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How to find the perfect virtual assistant and grow your business

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Look behind any successful online business today and chances are you’ll find at least one, if not a small army, of virtual assistants. These versatile multitaskers do everything from trudging through email backlogs and responding to customer queries to managing social media profiles and booking their busy boss’s root canal.

Finding a virtual assistant of your own can be as simple as finding a new pair of shoes online. Job postings for virtual assistant have skyrocketed on Upwork.com (the combination of former freelance sites oDesk and e-lance.com). There were 38,000 VA postings in 2015, up from 25,000 in 2012 and only 2,500 in 2008. The reason behind the trend is obvious: Technology has allowed employers to outsource tasks to freelancers without having to hire a full-time worker.

Ryan Johnson, categories director for Upwork, says what’s more important is that the rate of clients actually hiring VAs grew 41% in 2015 (the company does not give out specific hiring figures).

“These aren’t just folks coming in to hire virtual assistants for small, project-based work,” Johnson says. “They want somebody in that executive assistant or personal assistant role that can help them be more proficient in their day to day [tasks] and help them focus on the most critical [tasks] for the greatest gain.”

A handful of companies have popped up to help business owners find virtual assistants and manage their relationship, including Upwork, Toptal and Freelance.com. The cost of a reliable and competent VA can run around $500-$800 a month, according to “Virtual CEO” Chris Ducker, who matches businesses with virtual assistants through his site Virtual Staff Finder.

Finding a VA who’s the right fit for your needs is the tricky part. We spoke with a few entrepreneurs to find out how they found their virtual assistants and what makes their working relationship successful.

David Greenberg, founder of Miami-based tutoring service Parliament Tutors, which matches thousands of freelance tutors across the country with schools and nonprofit organizations.

How did you find your virtual assistant?

At first like everyone else I was using odesk or elance.com to secure VAs. But the diamond in the rough I found was a site called VA4U.com. I sent out a mass note to 20 different people explaining what I needed and asked a bunch of questions — like what Internet connection do you have? Do you own your own computer?  How often are there power outages where you live? Did someone help you prepare the reply to this email? English fluency doesn’t matter, comprehension matters. However, I was looking for someone who was going to be a stable long-term partner.

What sort of work do your VA do?

The role of VAs really began as a means of data collection when we’re scoping out an area for developing our business. They would make a list of schools and principals, directors of nonprofit programs, and add them to our marketing list. Now they also handle communications from students and do follow-up emails.

How much do you pay?

Jojo, my main guy who’s been with me for 3-plus years, started at $600 a month and now he’s received several raises. Now he’s earning $1,000 a month. This is a six-days-a-week job, 8 hours a day.

What are the pros and cons to using a VA outside of the U.S.?

The number one pitfall of having a VA from the Philippines is the time difference. He works for me 8-9 hours a day, but he works from 5 a.m.-10 a.m. and from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. EST. So a lot of his job is communication, email follow-ups, and those follow-ups are being done in the evening and early morning and we’re missing the afternoon.  

The main pro is the savings. He's been on the team for 3+ years (40 months). The alternative would be hiring someone locally to fulfill his job at $2,000 per month. I could quantify that savings at $1,000+ dollars per month, or $40,000+ since he came on-board. And this guy very much appreciates this job. There’s nobody who works harder than this guy that I know.

Karin Hurt, former Verizon executive running leadership consultancy firm Let’s Grow Leaders

How did you find your virtual assistant?

I was transitioning from working at Verizon for 15 years and I was used to having an executive assistant. It was a huge shock to go out on my own. How I found my VA was by accident really. A blogger reached out to see if I could have a mentoring conversation with a friend and as I was talking to her I realized she did exactly the kind of work I needed. So I hired her. She lives in South Carolina.

What sort of tasks do you give her

She does a lot of my social media implementation, taking my blog posts and tweeting out quotes. She handles Facebook and LinkedIn. She makes sure I’m showing up all over the place consistently. She also does graphic design for me.

How much value has she added to your business?

I pay her $30 an hour and I buy chunks of time. She may work 4 hours a week or 20 hours a week, depending on what’s going on that week. Having her has taken so many administrative tasks off my lap, which are not my strength. Using a VA is so cost effective, because you’re not paying for any wasted time. If there’s no work, she’s not dipping into the pool. I buy a bucket of hours and she tells me when they’re running low. I trust her own accounting. The first 10 hours I was blown away at how efficient she was. I’d say I’ve been 30% more productive since I hired her.

Are there any tools that make your online relationship easier to manage?  

We work with programs called CoSchedule and Buffer, which enable her to schedule out all our social media posts. To communicate, we use Zoom, which is my go-to for everything. It’s like Skype but stronger. It’s a video-conferencing service.

Chris Huntley, founder of Huntley Wealth Insurance, a life insurance agency.

Photo: Chris Huntley
Photo: Chris Huntley

How did you find your virtual assistant?

I have three now. I found them through Odesk [now known as upwork.com]. I was looking at first for a fluent English speaker in the Philippines, looking to spend $400 to $500 a month. I did hire a couple people on a full-time basis but neither of the two hires worked out. Both had issues with English proficiency, Internet connectivity problems, their electricity going out, I had a lot of those problems.

The problem wasn’t how I was finding these people. The problem was that I was underpaying them. What I did for my next couple hires was I learned to hire people and pay them a little bit more. I’ve got three VA’s now, one is a part-time writer from Canada, the other is a general administrative assistant who lives in Washington and the third is a law school graduate from Canada who helps me with media outreach.

How did you find your virtual assistant?

Like most busy entrepreneurs, I read “The 4 Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss, a few years ago and it became my go-to resource for streamlining my efficiency at my insurance agency.

What sort of tasks do you give them?

They help me form relationships with bloggers in the insurance and personal finance industry, getting on their radar. One is a writer and the other does general tasks, like sending my wife flowers or paying bills for me, research for articles I’m writing. Recently I moved, which meant changing my contact info on hundreds of accounts. My general assistant saved me a full day of work by doing that for me.

How much do you pay?

I pay one $26 per hour, about $900 a month. I pay my writer $15 an hour and he writes 4-6 articles per month. My general assistant earns $8.25 per hour.

Any tips for business owners considering hiring a VA?

If you can give your contractor flexibility in their schedule, that’s a big plus for them because they often have other contracts. My main assistant can work on her own time which is how she’s able to work full-time for me and work for another contract as well. Also, for the first 30 days she worked for me, I asked her to send me an email at the end of every workday telling me what she spent her time on that day and if she had any questions or suggestions. It made our relationship better because it created the boundaries of what I expected from her.

There’s a feature on Upwork where workers clock in on Upwork and it takes screenshots of their monitor every 15 or 10 minutes so you can see if they’re working on your projects. They have to agree to this. It’s a good way to be sure people stay on task.

What’s the payoff?

Just from adding my writer a couple years ago, the traffic on my site has gone up 80%. I had been writing insurance articles for five years, posting once per month. Now I’m getting 4-6 articles per month. He writes and I edit. What's taken me 3-4 hours a day in the past now takes 30 minutes. I’m trying to form systems to get as much of the work I don't have to do myself off my plate as possible.