October 14, 2004
SECTION: Business (Syndicated)
BYLINE: Barbara Rose, Staff Reporter, Chicago Tribune
Virtual Assistants Become Real Help
More firums use far-away aides
Kelly Kalmes can recall a time when a secretary sat outside
her corporate office. These days, her right hand is based on
Kalmes, a corporate trainer and consultant, works from an office
above her garage in Evanston. Her assistant, Carolyn Moncel,
works from her home in Paris.
They collaborate using e-mail, shared computer files and an
Internet telephone service.
"All of my clients know who Carolyn is," Kalmes says.
"If I'm not around, she speaks for me."
Moncel calls herself a "virtual assistant," a personalized
extension of Kalmes' business who also supports other clients,
billing them monthly for her services.
It's an emerging occupational niche spurred by the Internet
and a desire of some tech-savvy professionals--typically working
mothers--for more flexible hours.
They are finding a ready market among small-business owners
and "road warriors"--traveling professionals who need
support but can't justify the expense of full-time assistants.
Since the term "virtual assistant" surfaced in the
mid-1990s an estimated 5,000 VAs have hung out shingles. Several
trade organizations and a handful of vocal advocates are promoting
the occupation as a growing industry.
Ursula Huws, an expert on virtual work, said the niche may
evolve in the same way as telephone answering services, which
she said grew largely from home-based businesses in the 1960s
into call centers.
"Something that started out as a cottage industry has
evolved into a new kind of personal service, but one that's
carried out as a mass industry," said Huws, director of
Analytica Social and Economic Research in London.
Others consider the trend to be the small-business owner's
equivalent of enterprise outsourcing.
"With the advent of the Internet and its commercialization
through the Web browser, entrepreneurs have access to talent
regardless of where it's located and to skills at a level they
might not otherwise access," said speaker Michael Russer.
Russer, to keep his speaking business on track, works virtually
with an administrative assistant in Virginia, an editor in Idaho,
a bookkeeper in Kansas and an e-mail manager and marketing assistant
He believes the industry will grow by specialization. To that
end, his 2-year-old firm, PROVAST LLC (Professional Virtual
Assistant Support Teams), launched its first vertical market
last year: REVA Teams, a network of VAs who serve real estate
Christine Durst, co-founder of the non-profit International
Virtual Assistants Association, launched Staffcentrix in 1999
in northern Virginia, an online incubator for VAs that claims
about 2,500 members, most of them start-ups.
For the last three years, Staffcentrix has worked exclusively
with military spouses under a contract with the U.S. Department
of Defense, giving them portable careers to fit their nomadic
"We're training people who are CPAs, PhDs, lawyers, nurses--people
who can't find work in a traditional environment," Durst
said. "We're teaching them how to transfer their skills
into the virtual marketplace."