Episode 68 | How to Hire and Manage Virtual Assistants

Show Notes


[00:00] [Music]

[00:16] Rob: This is startups for the rest of episode 68. Welcome to startups for the rest of us the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products. Whether you have built your first product or you are just thinking about it I’m Rob.

[00:28] Mike: And I’m Mike.

[00:29] Rob:  And we are here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week up in beautiful Victoria Canada?

[00 38] Mike:Just enjoying the weather, it’s actually nicer here than it is in Boston and its farther north here than it is in Boston.

[ 00:46] Rob: Right, they get different weather patterns, a lot less snow and stuff?

[ 00:49] Mike:Yeah there is no snow at all, they said that it snowed once or twice earlier in January and they haven’t seen any since so they are hoping for the best.

[ 00:59] Rob: For those who haven’t been to Vancouver Victoria area and it’s just beautiful. If there is any place in Canada I would like to live it would definitely be up there it’s an awesome city. We were there for five nights my wife, kids and I last spring and we had sushi at like five different places every, you know over the course of that and it was all really good. So it’s just it’s a really nice city.

[01:21] Mike:  Yeah it’s a great walking city too which I find nice because usually the places I’ll go I have to drive around quite a bit. But this is just this place is gorgeous and it’s just fun to walk around and you know see all the different things and you know it’s a nice city to walk around in.

[01:37] Rob: Yeah, yeah I liked it too it reminded me of Boston because it has there is the harbor area, there is you know some beaches fairly close, it’s a walking city, there is good food like it just had a lot of elements that I don’t find in a lot of cities and so yeah. No that’s right. actually real estate to buy is very expensive but other the other elements are good.

[01:58] Mike: Yeah, the other elements.

[01:59] Rob: Yeah, there has been much foreign, yeah there has been foreign investment that is artificially driven up by real estate prices over the past few years trust me I have looked. But anyway that’s why Mike sounds a little funky the Wi-Fi is just not working for him and so I am calling him on I’m on Skype but he is in on a landline all the way up to Canada.  So probably have a short episode here but, so anyways I have one thing that we have a little friendly competition going on it sounds like with TechZing. And you know we talk a lot about getting reviews and even just getting comments or just getting five star reviews in iTunes.

[02:36] And on the last episode the TechZing guys were talking about how they have I think they have around fifty something whereas you and I have 75. And so they are trying to go to a hundred to beat us. So what I’m saying people on Startups for the Rest of Us, let’s do 125 just…

[02:56] Mike: Just a friendly competition right and they owes us beer if they lose. Is that the deal?

[03:00] Rob: In quotes indeed yeah loser beers a round of drinks at MicroConf because they are going to be there Justin and Jason. So that’s our deal we have between now and April 30th to see who is ahead at MicroConf and we of course have a little bit of advantage because we are already ahead by 25 so. Anyways let’s get into iTunes folks and show Texing whose boss.

[03:23] Mike: Cool. I was going to say, speaking of MicroConf I have been looking for sponsors for MicroConf and talking to a bunch of different people and I’m just trying to kind of lay out what MicroConf is going to look like in terms of the sponsorship. I mean last year we had Microsoft, we had Red Gate, we had BV Software, Reuben sponsors with Bidsketch and all these different companies you know including User Voice and Plural Sight and Balsamiq, Peldi is going to be there from Balsamiq this year and they will sponsor again this year.

[03:58] So it’s Reuben over at Bidsketch and you know we are just trying to look for other sponsors. So if you know of any sponsors or anyone who might be interested in sponsoring MicroConf, make sure to make them get in touch with me. You can reach me at support@micropreneur.com.

[04:14] Rob:  Yeah this year has been awesome we are almost sold out of ticket already which never happened last year. And so I think we will be sold out in the next week or two we just put them on up sale last week and we sold 125 basically in little less than two weeks I guess, we sold 125 out of 128. So I’m excited because it’s going to give you and I time and energy to focus on making the conference really kickass this year. Not that it didn’t last year, but to just kind of take it to the next level you know.

[04:42] And so I’m stoked we have eight of the speakers are nailed down that includes Peldi, Hiten Shah, you and myself, Patrick Mackenzie, Amy Hoy if you follow her, Jason Cowen and Dave Collins from Software Promotions. And then there is four spots to be filled and there is a huge list I will wait for a while I was getting an email everyday at least one or two emails a day with people wanting to talk at MicroConf. So I am actually glad that the promotion has died down because it’s like I want to be nice to everyone and I do really want to add them to a list to consider but it was just becoming too much to manage. It was a bunch of people who you know I had never heard of and which…

[05:18] Mike: I have a couple to add to save to the list as well.

[05:20] Rob:  How about you just go into the Google doc and do it?

[05:25] Mike: Oh come on.

[05:26] Rob:  So anyways yeah there are few tickets left you know. Obviously you can go to microconf.com and if you are interested in coming to Vegas in April it’s going to be a blast we are all going to be there. So my last update is I have three days until my new billing code has to execute and I still haven’t I still haven’t finished it man, I haven’t tested it. It was written by a contractor and he says it works and…

[05:53] Mike: And we all know how that goes its perfect every time right?

[05:56] Rob:  No luckily he is a reliable guy I’ve used him in the past. So I’m not too concerned about it but you know worst case four to eight hours to get it working. But my guess it will be less than an hour and I will have it up and running. So I just have three days to get that done and just I keep putting it off because there is no hard deadline you know it will be the night before and I will stay up to 2:00 am doing it and I guess that’s the plate of an entrepreneur.

