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How to Start a Virtual Assistant Business in 5 Easy Steps
With the global outsourcing market valued at $85 billion in 2018, virtual assistants (VAs) are the genie in the bottle for startups, SOHO and small businesses. They’re also part of the booming online services industry driven by remote workers and side-hustlers.
While the most active areas for VAs remain social media management, email marketing, and project management, the virtual assistant industry has a plethora of opportunities for freelancers turning their side gig into full income potential or corporate employees on track to become their own boss.
If you’re still wondering whether a virtual assistant business is a fit for your set of skills and trying to get a feel of the industry, it’s time to get inside the action and ask the pros who’ve been there and done it.
Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about starting out as a virtual assistant, as told by the experts — VA industry veterans who’re spilling out their secrets so you can jump right in and succeed.
Step 1: Find your virtual assistant niche
A Virtual Assistant business gives you fantastic ground to apply a variety of hard and soft skills you already own. However, the first step to landing a successful VA business is avoiding the nudge to do everything at once and instead find your sweet spot in this extremely versatile industry.
Romaine Brown Palmer, CEO and founder of The Executive Administrative Group, notes the importance of figuring out your niche early on. “What I wish I knew, in the beginning, was the importance of knowing who you want to support and who you work best with,” she notes. “Within the first year my niche became very clear…we [now] provide executive-level administrative support, event logistics, and project management services to coaches, marketing firms, and creative solo-entrepreneurs.”
Entering the VA industry following 15 years in corporate operations and administration demanded Romaine to reevaluate her strengths. “In a corporate setting, you don’t get much choice as to who you support, however as a business owner, you do. Having a niche and within that niche, knowing the personality types you work best with is GOLDEN,” she says.
The first step to becoming a successful virtual assistant is finding your niche within the wider digital services industry. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Marketing and Design
- Social media management
- Web/social media advertising
- Branding and logo design
- Website design and/or development
- Video/podcast creation
- Content management
- Email marketing
- Writing/designing social media posts
- Course creation
- Translation in your regional language pair
- Handling phone/email/web communications with client’s customers
- Sales assistance
- Customer support
- Event management
- Project management
- Building sales funnels
- Business consulting
- Business plan/strategy
- Bookkeeping and accounting
When narrowing down your niche, make an exhaustive list of personal hard/soft skills and rate them on a 5-star basis. Tap into the skills you’re both experienced in and will have the perseverance of sticking to in the long run. Finally, select up to 5 skills you’ll be focusing on.
Step 2: Set up virtual assistant business essentials
One of the best things about a virtual assistant business is you get to work from any place you want — be it a home office, coffee shop, networking cafe, or a wigwam on a Caribbean island. As long as the place has got an internet connection, you’ll be able to keep in touch with clients and do business tasks in the environment of your choice.
Such flexibility is especially important for long-time remote workers, parents, and anyone who wants to be location-independent with their business.
Here are the essential business technologies that will get you started as a virtual assistant with minimum investment.
Voice over IP (VoIP) technology is what lets business owners communicate from any place where there’s an internet connection. A reliable and cost-saving business alternative to landlines or using your personal mobile number for business, VoIP gives fantastic output to people on both ends of the line.
- Toll-free number — give your virtual assistant business a professional image from the very first day with a toll-free number. Leads and clients won’t fail to notice your national presence and professional credibility. You may also port in an existing VoIP number or complement a toll-free number with a local or vanity number. All at no extra cost to yourself.
- Call forwarding to any device — more often than not, being a VA means working remotely. With VoIP, you can talk business from any place, on any device — mobile phone, tablet, laptop, or IP desk phone.
- Privacy protection — If you choose to forward calls to a mobile phone, you need to know whether an incoming call is personal or business-related, so you can answer accordingly. With MightyCall’s software, you’ll know this instantly.
- Built-in mini CRM — a single place to store business contacts and keep in the loop of each client’s individual concerns. Contact Book PLUS comes free with all plans and has special Journal functionality where you can keep reminders and notes on business interactions with each client.
- Mobile app — take business communications anywhere your mobile phone goes, and always stay in touch with clients and team members.
Since you’re setting up an online business, your website is the first impression customers get of your service. While you don’t want to invest hundreds of dollars into custom design and branding, you do need to project your trustworthiness and friendly service from the first moment of visual interaction.
With the many simple site builders available today, you can get a great VA site up and running in just minutes.
As you customize your online presence, here are the main pointers to look out for:
- Create custom content that addresses your audience in a friendly manner. We’ve all come across business sites that make rocket science out of figuring out their services — don’t be like that.
- Figuring out what to put on your homepage? According to WebAlive research, 86% of customers want products/services information; 64% expect to find contact information, and 52% want to know about you and your business.
- Add contact buttons, Click-to-Call and Callback widgets right to the website to help customers connect with you instantly. All it takes is several seconds.
- Add payments to your site via a service like PayPal or Stripe, so it’s easy for customers to pay for your services in a variety of ways.
