Virtually Sorted: Caroline Melville
Caroline Melville worked as a Personal Assistant for years but now she has her own business that provides virtual PAs to companies who need to keep their staff costs low. She tells startups.co.uk how she’s been getting on since she launched in February 2005.
Name: Caroline Melville Age: 26 Business: www.virtuallysorted.com Type of business: Virtual Offices & Virtual Personal Assistants Start date: February 2005
When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? My parents both run their own businesses and it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do eventually.
Tell us about your businessVirtually Sorted is a virtual office & virtual personal assistant provider servicing small businesses across the UK. Typically we answer their calls, forward mail and provide day-to-day administration support for their business, all from our own location in Glasgow.
Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? I was discussing hot-desking with a friend and I realised that small businesses don’t only need flexible space but also flexible office support. I had all the administration skills after being a PA for several years. People were always asking me how to do something on their computer, and it got me thinking.
Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? Having business people in the family definitely helped – they advised me on all sorts of things and even occasionally answer the phones.
What makes you think there’s a market for your business?Small businesses don’t always have the resources either financially or in terms of workload to employ a full-time member of staff. Using a virtual PA gives them access to an experienced professional in a flexible way – they only pay for what they need.
Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first?I researched other companies providing similar services on the internet and then I attended a business start up event run by Business Gateway.
What research did you do?In addition to the internet research, I also looked at the numbers of small businesses in my local area of Scotland, and did an online survey of what services people would like to outsource.
What advice did you seek? I spoke to a Business Advisor at Business Gateway & she advised me on how to prepare a business plan and how to access funding.
What other help did you get? My Business Advisor recommended applying for a Princes Scottish Youth Business Trust (PSBYT) flexible loan. PSYBT offer these loans to young people under 26 who are starting up a business. Luckily I had registered with PSYBT 4 days before my 26th birthday at the business start up fair.
Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? The support I received was excellent, but I was unaware that any of it was available until I went to the business fair. I only knew about that because I had seen an advert in the local paper.
Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. My Business Advisor helped me to write the plan and provided guidance on what to include. She also did cashflow projections and financials based on information I gave her. I did a lot of research into my potential customers & competitors, which was relatively easy as I have an advertising background. Again, that helped when preparing the media plan.
How useful has your business plan been and do you think you’ll stick to it as your business begins to grow? The plan was useful to secure funding and start the business up. Unfortunately, a lot of things have changed which affected its accuracy. For example, my launch was delayed by 2 months and also there were unexpected costs, which I couldn’t have been predicted after 3 months of trading.
How much did it cost to start the business? £4,400.
How did you fund this? £1000 Grant for Young People from Business Gateway and £5000 Flexible loan funding from PSYBT
Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off?I had several clients confirmed before the launch which helped me offset the first few months running costs. It now breaks even and gives me small drawings each month, but I’m still dipping into my savings for living costs.
Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? The loan funding allowed me extra flexibility – there were additional funds available and it meant I didn’t have to re-mortgage my home in order to start the business, which I was dreading. I suppose the worst case scenario would be that I could re-mortgage.
When did you stop working? I stopped working full-time in February – I had explained to my employers what I was planning to do and they were very supportive and actually became my first client.
Are you working from home or from premises? I work from premises due to the vast amount of technology needed to run the business – for instance, we basically have mini-call-centre technology in order to answer the phones in the clients’ company name. Then there’s faxes, photocopiers, scanners, computers, binding machines, post-boxes etc. A lot of Virtual Assistants do work from home, but realistically they wouldn’t be able to offer the range of services or level of professionalism that we do. In the future I hope to be able to offer clients meeting rooms and conference facilities. The premises we have are flexible enough to accommodate this, but in the meantime we use our banks business centre, which is a free service.
How many hours are you working at the moment? 9-12:45 for a regular client, then 1-6 answering phones and dealing with other clients. Occasionally there is weekend or evening work and I network about 3 times a week.
How are you managing your day and what steps have you taking to ensure you’re able to get everything done without working around the clock?As a PA I’m used to juggling a hectic workload, so there isn’t much difference. Organisation is key and I use a “To Do List” methodically ticking off tasks as I complete them.
What about staff, is it just you? I have 2 part-time employees who answer the phones whilst I work for my regular client in the mornings. It was extremely difficult to find people willing to work part-time and as an employer I had to be more flexible to accommodate their needs as well as my own. I’m delighted with the staff I do have who work job-share – in fact I had an email from one of my clients today “we have had a number of comments on David’s lovely voice.”
Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you? I have a really good bookkeeper who deals with that side of things. Plus I found the Department of Work Pensions helpline staff surprisingly informative and helpful.
What marketing and advertising have you done so far?We get most of our clients through networking at events. Registering with directories and online search engines have also been a good source of business, as well as being free.
We did some pubic relations through our local evening paper and a specialist PA magazine.
This generated loads of replies but mainly from people wanting to be virtual assistants – our website designer got some work though.
I have also done mailouts to specific industry groups which cost about £50. The response was okay and we got some leads and lots of website hits.
Door to door leaflet drop – Lots of website hits but a slower response than expected.
The worst was a mailout & phone follow up of small businesses in Scotland that got us zero business – we’re not doing this again, it’s fruitless, demoralising and cost £100.
We are currently using ‘pay per click’ which we set up for £150 – this has given great website hits but there has been very little conversion. We’re currently rethinking our web design to combat this.
Where do you hope to be in 12 months time?More clients, more interesting projects and being able to offer a wider range of services through outsourcing to other virtual assistant (VA).
What are the main obstacles to growth? Once we convince people to try using a VA they love it. It offers flexibility, professionalism and saves money. However, as a new industry people are very reticent about trying it. I’ve had some very strange questions including ‘but who will make my coffee?’ and ‘so, are these real PAs?’.
How do you plan to overcome these? I’m trying to get together with other virtual assistants to raise the profile of virtual assistance across Scotland and the UK. I’m also considering giving free trials to people who are unsure of how a virtual office works.
Tell us about your website. As a virtual assistant, it is critical. I needed it to be very simple and easy to use, but to have the capability of offering an online file server and diary. Our website designer, Tom Brown of Sinewave Design, usually designs sites for rock bands including Snow Patrol. I managed to convince him this project was interesting enough to try – he took my plan on paper and made it into the fully functional reality we have now. However, it’s very much a work in progress and I’m always thinking of new things to include!
What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do?Enjoying what I do – my main aim was to be able to wear jeans to the office every day.
What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently? I wish I’d found out about some of the virtual assistant software that is available – it would have saved me a lot of time and money.
What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? Determination, self-belief and motivation.
So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?Go for it – get the plan down on paper, visit your local business gateway, ask everyone you know to help out, you’ll be surprised how helpful everyone is.