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Creating a Home-Based Career as a Virtual Assistant

by Christine Durst and Michael Haaren

In our previous articles, we focused on finding legitimate home-based work on the Internet. Now we’ll talk about creating a home-based career as a Virtual Assistant – an individual working from home, providing administrative, Web design, bookkeeping and similar services to small businesses or independent professionals via email, phone and fax.

This is a topic that’s dear to our hearts, as co-author Chris is credited with having founded the Virtual Assistance industry in 1995. We’ve also played a leading role in building the industry since then, launching in 1999 the International Virtual Assistants Association (IVAA, transferred to its members shortly afterward, as intended at its founding) and virtual careers training company Staffcentrix; publishing the first mainstream book for Virtual Assistants, The 2-Second Commute, last year; and developing Virtual Assistant / Virtual Professional training programs for the US Armed Forces and Department of State that are available now at over 100 military bases, consulates and embassies worldwide.

Today, there are tens of thousands of “VAs” working from their homes around the globe. Search engines also tell the story: Five years ago, a search for “virtual assistant” produced less than 100 hits. Today, the phrase nets over 1 million returns.

At 11 years, the industry is still young, but it’s growing in reach and depth – and improving the lives of individuals and families globally – with each passing day.

Answers to the Top 5 Questions about Virtual Assistance
As you might imagine, we encountered a lot of questions (not to mention entrenched skepticism) as we worked to bring the VA industry from Chris’s basement to the rest of the world. And while people now are much more familiar with the trend, we still field some questions more often than others. We’ll take a moment here to cover the five that we’re asked most often by prospective VAs, prospective VA clients, and the media:

1. How do I become a VA?
In a nutshell, there are three ways to become a VA:
(1) Hang out a shingle (e.g., your Website) and start passing out business cards today;
(2) enroll in some courses in marketable skills – administrative skills, commercial Website design, bookkeeping, etc. – at your local community college, and “go live” after that; or
(3) take Virtual Assistant training either online or in a physical classroom and, if your underlying or core expertise is market-ready, launch when you’re done.

The first option can work if you know the Net pretty well and you’ve got solid, in-demand skills – in addition to those mentioned above, real estate-related expertise is also much in demand – and you (or a partner) are prepared to do the necessary marketing.
The second option – taking skills-related courses – might suit if your skills are rusty (or you want to acquire new ones) or you’ve been out of the workforce for awhile and just want to get back into the flow of things. On the downside, this option will require more funds in the checking account, and necessitate that cashflow be postponed, too, while you get your skills in place.

Choice number three – specific VA training – will usually focus on how to launch and grow a virtual services business, rather than teach you the underlying skills that you would be offering to your clients. The cost can range from zero (if you’re an active-duty military spouse, see http://www.msvas.com/MSVATraining.htm for a list of bases where free training is available) to thousands of dollars. Some community colleges offer VA certificate programs – Google and mousework will unearth them – which, when combined with a good course or two in a marketable skill, can make a cost-effective solution.

Regardless of which path you take, be sure to do your own independent reading and research both before and while you are in business. There are a number of books in print and e-versions now devoted to Virtual Assistance, and for a modest investment you can reap valuable benefits, not the least of which is how to grow and sustain the business and harness it to your family’s goals to make it a “win” for everyone under your roof. (If you shop for books online, like most people do, look for books whose “reader reviews” speak to these qualities.)

2. What services are VAs offering?
While many of the earlier VAs concentrated on administrative support, the spread of the industry has broadened the skillset spectrum as well. Here are some of the services that VAs internationally are offering now:
Academic Writing
Accounting Services
Audiovisual Production
Business Coaching
Business Plan Writing
Business Writing
Calendaring/Appt. Scheduling
Collection Services
Competitive Research
Concierge Services
Database Management
Desktop Publishing
Editing/Proofreading
Event Planning
File Conversion
Fundraising
General Transcription
Government Procurement Expertise
Grant Proposals
Graphic Design/Scanning
Growth Advisory Services
HR Expertise
Insurance Broker Support
Internet Research
Interpreting
Import-Export Support
Intranet Development/Mgmt.
Legal Secretarial
Legal Transcription
Technical Writing/Editing
Translating Services
Voice Services
Voicemail for Clients
Website Design
Word Processing

3. What kind of businesses hire VAs?
At present, VAs are typically used by smaller businesses (fewer than 10 employees, as a rule of thumb) and independent professionals. Examples include insurance agencies, Realtors, financial advisors, professional speakers and trainers, consultants, freelance writers, accountants, smaller law firms and solo practitioners, and many more.

Why the tendency toward smaller, rather than larger, businesses? Because smaller entities are typically more flexible and innovative than the larger, older firms – particularly when it comes to outsourcing and staffing.

