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How to Start a Virtual Assistant Business

Expert VA Lyn Toomey offers her insight on what to expect and how to find help in the virtual world.
July 1, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/195268

Lyn Toomey, a veteran virtual assistant and founder of Virtual Market Support, leverages her 27-year career in marketing, operations and virtual assistance to support small and midsize businesses.

In the past few years, the Virtual Assistant (VA) industry has increasingly been in the headlines: Good Morning America's Tory Johnson wrote on the flexibility of being a self-employed VA last September. The Today Show also featured the profession as a new way to work from home. The Wall Street Journal, US News & World Report and numerous other publications have made it clear that the virtual assistant business is trendy and growing.

More and more virtual assistants are starting their businesses by ditching their corporate cubicle-wall environments and setting up home based offices.

Successful VAs lead with their strengths to build a successful and growing client base. Some offer executive secretarial services; others are marketing managers, freelance writers, real estate assistants, web designers, author assistants--you name it, someone is doing it, and doing it virtually.

Getting Started
It's possible to start up with zero dollars if you already have a phone, an updated computer, a printer with scanner and internet access. But if you want to be taken seriously, you'll need a well-designed website. You can hire a web designer for about $600 to $1,200 for a small site, or you can use an inexpensive yet professional template design from a web host for as little as $6 per month.

Many VAs start with what they have and buy what they need as they acquire clients. Business cards and brochures are must-haves. Expect to pay $40 to $60 for 500 business cards. Brochures can be self-designed, traded out with other VAs or professionally made for around $350.

Professional networking is essential as well. Budget at least $100 to $300 to join associations and groups. You will generate most of your leads this way.

Some virtual assistants incur extra costs upfront to increase efficiency and professional appeal. Depending on your budget, you might opt to upgrade your equipment or software. The latest version of Microsoft or Mac software will ensure more efficiency, or at the very least establish a planned replacement schedule as you generate revenue.

Common Rates
There are no industry standards for pricing. VA rates vary widely depending on the individual and the services offered. Typical VA rates start around $35 per hour and range to $75 per hour or higher, depending on the service or skill level. As a general rule, common administrative tasks are on the lower end of the scale, and graphic or website design are at the higher end.

To establish an effective rate for your business, remember to factor in the following:

All of these are expenses against your earnings. The most fearsome to be aware of: self-employment taxes. As in any startup, always set aside a percentage of your earnings for self-employment taxes in a separate tax account so that you have the cash to pay the IRS at tax time.

Making Your Hours
One of the perks of being a VA is the ability to make your own hours and see the time spent directly impact your bottom line. Calculate your hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours per week you'd like to work. So, if you'd like to work 30 hours, your projected revenue would be your hourly rate times 30 hours, times 4 to get a monthly figure.

Keep in mind that you will not start with 30 hours; it will take a while to build a client base. Many VAs take a part-time job while they establish their businesses. Sometimes this part-time job comes in the form of working for a well-established VA as a sub-contractor. This is done by joining a VA group, introducing yourself and offering your sub-contracting services. Be prepared to sign a terms of agreement, which often includes a "non-compete" clause that prevents you from marketing to their clients.

This protects experienced VAs from losing their hard-won clients to their sub-contractors and at the same time gives you, the aspiring VA, a chance to learn how to be great.

Getting Help
Your best bet for getting off the ground fast is to join the International Virtual Assistant Association (IVAA). This registered nonprofit's website includes a searchable member directory (for potential clients to find VAs), a request for proposal system (for clients to announce their project and get VAs to respond to them), a forms library from which to draw example materials and an "Expert of the Month" chat series for education.

For more support, here are some other VA groups you may want to research:

What to Expect
Remember, since the industry is new and growing, there are some prospective clients who don't know what a VA is or how one works. There will be occasions when you'll need to explain what you do.

Note that many choose to use the term "Virtual Professional" because there are some who feel "Virtual Assistant" gives a subordinate image. Nonetheless, "Virtual Assistant" has taken hold and proliferated on the internet. One way to deal with this is to incorporate both terms interchangeably throughout your marketing materials.

As the industry grows, expect competition. Make sure you are providing exceptional services at your highest professional level. For example, your office is in your home, so ensure privacy and quiet while you're working. It's unprofessional to hear barking dogs or family members in the background. Create a voicemail message to sound like the professional that you are. Also review your website to make certain that it's easy to use, understand and navigate. And be available for quick response to inquiries.

Expect also to have to go out and "find business." You will not be inundated with business from the internet. You'll need to "reach out" and make it happen by networking and marketing (both in person and via the internet), and perhaps even by making phone calls to get your business off the ground swiftly.

To network, find a niche and join one or more associations or internet groups. Your niche should be a target market that makes sense for your unique background. An example: If you have paralegal skills, join a paralegal association and network within the group. You'd have something in common with your prospects right away, smoothing the way to an ongoing relationship.

Research professional associations along with internet groups, such as Yahoo Groups and LinkedIn. Join, participate and make connections to get going.

As a member of the virtual assistant community, expect to find friendly support, mentoring, educational opportunities and conferences. VAs are, by definition, helpers. We do it professionally, and we do it compassionately. So when you become part of the VA industry, you may find something you really weren't expecting. You'll find friends.