Virtuali’s Alison Matthews on working anytime, anywhere, anyplace

  • From the European Investment Bank through to ski resort in the Alps, Alison Matthews has found herself in a variety of working environments over the years.

    A fluent French and German speaker, Alison lived in Luxembourg for more than 10 years before returning to Northern Ireland in 2015 seeking a new challenge.

    She soon took up a role as PA to the CEO of Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). After seven months with NICIE, she attended workshop on virtual assistants and the seeds of her new business venture were formed.

    “But I was really stuck for a name and I really wanted something that brought across what I did as a virtual business. One day a friend called me and said I've got your name - and I knew that was it immediately.  She was inspired!” says Alison.

    VirtuAli - a combination of her service and name - was created in May 2015. She now advises on office management procedures, market research, invoicing and credit control, and record keeping as well as dedicated executive support.

    “Starting a business was the hardest thing for me as I've lived outside of Northern Ireland for 15 years,” she says.

    “I’d very few contacts in Northern Ireland and had very few people to ask for help and advice. That's when I joined Women in Business and the Power of 4 programme,” she says.

    The programme ran over a couple of months and it proved to an “invaluable support group” for Alison.

    “You're there with a group with 15 people who’re in the same boat, and you receive mentoring from very experienced people and female entrepreneurs from across Northern Ireland. You can create your own little community and you can phone somebody up when things are going a bit crazy - that was a big help for me,” she says.

    One of the biggest challenges for Alison was marketing the business.

    “Suddenly you're thrown into this world where you have to go out to business meetings and pitch your business to people. That's still hard for me as it's completely alien to the rest of my working life up to that point,” she says.

    To help boost her confidence, she joined a local Toastmasters Group and she’s now a lot more comfortable with “getting in front of people to talk about my business”.

    Overall, she has found that people within the Northern Ireland business community are “extremely friendly and approachable”.

    “If you are stuck and you ask people for advice - nine times out of 10 they will give it to you, so we're very lucky in that respect,” she says.

    At the moment she’s working with sole traders and “time poor entrepreneurs” but VirtuAli supports all types of businesses that experience “admin pain”.

    “I can work virtually anytime, anyplace, anywhere! It's about having a great understanding of people and an understanding of what it is they need,” she says.

    For Alison, it’s vitally important to “set boundaries and take care of one's mental health”.

    “It's very hard when you're working for yourself and you spend a great deal of time behind the computer - it's hard to make yourself switch off,” she says.

    To help her wind down after a long day in the office, she recently got involved in a community gardening project.

    “When you're outside in the fresh air with your hands in the soil, you can really switch off and see that there's a real world out there,” she says.

    Looking ahead, Alison is now focused on exploring new technologies to augment her service portfolio.

    “There are so many apps and technical tools are there to make your life simpler, so I'm trying to keep myself up to date with those as well,” she says.

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