Friday, April 06, 2007

$200 Miracle

I'm amazed at the people I meet in this business who haven't yet hired an assistant of some kind.

To be honest, it took me ten years to decide that I needed someone. If I had it to do over, I'd hire an assistant my first year.

I refer to my assistant, Jennifer, as my $200 miracle. That's what it cost me per week when I first hired her.

Depending on where you live, you should be able to find an office assistant/bookkeeper for about $10/hr. Start out with 20 hours a week. That's a $200 miracle.

And what does Jennifer do for me?

- To start out, she makes sure bills get put into the system. So I can always open quickbooks and see what we owe at a glance. She works with the accountant to make sure we're using quickbooks properly. She balances the checkbook.

- She collects the mail when I don't. She gathers up all the checks and deposits them in the bank.

- When people are a bit slow to pay, she emails them, calls them, gets their credit card information, resends invoices, etc.

- Oh. And she prints up all the invoices for my review.

- She prints off all newsletters and marketing letters. Or has them printed someplace. Stuffs envelopes, applies postage, deals with the post office for bulk mail.

- When I hold seminars, she gets the fruit and coffee and pastries. She organizes all the sales materials, sends out packages as needed, and keeps track of all the office supplies. She orders supplies as needed.

- She handles new employee check-in, payroll processing, and printing all kinds of stuff I don't even keep track of any more. She proofreads everything.

- When something breaks, she calls the landlord or the fix-it place.

- And pretty much anything else we can think of. She's been known to get the pizza for staff meetings and take my car to get the oil changed.

- When there's too much for her to do, she supervises someone else to help get it all done.

--> And that's just for the consulting business. She does even more for the book business!

So this $200 miracle costs me about two hours of billable labor every week. And for that I get a bunch of stuff taken off my plate. A bunch of stuff that takes a bunch of time.

Getting Started

Do not -- repeat, do not -- put an ad in the paper or on craigslist for an administrative assistant. Holy Smokes, Batman. You'll be overwhelmed with totally useless resumes.

I started by putting out an ad for an assistant. Got about 130 resumes, including several dozen from out of state and out of country. "I'll be your virtual assistant." Sorry. A virtual assistant can't sit and wait for the air conditioning guy to show up. A virtual assistant can't run down to Staples for staples.

I started to plough through the resumes, but -- and this is key -- I was looking for someone because I was too busy. So I didn't want to read 130 resumes.

Reboot. I put a new ad on craigslist. I said I was looking for a "Person Friday" who would do whatever needs to be done around the office, including filling my car with gas. I only promised 20 hours. I think I got nine resumes. All of them were from people who were not looking at this as a career move that would eventually lead to being a $60,000 assistant to the governor. All of them understood that this was entry level and not particularly high paying.

I interviewed three people. They were all talented, with a decent education and job experience. To be honest, they were all Moms who needed to spend serious time with the kids and couldn't take a full time job. Their experience varied from graphics to teaching to office work. All were comfortable with computers. All were willing to work and had a great attitude.

Jennifer had some particular skills and interests. And, since she and her husband had owned an S-Corp, she understood some elements of the business side of business.

Over time, Jennifer has received more money, more responsibility, and more hours.

Fear Not

Experience tells us that fear is one of the major reasons we don't grow our businesses. Fear of handing the finances over to someone else. Fear of making a commitment you can't pay for. Fear that you won't have enough for the new person to do.

The reality is: You will need to do a bit of extra work in the beginning. Training takes time. You'll need to side-check her work until you're comfortable.

But here's the promise: If you hire a $200 miracle, she only needs to free up enough of your time to bill two additional hours to pay for it. At the end of a month, you'll have someone who relieves you of ten hours a week AND gets more things done than you do in two weeks. Your business will be able to get that newsletter out on a regular basis. Invoices will go out when they're supposed to. Expenses will be properly entered into quickbooks.

Take the $200 Miracle 30-day challenge: Hire someone 20 hours/week at $10/hr. for one month. My guess is, you'll see a dramatic improvement in your business -- and a reduction in your personal workload.


