Sep 3, 2010

Work at Home as a Virtual Assistant

Last month, I got a new job, and now that I've more or less learned the ropes, I'm eager to tell you about it.

What's the new job? This nanay is now a virtual assistant!

What is a virtual assistant (VA)?

A VA is somebody hired contractually to do administrative work for someone else.

Two keywords: First, contractually, meaning no employer-employee relationship. You don't get paid holidays and sick days. You do your own paperwork for taxes, SSS, and Philhealth.

Second, administrative. VAs do detail-oriented and organizational tasks such as writing, designing, scheduling, phone answering.

VAs are not consultants. We do not give advice on how to run a business or how to market a product. But when the owner knows what tasks need to be done to run her business and market her products, we do those tasks for her.

Different kinds of virtual assistants

There are as many kinds of virtual assistants as there are jobs that need to be outsourced. Some of the most common kinds of VAs are
  • Writers: write press releases, technical material, sales letters, blog entries
  • Graphics/website designers: provide web graphics, templates, illustrations
  • Event planners
  • Phone-call takers: customer service, sales
  • Internet marketing support: manage Facebook pages, post on forums, update Twitter
Note: Most VAs do several of these, either for different clients or for just one.

What skills do I need to become a VA?

1) Computer literacy. You should, at the very least, know how to use Word, Excel, Google, and Skype.

2) Resourcefulness. Often, your client will ask you to do something you have never done before. You need to be able to quickly learn how to do it. And you need to be able to get it done.

3) Administrative skills. You are, technically, running your own business. You need to know how to answer the phone properly; compose a proper email; write output reports, work journals, and invoices; and do your own taxes. The best VAs will have several years of corporate experience behind them.

4) Soft skills. It's not enough to be competent. You need to be able to communicate that competence to your clients. And you need to be able to convince your clients that your specific competence is the one they need for their business to succeed.

5) Integrity. You are working at a remote location in your own time. This requires a huge amount of trust from your clients, for them to believe that you are doing your best possible work in the hours you are charging them for. This trust can be very fragile; be careful not to break it.

What tools will I need?

Always required:
  • A speedy computer
  • Reliable broadband Internet (I recommend Globe DSL.)
  • A phone
  • A Paypal account (It's the easiest and safest way to get paid.)
Sometimes required:
  • Skype (downloadable for free)
  • A headset and mic
  • Printer and scanner, or a fax machine
  • A webcam
Optional but very useful:
  • Time-tracking program (I recommend Grindstone.)
  • A smartphone/tablet

How can I find work as a VA?

There are actually several ways to do this.

1) Try out Remote Staff. Click the link to find out more about this company that hires people to do fulltime work from home.

2) Open an account at Odesk and Elance, then browse through the jobs there. Remember that most VA jobs are advertised by their specific titles such as "writer" or "web designer" or "forum poster".

Ads for "virtual assistant" are often for more personal-assistant-type jobs, where a Blackberry would really be helpful, if not necessary.

Keep in mind too that many Odesk and Elance jobs begin as short-term contracts, but as your client gets to work with you longer and knows you better, there could be a chance that you will get offered longer contracts.

For instance, my client's graphic artist began working for him at Odesk, but is now working for him fulltime.

When you've built up a portfolio, you can market yourself through a Facebook page and your own website.

3) Market yourself via Facebook.  You could send a private message -- not a shoutout if you are still employed -- to your Facebook friends that you are starting out independently, offering such-and-such service in this field that they know you've been doing well already for several years, and if they ever need this service or know anybody who needs it, please keep you in mind.

You could also open a Facebook page for your business, and if you're not the shy type, you could use your own name on it! After all, when you send your Like invites to your friends, it would be very hard for them to refuse to Like a page that has the name of a person they actually like (you!)

(My social media expert friend Fleire did this, and I certainly found it hard not to click on Like because I do like Fleire.)

4) Put up your own website. It need not be anything fancy or complicated, as long as it has
  • An easy-to-remember descriptive name with a .com ending
  • A contact form on every page (make it easy for your clients to contact you!)
  • An About Me page that describes some of your personal as well as professional background
  • A Services page detailing what you do and how it can benefit your client
  • A Portfolio page
  • A list of your rates
You don't need to be a professional web designer to build your site. Blogger.com offers easily customizable templates, and there are others you can download for free online. (I'll also be releasing a free ebook for non-techies on how to customize your webpage/blog -- as soon as I find the time to write it.)

Blogger also gives you the option to get your own .com domain name for just about 500 pesos a year.

You could also have a blogspot.com domain name for free, but if you are building a business site, it just won't look professional to have "blogspot" attached to it.

When you've sowed the seed, give it time to grow

Like any business, don't expect your VA business to prosper overnight. You need about to build up your skills, your network, your client base.

On the other hand, this is something you can begin building up even while you keep your day job. Then, when work gets more stable, you could find the courage to completely let go of your office work and immerse yourself in your new business.

So don't fret if you don't find a fulltime job as a VA immediately. What's important is you begin to "plant the seed" early. The sooner you do that, the sooner it will start to grow.

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