Ready to kiss your day job goodbye and start earning a living from your laptop? I’m a firm believer that with a little bit of skill and a fair bit of perseverance, anyone can build a thriving virtual assistant business.
And unlike other business opportunities, starting a virtual assistant business won’t cost you a small fortune. There’s no inventory to buy, no franchise fees to pay, no storefront to rent, and very little equipment to invest in. In fact, you probably already have most of what you need, sitting right there on your desk.
Of course, none of us are born with the know-how to build a business from the ground up, so if you’re struggling with how to get started, you’re not alone. Let’s do a little planning, shall we?
Before we dig in, feel free to grab the interactive workbook version of this guide with checklists, fill-in-the-blank templates, and resource guide.
Step 1: Assess Your Skills
Virtual Assistants come in a lot of different varieties, so don’t start thinking you have no marketable skills, because that’s just not true. If you’ve ever worked in an office, formatted a Word document, written an article, or even so much as read an email, you have a skill that people are willing to pay for.
True story: I have a client who has a membership site. She emailed me one day to ask me to make a small update to one of her membership levels. This was a minor change that required nothing more than logging into the site, checking two boxes, and clicking the save button. I wrote her back and told her that, and even gave her the instructions.
Her response? “I know it’s easy and I could do it in 5 minutes. I’d just rather not. Please do it for me.”
It does not matter if your skills are large or small, beginner or advanced, and never make the mistake of thinking “I can do this – therefore everyone else can, too.”
Businesses need your help, and they are more than willing to pay for it. So let’s figure out what you have to offer.
Start with a brainstorming session. Sit down and list out all of the things you can do that others will pay for. Personally, I like paper and pen for this exercise. I think best when I’m talking, but second best is always in writing–preferably by hand rather than keyboard. Maybe I’m quirky, but if you’re stuck, give that a try. You might just surprise yourself.
Regardless of your brainstorming style, one thing is a must: Do not stop to think too much. Some of your ideas will suck and some will just be silly. But some of them will bring in more cash than you can probably imagine right now. Remember, this is just the initial brainstorming session, so write everything down. You can weed out the non-viable tasks later.
Once you have your list, rank them in order of what you most LIKE to do. Try not to think in terms of what will make the most money, or what’s most in demand, but rather concentrate on those things you really enjoy. Trust me on this – you don’t want to build a business doing things just because they pay well. I’ve done that, and hated it, and you will, too.
Step 2: Know Your Joy
While there are likely dozens of things you can do, there are probably only a few that you really love to do. This is your business, and you want to enjoy it, right? After all, if you wanted to spend your days doing things you “have to” do rather than what you “want to” do, you’d have a job.
So let’s focus on what really makes you happy.
If you love to write, then blogging, copywriting, ghostwriting, and other content creation jobs are for you. If you have a passion for Photoshop and an eye for design, then website, print, and even infographic creation might be your choice. If you think in php and HTML, then technical services are where you’ll thrive.
Some in-demand virtual assistant skills include:
- Website setup and maintenance
- Social media management
- Membership site creation
- Graphic design (eCovers, web graphics, document design)
- Content creation
- Shopping cart management
- Customer support
- Calendar management
- Audio and video editing
- Launch coordination
- Affiliate management
- Technical troubleshooting
- Systems development
- Project management
This list is by no means all-inclusive, and the required tasks will vary depending on your niche (more on that in the next step). As you can see though, no matter what you enjoy doing–whether it’s working with customers or keeping all the moving pieces of a launch working smoothly–there is a need for it.
Step 3: Define Your Dream Client
Just as you want to build a business that allows you to do what you enjoy (most of the time), you also want to work with people you love and respect–and those who value your contribution to their business. These people are your ideal client, and the more clearly you can identify them, the better your business will be.
Your dream client is a combination of demographics (age, gender, socioeconomic status), business model, and project type. For example, my dream client is:
- Female (no particular reason for this, I just enjoy working with women)
- Earning a full-time living from her business (my VA rates are on the high end, so I’m not a good fit for new business owners)
- Coaches, authors, speakers and information product sellers (these are the business models I am most familiar with)
- Need technical help with shopping carts, email systems and membership sites (I am personally happiest when I’m figuring out how stuff works)
Because I’m clear on who my dream client is, it’s easy for me to decide whether or not a potential client is a good fit. If a handmade soap maker comes to me needing help with a Squarespace website, it’s easy to say “no” because the project and the client just aren’t right for me. I don’t know anything about selling physical products, and I don’t work with Squarespace.
Now, if you’re just starting out, finding your dream client is going to seem like an exercise in frustration. How can you know who you want to work with or what projects you’ll love if you haven’t worked with anyone on any projects yet?
You can’t. But don’t worry about it.
For now, a rough idea of your dream client is all that’s needed. You’ll revise this continually as your business grows, and that’s ok. Start by reviewing what you love to do. Who needs those services? Who among that group would be a good fit for you?
