Jennifer Gallagher, co-founder of TheVAChicks.com, was running a training department for an aerospace company. Stressed and unable to deal with the constant travel her job demanded, she started looking for alternatives. She became a virtual assistant.

She now loves her work, can set her own schedule, work from anywhere, and she earns more than $100,000 annually. 

What’s a virtual assistant?

The answer is as diverse as the people participating in the industry. The one thing all virtual assistants have in common is that they work remotely and largely independently, setting their own schedules and job demands. They can earn anywhere from $10 to $100 an hour; work full-time or part-time; participate in administrative tasks or technical ones. The job is what you make it.

Kayla Sloan, for example, has a list of 100 different tasks that she can do as a VA. These range from editing, proofreading and transcription to managing a client’s inbox and scheduling. VAs can do event planning, invoicing, project management, provide research, translation services, recruiting, set up webinars and provide technical assistance for a client’s website.

Drew DuBoff specializes in customer service. That often means managing a client’s email and Facebook pressence. The 21-year-old college student says he got into virtual assisting about a year ago because he had joined several closed Facebook groups that had grown so much that they needed site administrators. He volunteered to take over. Now he manages some of those groups, determining what new members to accept and reject; answering questions and solving technical glitches. 

“Everyone has some unique skill they can offer,” says DuBoff, who runs an eponymous website that promises to help businesses grow. “But it’s all about being the freelancer that clients want to hire. Are you good at communication? Can you follow rules? Someone would rather hire someone who is a pleasure to work with than someone who is great at a skill, but is difficult to get along with.”

In other words, anything that a client might want to delegate, a virtual assistant can do. However, it rarely pays to be a jack of all trades.

Specialize

One key to success, these experts agree, is to find a niche that matches your skill set with the things you like to do.

If you’re super-organized, you can market yourself as someone who can take over client scheduling, email and office management. A social media enthusiast, who understands what works best on Twitter vs. Instagram vs. Facebook vs. SnapChat can offer to develop a company’s digital strategy and implement it, posting regularly on all platforms and measuring success by follower growth, engagement or whatever other metric the client is looking to improve.

Those who are technologically savvy can earn premium rates — $30 to $75 an hour — solving WordPress issues or feeding charts, graphics and photos into clients’ websites. 

“There are high value and low value skills,” says Sloan. “Managing someones calendar and inbox are not high value skills. But those are good ways to get started. You just have to be clear about what you can and cannot do.”

Independent vs. agency

Finding clients is always the tricky part. There are two ways to go — join an agency that will find work for you or strike out on your own. Belay, WorldWide 101, and Time Etc. all specialize in finding work for virtual assistants. Other sites, such as FreeeUp, are also a good place to list if your specialty is in helping people manage websites and technology. 

The agency route is likely to result in steady work. However, because most agencies will take a portion of your pay, the wages are limited. Most agency sites say virtual assistants should expect to earn $10 to $30 per hour.

You can earn much more striking out on your own, says Gallagher. But you’ve got to be good at networking and marketing your work. One way to do that is to join groups. Gallagher says she’s a member of a number of technical and Facebook groups, where she’ll answer other members questions as a courtesy. When those same people find they’re over their heads, many of them have turned to her for paid help.

Billing options

If you run your own show, you need to decide whether to bill by the hour or by the job. There are pros and cons to each. Billing by the hour ensures that you always earn at least a minimal amount for your time. But it also doesn’t allow you to “value bill” for jobs that you can do quickly thanks to a wealth of experience. 

The other shortcoming of hourly billing is that it an make clients reluctant to delegate, for fear of running up too high a tab. Still, it’s the preferred billing method when you’re just getting started and don’t know just how long each task might take.

Once you’ve gained some experience and have a better understanding of the amount of time any given assignment might require, most virtual assistants suggest that you bill by the job or on a retainer system. With a retainer system, you provide a set number of services each week or month for a set rate. That gives the client a sense of security, knowing how much they’ll pay. And it does the same for you, making it easier to manage your finances.