In our latest edition of the Featured Freelancer, we learn from Imogen Allen what a Digital Virtual Manager is and get some valuable advice for anyone thinking of making the swtich from employed to freelancer. It’s also the best answer to the last question yet. Imogen set up her Staffordshire business in late 2015, and this is her story…
What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Imogen Allen and I am an Online Digital Manager. My business is called Umbrella Digital Media and I love providing clients with tech solutions and support. My specialities are in email marketing and design and in WordPress. I also love designing PDFs for clients to use for their freebie giveaways. My main aim is to magic away the tech overwhelm that a lot of clients have. I am going to be building my service to help clients with the tech side of Online Course building later this year as well as promoting my website building service too.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I started my business in December 2015. I set myself up as a Virtual Assistant and initially I was helping clients learn how to use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. I had become a “go to” person for Etsy and helped client’s optimise their Etsy SEO. Prior to that I ran a textile design business and built up all my knowledge of using social media myself and passed that on to fellow designers and artists. Although I loved creating textiles, I felt it was a difficult industry to make a living. I have always been interested in tech and systems and so I brought together my corporate professional hat (that I had acquired working in Wealth Management for Coutts for 15 years) and began to search how I could combine my professionalism, my love of tech and digital and allow for some creative freedom too and so, I became a Virtual Assistant.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
My family have always been incredibly supportive and they understand how I like to feel challenged, have direction and ultimately have an aim and a purpose. With 3 children between the ages of 17 and 4 and with a farmer husband, it was always an incredibly difficult option to return to any sense of 9 – 5 job. Although, it was not necessarily an easier option to be working from home (for lots of reasons) it suited me and my family better.
There were only a couple of friends that I could talk to about it and even then, I made it out pretty low-key. I think it can be very difficult for people to understand about the life you have being a freelancer and sometimes I find that people do not give it the credence that it truly deserves so I don’t tend to tell people about what I do unless I get to know them better! It is far easier to make connections with others in a similar working situation as they truly understand the life that it is. I have made some wonderful friends and connections whilst I have been freelancing, some online (and whom I have since met offline) and have worked collaboratively with them too.
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
I didn’t at first. I did research it though. Initially, I took a lot of guidance from Joanne Munro who runs the VA Handbook which is an online site and training resource for VAs and that gave me a tremendous start. I already had a small client base so that really got me started. As my business began to evolve, I made new connections and found other resources to help and guide me, such as the VA Trainer of the Year 2016, Amanda Johnson of VACT with her resources and VA training support. I networked online and offline. I moved onto taking a Business Mastery course with Business Coach and Digital Strategist, Laura Phillips, last year which gave me a whole new skill set and moved more into the digital services and saw me grow my business. In fact, it helped make a huge business pivot and refocus on new services, a new ideal client and leave behind some of the services that left me time and cash poor.
I have also used the services of the Enterprise for Success Program through Blue Orchid which covers my particular area (greater Birmingham and Solihull). This service is a Government and EU funded program to help start-ups and young businesses by giving qualified business support in many areas. They offer training courses and 1 to 1 sessions with a business advisor. I have found it to be extremely useful and resourceful.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
All of my clients are (or were, before we worked together) in a state of overwhelm about technology. Their eyes would glaze over when you talked about website plugins or an email design template. They all have one thing in common though and that is to get the ideas from inside their head into the mechanics of a system, whether it be through email campaigns, websites or creating PDFs for them. On the whole, my clients have been creative in one way or another. I have a wonderful artist whom I have looked after since the beginning and her business has flourished and grown since we have worked together. I have looked after business coaches, therapists and crystal healers too. Most of my clients have great ideas and I am the practical one bringing them down to earth and guiding them through the practicalities of making their ideas a reality.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
As a freelance VA, no single one of us is the same. I think that is what I love the most about the Virtual Assistant industry as each VA has their own specialism and strength. Many of us come from corporate backgrounds that blend in with other types of work so well. I seem to attract creative types as I can really understand their vision but I can translate that into practical terms for them. I am also an excellent listener and I when the client “fits” well, I am able to tune in really well with them and understand their needs. For me, it’s about having the right connection with your client and if it’s not the right fit, then it’s not right that we work together. Sometimes, potential clients may approach me and I may direct them to another freelance VA who I think they would have a better working relationship with who offer completely different services to me.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
Firstly, I absolutely love being a freelancer! I love being the CEO of my own business and making decisions that I need to and I love learning, so I am always learning all the time. I work too much though! I eat, sleep, breathe it and I defy any freelancer that doesn’t as it’s such an integral part of you and who you are. I do have to make myself carve out time to take a step back and stop when I’m tired so I try to switch off on a Saturday and Sunday, only returning to my desk on a Sunday night to prepare for the week ahead. You really are no good to anyone if you are exhausted and you definitely need to recharge and when you are recharged you are so much more efficient!
