To grow your business, at some point, you’ll need to get help. People like me who operate a small business in a remote area have long relied on freelance workers to help us get work done. Outsourcing is not new, but in the last few years a new term has come on the outsourcing scene: virtual assistants. A virtual assistant or VA is someone who works from his or her own home providing support services for business owners.
Originally VAs were distinguished from other freelance workers by the type of work they did. Most offered secretarial or administrative support, such as word processing and maintaining databases. However, more VAs have crossed over into other traditionally freelance service realms such as Web design, audio production, writing, and editorial services.
Many articles that explain how to find a great VA are written by VAs themselves, which makes the articles somewhat slanted. The reality is that although a VA can be a great asset to your business, a VA relationship gone bad can be the source of endless aggravation and actually set back your business instead of advancing it. As with any contractor arrangement, you want to select a VA extremely carefully.
Horror stories abound online about problems with VAs. Here are a just a few problems that can arise:
- Ego Bloat: Your VA gets so caught up in marketing herself or doing work for her "big clients" that she ignores your business. She stops answering your emails and blows you off completely. You realize that a lot of things you entrusted to her simply aren’t getting done. (Hint: if the VA is spending a lot of her online time blogging about how much money she is making, or the new car she just bought, look elsewhere; she’s too busy fanning her ego to deal with the likes of you.)
- Poor Planning: Your VA overbooks herself, and can’t get your projects done on time. Sadly, overpromising and under delivering is common in the VA world because it’s a new industry. Many VAs don’t have much experience managing multiple clients and projects. Some may be young or have little work experience and simply don’t behave professionally.
- Lack of Skills: Your VA says she can do something, such as Web design for example, but really has no experience in that area. You end up with a shoddy product, or wait around for months to get a Web site online while she learns how to do the job (on your dime).
- Life Crises: Your VA says she can be your "right hand" person, so you outsource key aspects of your business. Then she goes on vacation, gets another job, gets sick, or decides to fold the business, and you are left in the lurch.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Many people find fantastic trustworthy VAs that they work with for years. So what are the secrets of finding a VA you can work with at a price you can afford?
Outline Your Requirements and Expectations
First you need to figure out the type of work you need done and the expectations you have from the business relationship. Many times the arrangement falls apart simply because of a lack of communication. For example, if you expect your VA to answer emails from you within 24 hours, you need to tell the VA that, so you aren’t disappointed.
You also should write out a list of tasks that you would like to outsource and your budget. If you have a long list of tasks, seriously consider hiring more than one VA. That way not only do you spread out your risk of something happening, but you also can assign tasks that are the best fit for each VA.
It’s unlikely one VA will be great at everything, so divide up your tasks so each of your VAs is focusing only on what she does best. When you set up a VA "team" like this, you may want to consider having conference calls with the entire group, so everyone understands the big picture of what’s going on with an individual project or even your entire business.
Also realize that pricing for VA services are all over the map. Different VAs charge wildly different rates for the exact same service. Paying more does not necessarily give you better quality work. Although price shouldn’t be your only consideration when selecting a VA, don’t get talked into more than you can afford. After all, if you bill your own consulting time out at $75/hour, it’s stupid to pay a VA $75/hour. You’ll go broke. Often you’ll find that VAs who live in areas where the cost of living is lower charge less than those located in the "big city."
Investigate Places to Find a VA
After you have your requirements laid out, it’s time to go on the hunt. Fortunately, many places exist that list VAs looking for clients. Here are a few of them.
Although VAs tend to divorce themselves from the term "freelancer," many can be found on freelance job sites.
- Guru.com – This site is a great resource for finding freelancers of any sort, including VAs. It’s a good idea to "try out" a VA on a specific project first, and with Guru, it’s easy to post a project and get a ton of responses. The key to using Guru is to include a list of questions in your post that people MUST answer to be considered. Many people post canned responses to any project they run across, so if you use questions, you can weed out the people who can’t follow directions. (Obviously, you want a VA who can follow written instructions!) I’ve had great success hiring people from Guru using this approach.
- Elance.com – Personally, I haven’t used ELance because I don’t like the interface, but the idea is much like Guru. You post a project and people bid on it or look through profiles and contact freelancers directly. As with Guru, VAs put up portfolios you can look through to see their work experience and projects they’ve worked on in the past.
Like any profession, VAs now have associations. Searching through their member databases is a simple way to find a VA.
- International Virtual Assistants Association – You can browse through VAs based on their skills or post a project and wait for responses.
- Virtual Assistant Networking Association – This site bills itself as a resource for VAs and entrepreneurs to network together. You can submit an RFP (request for proposal) or browse a directory of VAs.
- Virtual Assistant Chamber of Commerce – This organization actually has come up with what they believe a VA is (and what it is not). Their definition of the VA relationship is one where the VA is "working in continuous relationship with clients providing some form of across-the-board administrative support on a month-to-month basis not occasional projects or tasks." If this is the type of VA you are looking for, it may be a good resource. Again they have a directory of VAs, but it’s a little sparse.
In addition to associations, you can find more informal directories online.
- A Virtual Resume – This directory includes audio clips, so you can hear how the VA sounds. If you are hiring someone to do phone work, this feature may be helpful to you.
- VA Classroom – This site focuses on training VAs to work for Internet businesses. If you need help with an online business, this site is worth a look.
- Shelancers – Shelancers are women professional freelancers, many of whom are VAs. This directory is relatively new, but again may be worth checking out. Clients can comment on their experiences with the VAs in the directory, which can be illuminating.
- Virtual Assistant Forums – This forum is where VAs can talk among themselves about running their businesses, but the site also offers a free RFP service as well.
- Team Double-Click – This site takes a different approach. Rather than listing a directory of VAs, Team Double-Click acts like a virtual temporary staffing agency matching VAs with businesses. They screen VAs, post their pricing, and offer a 30-day money back guarantee. Plus, because it’s an agency if you need more hours or services, you can draw from their pool of many VAs.
Other Ways to Find a VA
Of course, the old-fashioned methods of hiring, such as the classified or simply "asking around" can work when you are hiring VAs as well.
- Forums/Social Networking sites: These days, many VAs promote their services on social networking sites like Facebook and post in forums. You often can glean quite a bit of information about someone and their approach to business simply by lurking in forums. If you find someone whose outlook meshes with yours, it’s then easy to contact the person for more information about her VA services.
- Classifieds: Every community has both print and online classifieds where people post information about their services. Huge classified boards like Craigslist are another way to find people.
- Word of Mouth: Finally, if you are searching for the perfect person, ask your friends, business associates, or people you meet in networking groups like BNI. However, bear in mind that the person giving the recommendation outsources a ton of work to a given VA, that VA may be completely booked up. It doesn’t matter how good the VA may be if she doesn’t have time to do your work.
Outsourcing can be an incredibly effective way to grow your business. If you are only doing the work you love, not only will you enjoy your business (and your life) more, your stress level will be lower, so your mind is free to come up with new brilliant business ideas! So take the time to find a VA who will help (not hurt) your future business growth.