If you love to write and have a good grasp of how a blog works, then bloggers looking to outsource content creation will definitely make the list. Real estate agents likely will not.
Step 4: Know Your Operating Costs
It’s inexpensive to start a virtual assistant business, but it’s not free. At a bare minimum you’ll need a computer with Internet access, a headset (for Skype calls) or a telephone, and a website.
These are your must-haves.
You probably already have some on the necessities (Internet access, for example, or you wouldn’t be reading this), but some you will need to purchase. Figure out how much that will cost, and how you’ll earn the cash to start.
Assuming you already have internet access and a phone, then all that’s left is your website and an email autoresponder.
In the US, you can expect to pay:
- $12 for a domain name (annually)
- $10 for a hosting account (monthly)
- $20 for an email autoresponder (monthly)
- About $70 for a premium WordPress theme (optional)
So you’re looking at an up-front cost of around $100 (or less) and a monthly cost of around $30. There are other things you may want or need, such as a professionally designed logo, or business cards, or a business coach, but this is the bare minimum you should plan for.
You can easily bootstrap this without going into debt:
- Raid the grocery fund: if you have a little disposable income, this is a good choice. It really isn’t very costly to open up shop as a virtual assistant.
- Sell your unused stuff: Garage sales, Craigslist, eBay and others are good for a quick influx of the necessary start-up costs.
- Sell a service: If you’re good at writing, graphics, or other in-demand service, you can easily earn your business start-up funds just by making an offer in forums or on Facebook, or creating a ‘gig’ on Fiverr.
Here’s what you should NOT do: finance your start up costs on a credit card. This isn’t a financial blog, but let’s just agree that financing your business on a credit card adds unnecessary stress (not to mention interest). When you’re just getting started and don’t have a regular, recurring income, more financial stress is the last thing you need.
Here’s the best advice I can give you. If you are desperate for cash right now, get a job. A virtual assistant business is not a quick or easy path to financial freedom. It’s not even an easy way to replace your day job income. But it can be an incredibly fun and rewarding career (and you get to work in your bunny slippers), if you don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Step 5: Create Your Virtual Assistant Website
This is not as difficult as it might sound, so don’t panic. You’ll need three things:
A domain name. This will cost about $12 (USD) and is paid annually. You can purchase a domain name via GoDaddy or NameCheap, or any number of other domain registrars. You can choose a business name, such as “DigitalBusinessManagers.com” or your name (cindybidar.com) or some combination (yournameva.com). You do want to always get the .com version. Do not settle for .net or .info or .org or any other options. Always get the .com, and if that’s not available, choose a different domain for which you can buy the .com.
A hosting provider. This is where your website files will live. It should be separate from your registrar (don’t buy hosting from NameCheap or GoDaddy, for example). It should be Linux based (most are) and it will cost you between $5 and $25 per month. My favorite host for brand new business owners is MomWebs. They’re very newbie friendly, and will walk you through all of the techy bits. If you’re a little bit more technically savvy (and have a larger budget), then I highly recommend LiquidWeb.
WordPress. Yes, there are other options, but none of them offer the flexibility and scalability that WordPress does, and none of them have the massive support community that WordPress has. Note: We’re talking about a self-hosted website, where you download the software from WordPress.org, not the free WordPress.com version. You cannot host a business website on WordPress.com, so don’t set up your site there.
Do not settle for other free providers either. Setting up shop on Blogger or Weebly or Tumbler or other free blog sites will make you look unprofessional. Don’t do it. It’s better to have no website at all than to have a free one. Seriously. Trust me on this.
Once you’ve purchased your domain and hosting account and connected the two (your hosting company will provide the information you need to do this), you’ll need to install WordPress. You can do that in one of two ways: manually or automatically.
The manual method is recommended. If you’re not up for that, you can install WordPress automatically using the one-click installers provided by your hosting company. Look for your hosting account’s “one click installer,” click the icon and follow the instructions.
Once you have WordPress installed, you can add a theme to change how the site looks, and then it’s time to add some content. At the very least, you will need:
- A home page. This is the page that comes up when a reader types your URL into their browser. You’ll want to add content to this page to encourage visitors to take some action. For example, you may want them to contact you for a free consultation, hire you to create their social media images, or join your mailing list. Whatever your goal is, make sure it’s clear on the home page.
- An “about me” page. This is where you let readers know more about you. Include a picture (yes, really) and 3 to 5 paragraphs about you. Who are you? What do you do? Why do you do it? Be a bit personal here, but not too personal.
- A services page. Exactly what do you do? Share the services you offer, the tools you work with, any packages you have, and most important, buy buttons. It’s your choice whether or not to post your prices on your site. Personally, I state my prices because it prevents me from wasting time talking to people who are looking for low-cost providers (I’m not one). But your mileage may vary, so do what feels right for you here.
