This year is set to be one of the most productive years yet for me and my business. Late last year I decided to start moving my business forward which I’d been neglecting slightly due to the amount of client work I’d been tasked with. I have been so lucky these past 5 years that my business has grown from strength to strength. But one downside of this is I struggle to find the time to work on my business.
I was given a challenge last year by one of my great clients, Phil from Positive Sparks, on the podcast we do together each month. He knew that I had been wanting to publish an eBook and I’d told him about my plans to update my eBook Marketing eCourse and publish this as a Kindle eBook. I’d been meaning to get round to it for ages… but it was just something I kept putting to the back of the queue behind everything else. Phil pushed me to do it because he made me accountable to the podcast audience! In September I decided that I had to get this done before the end of the year.
I tasked my great graphic designer Ryan to design me a cover and my wonderful writer James to go over it and make some improvements to my writing (basically editing it). It all came together just after Christmas and it went up on Amazon Kindle as a pre-order ready for the New Year. It was published on the 9th January and has been fairly high up in some of the Kindle store categories since then. I already have 5 reviews, all 5 star!
The eBook is aimed at newly self-published authors who want to get a head start in marketing their books. Having worked with many many self-published authors over the last 5 years I understood that they needed most help in this area, so doing the eCourse was my way of helping them out for free. Now I’ve published the book I hope that it will help a lot more authors get on with their marketing.
But back to the productivity. I came across Mike Vardy before Christmas, he runs The Productivityist… I took his online course through Todoist (my new project management tool of choice) and found that I really liked some of the ways he worked. I also learnt some great new things I can do with Todoist to make my days more productive. I spent a good few weeks following Mike and really taking on some of his ways of working. The one thing which has helped me enormously is to theme my months. You can read a recent article from Mike here about his year in preview and how monthly themes work.
I themed January as ‘My eBook’ – that meant I chose to spend my free business time on my newly published eBook. That covered things like marketing it, getting reviews for it and generally finding ways in which I can get the word out there. I have had a fair amount of success, but I feel that just having that month concentrating on one goal really helped me get things done.
In fact January was a great month for me, I earn’t the most I’ve ever done in one month (in 5 years), got my eBook published and I have also been #1 of #811 on The Executive Secretary Top 250 Social Media Power List for two consecutive weeks! Not only that, I also helped #MicroBizMattersDay trend on Twitter (with my VA helpers) for pretty much the whole event on the 13th. I felt I needed a treat, so I bought myself a Fitbit, it’s very rare that I buy something just for me.
So back to monthly themes… my theme for February is going to be the eCourse (and also to create my new home office). I am going to use the eBook to get the eCourse updated, there is no point in having an out of date incentive on my website! As for the office, I have a lovely mezzanine area in my house which is currently where the cat hides from the dogs and does most of his living. This is the second warmest room in my house in winter, so I am going to totally redesign it and create a fab workspace with a reading nook (for the cat mainly, but for me too!). I will be taking photos when I get started so I can share the transformation.
I already have a theme for March, but that’s some news I’ll share with you later on.
My Facebook group has also been growing and we’ve even had some app/tool founders popping in offering our members a chance to try out their new apps/tools. The monthly podcast I do with Phil has also been great, and the last one we did in January I was really excited about my latest app Blinkist. I paid for this app, which I hardly ever do, so you can see how much I like it. Blinkist has over 1500 non-fiction books available to read, but in short bursts (blinks)… so you get the entire book in something you can read in about 15 minutes. I have been devouring books most nights and learnt so much, my library of books to read gets bigger every day! You must check it out if you want to read but don’t have time to.
Productivity is my theme for the whole year… what’s yours?
Those of you who know me will know that I absolutely love online tools and applications. I use them every single day and they’ve become a crucial part of my success when it comes to productivity and efficiency.
Now many of you may be thinking, I don’t use many online tools or applications, what’s Jo talking about?
But I guarantee you all use more than you might think.
That’s because you’ll have taken for granted many of the tools/apps you use on a daily basis, but without them your working life would be considerably different.
If you use an online email service, such as Gmail, for managing your emails and Facebook for elements of your online marketing efforts, you’re absolutely taking advantage of online tools and apps.
Monthly Online Apps/Tools Podcast
In fact, my huge fondness of online apps and tools is the subject of a monthly podcast with the lovely Phil Byrne, strategic director at Positive Sparks.
Each month, Phil and I discuss our top/favourite online tools and apps for the month.
Our latest podcast (link at the bottom of this post) focuses on some apps you might not have heard of.
For example, we discuss RSS tool Feedly, which I started using when Google Alerts was pulled, and has now become my go-to app for content curation. I won’t give too much away as I want you to listen to the podcast (obviously), but I will say that Feedly has transformed how I curate content for both myself and clients.
