You’re a solopreneur. Your time is precious. Sometimes you feel like tearing your hair out — there’s so much to do, and so little time.
Is the answer to employ a virtual assistant (VA)?
It may be. But employing a VA is not an easy task, and she costs money. A VA can save a lot of time in the long term, but the initial training can be a real time-suck — and stressful, to boot. So it’s critical to assess whether now is the right point for you and for your business.
Editor’s note: this article refers to human, not technological, virtual assistants. For ease, VAs are referred to as “she.”
These 5 steps will not only help you make that decision, they will lead you through the process of deciding on the right person.
Step 1: Decide Whether You’re Ready
It might sound like a good way of impressing your friends: “Yeah, I have my own VA. She takes care of all the menial stuff so I can concentrate on what’s important.”
This is a business deal. Employing a VA is hard work, and costs money. It takes skills that you may have to learn and develop. And more than anything, at least in its initial stages, it takes one thing that is ultra-precious: your time.
- Time to work out which tasks to delegate.
- Time to define those tasks precisely, and in writing.
- Time to coach your VA in the programs or platforms she will need to use.
- Time to review her work and deal with problem areas.
- Time to re-educate, if necessary.
You need to be absolutely, 100% sure you actually need a VA.
Your aim at the end of Step 1 is to have decided whether or not you’re ready to employ a VA now. Really ready.
How will you know? Take a long, hard look at yourself. Do you:
- work 40 or more hours a week (job and business)?
- leave tasks half-done, or skip them altogether, because something else comes up?
- turn out some poor quality work because you’d like to be skilled at everything but actually, you’re not?
- often feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with everything that needs doing?
- have things on your to-do list that have been there for months?
- get bogged down by tasks that don’t directly generate income?
- sometimes miss family events because of business tasks?
- only vaguely remember what the word “vacation” means?
If you’ve answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, it’s time you had help.
Let’s move on.
Step 2: Assess Your Perfectionist Ratio
Don’t try to be all things to all people. Figure out what you are best at and delegate the rest.Brian Kramer, TED speaker and CEO of Pure Matter, in “95 Experts Reveal Their 3 Must-Dos for Solopreneur Success“.
Let’s face it. You’re a bit of a control freak. Only you can do a good job. Everyone else is well below par. So it stands to reason that your VA is only going to be able to do humdrum tasks. If she was in an office, she’d be making a lot of tea.
Think about it. As a solopreneur you wear many hats. Every single day, you’re…
- Chief Executive Officer: making strategic decisions
- Content writer: creating high quality, knowledgeable articles
- Image creator: taking photographs, editing, sizing for different platforms, adding watermarks, creating infographics
- Video maker: filming, editing, publishing
- Newsletter editor: building your list, writing, publishing, dealing with responses
- Social media manager: twice daily Facebook posts, hourly Tweets, 10-30 daily Pinnable images, Instagram, You Tube — the list, unlike your time, is endless, and so is the aggravation.
… and that’s before we even start talking about product design and marketing manager!
All of them are critical to your business success. But no single person can be expected to be an expert in all those areas. It simply doesn’t happen. You’re not superwoman (or man!). Could a VA be the right person to help? One of the hardest things about employing a VA is deciding what you can let go of.
Your aim at the end of Step 2 is to have worked out which tasks a VA could realistically take from you.
How can you tackle that?
As you go through this exercise, bear in mind this advice from Rebekah Radice:
Take the time to write down the top 5 things you have to do (that no one else can do). Then give everything else away. A scalable process only happens when you focus on maximizing your time and skills.
Be prepared to take time with this. It’s important.
- Over the course of the next week, make a note each day of every task you undertake.
Yep. Every. Single. Task. No matter how small.
At the end of the week, using red, orange and green marker pens, indicate:
- In red the tasks that can only be done by you or a colleague/professional, such as an accountant or web developer
- In orange the tasks you want to keep at the moment, but that might possibly be outsourced later
- In green the tasks that you’re confident could be given to a VA.
But we’re not finished yet. What’s missing? Make note of tasks you didn’t have time to do during the week. These are likely to be strategic planning activities often passed by because you’re spending so much time “putting out fires.” They’re tasks that are critical to your business — often, projects that will take your business to the next level. Examples are planning product development, and using an editorial calendar to plan a social media campaign. Add those tasks to your list and mark them in red. These tasks should not be given to a VA. They’re your plans for the direction you want your business to take.
