From the July 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Virtual world, virtual reality, virtual offices . . . in today's high-tech environment, it seems everything is going virtual. Even the office assistant: In case you haven't heard, virtual assistants (VAs) are one of the latest must-haves to hit the modern entrepreneurial arsenal.

VAs-that is, independent contractors who handle clients' noncore support needs via e-mail, fax and phone-go far beyond the traditional role of temporary employees or even business support services. In fact, as entrepreneurs themselves, they have vested interests in their clients' success. Typically, they become integral parts of their clients' businesses, handling a wide range of duties like basic administrative support, accounting services, human resource assistance, concierge services, collections, sales and marketing support, research and more. They generally charge by the hour: anywhere from $20 to $45. But on the plus side, you pay only for the time they actually spend working for you, and you don't incur any other employment costs.

If you're spending too much time on administrative chores and not enough time on the tasks that really drive your bottom line, hiring a VA may be the solution. Chris Durst, CEO and co-founder of Staffcentrix.com LLC, an online resource center for VAs and their clients in Woodstock, Connecticut, predicts that in the coming years, VAs will be widely sought additions as growth partners for small businesses and staffing solutions for larger firms.

So how to find the right VA? Networking and referrals are probably the best techniques; you can also do an Internet search. Once you've located some strong candidates, find out as much as you can about their skills and expertise. "The interviewing process for a virtual assistant isn't much different than interviewing a prospective employee who comes into your office physically," says Durst. Start with an e-mail correspondence, and then "meet" over the phone-if not in person-before making a final decision.

In deciding which tasks to turn over to a VA, Durst recommends drawing up a list of things you'd like to farm out, then try a VA with the duties that have least impact on your business before moving up to more critical tasks. Many VAs will offer the first hour or two at no charge to give both themselves and you a chance to make sure the relationship will work.

For more details on finding and choosing a virtual assistant, log on to the International Virtual Assistants Association's Web site at www.ivaa.org, or Assist University's at www.assistu.com.



Jacquelyn Lynn left the corporate world more than 13 years ago and has been writing about business and management from her home office in Winter Park, Florida, ever since..