By SooJi Min

4 Fashion Must Haves  -- - and How to Care for Them

It's not unusual for small business owners like Mike Otto, CEO of St. Louis Park, MN-based Fair and Square Remodeling, to clock 80 to 90 working hours a week. When a colleague suggested he hire a virtual personal assistant, Otto was definitely interested. Virtual personal assistants are very similar to an executive assistant or secretary; the main difference is that they work remotely. They also can specialize in a particular industry, like healthcare or law. The hourly rate for this innovation, however, can run in the $50 to $55 range. "I was used to paying about $20 an hour for admin," says Otto, who wasn't expecting the high price tag. "But those were employees." He was so overworked that he thought he would give it a try. The results were impressive.

"The first month that I brought this person on, she was very efficient," says Otto. "I contracted for 40 hours a month. By the third month, my hours dropped to 40 to 50 hours a week. In one month, this virtual administrator saved me 40 hours a week. This was huge. All of a sudden, the $50 an hour didn't matter."

Many employers -- from such industries as construction, healthcare, retail and professional services -- are turning to virtual personal assistants to increase productivity and overall operational efficiency. "We doubled our revenues last year and the year before," says Otto. "It allows me to spend more time at what I'm good at -- big picture thinking -- and more time with my kids and wife. When you are working 80 to 90 hours a week, it is not the best life in the world."

Typically, virtual assistants work as independent contractors and are responsible for paying their own taxes and providing their own benefits. They also are responsible for securing their own computer, phone and other office equipment. Virtual assistants can be found, as Otto did, through professional associations.

"My advice is to be very clear on what you would like this person to do," says Otto. "Be prepared to take time up front to show them what you want to do." Even then, the learning curb can be steep for employers. "Virtual communication is different than face-to-face," explains Otto, who relies heavily on technology -- cell phones, text and a lot of emails. "Every morning at 7 a.m. I email all the items that need to be taken care of during the day. You have to be careful how you word things. Writing an email is very different than talking. Inflection is a lot of communication. You don't get that in email."

Thankfully, Otto and his virtual assistant have worked out all the kinks. Indeed, he recently promoted her to director of operations (and still virtual). He's also hired a new virtual administrative assistant who manages both his schedule and some of the construction schedules.

Not every small-business owner may be as ready to embrace the virtual world as fully as Otto. If you are looking to decrease your payroll and benefits expenses and gain control of your life/work balance though, you might want to consider a virtual assistant as a staffing option.

SooJi Min is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive based in Ann Arbor, MI. She has written on small business topics for Crain's, Imagination Publishing and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

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Virtual Personal Assistants for Small Businesses