Why Most Virtual Assistants for Startups Fall Short (And How to Find a Great One)

There’s this idea that’s floated in the startup world that outsourcing tasks to a virtual assistant (VA) can be a “secret weapon” for your business. On one hand, it’s true. 

Great VAs can be transformative for startup founders—capable of effectively managing a wide range of tasks like scheduling appointments, managing emails, making travel plans, or helping with employee onboarding, to name just a few. They can free up a significant amount of time for founders and executives to spend on the things that matter most—like product development, team building, and fundraising. 

But most startups are completely underwhelmed when they hire a VA, finding them to be inadequate, or at best mediocre, and wishing they’d never bothered hiring one in the first place. 

Why is this a common experience? We’ve found there are 3 primary reasons:

  1. Founders underestimate the complexity of the core tasks they want their VA to do (e.g. email management, calendar management, etc.).
  2. They couple that with high expectations for the other types of tasks they’d like their VA to do (e.g. lead generation, customer support, project management, etc.).
  3. They aren’t strategic in their hiring process because they’re short on time, mistakenly  think it’s a simple role to fill, and/or don’t have a good process for vetting VA candidates.

This article is going to explain these 3 problems, so you can avoid them in your own business, and help you understand how to find a VA that’s actually reliable and capable of doing the tasks you want them to do. 

Then, we’ll cover the process we use at Persona to find the world’s best VAs, and how our virtual executive assistant service works.

If you’ve been wanting an assistant but haven’t had the time to hire one, or have had bad experiences with your first virtual assistant, click here to get started. You can try an assistant for a month or two and see how you like it. For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.

3 Reasons Why Startups Have Bad Experiences with Virtual Assistants

#1: Founders Underestimate the Complexity of Standard VA Tasks Like Email and Calendar Management

On the surface, asking someone to help you out with administrative tasks like email management or scheduling sounds straightforward. 

In practice, it’s not. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate our point:

Example #1: Scheduling Conflicts

Founders and entrepreneurs have busy schedules which require close management (e.g. meetings with team members, clients and investors, personal appointments, etc.). An average assistant may be able to help you with basic scheduling tasks—but it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to take calendar management completely off your plate.  

Take scheduling conflicts for example. A really good VA can learn to navigate conflicts and double bookings the way you would. They’ll grow to understand which meetings and appointments take precedence over others. Over time, this is hugely valuable as they’ll be able to manage your schedule for you completely, sometimes without you even being aware of it. 

This is in contrast to an average VA who will always need to rely on you to some extent—or worse, make costly mistakes—diminishing the value of having a VA to begin with.

Plus, when scheduling conflicts come up, a world-class VA can communicate to key stakeholders in a personable and professional way. You can trust them to reschedule with people respectfully, and maintain good relationships with the people in your business who matter. 

This often won’t be the case when you hire a low quality or average VA, which can reflect poorly on you both internally with your team and externally with customers, partners, or investors.

Example #2: Managing Your Emails

Likewise, founders receive hundreds of emails each day, many of which are largely irrelevant, and some of which are absolutely essential. It’s not uncommon for key emails to get missed altogether which can result in costly mistakes or losing out on opportunities for new business. 

An average VA may be able to organize emails into folders or send out the occasional canned response. But that’s not very helpful because you’ll still have to go into each folder, open up every email, and figure out which ones you need to respond to yourself. In addition, important emails could be sent inappropriate responses or be completely ignored which could have a critical impact if, for example, a potential investor or client was sent incorrect information or wasn’t communicated with at all.

In contrast, a truly stellar VA will be able to quickly learn the nuances of your inbox—which emails they should respond to on your behalf, which ones can be set aside for later, and which are the high priority ones that only you can respond to. In addition, they’ll be able to adapt to the style and etiquette you prefer, and communicate to key stakeholders with both personality and professionalism.

There’s a significant difference between how an average VA and a world-class VA approaches these tasks, and the same nuances apply to other fundamental tasks VAs are leveraged for, such as:

  • Data entry
  • Research
  • Payroll tasks

And these are just the tasks that are typical to a VA role. There are others, which we’ll talk about more below.

#2: Founders Have High Expectations of What They Want from Their VAs

Not only are some of the standard tasks like calendar and email management more complex than they seem, but founders also have an extensive list of other tasks that they want their VAs to do. For example:

  • Project management
  • Digital marketing support
  • Customer support
  • Lead generation
  • Creating presentations
  • Employee onboarding
  • Personal tasks (buying birthday presents, making dinner reservations, having groceries delivered, etc.)

Founders want a VA who can handle a wide range of tasks, each with their own nuances, and to do so competently and at scale.

This is an impressive remit that average or low quality VAs don’t tend to be able to manage well. So how do you find a VA that can actually take these things off your plate?

We’ve identified the 3 important qualities a world-class VA needs:

  1. High level problem-solving ability: Are they able to think quickly on their feet and solve problems for you (without relying on you heavily) as they come up?
  2. Character traits essential for being an effective assistant: Traits like organization skills, detail-oriented skills, dutifulness, etc.
  3. Incredible communication skills: Are they able to communicate with your team, clients, and customers in an efficient, professional, and personable way that represents how you would want to communicate with them?

A VA with these key generalist traits and abilities can adapt to managing a wide variety of non-specialized tasks and quickly learn to execute them competently and autonomously. This is what allows them to take a lot of time consuming and, at times, complex tasks off your plate.   

