Monday, 27 January 2014

Self-employed mums and maternity leave - facts and tips for your business!

I'm having a baby in April! I set up The Intelligent VA Company in 2012 and the decision to have a second child was not an easy one for myself and husband Mark.
Having a baby whilst running my own business was a complete unknown for me, and I found very little in terms of advice from others who had been in the same situation, which was the prompt for this particular blog.
I'm going to look at the challenges faced by self-employed mums before, during and after pregnancy and attempt to share the knowledge I've gathered as I've gone, as well as add some input from other working mums I know.

Can I claim any maternity pay while I'm on maternity leave if I'm self-employed?

The simple answer is you can claim for Maternity Allowance if you have been paying your Class 2 National Insurance contributions, which all self-employed people should be doing as soon as they set up.
Maternity allowance is the same as standard Statutory Maternity Pay and works out at £136.78 a week or 90% of your weekly wage (whichever is lower) and it is paid for up to 39 weeks.

Can I earn money from the business while i'm on maternity leave and claiming Maternity Allowance?

Put simply… No! You can't work at all if you claim maternity allowance save for 10 "keeping in touch" days - and they count any work done (even a phone call) as a full day. You can take drawings out the business whilst off, but you just can't work. I think this is vastly unfair as HMRC lets women claiming SMP from their employers continue to be self-employed and earn an income! So it's good news for mums on maternity leave who may have just started their business, not so good for those already self-employed.

But, if I can't work, how do I keep my business contracts alive while I am at home being a mummy?

There are a few options in this instance. I have spoken to fellow Virtual Assistants I know and trust and they are looking after my contracts for me whilst I am on maternity leave. There are downsides to this and you really do need to trust the individuals you are passing the work on to. Your clients are trusting they will do the job to the standard you would do, and also you're trusting that they are honest enough to give the work back at the end of the term! I am in a fortunate position that I have built close relationships with others in my field and have every faith my contracts will be well looked after.

You could add a partner or friend to the business as a partner who can then work for the business by changing the structure of the business - but, again, you need to be able to trust the individual you choose. 
Finally you could choose to employ someone whilst you're on maternity leave. This is a HUGE decision for you and your business as you need to begin the process of setting up a payroll to allow for National Insurance and tax contributions and you would have to meet the minimum wage and all relevant health and safety legislation, but it is one you might want to consider as an option.

How long should I take off? (Thanks to @franthom from @instillerESP for her input on this one.)

This is entirely up to you, and it depends on your business and your clients. The one piece of advice I would give is not to plan to come back too soon. Being a mum is a tiring business and you'll probably want to try and establish a routine with the child first. As long as you have cover planned, take as long as you need. Just make sure that your clients are ALWAYS kept 100% in the loop. Although it is unlikely you will take the full 39 weeks you can claim your allowance for, I would recommend taking as long as you can to really cherish the time with your baby if at all possible.

So - you've covered your contracts and decided how long you are going to take off with your bundle of joy. The next step is running your business with a family in tow! I'm going to cover some of the lessons I've learned since setting up on my own and working around my daughter, as well as sharing some thoughts and insights from other working mums who contacted me about this blog.

First things first… Be realistic.

One of the things I've learnt is that you really have to be realistic as to what you can actually achieve to the standard you want to consistently deliver to. Do NOT take on work if you are not 100% sure you can deliver it in the time you have available. I always look at the longest possible time it might take to finish a job and what could happen to stop it running smoothly. That way I avoid putting extra pressure on myself. Having a baby around can be quite stressful and you don't want to be adding to that if you don't need to.

Remember… there are 24 hours in a day.

It may sound obvious but many people still think of a work day as having to fit into a 9-5 schedule. Being a working mum from home you do have the capacity to be more flexible. Use evenings, early mornings, and nap times. If you plan contracts as blocks of time and be realistic, you could create extra working time for yourself.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I think guilt is built-in to all parents! You can often feel as if you are being pulled in every direction and like you are doing lots of things at once. I think the key is to set your work time and family time early on and stick to it. This can be tricky but more than achievable and links nicely into my next point...

Be honest.

I've found that being honest has worked well, and all my clients know that I am a mum running a business from home. I am upfront that I often have a child around and there are some days when I am not working on contracts but being a mum. All my clients are very understanding as I have always taken work, looked at it and come back with a very specific proposal about exactly what the work will look like, how long it will take and when it will be completed. I realise not everyone will think this approach the best one for someone running a business, but I find honesty has always worked. My children were the driver behind me starting the company and play a key part in where I am today, so I've always made them part of the business and my decisions, and my clients have been very understanding.

Best laid plans.

And finally...! Remember you can be the most organised individual on the planet but you never know what might happen in life. That block of work you planned while your little one has a two hour nap might be scuppered when they decide that today is the day they are going to take the world's shortest nap! The key is not to panic. Look at your commitments for rest of day/week, look at when you might have another spare two hours, look at the deadline date and how close it is, and ask a friend or family member nicely if they can come and entertain them while you work. Broken down, you can fit everything in nicely as long as you are REALISTIC about the work in the first place. 

And remember...

Don't put yourself under huge pressure by taking on more than is realistic to achieve - and don't panic when it doesn't go to plan. You will be able to get it done. 

Surround yourself with supportive people and plan, plan, plan, and you will be able to juggle two of the biggest challenges life can throw at you… having children and running your own business. But don't're a mum and we can do ANYTHING!

Some thoughts from other mums in business:

Michelle Leivers - @danceandrecruit. "Don't underestimate your achievements; you don't need to work 8-6 and have a board room to be a success."

And this little gem of a pic highlighting the 'Best Laid Plans' point from Charlotte Leivers @leiversdance. 

