How to Start a Service Business to Replace Your Income, Step-by-Step

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abbey ashley

Starting a service business on the side is one of the fastest ways to build extra income. It’s flexible, low-overhead, and you can probably start with skills you already have.

“I had a lot of drive underneath me,” Abbey Ashley told me, about starting her service business back in 2013. “I was super pregnant and I hated my job so much,”

Abbey started offering her services as a virtual assistant, and connected with her first clients at local networking events in Washington, DC. My the time her maternity leave was up–just a few short months–Abbey had booked enough work to not have to go back to that job she hated.

On top of that, she only had to work 20 hours a week to do it, and could work from home.

There are almost no barriers to entry to starting a freelance service business, and the startup costs are minimal. (All Abbey did was make business cards for networking.)

In fact, it was a service business, a house painting business in my case, that was one of my first entrepreneurial adventures.

Over time, Abbey scaled her virtual assistant business from just herself at $20-30 an hour, to her own little virtual agency, to $75 an hour and up for some specialized work.


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From Virtual Assistant to Service Business Trainer

Before long, the questions started coming in from friends and peers:

  • How can I do what you do?
  • How can I work from home and set my own hours?
  • How can I do work I enjoy?

In response, she built up a complete training program for would-be virtual assistants. She’s helped thousands of people start their own service businesses and has built a thriving free community of virtual assistants

If you want to dive in deeper, check out her free training called Become a Booked Out Virtual Assistant. (That’s an affiliate link; if you buy her full program, I’ll receive a commission.)

how to start a service business

What Service Can You Offer?

“I didn’t come in with a ton of skills,” Abbey explained, “but I started to look at what I could do that other business owners need.”

Some of the first tasks she started doing for business owners included:

  • Posting on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms
  • Writing blog posts and updating website content
  • Handling appointment bookings and phone calls

A lot of the tasks business owners need to get off their plates aren’t rocket science. She was able to do almost everything asked of her with the skills she had from her day job, and in the cases she was tasked with something new, the business owner provided training.

“Even if they’ve never hired for that role before, they have a process for it,” Abbey explained. This is my experience as well from hiring freelancers. In most cases, I have a process I’m already executing, but just want to start delegating it.

The 3 Column Method

To begin building a potential menu of services, Abbey recommended this exercise. On a piece of paper with 3 columns, make 3 lists:

  1. Skills you enjoy.
  2. Skills you don’t enjoy.
  3. Skills you don’t know how to do yet but are interested in learning.

I think you’ll come up with a broader spectrum of skills than you might have ever thought you had.

The Freelance Marketplace Method

If you’re struggling for ideas, just head over to a large marketplace for freelancers, such as Upwork or Fiverr. Look at the categories and sub-categories on these sites and the skills freelancers are offering. I’m sure you’ll several skills that you also have.

One interesting point–and counter to the usual advice to “niche down”–was that Abbey recommended starting out as a general virtual assistant. In the early days of your business, let the clients steer the role you play, and over time you’ll learn the tasks you really love and are efficient at.

How to Get Your First Customers in Your Service Business

First of all, Abbey recommended joining her Virtual Savvies Facebook Group. At press time, there are more than 30k members, with job opportunities getting shared daily. In addition, it’s always helpful to have a support network of other virtual assistants to talk to.

Start with Your Network

Abbey recommended starting conversations about your new service business with friends and family too. Even if they’re not in the position to hire you, there’s always the chance they know someone looking for help. Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool.

Don’t limit yourself to just the online space. As you go about your day, you might encounter other people locally who could use your help. It always just starts with being curious, listening, and trying to find the potential areas in their business you might be able to serve.

Abbey also said to put yourself out there and let business owners know what you’re doing. “Most of us know at least one small business owner, talk to them first,” Abbey said. In most cases, they’ll be excited to see someone else jumping into entrepreneurship!

Local Meetups and Networking Events

Check your local Meetup groups too. There are always networking events for entrepreneurs and other meetups you can attend to introduce yourself to other entrepreneurs and business owners.

Abbey said you can just introduce yourself and explain what you do, and they’ll think about you if they need a virtual assistant. “A lot of times it does sell itself,” Abbey said.

