Taking a Leap of Faith to Fly Solo

This sister believed enough in herself to take a risk and start a full-time business out of her home


By Carolyn M. Brown

Vonetta Booker-Brown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, has always wanted to do her own thing by working for herself. But because of her various interests, she was never quite sure how her business would manifest itself.

Two years ago, while doing online research, she came across a fairly new concept, the virtual assistant (VA)--a home-based professional who performs a wide range of office functions for one client or several, from answering phones and transcribing tapes to making travel arrangements and handling billing. The twist is that unlike traditional office assistants, VAs aren't in the same location as their employers.

"It sounded like the perfect fit," says the 29-year-old former administrative assistant, freelance journalist, Web designer, and public relations representative. The Southern Connecticut State University graduate had held several temp jobs and full-time gigs with companies that included an investment bank and Essence.com. "I wanted to find a way to combine all of my skills," says Booker-Brown of her search for the ideal business start-up.
The timing, however, wasn't perfect. "I was in the process of planning for a wedding," she explains. But the bride-to-be didn't give up on her goal; she merely set it aside--temporarily.

Less than a year into their marriage, Booker-Brown sat down with her husband to discuss her life aspiration of becoming an entrepreneur. "I basically broke everything down to him: This is what the industry is about. This is what my business is going to be called. We are partners, so I wanted him to be comfortable with what I was doing."

Initially she held on to her nine-to-five job at a marketing firm and ran Right Hand Concepts part-time out of her home. But recently, after a lot of soul-searching, Booker-Brown went to her husband again to tell him, "Baby, I think it's time for me to do this thing full-time."

"My full-time job was cool because it paid the bills. But I wasn't fulfilled," explains Booker-Brown. "I am a creative person by nature. I wanted to find a way to express my creativity all the time. I quit my job last month. I decided to take a leap of faith and concentrate on this business because it is something that I wholly believe in."

The fledgling entrepreneur shares with members of NiaOnline what it took for her to fly solo, and offers lessons and tips that you can apply to your own life.

"Be prepared" best sums up Booker-Brown's daily mantra when it comes to starting a business. She made it a point to save up money before she quit her job. Not only did she set aside funds for start-up costs, but she also socked cash into a rainy-day fund. This way, Booker-Brown's husband wouldn't be shouldering all of the couple's financial burdens, now that she no longer gets a regular paycheck and benefits.

Booker-Brown has also become more disciplined about sticking to a budget. "My start-up costs were about $2,000. Since it is a home-based business, there was no significant overhead, as I would have had if I'd been opening a coffee shop," says Booker-Brown. "I needed a fax, printer, scanner, and powerful computer system with the latest software, especially an antivirus program [so as not to corrupt clients' files]. I didn't have to outsource tasks [such as creating marketing materials]; I did them myself."

The Life of the Virtual Assistant

Typically, VA setups are one-person operations. A large number of VAs are stay-at-home moms, laid-off workers, and people looking to be their own boss and enjoy the comfort of working from home.

The profession emerged about six to seven years ago and now includes about 1,500 people, according to the International Association of Virtual Office Assistants, an industry certifying organization. (Certification isn't necessarily required.) Most VAs have human resources, administrative, public relations, marketing, or accounting backgrounds.

"Most clients are small-business owners or consultants," Booker-Brown says. "Many of them also work from home. Their businesses are growing, and they have all these administrative or general tasks that need to get done, but they don't have the time to do it themselves. At the same time, they can't really bring someone into their home office, an assistant working right there. So they call me."

Right Hand Concepts has three steady clients, including Chicago-based television producer and promoter Paula Harris. Booker-Brown puts in 40 to 60 hours a week. "I design flyers, make follow-up phone calls, manage an email list, create Web sites and PowerPoint presentations, do word processing, make travel arrangements, and schedule appointments," says Booker-Brown.

As with most VAs, Booker-Brown can tailor her services, working on individual or ongoing projects. The market rate for a VA is anywhere from $20 to $75 an hour. Booker-Brown charges an hourly rate of $35. She also works on a monthly retainer for long-term assignments.

The great thing about being a VA, says Booker-Brown, is that "you don't have the hours commuting back and forth to work each day, and you don't have to deal with office politics. I get to work with people I like to work with and with whom I have a good rapport. I get to call my own shots. It's so spiritually freeing."

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a VA?

Booker-Brown is quick to point out that being a virtual assistant is not for everyone. Among the qualities you need are these:

  • An entrepreneurial spirit;
  • A wide skill set;
  • An openness to learning new things;
  • Initiative, and a proactive personality;
  • A willingness to go after business and to network to get new clients;
  • The ability to troubleshoot;
  • The ability to work on your own and not feel isolated;
  • Strong organizational skills;
  • A talent for wearing different hats (ranging from secretary to bookkeeper or marketer).

As with any new venture, "you have to do your research on the industry before you can start a business," Booker-Brown advises. "Talk to other people in the field that you want to go into. Also, make sure you are lined up and ready to go before you quit your job." At the same time, she adds, "you don't want to prepare so much that you don't actually start your business. . . . Have faith."

--Carolyn M. Brown is a New Jersey-based writer.

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