Virtual Assistants (VAs) are there to help small businesses which can’t afford full-time secretarial support or need to delegate occasional typing or admin work. As well as persuading clients to do things better, cheaper and faster, you in turn can choose the clients you want. The hours can be flexible, you can earn as much as £180 a day, and there’s no commute. What’s not to like?
- What is a Virtual Assistant?
- Your step-by-step guide to becoming a Virtual Assistant
- Make up to £25 an hour
- Other work from home options
If you’ve got a good background in secretarial or administration work then this could be an ideal way for you to become self-employed and run your own business.
One thing to watch out for is organisations that try to charge you a registration fee to be put on their books, or try to get money out of you in some other way. Companies who try to charge you are often running scams and will not enable you to make any money for yourself. So don’t ever sign up for anything that says you have to pay – the agencies and organisations who will genuinely help you shouldn’t charge you anything.
A Virtual Assistant is someone who works as a secretary outside the office from their computer at home. It’s not the kind of job that anyone can do – you’ll need real live experience in an office before you can consider taking up this role.
The job can involve a wide range of tasks, from simply answering phones and sending emails to book-keeping, business planning and desktop publishing. The more specialised your skills are, the more you’ll be able to charge. For example, if you’ve had five years’ experience working in the marketing industry and have extensive knowledge of Microsoft Publisher, you can advertise yourself as a virtual assistant specialising in marketing and desktop publishing.
Businesses hire virtual assistants because they don’t need full-time workers. This option saves them money on office space, full-time staff and benefit payments. A virtual assistant is not a temp or a part-time employee – they are self-employed professionals and deal with their own taxes, expenses and office supplies and equipment. You’ll be responsible for chasing up your own payments, finding your own clients and advertising your business in the most effective way.
To be a successful virtual assistant, you’ll definitely need to be computer-savvy. Even if you have good office-based experience, you have to know that you can deal with a PC meltdown because you’ll be working on your own at all times – without an IT department to come to your rescue.
Starting out as a virtual assistant, you’ll have a few upfront costs – such as setting up your own home office. You’ll have to have a broadband internet connection, a separate phone line (and a phone with holding facilities), a decent set of office stationery, utilities (some of which you can claim tax back on), a computer with all the necessary office programmes and a shiny new headset for optimum answering of phone calls.
The need for VAs will only increase because more and more large companies are looking for temporary staff solutions. If you sign up with an agency (you’ll need experience as a virtual assistant for this), they’ll charge the employer up to £150 a day for your services (of which you’ll only receive a percentage). If you’re advertising yourself however, you can either charge daily or hourly – typically £15-£25 per hour.
Step 1: Sort your skills
Before you embark upon the virtual assistant journey – you will need to decide which skils you have which are going to make marketing your services easy. Make a list for each of these categories:
- Skills and programs you’re experienced in and are good at (for example Microsoft Word, Excel, customer service, handling telephone enquiries).
- Skills and programs you have no experience in or aren’t particularly good at.
- Skills and programs you want to learn.
- Skills and programs you enjoy using – and those you don’t.
Once you’ve made detailed lists in all these sections, you should be able to work out what you want to specialise in.
What do you need?
You need to be familiar with word processing (i.e. Microsoft Word), email (Outlook Express or Outlook) and contact management software (i.e. Outlook).
An excellent telephone manner is essential. Typically, all calls must be answered within three rings, all emails and letters answered the same day.
And yes, clients are notorious for calling up and testing your efficiency.
Do you want or need formal training?
By far the best qualification for this job is experience. Most VAs will recommend you have at least five years’ office experience and have worked in a senior admin role such as a secretary or office manager. You will need to have expert knowledge in all Microsoft Office programs, and knowledge of a Mac is an added bonus. It’s possible to take courses in all of these things if you don’t feel you’re totally up to scratch. Remember that applications are always being updated so unless you’re always on top of the latest software developments, you might want to consider taking a course to update your knowledge.
There are qualifications that are solely devoted to becoming a virtual assistant – most of which are American. However, this shouldn’t affect the content too much as it’s possible to work with clients all over the world because you’re working from home. You could ask for recommendations from one of the virtual assistant associations mentioned below.
Step 2: Research the market
As with any business, you’ll need to do sufficient research so that you know what you’re talking about when speaking with clients. Not only this, but you’ll need to think about the demand for VAs and whether the market you’re aiming for really needs another virtual assistant. Are there already companies hiring VAs for this purpose? Are there too many as it is? What do others charge for their service? You need to think about every facet of the work, and then find out as much information as possible about each aspect.
Step 3: Take the plunge
Register your business with your company name
A business name is really important. It’s the first thing a person will get to hear about your service – and first impressions stick. If you like, you can simply trade under your own name but the decision is down to you.
If you choose a name for your business then you have to be really careful that it isn’t the same as anyone else’s – you can check this at the National Business Register. You’ll need to firstly register yourself as self-employed with HM Revenue & Customs – this is free but if you don’t get it done within three months of working for yourself you’ll have to pay a £100 fine. Once you’ve registered they’ll send you information about national insurance and tax.
Business insurance and tax
Your household insurance may no longer be valid if you’re working from home. This is something you’ll need to check with your current broker, as you may need to upgrade your insurance. If so, get a quote from Direct Line – they’ve set up a dedicated home insurance policy and could save you money. Business link also provide a handy tool which works out what kinds of insurance you’ll need.
When you first start up – you probably won’t have to pay VAT as you’re allowed a £81,000 turnover before you have to pay it. If you’re planning on going over that then you’ll have to contact HMRC to register for VAT. You’ll need to complete a self-assessment tax return form at the end of every year. National insurance is paid on both a weekly and monthly basis and will depend on your earnings. See our Small Business Ideas category for loads more advice on freelance finances.
