I was recently interviewed by Leva Duell who runs a successful secretarial services business in California, USA.
She often gets emails and phone calls from people asking her ‘What is a Virtual Assistant? What is the difference between a VA and a secretarial service? Can you really make money as a VA? How do I get started?’
To give people some insight into what’s involved in becoming a VA, she interviewed me and here’s the full transcript:
Leva: What is Virtual Assistance? What is a Virtual Assistant or Virtual PA? What does a VA actually do?
Lisa: Virtual Assistance developed in the 1990s because of the internet. People gradually realized that they could work from home and communicate with clients all over the world.
I saw a report by the George Washington University recently. They believe that Virtual Assistance is now one of the fastest growing industries on the internet. Projections are that it’s going to be a $130 billion industry by 2008!
It’s really an exciting time to be part of this industry. Think of all the people that are striking out on their own and setting up businesses from home purely because of the technology we have now: broadband, cellphones, email, FTP, instant messaging, free internet telephony such as Skype, wireless laptops, online collaboration tools, video. It means we can work anywhere we want to and communicate quickly and easily with people on the other side of the world.
As more and more people set up small businesses because of this technology, we’ll see an increasing demand for Virtual Assistants.
We’re still at the stage though where many people haven’t heard of Virtual Assistance yet and don’t really understand the concept.
I like to think of the Virtual Assistant as a freelance administrator, designer, organizer, desktop publisher, researcher, editor, typist, secretary and coordinator, all rolled into one! And of course all of these roles can be performed remotely.
VA’s aren’t employees – they’re independent contractors and business owners in their own right. The great thing about using a VA is that it’s really flexible for clients. They’re not paying a full-time or even part-time employee – they only paying by the hour for actual work done. Typically employees cost 2 – 2.5 times more than their hourly rate because you’ve got to pay for their holiday/sick pay, insurance and so on. With a VA, you’re not paying anyone during quiet times. However, your VA is available whenever you want work done.
Leva: Can people combine secretarial and VA services? Can secretaries call themselves VAs? What’s the difference between a VA and a secretarial business?
Lisa: People certainly do combine secretarial and VA services.
Secretarial services generally provide more basic services such as wordprocessing, transcription, taking phone calls, bill paying and so on.
VAs provide more specialized, technical services such as website design, desktop publishing, newsletters, book layout, editing and proofreading and so on, in addition to basic secretarial services. Generally, VAs provide more of an all-round service so that clients don’t need to go to lots of different people for different services.
VAs also tend to work more in partnership with their clients, meaning that usually their clients are long-term retainer clients rather than one-off projects here and there. However, in practice I think that many VAs have both long-term clients AND one-off projects.
Leva: What services do you provide? Do you provide word processing and data entry services? What kind of projects do you work on?
Lisa: There is a huge variety of tasks you can perform from home as a VA.
The kind of work I’ve been doing recently includes
- typing a report for a consultant
- designing a book layout and a brochure for a business coach
- designing a Powerpoint presentation for a speaker as well as sourcing the right photos and images for it. He was presenting at a conference overseas the following day. I emailed it back to him and uploaded it to his website
- researching some workshop material on the internet for a consultant
- designing and printing a flyer for a singer who has a performance coming up
- editing, proofreading and formatting a newsletter for a finance broker
- designing an email newsletter template for a speaker
- designing a website
- editing and proofreading a book for a speaker
- updating a database for a corporate advisory company with new business cards
– taking RSVPs for a lunch
I did all this without seeing or meeting any of the clients: we spoke on the phone, used Skype (internet telephony), Instant Messaging or emailed each other. Some of my clients are in my home town, some are long distance. The exciting thing is that my clients can be based anywhere in the world.
As you can see, I provide a mixture of basic secretarial services such as wordprocessing and data entry, all the way up to web design, book layout, and desktop publishing.
No day is the same – I finally feel fulfilled and challenged and I have plenty of satisfied, ongoing clients!
Leva: How do clients provide the work to you? Do they fax, email, mail?
Lisa: The work comes mostly by email, some of it by fax and some by mail or courier. Larger files are sometimes uploaded to a remote server by FTP (File Transfer Protocol).
For example, the Powerpoint presentation I mentioned was emailed to me as a rough draft in Word which I then moved over to Powerpoint by designing a template to match the client’s corporate identity and then editing and formatting the content. I then emailed it back.
