There comes a time in every small business owner's life when they look at their to-do list and realize they simply can't get it all done. Too many emails to answer, too many clients to onboard, too many marketing campaigns to organize—whatever the case, you need help. Enter: virtual assistants.
Virtual assistants (VAs) are remote contractors that can take on a number of "odd jobs" in your business. They might focus on one specific set of administrative tasks, or they might serve as a jack-of-all-trades. Either way, delegating to a VA will help you grow your business without burning out.
How to Know If You Need a Virtual Assistant
It can be tough to identify the tipping point for when to hire a virtual assistant, but there are a few common signs that it's time to start delegating:
You're working long hours on a regular basis. Especially if a lot of your time is spent doing repetitive or tedious tasks like replying to social media comments or customer service emails, you might want to think about delegating to a VA. We're talking about more than one bad week here or there—look for patterns of these long, tedious hours happening for several weeks in a row.
You're losing customers or clients because you can't respond to emails in a timely manner. Once you start losing money because you can't keep up with your email, you absolutely need help. Losing clients isn't an option for a growing business.
You're spending your time on lower-value tasks. This is your company, and you should be spending your time adding value to the company in a way only you can. Administrative work is a specific skillset, but it's one that you can delegate. Your brain? That's non-transferable.
You're doing work you don't like. If you enjoy some of those tedious tasks, then by all means stick with them. They might energize you or spark ideas that you otherwise wouldn't have. But make sure you like your work. Doing tasks that you dislike can lead to burnout, which will have a negative effect on your productivity—and your business.
Examples of tasks you might delegate to a VA:
Social media management (usually not strategy, but things like posting content that you've created or creating basic graphics to go along with tweets)
Answering frequently asked questions via email
Getting quotes from a supplier or other contractors
Scheduling blog posts (and social shares for said blog posts)
Organizing virtual files in cloud storage for easy access
Updating inventory in your online store
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of the variety of tasks that a VA can take on.
Running the numbers
Your mental health is the most important factor here, but you are running a business, so you need to take a look at the bottom line and weigh that against any impending burnout. When it comes down to it, you need to be sure that your assistant will save you more money than they'll cost.
Start by tracking your time. That's something you should be doing anyway: It's an easy way to spot inefficiencies and see exactly where your time is going—compared to where you think it's going. Check out our list of the best time-tracking tools to get started and find the best choice for you. Once you know how much time you're spending on each task, it's time to do some math.
When setting up a time-tracking solution, you don't want to get too granular with your tasks, but just enough to see patterns. For example, you might track things like "social media" or "press and PR," but you'll also want a general "administrative" category for things like scheduling appointments or calling suppliers.
Scenario #1: You spend six to eight hours/week dealing with customer questions via phone and email. At $22/hr, that would cost you $132-176/week to outsource to a virtual assistant. In that same six hours, you could be doing something else (billable client work, increasing marketing efforts on Instagram, whatever makes sense for your business) that would make you $300-400. In this case, the numbers show that getting a VA makes financial sense for you.
Scenario #2: You spend three hours/week dealing with a higher-level administrative task that requires some background knowledge of both the industry and your business/product (e.g., talking to manufacturers). You'd have to find a VA that has the same level of background knowledge you do (and pay higher rates accordingly—say, $30-35/hour), and you don't have an immediately profitable task you could be doing with the time you'd save. In this case, hiring a VA isn't worth it for you—yet. Once you have enough other tasks to delegate, you can hand this off, but for now it makes the most financial sense to keep trucking along yourself.
Scenario #3: You've analyzed your timelogs and found that you're spending five to seven hours/week on administrative work. You have around two to three hours of profitable work you could be doing in that amount of time, so you would more or less be breaking even by hiring an assistant. This is often the trickiest position to be in, since there's no immediate monetary gain to be had. If you hate the admin work and just want it off your plate, hiring an assistant is worth it—if just for your peace of mind and to avoid burnout. It might also be a good idea to hire an assistant now if you have a busy season coming up in three months: By the time that busy season hits, you'll have your VA fully onboarded. If, however, you enjoy using those administrative tasks to wind down at the end of a work day, then the delegating pressure is off.
