Learning the VA field

I’m pleased to introduce you to a guest blogger to the Virtual Fast Lane! Penny Johnson is an instructor at the local technical college, and she is shadowing us here at Rescue Desk headquarters in order to learn about the virtual assistant industry. She and her colleagues are in the planning stages of developing a curriculum involving the virtual assistant field.  – Rachel Rasmussen, owner

I’m Penny Johnson, guest blogger at Rescue Desk. I am working with Rachel for the rest of May to learn the Virtual Assistant biz. On a normal day, I am a quiet college instructor at Madison Area Technical College, tucked away in my classroom teaching Business Technology. In the past few years my colleagues and I have become more and more interested in starting an academic program for people interested in becoming VAs. I asked Rachel if I could shadow her to learn more about the field, and zero in on the topics we will have to teach potential VA students.

Here are some things I have learned so far:

Social Media is critical to small businesses.
I must admit that at Madison College we have been talking about Social Media but some categorize it as the fad of the youth. I can see that is not true! Social Media is the way to connect and get your business name out there. It is also a great way to stay connected, which is so important in today’s busy world. I would love to hear your stories of successful uses of social media.

Software can be an issue.
At Madison College, we are proposing a type of degree called an “Advanced Technical Certificate” which means each student has to have a degree first, or have 2 years of work in a related field before beginning this certificate. We are targeting adult students who want a change of career, and so we assume that students will come with software skills in hand. This may be true, but we also need to make sure that our students are capable of adjusting. Software products upgrade, new versions are released constantly, new technologies are introduced. The idea is that this certificate should prepare a person to be knowledgeable enough with software that s/he is comfortable learning new techniques. Which reminds me:

Virtual Assistants have to be willing to learn new things.
It is clear that VAs are today’s Jack-Of-All-Trades. It is not enough that clients will want a whole host of tasks completed; but, the VA needs to learn all of the business skills included!

The Virtual Assistant field is growing.
We’ve been tracking the Virtual Assistant field for some time, but I was still amazed to hear how quickly VAs are adding new clients and building their businesses. As we propose this new certificate for training VAs, I would love to hear about your successes. How much has your business grown? How has your business shifted since you started?

I’d love to hear from you: What you do think we need to know as we put together a certificate program to train Virtual Assistants? In the next few days I hope to add to this blog and gather your thoughts and advice!

When the Winds of Change Blow

Every few months I get my hair cut. Not a big deal, really. But, every 6th or 7th cut usually means it’s time.

I like to go to the salon early. I relax with a cup of tea, feel the soft beat of the new-age music piping through the speakers, and mindlessly flip through last month’s tabloids and beauty magazines. Not to mention, I shell out a healthy amount for a hair cut a few times a year — it’s about the only splurge I allow myself, so I want to get my money’s worth.1309478197_a68036ec41

Every few years, I’ll be wading through the usual stack of hair magazines on the table and I’ll unexpectedly run across a picture that will have me wondering if I could pull off a particular look. I show the picture to my trusted stylist and, next thing I know, the long, thick hair I’ve been sporting is a distant memory and I waltz out of the salon with a sassy new bob.

While I’m usually happy with the new ‘do, it’s inevitable that I’ll spend the next few years saying “Just a trim, please. I’m trying to grow it out.”

I guess my point is – you never quite know when the itch for change will strike.

I’m no stranger to change, and I am generally not thrown off by it. In fact, given my short and irritating-even-to-me attention span, I need change to keep the juices flowing. But, don’t let that fool you. With the exception of the occasional impulsive hair cut, I generally spend an inordinate amount of time planning, gauging, preparing, deliberating and thinking before making the leap. But, inevitably, I DO make the leap.

Thanks to my parents, their parents, and their parents before them, this particular corner of my personality is bit of a paradox. Not only am I a staunch creature of habit, but I’ve also inherited equal parts impatience, restlessness, curiosity, caution and a need for security. My good friend Sarah said it best. “You’re like a gypsie who craves an organized office.”

I’ve met quite a few people who are deathly afraid of change. They are afraid of the unknown, of what might happen if they stray from their norm, or what they might miss out on if they change direction and head this way or that instead.