I also talk about an app that I signed up to ages ago, but never got round to using. It’s called Zapier and it’s an app integration platform that is similar to If This Then That in nature, which I’ve talked about in a past blog post.
I’ve so far created several ‘zaps’ as they’re known and it’s turning out to be a really useful tool. It integrates with loads of other apps that I already use and has bags of potential.
Phil also talks about YouCanBook.me and Niume, an intriguing content sharing system that I previously hadn’t heard of, but sounds like it could be a great collaboration tool.
Join my Facebook Group!
I try to share my penchant for online apps and tools with as many people as possible whenever I can because I know how many benefits some of them can bring. That’s why I recently created a Facebook group in which people can talk about just that.
It’s called Online Productivity Tools & Applications and it’s open to anyone. There are only a few rules, the main one being that no spam is allowed. Other than that people are free to post links to their favourite apps or online tools that they use and discuss the numerous benefits they afford.
I’d love for you to become part of the group because I really do think it provides a lot of value. Even if you learn about one new tool or app a month it will have been worth it.
You can find our favourite apps/tools for October podcast here. Be sure to subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss out on any in the future.
And here are the links to the apps we talk about:
When I first started my Virtual Assistant business back in 2011, I needed all the help I could get. Here I was running my own company for the first time and in a foreign country to boot.
At that time, business books were very important to me. They still are now, but back then in particular I gleaned a huge amount of information from them and was able to successfully build my own business.
Here are my top five must-read books for freelancers:
First up on my list of must-read books for freelancers is Freedom from Bosses Forever by Tony Robinson OBE.
Now I should start by telling you that it’s a satirical book. But that absolutely does not detract from the value it provides. In fact, for me, it enhances it. Think of it as a serious book about small business development written in a cordial and easy to understand style.
If you want honest, relevant business advice, which is straight to the point and easy to digest, I highly recommend Freedom from Bosses Forever.
The thing I like about Christopher Briggs’s Your Business Foundation is that it’s obviously been written by a guy who’s been there, done that, and got the T-shirt several times over.
Unlike many other business-focussed books, Your Business Foundation provides straightforward advice and assistance, without losing its messages in over-heavy business speak.
As well as all the advice in the book about the best foundation on which to build your business, there’s also a namesake website which has even more tips and information on top.
If you’ve recently started or are thinking of starting a new business, New Business: Next Steps is the perfect all-in-one guide for you.
Ann and Ed clearly have a great deal of knowledge about setting up and running businesses, which they translate very clearly in New Business: Next Steps.
Moreover, the numerous case studies and examples make the information that it provided easy to remember and practical.
As its name suggests, Get Clients Now! helps you get new clients. Even though I first read it awhile ago, I often refer back to it if I need to get some new clients.
The advice is easy-to-follow and genuinely works. So much so that I tend to follow it for a week or so and then put it down because I’ve already got all the new clients I wanted. It’s that simple!
If you’re an entrepreneur, solopreneur or micros/small business owner, Get Clients Now! should be your marketing bible. Because without clients or customers, your business isn’t going to be the success you envisaged.
Again, this is a book I first read years ago, even before I knew I wanted to start my own business. Nowadays, I refer back to when I need a bit of inspiration.
Richard Branson has always been a hero of mine and when you read Losing My Virginity you’ll realise that he has succeeded through sheer grit, determination and guts.
Don’t be put off by the fact that this is a 500+ page book. Once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down – at least I couldn’t anyway.
The allure of answering to no one (except ourselves) and being “free” from the invisible restraints placed on us by working for someone else is what drives many of us to fulfil our dreams of becoming a freelancer.
But while freelancing affords a lot of benefits for many of us, like getting to choose our own hours; working from home when we feel like it; and being able to select our clients, unless we manage our time effectively, our long-term business survival could be placed at risk.
That’s why as freelancers, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, whatever you want to call us, we’ve had to learn to work in a way that allows us to utilise our time to its fullest.
How many of these freelancer time management habits do you use?
1. Remain Focussed on Social Media
As a Virtual Assistant, social media plays a huge role in what I do on a daily basis. Whether it’s posting updates on behalf of a client; creating a new profile/page; or responding to messages, I need to logon to the most popular social media sites regularly.
However, as you’ll probably already know, social networks, like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, contain A LOT of potential distractions. The urge to just quickly check your own feed can lead to huge portions of your time getting consumed, and that’s why you need to stay focussed on the task at hand.
2. Remove Distractions
Social media is a great example of a digital distraction, but what about all the ones that exist in your working environment? Kids, pets (dogs and a cat in my case), a TV, and many other things can chip away at your “work time” unless you take a conscious stand not to let them.
