How do you go from freelancing to building an 8000 strong virtual assistant forum?
Tess Strand is the curator and creator of Virtual Assistant Forums, an online community for established and aspiring virtual assistants.
Listen to the following interview to find out how Tess built her VA community.
Say hi to Tess at virtualassistantforums.com.
Read Raw Transcript Now:
Success Harbor: Hi everyone, this is George Meszaros with Success Harbor and I have Tess Strand with me. Tess is the curator and creator of VA Forums; an online networking community for established and aspiring virtual assistants. Welcome.
Tess Strand: Good morning, thanks for having me George.
Success Harbor: Thank you for being here Tess. How did you get involved with the VA business?
Tess Strand: It’s a long story; I’ll try to keep it short. It’s a story I’ve told many times and it’s a fun story. I was living in India actually and I had run out of money.
Success Harbor: So how did you end up in India? That sounds pretty interesting.
Tess Strand: Oh, you want me to start at the very beginning. I was studying at the University of Washington, I was in the Comparative History of Ideas program and they have a great study abroad opportunity, you know, lots of different countries that you can choose from and I was approached by one of my advisors and she said “You have to go visit this place called Auroville in Southern India in Tamil Nadu”, and it just, it sounded amazing, it’s an intentional community and it was somewhere that I really wanted to be, so I went to India with my class on a 6 months visa and while I was there, because we didn’t travel with a philosophy professor, it ended up not being on point for me and I ended up sort of not being as interested in the schooling aspect but really interested in the community and in India in general and I decided I wanted to stay so I dropped out of school, came back to the states, sold everything I owned and went back to India on a 10 year visa and I ended up staying there for almost 4 years but during that time I had a few odd jobs. I would do radio voiceover for Bangla video, I was hired as a fashion model a few times, which was fun but really bizarre because I was wearing 80 pound Saris, you know I’m a white girl and I’m on the cat walk in this heavily beaded Sari but it was fun. In any case, I needed to find a regular income and so I looked online and I found a client in the publishing industry who lived in New York who had read a book by Thomas Friedman, ‘All about Outsourcing’ and so she was–, the irony was that she ended up hiring an American virtual assistant in India.
Success Harbor: And where did you find her? How did you connect online?
Tess Strand: She was on Craigslist actually. It was early days, it was quite a number of years ago at this point and I emailed her, you know, I told her what my situation was. I wrote her a real smart email, I told her that anything she had for me, I’d love to dig in and she hired me, and within a year, she had sent me so many of her colleagues that I was so busy, I was turning work away and anyways, that’s how I got started.
Success Harbor: Ok, so basically just by word of mouth you were able to get more and more clients.
Tess Strand: Yeah, the majority of my clients come to me on referral and now, at this point I’m referral only. Yeah, in the early days most of them came through that first client. I owe her a lot, she really–, she’s a huge cornerstone of my business, not only by virtue of hiring me and sending me her colleagues but just learning on the ply with her. I was new to the publishing industry and it was fascinating and it was a wonderful experience.
Success Harbor: It’s funny how one client can make a big difference in a business.
Tess Strand: Yeah she’s wonderful. I actually dedicated the second edition of my book for virtual assistants to her. Her name is Laura Dawson and she’s awesome.
Success Harbor: Great. So what were your reasons for starting VA Forums?
Tess Strand: That’s another story. So at about that one year mark, I didn’t even know that I was a virtual assistant really, I just knew that I was working with awesome people remotely and I had one client who, after a while, decided she didn’t want to pay her invoice and not having a lot of business experience, I sort of batted my eyes and said “Please”, and you know, I tried to talk to her about what might’ve been wrong and it turned out that she was just in a bit of a mood but I didn’t really know how to handle that and not having that experience led me to look online for people who had who maybe could give me some advice and I ended up finding 2 forums for virtual assistants that were in existence at the time and that was when the light really dawned on me like wow, I’m a VA. But the problem was, when I went to join the 2 forums, one of them denied me membership because I didn’t have 5 years admin experience in the corporate world and I was like, wait a minute, I’ve been doing this for a year, I’m really good at what I do, I’m turning work away, why wouldn’t you want me to be a part of your community? And that was really disturbing for me and then there was another community where the people just didn’t–, it didn’t feel very supportive. There wasn’t a lot of friendliness and I’m very social and I like to bring people together in a positive way and so looking at what was out there I thought gosh, maybe I should start my own forum and so I did.
