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TECHNOLOGY

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The Real Advantage of Farming It Out
Here's how our author uses a virtual assistant

Sometimes, when I'm looking mournfully at a pile of accumulated bills, old newspapers, and bank statements, my virtual assistant seems a million miles away. If I need copy paper or printer cartridges, there's no one to run down to the local office superstore except me. If my overgrown files need culling, that's my problem.

The rest of the time, though, my virtual assistant is a lifesaver. Before I found her, I had given up hope of doing all my daily chores. I was too exhausted to follow up on delinquent paychecks or scout around for new customers. My business was starting to grind to a halt. I found my assistant, Chris Durst, as part of my research for the accompanying story on virtual assistants. Her name, with 30-odd others, was posted on a Web site maintained by a fledgling trade group called the Global Association of Virtual Assistants. On the site (www.va4hire.com), I scanned a list of names and qualifications, opting for someone with the broadest possible clerical and administrative skills, closest possible location, and most reasonable rates.

TIME MANAGER. Chris came to the virtual assisting business, I learned, after years of running the branch office of a time-management consulting firm known as Priority Management. When Priority Management's owner pulled up stakes and moved to New York, he decided to keep Chris on as a telecommuter for a year.

After that gig ended, she told me, Chris had gotten used to working from her Connecticut home and managing key office chores virtually. She decided to establish her own virtual assistant firm, MyStaff LLC. Setting rates low enough to attract customers with a wide variety of budgets, Chris began recruiting clients, and she now works primarily with professionals such as architects and lawyers.

After hearing her story, I poured my heart out to her about my professional troubles, complaining of 14-hour days, missed appointments, late payments, and frazzled nerves. She listened calmly, never rushing me and asking only pertinent questions, then agreed to help.

Though I wouldn't have expected such a concession, Chris offers her first two hours of assistance for free. Within those two hours of work alone, Chris managed to catch up with several elusive sources and find a delayed check adrift in one customer's accounting department. I was hooked.

LOW BILLS. Gradually, over that month, I began to feed her more responsibilities. I started by simply asking her to set appointments and E-mail me reminders. One at a time, I began adding more tasks, including follow-up phone calls of all kinds, research, and working with vendors. Everything flowed smoothly, with Chris taking the initiative on many projects I'd nearly forgotten.

Luckily for my bottom line, she charges for her time in quarter-hour increments, presenting me with surprisingly low bills of $200 to $300 per month. Given her attentiveness, it's hard to imagine that she services several other clients, but I'm glad she does -- that's why I can afford her.

Chris lives in Woodstock, Conn., a region so rural that cable television is only now coming to her street. She buys beef from local farmers and bakes her own bread, keeps house for her two children and husband, and rises at 4:30 a.m. to take a daily stroll. She often begins her workday before the sun is completely up and hits the sheets at 8:30 p.m.

I'm based about 450 miles away in Reston, Va., ultra-wired home of some of the world's biggest Internet businesses. I'm a night owl who prefers to write until 3 a.m., eat my dinner from a box, and turn the housekeeping chores over to a competent professional. If circumstances permit, I like to start my day at 10 a.m. -- and sometimes even later. Thanks to the Internet, though, our disparate workstyles mesh almost magically. Late at night, with no ringing phone to disctract me, I can summon what administrative skills I have and sort through problems like overdue payments or research needs. As I burn the midnight oil, I often get creative streaks and dash off as many as a dozen E-mails listing work that needs to be done.

"WOODSTOCK OFFICE." While I'm still fast asleep, Chris is already scheduling telephone interviews, posting appointments on a Web-based calendar that she maintains on her site, sending out her own flurry of E-mails inquiring about payments, or preparing expense reports. We talk via phone once or twice a week, sometimes just to engage in a kind of virtual water-cooler chat but also to discuss ways of handling difficult problems, such as long-overdue checks. Eventually, I hope to hand over far more of the work, when I officially make MyStaff the "Woodstock office" of my tiny empire. Once that happens, it'll be far easier to move the dreaded financial work and filing to Chris.

Some might suggest that I'm ill-advised to consider turning the "keys" of business accounts to someone I've only met once. In theory, she could cut a single check to herself and empty out the account, but she'd get away with it only once. Given how much easier my life would be if I could outsource these functions, I think it's worth the minimal risk.

Far from being concerned about being defrauded, I'm actually more worried about how to keep information flowing between us. It can be a pretty major inconvenience having my assistant so far away. In particular, it's a nuisance when it comes to managing paper. Chris and I can work on digital documents very smoothly, but when we try to track paper documents, there's always room for delays.

As competent as Chris is, I still have to fill out my own tax forms, write checks, and keep track of my expense receipts, all tasks I could potentially delegate to someone working with me on the premises. I haven't yet found a way to turn over my financial chores. I'm a terrible bookkeeper, but I still have to keep up cash-flow spreadsheets. It's too awkward to have her track the financial picture when I'm handling most of the payments and depositing all of the checks.

I've found over time that the combination of Internet connection, phone, and fax machine are more than flexible enough to get the work done. After all, most of what I do is ship collections of words from place to place -- be they bills, article drafts, or research -- and these virtual channels serve the purpose just fine in most cases. All told, I'm quite happy with the virtual assisting arrangement, which has taken an enormous amount of hassle out of my day. The way I see it, a virtual right hand is far, far better than none at all.


By Anne Zieger in Reston, Va.

This article was originally published in the Sept. 14 print edition of Business Week's Enterprise.


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