Rob Walling generously allowed me to reprint this excerpt from his new book, “Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup” available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and in PDF and ePub from StartupBook.net.
Rob is one of the most successful “micropreneurs” — creators of small, cash-generating startups frequently sold for cash. He blogs to 10,000 web entrepreneurs at Software by Rob and co-hosts the podcast Startups for the Rest of Us.
I receive essentially the same reaction when I mention that I use virtual assistants, and that I recommend them for anyone starting a startup. It’s a mix of shock and excitement.
They’re shocked I’ve been able to pull it off, and excited at the thought that they might be able to do the same. The conversation almost always turns to questions about where to find virtual assistants and how a startup can use one.
This article intends to answer those questions.
What is a Virtual Assistant?
A virtual assistant (VA) is a remote worker hired to complete tasks you should not be doing as the founder of a startup.
These can be research tasks, like finding every tech blogger who blogs about cats, repetitive tasks like creating 100 affiliate links for products in a Word document, or ongoing tasks like monitoring a handful of job boards and posting new jobs to your website.
The term VA has grown to describe any remote contract worker, including people who help with audio editing, video editing, bookkeeping, webmaster tasks, link building, and so on. A VA can be domestic or international, as long as they have a computer and an email account.
Why Should My Startup Use a Virtual Assistant?
Outsourcing to a virtual assistant will dramatically reduce the time you spend on administrative tasks, and increase the time you can commit to growing your business.
The value proposition of a VA deals with how you monetize your time. If you monetize it at $50/hour and you can pay a VA $6/hour to handle administrative tasks, this frees up time for you to create real value in your business by developing new features or expanding marketing efforts.
Performing tasks you could pay someone else $6 to accomplish is a foolish use of an entrepreneur’s time.
My VAs have saved me literally hundreds of hours over the past few years.
[Editor's Note: This is especially true for you starting up while still employed where your time is scarce and your existing income should be used to buy more of it.]
Case Study: How I Launched One Month Earlier Using Outsourcing
More than two years ago, my business partner and I discussed launching a hosted version of our ASP.NET invoicing software, DotNetInvoice.
We developed the plan and task list, and estimated the effort at around 160 hours including development time needed to make DotNetInvoice a multi-tenant application. But given the heavy competition in the hosted invoicing software market and the level of effort of the task, it was continually placed on the back burner.
After our initial estimate, every six months for the past two years we’ve revisited the idea of a hosted version until one day in November of last year.
On this day we stopped looking at the hosted version as a new product line, and started looking at it as a market test; to see if we could build enough of a customer base to warrant a major investment in the hosted invoicing market space. With that in mind, things started flying off our “must-have” list.
One large piece we removed was automating sign-up and provisioning of a new hosted installation.
In an ideal world, when a customer wants a new hosted account they would fill out a web form with all of their information and their new hosted version would be ready in 30 seconds. But that amount of automation — given the fact that we have to create a new sub-domain, a new database, and copy physical files — would take a substantial amount of time to develop and QA.
So we tossed it.
Another feature we left on the cutting room floor was the need for a custom purchase page; a page where someone enters their details to make the purchase. In a desperate attempt to bring this entire project down to less than two days work we simply utilized PayPal subscriptions.
Not the optimal approach, but it works quite well for testing out an idea before we invest another day into this project.
Iteration vs. Automation
As a developer, the features we dropped seem like a necessity from day 1. Not automating this process creates the ongoing repetitive work that computers are designed to handle. Manual work — this is what computers are supposed to save us from!
But by getting over the need to automate everything to infinite scale and putting a VA in charge of manually creating new hosted accounts, the time investment to get this feature launched dropped from 160 hours of work to about 10 hours.
I can hear the cries of developers around the world as I write this: “You can’t launch a half-baked solution! You’ll never go back and fix it!”
Most of us have worked in corporate environments where you’re never allowed to go back and refactor code. This burns into our psyche that you don’t want to launch a semi-functioning solution because you’ll never have time to go back and fix it.
But the benefits of being my own boss and being a tiny software company are that I can come back to this anytime. In fact, the day the amount of money paid to my VA for handling this task exceeds a certain amount, I will be very motivated to automate it.
Ideally, by the time I code it up, we’ll have many customers using the platform which means I’ll be working on a product I know is viable, and that’s paying for the time I’m spending to automate it.
