In recent years, the idea of small business owners using a virtual assistant to outsource daily business tasks has gained popularity. But many people don’t know how to hire or benefit from one. As someone who has successfully hired a personal assistant for my business as well as several virtual employees, here’s an overview of the issues involved in setting up and managing such relationships:
1. Determine if a virtual assistant will suit your business needs. First, figure out which tasks you would like to assign to an assistant and if it’s cost-effective.
Do an analysis of your business activities over the course of a day if not an entire week, writing down the minor tasks that are taking up time. Don’t rule out anything as a task a virtual assistant could not do.
While a United States-based virtual assistant can earn a salary that can start at about $15 an hour (and those with a specialty might command higher rates). Solid administrative-task virtual assistants from abroad, though, can be secured for as little as $3 to $6 an hour.
2. Understand the pros and cons of hiring a freelancer from an agency. It might be costlier pound for pound to hire a virtual assistant who’s working for an agency, due to overhead costs, says Rich Pearson, senior vice president of categories and geographies at Elance-oDesk. (His company provides an online marketplace for hiring freelancers through the Elance.com and oDesk.com websites.) But an agency might arrange for an entrepreneur to use multiple assistants to smooth over gaps in availability or in skill sets.
Listings of available freelancers on the Elance and oDesk platforms include those who are paid by agencies and those who work independently. The entrepreneur can also post a job listing.
Pearson says using a freelancer who’s not on contract with an agency can result in more personalized attention, given that it’s just that one person on the gig. An agency might rotate in multiple virtual assistants for one assignment or pull one away at a whim. The most dedicated personal assistants almost always are independent freelancers with whom the entrepreneur builds a relationship with (as opposed to those freelancers hired through an agency), Pearson says.
When deciding between choosing a virtual assistant who’s located in the United States versus someone abroad, Pearson says, consider how important is it for the person to be awake while you work and how aware of American culture you need the person to be.
3. Do prep work to create a great job listing. When writing your well-edited, detailed job listing, always put in a call to action that merits a response to see if the applicant has read the description. For example, ask the applicant to provide examples of his or her work.
There will be indications when a candidate seems motivated. I found it particularly telling one Saturday to receive a phone call from Nairobi from Joan, who’s now my personal assistant, asking if she could be interviewed right away (even though I had not yet had a chance to look over all the messages from those who responded to my ad).
4. Hiring the assistant. Go through the bids that come in and create a list of the applicants whose responses you like, read their reviews and then line up interviews. A platform like oDesk’s can show an entrepreneur how a candidate scored on an English proficiency exam and how many jobs he or she has previously done. I like oDesk for its ability to generate a contract, monitor work and set up a payment system.
A video conference interview with an applicant is a must and will serve a few purposes: It can reveal the person’s grasp of English and the setting that he or she will likely be working from — and if it’s an orderly place from which to make a phone call on your behalf and the applicant’s overall demeanor (enthusiasm and ability to think on his or her feet).
5. Managing the assistant. While the hiring of a virtual personal assistant can free up your day, the burden is on you to allocate tasks smartly and effectively so that happens. Generally speaking, the more specific you are in explaining tasks, the better. Ideally, as a result of good management, a virtual assistant will in time learn your work style and you will be able to give that person more responsibility and encourage more initiative taking.
Don’t hesitate to share with the assistant Google Drive documents outlining the who, what, where and when of daily tasks, including relevant rules, permissions and passwords.
A Google search for “virtual assistant tools” reveals an abundance of gadgets that can be used by entrepreneurs who are open to managing assistants on their own.
Online social-media entrepreneur Audrey Melnik of ZootRock in San Francisco explained to me how she hires and manages her virtual assistant. “We use two tools,” she writes in an email. “The first is called Process Street that allows you to set up a repeatable process,” for the virtual assistant to run through each time. The person checks off the steps and add comments where appropriate. “The second is a screen shot tool that takes images of the [assistants’] screen regularly and tracks their productive time so you can be clear on what they are working on when and capture evidence of them working the hours they are charging you for.”
Encourage your assistant to offer you feedback, lending more warmth to the remote-work arrangement. Assistants might not provide feedback unless you ask, yet their ideas are often spot-on given their proximity to the work.
