This week I am excited to introduce you to Sandy Hearn of Elite PA Solutions. – Sandy trained with VACT the same year as I did under Carmen the previous owner, and I used to admire her website and her professionalism on Twitter as I was setting up my business.  Since then, we have worked together for a number of years, and I love her passion and drive for business. In the blog below, Sandy pays me some amazing compliments, but actually I just provide the tools (or the nagging) – Sandy takes the action and has created an awesome VA business.

Sandy Hearn Headshot Elite PA Solutions was born in June 2012 as I firmly believed that working virtually and flexibly was and continues to be the future of collaboration. Following a career in hospitality and executive search in London, a move to the Midlands and two children my priority or driving force was to work flexibly and provide financial security for my family. By utilising over 20 years’ experience as an Executive Assistant in the corporate world, I decided to offer my services to clients on a freelance basis.

After a few years of supporting every client myself, I quickly saw the demand both individuals and business owners had in engaging freelance business support and with that, I quickly grew the team.  Today, I am responsible for business development, networking and building relationships with new and existing clients to fully understand their requirements before matching one of my team to meet their day-to-day needs. I personally handpick, interview and onboard new team members ensuring my own core values and approach are replicated in each person I bring on board. We are plugged in as a part of our client’s businesses where we support, brainstorm, make suggestions and offer advice whilst delivering results and truly adding value. Our clients want someone to ensure things get done!

What or who inspired you to become a Virtual Assistant?

My lightbulb moment came in early 2011 when I read an article “Absolute PA – a poster girl for home working!” in Woman & Home about Alicia Cowan and her experience of successfully setting up her business. I remember thinking how perfect it all sounded, I was definitely in awe! Alicia’s story gave me the motivation to pursue a new venture. I already loved everything about being a PA. That real lynchpin in someone’s life. A year later, when my youngest was settled in school I decided the time was right for me to take those first steps of setting up my business.

How did you go about establishing your business?

When I started Elite PA Solutions, I had been divorced for 5 years and it came as no surprise to me, that I was the sole provider both in terms of caring for and supporting financially my two daughters and myself. Between 2004 and 2012, I worked part-time from home, 20 hours a week for my London employer taking on supporting role to over thirty PA’s in the office (a large proportion of who I had recruited!). The job spec wasn’t great, lots of their overload of mundane tasks but do you know what, it served its purpose and I’m grateful that when the timing was right for me, it also gave me the push to find a way to regain and utilise all those core PA skills which I knew I still had even though I was being undervalued simply as the business did not wish to set a precedent by having me working from home doing the full scope of the role.

I signed up for the VA Mastery Course with VACT (pre the days when Amanda bought the business) and I met likeminded VA’s who had the same ambition as I did. I work through the course although never did not complete the final module!

In 2012, I launched my business and for the next two years, I worked two days and three evenings a week for my employer (the 20 hours) and the remaining three days, evenings and weekends for my own clients. Yes, I was a workaholic – I had no alternative and wasn’t going to be defeated!

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

The short answer is No! We lived on a very tight budget for many years both pre my launching Elite PA Solutions and for a good few years afterwards too.

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

Once I had my first client on board my confidence grew. Some colleagues from my employed role where huge ambassadors for me and business which helped hugely. In fact, my first two clients came via recommendations from the same former colleague. She was amazing. Failure was never an option. I had no choice, my business needed to succeed. I kept reminding myself that if I worked hard day and night that in time, I would reap the benefits. It may take years and I accepted that it would. For me, the driving force behind me was remembering that the flexibility of being a business owner would provide us as a family kept me going. It meant that I’d get to be there for my children whilst doing a job that I absolutely love, not to mention being good at! I never saw it as an option to get back on a train and commute into a nearby City office to earn more money. It simply wasn’t feasible with two young children.

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

My friends and family supported me morally with encouragement. Yes, some thought I was crazy, others thought I was brave, and some didn’t believe it would be possible. This, I have to say made me even more determined.  Amanda has been awesome in my business journey as a coach and mentor over the years. Amanda most definitely gave me the confidence to begin to grow my team. Taking that first step is sometimes easier than we all think it will be. I’ve also worked with a coach locally on a personal level. I truly believe it’s important to really understand ourselves but also to be reminded that we’re important too. How we feel, what we need/want are just as important and we need to give ourselves credit for all we have achieved, no matter how small. Now, I celebrate every success – every single time!

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

It will have to be to make the leap from part-time employed/part-time business owner to full-time business owner sooner! The beauty of hindsight is that you can look back and say “I wish I’d taken more risk” however, at the time, it was just me and I only felt comfortable taking the leap when I had consistently matched my employed income in my business. After two years, it became obvious that my employed role was holding me back. In order to grow my business and client base, I needed more time and needed to be available for my clients 5 days a week. The alternative was staying as I was, in my comfort zone, and I knew I didn’t want that.

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

Surround yourself with people who support you, people who challenge you and people who are likeminded in their approach to their businesses – add them to your success train. They’ll be there a long time! Your support network is vital in business as it can be tough and even a little lonely at times. Having the support of others, peers, other Virtual Assistant’s, other business owners is vital and don’t forget we’re always learning. In fact, we never stop learning.

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

For me, I like to see the positives in every situation. The good has to be the variety of clients we support and the different ways in which we add value to each client. The bad can be the fluctuating income in the early days. I have always budgeted extremely well and firmly believe in cutting your cloth accordingly but, it can be hard. Knowing your numbers helps. The ugly, is the continuous marketing. In my career, I have not really had to market myself, so I can’t claim it comes naturally!

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

Do you know, I have a confession here, I’m one of those people who buy books (buys many, many books) and then doesn’t ever start/finish reading them. Sorry, but it is true, and I can’t lie, it’s something I’d really like to change about myself as I must be missing out. Yes, I’d also save myself a small fortune if I just stopped buying them!

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

In the first few years of business, I must admit this was an area I neglected as I was so busy working for my clients, a bit like an employee! Over the last 4 years or so, and thanks to working with Amanda, my mindset has shifted to my professional development being a priority. I’m part of various networking groups where there’s a learning element at each session. I try to join the training sessions with Amanda online am working my way through the learning portal (WOW, what a minefield of information is in there!). I’ve also actively attended events, webinars with the PA Forum and IPSE. My day to day go-to place for help and learning is YouTube!

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

I love certainty and am most comfortable with routine, where I know what’s coming next! Our lives are very routine driven. As a family, we do love the outdoors, so lots of country walks, bike rides, geocaching and exploring. We have our adventurous moments too although heights are becoming a bit of a problem of me as the ageing process progresses! My own self-care time usually focuses around yoga, walking our Jack Russell, meeting up with friends and gin…!

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

I was born in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia as it was in the 70’s and when I was twelve my Dad came home from work one day and said ‘We’re going to live in paradise’ paradise was Papua New Guinea!  I didn’t talk to him for a week as my dog wasn’t coming with us. Not happy.  Then when we arrived in PNG with just our suitcases, I remember my Dad saying to his boss who had met us at the airport ‘Where’s the city – Port Moresby’ and the response was ‘we’ve just driven through it’. He didn’t quite put his head in his hands but I’m sure he wanted too!

What does the future hold for your business?

Funnily enough before writing this, I was looking back at my ‘visualisation for March 2020’ (written five years ago and no mention of Covid-19) and was pretty chuffed with what I read. So, for the future, further business growth. To continue to grow my team of established associates and provide our clients with access to our accumulative skills. Doing what we enjoy each and every day and continuing to add value to our ensuring our client’s lives are running smoothly. If we can all be ‘happy and healthy’ whilst doing this, we will have achieved in my eyes.

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