Success Harbor: And what year was this?
Tess Strand: That was back in 2004. Wait, no, that’s 2007, my apologies. I think it was 2007. And so, I started out with a really simple installation via bulletin and started inviting people. I would watch the press releases, comes through Google’s news alerts, and I would literally invite people one at a time. “Hey, I started this forum, I’d love to have you join, come check it out. Congratulations on the launch of your business” or whatever it was they had sent out in their press release for their VA business and slowly, slowly over the course of a year or 2 it grew and the population grew larger and people started really contributing and I was also able to set the tone for the community overall and I hear 9 times out of 10 that it’s the most welcoming, supportive online forum that anyone’s ever found because when you start from scratch like that you really do get to set the tone for how people will interact and I insisted that it would be a supportive atmosphere. I’m not interested in telling people that they can or can’t be a VA. My job is to give them the information and they sink or swim of their own accord so…
Success Harbor: Yeah, so let’s talk about, you know, at the very beginning, I mean were you impatient at all? You know, you mentioned that you added people one at a time which sounds pretty normal but you know, at the same time, maybe you can’t help feeling like you know, this is never going to happen.
Tess Strand: Well, you know, at the time I was living in India and then we moved to Nepal and I lived in Iran for a while and all of those countries are, I mean they’re considered third-world countries so my income relative to my lifestyle was–, I was comfortable and I had plenty of time to devote to working on the forums so it didn’t bother me. If it was something where I was trying to do it to make money to support my family, there is no way. I mean, monetizing a community is notoriously difficult. It’s not impossible depending on what your niche is and how you approach and so it wasn’t about making money for me in the beginning, it was more about just getting people to participate and creating an awesome resource because I saw a need for it. There were so many people, if they told me that I didn’t qualify and I knew perfectly well that I did, even though I didn’t have those old school 5 years experience, I knew there was a market out there so it was a tedious process but not an uncomfortable one but that’s probably because I was living basically a vacation lifestyle; a work-vacation lifestyle.
Success Harbor: Yeah, so what were some of the metrics that you were looking at, especially maybe the first couple of years to know that you’re kind of on the right track?
Tess Strand: Right. Well, I have screen-shots from the very beginning where there’s like 5 people online and that was a big deal to me, to have 5 people on the site at one time and then it was 25 people and 100 people and 300 people and now we have thousands of people online and it’s a niche market so I’m not as big as a forum like Digital Point or anything like that but it’s active and for me, what really set the standard was watching people develop relationships and seeing them come back to the forums time and time again. For a long time, I knew who everybody was based on their user name and that I was good until about 1000 active members and then I was like, I can’t keep track of everyone anymore but for me, it wasn’t necessarily the number of people but it was the interaction, the contribution to the website and to each other; that for me was the defining line, that I knew that the site was going to be ok.
Success Harbor: So how many people are using VA Forums today?
Tess Strand: We have over 8000 active members and I not only curate the content, like I, obviously we don’t have any spam and that kind of thing but I curate the membership. I’m not interested in displaying inflated membership numbers. I mean, if I kept every single registration that we’d ever had, it would be 75,000 people but half of those are bots so you know how spam is…
Success Harbor: Yeah.
Tess Strand: Very prevalent on forums. So I’m really interested in maintaining that ‘close-knit’ feel even though it’s 8000 people, on any given day obviously they’re not all there and some people drop off and they’re removed later or they’ll want to come back on the forums later on so we have a membership of right around 8000.
Success Harbor: So now, basically there’s no way one person could curate it so you have some other members that help you with that?
Tess Strand: No I do everything.
Success Harbor: Oh wow, when do you sleep?
