SOS: Strategic Office Support’s Kathrine Farris helps out with advice for startup service businesses.

By Barbara Quick | Small Business

Do you remember the day when the training wheels were removed from your two-wheeler and you made your first attempt to ride solo?

Scary, exhilarating and momentous, wasn’t it?

The same words are apt descriptors for what it’s like to quit a good salaried job with benefits and embark full time as an independent online entrepreneur.

Just ask Kathrine Farris, owner of Strategic Office Support LLC, which the young mother and wife created as a part-time online enterprise (at first called Office Solutions ME) while working full-time as an assistant bank manager in Southern Maine.
“My family, my faith, and my desperation gave me the courage I needed,” says Farris, whose husband wasn’t working at the time, making her leap into uncertainty even scarier. “I took three full months of maternity leave from my banking job, which gave me a little taste of what it would be like to become a full-time entrepreneur.”

The idea of working from home and being her own boss was a bright beacon for Farris in her darkest moments of juggling full-time job, part-time start-up and her brand new family. But taking the plunge—especially leaving those health benefits behind—was scary.

“No amount of planning ever feels adequate when making a life change, and this was no exception. I knew I had to be prepared. But if I waited until I was ‘ready,’ then I would never do it.”

What IS a Virtual Assistant?

Thanks to her training as a banker, Farris was able to make a detailed analysis of her income and expenses. She sought the advice of established Virtual Assistance providers, and the expertise of professional organizations in the field, to help her determine whether she had a viable business model.

Virtual Assistants—independent contractors who support multiple clients in a variety of industries by providing administrative, creative and technical services from a remote location (most often, from home)—have been around since the late 1990s. But the concept is still relatively obscure.

“Family and friends,” says Farris, “are still trying to figure out what it is that I do. They understand that I quit my job and now I ‘work from home.’ But they seem to think that means that I don’t work—which is far from the truth! I still put in at least 50 hours per week, and only about 50 percent of that is ‘billable’ time.”

Farris started her part-time business in June 2009 without one single client. She snagged her first client some three months later—and then acquired new clients at a steady pace over the next two years. At the beginning of 2012, after working her head off, she realized that her business income was matching the salary she used to get at the bank.

“In-person networking was how I got all my clients in the first year. From there, referrals have grown to become the most effective way for me to get new business, because they take less of my time and have a high success rate. Social media has played an important part right along, helping me build my brand, broaden my reach and increase my visibility much more effectively than traditional mail or email ever could.”

Website key to growth

The SOS website has also been key. “My website usually comes into play after a meeting or referral. It’s what ‘seals the deal,’” says Farris. “I’ve often heard that I was chosen over another option because my website was better or more professional.”

To drive traffic to her site, Farris ensures that it’s predominately displayed on all of her marketing material. She blogs weekly, sends out a monthly e-newsletter, and provides content for other people’s articles and blogs whenever possible.

“I’ve completely overhauled my website twice since launching my business—hosting, content management system, appearance—the works. While I have tried to maintain some consistency in message and colors, each time I have vastly improved on the site as a whole.”
During those first two rocky years, Farris knew that she could return to banking, if the business failed. But she and her husband were determined to make all their best efforts to keep their family at home together. “We knew we might ruin our credit while getting on our feet, but we agreed ahead of time that it was a risk worth taking.”
Farris is now in a position to mentor others who want to work from home but may not know how to start—or when it’s safe to quit their day job. She advises that aspiring entrepreneurs first save up at least six months’ worth of living expenses—“but every household—and every business—is different.”

An online virtual assistant service can run with very little in the way of operating expenses. “It really only requires a phone, laptop, high-speed Internet and a few software subscriptions. There’s no inventory to manage or produce, and no need for employees.”
Farris now has ten subcontractors working for her. “My team currently consists of people I either know personally or who have been recommended by people I know and trust. A few of my team members are even former employees from the bank.”

She generally pays her subcontractors by the hour, “because that ends up being the fairest for them and the easiest to negotiate. The rate is determined by skill, quality and type of work.”

Quality control has come to be one of Farris’ biggest roles. “I take ultimate responsibility, providing training and constructive criticism when needed.” She looks for subcontractors who have the same skill sets she has—and also for individuals with different strengths from hers. “I also need people who can allow me to add new services to our menu and help bring in new opportunities.”
For brand-new or would-be entrepreneurs about to launch their own business as an online service provider, Kathrine Farris offers the following advice:

  • Find a mentor or coach who has created the type of business you want. This will help save you a lot of time and energy by avoiding costly mistakes.
  • Join trade groups or associations in your field. For instance, The International Virtual Assistant Association holds education discussions on a regular basis, facilitates annual training and offer certification.
  • Start with the end in mind. When starting an online business, it’s really easy to start small and make choices based on cost savings, but that may not be the best route for scalability.

What are Farris’ top three caveats?

  1. Research the software and programs you choose to utilize or incorporate. (Don’t always choose based on cost or fancy marketing!)
  2. Invest in the necessary training to stay ahead of the curve: technology is always changing!
  3. Invest in the necessary equipment to operate efficiently and effectively even if something goes wrong! (Consider having a spare computer and multiple back-up systems in place.)

One of the scariest aspects of leaving her day job—the loss of company-provided medical benefits—proved to be quite manageable. “Through a combination of a medical sharing plan from Medi-Share and supplemental insurance coverage for emergency, accident, and sickness, we actually have better coverage than what I received at the bank for less than $500 per month (for a family of three). Plus I’ve been able to add disability insurance.”

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