Virtual reality

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For Kathie Thomas, founder of A Clayton’s Secretary and pioneer of the ‘virtual assistant’, the decision to leave her successful corporate career behind came down to three things: recognition, a steady stream of appointments and a desire to be at home for her family.

“Life was crazy,” she recalls. “After 22 years, I was fed up with being so busy in meetings that I couldn’t even get actual work done. My daughters were no longer in after-school care and I’d have to call home every day at 4pm to issue instructions, ensure homework was being done and referee arguments!”

Winning a Member of the Year state award for the Institute of Professional Secretaries Australia back in 1993 provided Thomas with some inspiration. Part of the prize pack was an early version of Office Suite 2.0, the software that inadvertently provided Thomas with a final catalyst for change. 

“I kept looking at the software thinking ‘I have a computer at home. I could use this to start a business’.”

The seed of thought grew, and just six months later, A Clayton’s Secretary opened its virtual doors for business. 

In the early days, Thomas found it impossible to keep up with the demand for her services, so she sought out others with the same skill set and access to computers to help her take on the extra work. 

In fact, A Clayton’s Secretary effectively founded Australia’s virtual assistant network. A home-based secretarial support network, the business currently has more than 230 active virtual assistants, all of whom work on a self-employed basis, providing a wide range of outsourced office support. 

Today, with membership in 16 countries, best selling books, training programs, presentations and even a “bootcamp” in the works, it’s hard to believe that Thomas’s global success was born in the pre-internet era, at a time when home-based secretarial services carried a certain stigma. 

“Many people wondered why I charged a reasonable fee for what was perceived to be a hobby,” Thomas explains. “ But I had a keen interest in my clients and one-on-one relationships are important. In a larger organisation, you may have any number of people dealing with the one client. When you are on your own and it’s a very small business, you get to know what your client is about and you can provide them with the best possible service.”

Making the connection

The challenge of managing other people’s misconceptions became less so as the years passed and industry credibility increased. However, Thomas notes that some of her initial challenges still exist today.

“Discipline, motivation and initiative applies to anyone operating a home-based business,” she explains. “Isolation and depression are also a problem, but there are so many internet discussion forums that home-based operators can connect to help one another and share resources and ideas – even clients!”

Connectivity rates highly on Thomas’s checklist for success, and she warns against subscribing to the “glorified idea” that home-based business means one can lounge about in their pyjamas in front of the computer all day while the work comes flooding in. 

The ability to be proactive in terms of promotion and marketing is an essential rule of the home-based game, and the winners know how important it is to be responsible for their own continual learning, development and interaction in their chosen industry. 

“I did a lot of networking in the first few years and I still do today, but in a different way,” explains Thomas. “ Back in the early days, I attended every networking event that I could, armed with business cards. I still have business cards with me all the time – in the car, in bags, in pockets. People will not know you exist if you don’t find where your clients are and then actually mix and mingle with them. It’s probably the most important aspect of developing your business.”

Focus on systems

Once Thomas’s home business started to develop and the work began to roll in, it was the systems that ensured smooth day-to-day operation.

“I realised I was doing repetitive stuff and I needed to streamline and improve my use of time,” says Thomas. “My mind is always working on what systems I am adding to improve or make things better,” says Thomas. “I’m always reading information online and in magazines in order to pick up new ideas and then applying, or modifying and then applying, things I think will work well for me. I’ve been in business for 15 years now and that’s something I’ve done from day one.”

Thomas says systems have given her the best possible chance at making her business work. 

“It’s about being able to structure my time and being able to plan things,” she explains. “I have been working with a business coach for three years and now I have a system in place where every Friday is reserved for general admin and bookkeeping. It’s so important to stay on top of admin, because the time will come when you really need to draw on it, like when you are in the middle of a big client’s project and you can’t afford to become distracted.”

Thomas believes business owners can prepare themselves by learning as much as possible. 

“Learn from the mistakes of other home businesses. Learn from their experiences and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she advises. “Join networking forums or discussion groups, but don’t be like a bull in a china shop and race around trying to promote. Rather, you should sit back, learn and listen. You can learn so much about how to put systems in place that work for you, so rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, you should try and learn from those who are already doing it in your industry.”

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