The Five Pitfalls to Avoid When Starting Out as a Freelancer
Sarah Rugg took the leap from successful corporate banking career to freelance VA after the birth of her second child, and admits to having made every mistake possible. More than a decade on she explains how to avoid the pitfalls of starting up your own freelance business.
There’s little doubt that stepping off the corporate career ladder is scary. As a mum, finding your feet as a freelancer may remind you of your own toddler, a few faltering steps followed by a stumble. But as any toddler learns, keep getting back on your feet and you will soon be unstoppable!
When I decided to stand on my own two feet as a freelancer, I stumbled more times than you can imagine, despite spending months preparing for my exit from the corporate world.
I was consumed with questions like: what’s the best business to get into; how much should I charge; what do I do to market my business and – more often than not – can I really do this? The trouble is that every question generated multiple possibilities, and the only way I could find out if it would work was to take the first step and be prepared to fall on my bum! And fall I did – so many times.
As an organised person, with several years of corporate life behind me, I settled on becoming a virtual assistant or ‘VA’. It meant I could work from home, helping small and medium sized businesses with anything from admin support and diary management to travel arrangements and research.
Most importantly it would give me the balance I needed to look after my two children and earn an income.
Twelve years on and now with a team of 15 people, I am glad I made that decision. I’ve been there for the firsts – first steps, first words – for the kids’ sports days, school productions, and I can be at home when they are ill. I can be at the school gates at the end of the day and, importantly, still contribute financially to our family.
There is not the space here to go through every mistake I made, so I have honed it down to the five main ones.
Pitfall number 1
In all honesty, the first year was tough. I made financial mistakes, such as investing in marketing I thought would make the phone ring off the hook, only to find it didn’t work. Print adverts were the worst for me, but my targeting was terrible. I spent too long on branding and my website just didn’t work for me. If I had only known then what I know now, I would truly have hit the ground running.
The key to avoiding my mistake is to find someone who is in the same business as you, has successfully marketed their services, and then follow what worked for them as if it were a blueprint. You should be willing to invest when you set up, but you need to know that it will reap dividends. I’ve used my knowledge of what works to not only grow my VA business, but to help others grow theirs and it works a lot faster when you target your initial investments well.
Pitfall number 2
It’s difficult to know how to set your fees or pricing structure when you are starting out. My desperation to have clients meant that I agreed low rates. As a result I ended up working for peanuts.
Find out what people in a similar field to you are charging. As a rule of thumb, the more ‘niche’ your product or service, the more you will be able to offer specialist knowledge and charge more. When I advise newly starting out VA’s, one of the places we start is working out a niche and a pricing strategy. Remember it’s easier to lower prices than to put them up.
Pitfall number 3
My willingness to work for peanuts meant I got plenty of takers, which in turn meant I was run off my feet. My work-life balance went out of the window and I struggled to meet my family and clients’ expectations.
Start as you mean to go on. Be clear about how many hours are realistic for you and make sure you are recompensed accordingly. One of the advantages of being freelance is flexibility, but burning the midnight oil every night to manage your workload is a one-way ticket to burnout. I always advise new VA’s to plan a business that works for their lifestyle.
Pitfall number 4
Taking and following bad advice was definitely a huge pitfall for me. One of the things you discover when setting up your own business, or even when contemplating setting up your own business, is that suddenly everyone is an expert. From ‘get on Facebook’ to ‘give it up and get a job’, even those who have never ventured into self-employment will have plenty of ideas for you.
Find someone who has been there and bought the T-shirt, they really are the only people to listen to. Remember, what works for one business sector, may not work for another, so it really helps if your advisor is in the same business you are hoping to get into.
Pitfall number 5
Starting a business takes confidence. While you may love what you do, being self-employed means you must now become the marketer and sales person of your services. If the phone isn’t ringing, you have to get out there and sell yourself, and that takes confidence.
I have found that a lot of women in particular can lack confidence in their abilities – I certainly did. Hiring a coach or finding a mentor can be a great way of building your own self-esteem. In the My VA Business programme, for example, we have two coaches giving advice on how to boost your self-belief and create the right mind-set.
If you read through these pitfalls, it becomes clear that each one builds on the other. For instance, lack of confidence and poor marketing can lead to low rates and then long hours to make enough income.
When starting out in business, it is difficult not to make mistakes but a clear blueprint can help you dodge most of them. When setting up My VA Business, I distilled my personal knowledge and that of accountants, marketing experts, and coaches to create a how-to guide for setting up as a virtual assistant. If you would like more information on My VA Business go to: myvabusiness.co.uk/2min-quiz
Sarah Rugg is the founder of virtual assistant company Vi-Va. She recently launched a business-in-a-box called My VA Business myvabusiness.co.uk, which covers all the steps needed to set up as a virtual assistant. From company structures and invoicing through to branding, finding the right niche market, getting the correct mind-set and winning your first clients, My VA Business has it all covered. The business-in-a-box includes on-going support from Sarah and her team as well as a community of fellow VA’s.