4. Why do businesses hire VAs?
Small business owners often adopt a DIY (do it yourself) approach to doing business that may work well when the business is young, but becomes counterproductive when the business grows and non-core, office-support workflow rises. Then, the successful business or independent professional begins to get “clogged up” by the operational side-effects of success, and has less and less time to devote to the revenue-producing activities that are the raison d’etre of the firm.

VAs offer an attractive solution, for three key reasons: (1) as independent contractors rather than employees, they cost much less; (2) they require no “brick-and-mortar” investment or support; and (3) they are paid only for time on task or project, rather than “time in the cube.”

5. How much do VAs earn?
We regularly conduct fee surveys of our 3,000+ online VA community (http://www.msvas.com), and according to our most recent data, the average fee for “general administrative support services” is $28 per hour. More specialized services such as Website design, consulting, business plan or grant writing, etc., are billed out at higher rates, and are more likely to be quoted by the project rather than by the hour.
Most VAs work part-time, and their earnings may range from $30,000 to $36,000 annually for general office-support work. (One ambitious VA we know, however, billed $10,000 in one month, but said she probably wouldn’t recommend the schedule she had to maintain to do it!)

Pros & Cons of Home-Based Self-Employment
There are two sides to every coin, as they say, and the self-employment “coin” is no different. When you’re thinking about starting a business, it can be difficult to see beyond the benefits of the arrangement (particularly in our capitalist culture, in which pro-business messages are so prevalent) and think realistically about the not-so-desirable aspects of self-employment.

Let’s pause for a moment for some of the pros and cons of home-based entrepreneurship, so you can begin to get a sense of the “total picture” as you consider taking the plunge.

Pros
• Transmit critical values and lessons to your children
• Avoid the “groupthink” that can come with the commuting-and-cube lifestyle
• More control over your future
• Doing what you like to do and what you’re good at
• Set your own hours (scheduling flexibility)
• Mutually respectful, business-to-business relationships
• Family involvement (if desired)
• Work only with clients you choose
• Tax deductions for business-related home and vehicle use
• Increased self-esteem
• Elimination of work-related commute, wardrobe, lunches
• No or reduced childcare costs
• Personal fulfillment
• No “cap” on success or financial reward

Cons
• High accountability – the “buck” stops with you!
• Startup expenses (albeit low for the VA)
• Irregular income
• Many “bosses” to please (each client is a “boss,” and so are you)
• Risk of overwork and family distancing if you don’t “juggle” well
• You must market yourself effectively, and often
• Business-related stress and potential health issues
• Family may not respect boundaries (“Since you’re home, would you mind doing…?”)
• Responsible for your own taxes, insurance, etc.
• Risk of isolation and loneliness if you aren’t proactive

Before You Begin – Important Self-Assessments

When starting any business, your first step should always be to assess yourself as a potential business owner. Your self-assessment (as we detail in our book, The 2-Second Commute: Join the Exploding Ranks of Freelance Virtual Assistants, whose exercises we’ll be excerpting in a moment) should help you:
• measure your entrepreneurial aptitude,
• evaluate your fit for a VA career,
• take an inventory of your values,
• pinpoint your interests, and
• map out your skills and abilities.
Self-evaluations and preparation should also include a focus on the family, to dispel work-at-home myths and help your spouse or significant other better understand the reality of sharing their home with a business. To illustrate, we’ll excerpt below portions of “Spouse with a Mouse,” the section of our book which addresses these themes. (We can also testify directly as to their importance, for “Spouse with a Mouse” is one of the most popular segments of our Armed Forces’ Military Spouse Virtual Assistant training program, on which the book is based.)

Here, then, are some of the questions, themes and issues you should bear in mind as you explore whether the VA path might be right for you. (The following excerpts and adaptations from The 2-Second Commute are copyright Staffcentrix, LLC, and are used with permission.)

From the “Entrepreneurial Self-Assessment”
1. Are you reasonably confident that you can succeed? What is you r confidence based upon?
2. Ask yourself how you really feel about risk. Are you willing to take calculated but substantial chances?
3. If you launch a business, will you have the support of your family and others close to you? To what degree?

From the “VA Readiness Self-Assessment”
1. Do you take pride in your work?
2. Can you communicate warmth and concerned interest effectively via phone and e-mail?
3. Do you have a solid track record of establishing and achieving goals?
4. Are you a thinker, a doer – or a mixture of both?

From “Spouse With A Mouse”
Having a “Family Values Statement” (FVS) can make the difference between surviving fate and navigating the future.

An FVS that truly reflects the values of its writers (and the needs of their children) should function as a “blueprint” to guide the family’s principal activities toward their collective Vision, or shared dream. The statement should be a brief, well-thought-out “proclamation” of the principles and goals of the family.

