I’ve had several emails recently from people who’d like to become a virtual assistant.
It’s a hugely popular career direction for home workers and freelancers, and I feel in a good position to provide advice on it. Not only do I know several people who’ve made a good living providing a virtual PA service, I’ve also made use of such services myself on various occasions in the past.
Like many freelance opportunities, there are plenty of pros and cons to be aware of if you choose to become a virtual assistant. For starters, there’s a vast amount of competition out there from workers all over the world. We’re always honest about drawbacks on HomeWorkingClub, so you won’t find any sugar-coated advice here!
Let’s get started with the basics:
What does a virtual assistant do?
If you decide to become a virtual assistant, you’ll be doing the kind of tasks a secretary or administrator would do in a “traditional” business. This includes things like:
- Managing diaries and appointments.
- Booking travel.
- Answering phone calls and emails.
- Undertaking small research projects.
- Maintaining (and perhaps building) spreadsheets and databases.
- Building PowerPoint presentations.
- Moderating blog comments or social media groups.
This is just a small selection of examples. This article, which suggests tasks that people can outsource to virtual PAs, provides plenty more.
No two virtual assistants have identical workloads, and no two clients have identical requirements. Virtual assistant roles are usually very flexible and tend to evolve to meet each client’s needs.
What do I need to become a virtual assistant?
As no two virtual assistant jobs are the same, successful VAs are good all-rounders with transferable skills. The following attributes are particularly important.
- Very strong computer skills (read this computer fundamentals article to see if you’re up to scratch).
- A confident telephone manner.
- Native-level language skills – i.e. the ability to send out and reply to emails with no spelling and grammar errors. (Take a look at Grammarly to help you with this).
- Experience of dealing with senior-level company personnel (virtual assistants often directly with company owners and directors).
- Expert-level Microsoft Office skills.
- Previous administrative experience.
- The ability to juggle several concurrent tasks without “dropping the ball.”
While people will be keen to know how to become a virtual assistant with no experience, it’s reasonable to say that this kind of work will does favour those with solid experience behind them. As previously mentioned, this is a competitive market – so let’s discuss why that’s the case.
Is it hard to become a virtual assistant?
Good virtual assistants should never struggle to find work, because there’s loads of it out there.
However, finding work that pays enough can prove a significant problem.
Many of the people looking to hire virtual assistants head straight to the freelance marketplaces like UpWork. A lot of them don’t plan to spend much, and don’t have to. This is because there are (literally) thousands of virtual assistants working in countries where the cost of living and the average wage is low.
As an example, in the Philippines, an hourly rate of $5-6 is perfectly respectable. Not only are people more than willing to work for that amount, they are often highly skilled, professional and reliable. Furthermore, there are people on Upwork working for even less than this.
While this is great news for an entrepreneur looking to hire their first virtual PA to take on some admin tasks, it’s not such great news if you’re an aspiring virtual assistant in the US or UK! You’ll need to earn considerably more to make a good living in the western world.
However, all is not lost. There are some ways around it.
How to become a virtual assistant AND earn good money!
As explained above, setting up as a virtual assistant and finding work are both relatively easy things to do. The hard part is getting to the point where you can earn good rates.
There are a few workable strategies:
- Specialise. While virtual assistants who are just sending out basic emails and doing data entry won’t usually earn that much, those who are experts in Microsoft Project or Visio, or those who know about something like corporate governance, can command far higher rates.
- Add value. If, as well as being a virtual PA, you can do other things, such as lightening-fast transcription, social media management or translation, you can become more indispensable to companies and justify charging more.
- Network. If you already have an established reputation as a great administrator, you could directly approach past business contacts and offer your services. It’s realistic to expect better rates from clients you find in this way.
- Think local. If online VA rates are too low, you can become a virtual assistant the “traditional” way: Set up as a local business, target local clients, and charge the kind of rates that are considered fair locally. How successful this strategy will be will depend hugely on where you live. If you’re in a major city, you could clean up, but if you’re in the middle of nowhere, you could find yourself scratching around for work.
I’ve seen VAs in small provincial towns struggle to find clients at $10/hour, and others in London thriving when charging five times that. As such, location really is crucial for this particular strategy, but it does provide an option for some people who want to look for clients somewhere other than online.
Some tips for getting started as a VA
Getting started as a VA isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a perfectly achievable home working career for anyone with the right attributes and drive.
I’ll end with some important tips to help you get started:
1. Be ready to “pay your dues”
If you plan to set up shop somewhere like UpWork or PeoplePerHour, you might as well know from the start that it’s a jungle out there! There are some tips for getting established on the freelancing boards here, but the most important thing is to be ready to “pay your dues” if you’re not already established on your chosen platform.
This means taking jobs for rubbish money to secure yourself some five-star feedback, and accepting that it will take some serious graft before you see the real money coming in. A lot of people falter and give up at this point, but you have to keep going if you want to be one of the successful ones.
2. Know your market
It makes a lot of sense to spend hours trawling the jobs ads, looking at the kind of work VAs are asked to do and learning how much people expect to pay. You should also look at other freelancers marketing virtual assistance services – because they’re the competition!
Often, people just starting out are really shocked by the quality of the competition out there, especially when they see people with degrees and extensive experience being paid rates that are lower than they might have expected.
Another important thing to understand is that many of the people looking for their first virtual PA are themselves fledgeling entrepreneurs with limited experience and limited money to spend. Sadly this is a marketplace where there are plenty of conflicts due to unrealistic expectations and unclear goals, and it’s not helped by the fact that many of the people hiring VAs may have no prior experience of managing staff.
3. Agree clear objectives
While some clients are a huge pain, others balance it out by being perfect! Some, for example, even record little screencast videos explaining exactly what they expect their VAs to do.
It’s worth spending time clarifying every little detail of each of the tasks you’re asked to do so there’s no room for confusion. Often it’s as much about the VA managing the client as the other way around…
4. Try to sell work and not time
This is a rule that all freelancers should follow whenever possible, but it’s not always easy for virtual assistants.
However – if at all possible – try to sell your services as a package of completed work, rather than billing by the hour or by the day. By billing based on time, you’re capping how much you can earn and trapping yourself with one client for all of “their” booked time.
Alternatively, you could have an agreement to answer the phone and respond to emails for several different clients concurrently and be billing all of them at once!
Your ability to follow this through will be hugely dependent on the work you end up doing and the clients you get, but the golden rule should still be to try to sell your services instead of your time. If you start out the other way around, it can prove really difficult to backtrack on it.
5. Never forget your existing network
Unless you’re fresh out of school, you probably already have some business contacts of some description. So always make sure you contact them and let them know about your new services.
It’s incredibly common for freelancers to find that their most lucrative contracts come from old business contacts or “friends of friends.” Sometimes, the old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is very true.
Lots of people want to become a virtual assistant, and there’s plenty of work for them. Like everything in the freelance world, it’s perhaps not as easy to get started as some might hope – but there’s the makings of a rewarding freelance business there for anyone willing to put the effort in.
Further Reading for Aspiring Virtual Assistants
- Check out whether you’re really cut out for freelance work here.
- Review your computer skills here.
- Have a read of this book.
Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com – Ben has worked freelance for nearly 20 years. As well as being a freelance writer and blogger, he is also a technical consultant with Microsoft and Apple certifications. He loves supporting new home workers but is prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.