Ridiculously Useful - Email Strategist Val Geisler

What happens when we keep an open mind to the path we might take?
When we listen to the needs of others? When we experiment - see what works?
When we hire others? When we put our own lifestyle first?
When we just try and be ridiculously useful?

For Val Geisler the answers to these questions took her on a path from store managing to being an expert in a niche (with a diversion via motherhood on the way).
Testing the need. Building community. Taking care of herself.
Listening for the whisper of the other paths.

Being Freelance podcast interview with Val Geisler - Transcript


Steve Folland:      Let's chat to e-mail strategist, Val Geisler!

Val Geisler:        Hi, Steve. Thanks so much for having me.

Steve Folland:      As ever, how about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?

Val Geisler:        Oh, gosh. It was all my boyfriend at the time's idea, who's my husband now, so it was a good idea. I have a bit of a winding path to freelancing, which maybe a lot of people do. You hear in the corporate world about this corporate ladder everyone's climbing, right? The way that I see my path is a bit more of a spiral staircase where I'm still going in the same direction, it just looks a little bit different each time. My background is long, and not sordid, but different. I got started freelancing because at the time, I was opening new stores for a company called Lululemon Athletica. It's a retail brand. I was opening new stores for them, and they do this amazing thing where they teach you how to run a business. They basically say, "Here's a bunch of money, and some product, and some brand recognition. We'll help you pay the lease on your space, and give you everything you need, and you run the business. You find the customers and build the community."

Val Geisler:        I did all of that with them for almost two years. I was working with them, and I had all these skills of running a business built up, and I knew a lot of small business owners. I was talking to my then boyfriend, he's my husband now, but I was talking to him about how, "Oh, well, Ryan said he needs blogs posted to his website, and I can do that. Maybe I'll make a little bit of extra money on the side." So I started what I didn't realize at the time was a VA business, a virtual assistant business. I didn't even realize that was a thing. I just started helping my friends who owned businesses do the things that they didn't want to do or didn't even know how to do. I was loading products into their Shopify site for some people. I actually was a virtual receptionist for one person, loaded blogs into WordPress for another person, managed client projects as a project manager for another. So I was just kind of filling in these gaps where they didn't need to hire a full-time person. They were still a very small business themselves, but they needed this job done, and I said, "Well, I can do that."

Val Geisler:        At first it was just some extra fun money, and we were engaged, and so planning the wedding, and it was like, okay, well this is going to be extra fun wedding money. But it quickly turned into, "Wow, I could actually replace my salary here. I can really do this and create a business for myself." So that's what I did in 2012, so I've been at it for about six years now in various capacities off and on.

Steve Folland:      Wow. Just to rewind to when you said were opening stores, we're you sort of like a franchise type?

Val Geisler:        Yeah, so it's not a franchise. It's a corporate retail business, a standard business operated by a corporate headquarters, and then I was a store manager, opening the stores, the showrooms and stores in Richmond, Virginia.

Steve Folland:      Right. When they would open up a new store, they would drop Val in to sort it out.

Val Geisler:        Yeah, when they opened up the store in our city. So the way that they operate is ... it's actually a pretty interesting model, and something that I think I carried into the way I started my business. When they open in a new city, and I don't know that they still do this, they would open what they would call a showroom. I was hired as a showroom manager. A showroom was a mini version of a store. They would give us a whole bunch of their core product, and then the showroom would be open for a limited amount of hours. My showroom was open Thursday through Sunday about four hours each day. We had a financial goal to meet in that time, but really our goal was to move into this community and kind of test the model, right. See if there was a need for the brand in the community, and then build the fitness community while we were there. So we went to yoga classes, and spin classes, and crossfit classes all in the name of building a fitness community that was also connected to this brand that happened to provide really great product for it.

Val Geisler:        As I spent about a year with the showroom model, it helped me see, okay, well when you're trying something new, test it in a small way, right. So I didn't up and quite my entire job in order to start my business, but I did take on a couple of clients as a bit of a side project. I was still working and doing other things, but it was a bit of a side hustle at the time, and that's kind of what the showroom model is for Lululemon as a brand. Then after it was validated, then we said, "Okay, let's put a whole big store here in the mall, and have the expensive lease, and all of the product, and a staff of 20, and all those things, right." Then it became this is the validated model, this is what we're going to do.

