Back in 2007 I read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, in which he talked about hiring a virtual assistant (VA) and how it enabled him to duplicate himself and get more of his time back.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Then I spent 10 years trying to hire VA and make it work with almost 10 attempts, and so far I’ve failed every time.
Yes, I read Virtual Freedom by Chris Ducker–twice.
Yes, I read Michael Hyatt’s ebook Coming Up For Air on hiring a VA.
Both of these are great resources and I highly recommend you read them, even though I haven’t yet figured out how to make them work.
I did tons of research, using some of it to write an article for Entrepreneur, 17 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Potential Virtual Assistant.
I talked to numerous people who swore by their VA’s and said it was an absolute game-changer for them.
I learned about their systems and processes and tried to follow them.
The first time I tried to hire someone on my own, using a job site in the Philippines.
I ended up with someone who was about 60% competent, and then found out she was fudging her hours. I fired her.
I hired a guy who told me he was doing a bunch of work, but then when time came for delivery he delivered fake work. When I called him out on it he admitted to outsourcing it to someone else, then claimed he was poor, had already spent all the money, and couldn’t return what I had paid him. I let him keep the money but that was the end of our relationship.
After unsuccessful attempts hiring overseas (in addition to the Philippines I tried Bangladesh, India, and the Czech Republic), I thought “Maybe I need a US-based VA,” so I hired the company Hyatt recommended, Belay (formerly EAHelp).
That VA was substantially more expensive, and the results were just as poor. She didn’t follow directions, made a mess of things, and I had to fire her/them.
Then I thought “Perhaps I need someone to help me,” so I hired a company in the Philippines that does screening and initial interviews for you, narrowing it down to the best of the best for you to interview.
At this point I had read all the books, I had learned from bad experiences, and I figured there was no way this couldn’t work.
I also thought “Maybe I’m not paying enough to get the good ones,” so instead of trying to find a VA for $400-500, I decided I would hire one asking for $1,000 per month.
I hired one VA through this company, then another, another, and another.
All four of them failed.
I began to think it wasn’t possible, but I kept meeting people who were hiring VAs in the Philippines and it was working out great for them.
I thought about trying the US again, but it’s hard to resist the allure of $500 for a full-time VA in the Philippines when the same person would cost $3-4K in the US.
Note: Before anyone goes off about how those who hire assistants in the Philippines for $500 are exploiting them or taking advantage of their poverty, go talk to some of those assistants and get their side of the story. The minimum monthly salary in the Philippines as of 2019 is about $135 USD and many families are living on $50/month. If you make $500/month in the Philippines you’re doing well. I lived in Hong Kong for three years where hundreds of thousands of Filipina women come to find a “better life” as live-in maids where they earn about $500 USD per month, live in a closet, are often abused, and sometimes are trapped into a form of indentured servitude through unscrupulous agencies. They leave friends and family behind for up to 30 years. If you pay a woman in the Philippines $500 to do VA work she gets to sit in a comfortable chair, work 40 hours a week, and stay with her family and children. Don’t get me started on exploitation until you’ve seen real exploitation.
But since I haven’t yet made this work, I reached out to some friends who have succeeded, and asked them for their suggestions and advice. Here’s what they had to say (after reading the above):
Jeff Butler, Public Speaker
Hiring virtual assistants is a tricky business when you are getting started.
Very often you can deal with employees booking more time than they are actually working, or having jobs ‘finished’ that are not up to your standard of quality.
After working with remote teams for almost half a decade, I can proudly say, I have made my own blunders and lost thousands dollars along the way.
Below, are a few good rules of thumb when you started on hiring VAs:
1. Limit Your Liability – that means not paying people per hour when you first start to hire.
Pay them for the completion of the project. Usually try to start small <$100 when you start, and after each project completion you can gradually give them more responsibility. After a few months of them making your deadlines and making your standards, you can offer them more of a part time role in the company. Too often, employers go from zero to full time hire which is where many employers find tasks mysterious not getting done. They haven’t vetted the person ahead of time.
