“Falling into” a position such as a Virtual Assistant is not how it happens for everyone; I was very lucky. When I was starting out, I didn’t even realize the career path that I was choosing. My husband was working for a small web services firm as head of their web design department. They were often asked if they offered services such as web content writing, editing and proofreading and/or data capturing services for order forms or entry forms. This is where I came in; I had found my niche. I was working from home as a data capturer for a local company. I knew that I had the experience for what his clients were looking for, and with the data capturing position, I knew I had the discipline and time management skills needed to work from home. Offering to help with a few minor projects, I didn’t realize that a few years from that meager start, I would be working full-time (or at least as full-time as I’d like) from home as a Virtual Assistant, fully self-employed. Since 2000 when this started, I’ve expanded my services and my office. I now enjoy more writing & editing assignments and helping others establish their Virtual Assistant practices.
What is a VA?
A Virtual Assistant, or VA, is an independent contractor who provides administrative, secretarial, creative and/or organizational services to his/her clients viathe internet, email, snail mail, fax and telephone, whatever gets the job done! VAs can provide nearly all of the services of an in-house assistant at a fraction of the cost! Virtual Assistants have a vested interest in their clients’ success. The more a VA learns about a client’s business, the more valuable he/she becomes.
Utilizing advanced technological modes of communication and data delivery, a professional VA assists clients in his/her area of expertise from her own office on a contractual basis. Working together virtually opens up a whole new talent pool to draw from that was previously unavailable to professionals and small business owners. He/she knows that starting a business is an investment, not a way to make money fast. VAs look for partnerships – long-term relationships with partners, not quickie tasks or one-time assignments.
What are the qualities of a great VA?
Open ears, great listening skills
Active mind, willing to learn new things
A ready heart
Believes in him/herself and his/her clients
A magnetic personality
Able to simplify life and work
Flexible, able to adapt to new ways of doing things
Intelligent, fast learner
Attentive and focused
Self-disciplined and self-motivated
Education vs. Experience
This seems to be the “hot button” topic among VAs. When something works for one, that is the method that they believe in.
Since the description of a “Virtual Assistant” is so ambiguous, an emphasis on education or experience depends on what services will be offered and what skills are already possessed. Experience in a variety of fields can be helpful: secretarial/administrative, reception, customer service, human resources, billing, etc. And, as much as this position can be discounted in today’s society, don’t forget your most important role as a parent which teaches multi-tasking, time management, grammar correction, diplomacy and learning to pick your battles.
There are a lot of different types of VAs out there. With some, more formal training is required. When doing tasks for specific fields, such as medical, legal or technical jobs, you may need additional certificates, degrees and/or on-the-job training to provide these services.
Sharon Williams, MVA, Coach and Author (www.the24hoursecretary.com) has mixed feelings about certifications versus coaching versus only experience:
“First, credentialing is very important, no matter the industry. If the virtual assistance industry could develop one credentialing process that is universally accepted across the industry, I would be its staunchest supporter. However, currently, there are several credentialing groups, each establishing its own criteria for eligibility and some that cannot be transferred when you cease membership. Until there is more uniformity and a ‘standard,’ I do not believe credentialing will have the impact or credibility it should within and outside the industry. That being said, I do believe that coaching/training is a vital part of an aspiring VA’s growth. There are many aspects and skills needed when owning and running a business that are not acquired by secretaries, admin assistants, and clerks entering the VA industry. Traditional brick and mortar marketing and promotions do not apply to an internet-based/focused business. Aspiring VAs need to become better educated about the nuts and bolts of running a virtual assistant business and adapting those skills and their niche to a global marketplace. One of the best ways to acquire these skills and knowledge is by teaming with a coach or taking classes geared specifically to their niche. I would caution, however, that everyone who offers a class or coaching is not necessarily qualified and experienced enough to hold those titles (trainer and coach). Perform due diligence before investing money into courses. Finally, for those with extensive experience, yes, you may start your VA practice based on your prior employment and qualifications, but being a VA should be a life-learning process, and I would recommend enrollment in supplemental classes to augment your experiences.”
