From handshakes to hugs

j0406204-main_FullLast week I attended a customer-appreciation event  for one of my clients. He owns an accounting firm that has been growing by leaps and bounds the past few years, and every year on the anniversary of launching his business, he hosts a great party at one of the local restaurants for all of his clients, friends and colleagues.

My town is a pretty small town in terms of small-business owners. You don’t need to be on the networking circuit very long before you start running into the same people at local business  events. From there, it doesn’t take long for some of these folks to morph from introductions, to passing acquaintances, to referral partners, to full-blown friends. I’ve seen it happen in three events, tops.

This point was driven home at my client’s party last week, when I recognized one of the guests coming through the front door. Instead of walking up to each other with hands outstretched for the perfunctory handshake, it was a big smile, a friendly hug, and questions about her family.

What’s interesting is that I never hang out with this person outside of the professional realm. I’ve never seen her house, met her husband, or even know where she went to college. We’ve gotten to know each other strictly through networking events, shared associates, and business functions.  In fact, we’ve probably never had more than a 10-minute conversation at one time.

But the friendship stars aligned and, within a few business events and one cup of coffee, we seamlessly went from handshakes to hugs.

This particular exchange is indicative of what I see happening every day in my little corner of the world. The number of hugs I share at every event I attend is steadily growing the longer I’m in business and the more involved my firm gets in the local business community. Friendships are quickly forged over cocktails and coffee,  tales from the small-business trenches are shared, and we all seem to share a single, primary goal … to make our mark as successful businesses.

I freely admit that this has become a most unexpected perk of what I do. I mean, I fully expected to be active in the business community and work tirelessly to make the right contacts, build my professional network, and partner with like-minded folks to continue growing our respective organizations.

What I didn’t expect was to see formal handshakes turn into hugs…and how I’ve realized that we need these friendly exchanges just as much as we need the formal introductions to the decision-makers. 

These brief exchanges with newfound friends at some local event allow you a moment to catch your proverbial breath, smile at someone who is out there working as hard as you, and who isn’t expecting to hear your 30-second elevator pitch. You get five minutes of friendly banter with someone you probably never would’ve become friends with had it not be for the fact that you’re both out there fightin’ the good fight for your business.

So, think about that next time you share a friendly hug or pat on the back. They don’t want to hear your sales pitch; they want to hear about your family.

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Where’s MY book??

Welcome back! We were on a bit of a hiatus in July, enjoying a little time away. But, we’re back with a list of things we’ll be yammering on about in The Virtual Fast Lane – from small business to virtual assistance to everything in between. So subscribe today and tag along for the (sometimes eye-rollingly irreverent) ride!

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I’m starting to get a little frustrated.Stack of books

In order to be successful in business and continue growing my virtual assistant firm, I am on a constant quest for knowledge. There have been — and always will be — people out there who are wiser, more experienced, and with advice that’ll truly make a difference in how I do what I do. For those who have wisdom to share, I am an enthusiastic student.

But, I’m also a discerning student.

In addition to having a business coach, I’m always filling in the gaps reading endless magazine articles, following expert blogs, perusing lists of books, checking RSS feeds, and sitting in on webinars and workshops.

The challenge? There’s too much. Way, way too much. How will I ever find the message that speaks to me?

I once worked with a CEO who was wildly successful following the organizational system developed by one performance expert, and I’ve talked to others who’ve been equally successful  by learning to let go of the details and trusting that the process will emerge if their vision is intact.  I’ve known others who clearly practice leadership with expert guidance, and yet others with a penchant for cultivating the leaders from lower ranks on the corporate ladder.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m certainly not looking for a business guru to blindly follow. It’s just that I’m (sometimes painfully) aware of my weaknesses as well as my strengths as a business owner. I’m convinced there has to be someone out there who shares these attributes with me; someone who has used their experience and expertise to develop a system or methodology or way of thinking that I can get on board with…right?

Well, you’d think so. But, instead, I find myself wondering…

Should I be improving my weaknesses, or strengthening my strengths?
Do I need to kick more ass, or be more compassionate?
Invest in Post-it notes, iPhone apps or a color-coded filing system?
Should I be thinking to grow rich, focusing on my 7 habits, or trying to become a manager in a minute?
Will I really win friends by influencing people?
Should I duct-tape my marketing, or kick it thought-leadership style?

