May 3, 2016

How Startups Are Using Virtual Assistants

by Katie Parrott

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For busy startup teams, the name of the game
- today more than ever is productivity.

FitStars CEO and co-founder Mike Maser sums it up perfectly: “When you're building a vision, a team and a product all at once, time is your ultimate currency. Every day presents both the opportunity to break ground and the risk of losing ground. At the end of the day I'd trade anything for an extra hour to ensure we've taken a step forward.”

And when you’re a startup, working at the breakneck speed of startups, it’s only natural that things start falling through the cracks. Social media gets neglected, correspondence goes unresponded-to. Every startup has a laundry list of items they should be doing but aren’t or things they are doing, but could be doing a lot better.

And there’s a very simple reason for that: startup teams are not an unlimited resource.

There are only so many hours in the day, so many people on your team, so much energy and focus that each of those team members has to put toward getting your company where it needs to go.  And, of course, there’s that other, classic startup limitation: the bank account. Whereas  larger, more established companies might run into a problem and throw money at it, startups have to be a lot more strategic when it comes to when and how they’re spending their money.

So you’re a startup. You’re rich in ideas, but you’re poor in resources with which to actually make those ideas happen. And no matter how much you multitask, delegate and prioritize, chances are you and your team are still facing Sophie’s Choice-style decisions about where to focus your energiesand what to leave by the wayside.

And, if you’re like 99.99% of startup teams out there, that stuff you leave by the wayside drives you nuts.

That feelingthe feeling of working ceaselessly and yet somehow still not making the progress you want to be making, still watching opportunities slip through your fingers and important tasks fall through the cracksthat’s the feeling that’s telling you that it’s time to get a virtual assistant.

Virtual assistants are a great way to add some additional, high-quality bandwidth to your teamwithout breaking the bank. A good virtual assistant does more than buy your groceries or manage your calendar: they become a seamless member of your team and help drive your company toward its goals. Virtual assistants keep you organized, they keep you focused, they keep you sane. But most importantly: virtual assistants free up your time and your team’s time to work on those truly important projects that are going to make a difference for your company.

“Like every other team member, our VA plays a specific role in our efforts and remains an important piece of the puzzle.” 

Mike del Ponte, CEO & Co-founder, Soma Water

An increasing number of startups are using virtual assistants as a secret weapon to propel their company toward its goals. But while plenty of attention has been paid to the ways that virtual assistants can help busy professionals in their personal lives, there’s been a lot less discussion of how startups can use virtual assistants to drive actual results for their company.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at how virtual assistants can become virtual team members, and move the needle for startups in real, actionable ways.

What Is A Virtual Assistant 

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“Far too many people see VAs as just people to do grunt work. But if you can spend the time to train them properly, they can reap you far more benefits.”

Sol Orwell, Director of Strategy, Examine.com 

Let’s dispense with one with one misconception right off the bat: a virtual assistant is not just a personal assistant (although, of course, they can act as a personal assistant, too).  

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As a startup, you’re in the business of solving problems for your customers. Virtual assistants are not much different: they’re in the business of solving problems for their clientsin other words, you and your team. Big problems, little problems: point a virtual assistant at a problem, they’ll solve it. If they can’t solve it themselves, they’ll find someone who can.

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Chances are the things getting in the way of your team’s productivity are all relatively small tasks, taken by themselves. But taken together, they add up. Virtual assistants are pros at wrangling those kinds of small tasks, freeing you up for the bigger, more sustained projects that need your full attention.

“There is simply too much administrative work for one person to do in my businessI could not operate without VAs! I would never sleep or be able to deliver value to my audience... Some of the tasks I've taken off my plate so that I can continue creating valuable products and services and generating more revenue in the business include: answering common types of emails I get, helpdesk, signups and unplugs/suspensions in Paypal for community members and course students having tech issues, mailing list management, social media marketing tasks, newsletter writing, blog editing, community forum moderation, and more.” 

Carol Tice,  Freelance Writer, Blogger, Journalist and Writing Mentor

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It’s par for the course for startups that everybody on the team is doing the work of at least two or three people. Everyone has their core area of responsibility, but then they’re picking up at least four or five tasks outside their main area that simply haven’t found a home yet. That in-between stuff the stuff that doesn’t fit neatly within a full-time team member’s job descriptionthat tends to be exactly the kind of stuff that virtual assistants can take on. A good virtual assistants can fill in in a wide variety of areas, picking up the slack wherever it needs picked up.

“Virtual assistants have proven to be an incredibly valuable resource for the growth and development of Mallard Creatives. We've employed virtual assistants to do everything from scheduling company travel, to helping us edit and review robust business proposals. They're efficient, cost effective, and capable of handling a wide variety of tasks. If you haven't tried working with a virtual assistant already, give it a shot. I promise you won't regret it.” 