So take another look at your list. Have the potential VA tasks changed? Thinking about the scale and importance of more strategic tasks should show you the advantages of outsourcing at least some of the everyday work. If you’re satisfied that you have identified tasks you’re comfortable with a VA taking from you, it’s time to move on.
What if you really can’t identify anything a VA could help with?
That’s unlikely to happen unless you’re in serious perfectionist mode. And maybe then the “Assistant” you need is a counsellor! But let’s suppose you really can’t find a way a VA could help. What then? Make another list. This time, detail all the practical, home-and-family tasks that prevent you from building your business. Think about…
- House cleaning
- Taking to / picking up kids from school
- Walking dogs.
From creating visual content, to cleaning the house, to digital busywork, removing repetitive, tedious tasks from a solopreneur’s life allows us to focus on high yield efforts.
Strictly speaking, these are not VA tasks — someone has to be physically present to do them. But they take pressure away from you, the solopreneur. So outsourcing them is worth considering.
Step 3: What Does Your Ideal Virtual Assistant Look Like?
Would you take someone to work in a bricks and mortar business without checking their credentials? Not a chance! So why would you consider it acceptable to employ a VA without knowing where her skills lie?
Perhaps you think a VA should be able to do everything. Why would she, any more than you can? You might not be able to see your VA, but she is an individual, not a machine. And individuals come with different skills, knowledge, abilities, and interests.
So first, assess what you will require of a VA. You need someone who has the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding to undertake the tasks you listed in Step 2.
Your aim at the end of Step 3 is to have created a “persona” for your ideal virtual assistant.
How? Think back to when you created a profile of your ideal site visitor (you did create a profile of your site visitor, right?). You’re going to do much the same here. There are three separate areas to consider: practical skills, personal attributes, and physical/environmental issues.
Let’s start with skills and understanding.
Take the list of tasks you created in Step 2. What knowledge, skills and understanding will an individual need to be able to fulfill those requirements?
Be realistic about this. If you’re only prepared to pay minimum wage, accept that you won’t be employing a skilled graphic designer or a professional photographer. And it’s unlikely that you’ll find a quality VA (although there are places where you can find low-cost VAs).
Here are some possibilities to get you thinking.
Does your VA need to be able to:
- write excellent quality content about [insert content requirement here]?
- produce high definition, website-optimized, watermarked photographs?
- manage email lists, including responding to basic inquiries?
- create images / infographics optimized for Facebook / Pinterest / Instagram?
- schedule Facebook posts/tweets / pins using the third party tool you favor?
- format e-books for Kindle publishing?
If you find a VA skilled enough to undertake all these tasks, please let us know! It’s not going to happen, so be as specific as you can in paring down the work you want your VA to do and the skills and knowledge she’ll need to do it. Remember: she won’t be able to do everything.
Great — you have the skills pinned down. What about your VA’s personal attributes?
Your ideal persona has the skills and knowledge. Now you need to round her out as a person. I can hear you thinking: “If someone is advertising as a VA, surely she’ll have all the personal attributes a VA will need?” Maybe. But some see working virtually as an easy way to make money — without having any of the qualities you need. Even an outstanding assistant may not have the personal attributes your business requires.
You need to be clear about the characteristics your VA needs to demonstrate. Take time to think carefully about this, and be realistic. Here are some you may consider important — and there will be others. Does your VA need to be…
- a fast worker?
- able to work with the minimum of supervision?
- Reliable, and never sick?
Wait! Never sick?
Always remember: your VA is a person with a family and a life outside your business. You have every right to expect reliability, but inevitably there will be times when you need to be flexible.
How flexible will you be? Where’s the line for you between allowing for personal issues and someone taking liberties at your expense?
Finally, consider physical requirements.
This is an area that’s often forgotten, but it is, of course, critical in employing a virtual assistant who may live in a different part of the world, with a less developed technology infrastructure.
- What equipment should she have?
- What software program(s) will you require her to use? And if she doesn’t have it, are you prepared to buy it for her, or reimburse her?
