How to Survive Starting a Virtual Assistant Business
Time Management

The first element that will determine your upstart success is your personal and professional time management. It is most important to get your entire family enrolled in your new business. I suggest you have a series of meetings with them in which you can outline their contribution and responsibilities for the business. Some members of your family may have very limited and specific contributions, such as picking up the little ones from ball practice, or ironing the family's work and school clothes. But it is in your interest to enlist the help of all members of your family and to outline their specific roles and responsibilities before you begin. This will make your time management flow easier and more sanely.

VA Basic Responsibilities

You and everyone who initially starts up with your company should have basic Virtual Assistant responsibilities polished and refined.The VAs of your business must be masters of the basics, so that you exude confidence to prospective clients, and so you can compete in a highly competitive field.

Here is a brief list of the basic skills and responsibilities generally expected of VAs:

  • General pleasant disposition with the client and his customers
  • A keen sense of discretion; the ability to keep the company secrets of your clients
  • Ability to clearly, kindly, and politely communicate with both the client and his customers on the phone
  • Typing skills should be at 40 wpm minimum; the faster your typing rate, the higher the hourly rate you can charge for typing-related work.
  • You should have a very decent command of the language, including the ability to properly construct sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and letters. Your ability to write, spell, punctuate, and construct proper syntax should be above average to impress your clients; after all, they should not have to hire someone to correct the spelling and sentences of everything you write for them.
  • Computer skills should include competent operation of popular computer programs, such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access.
  • Shorthand may be necessary, depending on your niche or client.
  • Ability to research business information on the Internet
  • Ability to find and research general business information for the client, as needed
  • Ability to send and receive emails, and to do so with the basic etiquette and understandings of businesses today
  • Ability to attach and send/receive client documents in the email system
  • Ability to construct clean, succinct, and well laid-out documents for your client and his company
Bidding Contracts, Competition, and Soliciting Clients

The beginning of any business is a challenge, and VAs have a set of challenges that can interfere with their success, if not handled well. Let's take a look at some of these:

  1. A broad section of society has the basic skills needed to operate as a Virtual Assistant.This can give the public the idea your skills are not worth the price you ask for them. So, be prepared to find ways to make your skill set shine through.
  2. In the interest of increasing the perceived value of your skill set, you will want to offer clients a guarantee on all of your work. You will want to emphasize your years of experience, so your clients know you are a seasoned professional who knows her way around business. You will want to post testimonies to your site that reflect satisfied customers who praise your excellence. All of these will underscore your value in the client's mind, and will help them to justify your bid rate.
  3. Confidence and self-esteem must be solidly intact in order to successfully bid contracts and solicit clients. If you do not exude a sense of high competence and confidence, you will not negotiate the best contracts with your clients.
  4. The old adage, "You get what you pay for," should sit firmly in the front of your mind. Some people believe the way to win a contract is to underbid your competition. But, IF you underbid your competition, you should do so with a written condition of your "deal," so the client understands this bid price is for a special promotion or purpose and that your "normal" rate is higher.
  5. When you sell services, such as Virtual Assistant services, remember that your price carries a fat profit margin since your overhead consists of your sweat and labor. So, what you are selling - aside from your skill set - is the hours of your life. If you have employees, then your overhead and profit margin shift, and you will see less net to your bottom line. But, in reality, you should price and bid as if you had a large staff [and the accompanying overhead expenses] from the beginning. This will help you in two ways: 1) It will help your bottom line in the early years, and thus help you to grow and expand your company; and 2) Once you are established and need to hire employees, then your prices already reflect a rate that will support your expenses, without sending your established clients into financial shock and risking their accounts.
  6. Insofar as is possible, avoid directly bidding against individuals or companies whose currency has a drastic difference in value from your own country's monetary value. For example, a U.S. citizen should avoid bidding against an Indian citizen, since the exchange rate is 46.17 rupees for each dollar; this makes it very easy for an Indian business to bid below the American business and not have their profit margin suffer. The Indian VA who bids a job at $3 per hour is very happy, since they earn the equivalent of $138 per hour in the purchasing power of their pay in their own society. An American VA would be hard-pressed to win a bid where they price their services at $138 per hour -- and working for $3 per hour does not pay the American's basic living expenses.The Indian does not have to buy his essentials, goods, or services in the American society, or at our rate, and we do not gain the benefit of purchasing our needs at his country's rate. So, in this example, the Indian business is paid much better for the work performed than the American business. When you try to bid against someone from a country like India, you end up hurting your own market value, your own business and your own reputation. You also have the net effect of driving down the prices that your own society will consider acceptable. So, in essence, you cut your own financial throat.
Virtual Assistants - Corporate Choices
Places to Look for Work

If you want to simply jump out of the traditional workplace and start your own independent freelance operation, you can choose a corporate avenue similar to a temp service; or you can choose to find corporate work on your own.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Virtual Assistant course?

