Q. When is it time to get help in my business?
A. Look sooner rather than later. The best time to look at getting help is before you need it. By the time you decide you need a hand, you may already be so overloaded that you don’t have the time to find it. Every time you make a choice that expands your business, consider what will happen if your expansion is successful. Plan at the launch of each new line of business how you will manage it when sales go through the roof. Also, keep in mind that getting help may be just what you need to buy yourself enough time to expand your business in the first place. If you are interested enough in this topic to read this paragraph, you probably already need to look for help.
Q. But can I afford it?
A. Try this simple equation. Divide the gross income you would like your business to bring in this year by the total number of hours you wish to work. So if you want your business to earn $100K and you wish to work a 40-hour week, divide $100,000 by 2080, which is 40 hours times 52 weeks. You may wish to subtract 80 hours to give yourself two weeks vacation, so $100,000 divided by 2000 hours is $50. That means every single hour you spend working needs to bring in $50 in order for you to reach your goal. That’s working hours, not billable hours. Now does it start making sense to find someone to help you?
Q. What kind of help do I need?
A. Analyze your needs. To determine what sort of help to get, take some time to figure out why you need it and what resources will get you what you need. Don’t jump at a solution just because it works for other people. Consider these elements.
1. Workload. Make a list of all the tasks you can think of that really don’t need to be done by you personally. Keep a notepad next to you for a week and add to the list every time you find yourself doing something that perhaps someone else — or an automated process — could do. Look at Nina Feldman’s “101 Ways to Use a Virtual Assistant” (see the Resources below) for more ideas. You may think you don’t have much work that could be farmed out to an assistant, but if you keep asking the question, you may find that your list grows quickly. If you are being offered opportunities for more paid work than you want or can handle, consider subcontracting to an associate.
2. Workflow. What do you wish could be handled when you are not available? What are the routine tasks that need to be done in your business that it would be great to have taken care of automatically while you are with clients, on the road, or on vacation? What are the once per month, per quarter, or per year projects that take up a lot of your time? When you put on a program or launch a new product, what are the one-time activities that are an extra burden for you to manage alone?
3. Expertise. In which areas do you potentially need help because you don’t have the right knowledge or tools to do the job? Entrepreneurs frequently hire experts to handle bookkeeping, tax preparation, graphic design, web design, IT support, editing, and other responsibilities. It can be less expensive to hire someone who can do things quickly than to spend many hours of your own time trying to figure it all out.
4. Inclination. There may be tasks you know how to do but just aren’t interested in doing. Give yourself permission to hire out jobs that drain you, even if you could do them yourself.
5. Goals. What is the ultimate goal you want to accomplish by getting help? Is it to have more time available to serve clients, or to create products and programs, or to take time off? Is it to earn more money? Is it to have a turnkey business that runs itself when you are not around, and that perhaps you could sell one day? Be clear on what purpose you want your help to serve, so you can make the right choices about getting it.
Q. Should I use a virtual assistant?
A. Virtual assistants are ideal for accomplishing regular tasks that can be handled by phone, online, or on their own computer. They can also help with many one-time projects as well as with vacation coverage. Most VA’s have a wide variety of skills and may be able to help with areas such as bookkeeping, graphic design, web design, and IT support, as well as jobs you might normally think of as administrative. VA’s usually prefer to work collaboratively with their clients on an ongoing basis, rather than only on short-term projects. But if you have a number of such projects, using a VA might still be right for you.
Advantages. VA’s have all their own equipment, work from their own space, and need minimal training in many cases. They work as independent contractors, not employees, so you have no payroll, insurance, or taxes to worry about. A good VA will help you figure out how to delegate better. Once your VA gets to know your business, you will find that you can turn over whole areas of responsibility and know they will be handled.
Disadvantages. Especially if you have never worked with an assistant before, it can be difficult to trust important duties to someone you may have never met in person. Working virtually requires a certain comfort level with technology on your part. VA’s can cost more by the hour than an on-site assistant. And they can’t perform tasks that require an in-person presence like filing and running errands.
Q. Should I use an on-site assistant?
A. If you feel you need to supervise someone directly, or you have tasks that can only be handled in person, you may need an on-site assistant as well as, or instead of, a virtual one. A local assistant can help with registration at a seminar site, shop for supplies, update your computer, file papers, and process mail. He or she may also double as a personal assistant, picking up your dry cleaning or going grocery shopping.
Advantages. When you have someone on site, it can be easier to hand over tasks on an ad hoc basis, as they come up or as you think of them. You can show someone on site how you need a task done, step-by-step. Assistants who work in your space using your equipment are often cheaper by the hour than virtual assistants. When using an assistant for the first time, it can be easier to become comfortable with the idea when your assistant is near you.
Disadvantages. You may find it difficult to locate someone reliable who is willing to work for you only a few hours per week. In a rural area, travel time can be a problem, and in an urban area, your assistant may be hesitant to pay parking or transit costs for a short shift. You have to provide space for your assistant to work, and perhaps share your computer. Also, you may not be able to legally pay an on-site assistant as an independent contractor, depending on your working arrangement and the assistant’s employment status elsewhere.
Q. Should I hire a professional?
A. When you need specific expertise for a short-term project, hiring an expert is often the way to go. You may hire someone to help you design your website, create a brochure, edit a workbook, install software on your computer, convert your database, review a contract, or prepare your taxes. There are some professionals you might hire to perform a specific function on an ongoing basis, such as a bookkeeper or a publicist.
