Although I won’t celebrate my 10th year of being a #girlboss until September of this year, January 2017 does mark an equally important point in my life as a female entrepreneur. It was 10 years ago, this month that I first stumbled across the term ‘virtual assistant’. At the time, it was a relatively unknown term and I wouldn’t find myself really investigating it until August of 2007 after receiving my first (and last) pink slip as the real estate bubble burst under the weight of predatory lending practices and the looming shadow of the Great Recession.
In January of 2007 I was working as a real estate paralegal while going to school for medical coding and billing. Anyone who has ever taken part in a real estate closing knows they are a stressful event. Being the person responsible for pulling all the disjointed pieces together to a successful conclusion can be both terrifying and cause for tears. Literal tears. It’s what prompted me to go back to school. At the time, I wasn’t certain about branching out into the medical office field, but anything looked better than the stress levels I was dealing with at the time. It was sheer coincidence that an Internet search for an ongoing school project happened to return a small article that mentioned a virtual assistant.
It was barely a blip on the radar. Little did I know that 3 months later, in April of 2007, some guy named Tim Ferriss would publish a little book entitled “The Four Hour Work Week” that would suddenly make the term ‘virtual assistant’ a popular search term. In fact, in all likelihood, that book, which would later cause me a lot of grief, was the reason I could find a lot more than one measly article just a few months later.
Back then, in the early infancy of my business, marketing a virtual assistant business meant lots of explanations about just what a virtual assistant was. If you were brave enough to claim the title virtual assistant and open your own business as one back then, you also probably were one of the pioneers of ‘education marketing’. To be able to sell our services, we first needed to be able to explain how the whole thing worked. People were skeptical at first about hiring someone that they couldn’t see. Their greatest fear was that we wouldn’t be spending enough time on their work/business. They had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that they were clients, not employers and the fact that just about every virtual assistant I knew was charging on time made it harder to keep it straight.
It’s 2017. What’s changed.
Lots. But not everything.
- The term virtual assistant remains confusing to this day. Partly because the industry itself could never agree upon just who fit the term, but also because a little company named Apple launched an AI called Siri that they called…. you guessed it…a virtual assistant. Because of the confusion, many of us adopted alternative terms to describe our services like virtual office managers and online business consultants.
- The services we could offer virtually exploded. As cloud storage, cloud based software and electronic everything became mainstream, it opened entirely new avenues for what services we could offer. Some VA’s began to specialize in things like email marketing, online project management and social media marketing. My own services went through a series of changes leading to my current title of online technology consultant, specializing in helping businesses adopt and integrate online tech.
- Many virtual service providers have moved away from the per hour rates and implemented value based pricing offering packages or recurring billing for monthly services. Doing so has helped separate many of us from the thinking that we are “just an assistant” and clarified just why we charge more than Mr. Ferriss’s $4 an hour VA’s. It hasn’t cured the problem completely, but more and more people are understanding the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ when it comes to hiring virtual services professionals.
- Due to an increase in use of laptops, smartphones and tablets that allow everyone to work without being in office, people are no longer skeptical about a virtual assistant being able to actually do the work from their own office. This was a big step forward for the industry.
- With greater understanding, acceptance and adoption of virtual assistants came a huge influx of new virtual assistants. Many of them were highly skilled professionals who found themselves without jobs during the recession. Like anything, there was also a large number of people who viewed calling themselves a virtual assistant an easy way to work from home. This led to people who really weren’t qualified to muddy the virtual services waters. Bad experiences with virtual assistants who just disappeared began to rise and once again make people cautious about adopting the virtual services model for their businesses.
- With more and more software providers moving to SAAS models, has made it easy for virtual professionals to use latest versions of the most popular software. For example, Microsoft’s Office 365 and Adobe’s Creative Cloud make it easy to use the latest version of Word and Acrobat without needing to shell out an astronomical amount of money every time the software gets an update. Smaller monthly payments make it affordable, even for start-ups to use the same software clients use. Google Drive/Docs has also seen an increase in use for businesses, and is available for free. Virtual assistants who team up with clients already using Google apps exclusively may not find other software necessary.
- Cloud storage has become more secure, more reliable and more affordable, offering a superior way of storing files and making them available from any device you may want to use. Sharing files between client/virtual services provider is faster and easier than ever before.
- Communication has become easier too. Phone and email are no longer the only ways to stay in touch with clients. Services like Skype, Glide, Slack and others provide for ease of collaboration.
- A growing number of businesses are seeing the wisdom in working with a virtual services specialist rather than hiring another employee for one thing or adding another responsibility to a current employee (I.e. social media, newsletters, website tasks, blogging, etc.)
- There are now numerous courses and classes to help teach individuals with the right skills how to convert what they already know into a virtual services business. Including mine.
In some ways it seems like yesterday that I first read about virtual assistance. In many others, it feels like an entirely different lifetime thanks to so may advances both in technology and mainstream use of that technology. In any case, virtual services providers are becoming a natural alternative to traditional employees for all businesses. We will continue to grow and expand both our reach and our services knowing that in the not so distant future having a virtual services professional as part of your business model will be as natural as hiring employees.