How to Find and Hire a Virtual Assistant for Your Small Business

By Greg Go on 12 August 2009 (Updated 26 April 2010) 15 comments
Photo: iStockphoto

If you've read Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Work Week or any number of productivity blogs, you'll get a sense of the excitement small business owners have for hiring Indian virtual assistants. The hope is to hire an entry-level, college-graduate backoffice employee for around $5 per hour. But it's not as easy as putting up a flyer at the local community college. Working with someone remotely (ie., not physically in your office), and in another country, presents some unique challenges.

In the end, it'll cost about $10-15 per hour, but you'll have an employee that is a college graduate (sometimes with advanced degrees) at around minimum wage. And if you hire a firm, instead of an individual, you can get multiple expertise in "one employee."

Following are 10 tips for finding, vetting and hiring a virtual assistant.

1. Don't expect them to be experts.

A VA is not a super-human who can do every task you have to assign. Don't expect your VA to have specific industry expertise or to be able to accomplish higher level business strategy thinking. For those higher level tasks, you'll need to hire a specialized consultant or firm.

For project based work, it might make more sense to contract out that project specifically. The benefits of hiring on a project basis include:

  • a clear end date, so you're not stuck in a long-term contract with a badly performing employee;
  • greater expertise because presumably, you're hiring a firm or freelancer who specializes in that type of work.

Sometimes you have a need for a mix of project and ongoing work. For example, let's say you need to build a website or ecommerce storefront. It might make more sense to hire a web design firm that specializes in building ecommerce stores (flat project fee), and then sign a retainer contract with them for maintenance work.

To clarify, you can hire all kinds of expertise, from IT gurus to business consultants and everything in between, from India and other popular outsourcing nations. But they aren't selling their services as "virtual assistants." They're specialized service providers, and hiring that group of contractors is not what we're talking about here.

2. Think of your VA as an entry-level college grad willing to work for minimum wage.

Good tasks to outsource to a VA are ones where the procedure is relatively simple, there aren't a lot of decision points (if any) in the workflow, and is a repetitive process.  For example:

  • data entry: like entering hundreds of products into your ecommerce store;
  • blog or website maintenance: blog posting, comment moderation;
  • research and report: as in doing Internet research and compiling summaries of the data.

3. Make a list of your tasks and categorize them based on the type of work.

Before looking for a VA, spend a week or two writing down all the tasks you may want to outsource. Consider both tasks you need to do but don't like doing and tasks that you like to do but haven't found the time. Once you have this list, organize tasks based on the following criteria:

  • requires domain or industry expertise vs. anyone can do with training;
  • one-off task vs. ongoing tasks.

Tasks that don't require domain expertise are better for outsourcing to an offshore VA. First of all, it's easier to train them to do the task properly. Second, if the task requires specific expertise, you're better off hiring a specialty consultant and/or a full-time, long-term employee who can grow with your company.

Tasks that are ongoing are better for assigning to a VA because you'll get a bigger return on the investment of writing up instructions.

4. You'll save some money, but it's not going to make or break your business.

Speaking very broadly, the minimum hourly rate of an entry-level, college-educated employee in India starts at about $2 per hour. Here in the U.S., the equivalent rate is around $10 per hour (minimum wage plus benefits and perks).

At first glance, it seems like you will be able to shave 80% off your administrative payroll, but working with someone thousands of miles away adds significant transactional costs. It will take you more time to explain a task and train them to do it. And since hiring an employee (especially one in a different country) can be a big risk, you may be more confident working with a firm. The firm will have overhead, and will need to turn a profit themselves.

In practice, a capable VA that produces good work will cost around $10-15 an hour.  For very simple data entry or data compilation (ie., copy-and-paste work), you can find an individual or small firm off Elance for $5 per hour. For tasks more involved than copy-and-paste, and for quality you'd trust for engagement beyond one project, expect to pay around $10-15 per hour for a VA.

5. A firm is better for most small business needs.

VA service providers come in all sizes.  Big VA specializing firms include Brickwork India (India), Get Friday (India), and BPOVIA (China). And there are thousands of boutique firms and one-man operations on Elance.

Firms are better if you have diverse tasks. When working with a firm, you'll be assigned one lead VA, who will be your single point of contact. This VA may do the tasks you assign herself, or she could delegate them to a team of other VAs.

Firms are also good for slowly scaling up the number of hours you outsource. A freelancing individual will be less able to handle swings in contracted hours from month to month.

An individual is good if you're always assigning the same task.  For example, if you want help for managing the product pages on your ecommerce store -- and only that specific work -- then it might make sense to hire a freelance expert for that task. Without the overhead of a firm, individuals can have a lower hourly rate if you commit to more hours.

6. Interview your potential VA on the phone before hiring them.

Whether you're hiring a firm or individual, be sure to talk to them on the phone before you hire them.