But, what I’ve learned about change is this. If an opportunity for change presents itself, it’s for a reason. You just have to be open to seeing it. Sometimes it’s admittedly hidden behind cloaks of insecurity or the irritating little voice that says “You can’t do THAT! It’ll take way too much energy to be worth it.”

Well, believe it or not, change is happening all around us. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day something inside us and around is changing. It can be as little as an inexplicable need to switch up your morning routine to a niggling little feeling  that has you questioning if your job is truly the right one for you. For us small-business owners, it’s knowing that if you don’t take the next step forward, your competition will be a leg up.

When an opportunity for the new and different rears its head, pay attention to what you do with it. You can ignore it, go with it, fight it or embrace it. The choice is completely yours.  Just don’t be afraid to choose because, whether you like it or not, change will come.

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Can you afford NOT to have a virtual assistant?

I have this conversation quite a bit with prospective clients of my firm. We talk about what’s eating away the hours, we talk about the benefits of outsourcing part of their to-do list to a virtual assistant, we talk about how it works to have a VA as part of the team, we talk about who makes a good client candidate for a VA and who doesn’t, and we talk about the goals the client is trying to achieve.

Then we talk numbers.

I have this handy little chart I’ve started sharing with potential clients. It’s pretty elementary, but does a good job of easily outlining where they’re leaving money on the table by not getting the support they need for their growing businesses.

This is especially easy to determine if I’m working with coaches, consultants, speakers and other billable-hour business models.

If your time is worth $75/hour, and you spend 4 hours a week on non-revenue-generating tasks, you’re giving up potentially $300 a week in billable hours…or $1200 a month … or $14,400 a year. You’ll never bill for those hours because, unfortunately, nobody will ever pay you for those tasks or the time you spend on them.

75 an hour

 

 

 

 

If your time is worth $100/hour, and you spend 4 hours a week on non-revenue-generating tasks, you’re giving up $400 a week … or $1,600 a month … or $19,200 a year!

100 an hour

 

 

 

 

Now…

Say you had a virtual assistant for $35 an hour to tackle those 4 hours of non-revenue generating tasks every week (or, for simplicity, 16 hours a month).  Your VA sends you an invoice for $560 at the end of the month.

VA 35 an hour

 

 

 

If your time is worth $75 an hour, and you just gained back 16 hours of billable time in a month, you’ve just earned $640 in potential revenue after paying your VA.

revenue

 

 

 

 

That $640 per month … or $7700 a year …. will remain out of reach until you have help because you’ll continue doing it all yourself. Nobody will ever pay you for that time or those tasks.

If your time is worth $100 an hour, you’re leaving more than $1000 on the table each month; more than $12,000 each year.

Business owners need to spend their time growing their business, generating revenue and focusing on their clients — not implementing their marketing touchpoints, maintaining their social media, sending follow-up packets, or handling other systems-based tasks. They need a team member who understands the ins and outs of small business, is a qualified sounding board for brainstorming and ideas, and who understands the goals that are trying to be acheived.

By investing in the partnership with a virtual assistant, these clients are investing in themselves and the growth of their businesses.

 

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5 ways virtual assistants can save your world

Awhile back I dove into a research project for one of my clients, digging up articles, blogs, white papers and studies relating to marketing in our economic climate. It was a great project. I read dozens of articles, blog posts and white papers, and they all had a common theme. Businesses should not – I repeat NOT – skimp on their marketing during an economic downturn. In fact, I read more than once that companies should be upping their marketing efforts.

Like a lot of business decisions, though, it’s very much a Catch-22.

Yes, you fully understand the importance of maintaining a strong presence in your industry, cranking out marketing messages, and continuing to earn (and exceed) the trust and confidence your customers have in you. You’re up to your eyeballs in ideas about expanding your business, whether it be through marketing, growing your team, or reevaluating your overall business model.

On the other hand, you’re feeling the pinch, too. You have the plans, but you don’t have the resources to pull it off. You may be running a bare-bones crew, and their top priority is servicing your customers. While they may be a well-oiled machine, they don’t have the time to tackle extra initiatives without compromising a little customer service. And that, as we all know, isn’t a compromise worth making.

This is where the virtual assistant industry is filling in the gaps. VAs make it their business to get clients through challenging times, which is precisely how we’ll save the world.