Agile Development, meet Agile Business.
Through a bit of outsourcing to a VA, you can get to market with less up-front expense and in dramatically less time than if you try to automate everything.
Had we chosen to automate everything, the worst potential outcome would have been investing 160 hours of time (a huge amount of time for a startup), and then scrapping the whole thing. When you’re working on a small team you can’t afford to throw away that much time.
The lesson is that before you launch your product, think about the processes you can avoid automating.
How about reminder emails? How about monthly billing? Could a human being run a report once a month and send emails or charge credit cards?
This is not the paradigm we typically think of as developers because we’re used to enterprise IT shops where everything has to scale infinitely.
As a startup, you’ll have plenty of time before you need to scale, and you may never need to scale if the idea doesn’t work. Every hour spent writing code is wasted time if that code could be replaced by a human being doing the same task until your product proves itself.
The Two Points When a VA is Most Helpful
There are two key points during the life of your startup where your life will be much easier if you use a virtual assistant (VA):
- While proving out your product/market
- After your product launch
Let’s look at each one.
Point #1: Developing a Proof of Concept
In the DotNetInvoice case study above, I used a VA to short-circuit my product development time so we could begin to prove out the product’s concept with much less effort than if we had built everything in code.
As I’ve automated pieces of my businesses, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: nearly anything I try to automate is easier to outsource first, then automate down the line once the volume warrants it.
The reason for this is that at any given time you’re likely to have, say 30 tasks on your plate, and you should be trying to remove as many as possible from your task list; both one-time and ongoing tasks.
Out of 30 tasks you might be able to outsource 6 or 8 of them tomorrow if you spend 2-3 hours today writing up the processes. Compare that with automation, which can take a week or more to get each task off your plate since it takes a lot of code to automate a task.
As a startup, one of your advantages is that you move very quickly. You can roll out new features much quicker your competition. And being able to manually process some parts of a task can often reduce your development time by 50-80% which allows you to get the feature out the door and in front of customers.
If customers decide to use it, then you can automate it. If not, you can throw what little time you spent on it away. You develop the minimum required functionality to make the bare bones feature work; nothing more. You scaffold the rest with a human being; your VA.
Then, as needed, you improve the back-end automation iteratively.
Your startup time plummets to near zero even though your maintenance costs are a bit higher since you’re paying someone an hourly rate to handle the task.
But that’s ok, because every task you outsource to someone making $6/hour is a task that frees you up to develop new features and focus on marketing — things that make you a lot more than $6/hour.
In addition, outsourcing provides you with a written process for the task that serves as a blueprint if the time comes later to automate it.
Point #2: After Your Product Launch
The next most important time to use a VA is once your product has launched and you need to begin supporting customers.
Customers make it necessary to put processes in place for marketing, sales, support, and back-end admin tasks. Any ongoing work that can be described in a written process can be outsourced to a VA and save incredible amounts of time for the founders.
If you do not outsource these tasks, they will get in the way of work that’s truly productive for your business.
While most entrepreneurs feel like they need to keep the reins on level 1 email support, level 1 sales questions, manning the live chat window on your website, directory submissions, minor HTML tweaks, keyword research, link building, following up on canceled subscriptions, and running month-end reports, getting these tasks into the hands of a competent VA frees up vast amounts of time that can be spent growing your business.
And the cost is negligible.
Don’t fall into the trap of needing to handle everything yourself. You are now an entrepreneur.
Here are two case studies to give you an idea of how you might use a VA in your own startup, whether serving a core business function or as administrative support.
Case Study #1: Market Research
In 2009, I launched the Micropreneur Academy, a private membership community for startup founders. For the launch event I wanted to contact several bloggers in the startup and microISV space.
I have a list of blogs that I read and quickly added them to my list to send a personal, targeted email to each. I receive enough pitches each month to know that sending a mass email to bloggers doesn’t work.
In the back of my mind, I knew there were other startups/microISV blogs out there that I don’t read, but I didn’t want to spend the time to track them down. More importantly, I didn’t want to spend the time trying to find their contact information. Enter my VA.
I tasked my VA with finding blogs that deal with startups/microISVs and rank in the top 100k in Technorati. The deliverable was a Google spreadsheet containing the blog URL, blogger’s name and blogger’s email.
