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Productivity / Growth

Scaling up. When is it time to grow your solo business?

If you’re a soloist wondering “when is the right time to get some help, where do I find the right person, and how do I afford them?” then you’re going to love the story of Sarah and Jo.

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Today, it’s likely you know Sarah Wilson as a New York Times bestselling author, blogger, entrepreneur and activist who has helped 600,000 people kick their addiction to sugar.

Just over four years ago however, Sarah was a typical soloist.

Between presenting jobs (she was just about to start filming on Foxtel’s ‘Eat Yourself Sexy’), Sarah was freelancing, managing her eponymous blog – and struggling to deal with the overwhelm typical of those trying to do it all themselves. Dealing with the avalanche of emails and opportunities in her inbox, sorting tech issues on her website, researching her blog posts and Sunday Life columns, and preparing for her Foxtel role around the demands of ongoing health issues (she has Hashimoto’s disease), became too much.

Scaling up meant it was time to get some help.

Sarah had briefly trialled an overseas-based VA as part of the life experiments she was doing for Sunday Life and found them helpful in assisting with the tech issues on her blog. But she knew she needed someone who was also Sydney-based if she was going to get the most out of an assistant.

"A good EA knows that their role is to make delegation a smooth process and to insist on it. "

So she put the call out to her community (a method she has used since to grow her team to what it is today.)

Help wanted: multi-media/writing assistant (paid position; two days a week)

My little business of one is expanding! Want to join my fun?

I’m looking for a super enthusiastic person to work directly with me, assisting me with the technical side of my blog and online offerings, as well as performing PA duties (coordinating schedules and my TV commitments, some research and banal things like going to the post office). So, it’s a bit of a girl/boy Friday position. The role could also include writing work (with bonus mentoring!), depending on the candidate.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah was swamped. She ended up short-listing 10 candidates but as soon as she met one Jo Foster, she knew her search was over.

“I was simply looking for someone smart and fired up and Jo was all of that and more from the moment I met her. I’m very indecisive with these things at times, but when a ‘right person’ comes along I’m hit with overwhelming certainty.”

What was it specifically about Jo that caught Sarah’s eye?

“Maturity. A strong sense of self. A sense of humour. I felt she had a certainty about herself that’d meant she’d provide eye-to-eye feedback on where I was going wrong or right. (I was certainly right about that!) The issue with advertising through community is you can often attract people who just want to be mini yous, or who want to leverage their own barrows, but Jo was not a sycophant.

Additionally, Jo had a blog that was unique and had its own voice. It was clear from her writing that we shared common ethical and people values.” (Now there’s a good lesson for anyone applying for jobs in the online realm.)

So that was that. Jo started with Sarah part-time … and then strapped herself in for a wild ride because three months later Sarah would quit sugar and we all know where things went from there.

They both laugh at how fast things progressed:

“Nothing was gradual. The changes seemed fast at all times, (which is something I seem to attract into my life because I thrive on that.) Thankfully Jo is somebody who likes to act as a ballast in those situations and ensures it doesn’t get out of control,” says Sarah.

Jo agrees: “Things certainly moved quickly – which was great. I thrive on a challenge, being busy, and feeling like I’m contributing to something important. So working with Sarah ticks every box (daily!) for me.”

In the very early days Jo was mainly responsible for helping with research for Sarah’s blog and Sunday Life column. She also played a big part in writing the first iteration of I Quit Sugar, an e-book that launched in September 2011.

Was it hard to delegate tasks to Jo in those early days?

“It’s always hard, in part because you feel guilty. But a good EA knows that their role is to make delegation a smooth process and to insist on it. Jo’s very much taught me this. It’s been a battle between us for years. I also think when you’re a sole operator for so long you become somewhat of a control freak and it requires a lot of trust to arrive at the point where Jo and I are today .”

Jo adds, “It can be a hard one, because when you’re a ‘personal’ assistant, you’re operating in someone’s ‘personal’ world. (Funny that!) So you just put your head down, prove yourself trustworthy and faithful, and slowly but surely things morph and grow. Before you know it, getting your boss to hand things over is no problem at all!”

So now that Jo has been in Sarah’s life for coming up on five years, is Sarah scared about losing her to bigger and better things?

“Yes, I’ve struggled to accept that Jo would want to continue working with me. It took me some time to accept that Jo’s career path could be that of an EA. However, Jo was more certain about this. And we’ve now settled into a good place where Jo’s role grows in tandem with mine.”

Jo (who is now full-time and actually had to advertise for an assistant of her own recently) says: “I’ve always been very certain and solid within myself that this is my role – supporting someone I respect and whose values and life choices/aspirations are ones I admire and aspire to. I’m very happy being number one at being the number two!”

So what makes them such a great team?

Jo says it’s the fact they’re completely opposite on so many things.

“I’m ordered and see things in a linear way. Sarah’s super-creative and jumps in all different directions. We do drive each other crazy but we’ve also both learnt to find the middle ground and to respect and value our differences. My order and structure allows Sarah more freedom and creativity. Her ability to thrive in chaos (or what looks like chaos to me!) forces me to go with the flow and be more adaptable.

I see Sarah’s wins as mine, too. Everything she puts out into the big wide world has something of me in it. I feel like I’m achieving when she is, because me doing my job well underpins her achievements.”

At this point, it’s likely every overwhelmed soloist is thinking: “it’s nice that Sarah Wilson was in a position to afford an assistant, but I sure can’t.”  So it’s worth remembering Jo’s arrival on the scene preceded the financial boon of I Quit Sugar by nearly a year.

As Sarah says pragmatically:

“Taking someone on always involves a sacrifice and risk in the early days. My approach to everything in business is ‘suck it and see’. I try to set things up to start out small and then leave the invitation open for expansion.

With Jo’s role, it was always advertised as a part-time job with room to grow (which happily suited Jo at the time). I was a freelancer so I set aside one regular contract (a weekly payment) as Jo’s wage. This worked for me because while Jo was working on stuff for my blog and business, I was able to write that column and keep paying her.

And things grew from there.”

Are you currently fighting overwhelm from scaling up? Could you do with a Jo of your own?

Kelly Exeter

(former Flying Solo Editor) is an author, editor and ghostwriter with particular expertise in helping non-fiction writers get their book babies out into the world. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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