Does It Make Sense to Hire a Virtual Assistant for Your Solo Small Business?

  •    A freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia, Pa., Dinah previously worked as a staff reporter for The Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires.

If your thriving solo business has you juggling tasks and struggling to catch up, or you can't grow as fast as you'd like because there's too much to do, you probably need help. Before taking the big step of hiring another regular employee, you might consider another option: hiring a virtual assistant.

The right virtual assistant, working remotely, can help you with correspondence, social media, marketing, app development, research, billing, travel planning or other tasks, giving you more time and energy to focus on your core business in ways that are most productive for the enterprise.

You also can save money by paying a virtual assistant to do work that you can't handle on your own, either for lack of time or know-how.

Virtual assistants are independent contractors who work from their own homes or offices to support clients by providing administrative, creative and technical services, according to the nonprofit International Virtual Assistants Association.

You can find virtual assistants who work entirely on their own or through VA companies, like Zirtual, a service that provides access to U.S.-based assistants and has its own specifications for work its VAs do and do not perform.

Changing Your Business

"I'm a solopreneur business mentor running an online education company for women who want to learn how to start their first online business. Having VAs has revolutionized my business. I now have two fabulous VAs helping me with my marketing and my product development," says Rosie Freiha, founder of London-based Living Rosy. Having the VAs on hand allows Freiha to focus time on her clients and business strategy.

"It's all too easy to get caught up in busy work, which is important but doesn't grow your business. Having a VA has helped me to work on multiple projects at once, speeding up how fast my business can grow and how many people I can serve," says Freiha.

Solopreneurs should consider hiring a virtual assistant before they're overwhelmed, even if they need help with only a task or two.

"You always need to hire a virtual assistant before you need to hire one. A common misconception is that you need to hire a VA and provide enough work as though they are a full or part-time employee. That's not the case at all," says Melissa Smith, founder of virtual assistant staffing company The PVA. "The problem with waiting until you need to hire a VA is you no longer have the time to search and onboard a VA."

Here are a few other tips on hiring virtual assistants from those who have done so, or who run VA services. Tweak their advice to suit your needs.

1. Know exactly what you need from a VA

Which means you may have to do some homework on technology or other areas outside your expertise. Business coach and tax expert Donna Merrill, founder of Business Untangled Inc., learned this the hard way.

"I hired two virtual assistants to help me with a major project. These assistants were awesome professionals who have great communication skills, have impeccable ethics and are wonderful VAs. Who would think this project could fail? Yet this project tanked horribly! Why? I did not personally know what was required to accomplish this project," says Merrill.

"I only had a conceptual idea of the terminology of what was needed to accomplish the task. ... I did not know what I did not know." On top of that, neither Merrill nor the VAs knew what the VAs didn't know. Even though business owners may hire a VA to make up for knowledge they lack, "you must take the time to do your own due diligence," she says.

Merrill says she could have saved thousands of dollars and about six months of work if she'd taken a few hours to learn more about what was needed for her project.

​2. Start with a virtual assistant service or a marketplace

...such as Upwork, suggests Andrew Legrand, founder of a small business-focused cloud law firm, Spera Law Group LLC of New Orleans.

"If it's your first VA, and you're still not sure what they'll do, a service can help address some of the questions, and ensure that you're working with a trained and qualified professional. If you work with an individual, there's no one to turn to for help if that individual steals files or otherwise messes things up," he says.

"The services out there vary. Some services will interview you and pair you with a dedicated virtual assistant. These are useful for professionals, and entrepreneurs who always want to work with the same person. Other services allow you to submit tasks, which will be completed by the next available VA. These work when you need higher volume and lower costs," Legrand explains.

Marketplaces help VAs and entrepreneurs connect, often managing time, billing and payment, he adds. "Most of them include some type of guarantee or service protection, too," he says.

Felipe Vasconcelos, owner of Elastic Band Co., hired a virtual assistant to help with social media posts and engagement, first choosing a VA company, then narrowing the selection to four assistants based on positive reviews and hours worked.
"We allowed each VA to work for a week, then compared results to see which VA had the highest engagement rates and best posts," he said.

Freiha, who has used various virtual assistant sites, considers great for one-off projects, and also likes the people she has found on, a site for hiring Philippines-based assistants. "The caliber of candidate was very high, and I got a lot of responses to my job advert," she adds.

3. Choose and train carefully.

Gene Caballero, co-founder of an online lawn-service booking platform, GreenPal, found a VA on Upwork.

"Receiving over 500 emails per day, I knew that getting a virtual assistant was inevitable," he says. "It took about two weeks to teach her exactly what to do but it's running like a well-oiled machine."

Caballero says the VA costs around $50 a week, "pennies on the dollar" compared to the pay for an in-house assistant. The virtual assistant frees up about two hours in his day, filtering emails he needs to answer, handling the easy ones herself, and helping to keep his calendar organized.

"Take your time and be picky. It's more of a waste of time trying to train one, then realizing they are not a good fit, than to take your time to find the perfect one," he says.

Michael Blake, founder of business appraisal firm Arpeggio Advisors, said using a virtual assistant was one of his best business decisions. He suggests obtaining references; being specific about needed skills; trying small projects first and building up trust; using written agreements, including confidentiality provisions and hiring multiple VAs if you need expertise that general assistants may lack.

Lisa Reed, founder of San Francisco-based Rockstar Virtual, offers several tips for business owners selecting a virtual assistant: Make sure the VA is proficient in English or whatever language you need. Check reviews, client testimonials and the Better Business Bureau, and seek referrals from fellow entrepreneurs.

Reed also recommends having a "delegation action plan" so you have an idea of what services you need as you check different VA services, and be willing to make a phone call to your potential virtual assistant or service.

"You develop a close working relationship with your VA and trust them to handle aspects of your business or personal life—it is so worth the thirty minute phone call to ensure the right fit!" she says.