For a girl with no luck, I’ve managed to be married to the greatest guy since 1990, have two “nearly perfect” kids, AND have the good fortune to work from home in dual careers as a Virtual Assistant and an Artist.
Renee’s life and career are testimony to the fact that many people do not pursue predictable, traditional linear career paths; rather they find ways to thrive professionally and personally while successfully negotiating the often competing priorities of work life and home life.
The Coach: So, you have two jobs. Tell me precisely what you do.
Renee: Actually, I guess I have four jobs.
First, I am a virtual personal assistant. I provide administrative and marketing support to managers and executives from around the country who do not “office” in traditional workspaces. They work out of virtual offices, so they have a virtual assistant (me!) helping them get their work done; everything from making travel arrangements and scheduling and preparing for meetings and presentations, to managing the daily appointments and drafting correspondence and marketing documents. I do all the stuff a traditional on-site executive assistant does; I just do it from my home office.
In my second job, I am an artist. I work in clay, crafting pieces that I sell online via eBay and Etsy.
Job #3: I am a professional caregiver to a woman suffering from ALS. I assist with massages, provide some companionship, and generally make her life a bit more comfortable.
Lastly, I’m a mom. I have two sons, both in high school right now, and being mom takes up a good bit of time as well.
And yes, I love it! I guess I should say I love them! Each little piece fulfills a section of my life.
Being able to stay home with my kids is very important to both me and my husband, and I get to do that. The virtual assistant job is great because it allows me a lot of flexibility to manage my own schedule and uses skills I started developing early in my career. My art work lets me make some money from my passion (I always wanted to be an artist!); and my work as an ALS patient caregiver feeds my soul and allows me to fill an important role in the life of someone in need.
Oh yeah, and I love my “couch commute,” too. Not much traffic getting from my kitchen to my office.
The Coach: Okay – so now we’re up to four jobs. How did that happen? Was this your plan?
Renee: Well, yes and no! After college, I worked in traditional settings, such as hospitals, private doctor practices and pharmaceutical offices. And then in the mid-1990s came birth of our first son, Erich, which turned out to be the perfect time for me to try something new, something that would allow me to stay at home as we started our family. We did “plan” my move from a traditional office job to working from home, but it was far from certain.
Telecommuting was just really starting to take off, when I started in pharmaceutical transcription, moving into the role of pharmaceutical marketing assistant. Soon after, the pharmaceutical industry went through a lot of change (like a lot of industries do), so I figured I had better change as well. I began offering up my services as a virtual personal assistant to some of the executives I knew who had become telecommuters. Some good referrals helped me grow my business. When you go into business for yourself, you can never be sure how things will turn out. For me, they turned out well.
The Coach: What about the other jobs; the art work and caregiver jobs?
Renee: I’ve had a passion for art since I was a kid. An artist is what I wanted to be when I grew up; an artist and an opera singer. In school I studied voice and art, but not to the point where I thought I could have a career in either. I honed my craft over the years as a passionate hobby. Recently I began showing some of my clay work, and I have developed quite a little following in the Shabby Chic world. My business is called CreatingCottage, and I promote and sell my work online via my website, blog, Facebook page, and on Ebay and Etsy.com.
I also still sing, by the way. Not in Operas, but with the Pennsbury Community Chorus!
As a caregiver, a family member suffered from and eventually lost her battle with ALS. I had the chance to assist her as she fought the disease and realized just how important a role caregivers play in the lives of people battling disease. That experience made me want to continue providing caregiver support. I am a big supporter of the ALS Association and its efforts to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The Coach: That’s a lot to juggle. How do you manage your time and your various responsibilities?
Renee: Time management and prioritization are really important. Some weeks these jobs require 40+ hours of my time, some weeks as little as 10 hours. It just depends on the week. Regardless, you have to make the most of your time. My kids are older now, so it has become a little easier, but when you work from home, everything has the potential to interfere with you getting your work done; a sick kid, house guests, household chores – everything! You have to be really disciplined and, sometimes, ready to go to work after everyone else has gone to bed. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
The Coach: What has surprised you most about the career path you have chosen?
