Helping hands

In a tight job market, some employers have decided to skip the hiring process altogether and go with a virtual assistant.

Not employees, but not temps either, virtual assistants work from home offices and perform administrative support tasks for clients who could be anywhere.

And the companies who hire them save the overhead costs of keeping an employee on payroll.

There's a big difference between a virtual assistant and a temp, says Sue Kramer, director of marketing / public relations at the International Virtual Assistants Association.

"We are here long term, whether you need us once a year or once a month," she says. "With a temp, many times you can't get that person back. Good temps don't stay around long. They get hired. We are business owners; we know the joys and challenges of a small business. It's like having an employee with a really good attitude."

Tasks can include bookkeeping, scheduling, word processing, or data entry. Or desktop publishing and Web site maintenance. Or event planning and travel arrangements. On average, fees fall in the vicinity of $30 an hour. As contractors, virtual assistants pay their own Social Security taxes and don't collect benefits.

The concept is fed by the constant introduction of new technology that can leave small business owners feeling shell-shocked. They may feel, for instance, they don't have time to learn one more computer program.

Locally, several virtual assistants have set up shop.

Raquel Nilson, of Executive Assistance International, is based near Zephyr Cove at Lake Tahoe. Her specialty is graphics design and Web site development. Plus she handles some international marketing and Internet research tasks ranging from administrative support to complex projects.

Getting paid is never a problem, says Nilson, as she mostly works for clients on retainer.

Jacqueline Simmons of Advantage One - The Write Business is based in Minden. Her specialty is copywriting, from master's thesis to letters of introduction. The other 50 percent of her workload is administrative support.

Susan George, of ODAA (Other Duties As Assigned), is in Carson City. Among her clientele are real estate agents, who need support in desktop publishing, setting up for open houses, and thank you notes afterwards.

New to the virtual scene is Rachel Bennett of Executive Options, based in Carson City. Her specialties are Power Point presentations, and both medical and engineering transcriptions.

What is it like, from the client's perspective, to work with a virtual assistant?

Letitia Baccellia, an architectural specification representative at Formica Corp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., outsources work to Simmons.

She says, "It takes knowing her qualifications and professionalism. It takes confidence in the other person to know the communication is there. To know they can know what your needs are. We could be thousands of miles apart, and I'd be confident still that she would deliver a great product."

At Incline Village, Heather Williams, partner at Stanford Advisory, outsources administrative support tasks to Susan George.

She says, "Our clients are spread all over the country, so we don't even think twice about using a virtual assistant."

Due to his remote location at Kirkwood, Paul Katosh, real estate broker at Alpine Investments and Management, began sending his letters and other typing work to an off-site secretarial service 30 years ago. He switched to Advantage One five years ago, and says of Simmons, "She's thorough and very professional." Since he got a fax machine,

outsourcing is easier, he says, although he still must make the two-hour drive to pick up the hard copy.

Working at home, without the camaraderie of coworkers, is not for everyone. But these virtual assistants say the job is not without satisfactions.

"It's unbelievable the kind of business owners you meet," says Nilson. "It's very rewarding to be able to help people."

Says George, "I'm excited about the variety of challenges. It keeps my skills fresh."

However, the business is not without its challenges.

For Nilson, it's timing.

"With clients on the West Coast and overseas, I have to be up at an ungodly hour sometimes," she says. "Then work hours start here."

"The hardest part is to juggle everything," says Bennett who, after 10 years in the office, decided two months ago to stay home with a baby.

Some start with clients from a previous job, while others build a business from the ground up.

Nilson, for instance, developed her client base while working at a company with operations in San Diego, Tonga and Manila. She was executive assistant to the chief executive of a computer company and to the managing director of an international communications company.

George, former marketing manager of a financial institution, built her firm after talking to potential clients about their needs everything from someone to stuff envelopes to someone to check their voice mail when they traveled.

In the assistants' virtual world, it's not surprising that Nilson is enrolled virtually, of course at the University of California San Diego, working toward a master's degree in educational technology.


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