Must-Have Resources for Your Business Growth

Business owners, as you close out your books in 4Q and you look back on the year, how did it go? It may be that business was good but could have been so much better if you weren’t spread so thin. Have you been thinking of working with a Virtual Assistant? Why not start now? Now is the perfect time to get help as you carve out your plans for 2011. Once you bring your VA into your practice, she will help you brainstorm what needs to get done and ways to accomplish those goals. Bring her in during your 4Q planning and wrap-up and you will both be able to hit the ground running to focus on your 2011 goals.

If you are an entrepreneur doing everything yourself, the best gift you can give your business is the expert help that it needs to run, so you can do what you do best. If you’re overwhelmed, partnering with a VA is the best ongoing gift you can give yourself, your family and your clients because an over-extended version of you isn’t much good to anyone.

I realize that many entrepreneurs don’t know that help is available. You may think that the only way to get your back-end processes and tasks accomplished is to do them yourself or hire an employee which isn’t feasible because of your home office and budget. There is a better solution. A Virtual Assistant is not an employee; she is a business owner who is an expert in the back-end business details. And she works from her own home office. Maybe you just need more information. You’re in luck! Below are answers to some FAQs about partnering with a Virtual Assistant.

Bottom line: Your business needs ongoing support to grow, so look for a VA who will be your long-term, right-hand, primary administrative support partner. A Virtual Assistant can help move your business growth forward with ease.

I recently listened to an interview with Anastacia Brice, founder of AssistU. Below is a summary of the learnings from that interview, which answers questions for entrepreneurs wanting to know more about working with a Virtual Assistant. *These are highlights with some of my own insights and not a verbatim transcript.

Q: What is a VA?
A: A Virtual Assistant is an Administrative professional who is an expert in running the administrative pieces of your business. A VA loves taking care of the back-end pieces that all businesses have. A VA loves to make things hum, buzz, sing, and dance. A VA’s passion for the administrative details fits nicely with a business owner who doesn’t have this same passion because the help a VA provides frees you up to do what you love and are good at. There is another online business support industry out there that focuses on project and piece work and they then need to go find more clients after every project. The AssistU business model that VAs are taught to follow is one of a long-term collaborative relationship. This means the VA is more present to focus on her clients’ businesses. The biggest difference between other online support services and a highly skilled VA is the collaborative relationship. Collaboration allows for a higher quality contribution. As a VA, I work with a small group of clients long term. Now other people have come along and added their own spin to what a Virtual Assistant is. Others have hung out their VA sign but they only want to handle one slice of your business or project work. AssistU trained VAs are fabulous administrative professionals, your one stop shop for support and your primary partner. With that said, if everyone reading this were to learn 500 new things every day, we still will never know it all. It is folly to expect a VA to do everything you need. But a fabulous VA should be a one stop shop in terms of getting it done or finding resources to get it done. A VA can’t be all things to all people, nor can anyone. But a VA is a great resource for finding ways to make things happen.

Q: What if I struggle with allowing someone to represent my company when I’ve been doing everything myself?
A: Do you somehow feel it’s important for it to look like you’re doing everything yourself in your business — as if all email replies should come from you as the owner? Do you feel as though you’re advocating responsibility for your business if you let others figure things out on their own? As a business owner, even if you are a solopreneur, you infuse the culture of your company with important principles. As long as the people you have helping you share those values and fit with your long term objectives, you should be able to trust them to free up your time. Anastacia’s standard is that whatever goes out of here has to go out with grace and love. If you were comfortable with your VA’s communication skills when you partnered with her, trust that she will communicate in that way for you. She will interact with your clients in a way that they feel heard, loved and gotten. Then sit back and don’t worry about those tasks and communications that you no longer have to handle. If you need an eBook designer, trust that your VA will look for a great one who fits with your company culture. Because she “gets” the client, she will look for resources that fit with the client’s values and culture. Once you see that you are working with someone who has your best interests at heart, it’s easier to loosen the grip on the steering wheel and successfully delegate tasks that represent your company. Almost everything is better carried out by a VA than completed by you when you’re overextended. No matter how small, your company has a culture. You are the driving force for your business and you infuse it with who you are and what you want for it. Skills can be learned but people who come in must fit with your values and culture. VAs get the tasks of today handled and also look out at the landscape ahead. VAs walk next you on your business path and can be the voice of reason to remind you of your vision.