Renee: I’ve been surprised that I have been able to keep the virtual assistant business going for so long and that I have been able to grow it. When the pharmaceutical industry took a downturn I expected my business to do the same, but it didn’t. And, the competition for work has increased. I still depend a lot on referrals for new business, but I have also registered with AssistantMatch, a company that connects mobile executives with virtual assistants.
There are websites you can use to bid for work, but you are often competing with off-shore service providers that come in with really low bids. Financially, I can’t compete with those bids, so I really have to depend on my reputation and service, so – ultimately – on my referrals.
In the virtual assistant world, you always have to deliver, and you can’t promise things you cannot deliver. You can’t pass the buck to anybody else, because there isn’t anybody else. It’s all you.
The Coach: It can’t all be a bed of roses. What aspects of your job do you “not love” so much?
Renee: As a virtual personal assistant I am not a big fan of nighttime requests, since they conflict with my family time, but sometimes they’re just unavoidable, even with good planning. There definitely are some days when you feel like you’re on call 24/7 and don’t get it close shop like in more traditional positions. That part isn’t much fun, but it also isn’t an everyday thing.
As an artist: I was very hesitant about presenting myself through the sale of my artwork. Honestly, I’m not really great with rejection. Who likes to be told no? But I have to tell you, I get really excited every time I make a sale and meet a new fan of Shabby Chic decor.
Overall, there isn’t a lot of certainty or predictability to my income. What I make depends primarily upon how much artwork I sell and how much my clients ask of me each week. The work is often full-time, but the money is sometimes “part-time.” My husband has a regular, full-time job with benefits. His job makes my jobs possible. We know we can depend on the stability of his income. Any time you are in business for yourself, the amount of money you make depends entirely upon you – that can be scary. I don’t love that part of my jobs.
The Coach: Looking back at your undergraduate classes, how relevant are they to what you are doing today?
Renee: To be completely honest, there isn’t a lot of direct connection between what I studied and what I am doing now. (I’m not sure you’re going to want to include that quote, but it’s true!)
The Coach: Okay, so what classes have been most valuable to you in your current job(s)?
Renee: My English writing courses. They certainly were not my favorite classes, but I am glad I took them. I have to use my writing skills as a virtual personal assistant every day. Writing and editing skills have been really important throughout my career, and I didn’t necessarily expect that!
The Coach: So you work for yourself. What does it cost to get started? What does it cost you to be in business?
Renee: The start-up costs are really low. To be a virtual personal assistant, you just need to have the computer hardware and software, internet connectivity, communication devices and office equipment required to provide support, and you can set up a website for free. If you’re setting up a home office from scratch, you can probably do that for under $2,000. After that, it is monthly internet and phone charges, office supplies and marketing expenses; probably about $200 a month, tops!
To be an artist – that will depend upon your medium and the cost of the materials you use. You’ll also have to budget some time and money for marketing and sales because no one will buy your art if they don’t know it’s available for purchase. Whether you are going to craft shows or selling on eBay or Etsy, you have to build in time for sales and marketing.
The Coach: Look down the road 5-10 years. What will be the market for what you do in the future?
Renee: Honestly I see the market for virtual personal assistants growing quite a bit. More and more people are moving toward mobile offices, so more and more people will also be turning to mobile and virtual staff support. The need will grow, but so will the competition!
For my artwork – sites like eBay and Etsy make selling direct to consumers a lot easier, so the opportunity to make money from my artwork has the potential to increase.
For caregiver services – with an aging population and dispersed families, the need for caregiver services is certainly bound to grow.
The Coach: Any parting advice for students currently going to college?
Renee: Learn how to manage your time and your priorities. Do your homework, go to class, study hard, and when that’s done, go ahead and play. You have to make time for play, and it’s ok to play hard as long as you don’t get work and play confused and let your work suffer. Keeping your priorities straight is a major lesson that John and I have stressed with both boys.