Originally from California and now living in Hungary, Brandon Brown describes himself as the Swiss Army Knife of virtual assistants. Brandon finds interesting work from clients all over the world using UpWork. We talk about building trust with new virtual clients, productivity tips for staying motivated and social, and how to get started working online.
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Lisette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Today on the line, I have Brandon Brown. Brandon, you’re in Los Angeles right now, but you live in Budapest, Hungary. Is that right?
Lisette: Okay, great. And you’re a virtual assistant. That’s how I met you. It was through [Juergen Appalo – 00:20]. You’ve been helping him as a virtual assistant and others as well. And I really am interested in this virtual assistant lifestyle, why you’re doing it, what you’re doing, and how it works. So that’s why I invited you on the podcast, so thanks for being here.
Brandon: No problem. Happy to help out and tell you about it.
Lisette: Yeah, it’s exciting. I want to start with asking what does your virtual office look like. What do you need to get your work done?
Brandon: My virtual office is sadly nothing special, still working on it. But I do have a dedicated area in my apartment, desk, chairs, pens, paper, a lot of Post-it notes, and a big calendar.
Lisette: Okay. And what do you do with your Post-it notes? How do you use them most?
Brandon: Little reminders, put them on the wall. If I need to jot something down very quickly, then I’ll do that, something that I need to remember as opposed to typing it out on the computer.
Lisette: Yeah. There’s something about that tactile feeling of writing. Even now, you see my pen. I’m writing to keep track of things. It’s just so much nicer than typing for some reason.
Lisette: Yeah, there’s a different part of the brain that gets worked or something. So you’re a virtual assistant. What does that mean?
Brandon: I like to think of myself as the Swiss Army knife of virtual assistants. I really aim to do whatever it is that my clients need. And if I don’t know how to do it, then I would do my best to figure it out. So I really want them to forget whatever they’re stressed about or whatever it is that’s really concerning them.
Lisette: What kind of work does that tend to be, people who need virtual assistance?
Brandon: I’ve done quite a few things, but a lot of what I’m doing right now is website-based, like WordPress website management, social media postings, newsletters, communications with clients. I’m working on an e-commerce store.
Lisette: Oh, okay. Yeah, I can imagine. There are a lot of people that need help with that. I in fact hire people myself for WordPress management, newsletter, social media, all that kind of stuff. So how did you get into this?
Brandon: I moved to Budapest in September of 2015 to pursue a relationship. And I was looking for jobs in Budapest, but nothing seemed right for me. I have a background in mental health, so obviously, due to language barrier, I wasn’t able to continue that. And my partner at the time suggested I look at Upwork. And that’s how I kind of fell into it.
Lisette: And tell us about your experience with Upwork. I’ve had my own experience with that. You sign up. You fill out a profile. I guess you tag the things that you’re good at and what you’re looking for. But what does it look like when you are trying to look for work? I think there are a lot of people who’ve never experienced this.
Brandon: It could be a little frustrating, especially if you don’t have a really specific skill set, like a software engineer or you do business modeling or something along those lines. There’s a lot of competition in the virtual assistant marketplace. And a lot of people who post jobs are actually looking for cheap help. So waiting through that is always tough. Otherwise, my experience with it has been great. You build your reputation. One thing I find a little unfair is their rating system is done once the contract with whoever you’re working with is terminated. So if you had bad experiences towards the end, that reflects on your rating. And there’s not much said about the great part at the beginning or the middle.
Lisette: Right. So you tend to get what you ended with. So you could’ve done a really great job and then screwed one thing up at the very end, and then the rating… So it’s not a continual feedback system. It’s at the end of a project, however long it is [inaudible – 05:29] that’s what you get.
Brandon: Precisely, yeah.
Lisette: Yeah. I also had the experience. That some people are looking for the lowest bidder. But some people are really looking for qualified work. How do you weed out? How do you know? What’s your little, red flag that says like this is a real company looking for real work?
