Using a Virtual Assistant to Offload Noise

Some time ago I read The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, and was intrigued by Tim Ferriss’ use of outsourcing for basic personal tasks. The term he used is Virtual Assistant (VA), and he uses them for everything from business tasks to booking his doctor’s appointments. He even challenges the reader to get a virtual assistant for a short time just to try it out and see how much you can extract from your life. I have decided to take this challenge.

I set myself the following tasks in order to test this service.

  1. Identify at least 5 items I can offload that would utilize no less than 10 hours a month of my time
  2. Dedicate 1 day to research current information on virtual assistant usage in discussion groups, blogs and web sites
  3. Define a maximum budget for this exercise
  4. Narrow down the possible firms to 3
  5. Hire and task a virtual assistant from one of the 3 firms
  6. Blog about the process and the results

Step One – Identify at Least 5 Items

{: .float_right} This task proved to be significantly more difficult than I thought. Tim Ferriss talked about the initial burden of identifying tasks to outsource, and some tasks to try. I still couldn’t come up with 5, until I read Enlightened outsourcing, Part 1: The psychology, Enlightened outsourcing Part 2: The practice, and Tips for Working With a Virtual Assistant (and Why You Might Want One). Reading these two posts made some of the concepts clear enough to me, and I now I had many more tasks than I needed – with many more that I could now foresee. These tasks are the noise in my daily life.

I decided to group my tasks into three basic buckets:

  • Recurring (things I expect to happen at least once every month)
  • Periodic Recurring (things I expect to happen to at least every few months)
  • Occasional (things I expect to happen around once or twice a year) I then created a word document with all of my tasks divided into one of these three buckets. While that list was well over a dozen tasks, here are the five I consider to be my trial set:
  1. Manage / Schedule appointments for the family with services (doctors, auto repair, etc…), all coordinated through a shared online calendar (recurring task)
  2. Spam management on blog (recurring task)
  3. Merge & manage disparate contact lists of all family members from all sources (periodic recurring task)
  4. Perform web research both on personal and business related topics (periodic recurring task)
  5. Gift buying and shipping (occasional task)

Step Two – Research Current Information on Virtual Assistants

{: .float_left } My starting point was the Tim’s forum for the 4 Hour Work Week. While Tim is noticeably absent, his virtual assistants are not. They are quite active and so are many other people. Happily, they are not silent on their experiences with different firms. Some Google searching later I found a number of other sites that seems to restate the same basic information.

Here is what I discovered. The big dog in this space is still Brickwork India, but some other players appear to have entered the big leagues. Bpovia in China and AssistU in the US are the two most talked about in the discussion forums I have been reading. However, another alternative that seems to have a lot of success is the bid and proposal service model provided by Elance and oDesk.

After nearly a full day researching this, it was very clear to me how valuable a virtual assistant doing this research could have been. I would have been freed to focus on tasks I wanted to spend time on, instead of this necessary tasks that did not need my direct involvement. One of the most valuable results of this research is the change in my thinking about tasks I perform. By days end, I had indentified well over a dozen more things I could have offloaded to a virtual assistant.

Step Three – Define My Budget

Of all the tasks, this was by far the easiest. I wanted to invest enough to be able to achieve meaningful results, but not so much that it would have long term impact – or more importantly make my wife upset. The limit I set was less than $10 / hour and no more than $600 over a 3 month period.

Step Four – Short List Virtual Assistant Firms

Based on the research in step two, pricing models, minimum commitments, and methods of payments, I created the following short list:

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I eliminated Brickwork India because they did not perform personal tasks, would not accept credit cards (I like the fraud protection and security of credit cards), and had certain minimums that I didn’t think I would initially reach.

I eliminated AssistU because I could not find enough information on their pricing model, or minimum commitment.

There were many others in my elimination list, like Get Friday and Guru. Most of these were eliminated from this round because they were not as frequently discussed as the five above. If this experiment is successful, I will probably revisit them, hopefully having my virtual assistant doing the work instead of me.

Step Five – Hire and Task a Virtual Assistant

{: .float_right } So now begins the truly hard part. Hiring and then tasking a virtual assistant. I opted to use only one of my three firms for this experiment. I chose not to use Bpovia this time because their pricing model was a fixed cost at the top of my available budget. So I opened accounts with both Elance and oDesk, or at least tried to. oDesk was supposed to send me a confirmation email so that I could actually access the site and post a job listing. I have still not received it. So the job was posted with Elance. I am hoping that bidding based model of Elance will allow me to lower my actual expense as compared to my budgeted expense, but that would just be gravy on top of a successful outcome to this experiment.

Of course, I still need to task a virtual assistant, but for that to happen, I need to complete the hiring process. From now until the the hiring process is complete, I will post follow ups with the current status and the results of the initial hire – or better yet, I will let the virtual assistant do that for me.

Step Six – Blog About It

This post represents the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on offloading some of my tasks on to a virtual assistant. As of the writing of this post, only a few hours following the job posting, I have two proposals. One for $20 / hour and one for $3.50 / hour. Interestingly enough, the one more expensive one put forth a proposal for 20 hours / week over 12 weeks. They obviously did not read the job posting very carefully. The cheaper posting was accurate in their proposal, and is now the top proposal. I have up to two more weeks in the offer. I am looking forward to see what happens once Monday comes and many more companies see the posting.

I expect to post periodically during the proposal phase, and that within two weeks I will make the post about the hiring process, followed up by weekly summaries of our progress working together.

Updates

[2009-04-09] See the follow up post at Hiring A Virtual Assistant – Status Update