Thanks for reading. 
To find out more about my Virtual Assistant business please visit or follow us on Twitter @intelligentvaco.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

10 mental hurdles you need to overcome before using a Virtual Assistant

Before Christmas I met with a potential client to discuss working together. It was a great meeting but it threw up a conversation I regularly have with people looking to use a Virtual Assistant.

The crux of the issue is "I want to work with you, but I just can't see how you can help". 

People know they are maxed out but are sceptical of how a Virtual Assistant can help. I decided to list the most common objections or mental hurdles people have, and address them in this blog.

"I need to be in control"

This is probably the biggest psychological hurdle to overcome and the one I hear most often. It can be hard to relinquish control of any area of your business by passing it on to another individual to complete for you, and I completely understand that. Delegation is a learning process (more on that in a minute) but I have found that once you start this process it becomes much easier. The sooner you begin to trust another person can do these tasks for you, the sooner you will see results. You WILL have more time to spend on moving your business forward rather than just keeping it ticking it over. Remember, a Virtual Assistant will only charge you for the time the project takes and that's it!

"But I can do it more quickly."

This may be true in the short term but, ask yourself this: how many hours does it take you to do these tasks every week? How quickly could you show someone how to do them with clear instructions? You may even find your Virtual Assistant has ways of doing the tasks even more quickly. Virtual Assistants are experienced people with a huge range of skills and expertise and are well versed in taking projects from clients to streamline their general effectiveness and make suggestions or improvements.

"OK. But I'm not sure which tasks to delegate."

This is another very common question. To all potential clients I say this; take a look at yourself and your business and start to write down a list of everything you have to do on a weekly basis. Then write down how long these tasks take you. Ask yourself:

What are you good at? 
What tasks can only you do? 
What tasks do you NEED to do? 

Once you have looked at what you actually HAVE to do yourself and what you could delegate/outsource, you should have a fairly comprehensive list of tasks. Usually the top of this list is general admin tasks and I recently listed The top ten admin tasks you can outsource to your VA  which may also help you. Once you have this list you can start to look for a Virtual Assistant with the skill set to quickly and effectively take that workload off your hands.

"But I don't know how long it should take them to do these tasks?"

That's a fair point. Many people don't ever look at how long a job could or should take. It's why most staff work a 40 hour week by default. Tackling this is simple. Once you have your list of tasks you can take a look and decide how long you think each task should take. You've done these tasks yourself, you know roughly how long they take to complete. The great thing about a VA is that it will probably take them less time than you to complete. Why? Because a VA has no other distractions while they work on your behalf. No lunch breaks, no checking the ping of their email, no calls to take, no covering of colleagues' phones over lunch hours, no coffee breaks. Most Virtual Assistants will use a version of time tracking software for absolute transparency and when they sit down to do the task assigned, THAT IS ALL THEY DO. 

"I don't understand how it can work virtually."

Technology is wonderful. A Virtual Assistant keeps in regular contact with you - mainly via email, skype and phone, but many will also meet in person as well. A good VA will schedule online meetings, calls and regularly email updates and adapt all of these to your individual contract. Whether they file your expenses once a month or manage your diary and email on a daily basis, they will sort a schedule for contact and keep you completely updated. Most VAs use time tracking software which you can access whenever you like to see how much work they have logged for you that day/week/month.

"Should I trust a VA?"

This is completely down to you and the individual you contract. It is exactly the same as employing someone to work for you as a permanent employee. It is about building a relationship and seeing results. Your VA will keep you updated and go out of their way to make your business run more efficiently. It is in their interest to! The more they impress, the more work they will generate. Remember, a Virtual Assistant is only paid for the hours they work. You are not going through the lengthy and expensive process of recruitment. 

"Will they understand my business?"

Yes they will. A Virtual Assistant is experienced in working with hundreds of different companies and clients, and they take the time to understand you and how your business operates, so will draw out exactly what your business needs. Remember a VA will usually produce a proposal of how they see themselves working with you,  highlighting your objectives and showing how they can help. This is before you contract them, so you should easily and quickly be able to see if they really do 'get what your business is about'. I recently had some great feedback from a client saying I 'got to the heart of the project really quickly and efficiently' and this was great to hear as it is something I have always worked hard to achieve with all of my clients.

"How do they access my documents?"

Usually we use a form of online 'cloud' storage. These storage systems are simple, effective and safe - and only the people you want to can access the documents. There are so many brilliant systems available and they're so easy to use. I may as well be sat at the next desk to you!

"OK. It all makes sense, but it will it make a difference to my bottom line?"

This can be a tough one to answer because nobody has a crystal ball, however there is the good old saying 'you have to speculate to accumulate'. It comes down to how much time using a VA can free up and what you can then spend your time doing. If you had more time could you generate more business? Every big CEO employs a personal assistant to take away the day-to-day load and pressure of the neverending (but essential) admin tasks to give them to time to focus on the growth of the business. A Virtual Assistant is the smart person's choice for this job.

"But I'm not sure I can afford it."

Again, this depends on the above, and whether you can see value in speculating to accumulate. One thing we can say is that employing a VA will always save you money over employing a member of staff. A Virtual Assistant is experienced and can complete all manner of tasks quickly, effectively and remotely. You don't have to go through the expensive process of recruiting staff. You don't need to find them a desk, or buy them a computer. You don't have to worry about payroll costs like tax and NI as your VA covers those. In fact, there are so many ways a VA can save you money! Why not check them out here 

So, if you have ever wondered whether a Virtual Assistant could be the answer to relieving those time pressures but had concerns about how it could work hopefully this blog has answered those questions for you. It  might just be the helping hand you and your business needs to really get to the next level. You can find more information about The Intelligent VA Company and how we could help right here