Brandon: There are a couple of things. First of all, I filter by what people are looking for, like expert help. I look at those. And then I take the time obviously and read the job descriptions. And you can tell when someone is looking for quality work by how much time they’ve put into their job post. In my opinion and my experience, that is very telling.
Lisette: The quality of post. Okay, so if there is just a one-liner, then you know, “Okay, this is not well thought through.”
Brandon: Yeah. And you can also look at the history of contractors they’ve hired through Upwork and the rate set they’ve been willing to pay and things like that.
Lisette: Yeah, okay. So there is sort of a feedback system in terms of there’s some level of transparency in terms of what they’ve done in the past and what they’re doing in the future and the job description. So when you get hired by a client, how do you normally communicate? Or is there a normal way? Is everybody different?
Brandon: Yeah, everyone is different, but mostly it’s through some type of messaging, not so much email but WhatsApp. We’ll get on a productivity platform and message there. That way there’s more of a thread of running history of what you’ve been talking about as you could potentially in email conversation have multiple threads happening and things get lost.
Lisette: Yeah. Or in our own inboxes, we’ve all experienced that. Is there a common tool that gets used a lot?
Brandon: No, actually. Every person that I’ve worked for has used a different productivity platform. I think there are some overlaps like Google Docs, Dropbox. But as far as to-do lists and that type of productivity platform, it’s all been different. We’ve had experience with Asana, Huddle, which I particularly didn’t care for, and Trello, which I love.
Lisette: What didn’t you like about Huddle?
Brandon: I didn’t like the user interface. It was very plain, working online, looking at a computer all day. You want clean design, something that’s [cleansable – 08:52] and easily digestible. It has really annoyed me, but you couldn’t upload a document to the task that you’re working on. You have to upload it to a central database and then go to the task that you’re working on and upload it from…
Lisette: That database to the… right, right, right, right.
Brandon: This is unnecessary in today’s drag-and-drop world.
Lisette: Right. I really like though. I think what you’ve just said is very important. When you’re working online all day, you want your tools to be good. The design matters. I mean for some people, it matters more than others. My husband loves the thunderbolt display on Apple because you can just see every pixel. And for me, I see it but it doesn’t make such a big difference. But when he looks at it, it’s really a thing. And these programs that have bad design, they can really drive people crazy a little bit, especially the user experience if you’re having to do inefficient things, especially over time. So I think that’s a really important thing [crosstalk – 09:58] tools to be considering.
Okay, so you’re communicating over some sort of chat or productivity platforms. What’s hard for you about working with virtual clients?
Brandon: What’s hard is getting to know them. Working virtually, it can be kind of impersonal and cold. And there’s a lot to be said of what can be gained or learned about a person from those experiences where you’re not talking about work, when you’re talking just about your day or experience you had over lunch that really annoyed you or something like that. So that has been a challenge because I wanted to make sure I’m doing things in a way that my client wants. If I’m unsure of how they would respond to something or handle [inaudible – 11:09] business matter, it makes it a little difficult.
Lisette: What percentage approximately of your clients use video to communicate with you?
Brandon: Very low.
Brandon: The initial conversation is video, but down the line, it’s either just over the phone or text.
Lisette: Interesting. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am surprised because I love video so much. So I am surprised. So how do you personally get to know the clients? What is it that you do to be proactive about that process?
Brandon: I try to be as chatty as possible. I ask them about their day whenever we have a phone conversation or video. [Seldom – 12:15] video chats and really just try to be friendly about things and throw my 2 cents in where appropriate. It’s to humanize the interaction a bit.
Lisette: Have you ever had a negative experience trying to do that? Has anybody responded?
Brandon: No, I don’t think so because I think everyone, to a certain extent, likes to be asked how they’re doing or what’s wrong and have the chance to vent. I know I do. So everyone has been pretty open to talking about other things that are going on.
Lisette: Okay. So what about the things that work really well? What do you like about this kind of work the most?
Brandon: I like that I get to build my own schedule. I get to work from anywhere. I’m currently in L.A., still working. And the variety of work that I get to do, I don’t have a job description. Right now I’m doing a lot of virtual assistant work, but in the past I’ve assisted a client with a presentation that was given to EU Commission on Higher Education. And I’ve done project proposals for a gentleman actually here in L.A. that was trying to open a homeless shelter. So I can pick and choose the jobs that I want.
