Lilach Bullock wanted some work life balance, but felt she needed to use her skills. She is now head of a thriving virtual assitant business and predicts this type of working is the future. Mandy Garner spoke to her.
Lilach Bullock was a training manager at her company when she got pregnant with her daughter, now aged four and a half. Her company wouldn’t let her go part time so she left to work two days a week as a secretary. It wasn’t challenging enough. “I felt it was not fulfilling and it was not utilising my skills and that there must be another way,” she says.
In 2006 she found that other way. She set up asklilach, a website offering virtual assitant services and joined the growing number of women who are setting up their own businesses in order both to use their skills and work in a way that suits their family. Within 10 days she had her first client who she found online via a social networking site. Virtual assistants offer all kinds of office support on a pay-as-you-go basis, from answering phones and typing up documents to event management and the full gamut of personal assistant duties.
Lilach works from her home in Hemel Hempstead, but the business has expanded to such an extent that she is running out of room. “ I do feel bad if I have to put people in the kitchen,” says Lilach, who now employs three people full time, including her own PA, so she can focus on client work and running training courses for would-be virtual assistants. She also outsources ad hoc work if she needs to, but says all her client work is done in house. “It is getting very, very busy,” she said, adding that she had had to get a temp in the other day. She is looking at moving into an office and recruiting more staff as a result of her success.
“I never expected this to happen,” she says. “It is quite overwhelming, but very exciting. I wish I had done this before I had my daughter.” The secret of her success is preparation. She researched her market thoroughly from the start and is continually researching how to develop it and revising her business plan to stay ahead of her competitors. She uses social networking to build relationships and says this has resulted in a lot of referrals and recommendations.
Lilach, who was shortlisted in the National Virtual Assistant of the Year awards in April 2007 less than a year after she started up the business, was a finalist in a national mumpreneur awards in 2008 and attended the award ceremony at Downing Street.
She says she works a lot of evenings to fit around her daughter, Emily, who has been in school full time since January. Lilach picks her up from school and, although she sometimes attends networking meetings in London and does training seminars there, she says she makes a point not to do breakfast meetings so she can be with Emily in the mornings. She has developed the business methodically over time and now provides a lot of advice for others thinking of starting up as virtual PAs – for instance, there are e-books and a toolkit which she sells online. She also does one to one mentoring and runs teleseminars as well as group workshops. Some of her clients are based abroad.
She says there is a huge increase in the number of people wanting to set up as virtual assistants. The week we talk she has done three one to one mentoring sessions. Her main focus is on how to get clients, how to market yourself and how to raise your profile. “ Most of the people I train have worked at board level, but they need help getting clients,” she says. “I teach them all my secrets.”
A lot of her clients are women who have had children or are pregnant, but she is also getting quite a few people who have been made redundant, including men.
She says awareness of virtual assistants is growing among businesses. When she started, people didn’t know much about them and she was constantly having to explain the concept behind her business. “A lot of businesses didn’t understand the benefits,” she says.
She predicts virtual assistants are one of the businesses that will profit from the recession as companies look at ways to cut back. Virtual assistants mean there are no National Insurance payments or holiday/sick pay to consider. For small businesses, space might be an issue and virtual assistants save on overheads. Clients only pay for when they need to use a virtual assistant as they charge per minute, using a computer-based clocking in and out system.
“It is very cost effective,” she says. “They literally only pay for the time that they are using.” Several of Lilach’s clients are mums who have set up their own businesses and she says they need PA support to free them up and to expand. She also points out that she employs only high calibre people, although she says handling recruitment and management are among the main challenges of running her own business.
But she is nothing if not confident. “This way of working will be the future,” she predicts, adding: “ I am very lucky to be able to spend so much time with my daughter. In my old job I worked 7am to 7pm. I have not missed out on anything to do with my daughter. I would recommend this to anyone.”