[06:18] So we have a cool episode this week. It was from basically a request in the comments in one of our episodes which is unusual, typically we get stuff you know via Twitter and email and such and voicemails.  But this one was from someone named Tim High and he had asked about virtual systems because you know I have talked about them a lot. And I have actually I recently you know hired a couple new virtual assistants because one of our VAs she had her masters degree and she wound up getting a good job and getting another gig and just kind of moved on. And so we wished her the best of course but she was obviously over qualified for the job you know which was handling email support and stuff for us.

[07:02] But when she moved on so I went out and so we have been talking a little bit about recent hires and so Tim had asked about it. And I had addressed it and just been like what do you want to know? You know so he listed, basically outlined the episode for us frankly. I think we have seven or eight bullet points and we are just kind of throw each one out and then talk about you know our best recommendation for doing it.

[07:24] Now I know Mike I know you work with a couple of VAs I think I may have done it more than you, I think I have been doing it a little longer and I have probably worked with more. But I know that we you know kind of we probably both have stuff to add and experiences and stuff. But I think I will kind of lead the episode off just because I feel like I have a lot to say about it and I answered this question a lot when I speak. So I may be doing more talking today.

[07:48] Mike: Probably I’ve done some but yeah I think that you probably have done it quite a bit more than I have.

[07:53] Rob: Well of course so let lest kick this off. The first question is where to find good VAs, and obviously that’s a relative question right it’s like I’m sure you can find good VAs in a number of places. Over the years I used to look on Elance and I don’t anymore, I used to look on like local Craigslist. So I would actually go to the Manila Craigslist which is obviously in the Philippines, I used to go to a couple of Craigslist in India and look there. I don’t do that anymore.

[08:25] There was, I started getting scammed by a few people and that was pretty irritating. I used to use bestjobs.ph, they shut that down to foreigners then there was another one that I don’t remember what it was but it was another .ph site that sprung up to serve the people who you know weren’t able to use Best Jobs. And I found that that wasn’t very good it was just very time consuming to sift through everything.

[08:46] What I have finally settled on after all these years and this is something who knows if it will last but for about the past maybe 18 months this is what I have been using and this is what I have been recommending to people. And we have mentioned it on the show before but it’s Odesk. There is a solid group of VAs there, there is a lot of virtual assistants and its easy and seamless to hire, it’s easy to pay them and it Odesk allows you to track what they do which I think is perhaps the biggest benefit.

[09:15] Mike: I love that feature in Odesk that you can actually see screenshots and stuff as well.

[09:19] Rob: Yup right and we have talked about it before it’s like once you trust a VA like I stop looking through their stuff. But it’s like the first month maybe the first two months I do want to see what they are doing, it takes screen shots at random times right it’s like every I don’t know four to seven minutes it snaps the screen. And so if someone is screwing around then you know, you know they are playing solitaire or whatever then you can ask them about it, you can do whatever let them go if you wanted to I probably wouldn’t jump to that conclusion too fast.

[09:44] But it at least allows you to address it and it means their time is pretty well accounted for. Because when they are billing you can see their screen and when they are not you know they are not billing. I have had a number of issues hiring independent VAs where I’m pretty sure I got overbilled you know pretty sure they were just billing when they weren’t working. So that might be the killer feature that I like most about Odesk. And again I don’t you know once I become familiar with someone I tend to not look at their work diary but especially starting off its invaluable.

[10:17] Mike: Yeah and you can see the nice part about the screenshots isn’t just that you can see when they’re you know doing things that they shouldn’t be billing you for. But it also gives you an idea of how they’re doing their work and where you can offer suggestions for improvements. So like if they’re doing something, if you ask somebody to get you a bunch of data and they are pasting it in the Notepad or Word or something like that and it really needs to be in Excel or something like that you can point that out to them.

[10:44] Or you know and if they come back and say well I don’t own Excel it’s too expensive you can offer you know Open Office or something along those lines you know, some other tool or even you know Google Docs  where you can get into and make, create a spreadsheet in there. Pretty much anything that will actually do the job versus if they are trying to give you something or they’re intending to give you something which isn’t quite what you were looking for. Or if maybe you were a little bit too vague in the description of what the final output was that you were looking for.

[11:15] Rob:  Yeah that’s actually a really good point I just caught something this evening in preparation for this episode I was looking through a time diary and I was like, oh wait why was he doing that? That is the wrong snippet it and I totally emailed my VA and let him know. So I hadn’t even thought about that but that’s a cool side effect of kind of being able to observe what they are doing.

[11:32] Mike: One of the things and one of the other things that I really like about Odesk is that when you are posting a job you actually get a lot of responses. And when I first went to Odesk one of the things that I was a little concerned about was, oh I’m posting this job, I’m only willing to pay one up to $5 an hour, 1 to $5 and you know how many people am I really going to get to apply for this job which you know it’s probably only a couple days worth of work but it’s something that I need done I just don’t want to spend the time to actually do it. And I got loads of responses.

[12:05] I think that overnight I got 75 applicants or something like that it was just it was crazy. And most of these people were only asking I think the least expensive one was $1.18 or $1.33 per hour and you know obviously it went up from there. And even though hen you set a budget or a range that is more of a guideline for people to follow they don’t necessarily have to provide a rate for this within that range.  So I said 1 to $5 someone could have said you know I’m charging $8 or $9 and still applied for it. It’s just they are going to be probably at a bit of a disadvantage because I have already said that my rate is one to five.

[12:45] But if you come in a little bit higher and I think that you are much more qualified for the job than anyone else then I can still go with you and there is no restriction from that. But and the opposite is true as well. If somebody came in below $1 and I think there was one person who came in now that I think about it I think somebody came in like  60, 70 cents an hour and wasn’t really well qualified for what I was looking for.

[13:08] Rob: That’s unbelievable.

[13:09] Mike: Yeah.

[13:10] Rob: I have never seen anything that cheap wow.

