I can do it all! Not…

17 years ago, I set out on a wonderful journey and started The Virtual Alternative.  Working at home alone isn’t for everyone, but I had other colleagues going through the process and a business manager with whom I met monthly.

Then I didn’t.  Then I did the wrong thing – I thought I could do it all by myself (except the bookkeeping, never do the bookkeeping).

As my children got older and started taking on jobs I couldn’t imagine or explain, I would talk to them about my challenges.  Olivia in particular would give me great ideas on how to deal with clients, even how to write emails to clients I was finding difficult.

So, starting years ago, Olivia really became my business manager – from afar.

In the fall of 2019, I was fortunate enough that Olivia came on board full time.  Now, that happened almost organically.  She started looking at my social media presence and became a bit of a tyrant:  why did you do it his way, have you thought about using this program, etc.  She also continued to provide a daily sounding board and strategist around client management, especially comforting during this pandemic (I’m not in it alone).  She has taken my social media presence from essentially zero (I had a static, 16 year old webpage) to vibrant and solid.

She has put in processes and tracking mechanisms so that not only we know where we are but clients can keep track as well. 

She offers these and other new services to clients including business set up, management, social media and sparkle.  Again, during this pandemic she has offered services that I could not that has led to client retention.  

But the proof is in the pudding.  In the months immediately following Olivia’s jump on board, I had the best billing months in 17 years!  Billing increased between $1500 and $2000 per month – and she was only just getting started! 

I’m looking forward to a number of prosperous and happy years working with Olivia.

Are you struggling with daily tasks? by Liz Saunders

Sisyphus was a cruel Greek king who, for his misdeeds, was punished by having to push a large rock up a steep hill, only to find it rolling back to the bottom when he neared the top.  His punishment was for eternity.

Do you ever feel like Sisyphus?  I’m not suggesting you are a cruel and evil Greek king, but do you have an endless list of bits and bobs that you must do, but that get in the way of having the time to meet with clients, on board new clients, and/or get profitable work done? 

What kind of administration feels like a daily Sisyphian feat?

·         Endless emails

·         Database management

·         Answering phone calls while you’re with clients

·         Chasing people to book appointments

·         Following up on delinquent invoices

·         Keeping up with your social media or website 

None of these actually make you any money – but you have to do them in order to keep the business ticking (like a Timex watch), growing and earning an income.

Why continue to push the boulder uphill when The Virtual Alternative can do it for you?  Let us do the heavy, repetitive lifting while you focus on your clients, maybe even find some family time and dare I say it – take some much needed vacation?!

Welcome to the Virtual Alternative, Olivia! by Liz Saunders

Every morning for some time now, my daughter Olivia has called me on her way to work.  It got to the point where my day just didn’t seem right if she hadn’t called.

One day back in August, we had our usual call but then shortly afterwards, she called again – very unusual because normally once she got to work she got stuck in and could not be disturbed.  I couldn’t take the call when she called as I was already stuck into work. 

When I called her back, she was very blunt, “I’ve been fired!”  I was gobsmacked.  It couldn’t be true.  She was the glue that held her office together – she was the calming force that kept others, in line.  After croaking out “what did you say?” I was rendered completely speechless other than a few babbling idiotic noises.

Olivia found that being rendered speechless, dumbfounded or uttering “wait, what did you say?” were the universal reactions, to this news.  Her partner’s son thought she was joking and had to be told repeatedly – “it’s true”.  He then suggested she’d been fired for “doing too much” — not far from the truth.

After taking some time to think about her future and after talking to an executive coach, she decided to join me at The Virtual Alternative as a senior associate.  This is great news for me, for my clients and for all potential new clients.  Olivia brings not only a similar skill set to the table so that she can back me up with existing clients, but also a whole new skill set which continues to grow; she is famous for saying “give me 20 minutes and I’ll figure it out”.

After a six weeks, I can attest to the fact that we work really well together, our regular morning phone calls still happen, and a number of my clients have already contacted her directly for work that they, rightly, assumed was not in my bailiwick.  She’s also running interference on a personal matter that had me climbing walls.

It is not only fantastic to have Olivia working with me, but to watch her grow as she learns and tries new things – all of which she will be able to offer to our clients.  She will soon have her Project Management Professional designation, which opens a whole new set of opportunities.

Welcome to The Virtual Alternative, Olivia!  Very glad to have you on board!

7 Years Ago Today – February 26, 2011!

February 26th is a bitter sweet day for me.  A day for celebrating – but I didn’t get to participate.

Nine years ago, my daughter was missing.  We were all heartbroken and scared beyond words for her safety.    A year earlier, I had contemplated calling the Children’s Aid because I was worried about her and her son, thought drugs might be involved, but my husband said “If you call them and he ends up living with us, I will leave you”.  He put me in an untenable position.

When she actually did disappear, she and her son were living with her father.  When she had been gone 2 or 3 days I said to him “you have to report her missing to the police”.  He did and that started the process that led to her son coming to live with me.   He was 5 years old.  The husband didn’t leave but made no bones about how much he resented my grandson.