Luckily I’m discovering that no matter what books or blogs I read, which podcasts I listen to, or which mentor I turn to for words of advice, most of the underlying themes are the same …. set goals, be creative, stay  driven, believe in your business, pay attention to the numbers, develop systems, have a clear vision and, most importantly, believe in yourself. 

So, until I find that way that works for me, I’ll just keep piecemealing the tidbits that make sense to me into my own little self-help/build-your-business/daily-meditation/get-thin/kick-ass/retire-early/make-new-friends pile of educational goo.

Who knows. Maybe one day I’ll publish it.

 

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5 ways virtual assistants can save your world

Awhile back I dove into a research project for one of my clients, digging up articles, blogs, white papers and studies relating to marketing in our economic climate. It was a great project. I read dozens of articles, blog posts and white papers, and they all had a common theme. Businesses should not – I repeat NOT – skimp on their marketing during an economic downturn. In fact, I read more than once that companies should be upping their marketing efforts.

Like a lot of business decisions, though, it’s very much a Catch-22.

Yes, you fully understand the importance of maintaining a strong presence in your industry, cranking out marketing messages, and continuing to earn (and exceed) the trust and confidence your customers have in you. You’re up to your eyeballs in ideas about expanding your business, whether it be through marketing, growing your team, or reevaluating your overall business model.

On the other hand, you’re feeling the pinch, too. You have the plans, but you don’t have the resources to pull it off. You may be running a bare-bones crew, and their top priority is servicing your customers. While they may be a well-oiled machine, they don’t have the time to tackle extra initiatives without compromising a little customer service. And that, as we all know, isn’t a compromise worth making.

This is where the virtual assistant industry is filling in the gaps. VAs make it their business to get clients through challenging times, which is precisely how we’ll save the world.

1. Marketing
You may heed experts’ advice and increase your marketing initiatives. Maybe set up that blog, redesign some of your collateral, start an article-marketing campaign, or up your direct-mail efforts. Who’s going to take care of that? You don’t have the resources to hire someone, you don’t have the time to train, or you aren’t sure you WANT the commitment of an employee. You just want someone to take care of these projects. Period.  Enter a professional virtual assistant.

2. Money saving
Any cursory research on virtual assistance explains how it’s a cost-effective alternative — either interim or permanent — for any business. Yes, you may pay a higher hourly or project rate than someone you may hire, but anyone with a lick of business sense knows it’s less expensive and higher-quality in the not-so-long run.  No taxes, no benefits, no space, no equipment, no unproductive time. Instead you get a highly qualified, business savvy, creative assistant with resources out the wazoo to help you succeed.

3. Going green
In addition to being the saving grace for growing small businesses, we’ll save the planet while we’re at it. You get all the benefits of a highly trained, highly skilled, committed-to-your-success assistant without the carbon footprint. We’re not commuting to your office every day, we’re using digital tools instead of printer paper to communicate and share files, we recycle our systems and turn them into energy-efficient (meaning we’re saving your energy!) processes for our clients, and we reduce wasted time by only working when you need it. Of course, like any conscientious small-business owner, almost all VAs are smart about their own recycling and energy useage.

4. A virtual business model to put your best face forward
A trend that is taking hold in the world of growing small businesses is the development of the virtual business model … where almost the entire team is comprised of outside contractors. By partnering with vendors such as virtual assistants, outsiders looking in will see a well-oiled team behind your logo. Clients get stellar customer service, prospects are marketed to like larger organizations, and your business reacts to market conditions quickly and seamlessly to meet the changing needs of your clients.   All this, even if the reality is you’re working from your home office, your VA is working from her office,  your bookkeeper working from his office, your outsourced sales people working from their offices….

5.  Setting you up for success during the upturn
Most of the business experts agree … now is the time to position yourself for the economic upswing. While it may not feel like it today, the uptick will come – history has proven that it always has. So, investing in a virtual assistant will help you get your business lined up for the ride. By letting someone else worry about the day-to-day details of your business, you can focus on longer-term goals and projects that will position you for success in the not-so-distant future. If you don’t take the time now to explore new and innovative ways to continue differentiating yourself and growing your business, you’ll be sorely behind the curve when the economy starts sweeping upwards.

 

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Weight loss and business building

Like most people, there are days when I find myself loafing on the couch, sucked into a day-long marathon of cop-show reruns I’ve already seen a hundred times. I get up about every other commercial break to rummage through the cupboards for … well … something. Half the time I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for, so I go back to my post on the couch empty-handed. Sometimes I go back with a handful of chips to “test” and see if that’s what I am, in fact, craving. And sometimes I park it back under the blanket with a bowl overflowing with ice cream.