[13:12] Mike: It was ridiculous, I mean but it was just you know tabulating some data that I needed done. I think it cost me a grand total of $18 or something like that.

[13:20] Rob: Oh got it yeah, yeah I see that makes sense. So maybe they thought they could just do it fast or something yeah that kind of weird. Yeah I have never hired anyone less than I think $3 an hour is kind of the lowest, lowest I have ever actually hired. I think if you did a project based maybe someone could bid less than that. But I don’t know that sounds crazy even in other parts of the world that’s not a lot of money you know.

[13:41] Mike: No it wasn’t but you know it got the job done and did what I needed to do and it was well worth the $18.

[13:47] Rob:  Oh totally yeah. You know that’s the thing with the way I have started doing it with Odesk is if you know I just used to sift through the candidates and not post projects and try to just pick people out. Eventually you have to post the project in order to hire someone which is fine because it gets you more candidates. But now if it’s a project that I really want you know an experienced person on I definitely go through I search for them and then I will post the project and then I will go out and invite a handful of people that I think are especially well qualified for it.

[14:15] And typically like half of them just won’t, won’t apply they are either busy or I imagine they just aren’t interested or they don’t get the email or whatever. And then the other half do end up applying and they tend to be kind of my top tier candidates right of the bat. But what I have been surprised about is like you said in addition to that there are always a bunch of other candidates that have kind of meet the criteria that I didn’t find just by searching for them. That’s been the part I have liked.

[14:40] So if someone, if you do post a project then I recommend not leaving it private because you want to post it publicly because I really do think that you are going to get people coming out of the woodwork that fit your, you know needs for the job.

[14:52] Mike: The other thing that I would probably recommend is that if it’s something that you don’t necessarily want to describe in exquisite detail in the job posting what you can do is you can simply list kind of generalities around what it is that they are going to be doing. You don’t have to say, oh I want you to do market research for you know X you know on this particular company. You can say I want you to do market research on a company a pharmaceutical industry and here is the type of information I need you to look up or research or whatever. Those are the sorts of things you can do,

[15:26] If it’s a technical posting and I understand this episode is about virtual assistants but you could just simply start listing the technologies that you intend to be used on the project. And people with those skills are going to apply which is fantastic the way that it works. I’m still shocked that sometimes I will post something out there and it’s just you get people coming out of the woodwork applying for it.

[15:47] Rob:  Yeah I think something I would make a recommendation for folks posting is to have some personality in your posting. Like don’t just be don’t seem like some kind of corporate jerk who is just, who has all these requirements and you are kind of iron fisting. Like I have seen somebody say like, do not apply unless you meet all of the following requirements you know and its….

[16:06] Mike: Yeah I don’t like that.

[16:07] Rob:  And it’s like you are a jerk yeah and you are not going to get the best people. There are I mean there are some really good people on Odesk and you imagine I wouldn’t want to work for that person. So I always say like, we are a tight team you know we hire good people and let them go do it, we don’t micro manage blah blah blah. I only use ‘we’ when it’s you and I. Like I hired a VA recently for the academy it was in December and I totally sold the gig you know.

[16:33] I wasn’t just saying here is you know eight bucks an hour or 10 bucks an hour. I wasn’t just saying here is a position that’s open. I mean I was really saying like here is why it’s cool like the people we deal with are really nice. We treat them really well we offer refunds when they ask, we don’t screw our customers, you are going to feel good about working for us and you know told them a little bit about you and I and just kind of I talked about why it was a cool gig and we got really good applicants for it.

[16:57] And we found someone who is doing a great job and I think you know he is 10 or 11 bucks and he is in North America. And you know for that I mean it’s just totally worth for us not to handle that, the all you know the tier one email support. In addition I have other VAs they that I guess I just want to throw it out like, I do have a VA that works for me that is about 3, 3.50 an hour she populates some job boards and does some tier email support for some more niche items. And I don’t need as high end a support on those products they just are you know different kinds of products.

[17:22] And so that might give you a piece folks out there the range of what they should expect from VAs. This also might be a good and you can certainly go up from there I mean if you really do you know if you come to States, if you go to the coast you are going to pay 20 to 30 to 40 bucks an hour. You can find fantastic VAs that can really you know do all types of stuff, answer phones and make outgoing calls and such we don’t have that need. I think another thing we should talk about briefly is that the term virtual assistant is a very loose term. And I think you and I use it similarly, it really is someone who can help with admin work and emails incoming and outgoing and some email support and that kind of stuff.

[18:06] As soon as I hire someone who is writing code, managing website has technical skill I tend to call them developers or webmasters or graphic designers if they are doing design. You know I don’t mix the term VAs I know some folks do. So I just kind of want to throw that out there as we—and you know a marketing guy actually I’m in the process of I just had a Skype call yesterday with a guy who is probably going to help me out with some marketing tasks on Hit Tail, both giving me feedback and doing just some of the execution.

[18:34] So I wouldn’t consider him a VA at all and he is much more expensive than a typical VA would be. I mean he is more of a you know  marketing consultant type thing so I really do see a difference between those you know the term VA and those kind of those other monikers.

[18:48] Mike:Yeah they are virtual marketing experts.

[18:51] Rob:  Yeah totally. That was actually Tim, another one of Tim’s questions was you know are there different types of VAs and so that one is there. Let’s see Tim also asked are there geographical considerations in terms of hiring VAs and I imagine in terms of hiring all remote workers he is asking this. And I will throw out a few that I have seen, I found that working with people in my time zone does tend to work better but of course it’s harder to find. You know the pool is smaller right because there is a larger pool of folks if you can go around the world Western Europe and India and Eastern Europe are obviously on really different time zones than California.

