Asha Bayliss is the founder of Oxonia Solutions, a virtual assistant services business that she set up by herself in the summer of 2020. As a sole trader, Asha aims to help businesses worldwide carry out a wide range of virtual tasks – a market that has grown significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic, where businesses have been forced to adapt to online working. Oxonia Solutions is currently providing a range of services to clients, including inbox and project management, procurement, data analysis and bioscience consulting.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I was a lab-based post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford when I took maternity leave after having my second child. I realised that I couldn’t go back to working full-time because I wanted to be around more for my children. It wasn’t possible for me to work only two or three days in the lab a week – with science experiments that just isn’t sustainable. So, I decided that I needed to look into other careers. I searched around and Googled every single possible career that I could do! Flexibility was the most important aspect for me: I wanted to work but I also wanted to be able to pick my son up from school and have him at home during school holidays. I’ve always dreamt of having my own business so when the possibility of becoming a virtual assistant came up amidst my researching, it immediately caught my eye. I wondered if I could put my skills to use in helping other businesses.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Being an entrepreneur is about creating a business you are passionate about and using it to set up the lifestyle that you want to have. Although there were a lot of aspects I really enjoyed in my previous research career, I knew that something needed to change as it wasn’t going to work in the way I wanted it to for raising a young family. I used entrepreneurship to make that change. I was very narrow-minded at the beginning and uncertain about what else I could do with my skill set. I thought that I would be limited to lab-based roles and a scientific career, but now I really think that you just need to broaden your thoughts and think about what else you can do with the skills that you already have. Scientists utilise so many skills every day that can be immensely useful to other businesses – project and time management, organisation, attention to detail, good communication, to name but a few – and that was something that I didn’t realise at first.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
It was after a couple of weeks of research – I looked into the various roles that virtual assistants do and I realised that actually people were making it into a career, and that they were doing it alongside raising a family. So, within a week or two I realised that this was definitely possible and definitely something that I should start myself.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
You need to be self-driven. At the end of the day, this is your business and no-one is going to commit to it as much as you are, so you need to be ready to put in the time to do the research, follow leads and learn new areas. Secondly, I think organisation is really important. Particularly for my type of business – I have to be on top of my own business and its invoicing, contracts and so on, but I also have to be on top of my clients’ businesses as well, because that’s what I’m there for. Lastly, something I learned from being in the lab is having good communication skills. My business is all about helping other businesses, so it’s really important to be able to discuss their goals and their expectations for any work being carried out. Good communication will also come in handy when networking and reaching out to support groups to make your own business run as effectively as it can.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Being able to create a business in the way that I want to. I can take on the jobs I want to take on and I can leave the ones that I don’t want to do. I’m essentially creating a business of things that I enjoy carrying out so that work is no longer a chore, but a joy to do. Also, having flexibility is a major driving force.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I would have to say my family – from my father running his own building company to my 88-year old grandmother who is still running her own property business alongside writing archaeology publications. Also my sister-in-law who is not only raising four children but also runs a highly successful soft play and roller-skating business called Curve Motion and is re-developing a restaurant and a campsite on the Isle of Wight, whilst also supporting her parents and managing their rental properties! My brother is supporting all of these projects too alongside his own full-time career. They’ve shown me that if you want to do something you should just go for it, because there’s always a way if you’ve got drive and passion.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Luckily my family are only a phone call away! I always ask them: how do you manage to juggle all of these different things? Really, it just comes down to being organised. Keep lists going and stay on top of whatever is the priority at the time. But I think the most important thing they’ve said to me is that you have to enjoy it – if you’re not enjoying your own business then there’s no point doing it. It takes a lot of work to run a business and you’re not always paid for the hours you put in. But it is also immensely rewarding when the effort you have put in becomes a success.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Realising that the business I have chosen has the potential to give me the lifestyle I am striving for. As a scientist I was restricted by the location of the lab I wanted to work in. Now, I am able to take my work anywhere in the world, as long as I have my laptop and a good internet connection! It’s also been highly satisfying to secure work from clients in areas that required me to learn new skills as I’m always keen to broaden and deepen my skill set. It’s very rewarding when you fulfil the goals of the work you are doing and particularly when a client comes back with glowing feedback for your work!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
One of the major lessons is: don’t be afraid to ask questions. In the early days I was doing a job for somebody and I thought that I understood what they wanted, so I went away and did all of the work. When I sent it back to them, they told me it wasn’t quite what they’d been thinking of. I’d got it wrong purely because I hadn’t asked enough questions. So, going forward, my approach and advice is to ask for more information than you think you’ll need. You never quite know what somebody else is thinking, so it’s better to ask lots of questions so that you fully understand what their goal is and what they want from the work that you’re doing. Again, it comes back to communication – don’t be afraid to talk to someone or ask them for extra information.
How have you funded your ideas?
I’m self-funded. There aren’t a lot of set-up costs for my sort of business – all I needed was a computer, insurance, access to appropriate software (for example, MS Office), and a website – although this is not necessary as some of the first jobs may come from people in your existing network of contacts. The set-up fee was very small.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
For me, being so virtual means that it makes less of a difference being in Oxfordshire in terms of the way that the business is run. But, I think that Oxford as a community is very encouraging for entrepreneurs. It’s an incredibly proactive place which is very inspiring for start-up businesses like my own – it encourages people to try something new and follow their dreams.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
For me it was the internet! I started on Google and then approached social networking sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, which have plenty of groups that provide advice and support for setting up a business. Also, talk to those around you. You’ll be surprised at how many people know of someone else who has started up their own business and who will be able to offer the advice you are looking for. Since setting up my business I’ve become an editor for Research-Careers.org, a website set up my members of the University of Oxford and its Careers Service that acts as a resource for those that would like to leave academia following a PhD but who are unsure of what is possible with their skill set. I have since realised that there are a lot of websites out there that offer advice if you’re willing to put in the time to research what it is that you want to do – if you’re willing to learn, the possibilities are endless.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Since I’ve been in contact with the careers service I’ve realised that there is a lot of help out there, but that the information isn’t being distributed as effectively as it could be. I think it would be really useful for the HR departments to widen the advice they’re giving to their departments. Coming from a science-based department, I was only ever really aware of information on how to apply for grants or fellowships, all on a science trajectory. This ended up not being what I wanted to do, so I think that departments should give out more resources on other career paths. That would’ve been really useful for me and I’m sure that it could help a lot of other people as well.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Go for it! If you’re not happy in your current position, be bold, make a change. Do what’s right for you and your family to create the lifestyle you want to have. That was my driving force – I wanted to be around to watch my children grow up whilst also maintaining my own personal development. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt in the last year with COVID-19 it’s that life is short and unpredictable. Don’t be afraid to dream big, reach out for support when needed and enjoy the challenges that starting up a new business brings – they will be worth it!