Tess Strand: You know the forum really runs itself at this point. It’s been running and online for long enough that I’ve developed a system where I don’t get very many spam registrations to begin with and when they do get through–, and there is a reporting feature so that a member–, if someone does see a spam post, they can report it and I get an email and so in that regard, my membership is my support in that way because I do get from time to time a note that says ‘Hey, so and so noticed this post, it looks like spam and then I can go in and take care of it but because of the way I set my system up, the way the members are introduced to the site when they first register and they have to read the rules, the community kind of etiquette, it tends to run very smoothly and I don’t have a lot of curation that has to be actively done anymore. I spend maybe an hour on average a day on the forums and that’s including making personal posts as myself as well as moderating new memberships and moving content around that needs to be moved around, handling customer service for the store and that kind of thing.
Success Harbor: Wow. That sounds pretty doable. So you have done something really amazing, I mean you’ve built a community with 8000 active members which is a big number, I don’t care what anybody says – to get 8000 people. So what were the things you did right that enabled you to build real community?
Tess Strand: I really believe that it was my attitude in welcoming people. If you create a welcoming atmosphere–, I mean people are intimidated by the idea of starting a business regardless of what the niche is and particularly when they come to a forum and they can see it’s really active and people are talking; as a new person, they’re going to feel like, gosh, I don’t know as much as these people, I can’t possibly have anything to contribute. What am I going to say? And so it keeps people from being active but because my forums are so welcoming and I make such a big deal about saying hi to people and the other members follow suit because they really do follow my example, I really think it’s the atmosphere that keeps people spending time there and coming back. We don’t do a lot of high-pressure sales, there’s not–, I don’t email my members very often. I do enough to support the forum because obviously it costs me money to run it and I don’t charge a membership fee but it really is based on true, supportive collaboration and I think that’s the trick, I really do.
Success Harbor: Ok. So how did you market VA Forums early on?
Tess Strand: Other than writing people emails, I’ve never–, well I can’t say I’ve never paid for advertising. I’ve probably spent $300 I’d say, on advertising for Virtual Assistant Forums in the entire course of the [line breaks 13:26] which is like 8 years at this point. So really for me, at this point, it’s word of mouth, kind of the same as my personal business; people, you know, and now we’re on Twitter and Facebook and that kind of thing so there’s more exposure but I invested very little in paid advertising and it was…
Success Harbor: And so unpaid advertising you mentioned Twitter–, and so how active are you on Twitter and Facebook and so on?
Tess Strand: Twitter for me has been an experiment that is always changing. For a long time I ran the Twitter handle as the Virtual Assistant Forums and I had a very removed approach, like it wasn’t my face, it wasn’t my name and I had the same approach on my forums as well because I wanted it to be about the community and not about me. I mean I’m there to help people but I’m not a guru. I’m the last person who’s going to say I’m an expert at virtual assistance. I’m good at what I do and I can–, I’m good at finding answers but I’m not interested in being a talking head. So it’s always been about maintaining the cohesion of the community and so I had that same approach with Twitter and after a couple of years I realized, you know, people really want to know who I am and they respond well to me and I’m open and I try to be honest and friendly and so I recently changed my Twitter handle so that it’s my own name, my own picture and it’s–, but I’ve also branched out in what I discuss and what kind of information I share and how I interact on Twitter. Facebook is still…
Success Harbor: So what did you change on twitter then? I mean you changed your handle but…
Tess Strand: It’s a more personal approach, I’m more personal. I talk directly to people, I have conversations. It maybe gets silly sometimes you know, I interact like, there’s a couple core VAs on my forums who maybe teach my classes or they’re working on writing books for the forums. They’re kind of high profile and I interact with them a lot, we’re good friends and so it’s kind of fun to get on; there’s a more personal approach to it. Facebook and…
Success Harbor: So you are the brand right? It’s kind of like a Martha Stewart of; I mean it sounds to me like you did not want to be the brand initially but now you are the brand.
