Virtual Office Professional Course Interview by Crystal Cook of Sierra College

sierra college virtual office professional courseI was recently contacted by another Sierra College student taking Cyndi Dunn’s Virtual Office Professional course. I’ve enjoyed doing these interviews over the years. Crystal gave me permission to reprint our interview here.

For the Final Project my task was to interview a Virtual Office / Virtual Assistant Professional. First, I wrote out ten questions that I found to be most interesting. I wanted to get an overview of how the interviewee got their virtual business started, information on business operations, popular services, work-life balance, and other advice.

I interviewed Sue Lynn Canfield. Sue and her husband, Joel, own and operate “Chief Virtual Officer” – a Virtual Assistant Business. “Chief Virtual Officer” has been in business since 2005. Sue connected with me via Skype, and we set a time for the interview.

What inspired you to start your Virtual Office Business?

“In 2004, when I had my youngest, I had decided I no longer wanted to work full time in the corporate world and I wanted to work from home. I started part time, doing a little bit here and there from home. Then a couple of years later, I ended up seriously ill in the hospital for several months, and I almost didn’t make it. Then my husband and I were forced, in a way, to work for ourselves because it took me a year to recover, and he needed to help me. So we worked together to build a business from home, that I could do, still be with my little girl, and not extend myself physically because I was unable to do what I once could. I love working virtually and being able to help people all over the world, wherever I’m at.”

Did you have any significant start up costs?

“No, actually we didn’t because my husband already had a web design company he’d had on the side for years. A normal start up cost for this type of business is minimal anyhow – if you have a computer and Internet access, you’re set to go. So, if you don’t have that, those are the only initial set up costs I really see in a business like this. Just be sure to get a good computer, and make sure you have good Internet access.”

How long did it take you to acquire your first client?

“My first client came to me before I knew that I wanted to start a business. So that was a plus. It was someone my husband knew that needed an assistant. So, she and I started working together, before I had even heard what a virtual assistant was. That being said though, when I did start thinking this was going to be a business and I actually started looking for clients – I started attending some networking events and I would say, within the first 45 days I had an additional two clients. From the time I decided this was going to be a business, it took me about 45 days.”

How do you balance work, life, and fun?

“We’ve written a lot on work-life balance because we don’t necessarily think they are mutually exclusive. Since we’ve worked from home together with a little one, since she was born, our life is very much family oriented, and that comes first. We’ve built our business so that people we work with know that. If that means that we have to spend all day taking care of a child for whatever reason, then we do. And if we have to work at night or on a weekend, then we will; though we don’t normally do that. I think the same way that any successful person can have work-life balance is to have your priorities straight. I believe that family should always come first, but your business and your family can be integrated together. And you can make that work for your particular situation.”

How many hours do work in a typical week?

“Anywhere from 10 – 20, depending. Right now I am working closer to 20. Even when I have 3-dozen clients, I never work more than more than 20 – 25 hours per week because I never wanted to work more than that. That has always been enough for me.”

How many hours are focused on clients? And how many hours are focused on business maintenance (accounting, marketing, etc.)?

“I would say 75% of my work is client work and 25% of my work is client billing and marketing. I think that a newer person, just starting out, wants to spend about 50-50 because you need to spend some time marketing to get your business going.”

What do you like best about your job?

“That I get to work with my husband; that I get to have my young daughter around me at all times; I work with people that I choose to work with and love to work with; that about does it.”

What do you like least about your job?

“I’m not sure I have anything, I love what I do. I created a business that does what I want, when I want, that makes me what I want. I’ve got everything in place, I really can’t think of anything!”

What are the most popular services you offer?

“Social media management, absolutely.”

Are you able to take vacations throughout the year?

“Absolutely! We take all the usual holidays off that anyone else would. My husband and I also take off the last two weeks of the year. For example this year, December 23rd – January 3rd our offices are closed. We don’t do any client work at all, our clients know this because we’ve done it for years. December 26th is our wedding anniversary, so we always take a week and go and do something. Then we spend the following week doing things to work on our business for the New Year. In addition to taking those two weeks off, we take time off basically whenever we feel like it. Right now, I take every other Friday off and my husband takes the other Friday off. We often just take a week or a few days, and always giving our clients plenty of notice. I do have a team member on standby, who can check emails to see if there are any issues that somebody really needs addressing.”

If you could write a letter to yourself, before you started your business – what advice would you give?

“I would suggest that you have a well-written business plan. It does not need to be a 30 or 40 page document; in fact it can be a 1-page document. But it is something that clearly defines what you want your business to accomplish in the first month or the first year. It should be revisited at least once a year and edited with your new goals and specific strategic marketing tactics that you are going to employ on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis.”

In conclusion, I felt I gained a lot from this interview and from this class. In the interview, I spoke with a very successful Virtual Office Professional who has created the lifestyle and career she has always wanted. Some of the important tips I learned was regarding the specifics of a business plan, where to find clients, and how much time to spend doing client work and business maintenance work. I was able to feel Sue’s genuine love and enthusiasm for her career, just from speaking to her for a few minutes.

Learn more about the Sierra College Virtual Office Professional course at their website.

Interview: Creating a Virtual Office by Carol

Carol is a student at Sierra College enrolled in the Virtual Office Professional course there. She interviewed me for her final and agreed to allow me to post it here. Here’s an excerpt of her final, including our interview.

Three days of cold calling virtual assistants with absolutely no response, I was beginning to feel hopeless in finding someone to interview for our final assignment.  Obviously I needed a different strategy.