If the math doesn't work out how you'd hoped, there are other ways to get started. Take a look below at our section on automation to get started.
Virtual assistant vs. in-person assistant
If you've determined you need help, it's still worth deciding: Is a virtual assistant the way to go? Sometimes, an in-person assistant might be what you're looking for. Here are a few things to consider when making that decision:
Types of tasks: If your business involves a lot of packing up items for shipment or running local errands, then you'll need an in-person assistant.
Your preferred form of communication: If you're totally comfortable communicating via text message, email, Slack, and the occasional phone or video call, then a remote VA will do the trick. If you find that you thrive with face-to-face communication, you might have trouble managing a virtual assistant.
Availability and cost of talent: Depending on where you live, you may not be able to find a local assistant with the skillset you require. Alternatively, you might not be able to afford a local assistant with the skillset you require. That would be a good time to turn to a VA.
How to Find and Hire a Virtual Assistant
You know you need a VA and you have a pretty good idea of what kind of work they should be doing for you. The next step: finding someone. Finding, hiring, and onboarding a contractor is an in-depth process, but here are some guidelines to get you started.
Where to look for a virtual assistant
The best way to find a virtual assistant is to ask your network for referrals. Just as with any position, people who come with a recommendation are much more likely to have what you're looking for. Start by posting on LinkedIn, as well as any Slack or Facebook groups for business owners. Make sure to include the sorts of tasks that you're looking for help with and what kind of business you're running. The more specific you are, the better quality of referrals people can send you.
If you're not able to hire through referrals, here are some other options:
Use a virtual assistant service.
Virtual assistant services are basically online agencies for virtual assistants. That means you don't have to source the assistant yourself, which can save you some time. The downside, of course, is that you're less likely to get someone specialized in your specific type of business model or industry.
Zirtual is targeted specifically toward entrepreneurs and professionals. Plans start at $398/month for 12 hours of tasks from a U.S.-based, college-educated assistant.
UAssistMe is more affordable but has more of a focus on strictly administrative work (e.g., bookkeeping, customer service, transcriptions, and email management). Plans start at $299/month for 20 hours of tasks.
Use a general freelance marketplace.
Freelance marketplaces allow contractors to essentially pitch their work to you. You can post the tasks you need done, and people will respond with their information and rates. Using a marketplace can open you up to a lot of qualified contractors, but that comes with a downside: You'll have to sift through a huge number of applications, many of them not so great. (Popular posts will get anywhere from 25 to 100 bids, and sometimes more). You're also forced to go through the company's messaging system and billing tools because contractors are penalized for moving outside of the built-in system. The fact that contractors have to account for the fees that the marketplace charges them often means you can get better rates elsewhere.
Guru has over three million contractors worldwide, covering a wide range of skillsets. Guru's payment options include paying by task, by milestone, or hourly; or you can pay on a recurring schedule, which could work well for an ongoing contractor arrangement.
Task Pigeon's virtual assistant marketplace is an offshoot of its general task marketplace. While this isn't the primary business of Task Pigeon, you get the reliability of a trusted task management team vetting the assistants. For payment, you pre-purchase hours and then specify what your needs are.
PeoplePerHour allows you to post a job or browse existing freelancers, and the talent pool covers a wide range of professional services, from design to web development to administrative work. Pricing is either hourly or fixed, depending on the project.
Freelancer is a little more geared toward specialized freelancers (think designers, copywriters, etc.), so it's a great place to go if you're looking for someone with a specific background. Payment options include milestone payments or upon-completion payments.
Editor’s note: While VAs are usually used by entrepreneurs, professionals, and small teams, you can use one for both your professional and personal life. Apps like FancyHands and TaskRabbit cover both professional and personal tasks.
