True Confessions of an Extreme Outsourcer

7 years ago

This morning while walking my dog, making coffee and heading to my front porch to write, I also finished these tasks: invoiced two clients for consulting work, compiled web research onto an Excel pivot table, entered a stack of random travel receipts into a database, shopped for vegetables for a stirfry and folded three loads of laundry. Even though I avoid laundry at all costs and I don't even know how to make a pivot table.

I have not successfully cloned myself, and I do not own any robots. But I do have two fairly steady Virtual Assistants (VAs) and several pinch hitters to whom I outsource many projects and household tasks every month, which is almost as good as having robots. Even better, actually.

I'm an extreme outsourcer, a zealot of the practice, in fact. I worship at the knees of the goddess who invented Virtual Assistants, the professionals who you can hire to work remotely on many of the things you don't want to do or don't have time to do -- all for reasonable hourly or project fees. In addition to working with Virtual Assistants, I also have a contact list of specially trained pros to hire for ad hoc projects, and a list of people who clean, cook, wash clothes, and do errands on call. My dream is to outsource my entire to-do list to a team of angelic VAs, college students and entrepreneurs, including the task of writing my next to-do list.

Basically I do everything humanly possible to avoid doing repetitive tasks, detail work and housework. I outsource as many things as I can if I can find someone to do them for less than the hourly wage I tend to earn for that task, and even some that match my own fees. I outsource so that I can free up my time to obtain work that I love or to do the things that add fun and meaning to my life. I outsource because I can get more done, work smarter instead of harder and still grow my business.

I outsource because it kicks ass to get things done while I sleep.

What, you don't have a VA yet? What are you waiting for?

How It Works to Have a Virtual Assistant

Virtual Assistants are relatively easy to find through online sources -- and some are also bloggers. Many VAs work from their homes and have their own independent small businesses, though some work for larger organizations, both in this country and abroad.

Typically you buy a block of hours from them based on the type of work you will task, and then you email them instructions. Prices of course vary; I most commonly pay between $10-35 an hour, with discounts kicking in for volume commitments. I've found that VAs know that a successful experience depends upon them being precise and respectful of your time. They can get a great deal done in an hour and you usually can use each hour at various times in smaller remnants that they track.

My VAs have some tasks that they know are their ongoing responsibility. For example, registering students for one of my online training businesses, handling faxes and correspondence and logging the travel receipts that I send her by email using an iPhone app. Other tasks I communicate as needed. In a few seconds I can zip out emails like:

  • I need a list of national conferences for small business owners (in table format, columns for event name, host, city, dates, registration cost, hyperlink) but don't spend more than two hours on it, by Monday is fine.
  • I'm going to be cleaning up my Google Reader this month. Will you 1) make a folder and add RSS feeds for any blogger who commented on my blog this year? 2) make a folder and add RSS feeds for all of the Story Bleed editors' blogs and the Listen to Your Mother Show directors, end of next week is fine.
  • I'm greenlighting a February mailout, so reorder postcards we used in October. 2000. Order ASAP, but we don't need expedited shipping. Order stamps from USPS too. My local VA will be doing the mailing and she's getting the labels, so no need to do that.
  • We're ready to install the WP template on the new site. Please use the one you used on our agency site, but switch the color to red, and do some of the basic footer and logo tasks by Monday please. Ping me when it's up.
  • I'm forwarding you three emails asking for information. Will you please answer them today or tomorrow? Thanks!!

And it will be done. I can be that short because I've trained the VAs I work with to know my business properties and goals and agree to check in if I'm confusing. It's exactly like I have a team of office assistants, but only when I need them. Most times, most of the work will be done when I wake up the next day. From the VAs point of view, she's doing work that she's good at, running her own business, can set her hours of availability and have control over where and how much she works.

Using VAs is an incredibly efficient use of my money, because not only do I not lose the hours that work would have taken from me, but I also won't lose the hours of procrastination, eye-gauging frustration and distracted web surfing that would have inevitably accompanied some of those tasks. I can forget them because they are off of my plate and on to someone else's. I can use that time to do other work that earns me more income, or I can just buy back some of my freedom, which is essential for me to be able to be creative and to be happy. I used VAs even in the early years of my business when I really couldn't afford the cash drain, and I don't regret a dime of it.

Of course there can be glitches in communication and project disappointments. That happens: I miss plenty of my own deadlines, get sick or otherwise wangle projects myself, so of course so would an assistant. Once in a while, a project is late or wrong, an errand runner might buy the wrong apples, or the sheets aren't folded the way we like them. I would much rather work on my ability to manage staff and dissolve my control issues, though, than be held back because I can't do everything myself.

When I talk about this with others, it's fascinating to learn what jobs people want to be free from and what they won't outsource. For example, I walk my own dog because that's a pleasure to me even though it's the first thing some people outsource, and I outsource laundry but wash my own underwear because, I don't know, repression -- which is probably a gender thing because men don't seem to worry about the ethics of knickerwashing. Overall, delegating is a skill that touches on a lot of gender, class, family and developmental issues, and it's interesting to see what comes up when you think about outsourcing.

Actually, even the process of thinking through what you would like a VA or household assistant to do helps you clarify your relationship with time, money and work, even if you decide not to outsource at all. It's strategic thinking at it's best, because the outcome is ownership of what matters and freedom to do what you want to do. It starts to change the way you think and your stress level. My kids' school wants me to sign up for a carnival volunteer job when I'm already a single mother who is totally booked? No sweat. I'll ask for the flyer design task that i can outsource to a VA. Done.

Even if it feels weird to you, just know that VAs are the secret weapon of many busy people who understand that tasking someone with a work project is just as easy as outsourcing their pedicures, and infinitely more useful. I'm a VA pusher, and I'd encourage you to give it a go. It can change your business and change your life without all of those time-consuming and troublesome cloning appointments.

More info about Virtual Assistants and outsourcing:

Talk to some VAs to see what might be possible for you:

Contributing Editor Deb Rox blogs at Deb on the Rocks, runs business development, media and strategic planning projects at 3 Smart Girlz, and practices extreme outsourcing in order to Tweet about reality television.  Works for her.

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