How to become a specialist virtual assistant
You know you want to become a premium, in-demand Virtual Assistant, but you don't know how to get started. You might not even know what your specialism is!
Meet Elizabeth Buckley-Goddard, AKA Lizzy. After running a successful online business, Lizzy turned down traditional employment to work as a virtual assistant. In just 16 months after niching down, she made $60K as a ConvertKit specialist. Looking at her success, you would never guess that being a virtual assistant wasn’t supposed to be a permanent thing. Lizzy took us through her journey to VA success including how she got started, how she picked what to specialise in, and how she still finds clients today.
In our VA Success Stories series, we speak to successful virtual assistants to find out what worked for them and how they got to where they are now.
What is a Virtual Assistant?
This is what Google comes up with:
"A virtual assistant (typically abbreviated to VA, also called a virtual office assistant) is generally self-employed and provides professional administrative, technical, or creative (social) assistance to clients remotely from a home office. ... Virtual Assistants usually work for other small businesses."
Elizabeth’s adventures as The Accidental VA
Chronic illness kept Lizzy out of work when she graduated from university, but a friend from school introduced her to the world of online business. “I had the idea to start my own business for young people with chronic illness,” she says. She started off selling physical products and then moved into digital downloads. During this time Lizzy learned how to use tools like Wordpress to do things herself - skills she later used as a VA.
Lizzy invested in courses to dig deep into the online business world. She signed up for Marie Forleo's B School course, worked with Rebecca Tracey from The Uncaged Life, and worked on money mindset with the Lucky Bitch Money Bootcamp. Her health improved, which she put down to the right mindset, so she decided to get a part-time job. The lack of flexibility didn't work with her health and Lizzy quit after just two weeks. She decided to apply for her “backup” job as a maths teacher.
“I had six months to kill before this job started,” Lizzy says, which she decided to spend as a virtual assistant. While many VAs start with the plan to build a full-time business, Lizzy started by telling people “I'm a temporary VA, you can only have me for six months.”
Lizzy started by charging $20 an hour. She says she didn’t want to be the cheapest, but didn’t feel the need to be most expensive as it was just to kill time.
"Most of my early clients did come from being in paid programmes," Lizzy says. Because many virtual assistants aren’t investing in these courses, there's less competition in those places. People in these courses become a community who like to hire "in-house", and have already proven their commitment to invest in their business.
In paid programmes like B School, every business owner is someone who will eventually need a VA. Lizzy says that although she learnt a lot from every course she took, “the biggest benefits were access to people who were happy to invest in themselves.”
You don’t have to start out as a specialist
Lizzy started out as a generalist. At first, she offered "anything for anyone", including customer service, PDF design, and social media. “I would do anything to start with.”
With every new client she booked, she raised her prices. Although she didn’t have a specific client type, the programmes she was a member of consisted of mostly women who were already happy to invest in their business. After just a couple weeks, Lizzy was already questioning whether she really needed to become a teacher after all. Within a few short months, her rates had increased to $40 an hour.
Design your business to suit you
When you’re a virtual assistant, who you work with and what you do is your choice. Although Lizzy didn’t have a specific client type, the programmes she was a member of consisted of mostly women who were already happy to invest in their business. Lizzy says many virtual assistants make a mistake when they "market their services to people who have no track record of investing in their business".
Clients who have a history of investing in other areas of their business are going to have more reasonable expectations. You don’t want to work with someone who thinks a virtual assistant will magically fix their business. Finding a client who knows your value and how to delegate is super important. Those clients do exist!
Specialising can be a gradual process. Every month or so Lizzy would look at her site and say, "I would hate it if someone hired me for that!" and remove mentions of the services she no longer wanted to offer. Over time, her list of services became specialised in tech.
Flexibility was the most important thing for Lizzy, so she could work around her health. "Being in a certain place at a certain time isn't a foundation of my business," she says, which is one reason why she stopped offering customer service assistance and other time-based services.
She set herself a deadline to choose whether she would stay a VA or take the teaching position. Lizzy says she questioned why would she go into traditional employment when she could get “paid to do exactly what I was doing before, which was just faffing around on the internet and tinkering with stuff.” Everything was going “right”, so she stuck with virtual assistance. Three years later, she is a widely respected expert earning top rates in her niche.
Taking time off as a virtual assistant
During her honeymoon in 2016, Lizzy took the entire month of November off and was uncontactable except in an emergency. No one used the emergency email except her dad - for something completely mundane. As long as you set expectations with your clients, they will know when they can and can't reach you.
Liz's travel tip? She books time off for "jet lag time" after a trip so she can settle back into work before clients expect her to be available. She still checks emails, but loves the freedom of knowing she's not on call to respond.
It’s about training your clients. "I think it's very helpful for clients to self-assess the severity of their problems," she says, because they had to ask themselves whether or not an issue could wait until she got back.