1. Marketing
You may heed experts’ advice and increase your marketing initiatives. Maybe set up that blog, redesign some of your collateral, start an article-marketing campaign, or up your direct-mail efforts. Who’s going to take care of that? You don’t have the resources to hire someone, you don’t have the time to train, or you aren’t sure you WANT the commitment of an employee. You just want someone to take care of these projects. Period.  Enter a professional virtual assistant.

2. Money saving
Any cursory research on virtual assistance explains how it’s a cost-effective alternative — either interim or permanent — for any business. Yes, you may pay a higher hourly or project rate than someone you may hire, but anyone with a lick of business sense knows it’s less expensive and higher-quality in the not-so-long run.  No taxes, no benefits, no space, no equipment, no unproductive time. Instead you get a highly qualified, business savvy, creative assistant with resources out the wazoo to help you succeed.

3. Going green
In addition to being the saving grace for growing small businesses, we’ll save the planet while we’re at it. You get all the benefits of a highly trained, highly skilled, committed-to-your-success assistant without the carbon footprint. We’re not commuting to your office every day, we’re using digital tools instead of printer paper to communicate and share files, we recycle our systems and turn them into energy-efficient (meaning we’re saving your energy!) processes for our clients, and we reduce wasted time by only working when you need it. Of course, like any conscientious small-business owner, almost all VAs are smart about their own recycling and energy useage.

4. A virtual business model to put your best face forward
A trend that is taking hold in the world of growing small businesses is the development of the virtual business model … where almost the entire team is comprised of outside contractors. By partnering with vendors such as virtual assistants, outsiders looking in will see a well-oiled team behind your logo. Clients get stellar customer service, prospects are marketed to like larger organizations, and your business reacts to market conditions quickly and seamlessly to meet the changing needs of your clients.   All this, even if the reality is you’re working from your home office, your VA is working from her office,  your bookkeeper working from his office, your outsourced sales people working from their offices….

5.  Setting you up for success during the upturn
Most of the business experts agree … now is the time to position yourself for the economic upswing. While it may not feel like it today, the uptick will come – history has proven that it always has. So, investing in a virtual assistant will help you get your business lined up for the ride. By letting someone else worry about the day-to-day details of your business, you can focus on longer-term goals and projects that will position you for success in the not-so-distant future. If you don’t take the time now to explore new and innovative ways to continue differentiating yourself and growing your business, you’ll be sorely behind the curve when the economy starts sweeping upwards.

 

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Weight loss and business building

Like most people, there are days when I find myself loafing on the couch, sucked into a day-long marathon of cop-show reruns I’ve already seen a hundred times. I get up about every other commercial break to rummage through the cupboards for … well … something. Half the time I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for, so I go back to my post on the couch empty-handed. Sometimes I go back with a handful of chips to “test” and see if that’s what I am, in fact, craving. And sometimes I park it back under the blanket with a bowl overflowing with ice cream.

I inevitably hit a point where I think “Hmmmm. These jeans are feeling a bit snug.” After a sufficient amount of denial and blaming my too-tight pants on dryer-shrinkage, I eventually face facts. “Maybe I should get my arse off the couch and drop a few pounds.”

I go through this routine usually in the spring, after hibernating all winter and recognizing that it won’t be long until I pack up my bulky sweaters and pull out my shorts and t-shirts.

So, I vow to watch what I eat and walk the dog not only more regularly, but more briskly. But what I’ve always refused to do was buy a scale. I always told myself I didn’t really care much how much I weighed … I just wanted to feel a little better in my jeans. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a weight-loss goal was seeing if maybe I could fit into a size-smaller pants. Although, my declaration was sort of half-assed, and ended up being more “fleeting thought” than “goal.”

But an epiphany struck when I went through this process this spring. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m running a business, or finally wise enough to know what needs to be done.

As it turns out, my theory about buying a scale is … and always has been … a load of hooey.

In business, in order to know how you’re doing, you have to test and measure. Watch your numbers. Know what’s coming in and going out. If you don’t, you’ll have no idea if you need to focus on finding more prospects, or if you need to work on turning your current prospects into customers, or if your money is better spent on magazine advertising or a trade-show booth.  You’ll have no idea if your revenues aren’t keeping up with your spending.

