Should You Get a Virtual Assistant?By Geoff Williams September 13th, 2016
Back in the mid-’90s, when I was just starting my career, I went to my first freelance writing convention. One of the most memorable moments happened during a small discussion group led by a very experienced writer. I don’t remember his name, but what I do remember is when he made some off-handed reference to his personal assistant.
Personal assistant? I couldn’t believe it.
Even though I was doing okay at the time, the thought of being successful enough to pay someone to work for me—even part-time—seemed like crazy talk (or, at the very least, a colossal waste of money).
Over the years, however, I’ve heard more of my freelance peers referring to their virtual assistants. And now I’m finally starting to warm up to the idea.
After all, I pay a housecleaning service once a month to make it less likely that a social services worker will drop by and see my two daughters living in a giant dust bunny. I’ve paid people to do my taxes. Why not pay for a virtual assistant?
When to hire a VA
A virtual assistant, or VA for short, is someone who can help with minor tasks, like filing invoices, balancing your schedule, and responding to emails—all done remotely.
So when should you get one? There’s no simple answer, as I found out from talking to a few freelancers who have hired a VA.
For Andrea M. Rotondo, a project manager from Florida who specializes in handling editorial projects for clients like Ancestry.com and the National Education Association, the tipping point came when she found herself losing money. “When my dance card was so full that I had to turn work down—work that I wanted—I knew it was time to hire an assistant,” she said.
For Jennifer Goforth Gregory, a B2B content marketing writer based in North Carolina, it came down to time management challenges. Gregory thought it might be fun to stop working before 3 a.m.
And for Tania Casselle, a writer, editor, and writing coach in New Mexico, her primary goal was to eliminate mind-numbing tasks so she could chase higher paying work.
People have a variety of tipping points. Maybe you’re having a new baby, or you’re sick or taking care of an aging parent—these are all situations in which you may need a little help on the side.
How much a VA costs
As you decide whether paying a VA will be beneficial, you have to know how much one costs. According to the website PayScale.com, VAs make a nationwide average of $16.06 an hour.
At a terrific writer’s forum I belong to, Freelance Success (paid membership: $99 a year), some writers have mentioned paying their VAs $15 to $20 an hour.
Gregory pays her VA $35 an hour, but she told me she tends to overpay when she finds someone she really likes, because her work is very specialized.
Gregory’s VA, for one, typically works about seven hours a week for her. But how many hours your VA would work is also, of course, up to whatever you two decide.
The most important thing, however, is to do some theoretical equations on the cost-benefit of a VA: Will hiring one ultimately allow you to pursue more work or charge higher rates—and will that offset the cost of the VA? Of course, there’s no way of knowing for sure how a VA will affect your work, but knowing ahead of time that—theoretically, at least—how much one could up your income will help you better analyze its worth later.
How to find a VA
There’s no universal formula to finding a VA, but there are websites you may want to check out. Gregory suggests looking at Virtual Assistantville; others you may want to investigate include Zirtual, VA Networking and Upwork, all of which have a decent pool to pick from.
Rotondo found hers by searching profiles on LinkedIn. She works with a woman in her twenties from the Philippines who has experience working for major American and British publishing companies.
“She’d taken some time off to have children and was now ready to re-enter the workforce as a remote employee,” Rotondo said. “Her skills dovetailed really well with my needs. She works 20 hours a week for me right now, but I’d love to her her go full-time in 2017.”
Rotondo actively sought a VA in the southern hemisphere. “It was important to me that my VA was working while I was available but off the clock,” she said. “That way, I could respond to questions in real time in the evenings and completed assignments would be waiting for me when I got to my office in the morning.”
Gregory’s VA, meanwhile, is a single mom who lives in Maryland. Point being, VAs can be found pretty much anywhere. Just be sure you’re clear about what you want from the beginning.
What a VA can do
The three writers I consulted use their VAs to do everything besides writing, including tasks like research, proofreading, and setting up interviews. This is in no way a comprehensive list, but the writers I interviewed said that they also have their VAs do the following:
Rotondo’s VA drafts thank-you emails to her sources and keeps a spreadsheet of URLs for all her published work.
Gregory’s VA gets rid of old emails; she’ll also unsubscribe her from unwanted email subscriptions.
Casselle’s VA updates her website and helps promote her work in a variety of ways. “Those two tasks always fall to the end of the list, right?” Casselle said. “It’s so easy to overlook that.”
Do you like being present on social media and sharing links to interesting articles with followers, but hate how much time that can take?
Gregory’s VA reduces some of that commitment by finding interesting links to articles, statistics, and information. But Gregory still takes care of the writing for her social profiles.
Back in the old days, you’d turn in an article, and your editor might schedule a photo shoot with one of your interview subjects. But that hasn’t been the case for a while.
Many editors will find stock photos to use for an article, but travel writers often have to ask tourists bureaus, convention centers, and hotels if they have photos that can accompany a story. I’m frequently asked by editors to see if sources have head shots or candid photos.
But if you have a VA, you could delegate that chore.
“Early on I realized that, when it came to my writing projects, I spent just as much time on photo acquisition as I did writing the articles,” Rotondo said. “It was clear to me that I could double the number of writing assignments I could accept if someone else procured imagery on my behalf.”
The real value of a VA
Still, if you’re like me, you might be wondering if you’re organized enough to have a virtual assistant. After all, if you have a cleaning service, you know that often means you have to tidy up your home beforehand. With a virtual assistant, you at least have to be organized enough to give your VA projects to do.
But according to Gregory, you should push those worries aside. “Having a virtual assistant makes you think about where your time spent is the most valuable, and my hourly rate is higher than what I pay her, so I’ll do the math,” she said.
She may be onto something. Within two days of the deadline for this article, my internet went out for 24 hours, and I lost most of a workday going to the funeral of a favorite uncle. An editor emailed me to remind me of some photographs I was supposed to send her. Working with a VA over the last couple days would have been very helpful. And maybe my editor waiting for her photos wouldn’t think I’m flaky.
I used to dismiss the idea of having a virtual assistant as crazy talk. But some days I wonder if I’m crazy for not having one.