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How to Become a Virtual Assistant

Are you looking to start a business that will allow you to work from anywhere in the world, set your own hours, and work on a variety of different projects, all while earning a great income? Working as a virtual assistant might be the right choice for you.

Even if you’ve never thought about offering virtual assistant services before, our in-depth guide will provide you with answers to many of the most common questions that aspiring virtual assistants have, along with tips on how to start your own business. You’ll find out if being a virtual assistant is right for you, what to expect of this career path, and how to start a virtual assistant business of your own!

What is a virtual assistant, exactly?

Is a virtual assistant basically a remote executive assistant? Well, they can be, but a virtual assistant can do much more than that! 

In the broadest sense, a virtual assistant is a person who performs tasks assigned by their client from a distance. That means a virtual assistant in one part of the world can work for clients anywhere else in the world since the nature of the work is remote and can be done online (or sometimes by phone).

As you can probably gather from that definition, the potential role of a virtual assistant can take on many different forms, and it all depends on what kind of work you are interested in doing. Nowadays, with so many company functions taking place online, the types of services you can offer may extend well beyond the typical tasks of an executive assistant.

Virtual assistants can choose to market themselves as generalists or specialists. If you start your own virtual assistant business, you can take stock of all the relevant skills that you have (or are willing and able to learn), and either list all of them under your services or choose a select few to specialize in. 

As a virtual assistant, that choice is totally up to you. That’s one of the best things about this business: you can choose to be a generalist and take on all kinds of different clients and tasks for lots of variety, or you can choose to specialize and spend your days doing only the kind of work that truly interests you, or that you’re particularly good at.

Is a virtual assistant an employee?

A virtual assistant is a contractor, not an employee. That means that you will either be a sole proprietor or create a corporation for your business (we’ll get into more detail about why you might want to consider each of these options later). Either way, as a virtual assistant, you will not be an employee of your clients. Instead, you’ll be an entrepreneur, offering your services at an agreed upon rate.

Depending on what kinds of projects you take on for your clients, you may end up having just a few big regular clients that keep you busy full-time, or a bunch of smaller or more short-term clients. It all depends on what kind of tasks you want to work on, how you want to structure your days, and what clients you happen to land at the beginning. 

Just because they aren’t employees doesn’t mean that virtual assistants don’t end up having valuable, long term professional relationships with their clients! As in any small business, relationships are valuable, and an important part of the job for any virtual assistant is the creation and maintenance of a positive reputation that will make your clients comfortable to recommend your services to others.

Why do companies hire virtual assistants?

Companies hire virtual assistants for a huge array of reasons! That’s great news for you if you are thinking about starting your own business as a virtual assistant. 

The reality is that across almost all industries, an ever-increasing number of essential business tasks are done online. Since collaboration tools have become more and more sophisticated, companies are able to entrust virtual assistants to help them manage these tasks.

In short, companies hire virtual assistants to manage and grow their businesses. Virtual assistants help companies and employers clear certain tasks off their plate that are either too time-consuming or that they simply don’t have the skills for. This allows them to focus their efforts and brainpower on other tasks where they can be more valuable to their company.

Some of the benefits of hiring a VA that you can mention when pitching new clients include:

  1. Hiring a virtual assistant will save them money! From your clients’ point of view, employing virtual assistant services will cost less than hiring a new employee. They aren’t obligated to provide you with benefits, vacation time and other additional expenses that they would incur if you were coming on as a full-time or even part-time employee. While you should take these things into account when setting your rate, it still typically works out to cost savings on their end.
  2. Strategically using virtual assistant services will free up their time and their employees’ time to focus on the tasks they specialize in. Since employee wages and salaries make up one of the major costs for a business, it makes sense that an employer will want those hires to focus on high-value activities rather than more routine work. Hiring a virtual assistant can do just that, providing a major productivity boost to their business. 
  3. They don’t have to spend as much time and money training a virtual assistant as they would a new employee. That’s because a virtual assistant is already an expert in delivering the services they offer. Sure, you’ll spend some time in the beginning learning the particulars of their business, but you won’t have to be trained in your specific services because, ideally, you should already be more skilled in those areas than they are. Since training is another major business cost, this is another perk you can highlight if a potential client is wondering why they should hire a virtual assistant.

There are strong incentives for companies of all types and sizes to use the services of virtual assistants. While getting any new business off the ground is hard work, you can feel confident that as a virtual assistant, you’d be entering a field with high demand and plenty of opportunities to land new clients.

Some clients might not realize just how much they can benefit from hiring a virtual assistant. The list of benefits above applies across industries, and it’s your job to help them understand how their business can grow by using your services.

What types of jobs are typically outsourced to virtual assistants?

We could go on for a very long time answering this question because the list really is as long as your imagination! Sure, there are some common virtual assistant services that are used regularly by all kinds of companies. But if you have a special skill that is of potential value to business owners in any category, and if that skill can be completed remotely, then it’s on the list of jobs that can be outsourced to virtual assistants.

