The Tribune Company, Chicago Tribune
October 3, 2004
SECTION: Business (Abstract)
BYLINE: Barbara Rose, Staff Reporter
Virtual Assistants Become Real Help
More firums use far-away aides
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
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
Stacy Brice, founder of AssistU, claims about 1,000 graduates
of her VA training program. She charges $2,695 for a 20-week
Clients are "hungry for relationships, for someone to climb
on board and make contributions at a high level" rather than
handle projects piecemeal, she said. "Long-term collaboration
Already, the nascent industry has spawned a spirited debate
about who can call themselves virtual assistants and what
skills are required. Several groups offer certification programs,
which are aimed at setting standards and justifying higher
Fees for administrative support average $25 to $35 per hour,
but the range varies widely from $10 to $75, according to
a Staffcentrix survey.
Certification "allows business owners to understand this
isn't just a work-at-home mom who wants a few extra dollars,"
said Jodi Diehl in Altamonte Springs, Fla., president of the
International Virtual Assistants Association, which claims
600 members in 16 countries.
Organizations like Diehl's group and the International Association
of Virtual Office Assistants help overcome isolation. Instead
of chatting over a cubicle wall, VAs form bonds with "virtual
seat buddies" whom they meet online.
Successful VAs, like entrepreneurs, enjoy growing a business.
Kelly Poelker, a mother of two, worked as a sales and marketing
coordinator for a manufacturing company before she quit in
2000 to start Another8Hours in O'Fallon, Ill.
"I saw a need for sales support for regional sales managers
who, because of corporate downsizings, no longer had big secretarial
pools to pull resources from," she said.
Poelker surpassed her previous wages her first year and eventually
moved her office out of her home. Most of her clients are
based on the West Coast, where her business grew by word of
mouth to include a community investment company, a media coach
and a talk show host.
The majority are on retainer for 24 to 30 hours per month
at rates between $32 and $40 per hour.
"Having Kelly is great," said Mark Loudenslager, a national
sales executive based in St. Louis for a Hong Kong-based pigment
"The fact I'm rarely in the office, it didn't make sense
to have somebody there full time," he said. "It's a cost-effective
way of getting the work done. I would have to hire a staff
of people that would collectively have the skills she offers."
Moncel, the Paris-based virtual assistant, started her business,
MotionTemps, in the Chicago area before her husband's job
took her abroad.
"I wanted a way to balance my work with my family life,"
said the former marketing professional.
One of her first clients was Kalmes' training and consulting
firm, Project Knowledge LLC.
"I was devastated when Carolyn told me she was moving to
Paris," recalled Kalmes. "But with all the technology we have
today, we decided we could do this."
They rely on a service, GoToMyPC.com, to access one another's
computer. Kalmes said they are better organized than when
they worked on the same continent, putting together agendas
for regular teleconferences.
One benefit of distance is a 24/7 working rhythm.
"I write my courses, she edits and formats them overnight,
then I go to her PC while she's sleeping to check the changes,"
Kalmes said. "She takes the file and uploads it to a fulfillment
house. Then she calls the client and tells them when it will
be delivered. It moves as smooth as silk."
Moncel typically works from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then breaks
to spend time with her family before going back to work from
9 p.m. to midnight. She takes off Wednesdays and most weekends.
She limits herself to no more than six clients, charging
between $25 and $55 per hour, depending on the skills required.
Her dream is to franchise MotionTemps. "I'd like to see one
VA in every major city" who specializes in that city, she
said. "For once I really feel like I'm in control of what
I do," she added.
"It's very empowering."