A.J. Horne of Horne Communications (www.avamas.com) writes that “some type of professional certification is absolutely essential in establishing credentials. A good education is necessary when applying for a job, but that does not quantify you as a VA when you are an independent business person. Membership in a certification program provides a professional image, a solid network of like professionals, as well as essential education that fills the gaps not provided in conventional education.”
One good way to get helpful experience while building your business is to volunteer services to local church groups, non-profits, etc. For example, desktop publishing services for newsletters and/or bulletins, volunteer to be on that committee for a group. Do a great job and it will be noticed!
Setting Up Your Home Office
One of the most important things for a Virtual Assistant to have, in order to establish him/herself “virtually,” is a professional-looking website. If web-building abilities are lacking, hire a reasonably-priced web designer to design the site. To keep costs down, map out exactly what is wanted BEFORE sitting down with a web designer. Don’t go for a lot of flash or glitzy images. Keep the site informative. It’s good to include a page about yourself (why you do this/your experience), rates and/or pricing information, the services offered and contact information. It’s also a good idea to include any projects worked on, letters of commendation, any awards won, or certificates achieved.
Starting out, especially if this is in addition to a full-time “day job,” it’s okay to be an independent contractor. When you do start to collect clients, it’s recommended that to set up with a business name, license and look into incorporating to protect personal (and family’s) assets. This is not said to scare you – my husband and I have both set up home-based businesses, so this was a concern for us and was done to put our minds at ease.
For office equipment, have a nice, big desk that’s comfortable for both writing and typing. And, of course, a very comfortable chair is also a big plus.
The other pieces of office equipment needed to complete your home office depends largely on what services are being offered and what instruments are needed for the day-to-day operations of your business.
Jaime Caris (www.alwaysontime.biz) states that the most important piece of office equipment for her is her PC. “What would we do without them nowadays? It is used for EVERYTHING!”
Kimberley Kenney (www.vakk.biz) says that her most important piece of office equipment is her filing cabinet. “Keeping things organized and filing all pertinent documents is of the utmost importance to any business!”
A separate phone line is a reasonably-priced way to help establish yourself as a “professional.” Sharon Williams, MVA, Coach and Author (www.the24hoursecretary.com) states that her telephone “provides a direct mode of accessibility and relationship-building that communicating via computer does not allow. From hearing a person’s voice, [Sharon] can hear the inferences of his statements and questions and can direct the conversation accordingly.”
Most times, a contract will specify what kind of internet connection you will need. Presently, the majority of contracts seen lately specify a LAN/cable modem for internet connection because of the size of the files you will need to download/upload for clients. A good, reliable PC is also a very basic requirement. As far as a printer and/or fax machine, purchasing or leasing one works the best.
For software, purchase at least the basics: Microsoft Office Suite, Quickbooks (for your bookkeeping and if you offer bookkeeping as a service) and any others that are specific to the services you want to offer. Make sure you’re well-trained in that specific software though before you offer services using it.
The most important thing when setting up your home-based work area is keeping your WHY in mind. Why are you choosing this path in life? I chose to work from home as a Virtual Assistant because of our first daughter Brady. I keep pictures of both her and her sister Emma up all over the place for that reason. Whenever I get that kink in my back, signaling I’ve spent too many hours sitting still and working, I look up and see my girls’ pictures. And it’s all worth it!
Deciding What Services to Offer (Niche vs. General)
When figuring out what services to offer, don’t offer anything you don’t like to do. For example, I HATE making cold calls. I do like writing, editing, proofreading, data capturing and desktop publishing. So, when responding to ads or inquiries, I focus on my personal strengths and the services I like to offer.
Another thing to decide on at this point is if you want to be a “general” VA, or if you want to specialize in a certain field such as medical, legal, real estate or technical areas. If you have the training and/or experience in a specialized field, and the desire to work in that field, go after a “niche” in that area. If you don’t have the necessary skills or training, but are interested in a specialized area, try getting in with a firm/company as a general VA and learn the skills you don’t already possess.
