A virtual assistant (VA) is someone who helps small businesses which can’t afford full-time secretarial support or need to delegate occasional typing or admin work. It’s the perfect gig if you want to choose your clients and use your skills to persuade them to do things better, cheaper and faster. The demand for virtual assistants spans a huge diversity of industries so you may find yourself working with clients in customer service, marketing or travel. The hours tend to 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 starting out a virtual assistant could be an ideal way for you to become self-employed and run your own business. It can be a lucrative and rewarding role. There’s various ways to get started and even training courses if you’d like to acquire new skills before embarking on a virtual assistant journey. We’ve covered everything you may need to know about becoming a VA.
One thing to watch out for is potential scams. If you encounter an organisation trying to charge you a registration fee to put you on their books or get money out of you in any other way, be careful. Such behaviours often mean those companies may be running scams and won’t 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.
Virtual assistants are freelancers who work as a secretary outside the office from their computer at home. It may sound basic but it’s not the kind of job that anyone can do. You’ll need genuine real-life experience in an office before you can consider taking up this role.
The virtual assistant job can involve a wide range of tasks. You may be simply answering phones and sending emails, but also do some book-keeping, business planning and desktop publishing. Got any niche skills? Great. 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 who 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. It could be a lot of work to begin with, so let’s break it down into what you may need to get started.
First, to be a successful virtual assistant, you’ll definitely need to be computer-savvy. Even if you have good office-based experience, you need to feel confident about dealing with any potential IT issues. If you’re faced with a PC meltdown and you’re working on your own at all times, there won’t be an IT department to come to your rescue. Make sure you’re happy to fix things by yourself.
Then there’s the initial investment in tools. Starting out as a virtual assistant, you’ll have a few upfront costs such as setting up your own home office, although this can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want it to be. At the very least, you’ll need 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 maybe even a shiny new headset for optimum answering of phone calls. You may already have some of those items, or you may find you don’t really use stationery much and prefer to keep everything online, but it’s something to consider when you do your initial budgeting.
The good news is, your investment will most likely pay off in the long run. 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
Virtual assistants can offer a lot of various services. Before you embark upon the VA journey, you will need to decide which of your skills are going to make marketing your services easy. What are your unique selling points? Have a think about what would make you a great virtual assistant.
To help you come up with a set of skills you can advertise, here’s a breakdown of categories to include in your list:
- Pinpoint the skills and programmes you’re experienced in and good at (for example Microsoft Word, Excel, customer service, handling telephone enquiries).
- Include skills and programmes you have no experience in or aren’t particularly good at.
- Think about the skills and programmes you want to learn.
- Finally, map out the skills and programmes 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 as a VA?
For starters, virtual assistants need to be familiar with word processing (i.e. Microsoft Word), email (Outlook Express or Outlook) and contact management software (i.e. Outlook). Those are the very basics most offices need you to have nailed down.
VAs also need to have an excellent telephone manner. Typically, all calls must be answered within three rings, and all emails and letters answered the same day.
And yes, clients are notorious for calling up and testing your efficiency. Positive attitude and patience will definitely help you succeed as a VA.
Do you want or need formal VA 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 programmes, and being a whiz around a Mac would be 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 refresher course to brush up your knowledge.
If upskilling is something you’d like to do, there’re 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 a VA you will most likely end up working with clients all over the world since you’re based in your own home. If you’re interested in adding a professional VA qualification to your portfolio, you could ask for recommendations from one of the virtual assistant associations mentioned below.
Step 2: Research the VA market
Virtual assistants are increasingly popular as a staffing solution so learn everything you can about the role. 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. Apart from online research, you may want to check out social media – there’re various groups and networks for VAs which you can use to meet other virtual assistants and ask any questions you may have.
Step 3: Take the plunge
Register your VA business with your company name
As a VA, your business name is very important. It’s the first thing your potential client will see or 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.
Once you’ve chosen a name for your virtual assistant business, you should check it’s not yet used by somebody else. To make sure it isn’t the same as anyone else’s, you can check with the National Business Register.
You’ll also need to register yourself as self-employed with HM Revenue & Customs which 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 as a virtual assistant. 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 provides a handy tool which works out what kind of insurance you’ll need. Better to get those things in order before you start working to ensure you’re covered for any eventuality.