The final spreadsheet contained 28 blogs. It was up to me to go through each one and become familiar with their content, determine its relevance to my message, and craft a targeted and personal email. Many blogs dropped off the list after a quick glance, but in the end the time saved by delegating this research task to a VA was well-worth my $12.
Case Study #2: JustBeachTowels.com
JustBeachTowels.com was an e-commerce site I purchased with hopes of a high level of automation.
The problem is that beach towel dropshippers are not the most high tech businesses, and none of them offered any kind of API for order placement. All orders had to be manually placed through their web-based shopping carts.
In the early days, I planned to build a screen scraper to pull orders from my database and automatically place them with the four dropshippers I used, but realized the level of effort and QA that would be required for this were substantial and the resulting interface would be brittle due to the screen scraping.
Instead, I assigned a VA to place all of the incoming orders. I never revisited automation due to the lack of ROI on the time it would have taken to build the screen scraping interface.
Running the site using a VA instead of automation saved me time in the long run, as I would never have made back my initial time investment on the 50+ hours required to fully automate the order placement process.
Easing Into a VA
Outsourcing is a learned skill, just like writing code. If you rush into it too quickly, you’ll wind up disappointed with the results. This is most often due to the fact that you don’t yet know how to work with a VA.
One of the plusses of having a VA is that you can ease into them over the course of several months. Since utilizing a VA is a learned skill, you are best to start slowly by finding someone who will work on individual tasks, then move to part-time if needed, and finally to full-time.
These hiring arrangements are described below:
- Task-based — ($3-10/hour overseas, $12-50/hour in the U.S.) You assign your VA an individual task and give them a deadline and maximum time to spend on the task. Since your VA works for other clients, they are in charge of prioritizing all of the tasks they receive. Task-based VA’s are a great starting point to learn the ropes of delegating.
- Part-time — ($2-7/hour overseas, $10-$40/hour in the U.S.) Part-time VA’s are dedicated to you for a certain portion of their week (typically 10, 20 or 30 hours). Part-time VA’s are cheaper by the hour than task-based VAs, but you need enough work and experience to keep them busy during the time you are paying for.
- Full-time – ($1-$5/hour overseas, $8-35/hour in the U.S.) As you might imagine, a full-time VA is a lot of responsibility. While offering the lowest hourly rates, you need 160+ hours of work to keep them busy. If your VA is self-managing, you can lay out tasks a month at a time. If they need supervision, it’s probably not worth bringing them on full-time.
The key to learning how to work with a VA is experience. The question is: how can you get started easily and with little risk? The steps are:
- Find a VA
- Start with a single task and gradually increase the amount of work as you gain comfort
- If things don’t work out, find a new VA
When I began outsourcing three years ago I found that when I received the finished product I was elated that I hadn’t spent 3-4 hours doing it. This made me realize how many other tasks I was able to accomplish during that time frame.
Step1: Finding a VA
I’ve had the best results hiring VA’s in the Philippines. This is not to say that the U.S., India, Bangladesh or other countries do not have quality VA’s, but the Filipinos learn English in school, do not tend to be entrepreneurial (thus are less likely to steal ideas), and are culturally service-oriented.
You may find another country to be more compatible with your management style, but after working with 10+ VA’s, I now work almost exclusively with Filipinos. The main exceptions are my audio and video editors in the U.S. and Canada.
In my experience, you will be best off with one of a few choices when looking for a VA:
- Task-based VAs
- Part-time VAs
- Search ODesk under Admin Support -> Personal Assistant or Other.
- Search Google for “part-time virtual assistants”
- Full-time VAs
- Search ODesk under Admin Support -> Personal Assistant or Other.
- Search Google for “full-time virtual assistants”
I’ve had positive results and have personally hired a VA using every method listed above.
My current favorite is ODesk.com. I’ve had exceptional luck with them, and their project management tools are helpful in making sure your VA is working on your tasks. Their time clock takes screen shots of the VAs screen at random intervals so you can see the task they are performing.
A Note: Solo vs. Team
Many VA’s work in teams, whether under the umbrella of a single company, or in a loose affiliation.
Solo VA’s tend to be cheaper than team or larger firms.
For recurring work that’s critical to your business, it’s nice to work with a team. You will typically have a primary VA but when he’s on vacation his replacement will step in.
For ongoing work that’s not terribly time-sensitive, I’ve found solo VA’s work out well.