  1. Anonymous3:29 PM

    In reply to your comment that VA's can't run down to Staples for Staples - we can still phone the closest Staples and have them deliver Staples or any other office supplies that you may need -the same day!

    We can also schedule the housecleaning crew, call the cable guy, pay the dog walker and more!

    I suggest you do more research in regards to Virtual Assistants before stating things they can and cannot do.

    Best Regards,

    Nancy A. Brown

    "I'll be your virtual assistant." Sorry. A virtual assistant can't sit and wait for the air conditioning guy to show up. A virtual assistant can't run down to Staples for staples.

  2. Fair enough. I'll admit that. And we use virtual assistants for many things.

    In fact, they are EXTREMELY helpful to people with home offices because many temp agencies won't send people to home offices.

    But you must also admit that a person onsite can do more things than a person in another city, state, or country.

  3. For many of my local clients I do on-sites once or twice a month to help them catch up on filing, etc., but the majority of them don't want me underfoot even 20 hours a week and don't want to pay for the extra equipment necessary to keep me working in their offices. They also don't want to pay me for time when they may not have any work for them to do. I am also available pretty much 24/7 for my regular clients and can turn projects around overnight --- which has its advantages when you are working across time zones.

    I agree with Nancy, I probably get more accomplished via the internet and telephone than many on-site assistants do. While I understand what you are saying, I think you may be missing the point to some degree. Other then getting pastries for your meetings, I do most everything you mentioned for my clients and I do it from my home.

    I do think sometimes individuals are so used to the "normal" business model that they feel uncomfortable using something different --- even when it has obvious advantages to a small business or consultant. Although much status was previously attached to being able to say "I'll have Sally at the office handle this," I find the concept of having a virtual assistant is extremely interesting to many people who are leaving corporate America and venturing into the small business world on their own. And you would be amazed at how many times I talk with my clients' clients and they never realize my client and I are in separate offices. In fact, a recent house fire proved the point succinctly as I was able to keep my client's business moving forward while helping her pick up the pieces at her home --- and her she never missed a beat with her clients. Had I been working out of her office, things would not have been nearly as easy.

    All in all, my clients are extremely pleased with the services I provide and the freedom it gives them to operate from anywhere at any time. Because we are both in business independently and rely on word-of-mouth and value received to remain in business, over time an incredible working relationship develops which is often missing in a standard work atmosphere.

    In the end I find it often comes down to a person's willingness to try something new and give it time to grow and develop. A good example is a client who tells people "I'm in the home office today." She is a consultant who travels frequently. When she says that, I know she means she is working from her home today. Her clients, however, see a much larger picture in their minds --- they see a headquarters building, fleshed out with assistants and associates and staff. We often laugh about it because some of her clients have commented on how they appreciate always being able to work with her, rather then other associates in her office!

    In the end it comes down to what works for you. But sometimes what you think works for you vs. what might be better for you, comes down to being willing to give something new a try -- nurturing it and giving it the time it needs to stand on its own feet.

    Karalyn J. Eckerle

  4. I am a VA and I have a client who's been with me for 11 years (I do have several others). She often says 'what would I do without you?' and she means it too. I live 5 mins from her premises and do run errands for her on occasion but I usually only see her face-to-face at most once a month. I do 15 hours of work for her a week, all from my own office. But I can also tell you she does not pay me $10/hour and there is no way anyone would get my services for that figure - far too low. But then perhaps you don't require anyone who actually makes decisions for you and acts on your behalf, but rather just does what you have sitting waiting for her when she comes in. The kind of assistant you have really cannot be likened to a virtual assistant at all.

    Oh, and the mention of the temp agencies? The majority of our clients are long-term and we don't usually go into our client's offices. I have many clients I've never met face-to-face but have worked with for quote some time.

  5. Alright. Time to stop poking me with a stick!

    Let me write an article about Virtual Assistants. No one's going to follow a debate in the comments section of a blog.

    Nancy, Karalyn, and Kathie: send me your marketing materials at [email protected]. I'll write up a nice piece about the VA business.


  6. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Well, I always tell potential clients that the only things I can't do would be in office filing and getting the coffee - but if I were in his office I probably wouldn't do that anyway!