When you first start up as a virtual assistant, you probably won’t have to pay VAT as you’re allowed a £85,000 turnover before you have to pay it. If you’re planning on going over that amount, then you’ll have to contact HMRC to register for VAT. WhatyYou’ll need to do is 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. Designed to make life easier for small business accounts, it’s a simple way to keep in control of your finances and save on costly accountants.
To get started as a VA, 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.
According to uSwitch, you can typically save £69 on your broadband bill if you switch provider when your contract ends. And if you do switch, use a cashback site to get rewarded for it. Typically, the more expensive your contract, the more money you will get back.
Step 4: Get work as a virtual assistant
Sign up to a virtual assistant agency
A decent agency might be a good first call. There’re plenty that will happily take your money in exchange for a directory of clients – don’t pay them. A legitimate agency won’t charge you to work for them. And don’t give in when they try to convince you by talking about ‘administration fees and training costs.’ Once you’ve handed over the cash, you’re likely to get a single email and never hear from them again.
Similarly, avoid anything advertising ‘get rich quick’ or ‘make up to £1000 a day’ offers. If these really worked, everyone would be rolling in it.
One of the best websites supporting virtual assistants is the Society of Virtual Assistants. It’s completely free as it runs on the revenue it makes from selling materials to support VAs. This means you won’t have to fork out for a service which isn’t guaranteed to help you make money. You can choose from two different types of membership: approved and standard.
- The standard membership is designed to support those looking into becoming a virtual assistant. It includes some useful tools. You’ll get access to the forum where you can post your queries, the society blog and other resources.
- The approved membership is for businesses. You’ll have to agree to a code of conduct, and have professional quality website and email, which will be checked. Once you’ve been verified, you will receive the site’s logo and you’ll be added to the searchable database. They’ll also provide you with 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. The reason behind the two memberships is to encourage new VAs to set up properly and therefore improve the industry, while still providing resources for people to learn more about being a virtual assistant. Check out the site for more information or to register.
Signing up to a virtual assistant agency is the first step. Still, you must be prepared to generate leads individually. There’ll always be someone out there who’s more qualified or has more experience than you. 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.
Advertising your VA business
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 VA services to. By saying you want to offer services to small or medium-sized companies, you’re being way too vague. On average, the response from a directed mailshot is 1-2%. That means that even when you target specific businesses for your needs, you still only get a 1-2% 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’re 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. Why would they need your services? Consider 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. It 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 your virtual assistant business. This isn’t as hard as it sounds – you can use simple blogging software (such as Blogger or WordPress). They’re pretty straightforward and there’s lots of tips online to teach you how to make the most of them. You really don’t need to be a computer expert to use them!
Having a blog is a great way to create a basic online CV, selling yourself and your VA experience. You could throw in a few endorsements from previous clients and employers for good measure.
If you’re really ambitious about promoting yourself as a virtual assistant online, try exploiting other social networking sites. Set up a Twitter feed and Facebook page. Facebook can be an excellent means of gathering all your contacts – both social and business – in one place.
Many businesses and companies large and small will be active on Facebook or Twitter. It’s a great way to get in touch and make your presence – and your virtual assistant services – known to them. Some companies even advertise work opportunities through social media, in particular via Twitter and Facebook, so it might be yet another way to land a new client.
And don’t forget good old-fashioned face-to-face networking. You never know who you might bump into, so get some business cards printed cheaply with Vistaprint. Hand them out at every opportunity. The more people know of your virtual assistant services, the better chance you have of earning new clients.
Step 5: Have a system
As Harry Hill said, “you’ve got to have a system” – a meticulous one. Task management is a big part of the virtual assistant job. Let your systems break down for one client and you lose control of them all.
Step 6: Increase your va 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 have a think. Can you correct unintelligible emails while talking to suppliers you’ve never heard of about products you don’t understand? Variety of work is the beauty of being a virtual assistant and the more things you can do, the more you can charge.
Money depends on the level of service you offer as a VA. You’d typically charge your clients a fixed hourly or daily fee, and that won’t include phone calls, postage costs, etc.
Agencies charge up to £150 per client per day but you’d normally ask for between £15 – £25 per hour for routine admin work done by phone or email.
It may be worth talking to established virtual assistants to get a good idea of what fees normally are and do some research into what your skills may be worth.
- 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