I have heard and read so much about virtual assistants, the value that they can provide, the time they will save you, and the amazingly low cost. I had a different experience that I want to share so that if you decide to hire one, you have a better experience than I did.

What you will learn…

  1. How I went about finding a virtual assistant
  2. How I interacted with them
  3. What worked and what did not
  4. My advice if you (or I) decide to give it a(nother) try

A Bit About My Situation

When I decided to look for a virtual assistant, I was working full-time at a high-technology company in Silicon Valley. I was also busy working on my passion – this website/business, focused on developing great managers. And I am busy with my personal life, spending time with my family and friends, hiking, biking, boating, etc.

I am a pretty structured person with good time management skills. So I was doing fine, but the speed at which I was able to develop this website/business was not acceptable. I needed some help, or maybe better put, I needed to find some extra time.

I did two things. I applied the 80 / 20 rule to things that I was spending time on – cutting out some things that I could live without. I stopped using Facebook for example, and put down the time that I spent watching TV to even less than before. And I decided to hire a virtual assistant.

What I Had Heard

I have heard for years that having a virtual assistant can be amazing. depending on where they are located, they can be working while you sleep. They can do a huge number of personal and work tasks. They have incredible skills. And they are cheap.

I decided to do a bit of research before jumping in to make sure I understood the kinds of tasks that are appropriate for a virtual assistant. I also looked into the way you need to interact with virtual assistants to ensure that you get the results that you are looking for.

As background, start with the high-level summary provided in “How to Hire Your First Virtual Assistant and Why Everyone Should Have One.” I would also recommend that you read both “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss and “Virtual Freedom” by Chris Ducker. If this is not enough for you, there is a lot more than you can find on the web that covers personal experience, steps to hire, picking the best location, hiring an individual or leveraging a team, and so on.

I decided to go with India. I thought that as long as there can be some overlap in my morning and once in a while in my evening, that would be perfect. I really did not have the time during the day to interact with a virtual assistant. I also decided that my needs were not such that I could keep a full-time virtual assistant busy and that I had enough different kinds of tasks that I should go with a team.

I should mention that I decided that the tasks that I would be asking them for help on range from simple personal tasks to tasks related to my website/business. Here are some examples:

  • Identify things to do when I go away for a weekend or longer
  • Research a topic for my website blog
  • Identify companies that can create an S Corporation, compare them, and recommend the best one
  • Research the best way to get an SSL certificate

The Search for the Right Company

There are a LOT of virtual assistant companies out there. It is REALLY hard to determine who you should go with. Here is how I went about it – knowing up front that I had decided to hire in India.

  1. Search the web for reviews of different virtual assistant companies
  2. Create a spreadsheet comparing the options (cost, skills, tracking tools, etc.)
  3. Narrow down the list of options to 3
  4. Call each of these and discuss the model, pricing, how resources are applied, etc.

After going through this, I selected one of the companies. The company that I selected is called 7/24 Virtual Assistant. I decided to go with their 40 hours/month subscription plan. The resulting cost was just over $12 / hour. If I were to use the website team, it was a bit higher.

Hiring Your Virtual Assistant and Getting Started

Once you have decided, hiring them is easy. Since I was going to use a pool of resources rather than a single person, the time that I spent ahead of time was meeting with the managers, determining how to best communicate my tasks, updates, etc., and then giving them the first couple of tasks to start on.

I mentioned managers above. This is because I told them that I typically wanted to primarily interact through email. But when a call is needed, I would prefer that those calls be in the morning, but once in a while, they would be in the evening. They offered me a primary manager that works mornings and a backup that works in the evening.

I did not give them the first task while signing up. I did so a day or two later.

Interacting with the Virtual Assistant (and their Managers)

The model that I preferred to use was email. Based on everything that I had read, you need to do the following.

  • Be extremely clear in defining the task, expected time to complete, and deliverables
  • Ask that they send you back a restatement of the task so that you can validate their understanding
  • Ask for an update on progress after a few hours of work so that you can be confident they are on the right track.
  •  When you receive the result, thank them and provide immediate feedback (both positive and constructive)

I decided to start out with some very simple tasks in order to test the model. This worked reasonably well. The deliverables/results were not stellar, but acceptable.

I connected on a regular basis with the managers. They had asked that both should be included in any emailed tasks so that they were both aware. I did end up talking to one of the managers a couple of times.

The Work Produced

As I mentioned above, the deliverables for the simple tasks were acceptable. In one case, I had to go back and ask that they provide a bit more detail (this was for the task to identify companies that could help me with creating an S Corporation). Even though the number of hours allocated to this task was 3, I think that I could have created a better result in 1. Given the hourly cost, it still saved me money and allowed me to spend my time on other more difficult tasks.

When I asked them to work on more complex tasks, the results were significantly worse. The task was to help me identify the best WordPress Theme for the site that I was developing. I provided a detailed description of the capabilities that I wanted to do on the site. What I got back were three themes from the same company – without any details as to how these fit with the capabilities that I described. It was very strange, given the number of themes that exist, that the only ones that they recommended were from the same company. I was not confident that they actually spent much time on this. When I went back and asked a couple of questions about why these, what else did they look at, and why were those not included, I did not get a good answer. I did get a list of themes that they said they looked at, but it again felt like a few minutes of work, not a well-researched recommendation.

I continued to provide them with a number of tasks, focusing on things that were simple in the hope that I would get good value. This created a few challenges.

  • I was spending a lot of time describing in detail the task.
  • I was having a hard time following the progress that was being made on each.
  • The tools that they provided were of no help in tracking progress, time spent, etc.
  • When they provided their deliverables, they wanted to mail me spreadsheets. It was really awkward to keep track of these as they made additional updates.

As you can tell, this was just not working for me. I was spending too much time. I was not getting good results. was having to provide them with the most basic of tasks in order to get any real value, which exasperated the value problem as each required a detailed description of the task (taking my time).

I decided to give it one more try at making this work. I asked that they use google docs for the deliverables. I asked that they use a kanban tool (kanbanachi, a plugin for google docs) where I would provide the description of the task and they could move it along through its phases until completion. They liked this, but they were clearly not web savvy enough for this approach.

So I decided to cancel the subscription.

Advice Moving Forward

I am not ready to say you should not use a virtual assistant. I know that it works for other people. It just didn’t for me. So why…

I think there are three reasons.

  1. I was giving them a very wide range of tasks. I think that they would do better with tasks that are more similar.
  2. I did not spend enough time getting to know them (and maybe training them) before I went straight to emailing them tasks. I think you have to spend time upfront interacting directly (on the phone) before moving to a mostly or all email model.
  3. I don’t have much patience. I think that I wrote them off quickly when they failed to deliver on my expectations.

I hope this is helpful if you choose to go down the path of using a virtual assistant.

See Also

Rethink How to Prioritize

Become Way More Productive

Categories: People


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