Val Geisler:        I think that really helped me learn to start things small and validate them, and then do more of what works really well. I've kind of taken that into my business. I mentioned I started as a VA, and I'm an e-mail strategist now, so my business has definitely evolved over the last six years, but I always go back to that, what do I do really well, and then what is the need in the market? What do people need that I can provide for them?

Steve Folland:      Cool. So let's talk about that evolution, because as you say, you've got a really specific niche now. If you go to BeingFreelance.com, and you link through to Val's website, you'll see what I mean. Whereas you started as a VA, you were helping people with literally, "Oh, what do you need? Okay, I'll do that." So how did things change?

Val Geisler:        I mentioned that we were getting married at the time when I was a VA, and quickly became pregnant with our first child, and I realized that I was running this business where I was the backbone of other people's businesses. I was posting products to their Shopify site, and answering their phones, and running their twice a week blog, and things that needed to continue to happen. Here I was with a ticking clock of you're going to have a baby in nine months, and be off the face of the Earth, so to speak, and so I knew that I needed to bring in a team to support my clients while I was on maternity leave.

Val Geisler:        So I built a team. I taught other people how to do what I was doing. I reached out to other virtual assistants who were doing incredible work already, and invited them onto my team, train them up in what I was doing for these clients, and then I was really a project manager. I interfaced with the clients, and then handed off the work to my team. I was able to take on more clients by doing that, and I grew my business into being a project manager so that when I came back from maternity leave, I really stuck with that project manager role, continued to project manage.

Val Geisler:        As I was interfacing with the clients more and doing less of the implementation, I was realizing there was this huge gap in my clients' customer onboarding. So when they would have a new customer or a new client into their business, I helped, as the project manager, kind of close that gap of, okay, well, what do we do? What does it look like? Create the checklist and the welcome packets and all of those things that people really need for their new clients. It was something I was doing for my clients, and they were impressed by, and so I turned it into a service. Again, it was like what can I do that other people are saying that they need? So I turned that into a service, and my project management really started to focus on the customer experience.

Val Geisler:        Most of my clients at the time were creative business owners. When I was doing that, I was using e-mail marketing to reach out to people. I was growing an e-mail list, and writing to them every single week, and writing on my blog about customer experience, and the customer journey. In that process, I started using a new e-mail marketing software. They were fairly new, and didn't seem to have a lot of customer onboarding in place. So I actually pitched them and said, "Hey, I would love to have you as a client. I would love to work through your customer onboarding, and help you with this." They came back to me and said, "Well, that's great, but we've read your blog, and what we really need is someone to help us with our blog, and to help us with our customer support. We can work on onboarding in that process, but this is what we need, and we want to hire you full-time."

Val Geisler:        As a freelancer, that was a challenging thing to hear, quite honestly. I think a lot of people get excited about having a full-time job, but it took a lot of consideration for me to decide if I wanted to go in-house. It could've been forever at that point. That was like, "Okay, well, what do I want here? Do I want to continue freelancing? Do I want to go work for somebody else and learn about this industry, and take a little bit of a breather from ..." There's a certain amount of a hustle that comes with freelancing, and the idea of being able to work in-house and focus on what I do really well, and do it for one company at a time was quite appealing after four years of running my business full-time.

Steve Folland:      So let me just go back to when you were on maternity leave. You called it maternity leave, but it also sounded like at the same time you were still overseeing the team that you'd hired, so you were still working.

Val Geisler:        Right. So I took two months off entirely, just because I wanted to. I would check-in. I had one lead VA who kind of worked for me who I would check-in with on occasion. I think I hopped on a Skype call or two with a client just to say hi, with the baby at home with me, and all of that.

Steve Folland:      So it really was having the baby that made you grow that business in that way?

Val Geisler:        Yeah.

Steve Folland:      As in that thing. But you were comfortable doing it because you'd been in a position of hiring people and managing people before?