Lisette: Oh, I see, right. So you can go after things that you would actually really like and then try and get those.
Brandon: Also, [inaudible – 14:16] some variety into my everyday life, I guess, [crosstalk – 14:24] over and over.
Lisette: Right, the repetitive tasks. I know that robots are going to be taking over, but I feel like they should be the ones doing the boring, repetitive work anyway. So let them do it and let the humans do the interesting stuff. So what about keeping yourself motivated? It’s you. You’re working in your apartment. Where do you work from? Do you work from your apartment mostly? Do you go to coffee shops? Where do you do your work? And how do you stay motivated?
Brandon: That’s been a challenge. I’ve had to learn to manage that. You’re correct. I do work from my apartment. And I’ve really had to try and stick to a schedule, waking up by a certain time, handling all the work from one client first and then the next client and following up on emails and things like that. It’s really important to set a schedule for yourself because I think it’s very easy to fall into a loungy lifestyle.
Lisette: I like that, falling into a loungy lifestyle, yeah, indeed. Did you have this instinctually right from the start? Did you set your own schedule right from the start? How did you learn that that was important for you?
Brandon: No, I didn’t do that right from the start. And it took me a couple of months. I started to work later and later during the day. And then there were things in the evening that I would want to do with my friends but then wouldn’t have the time because I was still working. And then I’m at home alone working all day. And then I kind of go out in the afternoon to see my friends.
Lisette: [inaudible – 16:28] all day working or lounging.
Brandon: I’m not a recluse. I need my person-to-person interaction. So I really had to set a schedule and stick to it.
Lisette: Okay. Do you have any other productivity tips that you use for yourself?
Brandon: No, that’s about it. I think in that regard, there are many different things that work for different people. But I think the most important thing is to have a schedule. However that looks for you, it’s fine.
Lisette: Yeah, whatever works. So if you’re a morning person or an evening person. It’s interesting. I want to talk about tools that you use for yourself. How do you keep yourself organized?
Brandon: Obviously, the productivity platforms online help. And for me, I do a lot of note-taking either with my Post-its or on the computer and my big calendar that I use.
Lisette: And you said you have a paper calendar. You have a physical calendar that you use.
Brandon: A desk calendar.
Lisette: Okay, so why a desk calendar? What about that works for you?
Brandon: Old school. And ever since I started working, I used to work in the mental health field, and there are like 60 clients that I had to keep track of – their doctor’s appointments, therapy appointments, social workers were coming to visit them, things like that. So it was just nice to actually write it down and see what the week or the day looks like.
Lisette: So why though a written one over an electronic one?
Brandon: Because it’s nice and big.
Lisette: Yeah, fair enough.
Brandon: I do put it in electronic one as well. But I don’t know. There’s something to be said about picking up a pen [crosstalk – 18:52].
Lisette: Yeah, I have a whole book full of notes. And I could put it in Evernote and tag it and look it up. I have like ten notebooks. I know exactly which notebook it’s in. I know where it is. And I even like flipping through the pages just to see the old notes too. So yeah, I understand. I’m just curious, that’s all.
Brandon: Yeah, I can take notes on the computer all day, but then going back and looking at them, it’s hard. I’d rather go back and look at something that I’ve written.
Lisette: Yeah, I think you’re not alone there. I would love to hear from people who are listening to this interview how that is for you. But I have the same. I used to take all my notes online. And once I started writing them down, I remembered them more. So I think there’s definitely something to that. I’m sure somebody in the education field can be like, “Oh, yeah, we’ve known that for ages and ages.” [laughs] Okay.
And I want to talk about how your friends, who have normal desk jobs, respond to this virtual… because you have a lot of freedom. So while you were working while they were going out, but eventually, you got the system down so that you were able to work from wherever you wanted and go out, I’m sure. So what do people say? Is this weird to them? Is it new? Friends and family, I should add. What does your family think? What do your friends think?
