Kathy Goughenour still remembers the shock she felt when, after following a supervisor’s advice and getting an MBA in marketing so she could get promoted, he told her the “real reason” she wasn’t going to move ahead: “You laugh and smile too much.”
Goughenour had enough. Although she was still earning nice raises as a marketing manager, the stress of corporate life was wearing her down. “I was literally giving myself a heart attack,” she says.
Ready to take the leap into self-employment, Goughenour walked into the same boss’s office one day and handed him her resignation letter. “You’re making the biggest mistake you’ll ever make,” he told her. “You’ll never make this kind of money again.”
“Not only will I make more, but I’ll be happier than I’ve ever been before,” she responded.
That was in 1995. Goughenour tried direct sales after she left her job, but quickly realized she wanted to work from home. Her breakthrough came when, through a real estate broker who was helping her find a home, she learned about the then-emerging field of being a virtual assistant. A virtual assistant, often called a VA, is an administrative support professional who works remotely for clients, communicating by phone, email or videoconference.
That type of work sounded appealing, and she jumped into serving other real estate agents. She eventually started offering training and coaching to counterparts who were newer to the field, showing them how to master the business side of their work. After lots of experimenting, she hit the $500,000 mark by May of this year, up from about $300,000 for 2018. She celebrated hitting the half-million milestone by buying a Peloton bike and paying for it in full.
Based on current sales, Goughenour, now 62, projects $1 million in revenue for 2019 at Expert VA Training, her profitable business in the greater St. Louis area. Even better she can run it from a rustic cabin in the Missouri Ozarks, where she lives with her husband Tom and two Golden retrievers and enjoys visits from her six grandchildren.
“When I gave my notice, never did I even think I’d run a million-dollar business,” says Goughenour. “Women my age haven’t had many role models who spoke up and said, ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished. You can do it, too.’”
Goughenour is one of a growing number of Americans who are on their way to creating million-dollar, one-person businesses—or already breaking the $1 million mark. There were 36,984 nonemployer firms—those with no paid employees except the owners—bringing in $1 million to $2.49 million a year in 2017, up 2% from 36,161 in 2016, according to Census Statistics released June 27. That tally rose 38% from 2011, when there were 26,744. Most of these businesses are solo operations, but some are family businesses and partnerships.
Why do these statistics matter? Like Goughenour, many people realize that corporate life, once a path to economic security, isn’t what it once was and comes with stress that ultimately becomes intolerable. However, leaping into solo entrepreneurship is often hard for them. Many struggle because they don’t realize they need to make at least 130% of their old salary, if not more, to approximate their compensation package, due to the cost of benefits. And even if they do realize it, they don’t yet know how to break into the higher revenue categories.
Fortunately, the new Census data on high-revenue, nonemployer firms shows that many businesses have more revenue potential than the owners may recognize at first. The more we learn about how solo entrepreneurs are breaking $1 million—which, after taxes, often leaves them with a high six-figure take-home income—the more it will be possible for others to replicate their success.
Here’s how Goughenour built her successful business.
Make the most of your professional experience. After giving advice on website marketing to her real estate broker, and helping him improve his website, the broker told her something that would be life changing At that time in 2001, the real estate industry was an early adopter in using VAs, and many agents were looking for exactly the type of help she gave him.
Goughenour began doing free marketing training at local real estate agencies, then branched out into webinars to expand her reach. That helped her find work creating web content, such as blogs, for many agents.
“Blogging is really important to the success of their marketing,” she says— Goughenour created a membership site where they could access 20 blog posts a month that they could easily customize for their market and post on their websites.
Getting started was not easy. Internet speeds weren’t what they are today back then. “It was like the pioneer days,” she recalls.
But Goughenour was determined to build a six-figure business and applied herself to figuring out the logistics. Within a few years, she had 70 clients.
The business did well, but writing all of the real estate blogs ended up being exhausting. “You can’t imagine how burned out I was by writing blog posts,” she says. When someone approached her to partner on the subscription site, the Lead Booster Club, she ended up selling it to the potential partner in 2012.
Don’t be afraid to pivot. Meanwhile, in 2010, Goughenour shifted her focus to offering both administrative and marketing services to authors, speakers, trainers and coaches. Within the first month, the practice filled up.