Some common types of virtual assistant services include:

  • Customer Service. This is probably one of the most popular virtual assistant services since it can be time-consuming for employers and it is of vital importance to any successful business. Customer service can mean a range of different tasks. It can include things like answering calls and customer emails, live chat customer support, and monitoring and responding to customer comments, reviews and concerns.
  • Email management. Many business owners are overwhelmed by their inbox, and hiring a professional virtual assistant to go through emails, respond where possible, and prioritize the remaining communications can be very valuable. 
  • Calendar and schedule management. This can include scheduling meetings and appointments and ensuring there aren’t any calendar conflicts. It can also include doing things like arranging professional or personal travel and making sure things like travel insurance are purchased. A virtual assistant might do this or one individual, or even for a whole organization. 
  • Event planning. Many companies hold or attend regular live events such as annual sales meetings or trade shows. As a virtual assistant, you can arrange the schedule, travel, accommodations and any other details required by your client.
  • Sales support. This is a wide-ranging category, as it can involve early-stage activities such as lead generation, supporting salespeople during the sales cycle, closing sales and preparing shipping documents. It can also include sales forecasting.
  • Bookkeeping. If you have skills in this area, they are very valuable to businesses large and small. While they would still need an accountant to file their tax return, bookkeeper can make their lives much easier when tax season comes around. Since you’ll have helped them keep their finances organized throughout the year, they won’t have to scramble to file their return. 
  • Document management and organization.
  • Marketing support. Are you an SEO whiz or social media pro? These skills are extremely valuable in a virtual assistant. There are a lot of potential virtual assistant tasks that fall under this category, including creating content, writing newsletters, managing Instagram and other social media, creating PR pitches, and ensuring websites are achieving good search engine metrics. If this is niche, you can probably specialize as a marketing virtual assistant without having to add additional services to your portfolio in order to land clients. 
  • Research and document creation. Many businesses engage in regular market research in their industry. A virtual assistant can help them keep track of what their competitors are up to and what new developments have emerged in their field. A virtual assistant can also create reports that the whole organization can refer to or PowerPoint presentations to share the data.
  • Graphic design and branding. You might also offer UI/UX or video editing.
  • Copywriting and grant proposal writing.

This non-exhaustive list gives you an idea of how many different areas of business you can be engaged in as a virtual assistant. You can always start out as a generalist, and then, based on what kind of work you end up enjoying and excelling at, narrow the list of offerings in your portfolio to those where you know you can really make an impact. 

How much can I make as a virtual assistant?

There isn’t a simple answer to the question of how much you can make as a virtual assistant because it will vary based on experience and specialized skills. In Canada, the hourly wage ranges between $15 and $34, with total annual pay ranging between $32K and $71K. 

If the services you offer require less skill and expertise, such as data entry or customer service, your hourly pay will likely be on the lower end of the scale. More skilled services, such as graphic design or SEO optimization, can likely command hourly rates at the higher end of the average hourly pay, or even higher.

Of course, like many professions, your total experience as a virtual assistant is also likely to impact the hourly rate you can command. It is much easier to convince a client to agree to a higher rate once you have a few glowing testimonials to share than when you are brand new, and they’re taking a chance on you.

Another variable that can affect your income as a virtual assistant is whether you choose to set up your own independent business or to list your services through a virtual assistant company. Websites such as the Calgary-based Virtual Gurus act as agencies for virtual assistants. Companies or individuals can browse their listings and hire a virtual assistant with the skills they’re looking for. In turn, if you get hired through a virtual assistant agency, they’ll take a portion of your earnings as a fee for helping you land the job.

There are pros and cons to going through one of these virtual assistant companies. On the plus side, you’re more likely to be viewed as legitimate and professional when you’re just starting out, and it might make it easier to land that first gig. However, you also might end up with less take-home pay than you would have received if you landed the gig independently.

When deciding how much you will charge as a virtual assistant, consider the fact that as a freelancer or gig worker, you will not receive things like benefits or retirement contributions. You will also be responsible for expenses, such as tools and internet access. For this reason, you should charge a bit more than what your first instinct is. You can decide to charge hourly, on a monthly retainer, or on a project-based basis. This might also vary from client to client, depending on what you agree upon together. 

Should I incorporate my virtual assistant business?

Whether or not you should incorporate your business will vary from person to person, but there are some benefits to incorporating.

Incorporating can help limit your individual liability, which may be valuable depending on what kind of companies you work with. You might also prefer separating your company and personal finances, which incorporation allows you to do. Depending on how much you earn as a virtual assistant, it is possible that incorporating will give you some tax benefits as well. 

Perhaps your plan is to grow your virtual assistant company by hiring other virtual assistants and setting up an agency yourself. In that case, your business structure would also differ from that of a freelance virtual assistant, and you may find incorporation to be the right company structure for you.

Most new virtual assistants don’t find it necessary to incorporate at the beginning, but it’s best to do your research and see if there is a relevant industry association in your area where you can learn more from other virtual assistants. 