- A contact page. Use a simple plugin to create a contact form for your site so visitors can get in touch. I’d also include a physical address (only if you have a PO box) and a phone number. Your trustworthiness score will go way up if there are multiple ways to contact you on your site.
I also believe every VA should have a blog, but that might be a bit overwhelming at this point, so let’s stick a pin in that so we can come back to it later.
Step 6: Build the Infrastructure
Probably the most important part of starting your new business is to figure out how you’re going to get paid. For most VAs–both new and established–the payment processor of choice is PayPal.
- It’s easy and inexpensive
- Most of your potential clients already use it
- You don’t have to fill out an application or pay a fee to get started
- You don’t need a shopping cart
- You can take credit cards as well as PayPal funds
Later on you might want to look at having a backup plan such as Stripe, for those occasions when PayPal won’t work, but for now, let’s keep it simple.
You’ll need an email address and a bank account to transfer money to. Optionally, you can apply for a PayPal debit card and use that to withdraw cash instead of transferring it to your bank.
At this point, you may want to consult with an accountant about proper business accounting. I am not qualified to give you advice on this, but I can tell you that it’s best to keep your business and personal finances separate, which means having a business-only account to which you withdraw your PayPal funds. From there you can withdraw it to your personal account. This is not necessary–especially when you’re brand new–but as you grow it will definitely be needed.
Step 7: Start Marketing Your New Virtual Assistant Business
Whew! Now that you’re ready to roll, it’s time to get the word out. And here’s where many new VAs get stuck. Exactly what is marketing, and how do you do it?
First, start with who you know. Make it known among your family and friends what you do and who you do it for. Condense it down to one single sentence, so you’re always prepared:
“I [your happy work from step 2] for [your ideal client from step 3].”
“I build websites for coaches and authors.”
“I write blog posts and other marketing materials for small offline businesses.”
“I manage affiliate marketing programs for information product sellers.”
“I create social media and website graphics for food and lifestyle bloggers.”
“I handle billing and bookkeeping for consultants and coaches.”
You get the idea. Be clear about what you do (your joy) and who you work for (your dream client), then make sure everyone knows it. Options for getting the word out about your new business include:
- Facebook ads
- Word of mouth
- Local meetups
- Networking events and groups
- Private forums and Facebook groups
A word about using Facebook groups and forums to find clients. If you go in with the sole purpose of finding clients, you will fail. Nothing turns people off faster than repetitive, useless postings asking for work.
Here’s what to do instead: Be helpful. That’s it. When people ask questions in your area of expertise, offer solutions. For example, if you work in social media and someone says (as they always do) “How often should I be posting on my Facebook page?” your answer can be, “My clients have found that posting 3 to 5 times per day is best. Any more than that and the click throughs drop off a lot. Any less, and the organic reach suffers.”
You will, of course, need to use your own numbers and examples, but you get the idea. By offering concrete advice and subtly pointing out that you do, in fact, have clients, you’re opening the door to a deeper conversation–and perhaps a new client.
Zig Ziglar said it best: “You can have everything you want in life, if you will just help other people get what they want.” That’s what marketing is all about.
Here’s another tip about groups and forums you need to know. Join the groups where your ideal client hangs out. A common mistake I see new VAs make is to look for work inside groups of other VAs. While you might occasionally land a job with a firm (more on that in a minute), it’s rare. Instead, look for work where you are most likely to find it–inside the groups where your ideal client is likely to be searching for help.
Working for a multi-va firm can take a lot of the pressure off you when it comes to marketing. Rather than struggling to find individual clients, you’ll instead be working for several, all brought to you thanks to the marketing efforts of the firm’s owner. VA firms typically pay a little less than you might earn as a solopreneur, but they’re perfect if you’re just starting out and still need to hone your marketing chops.
Another option for finding clients is to respond to RFPs (requests for proposals) at various websites, such as:
- VANetworking.com: With active member forums and up-to-date job listings, this site is a great place to find work, regardless of your skill level.
- Upwork.com: Use this site and others like it with caution. Many times, sites like this become a “race to the bottom” with service providers competing on price alone. If you’re based in the US, Canada, Australia or most of Europe, this is a losing proposition for you. You will not be able to compete on price alone with providers in the Philippines or India. Instead, you must compete on value and expertise.
- Fiverr.com: Providers here create “gigs” with a $5 price tag. While there are some providers who claim to make a full-time living on Fiverr alone, I prefer to look at it as a stepping stone to better things. It’s a good way to get some experience and some testimonials so you can raise your rates and find better paying clients.
Marketing is an ongoing task that will continue throughout your career, and there are many, many ways to attract new clients, but landing that first one can feel like an insurmountable hurdle. If that’s where you’re at, consider bartering or even offering free services (on a very limited basis) to gain some testimonials and possibly some referral business.
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