Why Small Business Owners and Virtual Assistants Need Each Other

It was one of those rare occasions where someone acts on your good advice. Several years ago a friend and colleague of mine was transitioning out of her full-time job to build a new life, out of state. Eschewing corporate hierarchies as I do, while trying to remain sensitive to her need for stable work, I made that best suggestion I could. I told her she could put herself in business right away by marketing herself as a "Virtual assistant" to her existing network instead of waiting in line like everybody else to land full-time employment.

She already had the requisite skills. The experience performing multiple job functions. And most importantly, the work ethic. At at the very least she could keep busy during her downtime. It turned out to be an excellent move for her and lasted a couple years before she was able to transition back into full-time employment.

Today, I see more and more people adopting the work practices of the virtual assistant industry, with or without consciously realizing it. Whether we call it the "freelance economy", the "part-time work force" or other such euphemism for underemployment of the labor force, people are coming together in new ways to fundamentally redefine the architecture of work.

Value Innovation In the Part-time Economy

Value Innovation Strategy Concept from Blue Ocean Strategy.

Value Innovation Strategy Concept from Blue Ocean Strategy.

As a marketing professional, I have been intrigued by the emergence of the virtual assistant industry since it first came on the scene several years ago. To my mind, the array of forces that come into play bear the markings of "value innovation", as originally outlined in the seminal work, Blue Ocean Strategy, with regard to competition within and between industries.

Value Innovation is defined as the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low-cost, creating a leap in value for both company and consumer. This framework seeks to make competition (incremental improvement) irrelevant by creating demand in brand new, uncontested market space.

Here's how value innovation applies not just to the virtual assistant industry, but to the whole economy. The business model adopted by freelance teleworkers shores up marketplace inefficiencies by letting them engage in a transaction of time. In this case, trading non-productive hours for productive hours with business owners who have opportunities, but not time, to trade.

The business owner trades non-productive time in the form of semi-specialized work that must be accomplished, that otherwise couldn't be done in-house, to a competent professional. The freelance virtual assistant trades unproductive time they would have behind a corporate desk or otherwise looking for work, for the opportunity to serve multiple clients.

The value resulting from these transactions is shared between the business owners (the client) and their virtual assistants (the freelancer), with the highest immediate gains going toward the clients, and the most stable and diversified payoff going to the virtual assistant. Working in this capacity is a brilliant maximization of our scarcest resource, time.

If you're thinking this isn't any different from the way traditional businesses are supposed to operate, your right. But don't forget one thing. The actuarial costs associated with hiring and retaining quote unquote "employees" are noticeably absent from this equation. In this way, the idea of virtual assistants working in partnership with business people deserves special emphasis because their relationship exists outside the stifling impositions of a traditional employer-employee relationship, as we've come to understand it. This relationships reflects a more genuine free market imperative.

What makes the industry attractive to business owners?

Hiring a virtual assistant breaks the value vs. cost trade-offs that exist between employing a personal assistant, hiring a temp worker with no long-term loyalty to the company and contracting specialized help (graphic designers) to undertake the work. Lets look at some more ways that clients can benefit from a relationship with their VA.

  1. While legislation drives down operating costs for large corporations, small businesses suffer. Virtual assistants offer a way for compact companies to tap into the global outsourcing trend in the wake of eroding margins, while doing their patriotic duty to keep their money inside the country. Even though small business makes up 85% of our Gross National Product, legislation is designed to support and reinforce the cost structures of large corporations (state sanctioned monopolies) at the expense of smb's. Large corporations then insulate themselves against competition from smb's by passing on the dictums of bureaucratic bloat.
  2. Business owners are looking for ways to extend the hours in their day. Competition is definitely heating up, and in recent years has reached a fever pitch. In an age of international conglomerates and online retail giants, the invisible hand of global competition is felt by everyone. Small businesses increasingly find themselves marginalized to the level of commodities, unable to compete or differentiate their offerings to the global marketplace, unable to grow past their initial patch of soil because of regulations which empower the strong and oppress the weak. "If only I had more hours in the day" is the thought that pulses through every business owner's mind.
  3. Business owners need to play to their strengths. To deal with the competition, business owners have to optimize their time, increase their productive output, and marshall all their resources in pursuit of that ever elusive 1% advantage over the next shop. Wearing "all the hats" quickly reveals itself as the exercise in futility that it is. In this way, virtual assistants pay for themselves by offsetting the cost of an employee wasting time on non-productive activities by more than a token amount.
  4. Most small business owners can't afford the luxury of hiring a full-time assistant. For today's small business owner, there's no such thing as frivolous expenditures. CEO's can snub their nose at a trivialities like buying a corporate jet, but smb's don't have the luxury of a vast and inscrutable organization to absorb the cost of such things.
  5. Contracting specialty service providers doesn't always make sense. It's one thing to need a professionally designed and polished marketing campaign that pops off the billboards and wins awards. It's quite another to need basic marketings materials that are effective, don't look completely lousy and get the job done. Dealing with a wide range of specialty service providers often creates more headaches than their services are worth.

What makes the industry attractive to Virtual Assistants?

These are exciting times for professionals with administrative backgrounds to take back control over their careers. An emerging industry like virtual assistance offers (virtually) limitless opportunity for independently minded people to carve out permanent niches in markets that are plagued by back-office inefficiencies and management inertia.

  1. The virtual assistant business creates compelling job opportunities for generalists with a wide range of skill sets. Variety is the spice of life, after all. I am a dynamo in photoshop, database applications, desktop publishing apps, and I stay abreast of the latest in collaborative technologies. There are no less than 100 people in my life I can think of off the top of my head who dread the thought of doing these same routine activities, day-in day-out, who can save thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours by offloading their work to me.
  2. Escape being marginalized by corporate execs and attain professional prestige. Specialization represents the old model of business. The globalized economy is designed for creative generalists to thrive and multiply. That's because the internet flattens economies of scale, making partnerships, collaboration and the efficient allocation of resources so alarmingly convenient for the average person. Large corporations would love smb's to hold on to their tired old hierarchies, because regimentation is not a competitive advantage in small organizations!
  3. Get paid to stay abreast of trends and learn things other professionals don't have time to learn about. Every time a virtual assistant learns something new or picks up a new skills, it doesn't just edify them, it edifies their whole client base as well. The more kinds of work they have the better for their clientele. The key to making this work is always showing clients a return on their investment in the form of newly-leveraged time, money or resources.
  4. Maintain flexibility while diversifying your earning potential. Good virtual assistants live the multiple-streams of income dictum. They aren't tied down to a single source of compensation, nor should they want to be. Having multiple clients insulates them against the forces that conspire to overtake a given industry or trade.
  5. Take value out of that which is created for their clients. When they are operating within the ideal parameters of a contracting agreement, virtual assistants' get value by creating value. Without such a reciprocal, results-oriented approach their pool of clients would swiftly dry up. 

I was looking for a more visual way of depicting these forces at work, so I put together this little infographic.