I inevitably hit a point where I think “Hmmmm. These jeans are feeling a bit snug.” After a sufficient amount of denial and blaming my too-tight pants on dryer-shrinkage, I eventually face facts. “Maybe I should get my arse off the couch and drop a few pounds.”

I go through this routine usually in the spring, after hibernating all winter and recognizing that it won’t be long until I pack up my bulky sweaters and pull out my shorts and t-shirts.

So, I vow to watch what I eat and walk the dog not only more regularly, but more briskly. But what I’ve always refused to do was buy a scale. I always told myself I didn’t really care much how much I weighed … I just wanted to feel a little better in my jeans. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a weight-loss goal was seeing if maybe I could fit into a size-smaller pants. Although, my declaration was sort of half-assed, and ended up being more “fleeting thought” than “goal.”

But an epiphany struck when I went through this process this spring. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m running a business, or finally wise enough to know what needs to be done.

As it turns out, my theory about buying a scale is … and always has been … a load of hooey.

In business, in order to know how you’re doing, you have to test and measure. Watch your numbers. Know what’s coming in and going out. If you don’t, you’ll have no idea if you need to focus on finding more prospects, or if you need to work on turning your current prospects into customers, or if your money is better spent on magazine advertising or a trade-show booth.  You’ll have no idea if your revenues aren’t keeping up with your spending.

You also won’t know that it’s time to paaaaahhtaaaay! when you hit your goals.

Without a scale, how am I ever going to know if I need to thinking about cutting a few more calories than usual?  Or tack an extra 10 minutes to the run/walk with the dog? Or know when it’s “safe” to go to the mall to see if maybe I can, in fact, fit into a smaller-sized pair of a jeans?

In business, I learned very early about the importance goal-setting. Sometimes they’re small goals, like sending a certain number of follow-up emails a week. Sometimes they’re bigger goals, like increasing revenues a certain percentage by a specific date. If I hit the goal, fantastic! If not, I simply go back a few steps to see where I veered off and determine how to get back on track.

I think my aversion to buying a scale or setting an actual weight-loss goal every spring stemmed from a fear of failure…I was afraid that if I wrote down, “I want to fit into pants that are one size smaller by this date,” and didn’t hit the goal, then I’d feel like I failed. My guess is that it’s that fear of failure that probably keeps quite a few people from setting goals.

But, I’ll tell you what’s happened because I’ve never written down “I want to fit into pants that are one-size smaller by this date.”

I’ve never been one size smaller.

So, what have you got to lose? You don’t set the goal, you probably won’t achieve it. You do set the goal, there’s a pretty good chance you will achieve it. And, I’m here to tell you that even if you don’t hit the goal, it’s no biggie because, chances are, you’re probably closer to it than you think. A few tweaks to the plan and you’ll be right back on track.

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Leaning forward

In recent weeks, I’ve once again found myself leaning uncomfortably forward. As a small-business owner, though, I’m getting used to the feeling. That feeling that comes with knowing I’m doing something a little bit risky, a little bit unpredictable, a little bit exciting, and a little bit uncomfortable.

The feeling I might … just might … be leaning far enough forward that there’s a chance I may tip over.

Rescue Desk has been progressing beautifully since its launch more than a year ago, and I couldn’t be more pleased. The plan has always been to continue growing … growing the types of services, growing my firm’s footprint in the local community, growing the Rescue Desk team, growing in my role as entrepreneur. All are on track to … well … grow.

These goals aren’t anything new. I’m not the first business owner with lofty goals, and I certainly won’t be the last.

For my VA firm to expand, my plan has always been to eventually pack up shop and move headquarters from my home office into the local business community – a la Microsoft moving out of Bill Gate’s garage, or Google moving out of the founders’ dorm rooms.

I had visions of moving into a funky little artist studio that would be the hub of my practice. A place where my VA team would virtually gather for teleconferences and Webinars;  a place where my clients  could see where their assistant takes care of their business; a place that gives a public personality to my scrappy little company; a place that would be the perfect stepping stone to the next logical step … an even larger funky artist studio.

So, I started digging into finding that artsy-fartsy little space that would personify Rescue Desk.  I chatted with local business-owner friends with similar service-based business models, I weighed the pros and cons about the timing of this decision, and I picked the brains of the commercial-office agents in my networking groups. I made appointments to see some little spaces around town.

