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So far, in this series of virtual assistant interviews, we have talked to Janet Barclay, who specializes in website support, Angel Lebak, who focuses on social media marketing, and Ruth Martin, who provides general business support. Today we’re talking with Tess Strand.

GT: How long have you been involved with the virtual assistant industry?

TS: Like many VAs, I was already working with clients for some time in an administrative business support capacity, from a distance, before I knew there even was a virtual assistant industry. I contracted with my first client, an independent consultant to the publishing industry in New York, in mid-2005.

GT: What made you decide to start Virtual Assistant Forums?

After I’d been in business for about a year, I started to experience the inevitable issues and growing pains that come along with operating a service business. I started looking online for a place to ask questions about client relations in particular. Through my research, I discovered that there was this emerging industry around virtual service providers.

I joined a few other sites for VAs, but they did not offer the collaboration and sense of community I had hoped for. So, I saw that as an opportunity to start an online network. I could create and curate the atmosphere and experience based on my vision of an ideal community website. It was a neat platform for exploring and sharing my own business philosophies, even as those philosophies were emerging.

GT: How many VAs belong to your Forums? Are they all based in North America?

The community has about 6,500 active memberships at this time, with members from literally all over the world. The majority of our members are in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia. But we also have virtual assistant members from France, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Scotland, Ireland, Kenya, and the Caribbean Islands!

GT: When should a business owner choose an offshore virtual assistant over a local one? 

The truth is that any business owner going offshore for virtual support is doing so because of cost alone. It isn’t easy to find an offshore virtual assistant with an excellent command of the English language, who strategizes business growth and offers expertise in social media or web design, or whatever. If you find a VA who can offer all of that, consistently, at ‘offshore’ prices, then, of course, it’s a good business decision.

But, any business owner basing this investment in their business on price alone will get what they pay for. That applies to VAs in North America or Europe, too, by the way. Location isn’t really the issue – it’s work quality. Ultimately, I’d advise business owners to get the best help they can afford. But first, they should look carefully at what they’re hoping to achieve by working with a virtual assistant. Then, make their decision accordingly. If the goal is to outsource automated tasks with little room for error, that’s very different from outsourcing marketing collateral, customer service, or communications. In the latter three, a less than ideal result could at best be an expensive mistake; at worst, disastrous or damaging to the company image.

My favorite quote to share with those considering a virtual assistant comes from an unlikely source: an American oil well firefighter named Red Adair who said, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” I think that pretty much sums it up.

GT: Is Virtual Assistant Forums strictly a resource for VAs, or can other business owners use it too?

Membership at Virtual Assistant Forums is intended for virtual service providers. The information is curated to support people in that particular business sector. However, VAs face the same business challenges as any other entrepreneur. Discussion on the forums touches on every aspect of business development, from startup to marketing to website coding to client relations. Almost all of the information on the site is freely available to anyone who visits.

The community itself is also a great resource for business owners who are interested in working with a virtual assistant in two ways:

First, a client can fill out our Request for Proposal form with their project or business needs, and upon approval, the information is posted to a members-only area of the forums. This provides a casual conduit to help businesses find professional virtual assistants. We also host a directory of virtual assistant businesses where clients can contact specific service providers directly.

Second, the forums themselves offer a truly unique opportunity for clients to vet prospective virtual assistants by locating their posts. You can tell a lot about service providers by the way they interact with their peers. The truly service-oriented and professional VAs do tend to stand out in an online community setting.

GT: Where else can business owners find information about virtual assistants?

My initial interest in the virtual assistant industry came about because I was a service provider experiencing that side of the business. But as the forums grew and my experience as a business owner changed to include outsourcing, I began to see things from the client’s perspective. I’ve contracted several virtual assistants myself, and I use that experience in the Virtual Assistant Information blog. I ‘evangelize’ the VA industry and teach clients how to find, hire, and work with VAs.

I’ve also put out a short ebook through the blog. It’s called The Smart Business Owner’s Guide to Virtual Assistance – How to Find, Hire, and Work with a Professional Virtual Assistant. It is a 48-page guide to successful outsourcing. It teaches those new to the idea of using virtual assistance:

  • Why a VA is not an employee (and how this benefits a business owner)
  • The best places to find a virtual assistant online
  • How to maximize an RFP (Request for Proposal) to get the best responses from the best VAs
  • The ten most important questions to ask when first speaking with a prospective VA
  • Tips on the fine art of delegating
  • The vast differences between a professional virtual assistant and an offshore VA call center
  • A list of 50+ tools to help make outsourcing and working virtually a snap

The virtual assistants themselves usually write the best information about working with virtual assistants. Who better to teach you how to make the most of the investment? That’s why the Virtual Assistant Information blog regularly features guest articles – all authored by professional virtual assistants.

GT: What’s your favorite business-related website?

I’m probably not supposed to say ‘Virtual Assistant Forums,’ but honestly, I love seeing and having a part in directing the growth and energy there. The community there is awesome. These business owners collaborate, which should come as no surprise since that’s what good virtual assistants do. And, with so many dedicated virtual service providers stretching and growing their businesses together, it is simply a great environment to be a part of.

About today’s guest:

Learn more about Tess Strand here.

Read the other posts in this series on virtual assistants: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Questions to Ask When Hiring a VA.

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