Mike Rossi, President, Mallard Creatives

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There’s a misconception out there that the reason people use virtual assistants for basic tasks like booking flights and scheduling appointments is because that’s as far as a virtual assistant’s skill set stretches, bruty that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Virtual assistants are a highly educated, highly talented workforce. And a lot of the time, the skills and  that they have fall perfectly into areas where you and your team may not be as strong.

Drake Media President Tom Drake knows firsthand how valuable a virtual assistant’s skills can be to augment his own. “I've used virtual assistants to handle tasks that are not my strengths, allowing me to focus on what I’m good at and scale the rest,” he says. “For example, CreateHype.com is targeted towards female entrepreneurs, especially those that sell on Etsy. So… I hired VAs to act as community coordinators – writing some posts and also handling the publishing schedule and affiliates we work with.”

The payoff for this kind of strategic delegation, as Tom points out, is huge: “With tasks like these (and more) being handled by someone more capable, I’m better able to focus on building my online business.”

How To Use a Virtual Assistant

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There are as many ways for a startup to use a virtual assistant as there are startups to use them, but a couple of themes emerge time and time again. Virtual assistants are a great resource to help:

  •  Free up time
  • Stay organized
  • Discover opportunities
  • Stay connected with customers  
  • Augment your full-time team’s skill set

With those general ideas in mind, let’s look at some real-world examples of how startups are using virtual assistantsand getting results.

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1. Tackle Inbox Anarchy

Ah, the email inboxwhere startup productivity goes to die. We all know that feeling of settling in to do a “quick” inbox check first thing on a Monday, and looked up three hours later to find your morning completely shot.

Inbox management is among the first tasks you can pass off to a virtual assistant. The risks are minimal, and the trade-off in terms of the time it buys you is huge.

Deputizing a virtual assistant for inbox hygiene is not just about time management either: it can have a very real impact on your business. Take Dave, for example. Dave is the CEO for an up-and-coming startup, with an up-and-coming startup CEO’s inbox crammed with spam. But buried among all the sales pitches and job interview requests are nuggets of business gold: requests for media interview, lunch invitations from potential partners, bizdev opportunities. Those kinds of emails could actually lead to important opportunities for the business if Dave gets to them fast enough. Problem is: Dave never gets to them fast enough. Many’s the opportunity Dave has missed simply because the email got buried in his inbox, never to be seen again.

Then Dave hired a virtual assistant. Not only did the VA bring some much-needed law and order to Dave’s inbox in the form of rules, filters, folders and the likeshe also became exceptionally talented at recognizing emails that needed action now and floating them up to Dave for his immediate attention. The result: no more hours lost toand no more important communications slipping through the cracks.

"Our Zirtual assistant has played a critical role in helping me in my role as CEO interface with our enterprise clients. Whether it’s scheduling calls, traveling to the east coast for meetings, or attending conferences and events, our assistant has played a critical role in making sure I'm able to build relationships with our customers and prospective clients."

Eric Jackson, CEO, Caplinked

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2. Get a Handle on Scheduling
  

Schedule management is one of those tasks that you might think you should be able to handle on your own, what with the proliferation of fancy calendar apps out there these days. But if you’re a busy startup founder, we’re willing to bet you’ve run into more than a few situations where you’ve lost track of the old datebookand lost out on valuable opportunities as a result. 

Startups.co founder and CEO Wil Shroter learned firsthand just how crucial schedule management can be when he started splitting his time between San Francisco and Startups.co headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. “All of a sudden, I was straddling two time zones, and schedule management became a lot more complicated:,” Wil Says. Calls with the team back home had to be arranged across time differences, San Francisco meetings had to be planned around flights to and fro.

Wil would be the first person to tell you that navigating the chaos would have been nearly impossible without the help of his virtual assistant. “Not only does she keep me on time and on taskwhich, if you know me, you know is not a small thingshe makes sure I make the most of my time in either city.”

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3. Keep Track of Meeting Takeaways

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you hang up at the end of a conference call and dive head-first into your next activity. A couple hours later, when you’re ready to circle back and follow up with your tasks from the call, you realize you’ve completely forgotten what the key items were.  

Meeting notes are another area where a virtual assistant’s superior organizational skills can shine. Action items, deadlines, questions needing follow-upa virtual assistant can capture them all, so when you’re ready to jump into action, you can get straight to work, rather than losing time to retracing your steps.

“I love simplifying complexity through tools, templates and systems. My VA has been so outstanding to work witha total game-changer. My VA immediately became an integral part of my business operations (and peace of mind) and I'm just sorry that I didn't sign up years ago.”

