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Copyright 2004

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


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."


Stacy Brice, founder of AssistU, claims about 1,000 graduates of her VA training program. She charges $2,695 for a 20-week group course.


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 is essential."


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 wages.


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 manufacturer.


"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."





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