What you can expect to pay for a virtual assistant
As with most professions, rates for VAs are all over the map. Here are a few things to keep in mind while you're looking at virtual assistants and their rates:
Type of work: If you're looking at entry-level administrative work (email management, basic customer service, etc.), you'll probably be paying $15-25/hour. If you're looking for higher-level tasks (project management, content strategy, etc.), you could be looking at $50/hour or more. Upwork has posted their average rates for various tasks, which can help you get a better estimate.
Speed: Keep in mind when looking at hourly rates that some people work faster than others. Someone who charges $50/hour might complete a project three times faster—and with the same quality—as someone who charges $25/hour, making it more financially beneficial for you. Don't be fooled by ultra-low hourly rates.
Pro tip: Paying hourly can be dicey. If possible, we suggest paying per completed project. Quick workers will benefit, and you will know exactly what it's going to cost you before you start.
Experience level: Take into account the VA's experience level. It might be tempting to go for the cheapest option you find, but extensive experience can be the difference between quality work and work that you end up having to redo yourself.
Client testimonials: Look at client testimonials on the VA's website and/or their LinkedIn recommendations, and ask for a few client references to reach out to via email. If someone isn't able to put you in touch with at least two or three people who they've worked for before, it might mean that they know they wouldn't receive any glowing recommendations.
Many cost-conscious business owners work with international assistants—through marketplaces like Virtual Valley and outsourced, largely because the hourly rates tend to be cheaper. The decision is up to you, but keep in mind that major time zone differences and any language barriers can slow down the process and cost you more than the cheaper price is saving you to begin with.
Getting ready to delegate
Before your new VA starts, you should be prepared with two types of documentation that will make the onboarding and delegating process easier.
Standard Operating Procedures
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are essentially how-to manuals for the tasks you'll be asking the assistant to tackle. They should give the assistant all the information they need to be able to get the job done.
You could, of course, write it up in a document, but we'd suggest starting with a screencast. If you record yourself as you're completing the task, you can ensure that there won't be any missed steps in the documentation. If you're writing something out from memory, it's easy to miss the small details.
Jing is free and quick to set up. Once you record your screencast, you can upload it to their server and get a screencast.com link to send to your assistant—or you can download it as a file. Jing has a five-minute time limit, but if you mostly want to make quick screencasts—and don't want to pay for the service—it's your best choice.
Snagit gives you the option to add annotations to your videos for extra clarity. If you have complicated tasks that will take more than a few minutes to explain, or you want to be able to highlight specific parts of the screen or add on-screen cues, this is a good option. Pricing: $49.95 with no screencasting time limit.
Once you've made the screencast, you can choose to transcribe the instructions if you'd like to have it in writing too. (It's worth asking your assistant if that would be beneficial for them.) Don't forget to put links to all of the screencasts in a Google Drive folder or Evernote notebook and share that with the assistant, so that they can easily search.
If you don't already have templates for your work, you'll want to get that documentation process started. You should also provide your new assistant with examples of completed templates so they can better understand your communication style when interfacing with external parties.
Creating SOPs and templates will do a lot to speed up the onboarding process for a new assistant, but it's important to have realistic expectations. Even if you're working with a competent professional, it often can take about a month (or longer, depending on the complexity of your business and the tasks at hand) for someone to get up to speed. Unless there are serious red flags—like multiple missed deadlines or a failure to communicate—give it a month or two before you start looking for another assistant.
Using Automation as Your VA
After careful consideration, you may decide that you're not quite ready to hire a virtual assistant, either because it doesn't make financial sense or because you don't have quite enough to delegate. Or maybe you need to take some work off your plate immediately while you look for an assistant. Either way, automating your processes is a good place to start.
Zapier can automate almost any process, but here are a few ready-made suggestions for tasks that you might otherwise hand off to a VA.
Automatically add your blog posts to social media.
Streamline your new client onboarding process.
Update inventory without the manual data entry.
Hiring a virtual assistant is a big commitment, but it can pay off in spades, both financially and mentally. If you do your research, hire well, and lay the groundwork, you'll be set up for success. And once your new VA is up and running, you'll have more time and energy to spend on the things that matter most to you and your business.