Time to Quit Your Day Job : The Story of Tawnya Sutherland

  • AUTHOR: Joseph Anthony
  • DATE: 07/19/2006

Tawnya Sutherland moved 5,000 miles across Canada to Vancouver, British Columbia.  A year later, she separated from her husband and found herself with three kids to feed, no contacts and no support in a city of 3.5 million people. 

“I grew up in the small town of Bewdley, Ontario, where there were 500 people and everyone knew each other. I lived next door to my parents for the first 32 years of my life.  I had a great support network and everyone knew me.”

Workin’ for the Man

Tawnya found work as a secretary for the school board, but quickly suffocated in the hidebound environment. “It was very frustrating to realize that all promotions were based on seniority, not quality of work,” she says. “I didn’t want to spend 20 years as a copy girl, only getting the opportunity to be promoted to a manager very late in my career.”

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She decided to go back to school to become a Certified Internet Marketing Specialist and Business Strategist, to build on what she had learned from creating 50 free websites for family and friends, a hobby she started back in Ontario.

The pace of work and school was brutal, but with the help of family and friends, Tawnya made it through. Soon, she found a position as the vice president of a small computer company.  She worked directly with clients and did a wide variety of things including marketing, web design and customer service. Then one day, the company president disappeared, leaving the company in limbo – and Tawnya and other employees without paychecks.

Open for Business

Tawnya desperately needed work. “The going rate at that time for my skills as an employee was $15-20 an hour,” she says. “I didn’t feel that was enough – I wanted more for my kids.” So she set up shop at home and did what she knew best: secretarial support and web design. In lieu of the money she was owed in salary from the failed company, she got computer equipment. She was able to bring some customers with her, and they became her first clients.

“I worked that way for a couple of years. I finally came across the term ‘Virtual Assistant’ on the web and realized that it was an actual profession.” 

Over time, Tawnya has built such a reputation as a “VA” that she now commands $100 an hour and has a three-month waiting list for new clients. “I have one client that is so afraid of getting off of my rotation that he often pays my minimum retainer even if he doesn’t use my services.”

To maintain balance, she chooses not to work more than 15 to 20 hours a week as a VA. She uses the remaining work hours to cultivate other projects. Her years of success as a virtual assistant have spurred her to do what today she loves most:  giving back to the field. She started VA Networking, a free membership service for aspiring and successful virtual assistants that offers information, support and an online store.

“There are a lot of single moms out there like me that are just looking for a break,” Tawnya says. “I didn’t have any support when I started, so I want to offer that to others. I tell them, ‘If I could do it, so can you!’”

Lessons Learned

Tawnya’s story certainly serves as an inspiration for all the single parents out there who desperately want to start a business, but there are also a couple of universally important lessons about entrepreneurship to be gleaned from her experience:

Get the training you need, even if it means short-term sacrifice

If you are crystal-clear about what you want to do and it requires training, you’ll have to make some sacrifices with your time.  Choose the best time to undertake something like school given your kids’ ages and your life situation. Maybe you’ll want to call upon a relative or neighbor who would be willing to step up and do some extra babysitting while you attend classes.

Make a 2,000 foot vertical career leap when you have the opportunity

It isn’t easy to go from secretary to vice president, but somehow Tawnya convinced her new employer that she was capable.  The new responsibilities stretched her and prepared her for the work she was to do as an entrepreneur.  It really doesn’t matter that the company crashed and burned; she got the skills and contacts she needed from the experience.

Put yourself out there

Although Tawnya’s desire to give back by starting a virtual assistant community comes straight from her heart, it’s also a tremendous business move.  She has positioned herself as an expert and mentor which significantly helps her professional image in the eyes of her clients.  She’s also packaged her knowledge in the form of a “how to” kit for VAs that will generate revenue to support her free community.

Draw on the strength you’ve developed from raising your kids alone

As many children of single moms would testify, there is a unique degree of challenge a single mom faces and Tawnya is no exception. But the struggle to provide for her family created a positive and powerful byproduct:  a person who is not afraid to face fear and do whatever it takes to reach her goals.

Pamela Slim is a StartupNation guest expert and an entrepreneur coach who helps people in corporate jobs break out and start their own businesses through her Escape From Cubicle Nation blog.

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