It will be up to you to decide whether to trust your assistant with information like passwords and other sensitive materials. Start out with small things, such as granting access to social-media accounts. You may want to consider having an assistant sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“Big things like the virtual assistant’s booking your vacation can come later,” Pearson says. “Training starts with trust, and that means small things at first.”
When possible meet your virtual assistant at least once in person and try to have a video conference at least quarterly. Ultimately, a virtual assistant is not just another cog in your business machine, but an employee and certainly a human. So remember to treat this person as such.
Content marketing has been the most successful method of acquiring users for our startup Process Street. A number of people ask me about my process (no pun) for creating and marketing content that drives users to our product, so I wanted to give the Scoop.it readers the inside scoop (I will stop now).
A great content marketing system starts with writing consistent, compelling content. Scoop.it has published some great post on the topic here, here and here.
For this post, I will not be talking about how to create content, I will break down the system I used to build our blog to over 100,000 pageviews a month and some of my ideas on how I plan to scale it.
Laying the groundwork: Building a team
We are a small startup, we just finished AngelPad and are raising our seed round at the moment. Because of this we do not have the resources for a large team of content creators and marketers.
My team consists entirely of myself and two full time virtual assistants whose salaries are approximately $300/month each.
I do all the research and content creation and my two virtual assistants focus 100% on content promotion. When we finish up fund raising I will be scaling this team. I want a full-time editor (to reduce the time it takes me to create and edit posts), a designer (to make my posts pretty and reformat them into slides, ebooks etc) and two more virtual assistants (for promotion).
As you may have noticed, I am not planning on taking myself out of this role. Finding great content marketers is really really hard and the posts that do best are ones that draw from personal experience and learnings. Chances are you have more stories that relate to your customers than most of your employees. Because of this I plan to continue writing content for Process Street but systemize it so I can produce high quality content in short periods of time.
I will eventually want to hire someone for this role to scale, but I imagine I will still be involved at some level in content creation forever. Freelancers can also be an effective way to scale a content marketing team,something Scoop.it has done very effectively.
Creating content: Generating and tracking post ideas
I have a huge backlog of ideas for blog posts, enough material to last years. I have this because I am always thinking about content and I regularly add post ideas to our Trello board as I think of them. I do this quickly via the mobile app or chrome extension.
I have two main lists, “backlog” and “preferred ideas”. Backlog is where I dump all my ideas, the preferred ones are moved to the preferred list and wait for me to start writing. I add any links or ideas I have for the post as comments on the card so I can access them when I start working on that post.
I don’t stick to a strict schedule with my posts, the goal is to do a post every week, but I don’t believe it is worth sacrificing quality to make sure you hit an arbitrary schedule so if I don’t think I have enough time to really dedicate a solid half day to a post, I won’t write one at all.
Bringing in an editor will help with this, as I should be able to do 2 posts back to back in that same period and hand them off to the editor to touch up and schedule, essentially doubling my capacity.
I move the Trello card down the lists, through “Work in progress”, “Ready to publish” and “Published”.
Getting traffic: Content promotion
Content promotion is important and is a big piece of the puzzle I see lots of businesses miss. Founders get excited with the idea of starting a blog, but once they get everything set up and start posting, they don’t see any traffic or results and give up. That’s probably because they do not spend enough time, money or effort on actually promoting the content they create.
As mentioned above, I have two full time virtual assistants dedicated to promotion.
We use Process Street (shameless plug) to manage this process and it works great.
Then every time I publish a blog post, I run the checklist and assign it to one of my virtual assistants, they then get to work promoting the post. I can track the status of each post as my assistants work through the tasks promoting them.
The thing with promotion, there are high return activities (such as submitting the post to reddit or Hacker News) and lower return ones (such as commenting on other blogs) so we make sure we cover the high return activities on new posts first, then slowly work on the longtail. We are still promoting posts from 6 months ago and we are always promoting dozens of posts in parallel.
Ninja tip: We run a similar promotion process on posts on other peoples websites that link back to our product or our posts. This is a great way to build link authority and generate traffic back to your website. So if you link to Process Street or one of our posts, let me know and I will shove a bunch of traffic at the post.
And that is the system. Simple yet effective.
If you have any other tips, tools or resources on building a content marketing system I would love to hear them in the comments!
Editor’s note: for more tips on how to make your content marketing strategy lean as an SMB, download our free ebook.