Have prepared for the interview:

  • Tasks you want to offload. When talking to a firm, this information helps them assign a VA to you that is qualified for your type of work.
  • Number of hours you expect to buy. VAs want to know how many hours a week/month you're committing to so they can plan their own cashflow, client portfolio, and work schedules.
  • Daily expectations of availability. Do they need to be at work and online at the same time as you?
  • Typical task schedule. Are you assigning tasks that need immediate resolution or ones that can be worked on at any time over the next few days or weeks?

Ask for this information:

  • Resume. Check their educational and work experience.
  • Examples of prior work. Get actual work product, rather than just descriptions of work done, whenever possible.
  • Non-disclosure agreement.  This contract should be standard with any hire.
  • What are some recent movies they liked? (See tip #10 regarding cultural considerations.)

7. India isn't your only option.

In fact, there are plenty of remote workers right here in the United States. Even if you hire from the U.S. (onshore outsourcing), there may be significant cost savings based on the different minimum wages imposed by states and the wide ranging costs of living.

Going offshore, India isn't your only option. Europe, Asia (especially the Philippines), and South Africa are becoming big producers of VA providers themselves. The common thread? They all have large English speaking populations and much lower costs of living (compared to the U.S.).

8. Don't forget about security.

Another reason to go with a big firm -- they tend to have security policies and procedures in place. At a bare minimum, sign a non-disclosure agreement with the service provider. When working with a firm, make sure they also have NDAs with their employees. Also ask the provider what other security measures they take. Some examples:

  • Do they permanently delete your data once the task or contract is up?
  • Do they have regular backups of data? Do they store these backups offsite?
  • How do they secure physical access to your information? Who can get into the building? Who can get into the data center where the servers are kept?
  • What procedures do they have in place to prevent employees from walking away with sensitive data? (Eg., not allowing USB thumb drives to access work computers, NDA with employees.)

9. Try before you buy.

Try hiring freelancers for one-off projects from Elance first. This will give you some experience in dealing with a remote worker. Plus reading the submitted bids and browsing the providers on Elance will give you a sense of the quality and expertise available out there.

Elance is like eBay for individual freelancers and boutique firms. It's better than doing a Google search because on Elance, the service provider has at least articulated their expertise in a concise form and have established a reputation based on reviews from past clients.

I've hired people on Elance for data entry, writing, video editing, and Internet research. Not surprisingly, the lowest cost providers inevitably produce the lowest quality work. And conversely, the providers with the most number of reviews and past jobs provided the best quality work. Just like in real life, (a) you get what you pay for, and (b) nothing beats previous experience and employer references when evaluating a potential new hire.

You can also try buying blocks of time from outsourcing firms. Brickwork India and Get Friday offer prepaid blocks of time in 10 hour increments. You'll pay a higher rate (about $15) per hour but it's a good way to fieldtest a firm.

10. Consider legal, cultural and language issues when working with offshore help.

If you're hiring offshore, remember that your VA lives and works in a different country.

If you deal with sensitive customer information, consider the legal ramifications before you outsource your entire business to your Indian VA.

Although American culture has been exported worldwide in movies and websites, there are still many cultural differences.  Even if the tasks you assign don't need your VA to deal with customers or other people, it's still important to consider cultural and language familiarity. This is one reason why a voice interview is so critical before hiring offshore help. It's an important test for whether or not you'll be able to communicate (and work with) your VA.

Next week, I'll have 9 tips for working with your newfound virtual assistant.

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Guest's picture
susan

I find it offensive that in this day of so many Americans losing their jobs with little hope of reemployment that you would publish this article that promotes outsourcing to India among other countries. Outsourcing overseas has been one of the biggest robbers of jobs for the American worker for decades, just to satisfy corporate bottom line costs, and you, of all people, shouldn't be talking out of both sides of your mouth in claiming to help the American people.

Guest's picture

This is an outstanding idea when you're working from home. As much as working from home seems like a dream arrangement, one of the real negatives is that when you get busy, or really need to concentrate on a major project, there's no one to hand the extra work off to. And you generally can't afford or don't have enough work to keep an employee on a regular basis.

Greg, Thanks for the "how to" on it.

Guest's picture
craig

Elance.com is a great place to find VA's. I also have had some success on Twitter finding people to help out with projects. the best way of course is through recommendations.

Guest's picture
croatian1

I read this, then I had to step away from it for awhile before I responded. I am an admin for 7 clients: I answer their phones, take messages, transcription and any other work they need. We are an independent secretarial company. My clients hire us to represent them. None of their clients even know that I am not that persons personal assistant. Unfortunately do to some retirements, and people needing to cut costs the company I have worked for, for 6 years is closing at the end of this month. You unfortunately have hit a raw nerve for me by recommending VA's who are out of India. With more people using this cheap mode of assistants the business I work in has a harder time staying afloat and in business.

FORTUNATELY, all of my clients are going to just do their own phone answering, and if they need any typing done I will do if for them from home-------here in the United States of America! Whenever I have to make calls either for myself personally, or for my clients the first thing I ask is what country are you in? You can ask to be transfered to someone in the US. My clients will not do business with anyone who is not based here or outsourcing any of their business needs.

