Helen Jacobi is Director of The Inspired PA and winner of National Outstanding VA of 2012 in the over two and a half years in business category. She was an Executive Assistant for 20 years, working alongside boards of directors in large corporations and with successful entrepreneurs. In 2009 she took the plunge and started The Inspired PA, a virtual PA and business management enterprise that supports business owners and entrepreneurs.
Q: When did you set up the business and why?
A: I started in August 2009 having deliberated for ages over whether it was the right move, particularly as the economic crisis had just kicked in. While I was happy in my career, I always knew I wanted to run a business, but being fairly risk adverse it took me a while to step out there and make it happen.
Q: Did you have any major concerns when setting up the business or were you always confident that you could be successful?
A: Certainly financial concerns were important with no guaranteed income initially. I was confident the business idea could work, particularly in the economic climate as we help save businesses money and give them much needed flexibility in terms of how much support they need. Having had 20 years of executive PA experience in both corporate and entrepreneurial environments, I knew my skill set and experience would play a big part in how successful the business would be.
Q: How did you fund the venture?
A: The costs for setting up were relatively low as I’m home-based primarily. The key expenditures were networking, office equipment, branding and insurance.
Q: In an age of continually advancing technology, virtual assistants have become widely popularised, what do you think are the key reasons for this?
A: Businesses constantly evolve and how they are supported has evolved too. Technology is the enabler that helps everyone to work virtually. It is critical for any business to be adaptable, flexible and respond to change. The VA industry is the perfect support mechanism in that we provide professional support, but without the overheads such as office space, employee costs etc. Business owners are realising more and more that a VA can support their enterprise just as well as an in-house PA. I believe the VA industry has so much potential and the legs to carry on that journey.
Q: What is it that differentiates The Inspired PA Limited in the virtual PA industry? What is its USP?
A: Our strapline is: "Informed, involved, inspired" which sets out our stall in terms of how we work with clients. We specialise in listening to client needs, developing inspired solutions for them, underpinned by understanding how their business works. There is no one way of working with a client – businesses are as unique as people; no two are the same. It’s not a solution you can roll out to each and every client. Our experience is extensive which enables us to respond to client need.
Q: When working with entrepreneurs and start-ups have you ever encountered concerns over potential loss of privacy?
A: To be honest, it’s not been a problem. I absolutely love working with entrepreneurs and helping enable them to deliver their goals. I’ve always been happy to sign non-disclosure agreements with clients. The VA/client relationship is one of trust and that is fundamental to the success of the partnership.
Q: What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome these?
A: The biggest challenge has been knowing when to say ‘no’ and turn down a new client – and accepting that it’s OK to decline work. Also, there’s still quite a lot education needed in regards to letting people know about the VA industry and how it can benefit them.
Q: How much emphasis would you place on social media in terms of successfully marketing your business?
A: Social media has played a critical part in marketing the business, particularly utilising LinkedIn beyond purely connecting with people. With over 135 million subscribers you can pretty much find anyone you want to. Twitter is great too and has a very different dynamic to LinkedIn and other networking sites.
Q: In your opinion, what is the single most important characteristic that you need to possess in order to be successful in business?
A: That’s a difficult one! Fundamentally, listening to your clients’ needs and responding appropriately will see you on your way.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur and what are some of the disadvantages?
A: It always makes me laugh when people describe me as an entrepreneur! I’m not sure why but having always dreamed of running my own show, the reality and excitement of it still feels fresh. The disadvantages for me are around 'one on one' people contact which can be hard when you work on your own a lot. I love collaborating with others and sparking off their energy so it’s important to strike that balance and ensure I’m not too remote, albeit I work virtually.
Q: What are your business plans for the future?
A: I am in the process of growing the team by using associates who bring different skills and experience to my own. I’m also finding that I get really involved in business strategy and project management, which is an area that fascinates me so I’m looking at, and integrating those areas more and more so into the business. We already have several global clients which I am expanding, as time differences are less important when you’re virtual.
Q: What advice could you offer to other entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
A: Have faith in yourself first and foremost. It’s easy to get disillusioned when things don’t happen as quickly as you’d like, or you come up against a brick wall. Also, it’s absolutely fine to make mistakes – it’s how you learn from them that makes the difference.