Tess Strand: Right, I’m slowly starting to own it. I went to a conference in San Diego with some fellow virtual assistants, it was with Marie [inaudible 15:51] and the whole thing was about your message and owning your story and I thought if I’m really going to keep Virtual Assistant Forums alive I can’t keep running it like it’s a bot because it’s not a bot, it’s real people and–, well they’re interacting with each other and I don’t need to be the president of the club but being visible and being present I think helps keep moral up and helps keep people interested and active. If they feel like I care about the site; which of course I do and I’m making time to be there then they’re more likely to participate so…
Success Harbor: And this is so interesting to me because you know, I’m one of the founders of Success Harbor and you know it’s something that I think everybody struggles with; do I want to be the brand or do I just want to be the creator and I don’t know if there is a right answer but it’s just more of like the process of making the decision is what is really interesting to me.
Tess Strand: Right, yeah there may come a time when I put myself up in the logo section of the forums. It’s highly unlikely. It’s just not how I operate and I would much rather let other VAs take the limelight and own that spotlight and because there are so many smart people out there, it’s really important to me that it’s not just about me.
Success Harbor: Yeah, you mentioned that you attended an event in San Diego; do you put on webinars or seminars for VA Forums?
Tess Strand: I have been asked to do a live event for the forums in person for so many years and it just isn’t something that I’ve had time to organize; it’s on my to do list, it’s something that I work with my key VAs on every once in a while. We talk about bits and pieces of how we could run it and obviously when I attend other events I didn’t think about doing that kind of thing. I would love to be able to do it, I went to the World Domination Summit last year and that was a big inspiration. We do online events and I always have since the very beginning of the website. Some of them were maybe more old school than others; like we had a chat room for a while where we literally just typing and talking to each other but they were always really busy and we had lots of attendance and now we do webinars and live classes and such. I did do a show; it was sort of an experiment, it was this year and we did three episodes and I’m definitely planning to start it up again but my daughter, she’s six and she’s home from school for the summer so it’s just not feasible for me right now, I’m thinking I’ll probably jump in again in September.
Success Harbor: You have better things to do right now ok.
Tess Strand: Sure, I’d rather play with the water-guns outside.
Success Harbor: Makes sense. So let’s talk about; I mean so far it sounds like everything was pretty easy and all that but I’m sure there have been some challenges, I’m sure there are some challenges now so can you share some of the challenges that you had to overcome from the beginning of building VA Forums?
Tess Strand: Sure, in the beginning spam was a big problem and that’s why I have all of these processes in place that walk new members through so that we don’t have that problem. There were some interesting conversations with the founders of other forums online who weren’t very pleased that I thought I was qualified enough to run a forum for VAs, that was hard.
Success Harbor: So they actually called you out?
Tess Strand: A little bit yeah, every once in a while I get an email from someone who’s like “Did you see what so and so said about you on twitter?” I don’t play that game though I’m 40, I’m not in high-school so I don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff but yeah there’s some people who have a little–, it’s frustrating for them I think because I don’t make rules. Again my job is to provide information, it’s not my job to qualify you as a VA, it’s not my job to create a certification. I’m not interested in telling someone they can or can’t be what they’re interested in trying to be. In this day and age we get to invent ourselves and reinvent ourselves everyday if we want. The internet makes it possible to discover new avenues for career and income that–, I mean I’m the most surprised of anyone that I’m good at business, it just wasn’t something that I thought I would ever do and so who am I to say. So that was hard because I like to be liked you know, everyone likes to be liked and it’s hard to feel like you’re being judged but I realized pretty quick that it’s not worth the energy to get involved in that stuff and if I keep focusing on doing good work on my website I don’t need to worry about the static that’s out there. Other than that, I would say monetizing the forums when I realized the server is quite large as we got bigger and bigger so my server is about $200 a month and that is an expense and there’s other small things that I pay for once in a while. So monetizing the forum to make sure that it was self-sustaining, that was hard, it took a while. First I started…
Success Harbor: So talk about that, how do you generate revenue with VA Forums and what was hard about it?
