I’ve never been one for only working with one gender, to me that’s not what equality is, so when father of four, Mark Smith, came on my radar in my VA trainer capacity I was thrilled to have him in the Private Members’ Club. I sat him down over a pub lunch to ask what it’s like being a male virtual assistant.
What’s your career background?
I worked in finance/payments for the best part of 16 years. I always wanted to be an accountant but quickly learned at 17 that it wasn’t for me and so I moved into payment processing and kind of stayed in that arena for all of my career. I started in the Co-op Head Office in Oxford and have worked for several companies, most recently finishing a 7.5 year stint at Cancer Research UK (CRUK) where I progressed from team manager to senior operations manager. Working at a charity is something everyone should experience at some point, it’s the most rewarding place I’ve ever worked and the people you work with are there for the cause first, money second.
How did your career change after having children?
Initially it didn’t change much at all as we were very fortunate to have grandparents living locally that could help out with childcare. However, as the kids kept coming (I have 4 daughters now!), sacrifices had to be made one way or another. Initially, I was missing the school drop-offs and the like as I ploughed hour after hour into my career, and then about 4 years ago I decided to shift my work/life balance the other way. I was able to do more of the school runs, never missed parents evening or sports days etc, however, it wasn’t quite enough – I wanted complete control over my time. It was for that reason I taught myself web design and SEO. This was the precursor to setting out as a Virtual Assistant.
Where did the idea for your business/venture come from?
Initially, I was going down the route of a web design & SEO agency, which is still actually a registered company. However, I like variety in my work so when I came across Catherine’s profile on LinkedIn (I don’t remember exactly how!) we connected and I started to read her content, including buying her first book, How to be a Virtual Assistant, and consuming it one afternoon in the sun. That was the clarity I needed to move into being a Virtual Assistant.
How did you move from idea to actually running a business?
I moved pretty quickly actually, I’m a bit like that. I get an idea, I run with it and then reflect on it afterwards. I was in a fixed term contract in my last 12 months at CRUK and so decided to leave at the end of it rather than find another job. I had around 3 months’ living expenses in place and just took the plunge. Being a web designer helped, I put my website up in a day or so and created all of my social media profiles too. Before I left CRUK I spotted a post from Catherine that mentioned a private members group… it’s not something I’d ever considered before and wondered why I should part with money when there’s so many free groups around? The answer to that was very clear in the first couple of weeks. A group, pre-populated with industry experts to answer our questions and an initial intake of other VAs in a similar position to me, just starting out or at the very early stages of their journey. I absolutely love the group and it’s so active! I’m regularly given a kick up the backside when I see posts from other members or when Catherine posts a challenge for us to complete.
What’s your USP?
I’m a bloke and, believe it or not, there aren’t many of us in this industry. Obviously my gender isn’t enough though, I also can’t see any other VAs that have my unique set of skills. I can build and rank websites as well as be able to develop just about anything in Excel, and everything in between. I have experience in podcasting, video production and content creation/strategy work. It’s a unique blend of digital and process improvement services.
Who’s your target audience?
I target those business owners that don’t possess the digital skills I do for my website and SEO services but for the rest it’s aimed more towards those that know about those skill but don’t have the time to do it all! AKA busy business owners!
I’m also considering niche-ing down to Virtual Assistants, they’re often busy business owners and also don’t possess all of the skills I do… hence my USP!
How do you spread the word about what you do?
I’ve been picking up my social media work more recently and have a podcast & YouTube channel in the making. LinkedIn seems to be the best place for my audience though, I’m just getting to grips with what content performs best on that platform through experimenting.
What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?
Honestly, word of mouth has accounted for most of my business so far. I’ve not long finished a website for someone in a random Facebook group too though, and I’m in discussions with a potential client that I found on LinkedIn. Marketing is a slog that’s for sure. Given my skills, organic search in Google is my long-term goal but SEO is a long process and so it’ll be a way off yet.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
My biggest issue is juggling the time spent directly going after new clients vs putting out regular content & marketing myself that way. It’s catch 22 and took me a while to get my head around. I also had a large retainer client when I first started that pulled the plug on our work for budget reasons and that was a big wake-up call not to rely on any one client for too much of my time.
And your proudest moment so far?
I think I’m really proud any time I turn a cold lead into a paying client. I’ve never been in sales and was worried about how I’d fare when trying to ‘close’ a deal. So far, I’m really proud that I’ve managed to pick it up well, I think I owe a lot of that to my career to date and being able to communicate well with just about anyone and explain things in a way that less technical people can still understand.
Why is work so important to you?
I’m really driven and always have been. I’ve worked ever since I was 15 and this is the first time I’ve never been employed by a company. The drive comes from a less than perfect upbringing and wanting better for my own children’s future. It’s important that I’m a role model to them too, the good things in life aren’t always free and if you want them without a mountain of debt then you need to work hard to obtain them.
Who inspires you?
Possibly a cliché I know but, Mark Zuckerberg, Simon Sinek and Gary Vaynerchuk are massive influences on me. Zucks mainly because of Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of him in the film Social Media I think, but the latter two, I’ve consumed almost everything they’ve ever put out there. I own several of their books and follow both on most social platforms. Simon’s Start With Why made me instantly a better leader in my career and Gary’s controversial, but accurate, advice on social media is both suffocating and inspiring in equal measures to me.
How do you balance your business with your family?
An awful lot easier now that I’m a full-time VA! My evenings (mostly) and weekends are for family time only and I’m free to work all day every weekday without distractions. I can do more school runs, the swimming & Brownies clubs with them, and it’s just nice to be involved in it all as a parent. Some guys are happy with the old-fashioned roles as mother & father but I want to be involved and want my girls to know that I made the time to be a part of it all as they grow up. Life is short and childhoods go so quickly, they’ll be adults before I know it and I’ll have all the time in the world to do other stuff.
What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?
- First and foremost, read Catherine’s first book. It gets you thinking about the services you should offer and how to go about finding clients.
- Secondly, surround yourself with like-minded business owners, it doesn’t have to be a paid membership but make it a small community that you can all bounce ideas off. The bigger groups aren’t that useful and usually span across the globe which is a hindrance.
- Lastly, don’t underestimate how much work goes into making a business work. It’s not for everyone and that’s ok. Be honest with yourself and if it’s too difficult or you’re struggling then get a job instead. Mental health is important and high levels of stress aren’t good for anyone, be good to your self.
Tell me about your home office set up…
I’m a tech geek at heart and so I have a custom built PC with dual monitors setup on a nice big desk in front of a huge window. I’m surrounded by more tech with a few Ikea special fake plants to brighten the place up a little. The TV is out of sight to avoid distractions and I’m left talking to Alexa most days, mainly just to change the radio station or to tell her to shut up when a call comes through!
Find out more about the services Mark provides over on his website: The Male VA
Still not sure whether running a business as a VA is for you? Where do you start? Start right here with my book How to be a Virtual Assistant, or if you’d like to work with me personally book a Power Hour.