How to get started as a virtual assistant

If you’re ready to start your own business as a virtual assistant, there are a few things you should know and have set up to ensure success. Luckily, unlike other startup businesses, your overhead costs can be comparatively low. For example, you don’t necessarily need to rent a separate office space if you’re comfortable working from home. 

However, there is some equipment that any professional virtual assistant should have, as well as some skills that you might want to sharpen up before advertising your virtual assistant services. 

Since your whole business is based on remote work and communication, a reliable computer, fast internet, and a quality headset are essential tools that you should invest in for your business. Even if you don’t intend on making calls or videoconferencing as a virtual assistant, it’s still likely that you’ll have video meetings with your clients, either to introduce yourself at your initial meeting or for regular check-ins. A headset will help those sound clear and professional.

There are some software programs that you’re also likely to use a virtual assistant, so investing in them will be worthwhile. For example, Microsoft Office is widely used, and a client may not hire a virtual assistant who does not have access to the program. If you don’t have Microsoft Office, you can also try WPS Office, which is a free alternative that allows you to work in the exact same file types as Microsoft Office.

If there are specific services you’re offering that requires other software, such as Adobe suite, then you should invest in that software as well when launching your business.

As a general rule, a virtual assistant should be reasonably computer savvy, since that is essentially your workplace! Unlike other professions, you don’t really need a specific education in order to become a successful virtual assistant. Of course, any relevant education that you have can be highlighted when pitching new clients, but you don’t need to go out and get a special certification to start your business. If you can go through the following checklist, you are ready to start your business:

  1. You have decided what kinds of clients and industries you will target
  2. You have created a list of descriptions of your virtual assistant services, detailing exactly what is included in each service
  3. You have set up a pricing structure you can share with clients
  4. You have the tools, such as a computer, fast internet, a comfortable workspace, a headset, external hard drives and any software you may need to deliver your services
  5. You’ve sharpened your skills in service areas you plan to offer, such as SEO, marketing, Microsoft Excel, or any other skills you plan to use in your business

Once these are complete, you can get started on setting up your business presence online!

How can I market my virtual assistant business and find new clients?

Build a website

As a professional virtual assistant, you should have a website that helps new clients develop trust in you and your services. Your website should provide a little bit about you, details about your areas of expertise, and a clear list of the types of services you offer. Help your clients easily see your value proposition, and how much they can improve their business by working with you!

You might also want to include some information about your rates since potential clients might hesitate to get in touch if they have no idea what you charge.

Reach out to clients on social media

You don’t necessarily need to be on every social media channel, but you should consider where your target clients are. Are they on Facebook? LinkedIn? Research where your target clients are active online and prioritize those social networks. Try to connect with them so that they know who you are, and create an introductory email or phone call pitch that you can use to introduce with them.

While no one looks forward to cold calls (unless you do, in which case you’re among the lucky few!) when you’re just starting out it will help to be bold and reach out to your dream clients to introduce yourself and let them know why you’ll be of value to their business. Another important thing to remember in your early communications with potential clients is to listen. You want to find out exactly what it is they need and what their pain points are so that you can tailor your services to their needs.

Offer a free trial

Wondering how to incentivize clients to hire you at the beginning of your career as a virtual assistant? One powerful tool can be a free trial period. Offering a free trial period to show how much you can improve their day to day operations is a great way to convince clients to hire you. If this tool works well for you, you can use it with all new clients moving forward. You may find after a while you don’t need to anymore, as you’ll have enough referrals and testimonials to show that you are professional and trustworthy.

Be a top-notch communicator

Since your clients are often in a different part of the world than you, they may worry that you’re taking advantage of them or working less than the agreed upon amount. This is where being a very clear and frequent communicator will set you apart from other virtual assistants. Keep track of exactly how you spend your time when you’re on the clock with them and check in weekly to make sure you’re both on the same page.

Doing this with your first few clients is sure to bring you some positive testimonials, which will make landing your next clients that much easier.

Are there any challenges or drawbacks to being a virtual assistant?

Like any profession, being a virtual assistant has its own particular challenges. However, if you’re a highly organized individual who prefers to have control over their day but can work diligently and effectively when focusing on a task, this business offers an enviable degree of autonomy.

Of course, since you will be a freelance or gig worker, one drawback is that even if you work with a company on a frequent and long term basis, you do not get the same benefits you would be able to expect as an employee. This can be seen as a drawback, but as long as you build these benefits into your hourly or retainer rate, you can make up for them to an extent.

Another potential challenge is creating an environment where you can work effectively, especially if you plan to work from home and have other family members in the home. Will you be able to effectively deliver your services in this environment? Many people do, but it’s important to establish a quiet, comfortable workspace that the rest of your family respects as yours, otherwise you might find this to be a major challenge as a virtual assistant.

Once your business is established, and you have a steady monthly income, if it fits into your budget, you may want to rent an office space for yourself to create that separation from your home life and make it easier to focus on your tasks.

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