Most people haven’t identified these as the 3 qualities their VA needs to have, let alone found a reliable process to evaluate candidates based on these criteria. Finding exceptional VAs who possess these qualities requires a strategic hiring process which most founders don’t have (as we’ll explain below).

Note: There’s a misconception that it’s appropriate to hire VAs for specialized marketing activities like SEO, web development, or graphic design. In some cases, VAs can provide support in these areas if there are processes in place for them to follow. For example, they can help with uploading WordPress blog posts or scheduling email marketing campaigns. However, VAs shouldn’t be expected to handle these specialist areas from scratch as their generalist skills are not a suitable fit. If that’s what you need, you should hire specialists for those areas.

#3: Founders Aren’t Strategic in Their Hiring Process for VAs

When founders search for a VA, there are two common paths they follow. They try to hire one themselves (e.g. via referrals from friends, tweeting out their job opportunity, or hiring from a freelance marketplace like Upwork). Or, they hire through a third party such as one of the many virtual assistant companies on the market. 

Below, we’ll discuss the drawbacks of each:

DIYing the Hiring Process

Founders who decide to hire a VA themselves tend to do so haphazardly. They don’t have much time, so they put up a post on LinkedIn or Twitter, or do a quick search on freelance job sites such as Upwork or Fiverr.

In the process, they make a number of common mistakes:

  1. They’re not specific about what they want their VA to do: Most founders don’t take time to consider and identify which specific tasks they want their VA to help with. As a result, their job description doesn’t properly reflect their needs and doesn’t attract the right kind of VA. 
  2. They look for VAs in the wrong places (e.g. Upwork): Typically, sites like Upwork have a vast pool of VAs, but candidates with the highest ratings tend to already have several clients and are the most expensive. Meanwhile, VAs that have availability and who would be otherwise a great fit are very difficult to find.
  3. They don’t use a rigorous vetting process: They rely on proxy variables like what their profile looks like, which school they went to, and their previous job experience. None of these give them concrete information about candidates’ communication skills, problem solving ability, etc.

You can read more about these common mistakes in our piece on How to Hire a VA Who Actually Works Out.

Recruiting in this way doesn’t tell you whether potential VAs are capable of the tasks you want them to do. It fails to evaluate the 3 essential qualities we know a world-class VA needs.

Using a VA Service Provider That Uses Traditional Hiring Methods

The second path founders commonly choose is to hire a VA from a virtual assistant company. However, most VA services don’t have a sophisticated method of vetting VAs. As a result, the assistants they provide are rarely able to competently manage the tasks you want them to take off your plate.  

This is because the standard hiring process used by these services is not far removed from the process you might follow yourself (as discussed above). 

Typically, they rely on the same superficial indicators such as their profile, school, previous companies, positions held, years of experience, etc. These proxy variables provide very little information on a candidate’s capabilities. 

Importantly, virtual assistant companies do not rigorously evaluate candidates on the specific generalist abilities needed to be a successful VA. And we’ve spoken with many founders who have had bad experiences with VAs from these services.

In contrast to this status quo approach to hiring, we’ve developed an in-depth process to evaluate prospective candidates based on these essential generalist abilities. 

How Persona Finds and Hires World-Class Virtual Assistants

At Persona, we’ve developed a rigorous process to attract the best virtual assistants in the world and evaluate them on the 3 essential VA qualities that we’ve discussed throughout this post:

  • Problem solving ability
  • Communication skills
  • Character traits that are essential to being an effective assistant

We use a range of quantitative and qualitative methods in our vetting process, including but not limited to:

  1. Quantitative assessments: Tests that allow us to evaluate candidates accurately on key generalist abilities. 
  2. Structured interviews: A strategic interview process to cross-compare candidates on the qualities and abilities that matter.
  3. Work sample projects: Mock projects to see the quality of their work, based on the types of tasks they’re likely to do in a VA role.
  4. Communication exercises: Exercises to evaluate candidates on key communication skills such as email etiquette. 
  5. Reference and background checks: A structured approach to interviewing candidates’ references.

In addition to utilizing these tools, our entire hiring process is customized based on each candidate’s background. 

We hire about 1 assistant for every 1,000 applicants, ensuring the highest level of quality and capability. As a result, Persona VAs are able to manage the depth and breadth of tasks that founders need more competently than what most VA services can offer. 

Our VAs help clients execute a wide range of tasks, such as: 

  • Social media management
  • eCommerce management
  • Workflow and project management
  • Bookkeeping and payroll
  • Customer support
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Employee onboarding
  • Presentations
  • Personal assistant tasks like booking dinner reservations or scheduling grocery deliveries

To date, we’ve helped many busy professionals—from founders at fast growing startups, to executives at large companies, to small business owners—win back their time so they can focus on the most important parts of their job. And we can do the same for you. 

How Our Virtual Assistant Service Works

Hiring a world class virtual assistant is simple.

Here’s how to get started with us: 

  • Step 1: Complete our form to let us know your needs
  • Step 2: If you’re a good fit, we’ll set up a call to discuss our service with you.
  • Step 3: Our team will hand pick an assistant who we think will be a great fit for you based on your needs.
  • Step 4: Our talent team will guide you through the onboarding process over 2-3 weeks.
  • Step 5: For a flat monthly rate, you get a fully dedicated assistant working for you 40 hours per week (no long-term commitment needed).

If you’re ready to try a VA that can be truly transformative for your business, click here to get started. You can try one for a month or two and see how you like it (no matter what time zone you’re in). For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.

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