Tess Strand: Well when I first started the forums I made a big deal about how the forums would always be free. It was really important to me that the base of information be accessible at no cost and because of that I can’t now go in and charge a membership fee because I want to stand true to my word so I’ve had to get really creative and what I realized was that a lot of people were asking the same questions over and over again or there were similar themes and worries that people had about how to get their business organized. And so I went through and created an outline and I ended up writing a book called ‘Become a Virtual Assistant – The Virtual Assistant Forum’s Guide to Success’ and that is what sustains to forums at this point and we have it available as a PDF and it’s also in kindle version and we have a paperback version now so adding those products has helped and then. . .
Success Harbor: And then you haven’t; I’m sorry to interrupt but you haven’t considered having a free membership and then creating a premium membership where you have additional, maybe your book and additional things?
Tess Strand: I have, I definitely have but I feel like I would be fudging my original commitment to free if I did that because to take out certain sections of the forum and make them premium would restrict peoples access and so I feel like if they’re going to invest in their business; if they want to come through the forums and find the information and do the work then fine I’ll give them access. We also have a directory; so it’s a paid directory that help support the forums and then I built, with some other VAs, we built classes around my eBook and then we had other VAs come in like Luz Donahue did a social media class and I have somebody right now working on a multi-virtual assistant business class; we have a WordPress class and they’re soon going to be on demand, for a long time they were live 6 week classes so that helps monetize so I pay my teachers and then I take a cut. And then at the store people in our industry can submit products to sell and I run it kind of the same way Amazon does where the authors take 70% and that the store takes the 30% cut, payments go directly to the author though so that I don’t have to deal with the taxes, but that’s just how…
Success Harbor: Sounds good.
Tess Strand: All of that help support the forums and keep it online and then I run AdSense as well. I try to do it in a minimal way but it’s on there and all of that together helps pay for the server and then some, so…
Success Harbor: So how many visitors does your forum get a month now?
Tess Strand: That’s a really good question; I have not looked at my analytics for probably 2 years.
Success Harbor: Oh wow.
Tess Strand: Yeah I’m so focused on content and just how people are doing and making sure that we’re listening to what people want and don’t want and making sure that those opportunities exist, I just don’t, I don’t pay attention to that.
Success Harbor: So how do you differentiate between noise and something that you need to pay attention to when you listen in your forums?
Tess Strand: It’s pretty clear, I mean there’s nothing on my forums that I would consider to be noise.
Success Harbor: Like when you need to make a change, you know like if some people say stuff, do I really need to make a change about my forum or this is just–, you know what I mean so how do you know when to make a change?
Tess Strand: You know I don’t get a lot of negative feedback where somebody–, when we changed the design…
Success Harbor: It could be positive; it could be any kind of feedback.
Tess Strand: When I changed the design, it used to be purple and I got really tired of this purple because on some peoples screens it was turning up pink and I was like no that’s not ok so we changed it, I changed it to what it is now. I got some interesting feedback from people, we haven’t changed the menu at all and people were like ‘I can’t find anything’ and I said but I didn’t change anything except for the color so it’s funny, people are finicky. Yeah, early days people were–, there was like a non-interactive write up that explains the difference between having an employee and a virtual assistant and it sort of did a cost comparison and [line breaks 25:53] something that was interactive because everyone charges a different fee so to have something that’s pre-written doesn’t work for everybody. So we; my developer at the time, created a custom calculator for me that people can install on their websites and that they enter their company name and it sort of builds this ajax calculator that they can put on their website that helps clients calculate how much they’ll save by working with a VA and it explains that VAs; there’s some pre-written text on the left that explains that VAs don’t, you don’t pay for their insurance and you don’t pay for lunch breaks and vacation time and that kind of thing so those kinds of things have come into development because people ask for them and a lot of the products in the store is because people have asked for them, people wanted like a simple retainer contract that they could download and use and so all of that’s in there and we have one for UK, one for Canada, one for US, people were having trouble pulling together like a client welcome packet so I created just a small product that they can use with templates that they can edit. It’s really just paying attention to–, when I see the same question being asked over and over again I know that we either need a product, a course or some kind of download whether it’s free or paid.
Success Harbor: Yeah, that makes sense, everybody talks about you know now they talk about the lean start-up model, to listen to your customers and based on that you should create a product, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
Tess Strand: Right.
Success Harbor: So what do you think is the biggest misconception of people that try to hire a VA for the first time?
Tess Strand: Well I would love to say that it’s the idea that everyone sort of cheat because there is a market of VAs overseas, there’s these big call-centers where you can hire a virtual assistant for $3 an hour and I think a lot of times there’s a disconnect for clients in the business world where they don’t realize that hiring a VA really is an investment in their business and hiring someone who isn’t a native English speaker, it can have ramifications and also when you hire someone out of a call-center you may get a different assistant the next day, you may not have the dedicated assistant and so there’s always that learning curve of you know, let’s look at how much you charge as a client. If the client is charging a hundred or $200 an hour for their services it can be a good investment; to spend $35 to $50 an hour on a VA who’s going to get in and take care of them and do [inaudible 28:39] for them, handle the things that are cluttering up their day so they have more available hours. And so for some people that’s a learning curve, the bigger the industry gets and the more exposure it gets the better that relationship with that type of information become. I think there will always be sort of a gap there where you have to explain because some clients have gone to work with the VAs overseas and had great results and some of them they come back to you in three months and you have to do the work again at the higher rate and they end up paying for it twice because they ended up with a bad provider so there’s always that.
Success Harbor: Yeah, so what about on the other side; what do you think is the biggest misconception of someone that wants to get into the VA field for the first time. What is you know maybe like the biggest one that sticks out to you?
Tess Strand: Yeah, well I think it’s the idea that’s plug and play. It’s not a plug and play career, it’s definitely not. I can’t open my computer and make money, it doesn’t work like that. If you’re going to support someone else’s business you have to be able to build a business to begin with and so a lot of times people join the forums and they’re like do I really need a website, do I really need a contract, do I really need a business name; yeah you really do. If you’re going to support; especially in the online world if you’re going to be supporting coaches and real estate agents and retailers and consultants and whoever it is that you are going to be working with, these people are online, they expect you to know what you’re doing. You need to be present on social media and that kind of thing if that’s what you’re going to be offering and so the idea that it’s a plug and play career is a common issue and the whole first chapter of my book is devoted to explaining. It’s not a hobby, it really is about helping people have better businesses make money and also doing something that’s rewarding for yourself. So you know there’s a lot of work at home scams out there and people get this idea sometimes that they can–, ‘Oh I have internet’ like that’s all it takes, it’s not quite that simple.
Success Harbor: Yeah it’s like treating it like a real business.
Tess Strand: Yeah because it is, it is a real business and you’ll be taxed accordingly so you better treat it like a real business or the IRS will come after you. That’s the other thing; if you don’t play by the rules then you get audited.
Success Harbor: Sounds good. Tess I want to thank you for coming on Success Harbor today to share your story with VA Forums, how can people find out more about you or what you do and your book perhaps?
Tess Strand: Well thanks. I’m on LinkedIn under Tess Strand; I love growing my connections there, it’s an awesome place to kind of watch what my colleagues are doing and my clients as well so LinkedIn is probably my favorite place to connect. Virtual Assistant Forums is on Facebook; I’m not. Also I’m on Twitter under the handle @TerraceStrand, Terrace is my legal name so it used to be @VAForums which is confusing for people but like I said I made that transition recently. And then obviously virtual assistant forums which is virtualassistantforums.com and we have a store that you can check out, all the books and classes are listed in there and they’re also on Amazon.com so lots of different places to connect.
Success Harbor: Well thank you very much Tess and everybody go and check out virtualassistantforums.com and hopefully you can come back in the future maybe next year and share how everything is going and how you’re growing your community. Thank you.
Tess Strand: That’ll be great, thank you so much George. Happy Monday.
Success Harbor: Yeah you too, bye.
Tess Strand: Bye bye.
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