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…
When new business owners are first starting out, there’s a massive tendency for them to try and do everything themselves. After all, their fledgling companies haven’t yet found their feet and any tasks they can do personally ultimately helps them keep costs down.
But it’s usually not long before these solopreneurs, or small business owners, realise that they need to let go; outsource the day-to-day tasks that are consuming their time; and focus on what they do best: driving their business forward.
So when a new client approaches me, I know it’s because they’ve reached the point where they know they need some help with their workload. Accepting the fact that they need to outsource some work is actually a crucial stage to reach.
However, while they know they need to take advantage of a virtual assistant’s services, they often find themselves in a catch-22 situation. That’s because they’re often too busy to take the time to explain exactly what they want their new VA to do. This is especially true if they’re new to outsourcing.
The bottom line is they’re busy and that’s exactly why they’re looking to hire a VA.
Obviously, there are certain tasks which are pretty standard across the board and don’t require much explaining. The majority of clients, though, have particular ways that they like things done; certain systems and methods which have become engrained in their routines.
Just because they’re going to outsource some of their tasks doesn’t mean they want them completed any differently. This is why it’s so crucial that they spend some time handing the tasks over properly.
If they don’t take the time to explain things properly, they often end up completing the tasks themselves (as they’ve always done). This defeats the object of having a VA in the first place and this is the outsourcing vicious circle I was referring to in the title of this post.
By taking some time to fully handover tasks, clients can break the outsourcing vicious circle and really make the most of their new VA.
It’s so satisfying for me to be able to help a client alleviate their workload and concentrate on their core business activities.
Even though I’m Jo Harrison, Virtual Assistant, I want all my clients to think of me in the same way they would a conventional assistant sat in the same office as them. My virtual desk is always ready for them to drop things on and having explained something once, they can turn their attention elsewhere safe in the knowledge that their tasks are being done just how they want them to be.
My decision to move to rural France back in 2011 was not one that I took lightly. It involved a huge amount of courage, but was made infinitely easier by the support I received from friends and family. I’m now enjoying a much better work/life balance than I ever have before and a lot of stress has been removed from my life.
But (there’s always a “but”, right?), while working remotely from home obviously has many advantages and perks, there’s also a side to it that many people don’t see or perhaps don’t consider. And that’s that it can sometimes get rather lonely. Couple this with the uncertainty that often comes with running your own micro-business and you can find yourself in desperate need of someone to talk to/vent at/bounce ideas off of.
The bottom line is that it’s bloody hard work to cope with all the pressures of being self-employed. I’ve got to manage my time effectively; handle peaks and troughs in work (and, therefore, cashflow); and deal with a degree of isolation. This is in addition to knowing that I have foregone the basic employment rights that regular employees enjoy, such as sick pay, holiday pay and access to a workplace pension scheme.
So, with all this in mind, here are my top three tips for overcoming the loneliness and uncertainty that working remotely can bring:
Make the most of video calls
Don’t just hide behind your inbox and fire off emails all day long. Skype, Facebook’s own built-in chat and Blab all offer a way for you to see your colleagues and clients, as well as talking to them.
It might not seem that big a deal, but it makes such a difference when you can see the facial expressions of the person you’re talking with. It’s often the closest you’ll get to experiencing that being in an office feeling.
Take regular breaks
Regular breaks are needed throughout the working day to give your mind and body a rest. In modern office environments, conscientious employers insist their employees take regular breaks, but when you work from home there is tendency to neglect them.
Even if you just get away from your computer for a cup of tea or coffee in the mornings and afternoons, and treat yourself to a proper lunch break, it will make you feel a lot more relaxed.
Customise your environment
The beauty of working remotely/from home is that you have total control over your working environment. If you’ve got photos of things that make you smile, make sure they are nearby while you’re working. The same goes for other creature comforts that make you feel contented.
My two dogs never fail to put a smile on my face throughout the day. Although we don’t all always agree when I’m bouncing ideas off them. Funny that…