Q: I’ve been waiting until I had systems in place and was at the top of my game to get help, but it never seems to be the perfect time. How do I know when I’m ready for help?
A: You don’t have to be on top of your game and have everything in order before partnering with a VA. The time will never come if you wait for everything to be perfect. As business owners we’re always fine-tuning and launching and growing. There is no such thing as a time when things are settled or perfect. The perfect time to get help is now. Your VA can help you figure out what systems to implement. There is one mindset you need to shed before partnering with a VA, though. If you have come into business ownership after you were an employee from somewhere else, I would caution you to check that corporate mentality at the door. You know, the thinking that my assistant is “less than” or does the grunt work. If you bring that kind of thinking over into your VA partnership, it will kill the relationship and leave you without the help that you need. Virtual Assistants are high level professionals who are business owners just like you. Think about your relationship with other service professionals. If you call in a plumber, you step aside and let him do his job, not stand over his shoulder and tell him what tools to use. VAs are service professionals with a high degree of professionalism, are experts at what they do, and are your equals.

Q: When you say that VAs are highly qualified professionals it sounds like it will cost a lot to work with one.
A: The role of a Virtual Assistant was not designed to be the low cost alternative to hiring an employee. It is meant to be the effective and efficient alternative. However, if you were to look at the costs associated with hiring an employee, there are many cost savings to working with a VA since you’re only paying for productive time (no down time, vacations, lunch, etc.) and the VA pays for her own taxes, equipment and other fees that normally the employer would pick up. Using the plumber analogy, if you decided to do the work yourself, it would cost you time to go to Home Depot, research the problem, research the solution, research the necessary equipment, buy the tools, get training, time to do it, and then hire someone to come in and fix what you screwed up. It ended up costing you more not getting help in the first place. The economies may not be apparent on the front end because of all the costs of doing business that you don’t even think about that the VA is picking up on her end. At the end of day, doing it yourself is costing you more and you’re overextending yourself. If you’re not living a balanced life, you will burn out in your business. Where you fall short in self-care, will show up in your business.

Q: What can I delegate to a VA? What skills do VAs have?
A: Carry a note pad or day planner around for a week and every time you do something, evaluate if this was something you had to do. If at first blush, you think ‘yes,’ take another look. Is it really true that only you could take care of it? Ask yourself if someone else who really has your best interests at heart couldn’t be doing those things on the list. At the end of a week, you should have a long list of things that could be going away from you. As for what skills a VA has, depends on the VA. Anastacia used to be a Virtual Assistant and worked with best-selling authors, but if you asked her to manage your affiliate program, she would have said, “that’s not my strength but let me find someone who can do that for us.” Your primary need should be the back-end administrative tasks, but there will be VAs who are great at social media marketing, PowerPoint presentations, bookkeeping, copywriting, etc. A fabulous VA will have fabulous administrative skills to get things done or has ready resources to get it done. If you’re looking for a specialized service like a web designer, your VA can research other help and vendors. Knowing your core values she can find an Affiliate Manager or Web Designer who she thinks fits with your business and tell you why. The one thing you should never turn over to someone else is the final decision on venders and affiliations, though. Once your VA does the initial leg work, then you go look at the service provider’s website and have your own conversation with them to make sure they are a fit with the culture of your company. So many people get into business because they’re good at what they do, but they’re not good at running a business. Your VA can help you find resources and take work off your plate, but you are still responsible for the decisions for your business that fit your culture. Look for someone who will walk alongside you to help make things easier, who is invested in your success, who stays in the loop with things that matter to you and things that impact your business. And then trust your VA to manage those things so you can get back to what you’re good at. It’s an equal partnership (we’re not talking a legal partnership, simply the mindset of the relationship).

