Monday, August 27, 2007

Virtual outsourcing

Late last year, business coach Cheryl Cook was struggling to keep up with e-mails and phone calls while trying to build her business.

Then she took a friend's advice and contracted to have a virtual assistant in Tampa, Fla. — a woman she had never met — weed through the hundreds of e-mails she gets daily. Her "VA" Kathy Hadzibajric charged $30 an hour to find and to sort the useful messages into separate, topic folders.

And Cook was free to pursue and meet with even more clients.

Virtual assistants are a growing way for small-business owners to have administrative tasks taken care of without hiring additional employees. Military spouses, a large share of the VA community because of the flexibility of the business, performed more than $30 million in services last year, according to Christine Durst, chief executive officer of Staffcentrix and founder of the International Virtual Assistants Association.

The specialty arose in the mid-1990s as the Internet made it easier to share documents across long distances. Real estate agents and business coaches were among the first to use VAs. Now, virtual assistants provide a broad range of administrative and creative services, including graphic design, Web site management, grant writing, payroll processing, transcription and marketing campaigns., and have searchable online databases for finding virtual assistants by specialty.

Downsized executives increasingly turn to VAs as a way to give their new businesses the amenities that are commonplace in larger competitors, without the labor, rent and benefits costs of employees.

Like Cook, they often find it a great value. Hadzibajric sends Cook detailed bills and never has charged more than $150 a month — even after Cook began having her also schedule appointments, answer mail and build an online records archive. Soon, Cook plans to have her VA start submitting her articles to online magazines.

"There's no way I could have someone sitting here — even part-time — and pay them what I pay her," Cook said.

VAs frequently are professionals who have worked in corporate America before deciding to offer their back-office services from home via the Internet. So clients often use them as sounding boards for business plans, Hadzibajric said.

She was a program manager for nonprofits in Washington, D.C., for 13 years before moving to Florida and launching Virtually Solved. Hadzibajric has had clients in Vancouver, Canada; Brazil; Wisconsin; and across the Southeast.

"I have a lot of clients who call just to run ideas by me because they don't have anyone else they can talk to who are not colleagues or competitors," she said.

VAs provide their own software, materials and supplies and tend to have more flexible work hours than employees.

Business owners have the flexibility to use them on a project-by-project basis. In many cases, one VA can provide a network to many other experts that the business owner may not be able to access.

"With a VA, it is possible to have an entire team," said Beryl Powell, a San Antonio-based virtual assistant and owner of Completely Virtual Group, which designs and implements marketing campaigns using public relations and telemarketing specialists for clients in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Massachusetts.

But the services-on-demand come with legal limitations. Business owners can prepay for a set number of hours of service but cannot contract to be a VA's sole client nor dictate when the work gets done.

"Based on IRS guidelines, you can give them a due date, but you cannot limit where they do the work and how they do it," said Candy Beauchamp, an Austin-based virtual assistant who is president of an industry association. "You can request to check in online to see how the work is progressing."

Mike Forsyth, a San Antonio-based managing director and business consultant at Holland & Davis, also recommends that business owners and VAs decide in advance how they will interact via phone and online to minimize conflict. Forsyth uses a VA in Houston to edit his documents and to answer phone calls. They meet weekly online at to review documents in real time and to chat via instant messages.

"Sometimes they are assisting as many as a dozen people, and so you want to work out how you will get worked into their schedule," Forsyth said.