The first question I get asked is “how did you become self employed?” If you had told me five years ago I was going to be running a successful small business, I would have rolled my eyes and said, “Right, sure”. But here I am, five years on, remotely managing the private practices of two London-based ophthalmic surgeons.
The weird thing about it is that I wasn’t looking to set up for myself or even looking to work in the medical field, though I have an extensive background in it as a p.a.. What I was wanted was a job! Since moving to England in 2003, I’d had two part time jobs, neither of which I liked (dreadful working conditions and pay, terrible commutes to boot) but needs must when the bills need to be paid.
Then I came across an article in The Guardian newspaper online about the trend for remote working, specifically, virtual assistants. Technology had evolved to the point that you could do almost everything remotely that you once had to be on site for. The article mentioned an agency that specialised in virtual assistants, Timeetc., and having worked successfully via temp agencies in the past, I applied to become a V.A. with them. After a pretty rigorous vetting and interview process (which included of all things, an I.Q. test!), I was accepted.
I started by being second assistant for a London-based anaesthetist which led to an introduction to a woman who was a former Timeetc V.A. She had left the agency and was working solo as a medical p.a. She had one client who was keeping her busy and had an enquiry from another who’s work she felt she couldn’t take on.
Olivia introduced me to the client, he was happy for me to manage his practice and the rest is history. Since then, I have taken on a second client (introduced to me by my first client) who has the same specialist practice and now I could use an assistant!
Big question number two: isn’t it scary, going solo? Yes, it can be daunting, leaving what may seem to be the relative security of paid employment. But that has changed enormously since the 2008 recession and then the COVID19 outbreak this year. It was a terrible wake up call to see how, in just a few weeks, the world economy has came close to almost total collapse on two separate occasions and within a decade of each other.
To me, its is obvious there is no longer any such thing as security in the job market. You can as easily be out of work as an employee as you can being self employed and the only “job for life” is the one you create. Being self employed can also give you something you often do not have when you are an employee and that is control. When you are self employed, you are in control. And yes, control also brings with it it’s good friend responsibility. They come as a package, no other option there. But you decide who you want to work with, what your scope is and how many hours you want to do. It is also a prime opportunity to work in a field that you may have had an interest in for a long time, but were not able to enter for some reason.
Big question number three; how much do you charge for your services? Keep in mind that in my speciality as a virtual p.a., my clients are spared most of the costs that come with having a physical office. Those costs are on me and since I work from my home office, I calculate what portion of my monthly living expenses are related to my work to come to an hourly rate. The old saying “good help is hard to find” and is as germane now as it ever was, the escalating unemployment figures not withstanding. Don’t lowball your rate. If you are offering premium service, as you should be, you charge a premium rate. My clients practices are successful not just because they are excellent at what they do, but also because I run their businesses in such a way that patients want to see them, return to see them and will recommend them to others. Be prepared to work hard, to work longer hours and to be able to shift gears quickly. In other words, to become indispensable to your customers.
I’ve had no better indication of how well I’m doing being self employed than the fact that I could use some help!
Next big question is “how do I go self employed?”. If you are thinking about setting up your own business, I would advise starting with where you are now and where your career path has taken you in the past. Where were you happiest? Is it something you would like to continue to do or can do solo? Or would you like to go in another direction and jump into a different field? What will your set up costs be? Can you work from home or will you need premises? What will you need for supplies, equipment, stock etc… How will you pay your bills while you are getting established? I was fortunate that I wasn’t the main wage earner in the house so I didn’t have the worry of meeting expenses while trying to start a new business. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it is a hurdle that needs to be overcome.
Its important to keep in that there is no sick pay, paid vacation time or real time off when you are self employed. Your income can be higher or lower from month to month. So figure that into your calculations when deciding if self employment is the path you want to take. You are also responsible for filing your own income taxes and making sure your government pension and other contributions are kept up. It may be worthwhile consulting a good accountant initially to find out more. I don’t use an accountant right now, but did engage the services of one for a short time and he was an invaluable source of information regarding what you can and can’t claim as business expenses and what your obligations are to the Tax Department.
And last but not least, “do you ever regret being self employed?” Unequivocally, NO! Its not always easy, it can be frustrating, maddening and occasionally worrying, but NO. I can’t envisage ever being an employee again. I get far too much satisfaction from being my own boss and steering my own boat. Doubtless I have had a good dollop of luck to go along with my hard work. One introduction leading to another, but I had to take the first steps to establish myself and make connections.
I hope my story has inspired you to step out of your comfort zone and consider taking the helm of your own boat too!