[19:32] So I will tend if I know that I need to communicate with them often then I really I will tend to look in North America or South America or Canada of course just because the time zone is so close because is an eight hour time difference is actually you know it’s kind of tough.

[19:47] Mike: It’s a full day.

[19:49] Rob: Yeah, yeah right because like my mornings are hard because I am trying to get the kids out of the door and so I would have to talk to them really late at night my time which where I am not at my best or I try to just cram a minute in the morning I mean it really does just throw off a workday. So I think that’s one thing to think about it’s not the end of the world. Most I would say 75% of my people that work for me I probably I think I have like nine or 10 contractors right now doing some form of work for me. And I just 75% of them maybe 80% of them are eight hours or more off of my time. So you can totally do it, it just depends on if you really need to collaborate it can be you know it can be a little tricky at times.

[20:26] Mike: Yeah I think the time zone is the biggest issue for me as well because you know I’m further east than you are. So that’s an additional three hours for me and then just means when I first get up in the morning and I check my email if there are questions I have to answer them either immediately in order to get any sort of you know their working day you know to proceed with those new instructions or those updates or whatever. Or if I wait a couple of hours then by that time they are off doing other things and you know going to bed which you know obviously they are entitled to do.

[21:03] But it just makes it hard because you have to allocate that time either first thing in the morning or you have to understand that if you don’t do that there is and even if you do there is still a possibility that they are not going to be working for the rest of the day because there are people who don’t keep track in the same hours that we do. I mean people will work a little bit before breakfast and sometimes you know they don’t start until after lunch, you are not really in control of their schedule per se. You are really in control of the work that they do and the output, you’re not so much in control of what hours specifically that they keep.

[21:37] And I think that you can you know you can talk to people and say hey I really need you to keep these hours if it’s something very specific and actually give the reason why. But for the most part that’s not really going to apply.

[21:48] Rob: Typically if I think that at the beginning of a project it’s typically when you are going to need more collaboration and so I will say that up front. Like you know we need to have at least have three hours of overlap with specific time you know 10 to four whatever hours I’m working that week and I don’t find that being a problem. And then from then on when someone is you know kind of rolling in with it and know what they are doing you don’t tend to need as much overlap.

[22:07] I think the other thing in terms of geography is you need to figure out how big of a deal a language barrier is going to be and you need to figure out how well if someone needs to speak English or your native language in order for things to work. And there is a wide range of this right, it’s like a developer does not have to have perfectly fluent written or spoken English in order to write really good code. As long as they understand your spec and can you know ask questions they don’t need to be as good as someone who is say answering your tier one email support of your you know priced products like with the academy or with Hit Tail or something. I just want to, you know it’s has got to be a native English speaker in that case.

[22:44] And so that’s the other kind of geographical or cultural concern I would say is realize that there is obviously going to be varying degrees of written English skills and spoken English skills across developers, across virtual assistant handling email support and across you know even designers and all that stuff as to how well they can understand your requirements. So I tend to pay pretty close attention to that early on ask some questions upfront after someone applies to your project once I put them on my short list then I will tend to ask some very specific questions and see what their response is like and see if they give me a full response, if they capitalize their letters and put punctuations.

[23:27] I mean because that’s it’s a big deal right, I don’t want all like lowercase applied it just to me shows a lack of professionalism. And so I think that you know kind of a – the first couple steps is in my opinion on Odesk is post projects, get the responses, start weeding people out and then start sending some pointed questions about someone’s workday, do they work a fulltime job, are they consultants, what hours do they work, do they work from home or from an office, do they work with other people?

[23:53] I mean these are the kinds of the things that I save and then ask final candidates in order to see what their response is and to see kind of an unedited version because their cover letter may be really nice but it tends to be you know edited by someone else. So you get more of a real life response if you keep some questions you can ask them later.

[24:11] Mike: Yeah I do basically the same thing.

[24:15] Rob:  So then Tim’s next question is how do you evaluate them to see if they are efficient and will do their job right? And let’s just take the VAs here because I think we could try to cover designers and developers and all these different things but it’s just it’s such a big topic. with VAs I tend to narrow  it down really quickly and then I will either pick a small sample project that I will give to two or three people and I will hire those three people and then give them all the same project. Or if I have a good feeling about someone I will just pick them and I will get them started right away and then I will just evaluate them every day and see what they are doing, see how they are doing it, see how they communicate.

[24:49] And then maybe I will I drop to once a week and then pretty soon you know they are off and running. And you can tell within a couple of days if they are going to work out almost every time. And I have been able to either let someone go or you know just keep them on based on that. So I don’t know if you have any other secrets Mike but that’s how it’s always been. To me it’s like trying to give them test upfront or anything like that is waste of time until you see how they actually deal with what they are going to need to do on a day to day basis.

[25:17] Mike: Yeah and I think with VAs especially and I mean I wouldn’t say that it’s unskilled labor because you really need them to you know be skilled at what they are doing. But it’s one of those things where you need to you know they need to have a certain people skills, they need to have certain email etiquette skills. And you know Odesk for example actually has it tests for you know what their English is like and what their email etiquette I think there is an email etiquette certificate or something like that. But you know you can ask them all the questions in the world and who knows what those questions are going to say about them.

[25:53] And it’s really no different than interviewing someone in person. I mean until you are working side by side with somebody you know that’s just a completely different ballgame. So you know I kind of feel the same way you do you kind of have to just make a decision hire somebody and understand that those first 10 hours or 20 hours you may have to completely write them off. But if you hire somebody and you know let’s say the rate is you know $8 an hour or something like that and you hire them for 20 hours and it doesn’t work out you are out of $160 that’s it.

[26:26] Rob: Typically you are going to know well before 20 hours is up.

[26:30] Mike: Right.