One of the very first places I poked my head into was “it.”

It was little rough around the edges, as was to be expected from the spaces in an old converted warehouse.  But I didn’t have to think very hard to envision the paint color, the art on the wall, the feng-shui-placed furniture,  and where my dog would spend her days. Gigantic skylights let in more light than I’d know what to do with, the old-school track lighting was reminiscent of an old art gallery, and the hardwood floors were worn down by (what I like to think) were a long line of creative types like me.

Two weeks ago, I moved in.

A year ago if you would’ve told me my  firm would be the proud leasee on commercial office space, I never would’ve believed it. So, once again I was reminded of an important lesson — never, ever, ever assume you know which direction your business — or your life — will take you.

It’s vital to keep learning forward. It’s not always comfortable … hell, most of the time it’s downright scary. But the payoff is looking back at what you’ve leaned into and thinking “Remember how I felt when (insert risky move here)… ” and the moment of pride that comes when you recognize your accomplishment.

The funky little 400 square feet of inner warehouse that has my name on the door is what I’m leaning into… for now, anyway. Knowing what I know about leaning forward, I can’t wait to look back on my next moving day (into the aforementioned bigger, funkier studio) and think “Remember that first, tiny little space where Rescue Desk was headquartered?”

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Confessions of a multitasker

Last month, I spent an afternoon milling around a Women’s Business Expo here in my hometown. It was a good event … part networking , part conference, part trade show, part enter-your-business-card-to win-a-free-Prada-bag.

All in all, my kind of event.

One of the sessions I attended was a speech by a communications expert at the local university. The topic was on information overload in the digital age. It qualified as an appropriate topic in the World of Me, especially given the number of emails I get in a day, how often my PDA buzzes with appointment reminders, and the hours I spend hammering on my keyboard.

The underlying theme of the session was the importance of time management, and I was surprised to learn what, in fact, was the biggest culprit that sucked my time into the pit of unproductiveness.

Multitasking.

What?! That doesn’t make any sense! That’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s being able to do more than one thing  at a time that makes me not only exceptionally good in my role as a business owner,  but it makes me a flippin’ WOMAN, for cryin’ out loud.

I can pair non-vital tasks with vital tasks any day and twice on Sunday. Stuff envelopes and talk on the phone? Piece’a cake. Send emails while waiting on hold? Second nature. Walk and chew gum? It’s the only way I’ll chew gum.

As the presenter was talking, I busted out my Blackberry and Twittered this very question about multitasking into the Twitterverse.

Bringing my brain back around to the presentation, I started jotting notes from the speaker’s slides about the nuances of time-management.

Just then my phone vibrated on my hip with an email reply from a prospective client. Next day’s appointment was confirmed.

“Great! See you then!” I thumb-punched onto my QWERTY board.

When I looked up, the presenter was asking us to take a quick test to prove her theory. We had to write “Multitasking is the least efficient way to get things done.” But, with every letter of the sentence, we had to write a corresponding number below it. So, I dutifully pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote “M” then “1” below it; then “U” then “2” below it….

“Hmmm,” I caught myself thinking. “I wonder if I should send an informational sheet to my contact before our meeting tomorrow.”

Just a quick text should do the trick.  “Will send info sheet before end of day!”

“L” … “3” … “T”…”4”

Just then the phone lit up like a light bulb on my lap.

Lookit that! Someone re-tweeted my tweet about multitasking from earlier!

“I”….”5”….”T”….”6” ….

This was easy, I thought. I had NO PROBLEM bouncing my brain back and forth from letters to numbers, emails to text messages. In fact, I found my groove and started to get a little faster (and maybe a wee bit cocky) about it.

“A” “7”…”S”8”…“K” “9”…

(Text message: “Thanks for email! In seminar … will ring u later!”)

“I” “10”..“N” “11” .. “G” “12”…

(Note written in notebook:  “Call Em about dogsitting.”)

“I” “13”… “S” “14” …  “T” “15” …

About a minute into the exercise, the presenter piped up. “OK, stop!”

No sweat. I totally had this exercise nailed! Who says you can’t multitask effectively?!? My brain slides back and forth like a well-oiled MACHINE!

 “OK,” she said. “Now write the phrase ‘Multitasking is the least effective way to get things done.’ Then, when you’re done writing that sentence, write out ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, et cetra.’”

Of course it took a fraction of the time when I wrote the sentence, then the numbers…basically doing only one thing at a time, instead of two. And effectively proving that multitasking can, in fact, be the biggest culprit that sucks my time into the pit of unproductiveness.