Sample FVS:
“To create a life of balance in which family is given the time it deserves; work is given the time it requires; children are given the opportunities they merit, the wings to fly and the roots to stay steady; our bodies are given health for longevity and joyfulness; and love is given without limitation.”

From “Your Values” Inventory
While it’s often overlooked in traditional business planning, being satisfied with your business often means understanding -- and making business decisions that are consistent with -- your values. By identifying your values and projecting them into the business, you’ll be more likely to create a business that will satisfy your needs on many levels.

When we begin the process of identifying our values, we may often confuse them with goals. To help clarify, a goal is something to be achieved, an end result. A value is the vehicle that takes you to that goal. For example, “getting rich” or “retiring to a sailboat” is a goal, while “high income,” “physical challenges” or “adventure” are core values. (And it’s worth noting here that, ultimately, if we have lived by them, our core values also determine our legacy, our “life’s work.”)

From “Your Interests” Inventory
“Interests” areas that grab your attention and stir your enthusiasm are usually closely related to your values, and often spark or support skill development. Because interests are usually embedded in the activities we find the most enjoyable or fulfilling, they’re often easy to identify.

Think about the recurring themes in your life ways you’ve spent your free time, things you daydream about, the kinds of books you like to read, pastimes or hobbies you’ve returned to regularly, consistent choices, etc. Such themes usually indicate a strong interest. Now imagine building a business that you’re hoping will last for a long time, but that doesn’t include any of your interests. Sound enticing? Or deathly boring? The importance of considering your interests when you’re planning your VA practice should not be underestimated!

From the “Skills and Abilities” Inventory
Now that you have a better idea of your values and interests, it’s time to turn to your abilities and skills. Virtual Assistants who have a firm grasp of these, and who can describe them succinctly to prospective clients, are much more likely to have a satisfying, enjoyable, and sustainable practice.

Developing a list of your abilities and skills can help you clarify your strengths, boost your confidence, spark your strategic thinking, and arrive at a service menu that’s a good fit for you.

Legal and Other Steps to Starting a VA Practice
Since the Internet, public libraries and Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC) offices abound with generalized “How To Start a Business” information, we won’t reinvent it here, but will simply touch on some of the more important steps involved. (We’re not attorneys or tax experts, however, so you’ll want to consult your own advisors for guidance on your particular situation.)

Naming your business
When you consider names for your business, think about the impression you want to make on prospective clients and make sure your company name reinforces it. Be sure to get input and feedback from friends and family – they may surprise you with their creativity!
Most VAs can’t afford to do a search with the US Patent and Trademark Office (http://www.uspto.gov) to see if their preferred name is already taken, but with the Internet it’s fairly easy to do your own “good faith” search – on Google, for example – as you narrow down your list. Your state Corporation Commission or similar entity will also be able to tell you over the phone or online if your name has been taken within your state.

Once you have your name, be sure to check whether you must register your business with your local town or city hall. If so, it will usually cost less than $50, and the paperwork is typically straightforward.

Choosing the Legal Form of Your Business
There are several types of business entities – corporations, sole proprietorships, limited liability companies (LLCs), partnerships, etc. – each with its advantages and disadvantages. Many VAs begin as sole proprietors (since it’s the easiest form to use), and once they’re turning a profit may opt for a form such as the LLC, which remains operationally simple but provides legal protection for their personal assets.

Permits and Licenses
Again, the Internet and your local library and SBDC can give you lots of detail, but we’ll include some basics here for orientation’s sake.
Local: Check with your town office or city hall to determine what licenses and/or permits, if any, might be required for your business. (Since VA practices are “low impact,” i.e., don’t obviously change the nature of the community, occupational permits are usually waived.)
Federal: If you launch as a sole proprietor and have no employees, you won’t need to apply for a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN). Other types of business, however, will require that you register for an EIN.

State: If you plan to sell taxable goods or services, you’ll need to register with your state for a “sales & use” license and number so you can pay collected taxes.

Insurance - Depending on the services you’ll be offering, you may wish to consult with your insurance agent regarding any new policies or expanded coverage you might need. Also, keep in mind that your homeowner’s insurance may not cover your business equipment if it is stolen or damaged.

Here endeth the “short course” on Virtual Assistance! Join us again in the next issue, and till then, please don’t hesitate to write us with any comments or questions you might have about any aspect of home-based work. You can reach us via email at linkreaders@staffcentrix.com.

Christine Durst and Michael Haaren are the founders of Staffcentrix, LLC, a leader in virtual career training programs and resources. They’ve appeared in such publications as BusinessWeek, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and many more, and their bestselling book, The 2-Second Commute: Join the Exploding Ranks of Freelance Virtual Assistants, has become an anchor text for Virtual Assistants and freelancers generally around the world. For more detail, see http://www.2secondcommute.com.
© 2006 Christine Durst &
Michael Haaren.■