What I term in this section as "corporate choices" is commonly called "work-at-home" by most folks who hold traditional jobs. Some of the sites also refer to Virtual Assistant work as work-at-home positions.The work-at-home can also be thought of as local outsourcing – that is, corporate companies save employee dollars by outsourcing to a local person working from their home. For many companies in the U.S. this appears to be the current preference, as it gives them American workers at a deep discount, without having to be concerned with the language and cultural barriers of overseas workers.

Where a company may save as much as 60 percent of their employee costs if they outsource to places like India, American companies can still save upward of 35 percent of their costs by keeping the outsourcing local within the U.S. This also helps U.S.-based companies to create good will among the American people as well

All of these companies have strong reputations in the online world of work, and they generally deliver well in terms of finding a good company to contract with regularly. However, there are some things to look out for when you look to an online company for a corporate contract.
Here's a short list of things to watch out for with VA companies: Check the details of the contract and the terms to make sure the company is not asking you to be an employee – set your hours, etc.
  • I strongly recommend that you do NOT enter into a contract for an hourly rate, unless the work needed is something that will take you LESS than one business day to accomplish. If you enter into a contract on an hourly basis, then you run the risk of being treated like an employee.The contracting company cannot treat you like an employee without violating state and federal [U.S.] labor laws. In part, those laws state that supervising a worker, requiring set hours, etc. is part of what defines an employee, and if the worker is an employee, then the company is subject to labor laws – including minimum pay rates, etc. For simplicity purposes, and to keep your relationship as professional as possible, it is best to quote your company based on the project and not on the hours worked.
  • Be careful how you choose your rate. You should be open to giving your company a good discount, but do not discount to your own hurt, or you will be out of business and broke in no time. For example, if your last corporate position paid $25 per hour, then it is safe to say that you cost your company around $35 per hour to have on staff. To price your contract with a corporation at $28-$30 per hour is reasonable on both sides of the table. It saves the corporation $5-$7 per hour on the work, plus it keeps you off of their payroll and their risk management concerns.
  • There is a fine line between how you charge your client, and how you pay your employees, if you have any. Projects should be quoted on an individual basis. If you have employees, you will pay them hourly and supervise accordingly. If you hire contractors, then you pay them per project and limit supervision to contractual agreement to meet a production deadline or delivery date. Again, be sure NOT to quote an hourly rate. In addition to what is mentioned above, you will also run the risk of losing your client due to unreasonable charges IF the project takes longer than you anticipate.

Transitioning to VA or Telecommute Positions

At this time in the U.S., the best possible scenario for workers who want to transition to VA, or to telecommute positions, is to do so through their current company.

While many workers would like to transition to a position at home for the sake of their families, there are a number of factors to consider when you do so.

Here is a short list:

  • Transitioning to a telecommuting position takes you out of the corporate culture, and away from your corporate connections.You may succeed in staying in touch for a while, but after two to three years, you will begin to lose touch with your old connections, as people move on to new companies and get too busy with new responsibilities to remember to stay connected. In some ways, this is what professional networks such as LinkedIn and XING are there to help with, but you must be diligent in your connections when you exit the corporate world.
  • It is suddenly your responsibility to research and constantly stay on top of what the going rate is in your industry once you exit. At this point, only you will determine when and how to give you a raise.
  • Telecommute positions are generally the envy of the office in the U.S., so don't expect a lot of corporate support to come from your colleagues.

Corporate Careers Transitioned to VA Positions

Many of the corporate VA positions will center on certain skill sets. Most of these skill sets can be summarized as fitting into these professions and positions:

  • Administrative Assistant
  • Advertising Copywriter
  • Clerical
  • Computer Related
  • Data Entry
  • Desktop Publishing
  • Executive Assistant
  • Financial
  • Legal, including Legal Assistant/Paralegal
  • Marketing Executive
  • Medical
  • Sales
  • Secretarial
  • Telecommunications, CSR and call center functions
  • Transcription
  • Word Processing