    ** In regards to the filing - I actually do as much of it as I can and I ship boxes with files/folders so all my client has to do is take them out of the box and place in the file drawer. If I am sending him documents that already have a file - they are clipped together and have a post it telling him where they belong. I really do try to simplify things as much as possible for my clients.

    I appreciate you taking a 2nd look in regards to Virtual Assistants.



  7. Your main point about every small business owner needing an assistant is excellent and I believe we are all in agreement on that!

    The VAs who responded have very valid points. Most things can be accomplished from anyplace. It's all a matter of what the business owner prefers.

    A point I'd like to make for businesses considering hiring an assistant is to consider all of the costs. You need desks, chairs, computers, and a vehicle or mileage for the errands if you have live assistants. You need to know employment laws and pay social security and medicare taxes, unemployment insurance, workers comp, paid breaks. You should be offering and paying sick time, vacation pay, health insurance and other benefits. Many times the cost is 2 to 2.5 times the hourly rate. So your $10/hr assistant may be costing $25/hr.

    Also, stop and think: Do you want someone in your home? Do you want to manage their work? Are they going to stay with you or move on when a better opportunity comes along?

    VAs are usually highly trained, professional, successful business owners who understand how to run businesses and will provide great value, even if they seem to cost more per hour. They are in business to build long-term working relationships. I do virtual, personal, admin assistance and business management. I personally don't mind doing on-site work and errands, as long as I'm paid what I'm worth. I appreciate your recommendation that others hire an assistant, and recommend they look into hiring a VA.

    Rebecca Quinn
    Rebecca Quinn Business Solutions

  8. Anonymous1:07 PM

    I look forward to your article about the Virtual Assistant Industry. I do not know what you are paying Jennifer at this time but take into consideration all the expenses associated with having an in-house assistant. Things like furniture, computer, extra phones, etc.

    If you do not have customers coming to your office, do you really need an office? I am not referring just to your comments. This is something all business owners should take into consideration. If you do not have customers coming to your office, you could just as well work from a home office (provided you have the room).
    You probably do need an assistant, but she would just as easily be able to do most if not all of her work from her own home office.

    You would be relieved of several expenses: office space, furniture, equipment, payroll related expenses such as taxes, benefits, insurance, unemployment taxes, and others and an additional benefit: you can meet with your assistant via telephone, skype, email and others and she won't even know if you are in your pjs and robe!

    Find a VA in your local area and you are all set! She is able to run your errands when you need her to.

    I really am looking forward to your input, particularly, since you have never used a VAs services.

    Anita Bruton
    Above & Beyond Administration

    PS. A really good VA will never LET you run out of staples in the first place!

  9. Sheesh...and to think I didn't even know there was a "VA Industry". Interesting blog post, Karl. But I bet you didn't expect to ruffle so many VA feathers.

  10. Okay.

    I posted an article about VAs on my "consultant tips" page at
    Check it out.

  11. Anonymous8:01 PM

    Hi Karl, excellent post! This really really struck a chord with me. We just hired someone for our personal stuff 15/hrs week... doing all the house stuff, shopping, cleaning, etc.

    After reading your post I'm ready to spring for a business admin assistant 15-20hrs/wk to get the cobwebs cleaned out of my admin. Also, nice tie in with your CEO-Bound article.

    Both these articles are very well written and poignant for the small business owner.

    AND WOW! What backlash from the VA's - who knew! When there's on site paperwork that needs a lot of futzing with and Quickbooks invoices, receipts, filing, fetching, organizing and general spontaneous tasks, the VA route doesn't make sense to me. Many of these things are location-bound. However perhaps with other types of work it could make sense.

    Anyhow didn't mean to stir the pot more.

    Thanks again, keep up the great articles!


  12. Great. I see a storm front brewing.

    What are frieds for?

  13. Karl,
    I know this is a really old post, but I just read it and its pretty cool. I have the same $200 miracle except she is my £200 miracle called Sarah

  14. Would love to see ( and steal ) a copy of that original craigslist ad (though in today's hypersensitive environment - it might need some tweaking :P )


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