Val Geisler:        Right, I think without that experience of running the showroom and the store in the past, I don't know that I would've felt as comfortable doing it, and I also ... I don't want to put on airs that I was like super comfortable hiring a team and managing them. It was challenging. It was certainly different than in the past when I had hired and managed a team. There's an added complexity when you're doing it as a freelancer and hiring people for the first time, contractors, subcontractors to work for you. There's an added stress and complexity to it, so I certainly don't want to seem like, "Oh, and I felt so confident doing this." But there's just still ... I felt like, "Well, we'll figure it out. We'll figure it out together." That was something that I was very transparent with my subcontractors about. "Look, I've never done this before. We're going to be figuring this out together." That's what I looked for in people I was hiring, was people who were willing to kind of come along on this journey with me, and share feedback, and help the business be successful.

Steve Folland:      But then you started to realize that there's this other service that you can offer of customer experience, and then that leads ultimately towards the direction of e-mail. As I look at you now, staring out of your website, there's no mention of any virtual assistance type business. So I'm presuming at some point, even though it might've been going well, you let that go? Or what happened?

Val Geisler:        Yeah, it was going well. What happened was it was going really well, and I was able to pay my subcontractors, and pay myself, and yet, when I decided to raise my rates for the first time in three years or whatever ridiculous thing. I had not been raising my rates over the years, and realized I needed to do that in order to grow the business. The clients had changed their direction, or some of it was like, "Oh, well we can't afford that rate anymore." Some of it was "We're not actually going to do that part of the business anymore." You know, just over the three, four years I had worked with people, businesses had grown and changed. One company ended up hiring somebody full-time. So it evolved kind of naturally to this place of I had maybe one or two clients that I had to say, "Hey, so I'm not going to be offering this anymore. This is what I'm going to be doing moving forward. I would really appreciate any referrals you might have, or mentioning me to people in your network." But I did have to have a couple of hard conversations where they really wanted to keep going, and the business was growing and evolving, and I was learning what I loved doing, and what I wanted to spend my time doing.

Val Geisler:        I just kept thinking, if I'm doing all of this to build my own business, and to find freedom from working for someone else, I need to do what makes me the happiest in this, and follow that spiral staircase of it's going to look a little bit different, but trusting in the fact that I was doing what I knew how to do really well. It was something people needed, and so just kind of following those bread crumbs.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, I like that, because as the customers dropped off, you could've easily found more, but instead you were like, "Actually, I don't want to do that anyway. I want to do this."

Val Geisler:        Yeah, and it's like that still small voice that's inside of you of going "What happens if you just follow this other pathway?" And trying it.

Steve Folland:      So now, are you just Val? If you see what I mean. Or is there lots of mini-Vals working for you, or you have you taken it back to just being yourself?

Val Geisler:        Yeah, it's just me now. I spent a year and a half in this in-house role at an e-mail marketing software company. I learned more than I ever planned to know about e-mail, continued on that customer experience, customer journey pathway in the work I was doing, and learning about how that has such a huge impact in the tech world, and in software, and in anything that focuses on monthly recurring revenue. That onboarding experience, that customer journey is so important.

Val Geisler:        So then after having my second daughter, I left the in-house job, and started freelancing again, this time with the focus on the customer experience, but through e-mail marketing. I had understood and learned the strategies, and the copywriting, and all of those things that go into e-mail marketing. So that's what I do for clients now, and especially those clients that are focused on monthly recurring revenue, and through e-mail as a channel to reach those customers.

Steve Folland:      So it felt good going back into a full-time job?

Val Geisler:        Yeah, it did at the time. I had a two year old, and I was really ready for a bit of team, because even as a project manager and having those subcontractors, I was running the business, and my team was the team. I really wanted to be part of the team, and I was really excited to be focusing on one thing. I knew that as a freelancer, I did not want to take on just one big client. I wasn't interested in doing that, because it felt a little shaky. And I got benefits, and company trips, and things that were really fun to have again for a little bit.

Steve Folland:      Yeah. Also, in that environment then, it sounds like it was quite an education, as well, in the real deep levels of e-mail that you know work within.

Val Geisler:        Yeah, I was inside of every single e-mail marketing system out there, saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. I saw the backend of various customers' e-mail campaigns. I worked on our own e-mail strategy internally and growing our e-mail list, and nurturing that e-mail list, nurturing the brand new customers that were coming in, so in lots of different ways. I learned about strategy from a technical standpoint, and then also from a nurturing customer journey standpoint.