High-End Client Targeting

Abbey shared something she calls “High-End Client Targeting.” This is the “give-first” technique she used to land her biggest client and helps her students land well-paying clients as well.

If you know of someone you would love to work for, there are some steps you can take to get noticed and possibly get hired. Start by paying attention to them if you’re not already. Read their blog, listen to their podcasts, and so on. There is a good chance they will bring up holes and pain points in their business.

For example, they might mention they have never had success using Pinterest. If you have experience with Pinterest, this is the perfect opportunity to offer them a service to solve their pain point.

Create some Pinterest-optimized images for their recent content, and send those free of charge over email. It’s a great way to break through the clutter and give value first. You can mention that you offer Pinterest management services if they’re interested.

Even if it doesn’t turn into a job with that customer, it usually turns into a relationship. Making a positive first impression like that is a good way to become top-of-mind should they know someone else who could use your services.

Pricing Your Service

When Abbey landed her first client, she had a mix of emotions. She was elated to have a client, but also knew she had to work out some details–like contracts and payments.

She came up with her own pricing by looking up what other virtual assistants were charging, and how they were pricing their packages. She landed on a rate of $30 per hour. For general virtual assistants, she advised not starting below $20 an hour.

Abbey started off selling “bundles of hours” as this was what other VAs were doing. She sold packages of 10, 20, or 40 hours, and drew up a contract with payment details and terms.

For new service entrepreneurs, she recommended working backward from your goal income, and keeping in mind how many hours you have available to work and setting aside money for taxes.

As far as a legal entity, Abbey worked as a sole proprietor when she started working as a VA, and her location just required a $30 home business occupation permit. Of course, rules and regulations vary country by country, state by state, and city by city.

How to Expand and and Scale Up Your Service Business

Working as a virtual assistant or any service business is still trading time for money, which turns some entrepreneurs off. “I already do that at work!” Abbey countered with the fact that, “Yes, it’s still trading time for money, but you get to do it from the comfort of your home without the 2-hour commute.”

There are several ways to grow a service business, including:

  • Raising your rates
  • Creating “productized” packages
  • Creating a digital product DIY guide for clients who don’t want (or can’t afford) to work with you one-on-one.
  • Hiring subcontractors to do the work.

“Most of my students end up forming a mini-agency,” Abbey explained. This was the model she pursued in her virtual assistant business, and eventually had a team of 4 subcontractors. As the project manager and team leader, you’re responsible for booking work, client communications, and managing the entire process.

Next Steps

Abbey’s #1 tip was to give yourself some grace. We’re bound to make some mistakes and face some challenges along the way; that’s life! Give yourself some grace, pivot to the next thing, and keep going.

If you want to dive in deeper, check out her free training called Become a Booked Out Virtual Assistant. (That’s an affiliate link; if you buy her full program, I’ll receive a commission.)

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Nick Loper

About the Author

Nick Loper is a side hustle expert who loves helping people earn more money and start businesses they care about. He hosts the award-winning Side Hustle Show, where he's interviewed over 500 successful entrepreneurs, and is the bestselling author of Buy Buttons, The Side Hustle, and $1,000 100 Ways.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur, Forbes, TIME, Newsweek, Business Insider, MSN, Yahoo Finance, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Financial Times, Bankrate, Hubspot, Ahrefs, Shopify, Investopedia, VICE, Vox, Mashable, ChooseFI, Bigger Pockets, The Penny Hoarder, GoBankingRates, and more.

10 thoughts on “How to Start a Service Business to Replace Your Income, Step-by-Step”

  1. Great episode!

    Everything that Abbey mentioned makes sense. Word of mouth definitely is the most effective way to spread the word. I also like what she said about local networking, and I do plan to implement some of her strategies and tactics for my own business.

  2. Hi! I LOVED this episode and also watched the free training video however I think the link to enroll in her course is broken? I tried clicking on it several times and kept getting an error message. Just thought you should know so you can hopefully get it fixed so we can enroll in the course.

  3. Hey Nick. Big fan. I was just wondering what happened to the:
    “And if you’re short on time, here’s the ‘highlight reel’ PDF.”
    I really miss that. Alot.

  4. I’d love to know more info about how to set aside money for taxes. Do I have to register myself as a business?


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