I work far more than I had anticipated and it is hard to juggle sometimes. I work when it suits me though, so if I need to catch up in the evenings, I do so but my clients don’t need to know that!
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
Without a doubt, it has to be LastPass. When you manage so many different software tools for your own business and then more tools for your client’s too, it’s an absolute must. There is no way now that I could keep up with every account I need to log into and then every account for my clients too. It also keeps everything safe and secure, so there’s never a need for anything to be written down for clients either.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
For me, I was already working from home on a small scale and as a family, we were not reliant on my income to run the house although we were financially stretched. I would certainly recommend that if you are currently in paid employment and are thinking of going freelance, then have at least 3 – 6 months’ worth of salary saved up before you leave your job. It took me a good 6-8 months before I was able to scale up to how much I now earn. You definitely need to invest in your business in the early days with training and resources too, so if you can make a nest egg, that will cover the times when funds are lean. One of the hardest things to get used to was the fluctuation in income. It is something that you do get used but you always have to keep your eye on your pipeline to make sure that you have projects lined up in the coming months ahead, to try and regularise your income.
I would recommend looking at any local council/Government/EU funding opportunities that are in your area too as they provide invaluable support for new businesses and if it’s funded, then you will get this kind of support free of charge.
My other top tip is to network offline and online. There is so much to learn from others in business in whatever industry they may be in. It is invaluable to make connections with other business owners. If you are working in an online industry, as I do, make sure you do get out to local networking events as well as not only is it great to meet other businesses in your area it is also good for your own well-being.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
The biggest thing I have learned is that it is ok to be yourself. I think it’s quite scary putting yourself out there on an online business and so learning how to build your confidence is a real skill. It was something I certainly needed help with. I have done things in my business that I never thought possible and I have amassed so much more confidence than I had this time last year.
The other thing is to network and help others. Give advice and help freely to others who are also on their own journey. It’s all about adding value. It can lead to great satisfaction in helping others to grow and maybe taking a bit of time to listen and help them overcome a problem, especially if you are in the same industry. It’s all about collaboration not competition, I believe. There is a place for every freelancer.
I also know that putting yourself forward and out of your comfort zone as a freelancer is almost a daily occurrence! I put myself forward earlier this year to enter the award for Best Newcomer VA 2017 and I am very pleased to say that I was awarded Runner Up Best Newcomer VA 2017 last month! (March 2017) It was something I decided to apply for and although t can be hard to put yourself forward for things like this, it can be ultimately rewarding if you are successful!
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
The best thing I enjoy is being in charge of my own destiny and making my own decisions. I also love the fact that I work with clients who are the right fit for me and my business and in turn, I am right for them. I don’t have to work with clients that don’t match my own core values and beliefs and I can make those decisions when I need to. I love the fact that I can be around for my family and the flexibility when I need it is brilliant. I am always around for a delivery or two as well, so that’s a bonus!
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
I sometimes do wish I could switch off but then I wouldn’t love it as much as I do. You definitely have to have the passion! I don’t enjoy having to do my accounts, so that is the first thing I am now able to outsource to an accountant this year.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
I would love to be able to retire my husband from his farming job at some point in the future and build a library of digital products that can provide me with a steady income to take the pressure off the income peaks and troughs! I would like to give back to others in some way and possibly when I have a bit more experience under my belt, I will find a way to impart the knowledge I have to others and help them on their own journey.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
If I had known back then what I know now, I would have become a freelancer sooner!
You can contact Imogen at: