Clair Abrey is a Virtual Assistant – and a new Director of Buy Local Norfolk. Ahead of the social enterprise’s first virtual meeting, she explains it’s more important than ever to buy locally – and what led her to set herself up as a VA last year
I feel I’m very blessed and fortunate. First and foremost, I have an incredibly loving and supportive family. My husband of 17 years is my soul mate and I have with two amazing children. My daughter is 16 and she is creative, thoughtful and hard working. My son who is 11 is playful, fearless and caring. Both have an amazing sense of humour! I have some incredible friends and our general rule is that we don’t do anything unless it involves food in some way – and it’s great to have the loving support of my immediate family. But life has also come with its challenges at times. I lost my mum when she was 44 and I was 19. I grew up, and continue to grow, without her love and guidance in my life, and I’ve really missed her presence at pivotal moments. I have however, drawn strength from mum herself, and from not having her with me. It’s continually makes me appreciate many of the things we often take for granted.
Life was very different for me at the start at the pandemic. I had a completely different career as a childminder which came to a grinding halt the moment Lockdown One was announced. I did know that a change was on the horizon due to my health anyway (I suffer with a hip dysplasia and subsequently mild scoliosis causing muscular skeletal issues) but I didn’t expect it to come to such a dramatic halt so soon. In the years leading up to the pandemic, childminding gave me incredible flexibility and an opportunity to care for my children as well as building a successful business. There has been lots of reflection over the last couple of years and for my career, it gave me an opportunity to start another business using skills that I had gained in previous careers and build on those to create a Virtual Assistant business that I knew would be amazing.
Lockdown One was hugely pivotal for me. Doing the job I was doing at the time as a childminder, I hurt all over and all the time. Being shut down for three months was a real eye opener to how my body could feel. Childminding is such a physical job and I had got used to living with the underlying pain and discomfort on a day-to-day basis. But suddenly being relieved of those symptoms gave me the clarity and relief of the symptoms that had just become part of my daily life. Whilst I knew I needed to make a change; I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice the flexibility that being self-employed enabled me to have. I worked at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for 11 years and during that time I worked as a PA in Trust Management, Lead Administrator for Agenda for Change and PA to the Head and Neck Directorate, so I knew I had skills to tap into and it seemed like a natural transition to find out more about being a Virtual Assistant.
Gwen, who owns Curlew Secretarial Solutions, was my link to the VA world. I’ve known Gwen for 30 years and I have followed her VA career with fondness and admiration for a long time, so when that moment came, I asked if I could give her a call to discussed what being a VA entails; the good, bad and the ugly. Our chat was so inspiring, and Gwen kindly put me in touch with Amanda Johnson, a VA mentor who owns VACT, and from there I decided to undertake her VA Mastery course. The course covered everything from business strategy, tools and technology – to client management, marketing, financial planning and working with associates.
I’m not someone to go into things half-heartedly so I wasn’t happy just to start a VA business and wing it. Having run my own business for the last eight years, I knew the basics of running a business, but I wanted to give myself the best possible start to make my new business a success. Undertaking the Mastery course wasn’t easy at all. It took me nine months to study and do the work needed while I still worked as a childminder. I may have had the general understanding of running a business, but the course enabled me to really get into the bare bones of what it meant to be a VA. Whilst it was a significant investment in time and money, doing the course was the best possible move I could have made. I also saw it as something that would give potential clients confidence in my ability, and I felt that undertaking an CPD accredited VA course would underpin my skills and ability.
It was a great honour to be recognised from over 40 applicants in my category of Best Newcomer VA in the VA Awards. Given that I had only been in business 13 months, being runner up out of five finalists is a huge achievement and I am so proud of myself.
A good VA listens. It’s one of my core values to listen. I want to listen to my clients, to understand their mindset, what they want for their business, what’s important to them and what they want from me as their VA as they bring me into their tightly protected business bubble. If you can’t get the listening bit right, how can I convey my client’s business in the same way they would?
I also believe you must be a great communicator. Talking openly and honestly with my clients is so important. Being organised and being able to manage my time is essential too.
I am a VA who cares passionately about people. I genuinely like to help. My clients set up their business because they had a passion and part of my job as their VA is to enable them to be able to focus on the key elements of what made them start their business in the first place and let me focus on some of the administrative burden.
I first heard about Buy Local Norfolk soon after I launched my business in September 2021. I went to a taster session and enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere and it felt like a natural place to be. The ethos and values that were apparent felt aligned to my own and I liked that. I subsequently joined as a member in the December and have attended the monthly networking sessions ever since. Since joining, I’ve also onboarded clients through being a BLN member.
BLN is a social enterprise that is run by Norfolk small businesses for Norfolk small businesses. When a small business joins BLN, they are becoming part of something important. BLN is a community of likeminded people who all run an independent business (or businesses), rooted in Norfolk, with a shared interest in strengthening the local economy. Collectively we raise awareness amongst other businesses and consumers of the benefits of buying local, in turn raising the profiles of our member businesses and the Buy Local Norfolk brand.
As a new Director of BLN, I’m excited to bring some fresh eyes and new ideas and I’m hoping my admin and organisational skills can help support the BLN team. Every staff member and director involved in BLN is passionate about helping the Norfolk economy and championing our own wonderfully unique and diverse Norfolk small business community.
Buying local is something I’ve become a lot more passionate about and consider more now as I’ve got older. However, I’m not a saint at it. I’m a busy mum of two children, run a business, look after a home and I don’t always get it right. But I do try and buy local whenever I can. I’m also very aware of the current cost of living crisis. People, me included, are watching their money closely. We are being stretched in more ways than ever and I’ve really started to be more conscious about looking at prices and cutting a few off bits out here and there as prices, especially food, rise.
I do feel that there is a natural assumption that buying from some of the bigger retailers is going to give you the best value. I think exploring what’s available to you locally can sometimes be quite surprising and give you good value for money and getter quality, all whilst supporting your local community.
Whilst it sounds a bit cliché, it’s paramount to me to make sure I can look after mine and my family’s wellbeing – physically, mentally, and financially. It’s in the back of my mind that I want to continue establishing my business, making it sustainable for the long term and seeing where that can take me. My family are my priority in everything that I do though, so I’m happy for my business to grow in line with my children getting older. This will also enable me to really think about what I want for me, my business and in life, whilst still making sure I have time for my children before they get too grown up and not need me at all! For Sterling VA Services, I want to continue supporting and championing other local small businesses and help inspire others to make choices that are right for them. I’ve got so much more learning to do, so much more in life I want to do. The bucket list grows every day in so many ways. I know only too well that life is far too short, so I want my future to be as full and abundant as it possibly can be, and I intend to make sure it is, honouring life and my mum in the process.
The first Buy Local Norfolk Lunchtime Virtual Networking meeting takes place on Friday November 18, from 12-2pm. Members, guests and anyone else with an interest in Buy Local are welcome. To book your place, please purchase your free ticket on Eventbrite and you will receive the meeting link via email two days before the event. Visit Buy Local Norfolk and Sterling Virtual Assistant.