Step 3: Build your VA business plan
Building your business from scratch is one of the toughest hands-on activities you’ll be doing in the first months. These are also the months when you may seem desperate to get a handful of clients and may be tempted to undersell your work in order to beat the competition.
Lauren Golden, virtual assistant and founder of The Free Mama, a VA coaching site and community for mompreneurs, spoke to us about the necessity of having an actionable plan. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as a smooth road to success, mostly because we typically don’t get the clarity of seeing the entire road when we get started,” Lauren shares. “I learned a lot of lessons about self-employment the hard way, like the importance of contracts, pricing, and crystal clear communication around expectations and boundaries. ‘If you build it, they will come’ isn’t a viable marketing strategy […] Articulating and understanding client expectations is.”
Even if you don’t need an official business plan to hand investors, a personal ‘action plan’ is a must-have prior to launching a business.
Here are some essential starter questions:
- What services will you offer and how will they be different from competitors’? Check out their websites and analyze what you can do better
- What’s your target audience? Think specific industries, needs, age categories, demographics.
- How much will you charge? Will it be an hourly or flat project fee?
- Where will you find customers? (Freelancing sites, marketing, organic search, etc.) Refer to your target audience.
- How much can you afford to invest in marketing? (Social media, paid ads, etc.)
- What’s your minimum financial goal (per month/per year)? How many hours will you need to work on client tasks, minus the time for running your business, to reach that goal?
- What’s the most challenging aspect of reaching that goal? (Skills, research, networking, marketing, etc.)
As with any business, opening up a Virtual Assistant business also demands some legal permissions. The good news is that as an online business, the paperwork will be down to a minimum and will require just a few things:
- Register your business name (unless you’re a sole proprietorship using your legal name)
- Understand the type of business you’re about to open (sole proprietorship or single-person LLC)
- Get an Employer Identification Number mandatory for the IRS.
- If you’ll be working from home (as most virtual assistants do), you may need a zoning waiver based on city or county laws. Check out the SBA website for complete legal specifications for online businesses.
Step 4: Focus on your needs, not just your wants
As a virtual assistant to other entrepreneurs, you’re both providing services and running a business 24/7. As you find ways to provide for your clients while also gaining new leads, doing marketing, and keeping finances in check, the schedule can get pretty hectic. The key to keeping in focus is through targeting your own and your client’s needs, ahead of the many ‘wants’.
Melissa Smith, Founder & CEO of the Association of Virtual Assistants and best selling author of Become A Successful Virtual Assistant knows what it’s like to keep herself focused. Coming from an Executive Assistant [EA] background, a family tragedy led Melissa to leave the corporate arena and become a VA “so I can be with my children whenever they need me or I need them”.
“EAs & VAs typically work in step-by-step proven processes,” Melissa shares. “I had to reverse engineer the process. I had to give clients what they wanted and give them what they needed so it worked. What I was excited about implementing and what the client was excited about were two different things. Our common ground was the outcome we both focused on, which is any VAs selling point.”
Here are Melissa’s tips for anyone starting out as a virtual assistant:
1. Focus on earning money, not spending money on things you want but don’t need. Once you know your niche and the clients you serve, then you’ll be able to create the right branding for your business.
2. Don’t sign long-term contracts. You likely are not charging enough for your work when you’re first starting out. The wrong long-term contract can seem like a death sentence […] With a short-term contract, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel if it’s not the right fit for you.
3. If someone is willing to pay you, they believe you can do it. If you need to brush up on your skills or take a quick course to figure it out, do that and don’t charge for the time. Be transparent with the client and then only charge for the work, not the time it took to get yourself up to speed.
Step 5: Learn from and connect to other virtual assistants
There’s no business without two things: constant learning and consistent networking. As Melissa Smith points out, “No one was meant to do life or business alone.” Guiding and connecting business owners is the reason that communities like the Association of Virtual Assistants spring into life in the first place.
Rita J. Cartwright Southern, Founder of RJ’s Internet Marketing Solutions, LLC, got her Bachelor of Science business degree in Marketing as a 39-year-old adult. While higher education helped her “operate business” and “broaden [the] mind”, today business owners can ‘sit in’ on a free course in one of the nation’s best schools via a platform like Coursera, learning from the comfort of their home.
For anyone new to self-employment, networking is another important part of the learning curve. Advising aspiring online business owners, Rita recommends “to find an online VA community that you feel is a good fit for you” in order to accelerate growth. “When working from home after years of working in Corporate America, one can feel as though they are alone on an island. The VA niche offers a variety of online communities that…provide valuable tips for operating a VA business and much more.”
As you launch your virtual assistant business, keep in mind that ultimately, success depends on that resilient “faith in yourself and your products and/or services” the importance of which seasoned entrepreneurs like Rita never underestimate. The reward? “Being made into a leader, positioned to give back to [the] community” and help others, who like you today are making their first steps in digital entrepreneurship.