Please do not promote outsourcing to India, this has cost me my job!

Guest's picture
Peg

I, too, read this and got more than a little angry. My husband has been out of work for the past fourteen months. His job was outsourced.

10. Consider legal, cultural and language issues when working with offshore help.

How about considering the market issues? How can you attract customers if nobody can buy your products because no one has a job because they've all been sourced overseas?

Hey, how about also considering the moral and ethical issues while you're at it? I think an ethical business person must also consider the impact of his decisions on his community.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I'd like to add that ODesk is also a good source of virtual assistants. 

For those who are angry that this article talked about outsourcing to India, I'd like to say that it also mentioned that when you pay more you generally  get better quality work.  Anyone is able to sign up for an account on a site like Elance or ODesk and provide services.  I have seen a lot of Americans on ODesk making $20 to $30 an hour doing virtual assistant type work.  They get the jobs at the rate they ask for because they are good at it and they have built up a reputation that proves that they are worth more.   So I would say that Americans who are mad about not having a job should really try to sell their own skills and build up their credentials first before blaming the immigrants and outsourcing.  It may sound harsh, but you are not entitled to a job just because you are American in this global economy, and small businesses  or individuals can hire whoever they want to. 

Guest's picture
croatian1

Okay, now I am mad. No where did I say I was entitled to my job. I am 49 and have been working since I was 18, this is the first time I have ever lost a job. I work hard, I am always on time, I appreciated my job and my clients appreciated me. They also appreciated that I spoke English, and that their clients never had to ask me to repeat myself to be understood. I was going to immediately look for a job, but I am in a situation where my husband has a good job that there is no possibility of him being laid off from. I can also collect 72 weeks of unemployment now. I have never not worked before so this will be something new for me to stay home and get projects done. I can take my time and find the right job for me. Oh, wait I shouldnt have to look for a job, they should come to me!

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

@Peg

I'm sorry to hear about your husband being laid off.  I really am.  I can only imagine the shock and frustration that must follow, and I think we can do more in this country to help people who have been affected by outsourcing cope and find new work. Here at Wise Bread, we try to do what little we can to help folks who have lost their job.

@everyone

Thank you all for your comments.

Since the advent of the Internet, we all live and work in a global community now. The new global economy has forced all of us to adapt, even if Indian outsourcing isn't directly involved.  

For example, my dad is going to close his small auto parts shop after 25 years because of competition from BigCos who are getting leaner and cheaper because they are sourcing labor and materials globally.

American small businesses (including microbusinesses and solopreneurs/freelancers) are under seige from all around -- distributors turned competitors, a lousy economy, and yes, the global marketplace.  The only thing small businesses can do is to play on the same global scale, and I hope this post helped small business owners stay competitive.

 

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

I want to highlight point #7 -- we're not just talking about India here.  

The point of the article is to teach small businesses how to find and hire a remote employee. India just happens to be the biggest source of administrative labor available at the moment.

But plenty of remote work is being done here in the US. From Elance, I've personally hired a video editor from Ohio, a transcriptionist from North Carolina, and copywriters from Ohio and Florida. I live in California. 

@Xin

I haven't checked out oDesk.  I'll have to go take a look. Thanks!

Guest's picture
Guest

if companies didn't have to pay for health care they could compete better. for the future survival of our country, we need to move to a single payer health care system.

Guest's picture
susan

When are we going to learn to help ourselves and our own first? My local rag is loaded with desperate folk trying to make ends meet by offering their services. This should be the first stop for small business (I AM a small business btw). Global outsourcing should only be a last resort if all local/country resources have proven unsuccessful.

Trying to save a buck on labor is for the greedy corporations and they're finding out that it's not always such a deal.

Guest's picture
croatian1

All I have to say is again, THANK YOU Susan, you get it. I too owned a small hair salon that was eaten up by a franchise type salon. So after 15 years I moved into a different field of work, that I thought would be more stable. But, unfortunately nothing is stable now. And if more people thought like Susan, maybe, just maybe my boss would not have to be shutting down our secretarial business this month.......

Guest's picture
susan

CT is considering raising taxes on businesses to help the state raise funds lost by the poor economy.

Okay, so businesses save money by using overseas labor (and we're not taking American labor here because that costs more, even through these outsourcing units). Then they're going to have to pay more in taxes to cover the unemployed they think are too expensive to hire.

Where did they win?

Sorry, but use of non-American labor, at this particular point in time, is Anti-American.

Guest's picture
Joyce

I have a company of my own, it's a kind of small business. So I need to find a way to reduce the costs as much as possible, of course at the same time, I need to have someone do things efficiently. Therefore, I choose to hire a VA.
I quite agree with author about the point 7 : India isn't your only option!
I like BPOVIA (www.bpovia.com). I have a long-term relationships with them. And they are very professional. To your surprise, their price is not high at all. They know what exactly I want, they help me both at work and in daily life. Sometimes they can provide me some fresh ideas. They really do great help to my business!

Guest's picture
Stephanie

What type of businesses would profit the most from this? Good idea!