2. Hire More Than One Person – you will consistently get your fair share of ghosting VAs and crazy excuses when you hire people virtual. One time I had someone who was doing a Lead Project not make a deadline and they told me that their baby had cancer and they were in the hospital which is why they didn’t finish on time. They shared a picture of the child as proof. After Googling ‘Sick Baby’ I found the same result on the first page. To avoid this happening in the future, make sure for project based work to bring on more than one person so you can compare results.
3. Find Your Linchpin – After about 6 months of hiring virtual assistants, you will find some that you really click with that also makes a natural leader. You can make this person your Linchpin by making them the manager of the team and they will be responsible for the team results. This will include them hiring for other roles. They will also be well connected to other people in the market who would be eager to help your team. 90% of our hires are referrals at this point, mainly from this Linchpin approach.
Jeff does 50-60 paid speaking engagements per year on the topic of multi-generational workplaces
Jess Larsen, Myelin Advisors
I have no opinion on what Josh could have done differently, he was working with different people then me and for different goals. All I can do is tell you what has worked for me.
Quick background: I formerly had a great full-time assistant when after my time on the front end of an M&A team at Citi I got my first real, full time administrative assistant when I became the 28 year old CEO of an energy-focused private investment fund. I had 2 great assistants at out management consulting firm since then and one who I had to let go because he wasn’t wired for it and had a good heart but mess-up on some scheduling and wasn’t bringing the level detail-conscious care and concern for my top staff and clients. Two years ago I switched to VA found though Chris Ducker’s agency in the Philippines and she’s been better than half my other ones that charged me quadruple her price.
Starting ahead of the curve:
- We went through a service that does background checks etc. which turned into:
- #1 we were lucky. She’s great. Experienced as a VA. Very trustworthy, kind, detail-conscious, polite, willing to learn new technologies and patient with the wild goose chases I send her on trying to research new ideas or get a connection to some high profile business leader to be on our podcast.
What else do I think made it work:
- Instead of interviewing a lot I just had her start on a probationary basis so we could see if we were a fit. I was willing to waste a couple of weeks if I was wrong about my first impressions and either she would be able to do the work or not.
- I took the view that I was willing to invest a ton of hours on the front end with the vision that I would be able to go for years as a well-oiled machine. I was doing screen shares over join.me and long Skype calls and walking through her work with her on a daily basis for a number of weeks until it became a routine.
- We have a daily routine. Every morning that I am disciplined enough we hop on Asana (used to just do it off a google doc) and run through my A, B, C priorities for the day and hers. Here are some of the standard items on it.
- What appointments does she need to confirm for me for tomorrow?
- Who did Jess meet with yesterday that we should send and email to (follow up or thank you).
- Was there anything important in Jess’s unread emails from yesterday (she reads them for me).
- Review Jess’s Asana items he didn’t do yesterday.
- Review her assignments from yesterday.
- What is (our other VA who edits all of our podcasts and reports to her) doing today?
- Did we get paid yesterday
- Go through all top clients / major accounts. (Usually, there is nothing to do on them, but it is a great trigger to think of things to do for them or things I forgot or things that need to get signed to one of the sr. consultants on our team)
- All of these are more for me but having the routine really helps me with my tendency to hyper-focus on whatever I thought of first thing in the morning and miss other important things. Also, its a natural accountability cycle, as much for me as for her, but if something has started to slip on her end I can catch it within a day or two and emphasize its importance without it being a big deal because it hasn’t gotten very off track.
- I like that she isn’t bugged when I don’t call her and we just have standard projects on tap for if she ever runs out of things to do or I no-show her for our morning call, but its typically bad from em and the business if I do it too much. When things start slipping in the business I can almost always trace a big part of it to rising my morning routine with her too many times in the previous weeks. Its really amazing how much of kind of work I hate doing that she does for me so that I can have the time to go on a walk and think or listen to an audiobook or have a long important-non-urgent phone call with a business partner, while still having the confidence that she is doing the urgent things like getting me a lunch with a prospective client or checking on our accounting, or following up on our key staff for me.
