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Virtual Assistant Nightmares

With Halloween just round the corner, I thought I’d tell some spooky stories about being a virtual assistant.  When I ask VAs to think about the scariest thing they can imagine, the same things pop up – and it’s often these things which stop them from ever starting as a VA.  So I’m going to drag the monsters out from under the bed and let them see the cold light of day…

VA Nightmare: I might go bust…

When you think of a business going bust, you imagine repossessed homes, credit card debts and huge amounts of stress.  However, most VAs aren’t going to invest in loads of expensive equipment or premises, so your set up costs won’t be that high – we reckon most VAs can start up on under £1,000 these days.  It’s sensible to start small and bootstrap your way into building your client base and quitting your job (a lot of VAs start by working evenings/weekends or even arrange to go part-time with their existing jobs whilst starting the business).  You might lose your start up capital plus a few months’ wages.

The reality of a VA business going bust is usually just that the VA has decided to go back into a proper job – it’s not very dramatic!

VA Nightmare: What if my client doesn’t pay up?

This one is a bit of a nightmare, but it can be somewhat mitigated by making sure you don’t allow clients to run up big lines of credit.  Ask them to pay upfront, get a deposit or simply bill them regularly in small amounts.  These days with so many payment options, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t be paid within 7 days for any business invoice – don’t offer upfront credit if you can help it.  Having a robust credit policy can really do wonders for your cashflow, as the vast majority of late payers are merely forgetful not malicious.

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Secondly, if they don’t pay despite reminders, you can’t afford to do business with them and bankroll their business till they decide to pay.  Kiss goodbye to that client and make sure you get the money back.  The Small Claims Court is very useful in recovering money where a business has assets (car, premises, cash in the bank account).  You’ll need to provide proof they ordered the work at the agreed price and proof that you delivered it.

VA Nightmare: I don’t know anyone in business…I’ll never get any clients

A very common nightmare.  Those first 5 clients are the hardest to get, but you’ll often find them in amongst friends, family and former employers.  Tell everyone what you are doing – your hairdresser is most likely self-employed, so is the taxi driver who picked you up from town the other day – there are small business owners everywhere, so make the most of your interactions with them.  Get on LinkedIn and fill in your CV, connecting to all your former workplaces – quite often you’ll find former work colleagues have struck out on their own and may need some help.  They will already know, like and trust you from your old job.  Don’t discount converting your current employer to a virtual client either – lots of VAs started out this way!

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VA Nightmare: What if I mess up and my client sues me?

10 years ago when starting up, I was despatched to our family lawyer for legal advice by my dad.  When I explained that I wanted to offer admin services to people on a freelance basis, doing stuff like bookkeeping, marketing emails and updating websites, his face turned purple and he looked like he was about to have a heart attack.  The level of risk involved he said was immeasurable… I would be sued from here to eternity if I made a mistake!

So I fired him and got a proper lawyer.  We sat down and I explained what I wanted to do.  He acknowledged there was some risk – it would be important to indemnify myself against any mistakes by putting the onus on the client to check all final work.  And then he pointed me in the direction of professional indemnity insurance too.

It’s inevitable that there will be mistakes – you are only human.  Make sure you have solid terms and conditions/contract in place for each client and that you have appropriate cover.  The level will vary depending on what you do (e.g. medical secretaries making a typo could kill someone, a VA posting a typo in a blog isn’t terminal!).  Check out Policy Bee for cover.  As a sole trader, insurance isn’t required, but can often be beneficial.

VA Nightmare: How can I compete with Offshore VAs charging $4 an hour?

The short answer is: You can’t.  It’s a bit like saying that the Mercedes dealer is in competition with the second hand car lot round the corner – they have two separate distinct markets of car buyer so they aren’t in competition.  See our review of offshore assistants here.

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VA Nightmare: Technology is evil!

VAs rely so heavily on technology that there’s really no excuse for not anticipating problems with it – broadband will fail, the motherboard will melt, Word will decide to delete half your documents and remove random spaces from the rest (or is that just me?).  You need a disaster recovery plan, the cornerstone of which should be a robust automated back up of all your data.  This should be checked for validity at least every quarter and you should also keep a note of any passwords/logins that you might need.

It’s a good idea to have a back up workspace too – a spare computer in a different location.  That way when BT mysteriously cuts all phone lines to your house/a brass band strikes up outside/your computer decides to die, you can relocate on the laptop with your dongle to Starbucks down the road without any interruption in service.

VA Nightmare: I’m so alone…

VAs often come from a busy office background, so it’s hard adapting to the stillness of working alone.  Turn the radio on, click onto the SVA Forums, and do make sure you occasionally leave the house…  I have regular lunch dates with Emma who does our phone answering, Alan the Geek (guru of all technology), and I’m fortunate that my husband also works from home.

 Does it seem less scary?  What was your VA nightmare?


  1. Tammy Pritchard on 22 October, 2014 at 6:06 am

    Great post, Caroline! Very encouraging, and helps to keep things in perspective during those tentative start-up days. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Dawn Lane on 24 October, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    IT scares. My new laptop, bought for the business, died 6 months after I started losing everything on it. Fortunately I only had my ‘stuff’ on it but it taught me to ensure evrything was backed up.

    I now keep nothing on my PC but on Dropbox and back that up with Packrat, and back all that up through iDrive.

    Belts and braces…

  3. Debra Roberts on 27 October, 2014 at 5:31 am

    I made the mistake once of doing a days work (training) on an email rather than a contract, and didn’t get paid…. Valuable lesson learnt.

    • Caroline on 27 October, 2014 at 9:18 am

      Ah yes, the “if you work for free, I’ll give you lots of work”… Hmmm… That’s a whole other post right there!!

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