Q: If VAs work with multiple clients does that affect their availability or could there be confidentiality issues?
A: Most VAs work on a retainer, which means that you are buying a block of time. That block can increase as your needs grow, but basically, it’s the same amount of time every month so you know how much to budget. If you retain ten hours, that is 10 hour of work to be used across an entire month. You are not buying instant access / immediate attention. If that’s what you need, you need an employee. If have a good work flow and things can wait an hour or 48 hours, then a VA relationship will work very well for you. As for confidentiality issues, a good question to ask your prospective VA, is how she defines a conflict of interest and what she would do if one should arise. Even if someone signs a non-compete clause, they could walk right through your agreements if they don’t understand how to recognize the conflict. Anastacia ran across a VA who teaches the same thing as what her client does and didn’t see a problem with that until it was pointed out to her. AssistU VAs are aware of this and should be able to think through a situation to see the potential for conflict. But not everyone out there who hangs their “VA open for business” sign will understand or recognize what a conflict of interest is. So talk about that during the interview process to make sure she would recognize possible conflicts and how she would handle. Anastacia was working with two clients when the 2nd client announced an exciting book project. Anastacia said, “That sounds a lot like a project another client is working on — let me find out if client #1 would be okay with me helping you with that.” Even if a VA’s intentions are pure, they run the risk that they might accidentally violate confidentially around that project. Client #1 was not comfortable with that and Anastacia simply said I cannot work on the book project with you but I can find someone else who can do a great job for you. A great VA is careful not to violate a confidence. You should feel safe in the relationship. Back to the misguided expectation of immediate access – Molly mentioned that she found the more she and her VA collaborate, the better they get at plugging things into a schedule ahead of time and planning task lists to avoid emergencies and eliminate the need for immediate access. Let your VA help you put systems in place that will help you run your business without emergencies. Now, just like any business, VAs have different hours of availability. Anastacia’s VA does not work on Fridays. This is her standard just like Chick-fil-e isn’t open on Sundays. That standard is accepted and work planned accordingly. Now, once in a great while, opportunities come up that aren’t planned for like when the Today Show contacted Anastacia on a Friday. That opportunity doesn’t happen every day or every year, so if Anastacia called on a Friday and explained the situation, it’s likely her VA would make herself available to help. This can happen because her standards aren’t abused and something like that is a huge opportunity for AssistU. So, even if something comes up outside of your VA’s hours (if it’s rare and not abused), a great VA is willing to be flexible and be available if she can make it happen. She’s also invested in your success and wants to help when she can.

Q: What kind of fees do VAs charge? What is it really likely to cost me?
A: If you’ve read the 4-Hour work week, you know that one way to get help is to get off-shore online services from places like India, Pakistan or the Philippines. This may look like a viable option when you hear that they charge $4 an hour. Anastacia contracted off-shore services herself so she could talk from experience rather than make assumptions. What she found is that assistants in other countries are great replicators at finding bits of information where there is only one possible answer, but from her experience, they did not have the same discernment skills. That doesn’t mean you won’t encounter some very hard workers with a great work ethic, but there is a gap in terms of making suggestions to benefit your business when compared to a U.S. based VA. If you have standardized, one-off projects like entering data into a database that doesn’t require critical thinking, that might be an option — simple replicable tasks. But if you’re based in the US, there’s something to be said for supporting America’s economy and if you have a business that needs ongoing support, you really need to look for your long-term, right-hand person. Collaboration is the key and your VA should be more like you than less like you, share your language and culture and if based in the U.S., not charge less than $30 an hour. A U.S. based VA cannot be profitable given our system of taxation and expenses for less than that — and $30 an hour is really pushing it. Once the VA realizes that she’s not profitable, she goes out of business and there goes your right-hand person. Choose a block of time based on a retainer that is in your budget and begin collaborating with a VA within those parameters. 10 or 15 hours a month is 100% time focused on you and your work (no potty breaks or lunch, etc.). AssistU has two certification levels and those who have the Master level certification (only 6 VAs in the world) will charge around $100/hour. New VAs may charge $35-45/hour and the mid-range might be $55-60/hour.

Q: What questions should I ask a VA?
A: How long they’ve been in business or what training/experience she has, how she built her business (hopefully not on a wing and a prayer), what she really loves doing. Pay attention to their writing skills and how they communicate with you. Talk with several VAs and see who resonates with you first. Follow up with those you feel a connection with. Skills can be learned but the connection makes a great partnership.

Q: Can your VA act like an agent, contact speakers bureaus and negotiate on your behalf?
Anastacia did act as an agent because she built relationships every time she called a venue. But that can be overstepping, expecting that from your VA unless with time, she’s developed a niche that she’s extremely comfortable with. But if you need some great PR, marketing, or graphics done at high level, spend money on a Marketing Consultant or Graphic Designer. VAs all come with different skill sets and you might find one who can create web pages with HTML, but, expecting all of that from VA, will leave you feeling annoyed, because you’re not going to get it. If you need an agent’s knowledge and expertise, hire an agent to best serve your needs.