Congratulations, you’ve started your own business!  I wish you the best of luck my friend.  Like many others before you, I am sure you dreamed of sleeping in late, working at a leisurely pace, and taking as much time off as you wish.  However, what you have realized is that it is arduous work.  Every aspect of your business falls on your shoulders.  In reality, you may spend an hour or two a day developing your product/service and then hours on busy work.  It seems there is no end to the emails, meetings, accounting, social media updates, purchases, etc.  You sigh and think:  If only I had more time to develop the business.

Tonight, your local Chamber of Commerce is hosting a networking event.  Even though you are exhausted and don’t honestly have the time, you go hoping to meet fellow business owners who have been where you are.  You wish to discover their secret as to how they gained more time to devote to their business and still have a life.

During the social hour, you notice someone who seems to be holding court and telling of all the fun things he is doing with his children and other aspects of his life.  Nudging the person next to you, you ask who this person is and if he really runs a business or if he just joined the group for the fun of it.  Your friend tells you his name is John, a fellow business owner who seems to have it all figured out.  He runs a successful software business, attends all field trips with his children, is a Scout Master, is on a softball league, and organizes a large family reunion every year along with running the family social media account.  Excited, (this is precisely the type of person you wanted to meet tonight), you approach John during a lull in the conversation.  Introducing yourself, you ask him how he does all this and is still able to run a successful software company.   He smiles and says, “Simple! I hired a VA.”  You give him a puzzled look because to you, VA means Veterans Assistance.  So you ask:

What is a Virtual Assistant?

A Virtual Assistant (VA) is an Independent Contractor whom you sign a contract with to provide specific services.  There are as many different types of VAs as there are needs for those VAs to fill.  For example, I have a VA who is responsible solely for my accounting, and I pay her for eight hours of work per month.  I also have another VA who is responsible for keeping my social media up-to-date and relevant, and she gets paid for ten hours of work a month.  I have a third VA who takes care of all the general tasks that a traditional “Secretary” would do.  I pay a retainer to this VA.  If I go over my prepaid hours, she bills me for the overage.  She also makes all my purchases for both business and personal.  I pay for this exceptional service in advance and include it with my retainer payment.

So why didn’t you hire an employee?

Hiring a traditional employee is sometimes more work than it is worth.  I had employees at one point, and I regret ever hiring them.  Half, if not more, of their day they were on Facebook, or chatting with each other about this celebrity or that political issue or the latest idiotic reality TV show.  Also, for traditional employees, I had to find an office, pay employment taxes, pay benefits, and offer paid leave and a 401k.  So 40 hours, (for ~10 hours worth of real work), times three employees plus taxes and benefits and leave – I was losing money and my mind.  By hiring a couple of VAs, I’m paying only for hours they work on my business – thus saving me time, money and sanity.  Remember, when you have “traditional” employees, you are not only paying for the work they eventually get around to doing.  You are paying for the hours they shop online, the hours they spend on Facebook, the hours they spend watching YouTube videos, the time wasted gossiping at the water cooler, etc.  With VAs – they don’t work; they don’t get paid.

Do you pay your VA’s enough to live on given they work so few hours?

LOL – no, I am not their only client.  My VAs have contracts with several clients each.  Each client pays them according to their agreed upon terms.  I don’t know if my VAs are getting rich doing what they are doing – that is their business.  As long as they are performing to our agreed upon terms, I’m happy.

Do you worry about confidentiality with them having other clients?

No.  My VAs and I have signed Non-Disclosure Agreements.

What about password security?

My VAs and I use a program that allows them access to the systems I need them to use, but they do not see the passwords. For systems I cannot use this program with, I have set up admin privileges for them.  If there comes a time that they no longer are in a contract with me, I can quickly remove those admin privileges.

You keep mentioning a contract.  Can you tell me more about this?

Sure!  All V’s, no matter what they do for their clients, work under a contract.  This contract spells out, in detail, the scope of work, hours contracted or monthly retainer agreed upon, rates, late payment terms, invoicing, etc.  There is even a section detailing termination procedures.  The contract not only protects the VA but me, as a client, as well.

So, if a VA is not an employee, how do you know the work is getting done, and you are not paying for hours not devoted to your work?