Steve Folland:      What did you do with your own personal brand, as it were, like your website, while you were in that full-time position? Did you start to change that? Because, obviously, now if we go to your site, it's all about e-mail. Were you starting to become a specialist in e-mail outwardly online?

Val Geisler:        Yeah, I think so. When I went in-house, I was kind of positioned as ... people would call me the systems girl. I knew a lot about systems, and process, and tech tools. My blog was full of reviews of various software. I think I still have a popular post about ways to use a sauna to organization your projects. So those kind of things were what was on my blog at the time, and I did keep writing on my blog. I kept e-mailing my list. It wasn't necessarily every week like when I was freelancing, but I did keep in touch with them every other week, and wrote on my blog regularly. I started to write more about what it means to be running a business. I started talking more about how I'm an introvert and the ways that I have networked as an introvert, and how to promote your business without spending a dime on Facebook ads, and those kinds of things that I was both learning by observing our customers within this e-mail service, but also my observations of the last four years and things that I had been wanting to write about, but I was really focused on getting new clients, and so I needed of be writing a little bit more on topic. So it was kind of a nice little break that I got to write the things that I had been wanting to and saving up to write about on my blog.

Val Geisler:        But yeah, I started to talk more about communication, and being human behind your computer screen, because ultimately we're all just human beings on the other side of the computer from each other. That was something that I noticed was really missing, especially in e-mail marketing, was this drive for sales over anything else. I have seen it in action, and I know that having a valuable, personal connection with the people on your e-mail list really makes all the difference when it comes to your sales and your marketing channels. So that's what I talked about more often, and between that and the knowledge people knew that I had from having worked at an e-mail software company, I was able to startup my freelance business again when I was ready to do that.

Steve Folland:      So how did you go about getting those clients when it came to freelance Val part two?

Val Geisler:        Yeah. Well, I started out as, when I started a year ago, I had one client that I was kind of doing all of their ... they're a software company, and I was lots of their general marketing stuff when I first left my in-house role. So I did that about 50% of my time. The other clients were all people, again, in my network that I had stayed in touch with through my e-mail list, through networks in Facebook groups, and things like that. Steve, I'm pretty sure I sent an e-mail to my e-mail list and said, "Hey, so I'm available to help you with your e-mail strategy." At the time I was even doing software setup for people, so let's get you into an e-mail software that you like, and get things setup, or I was doing clean up, because a lot of people have very messy e-mail software programs where they're like, "I have this old campaign, and this old broadcast, and I don't know how to organize anything." So I would go in and do some clean up, too. I was doing about 50% with that one client doing their general marketing for their software company, because I had been doing that for the last year and a half, and then the other 50% of my time was doing more of the implementation e-mail strategy pieces inside of softwares themselves.

Steve Folland:      Wow. So it's really come pretty seamlessly, has it, across this past year as you re-emerge?

Val Geisler:        Yeah. What I have to say is that it has because I utilized my network, and I also didn't abuse my network. That thing I was saying before about being human, I kept that in mind throughout the entire time that I was in-house, and especially as I started to think about becoming a freelancer again, it was really important to me that I treated people like human beings, and that I wasn't only ever e-mailing people when I had something to sell, and that I wasn't only ever involved in a Facebook group when I had something to promote, but that I was creating opportunities for conversation, and I was being of service. My goal was to be ridiculously useful to people. I knew that that would pay off in the long term. It was definitely an investment of my time, and it did. It paid off in ways that I can't even begin to describe. Just building those relationships, and maintaining the fact that we're all just human beings floating around on the internet, and that we can treat each other as such.

Val Geisler:        Then when there's time to sell something, or to help people, I wasn't saying, "I have something to sell you. I need to make money now because I'm a freelancer again." I was saying, "Hey, here's this thing I do, and I can do it really well, and here's the package that I do it within, the container that I do it within, and I'd love to do it with you." It got a wonderful response. So, yeah, it feels seamless, but it was also years of work and connecting that made it so seamless.

Steve Folland:      So that's brought us to where we are today. How have you found the life side of it? We've covered a lot of business, but obviously, unless I've lost count, you've got two kids, so yeah. How's the life side of being freelance for you?