Jenny Blake, Co-Founder & Director of Operations and Communications, Lucent App

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4. Streamline Processes

If you’re like a lot of startups we know, your backend processes didn’t evolve so much by design as by a cobbled-together hodgepodge of whatever you could get your hands on at the time. In other words: chances are there are areas that, with a little TLC, could be running a lot more smoothly than they currently are.

A virtual assistant can be an awesome resource to help sniff out those inefficiencies and come up with potential solutions that can save your company time and money (not to mention pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth).

Startups.co co-founder and Chief Prouct Officer Damon Caiazza learned that firsthand when Startups.co acquired Zirtual. Right as the acquisition was happening, Damon and his team were in the middle of revamping Startups.co’s entire professional service division. There were tools to research and test, processes to map out, client data to transfer from one system to another. “None of it was getting done, though,” Damon says, “because the members of the team were too busy actually working with clients.”

Then Startups.co acquired Zirtual and, with it, an army of dedicated, solutions-focused virtual assistants. “Our VAs got straight to work testing project management tools, researching call scheduling software, hacking Google Sheets spreadsheets,” Damon remembers. “Within a month, the new systems were all up and running, and our process was running smoother than we ever knew it could.”

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5. Help With Process Documentation and Scaling

The lightning bolt moment for any startup is the moment you have your first success, and you realize you’re onto something special. But where the rubber really hits the road is when you prove you can take that success and repeat it time and time again at scale.

In order to get to that point, there’s a lot of legwork that needs to be done to document the processand this is another area where a virtual assistant can play a key role.

LeadChat co-founder and CEO Gary Tramer remembers how valuable their virtual assistant was when LeadChat came to that crucial inflexion point. “When we started LeadChat, we had our sales experts perform live chat for our internal sites,” he says. “Once we'd cracked the formula of generating 4-8x more leads via live chat, we used our virtual assistant to map and build the process, documentation and training plan so we could start scaling.”

10 countries and hundreds of clients later, Gary is quick to give credit to VAs for their help in paving the way. “Without our VA to assist in the early days, it wouldn't have been possible to grow so quickly.”

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6. Keep Tabs on Trends

You might have heard about the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the guy who was sentenced to an afterlife of endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Staying on top of news in the startup world can feel a lot like that: no sooner have you caught up with all the latest updates than a new wave of stories comes in and you’re right back where you started.

A virtual assistant can help you stay current with what’s happening, both in your industry and in the startup world at large. Your VA can create curated lists of articles from your publications of choice, together with summaries outlining any major takeaways and tie-ins for you and your business. The result: you get the benefit of all that insightwithout having to put the time in to do the legwork yourself.

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7. Compile Market Data & Statistics

As you’re building your product and your business, you lean heavily on intuition to tell you what’s important to your customers, or where your company should go next. Sometimes, though, you need a bit more statistical heft to back up your argumentand that’s where your VA can step in.

Maybe you’re a location-based startup, ready to expand beyond your initial test market into new cities. Or you’re a heading into a big investor meeting next week, and you need to beef up your presentation with some statistics that help to highlight just how big of a problem you’re helping to solve. A virtual assistant can up his sleeves, dive into the data and pull up the relevant statistics that can help you make your decision or your case.

“My VA is an extension of me. I do not see her just as an assistant, but almost as a disciple - someone I train all the time. She understands CRO and SEO and influence marketing and so forth. So when I tell her "tell me about X person" she knows exactly what I'm looking for.” 

Sol Orwell, Director of Strategy, Examine.com

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8. Scout for Talent  

When you’re a startup running lean, HR and recruiting are often among the first things to go. 95% of the time, that decision probably feels like the right one. But then it comes time to add a new member to the team, and all of a sudden you’re losing hours to scrolling through profiles on LinkedIn.

Basic talent scouting is exactly the kind of task where it makes sense to leverage the research skills of a virtual assistant. Say you’re in the market for a new backend developer: your virtual assistant can put together a list of potential candidates that match your specificationslocation, skills, years of experience. With the heavy lifting done, you can get straight to making decisions and getting interviews on the bookswith your virtual assistant there to help you set it up.

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9. Help Out with Lead Generation

Lead Generation is another area where, with a little guidance and a push in the right direction, virtual assistants can save busy startup teams hours of valuable time and effort.

Startups.co co-founder and COO Elliot Schneier was losing huge chunks of his day to  researching leads and prepping for sales calls when he realized that, with a little guidance about where to look and what to look for, his VA, Alex, could take care of that upfront due diligence for him. He put Alex to work researching potential clients via LinkedIn and their websites, and even sending out emails offering to connect them with Elliot. 