Working with a VA is much easier than you think.  You are correct; a VA is not an employee.  And as such, I do not have control over when, where, or how the work gets completed.  I find this to be much less stressful than when I had employees bickering with each other all day and running to me complaining so-and-so wasn’t holding up their end of the workload.  There are some things I do have control over, (i.e., accounting – my business is set up in QuickBooks, so my VA has access to my QB account).  But since VAs are independent contractors, they set their hours, and where they choose to work, (i.e., home office, local library, local coffee shop, their backyard, etc.).  Your clients don’t have control over when you create your product or where you come up with your ideas, do they?  It is the same with VAs.  Some VAs work better at midnight and some at noon.  This freedom makes VAs much more productive than the traditional employee.  VAs feel free, and more comfortable, not having all the constraints that employees have.  And since their commute is as close as their home office, they start the day off in a much better mood than someone who has fought traffic for the last two hours.

As long as my VAs keep me updated and I see the work is done, (emails answered, social posts updated, invoices sent and payments processed), I couldn’t care less when or where my VAs do the work.  Hell, one of my VAs lives in a completely different time zone.

In the beginning, the four of us would conference call once a week.  Now, we have such a well-developed level of trust; we talk, but only when it is necessary.  All three of my VAs keep me updated on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis.

My VAs are a part of my team.  I am much happier than when I had employees, and I’m more productive.  Instead of slogging through tons of emails, I only have to deal with those that my VA cannot – which is few.  My accounting VA sends me end-of-month statements, and if I have any questions, she and I talk via Skype or phone.  And I can log in to my social media accounts any time I want and see that they are up to date.  And she sends me weekly analysis reports to show the ebb and flow of my following and click-throughs.

As for accountability, VAs – just like any other type of business – rely on referrals to stay in business.  It wouldn’t benefit them to get a reputation for shoddy work and unreliability.

Where Did You Find Your VAs?

One of my VAs sent me a cold pitch.  Like you, I didn’t know what a VA was so I blew her off.  But, she would contact me now and then with little tidbits of advice, and eventually, my curiosity piqued enough that I approached her and we had a nice chat.  I agreed to contract for a trial period.  At the end of the trial, I was impressed with the results, so I renegotiated the contract for more services and an extended period.  After I had worked with her for a while, I mentioned I was looking for someone to do my accounting.  She told me about this group she belongs to who helps VAs find work.  I submitted my job requirements and discovered my accounting VA through them.  When I was looking for a social media VA, they both referred some people they knew, and I picked the one I felt would do a good job.  I haven’t looked back since.  I will never go the employee route again.

You said you have three VAs.  Why three?  Don’t all VAs do all jobs?

LOL – no.  Not all VAs do all types of jobs.  VAs tend to specialize.  Some are what is known as General VAs.  They do the essential but vital tasks that keep the business going.  As I mentioned, I have accounting and social media VAs.  There are also VAs that ghostwrite.  Some are Pinterest experts.  Still, others are website experts.  You need a logo or business branding; there are VAs that also specialize in design and branding.  You need a recording transcribed, or a document proofread, there are VAs that specialize in those tasks as well.

So how did you know what type of VA to hire and what tasks to turn over to them?

I took a look at what I was doing every day and noted what tasks had nothing to do with software development.  Those are the tasks that I needed to get off my plate as soon as possible.  So, the short answer to your question, basically, anything that isn’t directly related to the product/service you are selling could and should be outsourced to a VA.

I’ve never hired much less contracted with someone.  I wouldn’t know where to start or how to manage a VA.

That is probably the most straightforward part.  The VAs I have contracts with had an onboarding process already in place, and they walked me through everything.  Depending on what you have hired the VA to do, the onboarding could take as little as an hour or as long as a few days.

As far as managing a VA – you don’t!  It isn’t like having employees who need to be monitored to make sure they complete the work.  Since VAs have multiple clients, time is money for them.  Out of sheer necessity, time management is their mantra. A VA who can’t keep up will not be in business for long.  And as I mentioned before, VAs live and die by their reputations.  A VA who gains a bad reputation will not be able to find work anywhere.

After your conversation with John, you go home and look at the long list of unfinished tasks that you do not have the energy or brain power to deal with at the moment.  While John’s advice is still fresh in your mind, you jot down all the stuff that you still have to do but doesn’t create anything new for your business, and you start to write a few job postings.  John gave you the URL he used, and you contact them to help you find a few VAs to help you gain more time and sanity.  After discussing your needs with the search agent, you head to bed with a better feeling about the future of your business.  You decide one of the first tasks that you will have your new General VA do is send a thank you gift to John for his time and assistance.