Editor’s note: In 2009, Jean Issler gracefully segued the ending of one career into the beginning of a new one. Embracing the opportunity to start a work-from-home business, Jean became Office Genie, a virtual assistant for small businesses.
Starting a work-from-home business
What inspired you to start Office Genie?
I was laid off from my job after 21 years. Finding a comparable job and salary in my small town was difficult. I always thought that the only better job than what I had would be working from home, so I started my own work-from-home business in January 2009.
What first steps did you take?
I started by writing an extensive business plan and a resume.
The resume helped me focus on my skills and abilities. That way, I was ready to sell my skills to the people who could help me start the business, and to sell them to prospective customers.
I also needed the resume to conduct a job search in case I got lucky finding a regular job.
I also applied for help from Vocational Rehabilitation Services. My previous job was with the Department of Labor as an employment services manager. I worked closely with the Voc Rehab counselor in my office, so I knew that would be a good resource for me. They helped with funding, equipment and counseling to launch my business.
What obstacles did you face at the start? How did you overcome them?
My previous job was providing free job recruitment services. It took over a year for people to stop calling me asking me about job listings and wanting free resumes. But the real problem was educating local business people that I was an independent contractor — a small business — who needed to charge more than “secretary wages.”
This was resolved thanks to my first larger nonprofit client, an organization with a chapter in Holdrege. Many local business people were members. They got to know what my business was about and see my transition.
Finding a niche
How did you find your niche?
I started working with small businesses and nonprofits through my personal network, built from living and working in Holdrege for 25 years. A couple of my first clients were from referrals given by office managers down the hall from my office. One was a client from my previous job. A cousin referred one. My brother even hired me.
Several of my clients are/have been nonprofit volunteer organizations. A couple of them have larger regional memberships. I am the only paid staff member and I keep their records, do their email and social media communications, maintain websites. With volunteer organizations, leadership changes year to year. Office Genie gives them a consistent, dedicated resource to rely on.
We might start with one short project, for example compiling annual personnel evaluations, and they will come back the next year at evaluation time. Another might want to start a website and get on Facebook. We’ll get that done, then they realize we can expand to other social media and start a blog for not much more cost.
As I work with clients and get to know what their business is about, I can offer other services. I have diverse skills and offer a lot of services — from picking up your mail to writing a report to designing and mailing ad postcards — so I can be an all-in-one resource at an affordable rate.
Solopreneur business model
Tell us more about your business model.
Being a one-person business, it’s pretty simple: I work, I get paid. Seriously, though, I use the website and social media to stay visible to prospective clients. I network a lot by casually talking to people about my work.
I work on my own for the most part, but I do partner with an advertising copywriter for one client. Also, another partner and I have started a new online service and website, using GoDaddy of course, called It’s In Holdrege.
My overhead is low. I just need my computer, scanner, printer, phone and a notebook to do my work. I subscribe to online services for bookkeeping, time management, and a few specialized programs.
Can you tell us more about the tools you use?
Having the most up-to-date Microsoft software without having to buy the individual programs is convenient. I use Word, Excel, OneDrive, Publisher and OneNote extensively.
Other online tools I use include:
Todoist: Keeping multiple clients and their projects organized.
Paymo: Tracks activity on my computer so I can track actual time worked.
QuickBooks: For bookkeeping, credit card payments.
10to8: Gives clients the ability to initiate appointment scheduling online through my website and Facebook; sends them and me reminders of scheduled appointments.
Hootsuite: Almost all my clients and my own social media posting are done through Hootsuite.
MileIQ: I’m terrible at remembering to track mileage for business errands and trips to meet clients; this app on my phone tracks drives for me and I fill in the details later.
SendOutCards: Custom design and affordable mass mail advertising for clients. Also great for sending holiday greetings to clients. I also use it for individual birthday greetings and prospecting for clients.
What impact have these tools had on your business?
It’s now possible to find an app to help you do almost anything you need to do, given that you have enough money. But being a small business means you never have enough money. Thankfully, many online services recognize that and make services free or affordable for small operations.
Online services save money by saving space on my computer. I actually run my business on a tablet rather than a laptop.
What are your business goals?
I’m not really wanting to build a huge empire. I would like to have enough business that I could hire subcontractors who would benefit from the kind of independent work model I enjoy. They could be my backup, so that if I’m out sick, or actually get to take a vacation, they could cover for me.
How are you working towards that goal?
My philosophy is to enjoy what I’m doing, provide the best service, and to have fun along the way. I’ve probably lived two-thirds of my life by now. I’ve liked the jobs I’ve had, but I’m done with working with people I dislike, getting along with snarly supervisors, and being at work on time.
Now I get to choose my customers, choose the kinds of jobs I do. I do the best work I can for my clients and inject humor into my work because that’s who I am. I like to laugh and make others laugh.
Prioritizing what matters most
Was there a turning point that led you to where you are today?
Contracting chronic illness about 15 years ago completely changed my life. As the physical endurance of my body lessened, I changed psychologically from a people-pleaser and rule-follower to a person who prioritizes her life much better. I’m more tolerant of my shortcomings and those of others. I stand up for myself and look out for my needs better.
You mentioned prioritizing life. That can be a real challenge. How are you balancing your work and personal time?
I adapt my working hours to the rhythms of my body clock and the rhythms of my husband’s work day. I do client work when I’m primed to do my best work. I do routine tasks during the “off” hours when I’m more tired or off my game.
Adapting to my husband’s schedule is not hard because he has a set daily schedule with some added evening work. We don’t have children and try to see out-of-town relatives as time allows. Facebook helps us keep up with everybody.
The challenge for me is taking breaks from work. I have the regular work for clients going on, their week-to-week services. When there are one or two special projects, either for a client or for my business growth, I tend to get absorbed in the special projects to meet a deadline and I work extra hours in the evenings and on weekends for these projects. Sometimes they even take over my daytime and dreamtime thoughts if I’m working through solutions for problems.
At times like these, I have to recognize that I need to physically get away from the computer and even get away from the house to have a mental health break.
If I forget to do this, my husband will push me out the door to go do something with friends, or he will drag me out to a movie or shopping day. Even just going out on errands to go to the bank or pick up some groceries are good mental health breaks.
Getting my husband involved in my business in small ways is healthy for us, also. He works on air in radio, so he has a quick wit and creativity. I get him to help me with ideas and advice. That gives him a sense of investment in my business.
Leveraging core skills
It’s great that you’re getting your husband involved in your business! So he’s bringing some of that radio host talent to the table. What strengths are you relying on?
Planning skills — I’m able to see ahead/research what resources are needed and how they will be used.
Problem solving — I work to find a solution rather than walking away.
Creativity — Coming up with new ways to do things or new things to do.
Learning — Loving to develop new skills and absorb new information.
It sounds like you’re keen on evolving your business over time. Where do you see Office Genie in five, 10 years?
I want to have enough business to keep myself working full time, while having work for some more partners or subcontractors. As far as what types of work I’ll be doing, I can’t predict that. I’m doing a range of services now that I could not have predicted when I started. The business adapts as customer needs change.
Lessons learned, wisdom gained
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since starting your business?
Adapt. Pay attention to clients and trends in the business you are in. You have to adapt your services to what your clients are needing, not to what you think they need.
Any words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs?
Trust your instincts but ask for help and advice. You may have the greatest ideas for a product or service but you have do some homework. Take a class, learn from mentors, get help from business centers.
You don’t have to do things exactly the way they did, but you need to know the basics before you go on to blaze your own trail.