[26:31] Rob:  In almost every case unless they just flake on you which I have had happen unless that happens then you are going to know pretty quickly.

[26:37] Mike: But the nice thing about that is that if it’s like a one off job though chances are it doesn’t really matter. You know you can hire somebody and you know if they don’t work out you just go on to the next person you have and you hire them. But if you are looking for more of a long term relationship then those you know first 15 or 20 hours are going to be pretty critical and they will help you evaluate whether that person is worth hiring in the future. And I think that’s probably the more important piece of it is you know do I keep this person around or are there other things that I can send to this person that will you know move my task list along?

[27:13] Rob:  That is huge that is the big thing right, it is not have to search every time you need a task done, not to have to run a while job search because they are time consuming. And the idea of finding good people and keeping them around for years is exactly what I have done and I totally recommend that to people. Even if they are not doing ongoing tasks for you just having a kind of a short list of people who can help you out so in you know two months you haven’t talked to them for a month or two and you are just like, hey do you have any availability this work five hours of work to do some research, five hours of work to sort through this you know whatever this Excel spreadsheets that are a mess. And if you have a short list of folks who can do that stuff for you it is a crazy time you can save by delegating to them.

[27:55] I think this actually brings up one of Tim’s other comments was what jobs are the kinds to delegate to VAs? And I think that obviously the ones that are most obvious the ones that will save you the most time are things that are recurring. Because you can train them once, you can create a process put it in a Google Doc, a bullet list of the items then you record a Screencast of it so they get you know a visual view of it but they will refer back to the bullets in the future. And tier one email support is awesome for that if you set up a bunch of snippets and you train them on how the app works and then just let them go.

[28:32] And dealing with PayPal crap where you have to log in and refund and request payments and just doing that is it is super time consuming but it’s not hard work. And so you don’t want to be doing that you know you don’t need to have like an entrepreneur doing that. You can totally have a basically an admin assistant doing these things. And once you train them they can do it for years and both you and I have had folks doing this and that to me has been over my career as an entrepreneur has been the biggest time saver is that kind of email support and admin work.

[28:59] I think the other thing we have noticed, we noticed pretty quickly is like with the academy there are started being these monthly recurring processes we have to run. So like the first day of every month we have to look at everyone who has been there X month and we have to do a certain thing. And it’s something that’s virtually impossible to truly automate with code or anything because otherwise we would that. And so you and I were doing it manually for a long time and suddenly I realized why don’t have a VA do this like we can totally create a process for this. And so those are the other things and so you and I haven’t done that for 18 months.

[29:28] And if you add up the time you know it may only take like two hours each time but that’s 36 hours over 18 months. Its big man it’s like two hours out of that one week means you know how many more sales—or that’s an entire—like I can write a blog post in two hours so that was another blog post I wrote because I was basically able to able to delegate this admin task.  And then I think the other things are like with MicroConf I just emailed our Micropreneur academy VA and I said how much you know time do you have each week because I’m going to start needing a bunch of coordination with speakers?

[29:59] And this is kind of a one time-ish thing. But I’m basically going to have an Excel spreadsheet for speakers, he needs to get all—email them individually we don’t want to do a big bulk request and individually try to get all these info from them, book their hotels, like they are some very specific things but they are pretty easy to lay out right? I can say you need to do these five things and send them an email that does this. And so that I think that’s another kind of pretty good task. It’s not recurring but over the course of a couple of weeks it will save me a bunch of logistical headache and it will definitely save several hours of week. I would guess five somewhere between five and 11 hours of work over the course of maybe four to six weeks is what that single delegation will save me.

[30:39] Mike: Yeah I have toyed with the idea recently of outsourcing someone to look at my email.

[30:46] Rob:  I know yeah we have talked about this.

[30:49] Mike: Right.

[[30:50] Rob: I really do think there is some value you know, it depends on what you are getting your email. Like what, if everything needs a personal response but I have been going through that exercise of when I look at my inbox I try to think could someone else if they knew me well you know because this is not some, it’s not a Robot its someone who actually know—they need to know your kind of your businesses they need to know how you would respond, what you would think about it.

[31:12] And the more they learn that the better they can respond. And I have been trying to think if someone else could do it and to date I think it would be a waste of time for my inbox personally. But that doesn’t say anything about yours you know. I’m getting a lot of individual business offers hey you know about the book or about coming to speak or whatever it’s things that I need to evaluate individually that a VA would then assign to me anyway. So I may as well just reply to them upfront so.

[31:42] Mike: Yeah its—I don’t want to say it’s a glorified spam filter but there are certain things that can obviously just kind of get dumped and you know or somebody could just kind of not necessarily give someone a cold shoulder or just kind of back off and say look I really don’t have time for this particular business partnership or whatever.

[31:59] Rob:  Right.

[32:00] Mike: But you know as long as you put specific parameters around these are the types of things I’m not interested in.

[32:05] Rob:  Right yeah you’d have to define that pretty well, I would be concerned that my guy would actually you know accidentally turn someone away that maybe I would have considered and that’s just its kind of hard to put parameters on that.

[32:14] Mike: Yeah and that’s my, that’s kind of been my fear as well is it’s really hard to put your own judgment calls in somebody else’s head, do you know what I mean?

[32:25] Rob: Yeah no it is and I think that’s what like most recently getting my VA in charge of who does Hit Tail tier support now, he is basically doing customer service, he is the front facing person for Hit Tail. I have worked with him for a little while before I did that right because you could easily screw that up pretty bad if you make bad decisions or you are you know obviously if you are rude or something that would be terrible. I totally know he wasn’t going to do that but I really have to trust that he that he is going to handle things well.