I’m still guilty of multitasking, but thanks to the five-minute lesson I learned between text messages and emails that afternoon, I’ve started slowing down once in awhile and recognizing that it can be more productive do only one thing at a time.

It’s OK to sit quietly and meditate for a few minutes while the computer boots up, instead of frantically making notes on my to-do list. It’s OK to respond to emails at certain times of the day, instead of punctuating everything on my to-do list with a reply to someone. It’s OK to schedule a meeting-free day every week to focus entirely on office work, instead of zipping around town and trying to squeeze in paperwork between get-togethers and coffee dates.

It may seem wildly counter-intuitive to do one thing at a time in order to be more productive, but trust me. Sometimes you just need to sit down to chew your gum.

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10 things every small-business owner needs

Awhile back, I was inspired by a “Top 30” list featured in Success magazine, which listed the things every successful CEO needs. It got me thinking about how closely it matched my own list of must-haves.  Quite a few of their items made my own Top 10, but I have a few others that, as a small-business owner, I don’t think I could do my job without.

MP3 player
Not too long ago, I upgraded my wussy little MP3 player to a more-power-than-I’ll-ever-need iPod. I think it was one of the smarter purchases I ever made. Not only do I plug in for my favorite tunes, but I’m buried in a whole world of podcasts on everything from business to marketing to spirituality to my favorite NPR shows.

Pets
A dog, cat, bird or worm…it doesn’t matter. Having something that gives and gets affection can make a world of difference on any given day. I have a dog and a cat roaming around my office, and they usually spend their days curled up the corner. But, my dog times her bathroom breaks when I desperately a few minutes away from the computer, and my cat puts himself on my calendar when he needs a scratch (literally…he parks his caboose right on my desk calendar and doesn’t budge until he’s satisfied with appropriate level of attention.)

Personal library
Each business owner is different. But the common thread that binds successful CEOs is the constant drive to learn. Thankfully, having a business library doesn’t necessarily mean shelves full of books. I subscribe to a handful of podcasts, borrow best-sellers from my entrepreneur pals, and you have to tear me away from the magazine section of the bookstore.

A great wardrobe
Notice I didn’t say a “big” wardrobe. Just having a few great, classic pieces you didn’t buy off the clearance rack at the discount store makes a world of difference when you waltz into a room full of strangers at a networking event. You may be quaking on the inside, but it’s easy to hide the nerves under a great-fitting suit or in fabulous pair of shoes. If you look good you feel good, and you’ll have no choice but to stand a little taller and speak a little clearer.

An assistant
Well, duh. Ok, ok. I know that’s a little self-serving given what I do, but it’s the truth. Every small-business owner – and I mean every one – needs an assistant from time to time. Even me, who IS a professional assistant, has some part-time support to help with the details of my to-do list. Just like my clients, who don’t need to be spending their valuable, billable, revenue-generating time on the details of their to-do lists, neither do I.

Inspiration
You can find it anywhere. Some people put inspirational quotes on their screen savers, others are dedicated to maintaining a vision board, and a few subscribe to inspirational emails or podcasts. It’s vital to have something to re-energize your mind and spirit.

An understanding — and sometimes forgiving — support system
As any small-business owner will tell you, the work days are long, stressful, intense and exhausting. Not only that, but it’s easy to feel like you’re going it alone. With a strong, understanding support system, you know you’re not flying solo. Just don’t forget to tell those people how grateful you are for their support. If it weren’t for my crew of (sometimes screwy) friends and always-loving family, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I credit a big part of my success to them.

A coach or mentor
It doesn’t matter if it’s a life coach, a business mentor or spiritual leader. There’s always someone who has more wisdom than you, and those people want to share it. Let them. In fact, there’s no reason you can’t have more than one. Find these people and latch on … they’ll teach you things you didn’t know you didn’t know.

A really good pen
This is one of those simple pleasures. You don’t notice it when you’re using it, but you definitely notice it when you’re not.

A hobby
Having an outlet is one of the best ways to regain perspective. We’ve all been there, where you’re too close that you can’t see. As a small-business owner, it’s way too easy … in fact, it’s practically automatic … to let the things you used to love slide when you’re buried under business plans, marketing strategies and ideas for growth. Make time for things outside the business. Believe me, I know it’s easier said than done, but you owe it to yourself.

Now it’s your turn! What’s on your list? As a business owner, what could you not live without?