The reports I typed up were faxed to me as handwritten notes which I typed up and emailed back. The database update work arrived by mail – the client sent business cards that needed to be entered into a spreadsheet.
You can provide digital transcription as well nowadays – removing the need for tapes. Digital files are sent by email or FTP by the client, which you then transcribe using free software that you can download from the internet. You then email back the typed final documents. I don’t really enjoy typing for long periods of time hence I don’t provide digital transcription!
Leva: Can you really make money as a VA and get business from the Internet?Have you been able to support yourself as a VA? What kind of money can you make?
Lisa: As an Executive Assistant, I was earning a comfortable salary. I have been able to surpass this income working from home although it didn’t happen straight away. It’s something that you gradually build on.
I built my VA business and was working from home full-time within a year of registering my business name.
I do get business through my website so yes, you really can make money as a VA and get business through the internet.
As I said I earn a full-time income now. My rates vary from $40 per hour to well over $100 per hour for specialized design work.
The sky is the limit with what you can earn. If you keep marketing yourself and get enough work in so that you have enough work to outsource to other VAs, you can leverage your income and earn even more that way.
You charge the full rate to your clients and then outsource to other VAs who want a quick shortcut to working from home, and obviously you pay them less than you’re charging the client, so that you are covering your marketing and client administration expenses.
Leva: What motivated you to become a VA?
Lisa: I had worked as a senior Personal / Executive Assistant for eleven years. I always wanted to run my own business and I decided it was about time to go it alone. I wanted to leave the corporate world and build something of my own. I knew it would bring me lots of flexibility and self-esteem.
I wanted to be in control of my life. I wanted to decide what time to start work, what days I wanted to work, who I wanted to work with, and what work I wanted to do. You certainly get all these things as a Virtual PA.
Leva: What do you like about being a VA?
Lisa: I love working from home and not having to commute into work. I love the autonomy and making my own decisions.
I love the flexibility and variety. I like being able to take the dog out for a walk on a sunny day! I like setting my own hours, instead of being stuck in a stuffy office. I can decide when I want a day off, or when to take holidays without having to ask the boss. Because the boss is me!
I also love using all my computer skills and learning new ones. I found that I was only using a few of my skills at my office job.
I also enjoy working with my clients as we work as partners, rather than in an employee/boss relationship.
I love not having to dress up in a suit every day. I’m certainly saving a lot of money not having to buy clothes and shoes for work!
I don’t miss the office politics either. The great thing about being a VA is that you don’t have to deal with people you don’t like or get on with. You’re pretty much in control of that.
I must confess that recently I have ‘let go’ of a couple of clients that didn’t have quite the right attitude to working with a VA. That left room for me to attract better clients with whom I have a great working relationship.
Leva: What’s the biggest challenge?
Lisa: The biggest challenge for me in the beginning was finding clients and knowing where to start. I had everything set up but no business at first. Then when I figured out how to find clients, everything fell into place.
Leva: What software and equipment do you use?
Lisa: I use Microsoft Office including Microsoft Publisher for desktop publishing work. I also use web design software, have a computer and a wireless laptop, broadband, a colour printer/ fax and Skype. I also have a webcam so I can do free video calls.
Leva: How did you get started? How did you get your first clients? What’s the best way to attract customers? How do you market your business?
Lisa: There are so many ways to market a VA business. I’ve tried pretty much all of them with varying degrees of success.
I started out by advertising in the local newspaper which got me my first client. I also volunteered to do some work for not-for-profit organizations which lead to a number of referrals. I got one of my largest ongoing clients this way.
Going along to business networking events also brings very good results. I get a lot of work through my website as well. Distributing business cards, building strategic alliances with other businesses, generating positive word of mouth and entering local small business awards have also been great marketing techniques.
Those are just some of the ways you can market yourself.
Leva: What do you think the demand is for VA services? Are there really that many clients out there?
Lisa: I think the demand for VA services is immense and is growing as more and more people set up small businesses from home.
What you have to realize though is that the industry is relatively new and many people have still not heard of the concept. Most of my clients have never worked with a VA before. I educated them on the benefits of working with a VA. Once they realized how much time and money I save them, they have never looked back.