I would like to introduce Sue and Joel Canfield, co-founders of Chief Virtual Officer.  I met Sue and Joel through an online Virtual Assistants Networking Meetup Group that they co-organized.  I signed up and participated in their monthly conference call where they share ideas, resources and information with other Virtual Assistants.  I informed them that I am a student at Sierra College and that I am taking a class in Creating a Virtual Office.  They were so encouraging and offered such insightful information.  After the conference call, I began to feel a ray of hope.  I quickly exchanged emails with Sue and asked if I could conduct a telephone interview with her as part of my final project.  She graciously said yes with no hesitation.

I called her at our scheduled time for the interview and I asked her nine questions from my questionnaire.  I told her that I did not want to take more than 10 or 15 minutes of her time because I was aware that her time is very valuable.  I began the interview with the clock ticking.  Twenty minutes later, I still had a few questions that were unanswered.  I brought this to her attention.  She was very thoughtful and wanted to continue the interview until she had answered all of my questions.  After she answered the last question, I thanked her for providing such valuable information.  We ended the call and I immediately began transcribing my notes while they were still fresh in my head.  About an hour later, I decided to stop and check my email.  To my surprise, Sue had sent me an email thanking me for interviewing her; I was very impressed.

Below, Sue and Joel Canfield answer my questions about starting a virtual business.

Question 1:  What is your most effective marketing strategy for starting a virtual business?
Sue Canfield:  The marketing strategy that I would recommend is P2P; meeting in person and getting to know your clients and their needs.  Also, referring them to others is a good way for them to return as a client.

Question 2:  My biggest fears about starting my own virtual business are criminal activity, scams, viruses, data breach, identify thief, etc.  Have you ever experienced any of these problems?
Sue Canfield:  Absolutely not.  For years, my husband and I owned a networking company and we had our own firewall.  We never experienced any problems.  Of course you always have to be on top of things and use commonsense.  You don’t want to download everything you see.  Always backup your data to a thumb drive.  That’s what we do in addition to having a backup external drive and we store everything on Amazon s3 Storage.  There are all kinds of apps you can use. We use Google Apps to create documents and because we travel so much, we have access anywhere.  They also have video and audio tools that I highly recommend.

Question 3:  What is your advice on determining rates?
Sue Canfield:  Never sell yourself too short.  There are a lot of factors to consider when calculating your rates: technical skills, overhead, insurance, etc.  Calculate what you will need.  Be reasonable and then set your rate.  Most likely they will pay.  But don’t sell yourself short.

Question 4:  What is your advice on client contracts and agreements?
Sue Canfield:  Keep contracts simple.  No more than two pages that outline the specifics, such as: your rate, payment agreement, how and when you can be reached and exactly what the client wants accomplished.  You should have a contract for every client so that you can refer back to it just in case the client comes to you later and says this is not what I wanted.  Also, I use EchoSign to obtain electronic signatures.  I’ve had contracts signed and returned to me within 45 minutes and it is binding.

Question 5:  How do you receive client payments? How do you assure that you will be paid for your services?  Do you require a deposit, retainer fee; keep a credit card on file?
Sue Canfield:  I get paid by the project and I require a 50% deposit.  If there is a retainer, it is discounted for paying up front and when I get close to the end of allotted time, I let them know and they pay for the next 10-20 hours.  If they pay by the hour, I have a two hour minimum. I use PayPal to accept payments because it is safe and easy.

Question 6:  How do you handle a difficult client that is not satisfied with the service/work you provided no matter how much you have tried to make him/her happy?  Especially when you know that you delivered an excellent product?
Sue Canfield:  I have had two clients like that and I fired them.  With the first client, I tried everything I could think of to make her happy.  I finally apologized, letting her know that I could no longer be of assistance to her.  I offered to help find someone else that could meet her needs.  The second client was slow in giving me the necessary information to complete her projects because she was constantly changing her mind.  When she did finally provide the information, the timeframe that she demanded for completion was impossible to meet.  She was also very slow to pay for services.  I eventually told her that we were just not a good match.  If it is appropriate, always offer to help them find someone else that would be a better fit.  Be cautious if you do this because you don’t want to create another bad situation for a fellow VA.   Remember you are the business owner; you are the boss.  When you put up with too much grief from one client, your other clients will suffer.  Don’t keep trying, politely fire them.  You and your other clients will be better off.

Question 7:  Has the recession helped or hurt your business?
Sue Canfield:  We see more and more companies looking for ways to cut costs because they can no longer afford to pay a staff for 40 hours.  But we also have clients that can no longer afford a virtual assistant.  I think the recession has hurt everyone.

Question 8:  What is your opinion on outsourcing? Do you see outsourcing as a growing problem that will be the death of the VOP industry in the United States? Has it created any problems for your business?
Joel Canfield:  Actually, I think outsourcing is helping our industry.  Clients are finding that they may be able to get their projects done for $4.00, but it takes 40 hours of their time to manage it properly.  It’s just not worth it for them.  Also, we can utilize outsourcing to our advantage.  As long as a project is not complicated, it can be worthwhile for us to outsource it.

Question 9:  What do you know now that you wish someone would have advised or warned you about before you started your own business venture?
Sue Canfield:  It definitely would be the importance of having a business plan.  Now one of the first things that I advise anyone to do is to write a business plan. I’m not talking about an elaborate 45 page professional plan; I’m talking about something simple that states how you plan to start and grow your business.

The most important thing that I took away from this interview (and the conference call) was realizing that it really is possible to have a successful online business.  Sue and Joel opened my eyes and showed me that honest and legitimate internet businesses really do exist.  Sue helped to alleviate my worries about becoming a victim of the internet.  Use commonsense and take appropriate precautions.  In all likelihood, there will be no problems.  Joel instilled me with a sense of confidence that I have the ability to make my vision become reality.  It starts with being passionate about what you like to do.

Knowing that there are successful and well established internet businesses that mentor and provide assistance to fledgling entrepreneurs is very encouraging.  I consider a valuable resource I will recommend.