kindle, if I never did anything ever again, I don’t think I’d get through them all (and I keep buying more!).  I love to bake – completely self-taught, and I started only in 2013 after I was finally persuaded by a colleague to watch Bake Off.  I had a baking session a couple of years ago with local resident who was on it that year.  I stopped buying bread early 2014 and make my own – great reliever of stress for me! And, of course, walking my dog.  It’s not a fair-weather thing, we’re out in all weathers but, whatever my mood, seeing the joy in Bella when she’s running (and she is so fast!) lifts me right up.

Tell us one thing you can tell us about you that not many people know?

I don’t think there’s anything that’s not Out There now – I wrote a couple of blogs recently called “Random Things You Don’t Know About Me.”  It was a two-parter, so I really went to town!  What most people find odd is that, other than classical music, my other musical love is country.

What does the future hold for your business?

Only good things!  Last year, first year of business, was slow with just a couple of fairly regular but ad hoc clients (yes, I’m well aware of the oxymoron there).  I was determined that 2020 was going to be My Year.  And in late January I was contacted by someone the day after I posted on a local Facebook page and that person became my first retainer client.  Two days later, on LinkedIn, someone else was in touch, and I may get a fair bit of business from him, too.  So, 2020 is definitely going to be the year that Virtual Ms Friday takes off!

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