You also won’t know that it’s time to paaaaahhtaaaay! when you hit your goals.

Without a scale, how am I ever going to know if I need to thinking about cutting a few more calories than usual?  Or tack an extra 10 minutes to the run/walk with the dog? Or know when it’s “safe” to go to the mall to see if maybe I can, in fact, fit into a smaller-sized pair of a jeans?

In business, I learned very early about the importance goal-setting. Sometimes they’re small goals, like sending a certain number of follow-up emails a week. Sometimes they’re bigger goals, like increasing revenues a certain percentage by a specific date. If I hit the goal, fantastic! If not, I simply go back a few steps to see where I veered off and determine how to get back on track.

I think my aversion to buying a scale or setting an actual weight-loss goal every spring stemmed from a fear of failure…I was afraid that if I wrote down, “I want to fit into pants that are one size smaller by this date,” and didn’t hit the goal, then I’d feel like I failed. My guess is that it’s that fear of failure that probably keeps quite a few people from setting goals.

But, I’ll tell you what’s happened because I’ve never written down “I want to fit into pants that are one-size smaller by this date.”

I’ve never been one size smaller.

So, what have you got to lose? You don’t set the goal, you probably won’t achieve it. You do set the goal, there’s a pretty good chance you will achieve it. And, I’m here to tell you that even if you don’t hit the goal, it’s no biggie because, chances are, you’re probably closer to it than you think. A few tweaks to the plan and you’ll be right back on track.

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Leaning forward

In recent weeks, I’ve once again found myself leaning uncomfortably forward. As a small-business owner, though, I’m getting used to the feeling. That feeling that comes with knowing I’m doing something a little bit risky, a little bit unpredictable, a little bit exciting, and a little bit uncomfortable.

The feeling I might … just might … be leaning far enough forward that there’s a chance I may tip over.

Rescue Desk has been progressing beautifully since its launch more than a year ago, and I couldn’t be more pleased. The plan has always been to continue growing … growing the types of services, growing my firm’s footprint in the local community, growing the Rescue Desk team, growing in my role as entrepreneur. All are on track to … well … grow.

These goals aren’t anything new. I’m not the first business owner with lofty goals, and I certainly won’t be the last.

For my VA firm to expand, my plan has always been to eventually pack up shop and move headquarters from my home office into the local business community – a la Microsoft moving out of Bill Gate’s garage, or Google moving out of the founders’ dorm rooms.

I had visions of moving into a funky little artist studio that would be the hub of my practice. A place where my VA team would virtually gather for teleconferences and Webinars;  a place where my clients  could see where their assistant takes care of their business; a place that gives a public personality to my scrappy little company; a place that would be the perfect stepping stone to the next logical step … an even larger funky artist studio.

So, I started digging into finding that artsy-fartsy little space that would personify Rescue Desk.  I chatted with local business-owner friends with similar service-based business models, I weighed the pros and cons about the timing of this decision, and I picked the brains of the commercial-office agents in my networking groups. I made appointments to see some little spaces around town.

One of the very first places I poked my head into was “it.”

It was little rough around the edges, as was to be expected from the spaces in an old converted warehouse.  But I didn’t have to think very hard to envision the paint color, the art on the wall, the feng-shui-placed furniture,  and where my dog would spend her days. Gigantic skylights let in more light than I’d know what to do with, the old-school track lighting was reminiscent of an old art gallery, and the hardwood floors were worn down by (what I like to think) were a long line of creative types like me.

Two weeks ago, I moved in.

A year ago if you would’ve told me my  firm would be the proud leasee on commercial office space, I never would’ve believed it. So, once again I was reminded of an important lesson — never, ever, ever assume you know which direction your business — or your life — will take you.

It’s vital to keep learning forward. It’s not always comfortable … hell, most of the time it’s downright scary. But the payoff is looking back at what you’ve leaned into and thinking “Remember how I felt when (insert risky move here)… ” and the moment of pride that comes when you recognize your accomplishment.

