Home Business Heroes: Helen Jacobi

Home businesses generate £284bn of the UK's GDP, making them the true heroes of our economy. So to continue Smarta and Viking's celebration of these brave entrepreneurs, we tracked down Helen Jacobi, the founder of The Inspired PA.

Names: Helen Jacobi

Location: Surrey

Business: www.theinspiredpa.co.uk

What's your business?

The Inspired PA provides flexible virtual PA and business management support to businesses and entrepreneurs across Europe and North America, helping clients save both time and money. 

We listen to client needs and develop inspired solutions for them, underpinned by understanding how their business works. There is no one way of working with a client - businesses are as unique as people; no two are the same. 

We were thrilled to win Outstanding VA of the Year 2012 (Over 2½ Years in Business) at the National VA Conference in April, which was a wonderful accolade.  

What were you doing before?

I had been working as an executive PA in both corporate and entrepreneurial environments for around 20 years and I was used to being on call almost 24/7. While I thoroughly enjoyed my previous life and was privileged to work with some brilliant people, I felt I'd covered all the bases and it was time for a gear shift.

How did you get the idea?

About 10 years ago I got to know a lovely lady who was the family PA to an ex-boss of mine. She was a virtual PA as it turned out. Listening to her speak about how she ran her business from home was a complete revelation. 

I did some research and discovered there was a need for virtual PAs so, some seven years later I took the plunge, which happened to coincide with the onset of the economic crisis. I was up for a challenge and the virtual PA model is perfect for this kind of economy - a professional service that is responsive to client needs. It's a win-win for both parties.

How did you fund it?

I funded the start-up from my own capital, but the costs were relatively low. The key expenditures were networking, office equipment, branding and insurance. I also studied for the VA Mastery Diploma with the VA Coaching and Training Company, which helped enormously in making the transition from PA to VA. 

How did you market it?

I threw myself into networking, big time. Breakfast? I was there. Lunch? Count me in. It opened my eyes to a whole new world and I gained so much in a relatively short space of time purely by turning up, listening to people's needs and seeing how I could help. 

Networking can be one massive missed opportunity if you set out to be heard, rather than listen to what your peers have to say. Working for your network is without doubt the key to success.  

Utilising online networking tools was critical too, in particular LinkedIn and Twitter. There are excellent opportunities to be had by getting involved in industry forums and contributing. 

How did you build a list of clients?

Initially via networking but as the business has grown, all our new clients within the past 18 months have come on board as a result of word-of-mouth recommendation from existing clients or other contacts. 

Where's your office?

I'm based in Surrey and commandeered the guest room, which looked rather like a bedsit at the beginning as it was far too cluttered. So I ditched the spare bed and moved a couple of pieces of furniture out. I now have a lovely clear working space with garden views! 

Each of my team work from home too, but it's important that we get together to collaborate and thrash out ideas, which we do about once a month.  

HelenJacobi.inside

Do you have set working hours?

Generally speaking I have a fairly normal working week, much like anyone else. Some client events require being away from home, or attending an evening Board meeting and I enjoy the change of scenery. 

About two years ago I gave myself a strict talking to about weekend working and have reclaimed back that precious time as my own. The only business-related work I do out of hours now is the fun stuff, like writing articles for industry publications, or researching new opportunities.  

How do you make sure you're focused and never get distracted at home?

Having a good supply of great coffee!  We're coffee lovers in our house so I make sure I step outside a couple of times a day with a cup to gather my thoughts and focus my mind. It's often the time when I get a flash of inspiration on how to tackle a challenge.

What was it like at the start?

A complete novelty, which I suspect is the same for most people. No sweaty tube journeys, queuing for a coffee, or office politics. It was brilliant! Then after about a month, reality set in along with the realisation of having no guaranteed salary at the end of the month. That certainly focuses the mind and keeps you motivated.

What's the worst thing about working from home?

Being distracted by household chores, so I get them out of the way first thing. 

What's the best?

Several of my neighbours also run businesses and we're lucky to live in a very communal environment, so there's usually someone around if I need to bend an ear, or vice versa. 

I always joke about life when I had a 'proper job' but in all honestly, it doesn't get any more real than when you're ultimately responsible for chartering your own destiny. Having happy clients is what it's all about.  Also, I get to travel nationally and internationally several times a year, which I love as it gives me a chance to spread my wings and get a fresh perspective.

Would you ever go back to working in an office that's not at home?  

I occasionally work in a client's office at the start of a new relationship. It's massively helpful to get up to speed quickly and work with your client at the coalface, understanding how their business operates and how we can best support them.

On balance though I love having my office at home and I wouldn't change it for the world. 

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