Like most entrepreneurs I've met, on a typical day I spend way too much time doing a range of tasks that I shouldn't. While it's important stuff--following up on networking leads, contacting people I've met at my workshops or cold calling speaking resources--these critical to-do's were getting out of control, and my office piles were starting to spill out onto my dining room table.

So the timing could not have been better when I got this assignment.

With a budget of $100, I set out to find and hire at least two different virtual assistants (VAs), to help me gain control of the burgeoning piles. I approached this like any other time-challenged business owner; I wanted to retain someone with an established track record, at a fair rate. I have a decent amount of experience hiring independent contractors, so I started off with high expectations, despite a tight turnaround time.

My main project was to create a simple database on an Excel spreadsheet, with the names, company name and e-mail address from 150 business cards I had been given at various networking functions. I would provide a note that my VA would e-mail to each contact. Here's what I discovered:

Getting Started
I got a lead on DoMyStuff.com, and three minutes after choosing a password and security question, I posted my project. Nine minutes later, I got an e-mail confirming my task listing; 32 minutes from signing on, I got my first bid. I also received an ominous "warning"--a post on my thread that advised me to check out the site's blog.

The drama that unfolded was like a bad "B" movie with two people having an online catfight, debating whether someone had made false claims about expertise or credentials. I closed that box and went back to work, intermittently responding to the one person who made a bid. She charged $25 an hour, with a five-hour minimum--and advised me that my project would take her 12 hours--way above my $100 budget.

Going back to the drawing board, I reworked my proposal to cover just 35 business cards, and because I'm not a "put-your-eggs-in-one-basket" type of gal, I also decided to Google "Virtual Assistants." Up to 736,000 sites popped up, and I chose TasksEveryday.com, an India-based company that advertised an hourly rate of $6.98! What's the saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is? That was the case here.

Yes, they offer that rate and were quite professional, with speedy follow-up to my query. The catch: You can only get that rate (which buys you a suite of services and your own dedicated personal assistant) if you prepay and sign up for a 160-hour package. Since their lowest-priced package was for 40 hours--though still a bargain at $9.98 an hour--I had to pass on this choice for now.

Meanwhile, my project for database and marketing support work for 35 leads lingered for three days on DoMyStuff.com without another nibble.

Getting Serious
Time was ticking away, and I had to find someone to get my networking notes out within two to three days, before my warm leads got ice cold. Back to Google, I surfed through several other choices before clicking on VirtualAssistants.com

That site's home page sported a large "Featured VA" box in the middle of the page, with an easy link to contact "Michele" directly. I clicked, posted my query via e-mail for database and marketing support help. I never got a response.

Then I found a listing with an organization I'd heard of before: IVAA, the International Virtual Assistants Association. This site looked professional; most listings gave specific details about areas of expertise, and it had a rating system that included an ethics check, a certified VA and VAs with real estate expertise.

Within a couple clicks I was surfing through a long list of VAs with database experience. I e-mailed or called five women from Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. I was particularly struck by No Worries Virtual Assistance.com, a company owned by Lynne Wells, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where lovely classical music played in the background before I could leave my voice mail.

A few hours later, I hired two women (who provided several references with good feedback): Lyn Toomey, founder of Virtual Market Support from Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Marsha Kopan, founder of Executive Secretarial Services from West Allis, Wisconsin. I had easy conversations with both women and felt fairly confident I'd made good choices because both women would charge me only for the time they spent on my project, meaning no minimum contracts. Typically, rates for IVAA resources range from around $20 on up, and project deadlines and the intensity of tasks will all factor into the final price.

Lyn had no trouble signing a non-disclosure form that I faxed her, which specified that she must protect my information and agree not to share it with anyone. Marsha required me to sign an agreement before starting, which listed a non-disclosure clause, so we were both covered.

There were several glitches: Lyn misread several of the business cards that didn't print well on the fax, and Marsha's computer went on the fritz so my "deadline" was missed by one day. On the bright side, within two days (and lots of e-mails, phone calls and faxes), I had two new databases and sent out 70 communiqu�s: 35 e-mails with attachments via Lyn to networking contacts and 35 initial introduction e-mails with PowerPoint slides to members of an association that I had presented a workshop to the week before, via Marsha. I would definitely consider working with both women again and feel that the next project(s) would progress more smoothly as we get to know each other's expectations and capabilities better.

Things to Keep in Mind
If you want to have a positive VA experience, consider these hiring tips:

  • Discuss your project and deadline, the VAs' hourly rate and the expected time they think your project will take. The bidder I did not hire on DoMyStuff.com told me she'd take six minutes per business card--something that was way out of line for the small amount of info I needed.
  • Get something in writing. While Lyn trusted me to make good on paying her, it's a good idea to protect yourself with a signed document that clearly outlines your task, deadline, hourly rate and ownership rights.
  • Check the references. Be wary of people who give you any flack about contacting recent clients.
  • Recognize that it's possible to forge a great working relationship with someone you'll never meet, so that you can focus on what's important in your business.