- How fast is her Internet connection? Will she need to download a lot of images? Video files?
- Do time zones make a difference? Can you work out mutually agreeable times for Skype calls, or would you prefer to employ a VA in your own country?
Once you’ve completed your VA’s persona, it’s time to hire, right?
There’s one more step before you’re ready to hire.
Step 4: Will You Be a Good Employer?
We’ve talked about what your business requires, and what you require. But what about what your VA requires? If you’ve never employed someone before it can be daunting — it’s a skill in itself, and it has to be learned and developed.
Here are what VAs say are the most important characteristics of their employer, according to The VA Handbook:
- Be a good communicator: not keeping the VA in the loop is one of the top gripes of VAs. So…
- Share any correspondence that may affect her, or articles that may impact the work she’s doing for you.
- Arrange to communicate regularly. Be specific about how often and by what means you expect this to happen: Email? Skype? Conference call?
- Reply promptly to emails, in particular to requests for clarification or further information. You cannot expect a VA to perform optimally without it.
- Make your VA tasks interesting: There are some tasks that your business requires and are simply tedious. That’s life. But remember that, for many people, doing robotic tasks day after day can be dispiriting and underwhelming. So…
- Make sure your VA understands how the tasks she does — no matter how repetitive or banal — fit into your business. What do they add to the overall picture? How do they contribute to your business’s success?
- Where possible, fit tasks to your VA’s interests. Where not, vary the tasks you expect her to complete so she has some variety. The more enjoyable work is, the longer you will retain a good VA.
- Be clear about tasks: Your VA is not a mind reader. She knows little about your business, nor about your standards. She will need to know not just what to do, but how you want it done. So…
- When you choose which tasks your VA will carry out, document exactly what you want done, step by step. Not only will it help this VA; if you have to replace her, the information is already there for the next person you employ.
- Put that information together as a training manual, or think about doing it differently — put together a video version. It’s so much more personal, and appeals to different learning styles.
As Craig Carpenter says:
Documentation is the key to delegation.
- Be prepared to spend time training: You wouldn’t expect a new member of staff in a successful bricks and mortar business to be given a written guide and left to her own devices. An online business is no different. So…
- Arrange time to go through the written information with your VA. Don’t simply send it by email and expect her to read, digest and do.
- Answer any questions promptly and professionally. Time spent at the start of the relationship will pay long-term dividends.
- Make your VA feel her work is valued: Everyone needs to know their work is valued, and a VA is no different. So…
- Thank your VA for each piece of work she completes, no matter how small.
- Give feedback on work. Make sure you always begin with positive comments, even if you have to point out required improvements.
- If you have to give critical feedback, be specific. Don’t question skills or professionalism — comment on the piece of work and be clear about what’s wrong.
- Never, ever show anger to a VA. If you’re dissatisfied with work, calmly explain why. If you’re frustrated, wait until you have composed yourself before contacting her.
- Make your VA know she is a valued member of your team: If she is to represent your company — whether that’s responding to Facebook comments or representing you at a trade show — she needs to feel positive about you and your business. So…
- Pay your VA a reasonable rate, and pay her on time.
- Contact her at pre-arranged times unless there’s an emergency. Don’t feel you can invade her life whenever the mood takes you.
- Allow time off for special events — birthdays, holidays, religious or cultural events — and for emergencies.
- Consider paying a bonus for exceptional work. Some cultures, for example in the Philippines, are traditionally paid a bonus at Christmas. Be sure you understand the culture and expectations of the VA you’re about to employ.
Step 5: Hire!
Let’s take a minute to recap.
- You’ve assessed your need for a VA.
- You know what tasks you want her to undertake.
- You know what skills, knowledge, understanding and personal attributes she will need.
- You’ve taken a long, hard look at yourself and you know what’s expected of you as a good employer.
You have all the information you need. It’s finally time to hire.
How to Interview Virtual Assistants
- Be clear about the work you will expect the VA to do — use your list of tasks to lay out the specifics.
- Set specific criteria by which you will be selecting. Use the VA “persona” you’ve created.
- First, filter by résumé. If it’s badly written, or not based on the criteria you set, discard it.
- The remaining applications are your longlist.