Just think, consultants who are running their own businesses without a VA have to tackle all their admin, secretarial and research work as well as their own client projects. Their businesses will quickly turn into an exhausting treadmill, because the more business they bring in, the more admin there is to do. And the more time spent on admin, the less time there is to spend on generating more business!
When they start working with a VA, they realize just how much time they are saving! They know that while they’re out at client meetings, or marketing for new business, their VA is in the background getting stuff done.
Clients don’t have disruptions to their day by having someone physically in the office. They don’t have to provide office space, equipment or a desk because the VA already has all this. They don’t have to take on a full-time or part-time employee – with all the additional costs such as benefits and insurance. Employees cost their employers much, much more than their hourly rate – roughly 2.5 to 3 times as much. With a VA, clients are only paying by the hour, purely for work that’s done. No paying for someone to sit there waiting for work!
So with a VA, you get all the benefits of outsourcing – no paying for employee benefits and insurance, but you still get the steadiness and loyalty of an employee.
There is of course the alternative of using temps instead of a VA. But everytime you need a temp, you may get someone different each time. Which means you’ll have to spend time training them and showing them the ropes. This of course all costs time and money.
A Virtual PA only needs to be shown once. Also, as the VA is a business owner in their own right, they’re more likely to be genuinely interested in helping your business grow.
So, yes, I believe that there is huge demand out there, it’s just a case of educating people on the benefits of Virtual Assistance. You also have to know how to tap into this market and meet the right prospects.
Leva: Do you work with many different clients or do you have a couple of large accounts?
Lisa: I work with many different clients. Some require an ongoing number of hours a week e.g. 10 hours a week, others perhaps a couple of hours here and there, others have very large projects from time to time.
It really depends on what their workload is. The beauty of working with a VA is that the client knows there is someone on the other end of the phone or email that is reliable, trustworthy and is going to get the job done.
Leva: What experience or skills does someone need to be a VA?
Lisa: Generally you’d need some experience working as a secretary or personal assistant i.e. good computer skills, organizational skills, interpersonal and communication skills.
There are training courses available for those who wish to start from scratch. One I would recommend is by Kathie Thomas, pioneer of the Virtual Assistant industry here in Australia.
Leva: What are the biggest mistakes VAs make?
Lisa: I think one of the biggest mistakes is undercharging for your services. Remember that if you are self employed, you must charge about 2-3 times your current hourly rate that you are earning as a Secretary/Executive Assistant, in order to cover your expenses, overheads and taxes.
VAs that undercharge won’t stay in business for very long. I know it is tempting to charge a low rate to attract clients but you need to keep in mind that you’ll be struggling to make a profit if your rate is too low.
Another big mistake I could have made was not being patient or persistent enough to stick it out at the beginning when I didn’t get clients straight away. At one point I asked myself ‘Am I ever going to get clients?’ but suddenly it all fell into place once I’d tried a few different marketing approaches.
Another mistake is not doing enough business or marketing planning. It’s a good idea to draw up a business and marketing plan so you get an idea of where you’re going.
Leva: Do you have any recommendations for someone just starting?
Lisa: Stick it out, be determined. Have confidence in your abilities and that you can do this. Educate prospects and clients about the benefits of working with you, their VA.
Try as many different marketing avenues as you can at the beginning to get your name out there as fast as possible. Monitor which are working best for you and keep doing these! The more time you invest in doing this at the start, the more rewards you’ll reap down the track.
Be patient and persistent. It’s definitely worth it in the end. I’ve never looked back!
Because I get so many enquiries about how to become a Virtual Assistant, I have written a free eBook called ‘The 7 Things You Must Know Before Starting Your Successful Virtual Assistant Business’.
I’ve also written a comprehensive guidebook called ‘Freelance from Home! The 5 Key Steps to Your Successful Virtual Assistant Business’. In addition, I send out a free newsletter with the latest tips and news about Virtual Assistance. All this information is available at www.virtualpabusiness.com
It will answer your questions such as where to start, how to get clients locally and internationally, how to price your services and much more. It includes a wealth of information that will accelerate your path to becoming a successful freelance Virtual PA. You’ll find tons of insider strategies that are not readily available on the internet or local bookstore. You’ll get a start-up checklist, an hourly rate calculation workbook, business plan, marketing plan, plus other related eBooks and much more. This information will help you save time and money finding it all out the hard way. Find out more at www.virtualpabusiness.com
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