Financing and start-up costs including setting up your home office
Before you decide to embark upon a life of working for number one, you need to figure out whether this is financially feasible. Until you’ve developed a strong client base money might be tight. Can you afford to run at a loss for a few months? You need to consider the worst possible scenarios (as pessimistic as it sounds!) and think about whether or not you can cope with them. It could be worth signing up to an accounting system like Kashflow, a really simple way to keep in control of your finances; and an easy way to save on costly accountants.
To get started, you will need a spare room (or at least a clear desk) a phone, office stationery, internet access and computer – packed with all the usual software applications. Try to work out from these costs how much you need to earn to break even and eventually make a profit. See what you can cut back on – search around for the best deals on office equipment, phone and broadband.
Research by Simplifydigital.com shows that 83% of customers save money by getting their broadband and phone from a single provider, with average savings of over £400 a year. Compare broadband and phone deals.
Step 4: Get work
Sign up to an agency
Your first step to getting customers should be to sign up to a decent agency. There are plenty of agencies out there that will happily take your money in exchange for a directory of clients. Don’t pay them. What legitimate company would ask you for money to work for them? Don’t listen to them when they start to talk about ‘administration fees and training costs’ because, once you’ve handed over the cash, you’re likely to get a single email and then probably never hear from them again.
Similarly, avoid anything that advertises ‘get rich quick’ or ‘make up to £1000 a day’ offers. If these really worked then everyone would be rolling in it, unfortunately they don’t work, so I wouldn’t waste any time even registering with them. Your best bet is to sign up with an agency such as VOT which doesn’t charge you a penny to sign up and will offer your services to companies all over the world.
One of the best websites we have encountered that supports Virtual Assistants of all levels of experience is the Society of Virtual Assistants. The site is completely free; it actually runs on the revenue it makes from selling materials to support a virtual assistant, and so you won’t have to fork out for a service which isn’t guaranteed to enable you to make money. The site has two different types of membership; approved and standard.
- The standard membership is designed to support individuals who are looking into becoming a virtual assistant and includes access to the forums where any queries can be answered, access to the society blog and various other resources.
- The approved membership is for businesses who must agree to a code of conduct and have professional quality websites and emails which will be checked. Once you’ve been verified, you will receive the site’s logo, be added to the searchable database and be given access to the ‘jobs available’ part of the forum, which will then hopefully lead on to paid work.
It may seem frustrating that individuals will not get access to these areas, however the reason behind the two memberships is to encourage new VAs to set up properly and therefore improve the industry, whilst still providing the resources for people to learn more about being a virtual assistant. Check out the site for more information or to register.
Signing up to an agency is the first step but you also must be prepared to generate leads one by one. There will always be someone out there that’s more qualified or with more experience than you, so signing up to an agency will definitely not ensure you a steady customer base. In all honesty, it will sometimes be a case of breaking out the Yellow Pages, calling all your friends and pulling out all the stops to find some decent clients.
Making your services known will probably be the hardest part of the job. Sourcing clients that need you might be tricky, but once you’ve developed a strong client base then word of mouth should pull your business along.
To get your initial clients, you need to know what kind of people you want to offer your services to. By saying – “I want to offer my services to small or medium-sized companies” – you are being way too vague. On average, the response from a directed mailshot is 1-2 per cent. That means that even when you target specific businesses for your needs – you still only get a 1-2 per cent response. Now imagine that figure if you targeted random companies!
The best way to go about it is to make a list of all the skills you have and which you feel you are the most accomplished in – or enjoy the most. Then think of what kind of companies would require a service such as the ones you can offer to the highest standard. Think of why they would need your services, what you can offer to improve their productivity, what the benefits of your service will be to the company and what makes you stand out from the crowd.
Your advertising medium will depend on your target audience. Ask yourself:
- What literature do these companies read/use?
- Where do these companies network?
- What form of media is this company likely to come into contact with most often?
In addition to any advertising, it’s a good idea to list yourself on a virtual assistant directory such as the one on Virtual Business Solutions which also offers a package to help develop your own virtual assistant business.
Other ways of selling yourself online
If you can, set up a basic website for yourself. This isn’t as hard as it sounds – you can use simple blogging software (such as Blogger or WordPress). You don’t need to be a computer expert to use them!
A blog is a great way to create a basic online CV selling yourself and your experience (you could throw in a few endorsements from previous clients/employers for good measure).
If you’re really ambitious about promoting yourself online, you can also exploit other social networking sites. Set up a Twitter feed and Facebook page. (Facebook is an excellent means of gathering all your contacts – both social and business – in one place).
Many businesses and companies (both large and small) will have a Facebook or Twitter presence. It’s a great way to get in touch and make your presence known to them – and some companies even advertise work opportunities through Twitter and Facebook.
And don’t forget good old-fashioned face to face networking. You never know who you might bump into – get some business cards printed for free with Vistaprint, and hand them out at every opportunity.
Step 5: Have a system
As Harry Hill said, “you’ve got to have a system” – a meticulous one. Let your systems break down for one client and you lose control of them all.
Step 6: Increase your skills, increase your pay
VAs can make more money by increasing the skills they offer. Things like book-keeping, web-management and copy-editing are popular ways to increase your attractiveness to prospective clients.
Now think, can you correct unintelligible emails while talking to suppliers you’ve never heard of about products you don’t understand?
It depends on the level of service you offer, with clients being charged a fixed hourly or daily fee (not including phone calls, postage costs, etc).
Agencies charge up to £150 per client per day, but typically you would charge between £15 – £25 per hour for routine admin work done by phone or email.
- The International Association of Virtual Assistants – largest group of virtual assistants in UK.
- VA4U.com – an online agency for virtual assistants.
- The Society of Virtual Assistants