This week we say bonjour et bienvenue to our Featured Freelancer, Jo Harrison, who started her freelancing journey, as a Virtual Assistant, in August 2011. Now based in France, Jo (who I originally met at MicroBizMattersDay 2016) credits freelancing for transforming her health and happiness, and also doesn’t consider other VA’s as her competitors. This is the story of Jo’s freelancing journey so far…
What is your name and what do you do?
Hi! I’m Jo Harrison, a professional Virtual Assistant based in a beautiful, rural part of France (although I’m originally from the UK).
I’ve got a pretty wide remit, but the main areas I focus on for my clients are social media, marketing, WordPress and author services (eBook formatting and promotion).
I do everything from content curation to social media post scheduling and publishing blogs to designing and managing email campaigns. I also do a lot of book formatting – something that started out with just Kindle eBooks, but which has grown to include print books too.
I’ve recently got involved with some big Adwords and Facebook advertising campaigns. In fact, I do a bit of everything!
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I took voluntary redundancy from my programme coordinator role at a UK University in 2011 which enabled me to become a freelancer. It’s certainly one of the two best decisions I’ve ever made – the other was moving to France.
I found working as an employee very difficult. My introverted nature meant that I often felt stressed and I didn’t enjoy my work as much as I should have. That’s why when the offer of voluntary redundancy with a year’s salary as a payout came along, I didn’t think twice.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
I got a lot of support from family at the time, and there were a couple of friends who were considering doing the same, so it was fun to meet up with them and discuss our plans.
I think there were some people who thought I was mad, but you always get that, whatever you do in life. I find that you have to have a particular mind-set to be a freelancer.
Recently, I have been talking to a close friend about her work, and also my partner about what he’d like to do. I often suggest they look at starting a business, but they don’t really consider it an option for them.
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
I left my regular job on the 31st July and dived straight into things on the 1st August. I went to a couple of networking events at the local Chamber of Commerce, and did a lot of research online, but I wouldn’t say I used any ‘professional resources’ as such. At the time I started I was also planning a move to France, so as well as looking for clients I was also researching about the logistics of setting up a business in France.
When I settled in France and really began to build the business and market my services, I took a couple of courses – something in social media and I also used a forum (virtualassistantforums.com) to get answers to some of my questions.
I do everything online. That’s because I don’t speak French all that well so have tried to avoid doing any face-to-face networking with small business groups over here.
I was a member (and later on the board) of an association called Les Dames de FER, which was set-up to help women in business in rural France. Unfortunately, the founder died of cancer in 2015 and the association just couldn’t continue as a result. There is a Facebook group that myself and many other women use here in France, for business related help, it’s called Ladies in Business in France and it has well over 2,500 members. If you need any kind of support, there is always someone who can help.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
I have a very mixed bag of clients. On one hand I have my regular monthly retainer clients who I consider to be more like friends. Of those clients, most of them I have been working with for well over 2 years. I work with coaches (in a variety of professions), marketing and healthcare professionals, as well as ad-hoc clients who can be anything from yoga instructors and herbalists to musicians. I also work with a lot of writers and self-published authors, with the odd New York Bestseller thrown in occasionally. It really is a mixed bag, and I like it!
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
I don’t really consider other virtual assistants as competitors. We all have our own skill sets and we each offer services that the others don’t. I can only go by what my clients say to me, and that is that I know a lot more than I offer; I’m very easy to work with; and I get things done – usually ahead of deadlines.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
Yes I think it is what I expected. I didn’t know any freelancers when I started out, mainly because it wasn’t as popular as it is now, so I had no real idea how it would be. I knew I would need to work hard to be able to earn the same money as I did in my previous job, but with the redundancy lump sum behind me I had a bit of breathing space to be able to get to grips with things.
At first, I worked a lot, especially when I moved to France and the money started to go down. I was determined that it was going to work out and I needed to work as many hours as necessary. I didn’t want to move back to the UK. Now, not so much… I work less hours than I did in my previous job and certainly have more flexibility. I also don’t have a 2.5/3 hour commute each day to my desk.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
Apps and tools are my thing at the moment. I am always trying out new ones and even do a monthly podcast with one of my clients about our favourites. Plus I have my Facebook group – Online Productivity Tools & Applications – which keeps me up to date with the latest tools and apps out there.
As for choosing one, well I’m not sure I can! Obviously, I couldn’t run my business without the Internet, so that’s pretty important… but I guess if I have to choose one, it would have to be LastPass. Passwords – my own and clients’ – are really important and must be kept safe and secure. I daren’t even check how many I have saved in there! I certainly couldn’t work productively without it as it saves me masses of time.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
Do your homework, spend time dipping your toe in the water and connect with other people in your line of business. I didn’t do a lot of networking face-to-face, but I did on social media, and that’s where I got most of my support from early on. Join groups and forums – Facebook has some great groups now for virtual assistants, so there is always someone who can answer a question, whether it’s big or small.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
I work better alone. In all my previous jobs I had been somewhat forced to work in a team, and since starting my own business I realised that I’m an introvert. Don’t get me wrong, I work with some really great clients, and we work as a team on their projects, but they’re not in my house and I don’t have to have face to face meetings with them on a daily basis.
I was once sent for counselling after a bout of sickness in my previous job, and the counsellor said to me, “you’re not sick, you’re sick of work”. I still to this day think in a way she was right, but I was just sick of working in those environments. I love working now (for myself) and I’ve not taken a day off sick in 6 years!
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
The flexibility. I love being my own boss, not having to commute to work each day and being in a job I don’t particularly enjoy. I can walk my dogs when I feel like it, I can have a 2-hour lunch break if I suddenly become all French and I don’t usually have an alarm wake me up each morning.
Flexibility is so important, and I believe it’s this that has improved my health since I became a freelancer and also seriously reduced my stress levels.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
The least enjoyable thing, and possibly what most freelancers say, is not always knowing when the next pay check is coming. Yes, you have your regular clients, but things change sometimes and that regular income you get each month might suddenly go away. It’s happened to me on a number of occasions, and when it happens you think it’s the end of the world, but then you get through it. It’s the only thing I miss about being an employee and that is knowing what day you will be paid each month and usually exactly how much it will be. Budgeting as a freelancer really isn’t all that straightforward, and it can be pretty stressful some of the time.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
My goal as a freelancer is to live life to the full, earn enough money to cover my expenses and be comfortable. I would ultimately like to grow my business in the coming years just to take some of the financial stress off, but if that doesn’t happen, as long as I have what I have I will be happy.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
I wish I had known how great it was so I could have done it sooner… seriously, you have ups and downs in business, but being a freelancer has transformed my life completely in both health and happiness.
To connect with Jo, visit the following sites:
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