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A few months ago I blogged about some changes I had made in my life to work smarter to be more efficient which yielded in higher productivity. At the time there was something else I wanted to mention, but was a bit timid as I didn’t want people to get the wrong impression. However since the post, I’ve had numerous conversations with some friends where our conversations dug a little deeper on the subject. One thing I hadn’t shared was how I started utilizing virtual assistants (VA’s) as one of the most significant ways to maximize my productive & billable time. I thought some might think you were cheating if you did this, but I’ve come to the mindset that it is nothing to be ashamed of … like it or not I could care less because I love it. It all boils down to two things:

  • The time value of money, or another way to think of it: how long does it take you to do something (that you can’t bill for) and how much does it cost: if it cost you the equivalent of 30 minutes for someone to do something that would have taken you 2 hours, was it worth it? Yup
  • Reducing stress: do what you excel at… don’t fight with something (for me, fighting with CSS for instance)

What is a VA? Simply put, it’s your own personal assistant but not one you hire to sit in your office, but rather one you hire online. Personally I use the site oDesk to post jobs and find people. I love this site because there are a ton of jobs and consultants on it, but because I can see what my VA’s are working on. For instance, here’s a snapshot from work one person is doing in taking a HTML+CSS+JS based theme and converting it to an Orchard CMS theme for me. Notice I can see a list of their time as well as screenshots of what they were working on at the time as they run a little widget that takes screenshots randomly when they are logging time:

It’s not as easy as you think as it’s just like hiring someone in the flesh, but if you find that sweet spot, you can get a lot more work accomplished, free up a lot of your time all for a very reasonable price. Most of the people I’m working with are in the Philippines, Thailand, India or Indonesia. It isn’t like people you find there are cheap, a word commonly associated with poor quality & inexpensive. Instead these are hard-working people who produce some great work. However the cost of living in these places is very different from the US where I’m from. As such, the US dollar goes a long way… a very long way!

The first thing people associate with outsourcing is development work, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Yes, I have outsourced a few development projects such as taking a theme I’ve purchased or had a designer build out for an Orchard CMS site and create the Orchard theme out of it. That type of work is mostly CSS and tedious work, something I’m not terribly productive with. For those of us who are SharePoint developers in the United States, you hear of rates anywhere from $75 – $350 for independent consultants. Regardless of where you or I fall in that range, it’s just smart business for me (and a hell of a lot less stress and frustration for me) to use my guy in Bangkok knock out an Orchard theme from a Bootstrap HTML theme I purchased in a few hours at $11/hr… and he does great work and turns it around in a few days.

So developers are what most people think when you say “outsource”, but that’s not where I get the biggest bang for my buck. As this post is titled, I’m talking about a virtual assistant. Office work… that stuff that keeps you from doing the work you need done is what I’m using it for. Let me give you a few examples.

  • I travel a decent amount for work and batch up booking my travel plans to once a month for the next few months. I also like to run and usually working on a budget for certain things based on what my customer dictates. I took some time writing up my preferences with hotels & restaurants. Before booking everything (something I could let my VA do for me, but I like doing the specifics), my VA gives me a list of a few hotels that meet my preferences & are in the area of where I’m working factoring in nearby restaurants that match my likings as well as factoring in the neighborhood with a few good local running routes (so I’m not running in sketchy places). It took a few cycles, but she now has a good feel for what I like and don’t like. This saves me almost a full day, always a half day, of research every month or two.
  • Data cleaning / scrubbing: many times you get stuff from a customer for a project that you need to incorporate into your project. A lot of time the data needs to be cleaned up and just some manual entry needs to happen. Or taking spreadsheets or PDFs and converting it to a database I can merge into whatever I’m building for a customer. This is another classic thing to have a VA do.
  • I present at conferences, user groups and events a good bit, but I find I’m horribly productive in PowerPoint. It might just be me, but I find PowerPoint to be really bad at editing multiple slides, jumping around do different slides… just doesn’t work for me. But what does work is building my presentation in a Word document as a bullet list and pushing that to my VA to have my VA not only build it out, but have it meet the requirement of the template for the specific event.
  • Busy work… we all have a sizeable amount of busy work. Maybe it’s cleaning out your inbox, maybe it’s cleaning out a bunch of files, or like right now for me, I am trying out Evernote to replace OneNote. In doing so, I need to not just import my notes over from their hierarchical structure in OneNote to the flat structure in Evernote, but I also need to tag the note sup to give them some organization. Easy work, but it takes time. This week I’m teaching a class. I exported two of my OneNote notebooks, sent them to my VA, changed my password to something random temporarily and by the end of the day I’ll have two converted notebooks the way I want them in Evernote so I can do a true apples-to-apples comparison of the two products.

Before you get any crazy conclusions like “are you doing any work anymore or just farming it all out” stop and reread what I said above. The point is about VA’s… it’s about focusing on what your customers want to pay you to focus on. It’s about getting more work done without stressing out about distractions.

When you talk about this stuff, and frankly when you start doing it, there’s a bit that you say to yourself (and the most common bit of feedback I hear) is “really? It wouldn’t take much time to do that stuff yourself and with the overhead involved with farming the work out?” I thought the same thing, but I forced myself into it. Now that I’ve found a few people that work great for me so I don’t have to keep interviewing people. Of course, your mileage will vary. Personally it’s cut down on stress, streamlined the work, made me more productive.

So how do you find someone? I don’t have any unique thoughts but rather, took advice and tips from a few episodes of podcasts that I subscribe to. Their tips and recommendations are exactly what I’d say so instead, go listen to them:

I will add a few other tips to reinforce what you’ll get from the above podcast episodes, specifically from Mike & Rob in the Startups for the Rest of Us podcast (a favorite of mine):

  1. First, use screencasts to show what you want done… if a picture speaks a thousand words, think of how many words you can convey with thousands of frames!
  2. Use trials… if you find a few candidates who you have narrowed it down to, ask all of them to do about 10% of your proposed job as an audition. Promise to pay the person who you select for their audition time. This shows you (1) a sample of their work and (2) you can see who really wants the job.
  3. Verify if the candidate is a full time consultant or if they are doing this on the side. This helps set your expectations. There’s nothing more frustrating than to give someone a project that you have a deadline for but then when you check in on their time log, you see they are working nights and weekends for just 30-90 minutes at a time.
  4. Be patient… you are likely to churn through a few people, but stay the course. It pays off in the long run.
  5. If they do good work and you want to keep them around, raise their rate and/or bonus them out periodically. In the long run it’s worth it. When you pay someone $6 for their work, if they are nailing it and doing a great job for you, show your appreciation with $25 or $50.
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