Friday, November 29, 2013

What / Who is a Virtual Assistant?



When I mention my work as a virtual assistant, I am often asked about how it works, how to get started, what types of jobs are available and so forth.  With that in mind, I’ve created this post.

Thanks to technology, one can work remotely from any location in the performance of a variety of tasks.  Some of these include:

  • Data entry
  • Writing – blogging, copywriting, proofreading, editing, transcription
  • General administrative
  • Information technology – software development, beta testing, etc.
  • Social media
  • Research
  • Accounting/bookkeeping
  • Marketing/customer service
  • Video creation and editing

While one can establish their own clientele as an independent freelancer, many times becoming a virtual assistant (VA) can be more easily accomplished by working through an agency.  There are several agencies on the Internet – Elance and oDesk are two major agencies.  I am registered with both, and am currently working through oDesk.  For that reason, specifics will be related to oDesk.

On oDesk since 2010, I have worked several short-term projects now and then.  These have included Web research, copywriting, social media management, data entry, administrative and software beta testing.  In June 2013, I landed my current assignment which is turning into a long-term arrangement.  Classified as data entry, it is not mindless work that you might associate with that term.  It is just enough to make me think a bit but is not stressful, has flexible hours and has no short deadlines. 

Currently I’m working part-time, but realistically could have an assignment with full-time hours or be working two jobs concurrently.  I’ve turned down several invitations lately which encompassed 35-40 hours per week.  That’s too much for me right now.  It is what you make it and what you want/need.

I enjoy being a virtual assistant for several reasons:

  • It keeps my brain active!  Our work here is not brain-intensive.  While that is a wonderful thing at my age and a relief from years of “intellectual work” in the corporate world, I wonder at times about my brain turning to “mush,” if you know what I mean.  Looking back at my professional resume, I think “gosh, I did all that?”  Working as a VA keeps my brain from napping all the time.
  • Interaction with co-workers, albeit via Skype, teleconference and email.
  • Learning new applications.
  • Staying creative.
  • My job can go with me when I travel, which is perfect for the full-time RVer.
  • Oh yeah, then there’s the extra income.  Winking smile

Simply put, oDesk is a temp agency for telecommuters.  Here’s some key highlights:

  • Workers are freelancers.  Employers are clients.
  • Registration and participation is free for freelancers.  All fees are paid to oDesk by clients.
  • Freelancers find work by applying to jobs and receiving interview invitations from clients.  Once you have established a track record with a good oDesk rating, invitations become more frequent.  Currently I receive approximately 1-2 invitations each week.
  • Freelancers establish their own pay rate on their profile.  Pay rates can be adjusted on a per-job basis.
  • Payment classifications are hourly or fixed-rate.  Payment for hourly jobs is guaranteed as long as they are performed via the oDesk Team App, a time-tracking desktop application.  Performing work outside the oDesk environment is a violation of the freelancer’s contract with oDesk.
  • Payment is made by direct deposit.  Freelancers set up a payment schedule.
  • Freelancers are independent contractors.  oDesk does not withhold taxes. 
  • There is a wide variety of jobs available in all fields.  Yes, there is a good amount of “garbage” jobs out there.  The oDesk community is worldwide and the pay scale runs the spectrum of ludicrously low to commanding a good hourly wage for high-tech, highly-skilled jobs such as in the IT industry.
  • oDesk does offer payroll options and, at the current time, health care benefits to full-time freelancers.  Full-time status criteria must be maintained for these benefits.

Personal traits and skills needed:

  • Have a solid foundation of computer and Internet literacy.  Clients are typically willing to train on specific platforms, but you must have a solid foundation on which to build and expand.
  • Experience with various applications is very helpful – Word, Google Docs, Excel, OpenOffice, Wordpress, etc..
  • Self-disciplined and able to work without close supervision.
  • A professional presentation.  Yes, it is a “real” job.  Present yourself and behave in the appropriate fashion.  Be prepared to make the commitment to an assignment.  Be sure that you possess the skills necessary for the assignment or that the client is willing to train.
  • Perseverance – landing that first job may take a while.
  • Caution and common sense – there are some scams out there.  You need to be able to distinguish those.  Use the oDesk client ratings to make these judgment calls.

How does one become a VA with oDesk?

  • You must have a reliable Internet source and computer.
  • Go to oDesk and register.  It’s free.
  • Set up your profile.
  • Take the oDesk Readiness Test and any other applicable skills tests.  They are free and will build your credibility and marketability.
  • Download and familiarize yourself with the oDesk Team App.  This is what you will use to track your time as you work; it calculates and records your wages.  Think of it as a virtual timesheet/ time clock.
  • Download and familiarize yourself with Skype. It’s free.  Many clients perform interviews via Skype and use it as a method of communication on a daily basis. You want to be ready for that interview!
  • Browse jobs and apply for the ones which interest you and for which you are qualified.
  • Respond promptly to messages from clients and invitations to interview.  oDesk recently introduced a new profile item on freelancer responsiveness.  Obviously, a higher responsiveness score is a good thing.
  • Clients may respond immediately or some time may pass before you hear from them.  I have landed work in situations where the initial contact was several weeks prior to beginning the assignment and I’d essentially “forgotten” about the job.
  • Landing the first assignment is the hardest part.  It is a job search.  Persevere. 
  • I recommend setting up a separate email account for oDesk notifications and for corresponding with clients.  I do this, keeping that email strictly for oDesk work and separate from my personal email account. It’s a safety precaution.  It also doesn’t crowd up my personal email inbox.
  • While there are tons of legitimate clients, there are scams and deadbeats as well and, while oDesk does a good job of staying on top of these, some do make their way into the system.  I have found that the many professional and legitimate employers interview by invitation only; however, that does not mean there aren’t legit jobs that accept applications initiated by the contractor.  You just have to use caution and common sense.  Remember that anyone can be anything on the Internet.  Check out client reviews, their payment history, how long they have been on oDesk, how many jobs they have had on oDesk, etc.  All this information is transparent on the oDesk system.  When a dialogue is initiated between you and a client, you will typically have the name of their company.  Do a Web search on the company.  You will see if it looks legitimate and you will see if it is something that interests you.  By doing this research, you will also show the prospective client that you have done your “homework” and made the effort to learn about their company.  They will be impressed, and that’s a good thing!

I hope this has been helpful if you have considered becoming a virtual assistant!

Thanks for stopping by! 


  1. Excellent information. Thank you for sharing.

  2. how much do you typically get paid for doing this work? I tried oDesk and my bids were obviously too high. There seems to be those that do it for $1 an hour or less. I guess for that first job, ok, but then after that does it get better?

    1. Laura, Elance uses the term "bid" but in oDesk you are applying for a job. You set your own fee in your profile. When you look at a specific job, it will show you what the client is going to pay. I never apply to any job that pays $1 - those are typically looking for offshore labor, i.e. other countries. I do not apply to jobs that pay less than my going rate. You will also see that jobs say they are specifically looking for a candidate in certain countries. Again, I never apply to jobs that are outside the US or Canada. Again, it takes a lot of looking and one does not typically find something on the first search. When I first started out, I applied to several jobs concurrently; I might have had 10 pending applications at one time. Keep in mind, too, that highly skilled, technical IT jobs, for instance, will command a higher pay rate than a data entry position. Again, set your own fee based on what you feel your skills are worth, keeping in mind that you are home-based so will not command a fee as high as being in an on-site situation, and that you can alter your fee on a per-job basis and/or what you and the client agree to when you interview. Hope this helps.


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