[32:53] And I have given him you know I won’t say carte blanche but I have given him a lot of leeway and asked him like you know to make judgment calls yeah that, and I say like tell me about them later. You know like then just let me know what you’ve done and then I will say you know I would have done it differently or let’s do it differently in the future or something like that.  But so far there has been I think one out of like 10 pretty challenging judgment calls there has only been one that I was like I probably would have done it differently but it really doesn’t matter you know what I’m saying?

[33:23] Mike: Right.

[33:23] Rob:  And the amount of time that I didn’t have to spend dealing with those, the amount of decision time and the fact that he now knows that business he is starting to get to know Hit Tail really well, get to know the customers individually that is some invaluable stuff right there. Like he is becoming he is working his way in as a pretty valuable part of the business honestly.

[33:41] Mike: Yeah and its funny you’ve put it like that because I have seen a  couple of companies where they basically when they bring on new employees they tell them you know look I don’t want to be bothered with this stuff you know you are part of the company now. You need to make some of these decisions when something comes up don’t ask me about it, don’t ask these other people you make a decision. And then we’ll deal with the consequences of it later if it was a bad decision we’ll talk about it you know and that way you can learn from that on.

[34:12] But the thinking behind it is how much money could I possibly lose from a bad decision that might happen versus giving somebody you know as you said carte blanche to just do whatever they think is the right thing to do and then evaluate later whether it was or it wasn’t.

[34:29] Rob:  Right that will save you more money in the long run because they will make a hundred decisions that you don’t have to be involved in. And maybe one or four or whatever a small amount won’t work out and it’s like you’ll lose a little bit of money there but you make it up in not having to deal with all those other ones that go perfectly well. So let’s see we’ve got a couple of things left, Tim says do you generally work with the same VA all the time or is the relationship more anonymous than that? I have done both, I have actually worked with a pretty large kind of VA firm and I do still use them. These days I prefer to find a VA on Odesk and build a relationship and then be able to use them for ongoing tasks, one off stuff comes up its just so much easier because they know me, I treat them well they treat me well and I respect them and know that they are going to be able to come through for me.

[35:16] So I think when you are getting started if you feel nervous about that you know potentially you could go with a larger company they are going to be a little more expensive probably in the 6 to $12 an hour range I would think, for a VA that you might get for half the price say on Odesk. But you know then you know someone is always there to cover you I mean if they get sick they won’t bail on you because it’s basically you know a larger corporation handling things. So there is some stuff to weigh out I think once you become more comfortable with it you’ll most people will want to move away from that my guess is and kind of build a relationship with someone.

[35:54] Mike: Or more multiple people I mean if you can build that small pool it doesn’t really matter.

[35:58] Rob:  Yeah that’s right that’s right and as I said I have a lot of folks you know doing some kind of work for me I think in the last 30 days I have had nine people bill you know at least an hour worth of work doing something and some are developers and some are designers. I mean jeez we even had I had a CSS guy doing something on Hit Tail and then we got an email that you know there was like a weird IE line only CSS bug you know in MicroConf and you emailed it to me in the MicroConf site. And I’m like I do not there is no way I want to do that, you were I could fix that right?

[[36:30] Mike: Right.

[36:30] Rob: It would take me like two hours to do it, it’s such a pain but we could do it, you know we know the technology but instead I just popped it over to this guy who I’m now using for a ton of stuff I had to reskin a WordPress blog I had to reskin a form he just knows CSS really well. So but yeah and he solved that MicroConf stuff in like I don’t know it was maybe an hour and he is 22 or 25 bucks totally totally worth it for you and I not to have to do that right. And now the site looks great and he noticed some other things as again you know in Mac Chrome it will also do this in like six hours while I was in there.

[37:05] And it’s just like now that I wouldn’t have caught that you know he is actually better, better than we are at it and you know he’s it doesn’t take our time to do it so it’s definitely a win win. And then let’s see the next question what’s the typical rate, is it always hourly or are there longer term agreements?

[37:23] Mike: You can be both especially with Odesk it gives you the option to do a per project rate or per hour rate.  My preference is to do per hour because I think if you do per project rate you are essentially putting forth the expectation that it will probably take about this amount of time. So let’s say that you let’s say you tell people I estimate this will take about 10 hours worth of work or eight hours worth of work whatever. And then they will out in their bids and basically their bids are you know whatever they are.

[37:55] But the problem that you have with that is that you know they are going to try and go through as quickly as they possibly can because if they are able to do that job in an hour then they basically just made 10 times of what they probably would have if they had you know taken up the whole 10 hours to do the job. So they are going to go as quickly as they can, chances are that they are going to make more mistakes and you know it’s your output is not going to be quite as good.

[38:21] The other side of that is that assuming that they are you know they are not trying to hurry they are putting forth the good effort, the other part of the coin is that after a certain point it doesn’t become cost effective for the person doing the work to continue doing the work. And essentially gives that I will pay you, you know X for this particular output and I expect it to take 10 hours and their expectation is it should take 10 hours or less. But let’s say that they take like 15 hours or 20 hours and what your expectations are far beyond the time commitment that they you know promised they are not going to want to continue. And chances are good that the whole thing is just going to fall apart.

[39:00] So my preference is to do hourly stuff. Now there are certain cases where doing per project basis will work out for you just great but essentially you are you know you are kind of taking a chance at that point. I do a lot of consulting work and I never do it per project basis at this point it’s always you know on a time and material basis and that’s kind of little bit of the difference between them. There is a you know a fixed rate or a time and materials the time and materials is by far better when you are concerned with what the output is because you can just say this is exactly what I want or you didn’t finish okay well let’s keep going until this thing is finished.