There are many VAs who work as general VAs, but market themselves towards certain types of businesses. I have worked as a chiropractic assistant, so it’s a natural extension of my business to do billing and transcription for chiropractors. I have three clients who I do “overflow work” for in this capacity. I also really enjoy writing/editing, so I’ve started marketing myself specifically towards being a “Virtual Writer’s Assistant.”
Most VAs charge $25-50/hr., depending on the services offered, years of experience and how specialized their field of expertise is. When starting out, it’s good to start in the $15-$25/hr. range, especially if just doing general administrative work. Research what other VAs who offer similar services are charging. Look around at other sites.
Use your discretion when setting prices and rates. Some VAs opt not to list their prices on their sites and charge a per-project fee instead of hourly. If you’re going to do things that way, make sure you carefully look at every aspect of the project and how much time is going into it. Be fair both to yourself and your client.
Another good suggestion is to give first-time clients a discount on their first project or contract, especially those clients with whom you would like to work. Make sure they know that this is a “First Contract Discount” that you offer to new clients in order to show them the quality of your work and the dedication you have to your clients.
A contract is one of the most important tools you should have for this type of work. You can find general independent contractor contracts and agreements in many legal books or online. Take one of these and adapt it to your business. Just make sure it includes the following:
Your client’s name and company name
Your legal name and/or company name
Both addresses and contact info
The scope of your work on the project or for the client
The start and end dates of the project/assignment
A payment and cancellation policy
The signatures of all people listed in the contract
Make sure to list in detail the scope of what you’re going to be doing. This way, if the client wants to pile more work on you than what you’re supposed to be doing, you can re-negotiate or amend your contract for your new duties.
Personally, I make it a point not to start work on any project until I get everything in writing (and signed). Whatever payment or contract policies you choose, make sure you’re willing to enforce them.
Marketing, Advertising and Getting Gigs
One of the most important marketing tools a VA can have is his/her portfolio. Included in this is an updated copy of resume, a complete list of services (detailed), a list of projects you’ve worked on (complete with references), and any client testimonials you’ve collected and a list of awards/certifications/degrees you’ve earned.
A VA can market him/her-self under a variety of titles, depending on the services offered: Virtual Assistant, Virtual Administrative Assistant, Remote Secretarial Services, Virtual Personal Assistant, Virtual Executive Assistant, Virtual Medical Assistant, Virtual Legal Assistant, Virtual Paralegal, etc.
There are also a variety of ways to advertise, depending on what your budget is. One of the cheapest ways to get clients is by networking. Another way is to set up partnerships with other small businesses whose clientele would be more likely to use a VA. For example, if you write web content, pair up with a web designer to cross-promote each other.
When you see an ad for temp help in your local paper, write a convincing and persuasive letter to them listing the advantages of using a VA for fill-in or overflow work, the skills you possess and whatever else you “bring to the table.”
Carry business cards with you everywhere! Make them your “calling card!” Leave them everywhere you go that you can exchange them with other businesspeople. Include them in all of your correspondence.
Make sure to get the word of your new venture out to your family and friends.
Invest in some brochures/postcards that you can send to targeted companies in your community to announce the services you offer and the advantages of using a VA.
Just a few more thoughts…
In order to succeed in this, or any other, home-based business, you need the support of friends and family and the qualities of determination and perseverance. A “can-do” attitude is needed during the beginning months when the work may be scarce and the money isn’t exactly “rolling in.”
A.J. Horne of Horne Communications offers this thought regarding working from home:
“Working at home should be treated just as working at an office, just without the commuting. It takes stringent time management and requires flexibility from you as well, juggling the home tasks while doing the work projects. Just remain adaptable, with the thought in mind that “the norm” does not apply to you or your hours.”
Even though the internet is becoming a bigger staple in people’s lives, some business owners and/or individuals will still try to discourage you from this type of work with comments like “How do I know you are really working if you’re not where I can see you?” DO NOT LISTEN to these people! Believe in yourself. Trust that you’ve made the right decision. Do something every day to build your business. And take things one step at a time.
As VAs are becoming more widely used and written about, more employers are coming to realize that there is talent in these overlooked workers.