With the economic downturn I've noticed of late more and more discussion on various networks about worry about work dropping off, finding part time jobs and so on.

I think it's important to remember this: as virtual assistants we are in business. We are business owners. This means we are responsible for our work/cash flow and that can be hard to get your head around if you've only ever been an employee in the past when work was simply handed to you and you were paid whether you were working or chatting in the tea room.

Once you make that distinction, you then need to do something about it - that means actually getting out and networking. You can't hang a shingle, place an ad in the Yellow Pages or local paper and expect the phone to start ringing. You need to get out and talk to people. So joining a local Chamber of Commerce is one place to start - also the various business and women's networks and BNIs that are out there. If you have a niche - like legal transcription - target just that niche.

Then don't underestimate the power of online networks. If you speak to many of the long-established VAs they will tell you they are members of at least three online networks - here and overseas. You can't join one and expect it will do everything for you. Getting your online presence established is just as important as your 'traditional' business presence.

Business ebbs and flows. You will experience peaks and troughs where things are sailing along nicely and then all of a sudden a client will drop off and you're left wondering what to do now? So your networking and marketing never stops. This is where online is particularly useful.

Running my own network (Australian Virtual Business Network) I see all the time members who stay for a year and then leave because they either aren't getting job leads or they can't afford the membership. Whilst I completely understand the latter, it's important to remember how effective membership of these networks is. You get a directory listing - which directly impacts your SEO, meaning you can more easily be found online - and other virtual businesses get to know you. It gets your name and business name out there. You are "riding on the back of" any print and online advertising/marketing the network is doing. Naturally, actually participating in them is also important - you don't just join and then sit there mute. Participating in discussions is how the other members get a feel for you, your business and what you're trying to achieve. This then leads to referrals and potential leads because you may be able to help out a client who contacted the other VA.

But a note on leads - it's important not to join networks just for the job leads. This goes back to that employee mentality: as a business owner you cannot expect jobs to be handed to you. You need to take the initiative and go out there sourcing the work yourself.

Also, don't underestimate pro bono (or free) work. This year I've done a bit of pro bono work for contacts I've made through various networks - including Facebook and Twitter. In exchange I was given an interview on an internet radio show and the other is helping me break into author assistance.

I appreciate that it's important to have cash flow - which is why I always say keep (or get) a part time job for as long as possible but don't neglect building your business.

And if you are struggling and you get referrals from other VAs it is SO important to follow through with these. I know it sounds pretty straightforward but I can tell you from experience that it seems these days business owners aren't prepared to take "just anything". I've had a few leads knocked back because "They're not my sort of client" or "I don't really want to do that kind of work" or "I'm too busy right now" (see above: 'right now' doesn't last that long and you need to look to building a relationship for the future). When you're starting out ANY work is good work. I won't do on site work for clients, but in the early days I was working 3 days a week in a client's office just to get by. That kept me going for 12 months and I made contacts there who became clients when I left.

ALWAYS, always look for the bigger picture in things. It may not be what you want right now but invariably leads on to other things if you remain open to the possibility. We all have a vision for how we want our business to be. Don't lose sight of that vision but for heaven's sake don't be so proud as to knock back work that will keep you afloat while you work towards your goal!

And remember - your marketing efforts should never cease. Just because you have a full workload doesn't mean you always will. And business is always in a state of constant fluid motion. Be prepared to be flexible and flow with it. I started out offering executive VA services to non-exec directors. Within 12 months of targeting that market I was working full time and gave up my part time job. Four years later my business morphed into a medico-legal transcription practice - because THAT'S what the market wanted and my directors all went in different directions. If you don't evolve and change with the flow of the market then yes, you will be looking for a job elsewhere in a very short time.

Remain positive, flexible and available - the three most important things to keep you going through the natural peaks and troughs of being in business.

Author's Bio: 

Award-winning virtual assistant, Lyn Prowse-Bishop, MVA ASO CAVB PVAA is owner/manager of Executive Stress Office Support (eSOS), specialising in medico-legal digital transcription, virtual author support and executive personal assistant services for clients around the world.

One of Queensland’s most respected and well known virtual assistants, Lyn is also founder of the Australian Virtual Business Network, serves as Australian representative on international committees looking at standards and certification for the VA industry, and is a foundation steering committee member of the annual Online International Virtual Assistants Convention. She hosts Australia’s first internet radio show/podcast for the VA industry – Virtual Business Show – and is Queensland representative on the Board of Independent Contractors Australia.

How can you spend less time in the office and more enjoying life? Visit her site or email lyn@execstress.com to find out.