Val Geisler:        Yeah. The life side is actually why I went back into freelance. I left my in-house job for a number of reasons, but the biggest one was that I was a brand new mom, and I nursed my baby, and I did not have ... even in the software world where the idea of a 40 hour work week is a gift, and that was something that this particular company was very serious about, like not having people work more than 40 hours in a week. But I didn't even have 40 hours to give. In order to take care of myself, because with my first daughter, I had post-partum depression, and I knew that I needed to take care of myself with my second daughter. I was nursing, and so everything that's involved with that. It's very time consuming, and I said, "I probably have about 30 hours to give to this, to work." I even proposed that to the company, and said, "Can I work part-time?" They said no.

Val Geisler:        That's when I decided, okay, well, I can definitely re-connect with people, build some packages what I know how to do really well. I started freelancing again, because of the life side of things. Now I'd say I probably work between 20 and 30 hours in a week on client work, probably about 20 hours on client work, but I work all the time. Not in a way that's like, "Ugh, I work all the time" but because my mind is just constantly thinking of ideas and ways I can better refine what I'm doing and people I really want to be working with. So I'm kind of always making notes or thinking through something. I feel like I kind of have work brain on all the time. I do have to force myself to turn it off, and I find getting into a bath is the best way to do that, because you can't really have your laptop in there, you know.

Steve Folland:      How old are your kids now?

Val Geisler:        They're four and one.

Steve Folland:      So, just briefly, how do you manage ... like is one of them in, I don't know-

Val Geisler:        Preschool, yeah. Yeah, so my four year old is in a preschool, and my one year old is in day care, and so I have childcare for both of them about 35 hours a week. I do all of my work when they are at childcare, which is kind of during typically standard work hours, but I don't work on Fridays, and that's because I don't have childcare for the baby on Fridays. It's my day with her, and it always amazes me when people are shocked that I have an entire day off during the week. But yeah, I work Monday through Thursday, drop them off at 8:00, and pick them up at 4:00, but I have a little studio that I work out of, because I found working from home to be quite distracting. I kind of spend a couple of days in each place, or a half day in the studio and then come home in the afternoon, have some lunch and catch up on e-mails and things. But if I'm doing focus client work, and it's typically in the studio.

Steve Folland:      What's the studio like? Is it like a co-work type place where you-

Val Geisler:        It is a little bit, yeah. It's actually a friend of mine, who also owns a business, she has this really big space, and she is an extrovert, with a capital E, and I knew she would love to have somebody in the space with her, and I also really wanted to get out of my house. It has a very homely feel to it. There's sofas and we light candles and all those things, but I have a desk with my second monitor, and my postcards to mail out to clients, and things like that are all right there. I get a little bit of human, adult interaction by going there and working side by side with her, but then I also get to come home and have some quiet time when I just be at here.

Steve Folland:      Yeah. You spoke about the importance of taking care of yourself. Is that something you still focus on?

Val Geisler:        Yes, and in fact, as of this recording, yesterday I was just tweeting about how much impact my workout routine has had on my business. In the last year, after having my second child and then coming back into being approved to workout again, and wanting to workout again, and getting sleep and all those things, I started really committing to a fitness program, and I prioritize it. Again, it's like an investment into myself and my future. Sometimes I am up at 5:30 in the morning before the girls are awake and before my husband's awake, and I go and workout and I come home, and they all wake up, and we start our day. Sometimes I drop the kids off and go to an 8:30 am class. Just kind of depends on my schedule for the day, and yet I make sure that I'm there five days a week. Four week days and then a weekend day is my plan, because I need it. It's such a great reset for my brain, for my body, and when I do this, when I commit to myself to do this, I feel better about myself throughout the day. I make better food choices, which fuels my brain in a different way than some other foods that might not. I'm more productive throughout my day. I feel more confident, and I more confidently raise my prices, and price myself appropriately.

Val Geisler:        So it has all these compounding interest on everything around me. I'm more confident as a mother, and I can keep up with my crazy toddler, and my busy four year old, and I have energy throughout the day. There's a lot of ways that it has never ending benefits, but yeah, self-care has become very important, and not in this like "Oh, I go get manicures every week." But like I force myself to get out of bed at 5:30 in the morning and go kick my own ass for a little bit, and it's great. When the hardest thing I do is at 5:30 in the morning, it's going to be a good day.