[39:40] Rob: Right and of course there is a vetting process upfront to make sure the person you know isn’t going to take forever to do it right. You give them a small project to make sure they can do it and then you trust them you start building a small relationship with them and then you give them the next thing. So it’s not like you are going to give them this tiny task and let them spend 20 or 30 hours on it right. I mean you can limit how much in Odesk you can limit how many hours they can bill in any given week and so you can email them and say I expect this to take two hours and give them two hours for that week to do it. Especially early on I totally do that I keep it very clamped down. And then as things get on I will give them more and more leeway.

[40:14] In addition you know that, that someone can’t just not work and bill you, you know they overbill you because like we talked about it tracks their hours. So I agree I have done hourly with everyone with two exceptions. One I needed an eBook design and I just put how much I was willing to pay for it, I had a number in my head that was worth it to me and you know I think it was 150 bucks or something. And I threw it out there and everyone who applied you know I evaluated their portfolio picked the best one and then I worked with the person and did a few revisions and they nailed it.

[40:46] The other thing is I had an infographic design that I did the same thing, I just had a certain budget amount in my head that I wanted to pay and I didn’t feel super comfortable paying someone by the hour for those two projects. And they worked pretty well defined right I mean even with the infographic I had the entire list of stuff like you are going to build an infographic with this data I already have the thing you know basically typed up. So limited exceptions, even designing a website I probably would not do that. I would probably go hourly you know because I would want someone to have the flexibility to really go the extra mile and not feel like they are pulling money out of their pocket to do so.

[41:23] Mike: I think designing specific graphics or icons or something like that is a little different because that’s kind of a creative process. And it’s really hard to put you know if somebody is really good at what they do, it’s almost like golf the better you are the less you do it. You know I mean if you are Tiger Woods you’re swinging the club a lot less than you would you know if you were somebody like me. And you know he obviously gets paid a lot more for that. But I think when you are getting logos or designs or stuff like that sometimes it’s just worth it to pay it per project basis because there are you know there are certain amount of creativity that comes when people are not sitting at their computer.

[42:06] You know you are doing other things and you know maybe you are making dinner or something and you see something and you say that would be a great you know a little tweak here and there on this particular object and this would make a great icon. I mean some things just come to you. And you are not sitting there in front of a computer it’s not like Odesk can really track that sort of thing.

[42:25] Rob:  Right yeah I think the other part of this question is what’s the typical rate? And I mentioned it a little bit before but for VAs for true admin help I typically see between you know maybe three bucks an hour up to 15 an hour for international. And then I don’t know if you look in more in the US you are probably going to look between eight and about 30 an hour depending on the qualifications you want. And for other things I mean like I said earlier the CSS guy I have is 25 an hour he is not in the US but he is very good and so he can charge me what, he is very fast, so he can charge what he wants. I think the highest I have paid is in the 50s for some very specialized work I had done.

[43:07] But it tends to be you know most of my stuff is between I would say about five and maybe 20, 25 bucks an hour depending on the task and the more technical and the more skilled obviously the higher up it goes. So and I guess the third part of this question is there any long term agreements? And I haven’t done any long term agreements with anyone. But that’s not to say if you can provide someone you know more fulltime contracts I’m sure you could just say, hey it’s you know X hundred dollars a month or X thousand or whatever and bring them on more is that almost a fulltime contract or type of thing but I haven’t had the need to do that so.

[43:42] Mike: Yeah I have a guy who I hired and I kind of capped him in at 20 hours just to kind of see what his work was going to be like. And then after I took a look at what he was doing and he is like oh I did this over here and did this over there and I think it would be best if I did it this way and I didn’t get any email from you so I just went ahead and did this because it looked like the right thing to do. And I just you know I was looking at his work and I said alright you know basically I just kind of on the spot increased it from a cap of 20 hours for the week up to 40.

[44:14] Rob: Right.

[44:15] Mike: And you know I send him in a quick short email and just saying hey you know what are your thoughts in this I would like to bring you on for little bit longer you know a little bit more work and more long term stuff. And right now I have got him you know working up to 40 hours a week at this point.

[44:27] Rob: Nice, yeah that’s really cool, and I think that the good point with what you just said too is I’m always very I never end people stuff and say, hey do this for me, I always say are you—here is a task are you interested, do you have availability? Please let me know. Even with people who I have worked with for years it’s like it’s just a matter of respect it’s like they are really contractors they are not your employees you don’t have them fulltime.

[44:49] Mike: Yeah.

[44:50] Rob:  And so you really should like ask I just I feel like that I always ask and I always get you know a good response from that people say they appreciate the fact that’s I am genuinely asking not just you know kind of demanding that they do it.

[45:01] Mike: Yeah that’s when I mean I even ask them before I send and even before I even switch things over to 40 hours a week I just said, hey what are your thoughts on this, so this is what I would like to do, do you have availability or are there other things you are working on? And he came back and said yeah I would love to I have got a couple of other projects I have got to finish up first but after those we all set and you know I would love to.

[45:21] Rob: Right that’s cool so Tim’s last kind of question is tips on organizing and communicating the work so you get a positive net savings on your time. And I think that the biggest piece of advice I would say is to start with things that are recurring start with things that come up more than once because those are by far going to give you the most savings over the long term. You could definitely one off tasks, I tend to not unless I have someone who just knows the deal and I can send him like a five minute the email which I do have now, I can send him five minute email and I can delegate tasks that are like 30 minutes now and actually make up you know five, six X on that because it really does take me five minutes to explain in an email or a Screencast.

[46:03] If you don’t have that then obviously if you really need to go out and do a search and find someone to do something then it does tend to need to be two to four hours I would say of work in order to even begin to be worthwhile and obviously the more the better.  I think in terms of communicating I find Screencast to be super super valuable because you can just talk through something, you know show him what to do and it really is helpful. I have also found backing it up with kind of its you know a bulleted list in a Google Doc that they can not only read but then they can update as the process changes I find this very very valuable.

