After joining his family’s apparel manufacturing company at the age of 18, Alfredo Atanacio traveled often between Miami, the economic gateway to Latin America, and his birthplace in San Salvador, El Salvador. Given all that time in the air and on the road, he found, at age 23, that he needed an assistant to help keep his life organized.
Atanacio, who also teaches entrepreneurship at The School of Economy and Business in El Salvador, tried working with virtual assistants in India and the Philippines but was quickly disappointed by the cultural and language barriers he encountered. “After researching how these companies worked, I figured we could do better by hiring people in El Salvador to do the same thing,” he says. “There are very strong cultural ties with the U.S. since about 30% of the population of El Salvador was either born in the U.S. or worked there at one time.”
Sensing an opportunity, Atanacio and two co-founders, Rodolfo Schildknecht and Ernesto Arguello (who is no longer with the company), set up a call center called Uassist.ME in San Salvador in 2009, and hired three assistants who were capable of tackling everything from organizing appointments and travel arrangements to transcriptions and invoice collection, all in either English or Spanish. Assistants are now also trained in how to use QuickBooks, since many of Uassist.ME’s clients are small business owners. They then began marketing the business through Facebook and Twitter and by participating in forums and blogs that discussed outsourcing and virtual assistants.
Each client gets a dedicated phone number to contact their assistant and is provided a variety of options - phone, Skype, email, text - to connect with their assistant. Atanacio says his typical customers are real estate agents, law offices, and retired CEOs who were used to having an assistant. Customers also include high-level executives whose companies do not provide personal assistants for them.
Atanacio says about 40% of new business comes via referral with another 40% spurred by search engine optimization and Google AdWords. The rest come from direct sales. The company’s clients can hire a virtual full-time assistant for a flat fee that ranges between $300 and $700 a month, which is far less than the cost of a more traditional assistant working eight hours a day. “We now have customers all over the world in countries like Canada, Spain, and England,” says Atanacio. “Strangely enough, we also have customers in India who hire us to help them cater to their U.S. customers.”
A big part of Uassist.ME’s appeal is its focus on Spanish-speakers. Since Hispanics are the most populous minority in U.S. cities, that gives the company an advantage over competitors in India and the Philippines.
Atanacio says clients can request just about anything from their assistants - as long as it doesn’t involve anything illegal. Some of the stranger tasks assistants have been asked to perform include evaluating strippers for a bachelor party and researching how a woman goes about freezing her eggs.
Just as in real life, however, having an assistant can also cause some drama outside the office. “We had a client get into trouble with his wife after he sent his assistant some flowers for her birthday,” says Atanacio.