Birth And Development of Virtual Assistants
By Molly Alexander Darden
Birth of the Industry
Although IVAA is now the premier networking and support organization for virtual assistants worldwide, it was born in one person’s home office.
From her rural home in Connecticut, Christine Durst founded the Virtual Assistance industry in 1995. She believed the Internet could open her door to global business, and she was correct. With Michael Haaren, she co-founded Staffcentrix and IVAA separately but simultaneously — with the intention of staying at the helm of the former and turning the latter over to its members as soon as membership reached meaningful numbers. IVAA was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1999 and became officially recognized as a 501(c)(6) on February 2, 2001 with 28 members. Since then, IVAA’s membership has grown to more than 600, in 16 countries. Collectively they conduct business worldwide, via the Internet. The Board of Directors is now comprised of five officers and five directors-at-large.
Partnering For Healthy Growth
Said Durst, “I met’ Mike in 1998 when I was operating My Staff and a client of mine referred him to me. At the time, Mike was the CEO of Catalytik!, a consultancy specializing in business growth advisory services for small businesses.
“IVAA was actually Mike’s idea,” she continued. “As a former Wall Street Attorney, he had seen too many good business models turn sour when growth was the primary focus and nobody was tasked with ensuring ‘healthy growth’. IVAA, he suggested, would be the parent organization of the VA industry. It was our aim to make the industry big; but as a for-profit company that would surely have competitors coattailing it, Staffcentrix could not also attempt to be an unbiased player in the VA industry.
“My VA practice was thriving,” Durst continued. “I had about 14 clients and I was loving it! As time passed, I began receiving a significant number of queries from women and men who wanted to know how to become VAs and I did my best to answer as many of them as I could. Soon, I realized I was spending more hours helping VA wannabes than I was working on client work. Further, I really liked it! Though the work I was doing for my clients was satisfying, the gratification that came from helping people get started as VAs was so much more fulfilling.
“Since Mike was a growth advisor to small business owners, I turned the tables on him — asking my client if he would take me on as his client, and help me figure out how to turn the mentoring I had been doing for free into a viable business. That was in December of 1998 and by January of 1999 Mike and I had become partners in Staffcentrix.”
Adaptability For Military Spouses & Disabled
Because of its portability through use of electronics, the VA industry is ideal for all individuals who work offsite, including military spouses and people with disabilities. Said Durst, “Mike is an Army veteran with a service-connected disability. His intimate knowledge of what it is like to live the military lifestyle helped us understand the need for portable career solutions for military spouses.”
Haaren said, “While from the beginning, Chris and I had striven to bring the VA path to the attention of people with disabilities and reduce the barriers to those who chose (to work as VAs), I don’t think either of us imagined how quickly Virtual Assistance would be embraced. Moreover, with the growth of broadband, cell phone and laptop videography, and the continuing attention of the national media I think the VA movement among people with disabilities is poised to expand even more dramatically in the next two-to-three years.”
What is IVAA?
“The concept of Virtual Assistance is not new,” said Jodi L Diehl, past president of International Virtual Assistants Association. “Although the term Virtual Assistance became popular in the 1990s, individuals have worked as ‘telecommuters’ for more than 25 years.
“Originally telecommuting was reserved for those who were administrative in nature”, she continued. “With advancements in technology, the Virtual Assistant Industry now consists of enterprising individuals, many of whom have elected to leave corporate positions in order to provide highly skilled services virtually, as entrepreneurs.”
Advantages to Employers
Diehl went on to say, “In addition to eliminating the taxes, vacations, insurance and other employee-related costs, the Virtual Assistant Industry offers the corporate world access to an incredible pool of specialized talent previously unobtainable. Technology has enabled this fantastically flexible and beneficial new way to do business quickly, efficiently and economically.”
“Prospective clients can come from any industry”, Diehl continued. “Many of our members work with real estate agents, authors, photographers, national speakers, financial advisors, personal and professional coaches, corporate and industrial entities and a myriad of other clients. VA clients are companies or individuals who understand the importance and enjoy the advantages of having experts on their team.”
Portability of Work
Portability of work relates to VAs in many situations. According to Angela A. Parker, who operates her professional writing and marketing consultation business from a rural farm in Kentucky, “My business is perfectly portable. I pack my laptop and forward my business phone to my cell whenever I leave the farm – for a few days or just a few hours. My career, my business, and the personal demands on my time mesh beautifully. When I’m traveling, I can hold conference calls, conduct marketing consultations and complete projects. It’s a wonderfully flexible, although demanding career.”
She went on to say, “The waiting room at my dentist’s office, a delayed meeting with my accountant, an unexpected trip to the pediatrician’s office or any other ‘hurry up and wait’ situation used to drive me nuts. I don’t get uptight anymore; I just power up and work on a project while I wait. Now, I never find myself tapping my foot thinking, ‘I could be getting something done right now if I weren’t sitting here waiting for someone else.’ ”
Carolyn Moncel, of Motion Temps, LLC telecommutes from her home in Paris, France to clients in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“In this organization,” she said, “I have not only found a wealth of valuable information for running my practice, but I have also met some wonderfully talented people — some who have become friends and close colleagues. My IVAA membership became even more important when my family moved from Chicago to Paris because it provided a great support center for me while I made adjustments to my business.
Moncell continued, “Right now I do live in Paris, but 50 percent of my active client base is still located in the Chicago area. Most are my very first clients who were brave enough to join me on this experiment. I remain completely tapped into to local business and networking communities in Chicago, and most of my vendors are still there as well. The other 50 percent of my client base is split between Paris and London and I am getting to know the English-speaking networking and business community in Paris as well. When I first arrived here almost two years ago, even I was a little skeptical as to whether or not I could continue with my practice, but the IVAA message boards helped me greatly and I am so grateful for the support.”
“Between (the years) 1995 and 2004, fees charged by VAs have increased nearly three-fold,” says Durst. “When I opened my VA practice in 1995, I was billing at $12/hour for administrative support. When Mike and I launched IVAA and Staffcentrix in 1999 we immediately began a campaign to introduce the media and thereby the hiring public, to the VA concept. In doing so, we were always careful to stress that employees cost 2 to 2.5 times more than their hourly wage.” Today, IVAA members charge from $15 to well over $100 per hour for specialized services.
IVAA now offers free web hosting account to members, a forms library and the Request for Proposal (RFP) System to help potential clients locate the best VA for their needs.
In conclusion, says Durst, “All in all, I’d say, ‘you’ve come a long way, Baby!'”
Molly Alexander Darden, of The Word Mason, is a professional writer and editor specializing in both fiction and non-fiction.