What is a Virtual Assistant?

A virtual assistant, or VA, is a someone contracted to work for another company remotely instead of in their office. That could mean you’re located on the other side of town from your client–or on the other side of the world.

Virtual assistants are typically independent contractors and not employees, meaning you’re paid a set fee for your services and are responsible for handling your own income taxes and insurance.

This frees you up to work for multiple clients and think like an entrepreneur, because indeed that’s you are when you’re a virtual assistant. You’re a small business owner selling your services to other businesses in need.

Benefits of Becoming a Virtual Assistant

There are several benefits to becoming a virtual assistant, but what attracts most people to the profession is the chance to make money working from home. Depending on your clients’ needs, you can set your own hours and name your own prices.

In addition, virtual assistants get to work on a variety of projects for interesting companies and entrepreneurs, building their own skillsets and learning how to run a business of their own from the ground up.

If you have the travel bug, you really can work from anywhere with an Internet connection, which makes the virtual assistant role popular among digital nomads and other people who need a job with some flexibility.

It’s a role you can take on part-time in the hours you have available, and a very popular option for people looking to make extra money from home.

Drawbacks of Becoming a Virtual Assistant

As you might guess, the world of virtual assisting isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Perhaps the biggest challenge is attracting long-term clients who really value your work.

Some assistants have a hard time adjusting to a potentially isolating work environment — although I LOVE working from home and wouldn’t have it any other way! But because of the flexibility the job allows, if you’re yearning for some grownup interaction you can always head to a coffeeshop or a coworking space.

As a small business owner, you’ll also be responsible for keeping your own books, paying your own estimated taxes, and marketing yourself to clients. It’s not always easy, but it can be fun and fulfilling career.

What are the Requirements to be an Awesome VA?

To be a successful virtual assistant, you need a unique set of skills — and an easier-to-come-by set of tools.

Let’s tackle the tools side first. To be VA, all you really need is a computer and a reliable Internet connection. Certain clients might have their own software and hardware preferences, and beyond that, a quiet space to work will certainly come in handy as well.

But what about the set of skills in your head? Not everyone is well-suited to virtual assistant work, so it probably makes sense to take a quick inventory of your past work experience and see which roles you loved and which ones you hated.

Successful VAs are excellent communicators; this is essential because you’re not working face to face with your clients. That usually means a lot of written communication via chat or email, or spoken communication over the phone or Skype calls.

Next, the best VAs are detail-oriented and quick learners. You might be tasked with learning how to do something you’ve never done before. Instead of getting frustrated, you’re expected to pick up new skills like a sponge and perform the job … well, like it’s your job.

And finally, one of the most important traits among virtual assistants is dependability. Consistently showing up with a positive attitude and reliably getting your work done is surprisingly rare these days. If you can do that, you’ll already be head and shoulders above your peers.

Should You Call Yourself a VA?

Although the term “virtual assistant” is an industry standard and many clients might look for you by that name, you might not want to immediately label yourself as a VA.

Why not?

Well, there’s a certain stigma that goes along with the term that connotes cheap overseas labor. Even though there’s a thriving virtual assistant industry in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia, many clients might begin their search with the assumption that a VA is someone in the developing world working for $5 an hour.

So what might you brand yourself as instead? You can throw in an “executive” (as in Virtual Executive Assistant) to give yourself a more premium positioning, or you can brand yourself more toward your unique areas of specialization or expertise.

I’ve met virtual assistants who are writers, accountants, graphic designers, SEO specialists, podcast editors, and more. If you can niche yourself down and get out of the “generalist” sandbox, I think you’ll be able to command higher rates and attract clients who have a clearer understanding of what value you offer.

One way to structure this isn’t around your job title at all, but around who you serve and what you help them do. For example:

  • I help ________ do ________.
  • I help attorneys stay on top of their email.
  • I help local businesses with their social media marketing.
  • I help ecommerce stores with customer service.

The more specialized you can get, the easier it is to generate word of mouth referrals as well.

For example, I once started a book editing service, but niched down to proofreading and editing self-published non-fiction books, and then later to only books in the business genre.

Find a Company or Go It Alone?

When you decide to get started as a virtual assistant, you really have a couple options. The first is the model I’ve described up to this point, and that’s the route of the solo freelance VA.

If you go down this path, you’ll have full control over your client roster, hours, and pricing, but it will be 100% on you to go out and earn business.

But there is another option, and the other route is to sign on as an assistant under an established virtual assistant company. There are hundreds out there all over the world ranging from small boutique agencies to large business process outsourcing centers with hundreds of employees.

If they’re hiring, most companies will have a “Jobs” or “Work for Us” page linked from the footer of their website and that page will detail their hiring process and requirements.

The advantage of joining one of these companies is they do the marketing for you and assign clients they think will be a good match for your skills. That eliminates one of the hardest parts of becoming a VA, but it comes at a price. The company will often dictate your hourly rate and the hours they’d like you to work.

On top of that, since legitimate work from home opportunities are hard to come by, competition for these jobs can be pretty stiff. Case in point: one VA company founder affectionately calls her hiring process “the gauntlet.” Others brag about only accepting 3% or less of the candidates who apply.

That said, working under a VA company can be a great way to build skills and work with a variety of clients.