[46:39] Mike: Yeah and in terms of hosting those Screencasts I use I think you use this as well screencast.com.

[46:45] Rob: I do.

[46:46] Mike: And you know I think that its free up to two gigabytes and then beyond that in terms of space for the video so it means you get up to 25 gigs for $10 a month or something like that. It’s not very expensive it’s pretty darn cheap for what it is you know especially considering the value that you get out of it.

[47:05] Rob: Right.

[47:06] Mike: And you can also set up privacy and sharing between URLs and things like that, you can organize things in the folders. So like I have a developer folder where I put stuff in there for development. And you know for most of the different tools that I use so you know I use Mercurial and Fogbugs and basically just have walkthroughs of this is how you use this, this is you know how and why you label your bugs this way so that they show up here and etcetera because not everybody uses the same tools that you do.

[47:34]Rob: Yeah and that’s a big deal right, it’s to have repeatable Screencasts because anytime you can record a Screencast that’s you know you are going to use multiple times in the future it’s like you are like minting time you are like creating time for yourself. Because what I have seen a lot of people do and I hear them do is like yeah I’m going to jump on the Skype with someone and show them how to use this. And I’m thinking to myself that’s a terrible idea like record a seven minute Screencast of that because you absolutely know you are either going to bring another person on later, this guy is going to flake you are going to need another person I mean something is going to happen you should reuse that multiple times.

[48:07] So I have a Screencast that I have used with five different people you know and instead of having five different Skype calls I mean it’s just that is really this is where you start getting that fly wheel effect where the more assets you get you have instructions on how to use all of your stuff. Like you said you are resource controlling, you are bug tracking and you know whatever other email stuff that you set up. So it’s a big deal, it’s a big deal and its save you a lot of time in the long run.

[48:31] Mike: Yeah and I think that the, probably the one other comment I would have about you know Tim’s question about tips on organizing and communicating because you know what you are really looking for is putting in documentation or Screencast or whatever is out there so that you don’t have to do it again. It’s not just you know that you’re hiring one person that you kind of replace yourself. It’s really you are putting together this repeatable process that is I don’t want to say self documenting but it is a documented process that somebody else could follow without any additional input from you.

[49:05]  I mean you should be able to just point them to the stuff and say this is what you need to do or this is what you need to know in order to be able to do this job effectively. And you put that stuff together once so you don’t have to do it again.

[49:19] Rob: And I think the last thing I’d say is every day when I look at my task list and look at what I’m going to do today I try to look at it and say what can I delegate? What can I get rid off on this list that anyone who is currently working for me anyone in you know whether they are on Odesk or elsewhere could possibly do for me so that I don’t have to spend the time to do it. And I have decent luck you know I tend to have to refresh kind of refresh myself every 30 days I will find myself doing crappy tasks that I don’t want to do, the things I procrastinate on, I try to figure out how can I get this off my plate.

[49:52] And  I think that’s the big deal I think the more, especially the more customers you get kind of the more your startup or your product evolves, when you first start it may be harder to find tasks but pretty quickly you are going to come across a lot of things that really are ripe for outsourcing to folks. I think that probably wraps us for today, you want to take us out?

[50:15] Mike: Absolutely. If you have a question or a comment you can call it in through our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or you can email it in an MP3 or text format at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is excerpt from “We are out of control” by Moot used under Creative Commons. If you enjoyed this broadcast please, please, please write a review in iTunes so that we beat the TechZing guys. And all you have to do is search for startups or you can subscribe to us in the broadcast via RSS or iTunes. A full transcript of this broadcast is available at our website startupsfortherestofus.com. Thanks for listening we will see you next time.



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5 Responses to “Episode 68 | How to Hire and Manage Virtual Assistants”

  1. Tim High says:

    Thanks a lot, guys! Great help! Just for that, I’m going to rate you guys, and hold off on Justin and Jason’s until after Microconf 😉

  2. Your best show ever! Epic, you should think about doing 60 min shows.
    I am thinking about doing some freelancing and this help`t me understand the thinking behind giving higher bids and positioning yourself as a quality choice.

  3. Phil Hodgen says:

    Thanks for the episode and the detail you revealed. I have used Elance with mixed success so I just posted my first job to oDesk. (Getting a manuscript ready for publication as an ebook and paper book on lulu.com).

    I was kind of awed by the fact that Rob has 9 people working at the same time.

  4. Rob says:

    A related question, if you’re looking to develop a product and so want to work less than 40hrs a week on your day job, would you use something like oDesk or eLance to find part-time work? Or are the rates not there to support yourself and your family while working on the product on the side? If you have a family and little kids, it is hard to have the energy to focus on product development in addition to a 40hr a week programming job. I wonder what options there are to go part time (assuming your current employer isn’t interested in it)?

    • Rob says:

      >>if you’re looking to develop a product and so want to work less than 40hrs a week on your day job, would you use something like oDesk or eLance to find part-time work?

      The hourly rates on oDesk tend to be low, so it depends on what you need to make in order to live. In general rates for developers are $10-40/hour, but there are certainly devs who charge more; I just don’t know if they get a lot of contracts through oDesk.

      >>If you have a family and little kids, it is hard to have the energy to focus on product development in addition to a 40hr a week programming job.

      Absolutely. We talked a bit about this in the past, and offered some advice for adding hours to your day in episodes 12 and 13.

      >>I wonder what options there are to go part time (assuming your current employer isn’t interested in it)?

      I would look more at reducing expenses and cutting my pay (this is the approach I took when I went part time) rather than trying to make it up with contract work, unless you already have a lead or two that will pay you at or better than your current hourly rate at your job. There are many ways to make it work, but it will require some creativity and sacrifice (of time, money or both).

      Good luck!