Two years later, on February 26th, 2011 my daughter “came in” and started the new journey that she is on.   Today she is 7 years clean and sober – a feat that many will never accomplish.   More will die.

Today, she was awarded final custody of her son.

Two reasons to celebrate.

But I was not included in those celebrations.

For 9 years, I put my life on hold to make sure that her son didn’t go into the “system”.  I endured an abusive marriage that I was already planning to leave 9 years ago, to try to give my grandson as normal a life as I could.  I lied to the Children’s Aid to keep him out of the system.  I found him the best school opportunities I could and got him involved in soccer and baseball.  His maternal grandfather got him involved in hockey.  Found him counselling, tutoring and gave him all the love I could.  He was a very frightened, anxious boy 9 years ago and now he’s a confident young man and fabulous soccer player.

I didn’t do any of this for me.  I did it for them.

He was my boy for many years and now I have lost him.  And I have also lost her.  I can’t even congratulate her on Facebook.   She has made it clear that she wants nothing to do with me and it breaks my heart.

But I want to say – even if no one will see it – how proud I am of you my dear girl.  You have come so far in the last 7 years, you deserve all the happiness in the world.

Love you


UPDATE 2021: It was pointed out to me that this was a very sad way to leave this story. So here’s an update. Siobhan welcomed the birth of her absolutely beautiful (I’m not biased at all) daughter, Jaz in November of 2018 and all has been better than well since. We speak every day and I get to see Siobhan and Jaz in person as often as possible.

WestJet vs Air Canada Vacations: Who has better customer service?

Yesterday morning, while doing my bank and credit card reconciliations, I found a charge by WestJet for $19.17 USD from a recent flight.  I searched everywhere for the receipt and couldn’t find it.  Since I thought there was absolutely no hope of seeing my money again, I tweeted “$19.17 USD for a turkey croissant sandwich?  Seriously #WestJet?”. That was at 7:55 a.m.

At 8:21 a.m. I had a response from WestJet saying “that’s not right”.   Within the hour, despite having no receipt, WestJet began processing a refund.  Now that’s awesome customer service!  Because I will tell everyone!

At 9:36 am I tweeted “Well done #WestJet.  Once again your customer service is excellent as is your reaction time”.    You can see,  by the times indicated, how quickly they reacted.

Meanwhile, in January a group of 14 of us went to the Dominican Republic on #AirCanadaVacations.   One couple on the trip paid for an upgrade to a beach view.  They did not get it and requested a refund.  I was promised if I got more than 10 on the trip, I would get a discount on my fare.  Since this was done through a travel agent, he’s dealing with the refunds but it sure isn’t happening fast.    We returned on January 22nd.  Today is February 28th and we’re still waiting.

No contest.  WestJet wins hands down in the customer service game!  Well done #WestJet.  This is the 2nd time you’ve stepped up to the plate…immediately…for me.

You want how much for a teabag?

For years I have been a loyal Starbucks customer, eschewing alternative establishments whenever possible.  My large tea with lactose free milk has been $2.05 for as long as I can remember (before that I think it was $1.95).

Imagine my surprise back in late November/early December when I dropped the grandson off at hockey and did the tea run to my local Starbucks, gave my usual order “large black tea, one teabag, lactose free milk on the bar, please” and was told “that will be $2.57”.   I said “I only want 1 teabag”, the response: “we’ve put it on the side”.

After arguing with the barista briefly, I asked to speak to the manager.  Same story.  We only ever sell Venti tea with 2 bags.  Well, my friend that was not the way it was from the time the store opened until that moment in time.    So I walked out and left my tea sitting on the counter, walked up the block and went to Tim Horton’s.

$0.52 for a teabag?  You have got to be kidding!

Many emails and phone calls to #Starbucks later, I was told that the situation would be rectified and of course I could buy a tea with 1 teabag.  So I ventured back into the same store in late December and gave my usual order.  Same story.  After they rang in my tea at $2.57 I walked away and joined my friend, sat in a Starbucks’ chair, used their wifi for 2 hours and didn’t buy a $0.52 tea bag.

More emails and phone calls and finally today I spoke to the District Manager for the store in question who advised that when they changed tea suppliers, the new supplier insisted they change policy and the 2 larger sizes of tea must be sold with 2 bags!

So although I’m the customer, I can’t get what I want.

Years ago my daughter divorced Tim Horton’s because she couldn’t walk in without buying a confection with 4000 calories.  That was not Tim Horton’s fault.  Today, I officially divorce #Starbucks and their $0.52 teabags!  Now if I can just get the money back off my card!


UPDATE:  On my recent trip to Florida, my only choice at the airport was Starbucks or Starbucks.  But I figured it out.  When it was my turn, I asked the barista for the largest cup of tea she could sell me for which I only had to purchase one teabag.  The lovely young woman sold me a Tall tea in a Venti cup (I had to look those sizes up, I just used to ask for Large)!  Well done Lovely Young Woman!

