Guest contributor Caroline Melville runs her own virtual assistant business, Virtually Sorted, which provides flexible, professional support to small businesses throughout the UK. She also runs the Society of Virtual Assistants, a UK resource for one of the fastest-growing industries in the UK. Caroline lives the virtual lifestyle herself, working between Glasgow and London and can be reached at www.twitter.com/virtuallysorted.
Three challenges for women starting their business
Jill asked me to write on the challenges facing women starting their own business, from my unique position of working in an industry which is 98% female (and I come from the male dominated music industry). As part of my role in the Society of Virtual Assistants, we discuss the common challenges women face in running their own business and the same three issues come up regularly:
Issue 1: Domestic Division
A recent National Office of Statistics Time Use Study showed that women still do the majority of household chores, spending over double the amount of time that men do in domestic drudgery. They are also spending significantly more time looking after children than men.
I couldn’t fathom how average women were spending 3 hours a day doing domestic chores, but then I have a cleaning lady and I’m clearly just not as house-proud as the average woman!
But I know from the VAs [virtual assistants] I speak with that their domestic partners often expect them to do a full day’s work and then get the dinner on the table too. And it’s especially hard for women working from home to convince people that they are actually working, so it’s not okay to pop round/arrange for a delivery at your house/call to chat for hours on end.
Strategy for domestic division issues: Have set working hours so that people know not to disturb you during the day and so that your full attention is on the task at hand and you get finished in time to enjoy the evening. That’s your responsibility to your family.
What is not your responsibility is making sure that everyone else sorts themselves out. Delegate tasks like making dinner, hanging up washing, vacuuming etc on a fair basis with your family.
Then, (and this is the important bit), leave them to it.
If you step in and criticize every time your partner does the washing up, he’s not going to do it. Ditto your son will learn extremely fast that his stinky socks don’t actually get up and walk into the machine, miraculously appearing back in his cupboard.
Yes, it will get bad. No it won’t kill anyone. But for your own sanity it’s best to have a home office with a door that you can close against the chaos.
If you are one of those neat freaks who literally can’t bear things to be messy, just get a cleaner. The £20/week or so it’ll cost will be more than outweighed by your increased work performance.
Issue 2: Thinking too small
80’s movies taught me that if you were successful in business you were either sleeping with the boss or a complete ball breaker in a power suit. I do neither – in fact, I am the boss and most days I wear jeans.
But girls are taught early on that ambition is a dirty word, whereas boys are actively encouraged to compete.
Many women in business don’t want to be the next Richard Branson – they simply want to do okay, earn a little bit of money and be able to balance their personal and professional lives.
But in a competitive economic climate, okay is mediocre and mediocre businesses fail.
Then all your good intentions about being there for when the kids come back from school go out the window, and you’ll be commuting two hours a day whilst the kids are in day care.
Likewise, women tend to be more risk averse in business.
They won’t invest in equipment or marketing or training to help their business grow, believing that it would be better to boot strap using a free website, home-printed business cards and a mobile telephone number.
Think about it: If you won’t invest in your business, why would a client?
Strategy for thinking too small in your business: (image Think Big by M-C, Creative Commons) If you aren’t moving forward, you’re going backwards. You need to plan what you are doing with your business and positively get in the driving seat!
Have a planned schedule, assigning time for marketing and developing your own business.
Write down at least three SMART (Specific, Measured, Attributable, Realistic and Timed) goals each month to challenge yourself.
Set annual finance projections and break these down into monthly and weekly profit targets.
If you can plan your business properly you’ll be able to predict when you can make those critical purchases or even convince a bank manager to loan you the money. Calculated risk is not dangerous.
Issue 3: Making business personal
My boyfriend works with his best friend and they will frequently do horrible things to one another as part of their working relationship. But at the end of the working day, they stop off at the pub and have a laugh – not a problem.
Women tend to make their working relationships personal which can be a double edged sword.
On the one hand, we build great relationships with our clients. But on the other, we’re not good at separating our feelings from tough business decisions. Things like: increasing prices, saying “No” to clients, or taking it personally when a client goes elsewhere.
Lay down the law: a story and good example
Time and again I come across virtual assistants who have not laid down the law, in an effort to appear “nice”, and ended up ruining their business as a result.
For example, I had one VA who had agreed to being at her desk for 8 hours a day without a break to answer calls…that’s not realistically possible! So the client wasn’t happy as she would typically phone when the VA stepped away from her desk, and the VA wasn’t happy because she was (quite literally!) tied to her desk all day. She couldn’t go out and get more business. She would rush eating lunch. She couldn’t even bank the cheque her client sent her, because she couldn’t get to the bank during office hours.
Strategy for viewing business as business (vs as personal)
I find that it helps if you think about your “tough stance” as being a long term help to your client e.g. if you have realized you need to put up your prices, rather than thinking “If I put up my prices Joe will be out of pocket” think instead “If I don’t put up my prices, I won’t be able to afford to market my services or continue in business and Joe won’t be able to afford to employ someone to do his admin.”
Remember, it’s not personal, it’s business.