i’m a big fan of virtual assistants (VAs). a VA is a temporary worker that provides administrative assistance remotely. i originally learned about them from the 4-hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss (which i highly recommend if you haven’t read it!). my goal was to maintain my same level of productivity while reducing my personal workload, but what ended up happening was an increase in productivity with an equal or greater workload. this wasn’t a bad outcome, but just not the one that i was going for, and that’s why I stopped using the service. it may be possible to achieve similar productivity levels and a reduced workload using a VA, but it would take more experimentation.
I used www.taskseveryday.com for 7 months total. my VA worked midnight to 4am EST 5 days per week at a cost of $6/hr. i assigned a variety of tasks, from voice transcriptions, conversion of scanned pages to word documents, conversion of photos of whiteboards to powerpoint presentations, research on contacts, screenshots of websites, and sending the occasional email. The skill of each VA varies and your ability to use them greatly depends on who you get. I recommend hiring more than one from different companies, assigning the same tasks for a variety of needs, and keeping the best one. you can only do this because it is inexpensive (i’ve seen as cheap as $4/hr).
The best thing I setup was taking pictures of my whiteboard from my phone using an application called Evernote, which immediately synced the photo to the internet to a website that my VA accessed every day first thing (using Evernote’s “publish to RSS” feature). He converted these to powerpoints and sent them back to me. In addition, I regularly asked my VA to send me 1-2 pages of summaries of a person I planned on contacting, including a photo, location, bio, publications, work history, etc. Kind of stalkerish, but cool. Converting scanned documents to word documents is also straightforward and was very helpful for me, since I keep almost all of my materials digital so that they are indexed and searchable. I also asked for someone that had an understanding of basic web programming, excel, databases, but my VA definitely did not. I recommend making VERY HIGH demands when you explain what you are looking for, and ensure that your VA has several years of real experience. If you don’t make big demands, they’ll give you on of the lesser trained guys. Make sure you talk to your VA on the phone before you commit. Your VAs english is going to have to be very good if he is going to help setup appointments, respond to emails, etc. I didn’t trust mine with this, but it could work if you got the right one.
I would recommend writing out a list of specific tasks that you want to have accomplished, enough to fill up about 75% of the VAs time for the first month. When you actually assign a task, each “assignment” should convey exactly what you are asking (usually in bullet points), desired format (e.g. Google Doc, Word Document), with specific instructions of the desired output, often with a template (what should each page of the word document look like, what info should it include, etc.).
i would love to hear about other peoples’ experience using VAs, especially if you have any specific tasks that worked extremely well (like the whiteboard -> powerpoint conversion for me).