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Copyright 2004


Billings Gazette


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 another continent.


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 in Toronto.


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 agents.


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 lifestyles.


"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."



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