When getting started, my advice is to stick with a larger VA firm. You will pay a little more but you will have more reliability, higher security and will be able to easily find a replacement when you need one.
How to Evaluate a Potential VA
My first piece of advice is to avoid spending too much time worrying about screening your VA before you hire them. In the end, how well they work out depends entirely on how well they accomplish their tasks.
In other words, reliability and the ability to understand your instructions and ask good questions are the key factors. Without hiring someone you can’t get an idea about their reliability; only about their ability to understand and ask questions.
To do that, you need to evaluate their written English (or whatever language you will be working in). This includes hiring U.S.-based VAs; competent written English skills are not a given even for native speakers.
If you’re looking for general help, the only noticeable difference between the 10 VA’s you are screening is their hourly rate and their ability to speak and write English.
If you need specialized work performed, you may have an additional requirement that they also know how to edit audio, for example. In that case, ask for samples of past work and experience doing the exact task you will have them to do.
The best way I’ve found to evaluate English skills is to email back and forth a few times, asking 2-3 basic interview questions. This will be a good indication of how well they will be able to understand your instructions, and their responses are a good indicator of how well you will be able to understand their questions. The best approach is to email with 3-5 VA’s at once to speed up the process.
If you’re working with a VA firm, I recommend requesting someone with excellent written English, and performing the step above with that person. If they don’t live up to your standards, request a new VA and repeat the process.
In the past I’ve asked for writing samples but this has failed me. The problem with asking for writing samples is a VA can easily send something that’s been heavily edited, or a piece written by someone else. During an email exchange you can be certain that you’re catching a true glimpse of their English abilities.
Step 2: The First Task
Properly utilizing a VA is a learned skill. Very few developers will do it right the first time, which leads many who try it to give up after the first attempt. To keep you from falling into this trap, we’re going to look at the best way to delegate, describe and limit tasks in the section below.
After determining your VA has solid English skills, the next step is to send them your first task. You should be able to tell after one task if they are going to work out.
If you’ve never worked with a VA, you should assume they are not technically minded. They will have basic computing skills but are nowhere near techies, so you have to prepare instructions for them as if they were your mom or dad (or at least my mom or dad).
The following is unlikely to work:
Open a command prompt and type ‘ipconfig’
But this should:
In your start menu go to the Run menu, type ‘cmd’ and hit enter. Once the window opens type ipconfig and hit enter.
With that in mind, here is how I suggest you assign your first task:
- Back everything up before you let them touch production files. It’s unlikely they will be malicious, but they might accidentally break something.
- Provide detailed instructions in bulleted/numbered format.
- Screenshots help enormously. Screencasts are even better. I record multiple screencasts each month for my VAs. Jing is perfect for this.
- Timebox your requests. As an example, let’s say you have twenty blog URLs and you want your VA to find the contact information for each one (whether it’s an email address or a contact page). Provide the list of URLs to your VA and indicate they should work for 1 hour and then update you on their progress. In this manner you can both check if they’re doing it right, and see how long it’s taking them. If it’s taking longer than you think it should, ask how you can help.
- Assume they are not as fast as you are. If 1 URL takes you 1 minute, assume it will take your VA 5 minutes at first and they will eventually get down to 3 minutes. They will never be as fast as you are. But at $4-6/hour it’s hard to complain.
- If you have a timeline, spell it out (e.g. “I need these by tomorrow”). If not, let them know you can wait 2 days for the results. They work when we are sleeping so you’ll never get anything the same day.
Step 3: If Things Don’t Work Out, Find a New VA
Finding a VA is about trial and error. I’ve worked through more than 6 VA’s to find the folks I work with today. It’s a similar process when finding a designer, developer, or any outsourcing partner. You can only tell so much from a resume; the best way to evaluate is to try them out, and this means if they don’t work out you should make the decision quickly to find someone new.
It’s critical that you feel comfortable with the person you’re working with. It’s better to cut someone loose early in the relationship before you’ve trained them on the inner workings of your business.
If you’re working with a VA firm it’s easy: simply ask for a new VA and if you can, give a specific reason why the first one did not work out.
If you’re using an individual, head back to your stack of candidates from Elance, Google or ODesk. The odds are low that you will find someone great on your first try. But finding someone great will make a huge difference in the success of your outsourcing effort.
Did you make it this far? Awesome, let’s talk some more.
Let’s continue the discussion in the comments!