The funky little 400 square feet of inner warehouse that has my name on the door is what I’m leaning into… for now, anyway. Knowing what I know about leaning forward, I can’t wait to look back on my next moving day (into the aforementioned bigger, funkier studio) and think “Remember that first, tiny little space where Rescue Desk was headquartered?”

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Confessions of a multitasker

Last month, I spent an afternoon milling around a Women’s Business Expo here in my hometown. It was a good event … part networking , part conference, part trade show, part enter-your-business-card-to win-a-free-Prada-bag.

All in all, my kind of event.

One of the sessions I attended was a speech by a communications expert at the local university. The topic was on information overload in the digital age. It qualified as an appropriate topic in the World of Me, especially given the number of emails I get in a day, how often my PDA buzzes with appointment reminders, and the hours I spend hammering on my keyboard.

The underlying theme of the session was the importance of time management, and I was surprised to learn what, in fact, was the biggest culprit that sucked my time into the pit of unproductiveness.

Multitasking.

What?! That doesn’t make any sense! That’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s being able to do more than one thing  at a time that makes me not only exceptionally good in my role as a business owner,  but it makes me a flippin’ WOMAN, for cryin’ out loud.

I can pair non-vital tasks with vital tasks any day and twice on Sunday. Stuff envelopes and talk on the phone? Piece’a cake. Send emails while waiting on hold? Second nature. Walk and chew gum? It’s the only way I’ll chew gum.

As the presenter was talking, I busted out my Blackberry and Twittered this very question about multitasking into the Twitterverse.

Bringing my brain back around to the presentation, I started jotting notes from the speaker’s slides about the nuances of time-management.

Just then my phone vibrated on my hip with an email reply from a prospective client. Next day’s appointment was confirmed.

“Great! See you then!” I thumb-punched onto my QWERTY board.

When I looked up, the presenter was asking us to take a quick test to prove her theory. We had to write “Multitasking is the least efficient way to get things done.” But, with every letter of the sentence, we had to write a corresponding number below it. So, I dutifully pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote “M” then “1” below it; then “U” then “2” below it….

“Hmmm,” I caught myself thinking. “I wonder if I should send an informational sheet to my contact before our meeting tomorrow.”

Just a quick text should do the trick.  “Will send info sheet before end of day!”

“L” … “3” … “T”…”4”

Just then the phone lit up like a light bulb on my lap.

Lookit that! Someone re-tweeted my tweet about multitasking from earlier!

“I”….”5”….”T”….”6” ….

This was easy, I thought. I had NO PROBLEM bouncing my brain back and forth from letters to numbers, emails to text messages. In fact, I found my groove and started to get a little faster (and maybe a wee bit cocky) about it.

“A” “7”…”S”8”…“K” “9”…

(Text message: “Thanks for email! In seminar … will ring u later!”)

“I” “10”..“N” “11” .. “G” “12”…

(Note written in notebook:  “Call Em about dogsitting.”)

“I” “13”… “S” “14” …  “T” “15” …

About a minute into the exercise, the presenter piped up. “OK, stop!”

No sweat. I totally had this exercise nailed! Who says you can’t multitask effectively?!? My brain slides back and forth like a well-oiled MACHINE!

 “OK,” she said. “Now write the phrase ‘Multitasking is the least effective way to get things done.’ Then, when you’re done writing that sentence, write out ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, et cetra.’”

Of course it took a fraction of the time when I wrote the sentence, then the numbers…basically doing only one thing at a time, instead of two. And effectively proving that multitasking can, in fact, be the biggest culprit that sucks my time into the pit of unproductiveness.

I’m still guilty of multitasking, but thanks to the five-minute lesson I learned between text messages and emails that afternoon, I’ve started slowing down once in awhile and recognizing that it can be more productive do only one thing at a time.

It’s OK to sit quietly and meditate for a few minutes while the computer boots up, instead of frantically making notes on my to-do list. It’s OK to respond to emails at certain times of the day, instead of punctuating everything on my to-do list with a reply to someone. It’s OK to schedule a meeting-free day every week to focus entirely on office work, instead of zipping around town and trying to squeeze in paperwork between get-togethers and coffee dates.

It may seem wildly counter-intuitive to do one thing at a time in order to be more productive, but trust me. Sometimes you just need to sit down to chew your gum.

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