How to Become a VA

The fastest way to become a virtual assistant is to simply start calling yourself one. You don’t even need a website, a logo, or business cards — at least at first. You just need the self-confidence in your skills to say “I’m available for hire.”

There are some professional virtual assistant certifications that might carry some weight with certain clients, but I honestly wouldn’t spend the time or money on them.

As someone who’s on the hiring side of the equation, I’ve never once asked if a potential VA was “certified”, and some of these programs just seem like a way to get you to part with your money in the hopes of making your resume more attractive.

How Much Should You Charge?

Virtual assistant pay rates are all over the map. You’ll find full-time VAs quoting rates as low as $2 an hour on sites like OnlineJobs.ph, all the way up to virtual assistant companies like Worldwide101 charging $40 an hour or more.

Your pricing really depends on how much value you’re delivering to your client, and I’d encourage you not to sell yourself short. Look around and see what others are charging for your skills, but take it one level deeper.

If I’m a client of yours, I really don’t care how many hours you’re putting in (in most cases) — I care about the outcome. And that’s an important thing to keep in mind; what’s the outcome or deliverable your client is buying by hiring you? What’s that worth to them?

My friend Kai put it this way: Are you selling your time, or are you selling results?

You’ll have more control over your rate if you set up shop as a freelance virtual assistant, since most virtual assistant companies will start everyone at a standard rate and charge a client markup on top of what they pay you.

How to Get Clients?

So you’ve decided to stick your flag in the sand and start your virtual assistant business. But now comes the million dollar question: how to actually get clients?

1. Your Network

How most virtual assistants start getting clients is by tapping into their existing network. In practice, how this works is simply letting your friends and colleagues know about your new business.

You can post about this on Facebook or other social media channels, but my favorite “hack” for this is actually one-on-one email outreach.

I’ll send a message to everyone in my contacts list (one at a time) with a subject line like “Long time!” or “Checking in” and ask how they’re doing and what they’re up to these days. Human nature is to reciprocate and ask you the same question back. When they do, that’s your chance to tell them about your new virtual assistant service.

Make sure to use the “I help _____ do _____” language from above, like “Thanks for asking! I actually just started a new business helping ecommerce stores with their customer support.”

In Gmail, you can find your contact list by hitting the red Gmail text in the top left of the screen, and then selecting Contacts from the drop-down menu.

In LinkedIn, you can find all your connections by hitting the My Network icon at the top of the page, and then selecting “See all” on the left side of the next screen.

The main idea isn’t to sell this service directly to your network, but to turn your network into your network’s network. By being super clear about who you help, it makes it easy for them to pass your name along to anyone they know who might be a fit.

2. Facebook Groups

The next place you might look for clients is in Facebook groups filled with your target customers. For instance, if you’re targeting Amazon sellers or ecommerce businesses, search Facebook for groups related to Amazon FBA or Shopify.

If you’re targeting a broader entrepreneurial client base, check out groups like The Secret Team or the Screw the 9 to 5 Community. Once you’re in, you can use the search function to look for certain keywords like “help”, “struggling”, “assistant”, or other keywords related to your business.

These searches will bring up threads with other group members asking for help, recommendations, referrals, or support. That’s your cue to chime in, be as helpful as possible, and start a conversation that might lead to a client relationship.

3. Direct Outreach

While these first two job hunting tactics are admittedly a little slower, they both can be very effective in landing your first virtual assistant clients. If you’re eager to get started faster, a more aggressive way to begin would be to identify a list of your “dream clients” and begin to reach out to them directly.

In The Ultimate Sales Machine, author Chet Holmes calls this “The Dream 100” strategy. The challenge of course is making your pitch stand out and convincing someone who’s never heard of you why they should pay attention to you and how you can help them.

4. Job Boards

If coming up with a list of “dream clients” is hard at this point, you’re not alone. It can be tough to say what types of businesses you’re best suited to serve when you’re just getting started.

One way around it is to try your hand at online job boards like Upwork, PeoplePerHour, Freelancer.com, or OnlineJobs.ph (if you’re in the Philippines). How it works is your potential clients come onto these sites seeking virtual assistant help. They’ll create a job posting or a request for proposal, and you can submit your application and bid in response.

The drawback to each of these is that competition is intense from all corners of the globe. You’ll have to put on your marketing hat and learn how to make your application stand out from the rest. My advice is to be as personable as you can with the information given.

Make sure to follow directions, but also see if you can read between the lines and learn more about the client’s business.

When I post these types of jobs, the candidates that stand out to me are the ones I can tell took a little extra time to dig into my business and how they might fit into that picture.

5. Private Virtual Assistant Networks

Another option to get clients is to join a virtual assistant network like HireMyMom.com or VirtualAssistants.com. There is a nominal membership fee to join, but it grants you access to a more highly curated list of virtual assistant job opportunities — with a lot less competition.

Resources and Next Steps

So what’s next?

Look for a supportive community of other VAs, like the one you’ll find at VAnetworking.com. The site was started way back in 2003 and has attracted thousands of members.

The next resource to check out is my friend Gina’s free course on becoming a VA. She’ll expand on what you already know, help you determine what services you could offer, and show you a couple cool ways to land your first clients.

Check it out and let me know what you think!