06 June 2005

Virtual Assistants

There are a growing number of virtual office assistants making a successful living, some but not all building a business with the help of the web.

So what's one o' them, then?

Actually the title is a very broad term. Skills and experience vary, from clerk-typist to fully qualified p.a. to credit controller - pretty much any job a secretary or other office staff member could take on. Me, I'm a genius; throw it at me and I'll work it out (although I think I've worked most things out already,) but that's by the by.

The funny thing is that the slow growth in this line of business is entirely down to lack of advertising - lack of awareness amongst target contractors of how much this system could help them and be of value to them. Who wouldn't, at first sight, think that these VAs sound like glorified staff-come-consultants with a list of terms and conditions and high fees to match? That's a complete misunderstanding borne of our quiet, low profile.

These small VA businesses would all love to net regular work from a large company with money to burn, but the truth of the matter is that there are no minimum contracts and it is essential these days, working from home on a computer, to be doing work for several contractors at any one time. Giving your all to a single company is not viewed well by the Inland Revenue, who tend to declare that being 'effectively employed by one company' actually equates to being 'employed by one company', i.e. they storm in and demand little things like backdated Employer Contributions from the lone contractor.

VAs are much better off then, being known to several small businesses (often sole traders), with their services used on an ad hoc basis. Sporadic work, from a wide variety of sources, is their bread and butter.

Lets say, for argument's sake, you are a plumber.

  • You desperately want to write an article about your company, a promotional piece for the local paper - quarter page with photo and all for free, if you manage to present it as local news. Pie in the sky? Yes it would be worth a lot to your business, but when, and how would you even begin to go about it?
  • You have a chance to tender for a big job but you will need to sub contract. You need your prices before you submit tender, so you need quotes from various local sub-contractors before you apply for the job. Nightmare. Form filling, multiple phone calls, querying info received, chasing etc, all when you have a full 9 to 5 doing your real work. Maybe you hate paperwork and your dream come true would be to have all the quotes reformatted as a graph or a comparison chart instead of having to sit there and read through the lot. *
  • All your receipts are in a shoebox and your cashbook is still in its cellophane wrapper. The accountant is going to charge you an arm and a leg to unravel that mess unless you get it done.

Sounds like hours and hours of hassle. Not enough there to employ someone, because once the rush is over, its over (until the next rush!) How many self-employed people don't burn the midnight oil on a regular basis? How many don't get to a point where it makes them cross-eyed and plain cross, so that the work takes twice as long as it should?

Enter the Virtual Assistant. Once you have a working relationship with this person, it's like having a secretary in the cupboard. Well okay, I'll rephrase that! It's like having a secretary on call; one that goes away and shuts up when the work is done, until the next time you need assistance.

£20 an hour might sound a lot compared to the average salary of the average office assistant, may even compound the image of VA as consultant, but:
  • That covers every tiny overhead from pencils to phone calls to you, from electricity to office equipment and depreciation
  • You don't pay the VA's tax and NI
  • You don't have to muck about with salaries
  • No holiday or sick pay
  • You don't even pay for lunchbreaks, coffee breaks, overtime or any sort of down time - you pay for the seconds that your VA is at his/her desk and entirely concentrated on your work.
  • If necessary a VA can work outside office hours just like you do - you come up with three hours of online research and typing to do at 4.30pm on Monday, and it can still be on your desk, all done, by 9am Tuesday
  • You can give someone two hours of work and then call it a day and never, ever contact them again, if that's what you want!
So you see my point, I hope. Virtual Assistants are under publicised, under utilised; under everything (except understood.) Maybe we should re-name ourselves Occasional Assistants - do you think that would help? We are the Godsend designed for the small business owner, the sole trader, the guy/girl struggling to build a pet project and needing more hours than there are in the day to do it alone. And we don't even interrupt you in the office or drink your coffee.

There, now that I've explained properly, gizza job?

For more information, more VAs, or advice and support from other small business owners, visit Homeworking.com. There are a number of really useful articles and a thriving forum. See you there!

* If you have time to set up interviews and request quotes in order to find your VA (bit of a catch 22 that, people generally realise they need to sub contract when there isn't a spare minute in the day) then the Alliance of UK Virtual Assistants runs a clear, well maintained site that can direct you to their members in your local area.


Cheryl said...

Thanks Pearl
I managed to follow the link in your name and read a little of your site around the edge of all the warnings that your blog was trying to launch external cid code, or something.
Role playing is not my thing, thank you, but have fun.

Cheryl said...

I am deleting your comment ONLY because I prefer to decide what sites my own blog links to, and your comment has a link in it.

Badaunt said...

I don't know what that first comment was, but good on yer for deleting it! (I have a feeling there might be a couple of those in my comments somewhere, too...)

Re the Virtual Office Assistant - thanks for the information. That sounds like something I could do when I get sick of teaching! Once upon a time, in another life, I was a damned good office worker. (Bored, but good.) And I was a GREAT temp.

Cheryl said...

You could probably make a bomb in your spare time even now, translating business proposals from US/UK/NZ/AUS companies into Japanese.
Homeworking is starting an advertising site soon, or you could set up a second blog. I'd link - we'd soon get you on the listings and if you called it something uninventive like English - Japanese Translation Services..........?
The great thing about being a tutor, anywhere, is companies will assume your background has been rigourously researched, so the trust element would be less of a factor. Just a thought.