Steve Folland:      Wow. Yeah. Oh, and I'm glad that works. Part of me was sitting here thinking, "Yeah, maybe I should get up at half five, but..."

Val Geisler:        Yeah. No, it's really hard. It's really, really hard. I was talking in this Twitter exchange, I was talking to another freelancer, and she was saying, "My gym has these 9:30 am classes, and I should probably go to them." I just said, "Yes. There's really no excuse not to do it and just try it is all I would say."

Steve Folland:      Yeah. You mentioned Twitter there. I follow you on Twitter, and you're very active on there, should we say, and in a brilliant way, as well, but is that where your main community is, or is it elsewhere, or is it also people in real life, as in offline?

Val Geisler:        Yeah. Gosh, well definitely my e-mail list is kind of my core community. They're the people who matter the most to me. If you are on my e-mail list, and you reply to my e-mails that has a bit of priority in my life.

Steve Folland:      A lot of people can think of sending out an e-mail to an e-mail list as almost like a broadcast, but you actually get a lot of conversational, sense of chatting to other people via your e-mail listing?

Val Geisler:        I do, yeah. Last week's e-mail, I got a dozen replies to. This week's e-mail actually went out right before we got on the call, and I already had a couple of replies in my inbox from it. Again, that's all from cultivating that sense of community and humanity behind what we do. I respond to the people who reply to my e-mails.

Steve Folland:      Do you pose a question within it? Do you prompt that sort of response?

Val Geisler:        Sometimes. Sometimes I don't. Yeah, I mean, last week I did, and I also addressed a challenge a lot of people face, and so I think I get a lot of responses to that of like, "Thank you for giving me this solution that I needed here." But today I didn't. I was actually sharing an episode of another podcast I was on recently. I got a couple of replies just from doing that with no question posed. Yeah, I think it's all about that community nurturing and fostering. I try to do the same wherever I am, so on Twitter I just don't just schedule a bunch of tweets in a scheduling tool and send them out and never reply. I have conversations with people on Twitter, and that's how I got to know you is through a little back and forths, and of course you're limited in characters there, and I tend to use a lot of GIFs on Twitter, but it's another place to build relationships and to connect with other human beings, as long as they're not Russian bots.

Steve Folland:      How about is there anybody like around you doing similar things to you, or is your community all online?

Val Geisler:        Yeah, I do have a pretty close knit community here in ... I live in Columbus, Ohio, and I go to the studio with my friend who has a business, and we are actually all friends with other online business owners, and so I do have a pretty great little community here. We trade ideas and get together, and my friend who I share the studio with, she and two other women, we regularly have our girls' nights, and we're all business owners. We try not to talk business at those things, but it does come up. It's all about doing the same thing. My studio mate, her community is on Instagram, and so she does a lot of the same things, but again, it's like we're doing the same things, we're just in different communities. She's still connecting with humans, and having human conversations, and back and forth, and responding to people.

Steve Folland:      Yeah, have you focused on Twitter more than-

Val Geisler:        I have in the last year, and that's simply because that's where my ideal customers are, my ideal community members, people I want to be talking to and having those conversations with. So because I work majority with software businesses, a lot of those businesses and those founders are on Twitter. When I was a virtual assistant and working with more creative business owners, I spent a lot of time in Facebook groups, because that's where all of those people were hanging out, so it depends on the business owner and what channel you focus on. I certainly don't try to be on all of them anymore, or ever, because that's just too overwhelming, but yeah. I do tend to focus on Twitter as far as social media goes.

Steve Folland:      If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Val Geisler:        Not to expect too much. Because you go into it with all these expectations of like ... I mean, if I had the expectation of I would still be running a virtual assistant business, then I wouldn't be where I am now and loving what I'm doing, and having so much fun with my clients. So just to be open to what is to come and to kind of temper your expectations, and follow the path that is whispering from the corner, because it might be the most exciting one.

Steve Folland:      Nice. Val, thank you so much. I'm glad everything's working out, and all the best being freelance!

Val Geisler:        Thanks Steve.