Advantages. Professionals come equipped with all the knowledge and tools necessary to get the job done. They don’t require any training, except in the specifics of your business. In some cases, they may even provide training to you. They can get projects done quickly and efficiently, often with much higher quality than you could produce yourself.
Disadvantages. Professional help can be expensive. In some cases, the person you hire may have a higher billing rate than your own. If you hire someone who turns out not to be competent, you may not know it until you have invested quite a bit of money. With a professional who has many clients, your project may sometimes be delayed while they work on someone else’s.
Q. Should I subcontract work to an associate?
A. If you are being offered paying work that you can’t or don’t want to do, subcontracting to an associate can earn you passive income and build the reputation of your company. Associates are professionals like yourself, highly skilled in a particular line of work. You might subcontract training, coaching, consulting, facilitation, assessments, writing, editing, web or graphic design, and more. Subcontractors may work with you serving your existing clients, or serve other clients that you aren’t working with yourself.
Advantages. Subcontracting can expand your business quickly and earn you substantial amounts of passive income. By having the work of multiple people contribute to your company’s revenue, you can justify an increased budget for marketing and support to grow your company even further. Your enterprise can expand beyond your own expertise, and pursue larger projects than you could handle alone.
Disadvantages. Since subcontractors will work directly with clients and without supervision, they must be people whose skills you have confidence in. Since they will have other clients than yours, you can’t always count on them being available when you need them. As the owner of a multi-person enterprise, you will have increased responsibilities for management and marketing that may take you away from doing the work you love the most.
Q. How do I find the right people?
A. Ask for referrals. The best people are almost always going to be those who are referred to you by someone they have already worked for. Ask your personal network or social media connections to recommend someone whose work they have personally experienced.
Use directories and message boards. Search the online directories offered by professional associations and training schools to find qualified professionals and virtual assistants. To find someone local, use community resources such as the business directories (both print and online), and message boards (both online and the old-fashioned kind with cards and tacks).
Learn how to interview. Learning to ask the right questions of your candidates is an important skill to master, and will serve you well many times over the life of your enterprise. To get specific tips for what to ask before you hire, Google “how to hire a professional x” or “selecting a professional x” (in quotes). Substitute the title of the type of professional you wish to hire for either “x” or “professional x” in the phrase.
Check references. Get three references from each candidate you are considering and take the time to call them. Ask specific questions about the areas that are important to you and anything that concerned you during the interview. If you are hiring an assistant who will have access to confidential information or make financial transactions on your behalf, you may also wish to perform a background check. (See the Resources section.)
If it doesn’t work, keep trying. Not every person you hire will work out. This is not a good reason to avoid getting help. If you hire someone who turns out to be flaky, incompetent, or unreliable, fire them and start over. It may take you more than one attempt to find the right person to help you. It’s worth the effort to keep trying.
Q. How can I handle incoming phone calls more efficiently?
A. Voice mail. A voice mail system can do much more than take a message. It can provide information that callers frequently need, separate different types of messages into different mailboxes, allow an assistant to pick up messages remotely or receive messages that you forward, and more. Analyze your incoming phone calls over a month’s time to see if additional voice mail services could help you be more efficient.
Unified messaging systems. Unified messaging combines different streams of communication into one service. Some of the many features available are:
• Find Me — When you don’t answer, callers can opt to hold while the system tries to find you at any other phone number(s) you provide.
• Message Transcription — Your voice messages can be delivered to you by e-mail or text.
• E-Mail by Phone — A text-to-speech system can read you your e-mail messages over the phone. Or, you can record voice messages and have them sent by e-mail.
Q. How can I handle all the email I receive?
A. Aliases & message rules. You can have your email sorted automatically by using a combination of aliases and message rules. If you have your own domain name, you probably already have the capability to set up multiple email addresses for different functions (you may also have this through your email provider). This allows you to selectively forward email to an assistant or associate, and review different emails at different times. With many email services and apps, you can also use message filters to sort incoming messages into different mailboxes for review and processing.
Autoresponders. By using email autoresponders, you can give a one-person business the appearance, and the efficiency, of a large enterprise. Autoresponders can send out your ezine, inform prospects about your services, capture inquiries for later follow-up, confirm orders, deliver enrollment or e-product instructions, provide updates to clients and members, upsell additional products and services, and much more.
The E-Myth Revisited. Michael Gerber’s manual for entrepreneurs has some excellent suggestions for designing the structure of your business to prepare for hiring help.
Small Time Operator. Bernard Kamoroff’s guide to small business will help you sort out the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, and explains what hiring an employee will entail.
AssistU. This training school for virtual assistants will help to match you with the right assistant for your situation.
AWeber. This email broadcasting system includes a list manager, unlimited autoresponders, newsletter/e-mail broadcasting, and plugins to add subscription boxes almost anywhere. This is one of the systems I use.
Craigslist. This online community message board started in San Francisco and now has sister sites in many cities around the world. It’s an excellent resource for finding professional help of all kinds.
Google Voice. Google will provide you with a Find Me phone number, voice mail transcription, and more, at no charge. This is one of the systems I use.
Mind Your Business. This service will perform background checks on personal assistant candidates.
Nina Feldman Connections. Nina can help you find computer support, virtual assistants, and a wide variety of other professionals. Her database includes virtual help throughout the U.S. and on site help in Northern California. Also check out Nina’s 101 Ways to Use a Virtual Assistant.
Nolo Press. This publisher of self-help materials on law and business offers many free articles on hiring employees, distinguishing employees from contractors, writing contracts, and more.