It’s absolutely possible to achieve a better work-life balance as a freelancer (I’ve done it), but you need to be regimented and make sure your day is definitively split into work and leisure times.
3. Italian Tomatoes
Yes, you read that correctly: “Italian tomatoes”. Who’s heard of the Pomodoro Method? The term is thought to have been coined in the late 1980s, and works on the premise that having a fixed amount of time to complete a task makes us work more efficiently.
For example, how many of you have accomplished five hours of work in a four-hour time frame before? And how many of you, when given 10 hours to complete the same amount of work, have used all 10 hours? That kind of sums up the Pomodoro Method, which sees us work faster when constraints are placed upon us.
Try working for 25 minutes straight at a time and then having a five minute break; a break completely from your work – far away from your desk if possible.
Ever seen those tomato-shaped kitchen timers? “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato 🙂
4. Learn to Say “No”
Pleasing people is in all of our natures, but unfortunately we cannot do it 100% of the time. If we can’t say “no” when we really need to, our relationships with our clients and our families both stand to suffer.
Promising a client something at short notice, when you’ve got lots of other work on, will often lead to one of your clients being disappointed. Likewise, if you overcommit yourself and literally don’t have enough hours in the day – even with the Pomodoro Method – your precious family time could be sacrificed.
5. Remember, You’re the Boss
The only way to succeed as a freelancer is to establish a system that works for YOU and inform all of your clients about said system, so that they know exactly what to expect when entering into a working relationship with you. If you don’t do this, your clients will expect you to work how THEY like to work and that’s not going to do either of you any good in the long-term.
If you don’t work weekends, tell your clients that from the very start. Failure to do so could lead to them expecting a reply on a Sunday night that they’re never going to get.
If you don’t manage your time effectively, it will slip away in front of your eyes. You wouldn’t be so careless with your cash, so don’t do it with your time.
Being my own boss is great. It allows me to manage my time however I want, and that enables me to do a lot more of the things I enjoy in life. In fact, since I moved to France back in 2011, my work/life balance has been better than at any other point in my life.
However, being a professional virtual assistant isn’t without its challenges, and one area that I have had to give special consideration to is the need for client contracts.
Many freelancers – especially those just starting out – often overlook the importance of having some kind of contract with their clients. I know I did! Luckily, several of the virtual assistant training courses I completed highlighted that client contracts were nothing short of a necessity, and I’ve used them ever since.
It can be very tempting to overlook the paperwork when you’re in talks with a potential new client. Both of you are inevitably excited and singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of what you want to achieve, and there is a massive urge to want to jump in and get to work. This kind of enthusiasm is natural and definitely isn’t a bad thing, but you must make sure you get a few small formalities out of the way first.
Everyone I’ve had the pleasure of working with so far as a virtual assistant has been honest. Let’s face it, in an ideal world we’d never need contracts for anything. The reality, though, is that we don’t live in an ideal world, which is why contracts are used throughout our daily lives.
Here are a few reasons why contracts are so important for freelancers today:
Contracts protect you
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been extremely lucky with all my clients, but not everyone is. Non-payment is the biggest issue faced by many freelancers and without a watertight contract there’s little recourse for them.
Late payments are also a problem, especially when you are living on a carefully-calculated budget and have bills to pay on specific dates. Your service providers expect you to pay them as per your contract and that’s why you should expect the same from your clients.
Some freelancers also find that when they eventually do get paid the amount isn’t what they were expecting. Their clients have seemingly made adjustments, and the lack of a binding contract has enabled them to do so.
Contracts protect your clients
It would be wrong to think that contracts should only be put in place to protect the freelancer. All of our business relationships are two-way affairs, and that’s exactly how contracts work.
I’ve heard many stories where a client hired the services of a freelancer and ended up high and dry because the project was left unfinished, or the end result was completely different from what they expected and ultimately served no purpose for them.
The whole situation is made even worse if the client also loses money in the process. It could mean they are unable to hire someone else to complete the project and it leaves a bad taste in their mouths about working with freelancers.
Contracts boost your credibility
We all like to think of ourselves as consummate professionals. So why would you even consider entering into a new client relationship without a contract?
By starting every new project off on the right foot with a contract in place, you are automatically showing your client that you take your responsibilities seriously and that you mean business. It affords a sense of reassurance and sets a professional tone for your relationship going forward.
While a contract might not be able to prevent bad things from happening or relationships going sour, it will stand you in a stronger position should the worst happen.
As a final point, it’s always best practise to get any contracts that you are considering using checked over by a legal professional to ensure they cover every aspect you need them to. As contracts get edited to suit different purposes, they sometimes lose their enforceability, which is something that can’t be fixed after the event.
Have you ever had any problems with clients, which may have been okay if you’d have had a contract in place? I’d love to hear about your experiences…