Virtually Yours

The growing virtual assistant industry presents opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners alike

the construction and banking industries, Thomas found her first clients by networking at local business groups such as the National Association of Women Business Owners and online through small business-oriented message boards. Today, she works mainly with small business owners (many of whom are home-based), professional coaches, and real estate agents.

Working on a retainer basis only, Thomas collects a flat fee every month from her clients in exchange for a set number of work hours. She says she devotes about 25 hours a week to her business. Common tasks include e-newsletter management, contact management, database maintenance, bookkeeping, and making travel arrangements.

In exchange, Thomas says she earns a respectable living and is also able to effect change in an industry that’s still maturing. “When I started out four years ago, I’d tell people that I was a virtual assistant and get a blank stare,” recalls Thomas. “Now, when I tell people that I’m a VA, they ask me what services I can provide.”

Birth of an Industry
The mutually beneficial relationship between VAs and small businesses has created a virtual small office/home office solution for both parties. More business owners like Bailey are turning to VAs as an alternative to hiring full-time or part-time on-site employees, and VAs are taking advantage of the earnings and job growth potential. For an hourly fee of $15 to $35, skilled VAs are cashing in on the opportunity to handle myriad tasks at the click of a mouse.

In an October 2004 report sponsored by the Alliance for Virtual Businesses (A4VB) and titled A Comprehensive Study of the Virtual Assistant Industry, the birth of the VA industry is traced back to the mid-1990s, when entrepreneurs—some of whom had already been working remotely for their clients—began relying on technology to expand those relationships.

Heading up the charge was Stacy Brice, chief visionary officer at Baltimore-based AssistU.com, which she founded in 1997. “It was the first organization for virtual assistants,” recalls Brice. A4VB estimates that approximately 5,000 VAs are in business worldwide; 98% of them are women. Combined, they generate about $132.6 million in annual sales, which is based on the group’s average 2003 annual gross sales estimate of $26,519 per VA. Those working part time average $13,813 annually, reports A4VB, while full-time VAs average $38,759 annually.

Overcoming the Hurdles
According to Janet L. Jordan, president of Corpus Christi, Texas-based Virtual Assistance U, the best VAs are organized and adept at multitasking, have excellent communication skills, and possess solid technology knowledge. Many are eager to become successful business owners, says Jordan, who founded VAU in 2000 to serve a growing need for comprehensive, online training for those desiring to launch VA practices.

Minority enrollment in the program is about 30%, with African Americans accounting for about 20% of total enrollment.

But like other fledgling industries, VAs face their set of challenges. Where providing support services to existing companies may seem like a clear-cut business vision, Jordan says many new VAs have a hard time managing their various job functions when providing services to clients

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