- Also by spending almost and hour to two a day on the phone with her she really knows how I think, what’s important to me, how I think, and so I can trust her to make allot of decisions.
- One more was doing a one on one with her like a regular employee, and asking her about her biggest problem outside of work and trying doing some real coaching for her to help her figure what she was going to do about it. Nothing special, but not something most VAs expect.
- Another thing that has gone really well is trying to be generous with her like giving her more time off then she expected and trying to be flexible with things for her son or when her boyfriend wanted to take her to a concert. The other one was the first year finding out in the Philippines its customary to pay a “13th” month paycheck in December for everybody to afford Christmas. She asked me about but wasn’t expecting it and it wasn’t part of our work arrangement, but I decided to bet it would pay off in the long term and it defiantly has. Next about year in I realized she was working way too many hours for a single Mom with us and her other job so we gave her a 50% raise if she agreed not to work a second job so she could stay home with her son and I think this was the real clincher. She talks to my wife sometimes and they ask about each others kids and not just to be nice they actually want to hear the answers. She is so loyal to us and is not just an employee, she’s kind of part of our family.
- Risking the danger of pretending I’m an above-average human, along the same lines as above, I feel like part of her exceptional work ethic and willingness to go the extra mile is partly because of a very intentional effort to treat her with respect and that she is returning the favor. It would be easy to objectify VAs because they often get talked about more like a commodity than an individual, and in certain ways they almost invite it because they expect it because previous clients have treated them like that. I remember a comment about 9 months in where we were talking about this concept as part of our work for a client and she said, “oh, now I understand why you are always worried about my time making sure that I am not working more hours than I am being paid for”. I was happy that she noticed and felt good about my self for one minute, but then was sad that others had obviously not respected her and her time and had taken advantage of her because of the power imbalance. It sounds so small, but it doesn’t take much to standout.
I’ll say this with our other VA that mostly she manages for us, its much more of a straight forward working engagement. One of our media staff trained him, and held his hand with training for the first weeks, and did quality control checks on his editing, and I only talk to him once or twice a month for 3-4 minutes. We had a very defined system for him to follow and for the most part he’s been good at it. If something slips I just tell my assistant and she gets him back on track, other then that his work for us feels amazingly automated. But when he lost his cell phone and asked to borrow a few hundred dollars against his future paychecks ( a classically terrible idea), I decided that it was a chance to be generous and try to have his back first. Then when we forgot to deduct it out of his check once he was the one to come back to us to let us know, and then from there forward sent a reminder each time for us to deduct the extra.
Some of the best advice I ever got was from my multimillionaire mentor and later business partner who said growing up in his Dad’s business he was taught that when you go home and have dinner with your family you have to expect your staff to run the store worse then if you were there doing it your self, but that’s ok because you get to go home and have dinner with your family.
It helps me with my expectations and be honest about what i’m getting for what I’m paying and having patience when things get a little off track and we need to get “back on the wagon” with something. And then next I have take a look at my blindspots in the mirror that usually it includes my delegation turning into abdication and not even system for checking on work or having someone else check on it and assuming its probably just fine for a long time, only to get a surprise later. Additionally I have come to be converted to the Toyota Production System / Operational Excellence principal of resisting the natural urge to blame the employee and instead as “what have I design insufficiently about this system that this was even able to happen? How can I mistake proof this process going forward?” Easier said than done, but I aspire to asking those questions more.
I think my style of doing long daily phone calls to basically teach them how to do my job for me is not everyones, and so I wouldn’t necessarily say my way is a recipe for others, but maybe there are a couple ideas in there to steal for your own system.
Jess is an executive coach, podcaster, and founder of Myelin AdvisorsLiked it? Share it!