CAREERS-1

For release 09/21/03

CAREERS NOW: DOING YOUR HOME WORKING AS VIRTUAL ASSISTANT

By Joyce Lain Kennedy

Tribune Media Services

DEAR JOYCE: In writing about jobs for military spouses, you did not mention virtual assistants. Can you add that? - L.N.S.

A virtual assistant (VA) is a self-employed telecommuter working from home who is acting as an independent contractor. Virtual assistants typically rely on e-mail, fax, telephone and the Internet to stay in touch with their clients and to perform assignments, most often straightforward clerical tasks. And you're right - virtual assisting can be an ideal job for spouses of Uncle Sam's troops.

Andrea M. Pixley is a military spouse currently conducting her virtual assistant business from New Mexico for clients scattered across the nation. I found her on Google.com and was impressed with her no-nonsense Web site (andreapixley.com), which describes her services and prices:

Pixley's hourly rate is $35 for customer and e-mail services, mailing list administration, media kits, desktop publishing, editing and proofreading, Internet research, Web site design and maintenance. Her package price for Web search engine optimization starts at $250.

RANGE OF RATES. Pixley's rates are in sync with the general range that VAs charge - from $25 to $75 an hour, depending on the nature of the work and their skills. Most give clients the choice of an hourly rate or a monthly retainer.

The VA rates can be very attractive to clients because they don't have to pay employee-related taxes, insurance or benefits, nor provide office space, equipment or training. And clients need feel no guilt over laying off unneeded employees. In short, clients can keep their overhead very low and still turn out professional-level work with the help of VAs as needed.

WORK SPECIALTIES. Although administrative work is the bread and butter of virtual assistants, they handle lots of other tasks for clients, from market research and accounting to drafting and meeting planning.

CLIENTS. Building a VA business is an uphill climb, especially in tight economic times. Clients often are entrepreneurs working solo from home who can't handle the costs of or don't need qualified staff down the hall.

BACKGROUNDS. VAs hail from a surprising variety of backgrounds and environments. Years ago, many VAs would have been executive secretaries who started home-based secretarial services. Today, many are moms who once were wedding planners and restaurant managers, medical secretaries and school financial-aid directors, and accountants and human resource specialists. Andrea Pixley acquired her technical expertise as a college student and holds a degree in sociology.

HEADS UP. Busy virtual assistants may work 40 or 50 hours a week. They won't stay sane unless they're quick on the uptake, possess strong organizational skills and are ready to jump from one project to another on a moment's notice. Beginners find themselves learning to juggle their tasks and still have a life for themselves. Virtual assistants are standout workers or they don't last in the business.

REFERRALS. If the idea of becoming a virtual assistant appeals to you, follow up by checking out the Web sites of these resources:

  • International Virtual Assistants Association (ivaa.org). This nonprofit membership organization has 600 members of which some are certified. The Web site includes a state directory of members.
     
  • AssistU (assistu.com) is an enterprise that markets 20-week training courses to potential VAs, followed by exams and potential certification. The cost of a group class is $2,300.
     
  • Staffcentrix (staffcentrix.com) functions as a referral agency for military spouses who are VAs. The agency offers a free 15-hour training course on some military bases, focusing on customer service, ethics, and practical knowledge to start and operate a business.

ON BALANCE. A recent BusinessWeek article advised clients on how to work with VAs:

  • Be clear about expectations in the beginning.
     
  • Treat a virtual assistant like a business owner, not an employee.
     
  • Don't micromanage - you're paying for one who doesn't need heavy supervision.
     
  • Don't expect your VA to directly generate cash as a salesperson for your business.

The need to remind clients how to act and what to expect may be a clue to some downsides of becoming a virtual assistant. The upsides: being your own boss, a chance to earn decent money, working at home and taking your business with you if you have to relocate.

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E-mail career questions for possible use in this column to Joyce Lain Kennedy at jlk@sunfeatures.com, or mail her at Box 368, Cardiff, CA 92007. Sorry, the volume of mail makes personal replies impossible.

2003 Tribune Media Services, Inc.