- Set a trial task for your longlist. Make it something similar to the work your VA will eventually undertake. If this will be an image-based task, consider asking to see a portfolio of work rather than a one-off task.
- Set a deadline.
- Do not accept tasks not completed by your deadline date. Remember: you need someone who will complete work on time. If she can’t do that at this stage, she is unlikely to be reliable later.
- Add each person who completes the task to your standards to your shortlist. You will now invest more time going through the remaining applications.
- Check web presence. Does the individual have a social media account? If she’s a professional, check her website.
- Consider talking by Skype. It doesn’t have to be a formal interview, although it could be. Does the person speak the language you need her to use, well? How do you get on with her? Do you warm to her? What does your gut tell you?
Once you select a VA, employ her on a trial basis for a month. Wherever possible, pay per piece of work, as opposed to per hour, at least for that month.
Are things working out? Great. If not, start the interview process from the beginning.
Remember: time spent now will pay dividends later.
Where to Find a Virtual Assistant?
For large, important projects there are a number of online agencies, many of which have a good reputation.
You won’t find VAs charging minimum wage from these places — but you (mostly) do get what you pay for.
Use “due diligence” in looking at reviews of the agency, and take a look too at the types of project being given to their current VAs.
Some examples are:
Virtual Assist USA: a top of the range company providing support in all types of admin tasks, including social media management. You work with a dedicated VA, not a pool of different people. There are no prices on their website. They work to your budget, but are likely to be expensive. Billed by minutes, not by project.
Time Etc: another highly rated US company, it also provides a dedicated VA. All employees have at least 2 years’ commercial experience. Packages start at $25 per hour, and you have to commit to a certain number of hours per month. The first task is free, or you can choose a free consultation.
Tasks EveryDay handle a range of services, including content writing, basic admin, social media management, and customer contact such as live chat. Employing VAs in the Philippines and India, they charge far lower rates, starting at $6.98 per hour. Their website includes impressive reviews from satisfied clients.
Fiverr: at the lower end of the market, Fiverr describes itself as providing “freelance services for the lean entrepreneur.” Quality is hit and miss, and very few tasks now cost $5, but finding the right person here can be a real boon. Use their feedback system to assess quality, but remember: what works well for one business may not work for yours.
Depending on your niche, LinkedIn can be an excellent source of workers in your field. Use the search facility to see the profiles of dozens of individuals.
Your niche’s community:
Do you have someone in your business’s social media platforms, or your forum, who is a regular contributor? Is s/he positive and knowledgeable? Does s/he demonstrate some of the skills you need?
Your social media contributors can be a great source of help. If they’re contributing on social media they’re already invested in your business. They likely have knowledge you require. They’re also likely to have time.
Use exactly the same process you would if you were recruiting from an agency. Be aware, though, that if it all goes wrong, they might spread negativity in your community.
They may or may not have much experience of your niche, but their experience of the most up-to-date technology and social media can be second to none. It is, after all, their world.
Try advertising in local colleges, including their placement offices, or contact tutors and ask if they have recommendations.
Have older children? Think about their friends — although…
A word about employing friends:
Be very careful of this. Like going on an extended break with someone you’ve known for years but never spent more than a few hours with, it can be the end of a beautiful friendship.
Make sure to treat it as a business transaction, and be clear about the parameters of the task. It’s far more difficult to fire a friend than it is to end a business relationship.
This also goes for VAs recommended by word of mouth. A person who fits well in one business won’t necessarily do as well in another niche, or with different tasks.
Employing someone is never an easy task. You may not get it right first time. But you stand more chance of getting it right with careful planning, an honest assessment of your own capabilities, a system for the VA to follow — and sometimes, a dose of good luck.
- Don’t hire a VA until you’re certain you need one.
- Be clear about the tasks you need doing and about how to do them — document the system for each task.
- Give feedback. When the feedback is negative, be specific about what’s wrong and how to improve.
- Evaluate yourself as an employer. Ask for feedback on areas you can improve.
- Treat your VA as an equal, not as “staff.” Give her a reason to take pride in your business.
- The word “person” is important. Your VA is not a robot. Respect her, her personal life, and her time.
Count your VA as the most important person in your business — because she will be.
Remember: she will free up your most precious resource — your time.