After almost five years, I recently reached an exciting, but scary stage in my content production business—the scaling stage. My scaling strategy involves building out a comprehensive marketing education portal. That’s the exciting part. The scary part—I can’t get to it because I’m so strapped for time.
What’s sucking up my time? Locking down meetings, formatting things in WordPress, scheduling and chasing contracts. I sometimes spend four hours a day getting organized. This type of work is important, but it’s a time sink that’s costing me the opportunity to scale my business, an opportunity that I believe could mean big growth for me.
I could do it all, if I brought on a full-time hire. Unfortunately I’m not ready for that. But, as I learned from friend and fellow entrepreneur Julia Cox Tunstall, there is another way. Her secret weapon for scaling her business is a virtual assistant (VA). Julia has been working with VAs for more than five years to help with her projects—most recently, to help manage A Bar Above, a mixology and cocktail education portal.
I have long wondered about whether a VA could really help me. Would they really save me time? Would they be reliable? I recently asked Julia these and other questions to discover how she has managed to grow with the help of VAs.
Here’s how our conversation went:
Ritika: What is your experience with virtual assistants?
Julia: I’ve used virtual assistants for a couple of years, across all of my businesses. We have virtual help for our real estate investment company and for both of our online businesses—one focused on bartender training and the other intended to help entrepreneurs find and connect to each other online.
Ritika: How have virtual assistants been important to your business?
Julia: Having virtual assistants made all the difference in the world for our businesses. It was the single change we made that resulted in allowing us to stop “treading water” and start building and growing our business.
Ritika: How has the experience been? What have been the challenges. What has surprised you?
Julia: We have hired five different VAs over the years and learned a lot in the experience. I was quickly persuaded by Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek that a VA was the silver bullet we needed, so we hired our first VA in 2010. It was a disaster that taught us these key lessons:
- If you don’t have the time to document your processes before you hire your VA, you won’t have the time to adequately train them.
- Without established, recurring processes that you can delegate, keeping a VA busy for even an hour a day can be a lot of work. If you want help every once in a while, hire on a flexible hourly contract.
Since that time we have worked with several more VAs and have two long-term team members right now. I have learned that the biggest challenge in getting a VA who will save you time is all about your own preparation and commitment as a business owner.
Be wary of underestimating the time commitment in training and onboarding your team. Even the best hire will not know your business until you explain it.
Ritika: What does training entail?
Julia: For us, it took three weeks of daily video meetings to get up and running, plus the time associated with fully documenting every task before delegating it.
Ritika: How do you identify the traits of a great VA?
Julia: In our experience, the best VAs were the people who had the strongest communication skills. This is beyond just English fluency, it’s cultural understanding as well. For example, VAs from some cultures aren’t comfortable asking for help when they need it, even if you tell them to do so. And sometimes you want your VAs to think creatively and to make at least one attempt to solve a problem before coming back to you for help. Again, some people need encouragement to step outside their comfort zones.
I also suggest trying to get a sense for how the VA feels about the job—is it a job or a career for them? A team member who sees it as a career is far more likely to take ownership of their role and their place on the team.
Ritika: What final points of advice would you share with business owners looking to hire a VA?
- Hire the right kind of VA for the position. If you’re looking for help with personal tasks every once in a while, I’d recommend sticking with a domestic company that charges by the task. They are more likely to understand your needs and won’t result in you stressing about “keeping your VA busy.” If you have a long-term need for support with recurring tasks that you can fully document, then dedicated help may be a better option.
- Be committed. If you’re looking to hire a long-term team member, know that effective delegation takes practice. I strongly recommend hiring hourly help on a site like Elance.com, Freelance.com, or oDesk.com to start. Document as you delegate and use this as a way to get better at giving effective and actionable instructions.
- Use a task manager. Relying on email is a very difficult way to keep track of all of the different things you may be trying to delegate. We use Asana.com as our task manager and document the details of the tasks right in the tasks themselves.
- Build a team. If you’d like your VA to be a part of your team for the long-term, let them know it. There are many ways you can show a teammate that they are valuable to you. Ask them to spend a small part of their week learning about your industry, and make it clear that this is because you value their input and want them to have a solid understanding of what you do. They will notice that you are investing in them, and are more likely to take ownership of their role and stick around.
- Keep an open mind. Last but arguably the most important: know that you have just as much to learn as the VA does. Hiring is the best way to learn to be a better communicator, a better system designer, and a better trainer. Did your VA do the task wrong? Your first thought should be “How could I have given better instructions?”—not criticizing the VA (even to yourself!) You have a lot to learn, and that’s okay!
Julia’s interview helped me realize something important—that I can’t just hire a VA. I need to take the time to implement the right training procedures and processes that will empower my VA to succeed. I’m confident that a VA will be critical to helping my business scale, but I need to take a step back to fully guide—and get to know—the person that I’ll ultimately hire. I’m looking to learn from as many fellow founders as I can. What have you learned from working with your VA? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
About the author: Ritika Puri is an entrepreneur, content strategist, and freelance business writer. She runs a content production studio and enjoys writing about business. Follow her on twitter, or connect with her via LinkedIn.
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