For small businesses that are drowning in paperwork or administrative tasks, the traditional choice has been to hire a part-time or full-time assistant, or else slog through unassisted. But in these work-from-home days of the Internet, there’s a third option: hiring a virtual assistant.

Though the profession is relatively new and definitions vary, virtual assistants provide administrative or other services from their own offices, over Internet, phone, or fax. Virtual assistants (VAs) can provide a wide range of services, including not only administrative tasks such as clerical work, correspondence, and making travel arrangements, but also Web-based marketing, bookkeeping, writing, and any number of other tasks. VAs are small businesses themselves; some are one-person shops who may mostly handle administrative duties, others work with a staff of VAs to provide a wider range of services and greater availability than is possible for a single person.

For Wendy Battles, a health and lifestyle coach with a company named Healthy Endeavors, hiring a virtual assistant meant finally being able to market her business the way she wanted to. “As the business grew, I had more and more tasks,” she says. “I spend a lot of time with clients, but I also need to do marketing. And I’d wanted to launch new tele-seminars and develop more courses.”

Now two virtual assistants help Battles with Internet marketing tasks. They disseminate her weekly two-minute audio tips, improve her site’s shopping cart and search engine optimization, and write pitches. The Internet marketing work she never seems to have time for is finally getting done. And, though a Web developer might also have been able to improve her SEO and shopping cart, working with a VA has a different quality, she notes. “A Web developer wouldn’t do some of the stuff my assistant does,” she says. “Plus a Web developer might not always be available or have the same mentality about getting things done that a virtual assistant does.”

What to expect from a VA

Ready to consider hiring a virtual assistant? Here’s what to expect if you do:

1. Don’t expect to have to make a big commitment. Some VAs work on a fee-for-project basis. Others work on an hourly basis whenever you need them. But many prefer a monthly retainer for ongoing work. “That way, we get to know the clients and share in their successes,” says Sue Kramer Harrawood, marketing director for the International Virtual Assistants Association, and a VA herself, whose company is Peace of Mind Virtual Assistance. But just because you pay a retainer doesn’t mean you’re committed to a lot of work or expense -- many VAs allow for a commitment as small as five hours per month. Whatever you decide, it may be a good idea to plan for extra work -- perhaps double the usual amount -- during your first month, as the VA gets to know you and your requirements.

2. Expect to pay $25 per hour for a truly novice VA, to $65 per hour for a more experienced or highly skilled one. At least, within the United States, those are the going rates. Many VAs from other countries, notably India, will work for $5 an hour, or less. “You can cut overhead dramatically, but I’ve been looking for offshore VAs for 10 years, and have only found one who reached my standards,” says Jennifer Goodwin, owner of, a VA firm that employees other VAs to help serve its clients. Technological challenges and a language barrier can also be an issue when working offshore, Goodwin notes.

3. Consider looking for a VA who specializes in your industry. “Some VAs are specifically trained and licensed to work with real estate or insurance,” Kramer Harrawood says. Others may specialize in copy writing. Depending on the type of work you need, seeking out a VA who knows your industry may be well worth the effort.

4. Check out the VA carefully before you hire. A prospective VA should expect that you will want to have a detailed interview, and also check references with current or former clients. And, if the VA will be handling sensitive or valuable materials, you can take it a step further. “If you feel you want to do a background check, or look for a VA who’s bonded, then do it,” Goodwin declares. “There are plenty of them out there.”

5. Remember that the VA is a small business owner, not an employee. “A lot of people who hire VAs think of them as employees, and they have that mindset that the VA has to come into the office and do whatever they say,” Goodwin notes. “Actually, it’s more of an equal partnership.”

6. Expect more efficiency than you would with in-house staff. “Usually someone on staff has a lot of downtime, because there are breaks, conversations with co-workers and so on,” Goodwin says. “There are studies that show a VA who doesn’t have these distractions can get through an eight-hour day’s worth of work in four hours.”

7. Think of the VA as a partner in your business. “Sometimes there’s a great benefit for a client to creating a strategic alliance with the VA,” Goodwin says. “A lot of VAs send out newsletters, and feature their clients in their newsletters. And let’s say a company like mine has a client who’s a florist. I may want to send flowers to my other clients. And my other clients may want to send flowers to the people in their lives as well. Sometimes you can both make more money if you look at it as being in business together.”