After 12 years of working in a corporate environment, desktop publishing assistant and account manager Cathy Kessler was getting bored and frustrated with the lack of flexibility in her job. So she decided to start her own home-based business as a virtual assistant (VA), and she hasn't had any second thoughts. With employers cutting overhead costs, it's a good time to become a VA, according to Stacy Brice, president of AssistU, a Baltimore-based company that provides online training and coaching for VAs. Get Started Generally, starting a VA business doesn't cost much, says Brice. You need a home computer, but software and other supplies can be bought as required for client assignments. If your startup expenses exceed what you'd like to put on your credit card, the US Small Business Administration offers many loan programs, as well as information about grants and financing opportunities. Set Rates According to Brice, starting rates for a VA should not be less than $30 per hour to make a profit and cover all the costs an employer would pay in the corporate world -- including health insurance premiums, vacation time and office supplies. VAs should raise rates as their skills and value to clients improve, generally debuting a new rate for a new client. For an experienced generalist VA, rates top off around $65 per hour, but specialists in niche fields charge higher fees. Kessler, who is based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has six clients in locations from New York to California on retainer for a minimum number of hours per month and several more regular clients that she charges hourly for occasional jobs. Market Yourself Because print ads are expensive and rarely hit your target audience, Brice favors networking as a better marketing strategy. Ways to meet potential clients include volunteering, teaching online and offline classes and attending networking events for trade associations and chambers of commerce. Moreover, a Web site is essential to attract national clients, Kessler says. When developing your business site, she suggests scanning other VAs' Web sites and deciding what you do and don't like. Don't just post your resume and services offered; create a site that truly gives your potential client a good sense of your skills, experience and work ethic. "People want to see who you are and what you're about," Kessler says. "Post your photo and express your personality on your Web site." Online Resources Brice recommends the following Web sites as great resources for VAs:
- American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers Accounting, Bookkeeping and Tax Links: Features numerous accounting and tax info links.
- Morebusiness.com: Offers startup advice, sample business and marketing plans, contracts, Web site-building tips, press release templates and more.
- Bplans.com: Shows how to develop a business plan, and also includes marketing ideas and a costs calculator.
- SBA.gov: Offers important advice for first-time entrepreneurs.