As she grew the business, Goughenour narrowed her focus to mainly serving professional speakers. She learned through experimenting that fiction writers, an early target group, often lacked the budget or inclination to hire a virtual assistant. Nonfiction writers, though in a stronger position financially, didn’t gravitate toward hiring a virtual assistant as much as she expected, either.
Successful speakers, however, had the budgets to invest, wrote books on a regular basis and needed help promoting them. They turned out to be ideal customers. Her success in working with them showed her the importance of focusing on the right market.
“One of the first things you have to look at is ‘Do they have the money to spend for a well-paid VA?” she says. “Do they want to—do they see the value in paying for it? And do they have an ongoing need? Those are the three things I suggest people look at.”
Know when to outsource. Over the years as her client roster grew, Goughenour knew she needed help to maintain the level of quality she was delivering. She began subcontracting work to five other VAs referred to her by friends and contacts from her corporate career, training them in the processes she used and designating one with excellent organizational skills as their project manager.
It was then that she discovered how much she enjoyed guiding other VAs. “I fell in love with helping other women who were in the same position I was, not having people see their value,” she says.
Leverage what you’re learning. In 2008, Goughenour decided to turn her training system for subcontractors into an online course, offered at ExpertVATraining.com. The idea was to teach professionals to launch their own home-based VA businesses.
Goughenour had found that running a VA business could be very profitable. All someone needed to start up was a computer, a phone and the necessary software to serve clients. However, many of those who started the businesses, who were primarily women, sold themselves short by making mistakes such as undercharging or not setting boundaries with clients, she discovered.
“Women are so giving,” says Goughenour. “They really want to help.”
By showing her students how to manage their businesses in more profitable ways, such as delivering premium services for which they could command higher pay, she was certain she could make an impact. “I’m teaching them to become the 1%—the best there is,” she says.
The course took off. Today, the six-month program, her base offering, sells for $7,500, which the VAs can pay in monthly installments. It includes weekly Zoom meetings with Goughenour —to which she often wears tiaras and other quirky headgear—and one-on-one coaching, with unlimited email access to the coach. The message of her marketing for this and other services is, “What one woman can do, another can do.”
She carefully vets the VAs prior to enrollment, to make sure they are already running their businesses in a serious and focused way and can benefit from her help. “I don’t bring on anyone who can’t grow three times faster than they are now,” she says. Typically, that means turning away 25% of applicants.
Goughenour has worked with a business coach, Jennifer Kem, who is helping her to embrace the mindset of “progress, not perfection” to grow her business.
In response to demand from existing customers who wanted more extensive programs, Goughenour has added a Certified Virtual Expert program, which indicates to clients the VAs have earned additional credentials. It costs $67 a month to participate and maintain the credential. On the higher end, she has offered a one-year mastermind, which costs $15,000 a year, with 14 people currently enrolled, and an Elite Expert mastermind, which costs $25,000 and has six people enrolled.
One area of emphasis is directing her students into specialties. Many don’t realize that while a general VA generally can’t bill for more than $25 an hour, a specialist in an area such as social media marketing can earn $150 to $200 an hour, she says.
Identify your core customer. Goughenour has found that her program resonates particularly well with women in the 40-to-55-year-old age group, who are ready for a career change and have plenty of energy to build a business. A number of her clients are married to men with disabilities. They need to earn enough income to support a family but also seek the flexibility to manage their family life. One woman who posted on Goughenour’s Facebook page recently shared a story of losing her job as she juggled medical appointments for both her husband and child, who each have health challenges. She started a VA business to survive economically. “In just a few months, she has made more working from home per month than she did in that job,” says Goughenour.
Goughenour creates online activities that help bring her clients together, such as a “show-and-tell,” where they share things from their lives, whether it’s the latest scarf they’ve knit, a cake they’ve baked or a great story of their grandchildren. “I’m developing a community of women who truly support each other,” says Goughenour.
Now that she is close to an age when many people retire, Goughenour is still going strong in her business. She loves her lifestyle and has no regrets about leaving corporate America. She’s free to laugh and smile all she wants and go to yoga with her friends when she wants, with no career penalties—and she has plenty of reason to be happy. “I love what I do,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like work.”
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This Article first appeared in forbes