Brandon: My friends, most of the time, are quite jealous. Especially, this past summer, I would go out for a walk in the middle of the day or something or early in the morning, and they’re stuck in the office that may or may not have air conditioning. And just getting to do. I don’t know. In Budapest, there are a lot of spas and there are outdoor pools as well. So to do that in the middle of the way when it’s not so crowded is really nice and they’re particularly jealous of that. And my parents think it’s great. My family thinks it’s great. The jobs that I want and the jobs that I’ve applied for continually had the opportunity to learn something to improve my skill set. So as long as I’m improving myself and happy, they’re all for it.
Lisette: Would it be tough to go back to a normal desk job after doing this kind of work? How long have you been doing this now? I think September 2015, you said, right?
Brandon: Yeah, but I didn’t start in September. I started in February.
Lisette: Oh, okay. So it’s a little less than a year.
Brandon: [crosstalk – 21:45] a desk job. But it would be extremely hard because I’ve actually never really had a proper desk job when I was working in the mental health field. I was always up and about, taking clients to their appointments, walking around the facility, handle whatever was happening. So I’ve never been stuck at office desk. So this being stuck working on the computer virtually is the most office-like job that I’ve actually had. In an even more constrained environment than what I have now would be vey difficult for me.
Lisette: Right, once you’ve tasted the freedom, it’s hard to go back. I’ve done it before just as an experiment, so it happens. Also, they offered me so much money that my eyes were like boing! Then I was like, “Well, okay, how bad could an office job be?” [laughs] I didn’t last very long, but the money was fun. That can also be very tempting.
We’re getting towards the end of the time, but I want to ask for people who are starting out, who are thinking of becoming virtual assistants, what advice would you give them? You’ve already said it’s fierce competition. So I can imagine people were thinking like, “Oh, it could just be a virtual assistant.” Like well, you’re competing with a lot of people. So what advice do you have, things to think about before doing it, if it’s your son who’s about to go out and be like, “Okay, son, before you do this…”
Brandon: What I learned but didn’t do, and if I had to do it again, I would definitely do, especially on a platform like Upwork where it ranks you on your reputation and you’ll pop up as like a suggested freelancer based off of things like that, and your work history. So I would definitely go and if there are friends that you have or people that you know that need small jobs done, do that for them because people will filter their jobs. They only want Upworkers who have worked over a hundred hours and have over a certain percentage job success rating. So when you’re first starting out, both of those are zero. So the alternative is having friends hire you for jobs. The alternative is setting a low rate.
Lisette: Right. I remember. Actually, when I worked with Elance, in order to start and build my reputation, I had to start with a low rate. And then once I had a reputation, I could raise my rates.
Lisette: But the idea of having friends hire you, whoever hires you, do it through the platform and then also build your reputation. You’re right, building your reputation in the beginning is really hard.
Lisette: And are there other tools besides Upwork that you’ve used and liked?
Brandon: As far as acquiring jobs and work? No, actually. Upwork is the only one I’ve used.
Lisette: It’s the only one I’ve tried, to be honest. And I really like it. There are a few things here and there in the design that I would improve and a few things I would change, of course. But in terms of facilitating work between a company and an employee, it seems to be pretty good.
Brandon: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I don’t have experience with anything else, but it’s been great.
Lisette: And you’ve been able to make a living since February, finding work as a virtual assistant online. I think that’s pretty inspiring for people who are scared to quit their jobs and don’t know what else is out there. It sounds like some of the advice you would give is start building your reputation on some of these online platforms before you quit your job, and then you have something to fall back on.
How much work out there is there? Is there work for everyone? How stiff is the competition?
Brandon: In the virtual assistant realm, it’s pretty stiff. There’s always someone that will undercut you in terms of rate. But there are all types of work. I have a friend in communications who I’ve been pitching Upwork to because he doesn’t really like his job very much. I’m telling him there are people on Upwork looking for that corporate image revamps. They want to do a media campaign, but they don’t want to hire a marketing firm. Those are things you can do on the side to get going in the virtual work.