How to build trust and authority to get clients
Facebook Groups is Lizzy’s top way to get clients. "Join all the groups," she says, just turn off the notifications. When she was looking for clients, she would go through groups once a day and use the search bar to look for posts related to 'VA', 'virtual assistant', or tech systems she likes working with - like ConvertKit. She'd then take part in the thread to either answer questions or reply to threads asking for a virtual assistant.
People often over complicate getting clients. You just need to get yourself out there. If you go that little extra mile, whether it's by posting helpful answers or by contacting them outside of the thread, you’ll get yourself noticed.
Virtual assistance is a real business
Many VAs think of their businesses as “lesser than” the clients they are helping. Lizzy says she went into virtual assistance with the mindset that "my business is just as valid as a graphic designer or a business coach.”
If you treat virtual assistance like the business it is, and invest in yourself and your business, you will stand out. Clients will take notice, especially high-paying clients who are looking for quality service.
Don't worry about the competition - be you
It might be tempting to say that there is more competition for virtual assistance now than there used to be. But think of it this way - there's also a massive pool of never-ending clients. There are clients everywhere. Don't worry about the competition!
Is it worth jumping in to say you're a VA if dozens of other people have already posted in the same thread? Absolutely. Lizzy explains that she has gotten clients who have later read someone else's post. Every time you announce to the world that you are a virtual assistant, more than one person is going to see it - and that increases your chances of finding a client. "Every time you have the opportunity to non-grossly put your website, do it!" Lizzy says.
Let your personality stand out in your business and online. You will have to talk to your clients most days. People want to work with someone who they like as a person. And you'll want to work with clients you like, too. "When you are being you, there is no competition."
Let clients know why should they hire YOU, as a person.
"All of my clients are friends," Lizzy says. "That can't be competed against."
Don't waste too much time on SEO
Is a website important when you’re a virtual assistant? Liz says if someone is looking for a VA, they're looking for your website. “You want to give it to them in the format that they're expecting to receive it.” Her first basic website was just a home page, about page, services, and pricing page. "I've always treated it as my brochure."
A website makes you look like you're a professional and taking your business seriously. You don't absolutely need one to get started, but it helps. Especially if you're offering website services! It will help you charge higher rates, too.
Liz has never used job boards like Upwork or Fiverr. Almost all of her clients have come from Facebook groups or referrals. Unless you're blogging or really specialised, not much traffic will come from Google.
About 40% of her traffic comes from Google, because she blogs "How to" articles about ConvertKit. As one of the first people to specialise in ConvertKit services, Liz has been able to rank highly on Google for searches like "ConvertKit training" and "ConvertKit support". She says it's been a way to show her expertise, and that people who read her content typically already know of her or have seen her in groups. Showing up in search results just reaffirms her expertise.
How to know what to specialise in
Pick the thing you like! "I think it naturally happens and it becomes obvious.”
Lizzy doesn’t recommend writing out a list and trying to decide from your options that way. By doing the work you will find out what you do and don’t like. Her original list of possible specialities included OntraPort, Infusionsoft, and other top-notch software where she knew there would be paying clients. But she ended up working with completely different tools.
"Explore things to their natural conclusion. And sometimes that natural conclusion is, I hate this - I'm never doing this again," is Liz's advice on specialising. "Just follow it and see where it goes."
You don't have to decide. "Do what you enjoy, and stop doing the things you don't enjoy."
You can try it out to see if it suits you - Lizzy only meant to work as a VA for six months
You are the master of your business and get to decide what services you offer
Starting out as a generalist doesn’t mean you can’t specialise later
Virtual assistance isn’t a “less than” business, you are on the same level as your clients!
Your clients want to work with YOU, as a person, so embrace your personality
Your specialist skills will be natural niches you find by doing the work
Resources we mentioned:
Rebecca Tracey | The Uncaged Life
OptimizePress, a tool for making landing pages
ConvertKit, an email marketing system (Lizzy became one of the first four ConvertKit Certified Experts!)
Our previous VA Success Stories interview with Megan Baker
ElizabethGoddard.co.uk/everything for all of Liz's freebies and premium offers in one list
Rock Your Tech Specialism (Liz's course on how to specialise in specific tech tools to
grow and scale your tech support or VA business)
Connect with Elizabeth:
Looking for a supportive community to share your troubles and triumphs as a VA? Join the free community in the Start, Market & Grow Your Virtual Assistant Business Facebook Group. Whether you’re starting as a generalist or niching down into a specialism, we are in the trenches with you.
If you'd like to learn more about what it takes to become a successful Virtual Assistant, take a look at my self-paced course Start, Market & Grow Your Virtual Assistant Business that covers everything you need to know: from deciding what type of VA you want to be, to identifying your ideal client, to branding yourself for success, to creating your website, to setting your rates and packages and finally, to getting and working with clients.