Virtual Assistants - Growth Tool for Startups


By Chris Durst

In a world made smaller and more accessible by the Internet and a growing list of breakthrough telecom services, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs have been abandoning the problems and politics of "brick-and-mortar" corporate life and launching their own startups. The advantages are well-known: shorter or no commutes, extra family time, work-as-you-are clothing, personal and financial growth at their own pace — all obvious pluses over "corporate cube" life.

But there’s a flip side, too. The SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) can face a tough time projecting big-company size and stability to prospective clients, and the SOHO entrepreneur, often alone at home with no "sounding boards" or support, can fall prey to feelings of isolation and worry, and lose focus. Throw a heavy workload on top of this, and it spells trouble.

Before now, the SOHO businessperson in this situation would have had limited choices: hire an expensive "temp" for a transient solution, take on expense and responsibility with a "permanent" employee, or, worst of all, turn away the work.

The emerging Virtual Assisting industry, however, has begun to offer a better solution to the SOHO’s dilemma.

WHAT IS A VIRTUAL ASSISTANT?

"VAs" (as they are known) are starting to become the invisible support partners of SOHOs not only in the US, but "offshore" as well. For an hourly fee that is quite a bit less than the cost of temps or employees, the SOHO executive can have full professional assistance with a variety of skills at the click of an email icon.

Like the majority of their clients, virtual assistants are entrepreneurs too, which often lends them a closer rapport with their customers. The variety of expertise available in the VA talent pool also lets the small business "employ" as many virtual staff as it has niches or transient projects to fill.

For example, in addition to the typical office staff skills, VAs may also offer assistance in office management, collection services, payroll and accounting skills, Web site design, and marketing in Non-US Markets, just to name a few.

A "BRANCH OFFICE" ABROAD

The VA alternative also offers the small business the option of setting up a virtual branch in a foreign country. With Internet connectivity growing in Europe, for example (particularly in the UK and Scandinavia), an "office" in London or Stockholm for European clients has never been simpler or cheaper.

THE LOGISTICS - HOW DOES IT WORK?

Though some VA practices have a local client base, most will never meet the SOHO they are assisting face-to-face. Work assignments are communicated through e-mail, phone, fax, "snail mail," or diskette transfer. E-mail in particular probably accounts for the vast bulk of VA-SOHO communications, offering the convenience of unlimited data transfer and international reach within the fixed monthly ISP fee.

Web-based tools such as ICQ and online calendars and planners are often used as a means of keeping the VA-SOHO team in synch, offering joint access to the team from any location with an Internet connection. Hence, schedule changes, project reports, or customer-service alerts can be transmitted immediately and acted upon by widely-dispersed viewers.

SOHOs seem to have taken to the new model with a flair. According to Karen Stanley, for example, President of Stanley & Associates (a team development training firm), "Entrusting my VA with full responsibility for all customer service and administrative details through three business endeavors over the past four years has enabled me to confidently focus 100% on new business development."

THE GROWTH FACTOR

The VA-SOHO relationship is symbiotic: the VA, ideally, is the SOHO’s growth partner, with a vested interest in helping the small business flourish. (Only an employee with stock options can claim such a strong incentive.) Unlike a temporary worker, who is employed by an agency, the VA works for the SOHO. It’s in his or her interest to be committed to the client for the long haul, not just to invite a larger role, but to continue to strenthen the marketing force that’s critical to any service-based business–good word-of-mouth.

TRENDS IN THE INDUSTRY

While statistics are hard to come by, the "virtual assistant" began to emerge around 1995, when isolated Internet sites started to appear advertising Web-based staffing solutions. While recent research indicates that the majority of VAs are currently based in the US, practices may also be found in Australia and the UK, and the offshore segment of the industry is expected to grow rapidly as Internet usage spreads.

THE FUTURE


As cable Internet, wireless Internet, and other broadband solutions grow in the marketplace, the VA will be well-placed to leverage the additional communications tools and grow even closer to the small business or startup client. This will become particularly evident with the proliferation of Net-based video, and in the more "netcentric" areas where "wired" startups thrive, such as Boston, Silicon Valley, the Washington, DC, area, and in foreign centers such as London, Dublin, and Sydney.



WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF USING A VIRTUAL ASSISTANT?

Virtual Assistants offer administrative support to business owners, executives and entrepreneurs. You can use their services on an "as needed" basis, eliminating the burden of paying a full-time secretary’s pay. They provide several advantages to businesses by saving them payroll taxes, insurance and benefits, equipment, space and time, and providing high quality professional support.

Like the majority of their clients, virtual assistants are entrepreneurs too, which often lends them a closer rapport with their customers. The variety of expertise available in the VA talent pool also lets the small business "employ" as many virtual staff as it has niches or transient projects to fill.
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