Lisette: Yeah. Actually, it’s a scary time for companies who have a crappy work environment because those of us who really care about the work we do and are passionate about what we do, there are alternatives now like Upwork where we can go and we can find the work that suits us best and work that we like. And maybe you get paid a lower rate than you would at some of these office jobs, but it’s worth it to have the freedom of working when you want and on the projects that you like.
Brandon: I think so. Going back to my friend, he’s been with this company for a little over a year. And in his team of five, they’ve had nine people come through. So there’s something going on there. And for him to be able to do the work that he’s able to and what he’s studied and not have that toxic environment would be great.
Lisette: Yeah. And I know he’s not alone. And I think you know also from working with Happy Melly and Happy Melly subject type things that many, many people hate their jobs. So there are two encouraging things out of this. One is if you hate your job, there are alternatives and start looking now. Don’t compete in the virtual assistants space because Brandon has got you. Brandon has got it covered. So do something else. Do something that Brandon is not doing [inaudible – 28:45]. But it’s nice to know that there are alternatives. And for companies who are listening, be aware that these alternatives are only becoming more and more common. So if you’re not treating your employees well or if your morale is low, I’d pay attention to that because those of us who can will leave, I think. That’s something I’ve been saying in my presentations to companies now. And I don’t think they believe me [crosstalk – 29:09].
Brandon: That’s very true. Numbers of people who live abroad and work remotely.
Lisette: Right. You’ve probably connected with a number of them. Being an expat in another country, there are probably a number of people that you’re seeing also. Has it been hard in terms of living in another country and doing this kind of work?
Brandon: Yeah, there are certain jobs that I haven’t been able to get because the information cannot leave the U.S., so Internet security issues. I apply for jobs mostly in the U.S. because I think most of them are in the U.S. but anyway, when they find out that I’m in Budapest, they’re kind of like, “What? Budapest?” It turns them off a little bit.
Lisette: What do you think it is about that? Because I’ve had that experience before where I failed to mention where I am because I know it’ll just distract people.
Brandon: [Fear of the other – 30:30], I don’t know. First of all, Budapest is not a big or well-known city in most people’s consciousness in the U.S. at least.
Lisette: Considered exotic.
Brandon: Yeah. I’m sure if I told them I was in London or Paris or Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, then they’re like, “Okay, where is Budapest?”
Lisette: Interesting. Oh, silly Americans [laughs]. I hear too. I hear that a lot, interesting. So do you try to keep the location from them as long as possible?
Brandon: My location on my profile is set to California. And I think that helps as far as getting invitations to interview. But usually, if not in the first letter I send to them, definitely by the second, I tell them. There are disadvantages to that such as the time difference, especially if they want you to be available from a certain time during their working day. [crosstalk – 31:56]
Lisette: [crosstalk] 1 a.m.
Lisette: Okay, super interesting. Very last question is an easy one. If somebody needs a virtual assistant and they want to get a hold of you, what’s the best way to do it?
Brandon: I would tell you find me on LinkedIn or Upwork. But Brandon Brown is probably one of the most common names in the world.
Lisette: Interesting dilemma, indeed. So let’s get specific.
Brandon: So I’d say send me an email email@example.com
Lisette: I’ll put it in the show notes too for people. So if they want that, then it’s easier. Great, so send you an email. If you need a virtual assistant, Brandon Brown is your Swiss Army knife of virtual assistant here to help. And because you’ve been working with Juergen so long and I’m a big, slavish fangirl of Juergen and his work, when Juergen is pleased with somebody, that says a lot. So I’ll tell people who are listening Juergen is pleased with the work. So you can already know that [inaudible – 33:04] already got you the highest referral that I know of being possible at the moment.
Cool, thanks, I really appreciate you taking the time today to talk to me and to tell us about your experience being a virtual assistant. Super interesting, and I hope it inspires a lot of people to quit jobs that they hate. Thanks so much.
Brandon: Thank you.
Lisette: All right, everybody, until next time, be powerful.