My favourite: Extraordinary Customer Service

The other day we watched Paddington, the movie, and I hauled out my Paddington Bear which I purchased at Hamley’s of Regent Street (London, UK) in 1978 only to discover that poor bear’s hat is in shocking condition.  I also purchased one for my sister, Catherine – hope her hat’s in better shape.

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So I emailed customer service at Hamley’s to see if I could get a new hat. Imagine my surprise when the phone rang a few minutes ago and it was Libby from Hamley’s responding to my query! Unfortunately, her best suggestion is to find someone who can make me a new hat as Paddington is no longer made in the UK – as mine was.

Now THAT is extraordinary customer service!

Has it really been that long?

You know it’s been too long between blogs when you have to look up your password.

Where has the time gone?  Let’s see, last blog, November 6th from Florida.  So, since then we’ve had the drama that is always December, New Years, my birthday and now we’re approaching the doldrums of February.

Perhaps time to use to be creative?

I haven’t done any painting since…the fall sometime…other than continually touching up my painting of the cottage.  I’m afraid to say “It’s finished” and I’m afraid to keep touching it up in case I go one touch up too far!  Finally today I started gessoing (not sure that’s a word) a canvass to cover up another attempt at the cottage but I don’t really have any inspiration at the moment so not sure what to do with it…but at least I did something.

cottage 012714 3  Believe it or not touched it up again after I took this picture.  Sigh.

Work has been crazy busy – best December I’ve had since I started the business in 2003 – so I guess my attitude about customer service is paying off.  But it doesn’t leave much time for more personal, artistic endeavours.     And life so easily gets in the way.  It seems I would rather be helping other people, looking after my customers’ needs, than doing things for myself.

Perhaps it’s time to force myself to do another art class but I don’t know what I want to do.  The first classes were great, but they almost confused me.  Try a little conte, try a little pastel, now it’s water colours, now acrylic, don’t forget the charcoal.  I was talking to my friend Wendie about my confusion and she suggested “go back to where you started, sketching people because that’s what got you into this”.  So perhaps I just need to grab a sketch book and sketch, sketch, sketch.  Maybe whomever is the speaker at my next BCX meeting can be immortalized or caricatured more likely.  Should I warn him?

So I’m on the hunt for inspiration.  It probably just takes keeping one’s eyes open and having a sketch pad or camera handy but it’s not something I’m used to – a new boundary to cross.  In other words, all suggestions gratefully appreciated and possibly immediately rejected.

Oh, and to follow up on my last blog, I’m now on a daily dose of Rhus Tox – which seems to be working.  Now as well as snake venom is working for a friend of mine, but I’m much improved.  Hmmm…poison ivy, I could draw/paint some poison ivy…

Happy New Year to all and best wishes for 2014!

Is it Florida or is it Rhus Tox?

Here I sit in the Sunshine State, which is finally sunny after two very cloudy and windy days, and I realize that my scalp doesn’t hurt as much as it has in the past.

Hmmm…I took my first dose of Rhus tox (poison ivy) a week ago Monday and my second dose last night (sorry, Witchy Woman Mach II, I fell asleep Monday night before taking my second dose) and was way too busy getting ready to go away to pay any attention to how my head felt.  But after 5 days in Florida, I think it feels better.  But why?  Rhus tox?  Vacation?  Florida sun, I mean wind?

Guess I won’t know for sure until I get home.

It sort of makes sense in a weird, homeopathic kind of way that something that makes you itchy after full contact (poison ivy), could be used to deal with itch in a very low homeopathic dose.  After all, I take a copper derivative (copper can cause convulsions) to deal with my restless leg syndrome.

So, while I floss my ulna nerve, stretch and pull my toes, I will also hope that the Rhus tox really is the answer.

Happy Anniversary to me! 10 years in business today.

Wow, where has the last 10 years gone?  It seems like only yesterday that I walked through the doors of the Toronto Business Development Centre to apply for the Self Employment Assistance Program.  We were told to turn our phones off but Siobhan was expecting to give birth to Jaden any second so I refused and put mine on vibrate.  Two very important things happening at the same time!

Fast forward 6 weeks and I started the program.  It was a blur of information and on October 24th I graduated and The Virtual Alternative was born.  It was a very scary day but the TBDC took us out to lunch at a local Portuguese restaurant and Joe, not yet my husband, picked me up and whisked me off…somewhere,,, (funny the details we remember and the details we don’t).

There have been a lot of highs and lows since then…applied for my HST number at the end of 2005 – not bad going for 2 years in business – then suffered from a pretty bad low.  But here I am, 8 years after that, still going strong and loving being self-employed.

I have some terrific clients that I enjoy working with and every day is a new adventure.  Despite some days being at the computer at 5:45 a.m. and still at the computer past midnight, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than go back to working for someone else.  I’ve made some terrific friends, worked with some terrific colleagues and wouldn’t trade the last 10 years for anything.

So, to all my clients, friends and family, thank you for your support, it’s been a pleasure working and playing with you over the last 10 years and I look forward to another 10+.