The results were immediate. “By the time I was getting on the phone with these leads, I could skip over over a lot of the exposition and get straight to what was most important, because I knew Alex had already taken care of the basics for me,” Elliot says. “Alex’s hard work meant I was able to cut my close time in half, and focus on creating the relationship with a prospect, rather than digging through data.”

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10. Grow Your Social Following

Your social sites are a lot like your inbox: if you let them, they will take over your life. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because neglect your social media presence, and you’re neglecting your company’s single most important contact point with customers.

Social media and the skills of a virtual assistants are a match made in heaven. A VA can keep an eye on trending topics, flag tweets from key influencers, write  and schedule posts to ensure that your output is consistent. Most importantly, they can look for opportunities to bring your company into the conversation, and turn that activity into measurable growth for your company.

Ryan Farley, co-founder of Lawnstarter, uses VAs to find to find and engage with Twitter followers and the pages they follow.

"We use VAs to find customers on Twitter, then download the accounts they follow. Then, they check to see which common accounts are that our customers follow, and we make sure to promote content to those accounts. Our VAs handle all of that."
 

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11. Monitor User Conversation

Whether it comes in the form of tweets or Facebook comments or threads on Reddit, your customers are talking about your company, and what they have to say can have a huge impact. Just ask or any number of other companies who have been unfortunate enough to have customer support snafus go viral because they didn’t have eyes on what was going on in the Twittersphere.  

But monitoring user buzz about your company is another one of those things that, if you let it, could eat up all your time and keep you from getting anything else done. A virtual assistant is an ideal resource to keep a finger on the pulse of what customers are saying about your company. Plus, they can bubble any problems up to the right person before the situation has a chance to become atomic.

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12. QB Your Crowdfund

Anyone who’s ever tried it can tell you: running a crowdfunding campaign is about a lot more than putting a profile up on Kickstarter and waiting for the pledges to pour in. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to runtime and effort that most startups, busy actually building the product they’re hoping to get out there, don’t exactly have.

Running a crowdfunding campaign is exactly the kind of small project that’s tailor-made for a virtual assistant. A virtual assistant can field inquiries from backers, keep the page updated as the campaign progresses, even, with a little bit of social media know-how and understanding of basic marketing strategy, put together and execute a social media strategy and PR strategy to drum up visibility for the campaign.

"Well before the start of our Kickstarter campaign, throughout it, and still today, our VA is an integral part of the Soma team. We created a detailed plan before the launch and incorporated our VA's help. As we crafted each step we decided how our VA would fit in. Like every other team member our VA played a specific role in our efforts and remains an important piece of the puzzle.

Mike del Ponte CEO & Co-founder, Soma Water

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13. Ghostwrite content

In a startup ecosystem that’s increasingly driven by thought leadership, producing thoughtful, compelling, well-written content about your industry is no longer an optionit’s an imperative. But not every startup founder is a wordsmith, and carving out the time to churn out a 1,000-word think piece may not always be at the top of the priority list.

Writing is among the most common skills in a virtual assistant’s tool beltand the most useful. From blog posts and articles to newsletters and social posts, virtual assistants can be a vital tool in helping to get your message out there when an in-house writer or pricey agency just isn’t in the budget.

Say that you’re a cybersecurity startup founder: in the wake of Apple’s open letter about protecting user privacy, you know you want to chime in to help explain the significance of the decision to a wider audience. Recognizing that there’s a short window for the post to have an impact, and knowing that you won’t be able to get the piece out in time if you wrote it yourself, you pass the assignment to you virtual assistant, who writes the piece up and gets it  it on Medium and monitored the response the post generated. 



Conclusion

In an age defined by tools and widgets, apps and software, it may come as a surprise to learn that one of the most important productivity hacks out there for busy startups is actually good old fashioned manpower. But that’s what an increasing number of startups are discovering: sometimes, there really is no substitute for a human being’s creativity and problem solvingand that’s where a good virtual assistant can make all the difference.

In this article, we’ve tried to shed light on some of the most common ways startups use virtual assistants, but by no means is our list an exhaustive one. As we said before, there are as many ways to use virtual assistants as there are companies that use them, and ultimately, the best way to find out how your virtual assistant can help your company is by asking them. The longer your VA works with you, the better they’ll get to know you and your companyand where their skills fit into the picture.

With that in mind, it’s important not to leave the task of finding the right virtual assistant(s) for you and your team up to chance. The best way to ensure that you’re getting a VA match made in startup heaven is to partner with a service that understands startups and the unique challenges that they face. Services like that  match you with a virtual assistant that matches your company’s needs and goals, and get you to the point where you’re saying, as so many entrepreneurs do when you ask them about their virtual assistants, “I don’t know how we did it without our VA.”