Online Work Tips & Best Practices
November 27, 2013 by Guest Blogger

By Clarissa Steinhöfel, co-founder of Startup Safary

Editor's Note: A version of this article was posted on the Startup Safary website, and has been reposted here with the author's permission. To read the original version, click here.

About 4 weeks before Startup Safary Berlin, the number of things that needed to be done was proving to be too much for our small team of 5 people. We needed to contract out a number of tasks in order to maintain efficiency, so we decided to hire 5 virtual assistants (VAs) on oDesk.com, a global jobs marketplace.

This proved to be very useful—in fact, we effectively grew our team by one full-time person by hiring virtual assistants for certain jobs that were too time-consuming or that we were not qualified to carry out.

Startup Safary quote on hiring virtual assistantsOne of our VAs is a 40+ year-old multilingual, experienced marketing and SEO specialist with a good understanding of sales and customer service. We ended up hiring him for several jobs and staying in constant contact over the course of several weeks. While some freelancers offer skills that are useful for one-time jobs, our favourite VAs—apart from becoming our friends—became a part of our team and were involved in several projects regularly. By thinking of our VAs as part of Startup Safary, we developed great relationships with them through daily informal communication, putting out fires together and asking for their advice outside of business hours. Investing time and effort into developing relationships with freelancers really helped us in the short and long term – I highly advise striving toward this with anyone you work with.

Here are some of biggest learnings:

1. Prioritize & filter out tasks that you can delegate

This sounds like an easy thing to do, but it took me a while to apply this to my working day. This is how I filtered out tasks that could be delegated:

  1. Make a to-do list according to urgency (Ask yourself: “What needs to be done now?”)
  2. Estimate how much time it takes to finish a task and how much time it takes to delegate.
  3. Shorten this list to tasks that save you enough time that it’s worth delegating. Based loosely on the 20/80 ratio mentioned in the Pareto principle, I applied the following rule: if it takes 20% of the time to finish a task to delegate it, it’s worth delegating.

2. Rule out hidden traps

It’s important to only delegate tasks that make sense. Tasks that seem simple to carry out but involve a lot of data input can cause easy mistakes that result in a lot of double-checking on your side.

This can be avoided by:

  • Going through all the steps at least once yourself before delegating, if the task is repetitive
  • Giving clear instructions, but also examples of expected results
  • Visualizing these results using screenshots, highlights and possibly an example link
  • Separating each step with milestones
  • If you’re working with a lot of data, e.g. Excel values, provide a quick formula to rule out possible mistakes

3. Use technology

In order to monitor freelancers’ work, keep the communication streamlined and work together on things remotely, we used a number of applications that we work with internally with all the VAs to optimize work progress and avoid confusion:

  • Communication: Skype, Google Chat, Yammer
  • File exchange: Dropbox, WeTransfer
  • Task management: Trello, oDesk Work Diary
  • Review: Google Docs

On top of the online and desktop applications mentioned above, we managed to optimize our working day even more by using IFThisThenThat, a great online tool that lets you create automated processes for a number of applications. Here are some examples of the “recipes” I used:

a) Sync Dropbox file with Google Drive: Every time a VA saved or updated a file in our shared folder, the file would automatically upload to a designated Google Drive folder, which was useful for editing documents

→ this saved me the trouble of checking Dropbox regularly and uploading files one by one

b) Save Gmail attachments to Dropbox: Every time a VA forwarded an email labeled “QUOTES” with a file attached, IFTTT automatically saved the file in a designated Dropbox folder

→ this saved me the hassle of downloading, saving and backing up important files from partners

4. Delegate tasks that require your attention several times a day

Sometimes a task cannot be done all at once. Having to follow up with emails during the course of the day is a huge distraction and requires a lot of multitasking that can be avoided.

Startup Safary quote on hiring virtual assistantsTen days before the event: we needed to research low budget and mid-priced hotels & hostels in 3 districts, put all the information (including URL, contact info, location, directions, room availability) into an Excel sheet and then negotiate discounts for participant groups coming from outside of Berlin.

This required web research, data entry and a lot of emailing & phoning back and forth throughout the course of 2 days. It would have been impossible to dedicate my undivided attention to each phone call or email, so the VAs took a lot of work off my shoulders.

I divided this task into two parts:

a) web research & data entry → time saved: 5 hours; time to delegate: 10 mins

b) negotiation via email & phone → time saved: 2 days of intermittently replying to emails and making phone calls; time to delegate: 30 mins

I had 2-3 freelancers saved from previous jobs that I was happy with in my oDesk account and divided the tasks among them according to their skill set and hourly fees, which leads me to my next learning:

5. Take the time to screen people for appropriate tasks

It’s worth the initial extra effort to look for the right freelancer for the job.

It doesn’t make sense to have an overqualified and expensive VA do data entry, or to have an underqualified VA with a more affordable hourly fee do web research in a field they have little expertise in.

I made the mistake of not giving enough keywords into the oDesk filter system for required skill sets. (i.e. “German” or “Excel” or “Customer Service”), which would have led to a minor disaster if I hadn’t noticed in the last minute that the person was not optimal for the job. I also had to learn to assess time spans and costs fairly quickly, in order to find someone with an appropriate hourly fee to do the job with the least amount of hassle (oDesk allows you to choose from 3 price ranges).

To sum up, we spent about $500 to save a full 40-hour week of work for one team member. This was crucial for us to handle the workload and focus on issues that required more of our attention. When working on large projects or managing a complex online business, it pays off to use the internet to your advantage — make the most of the valuable time you have to get as much work done in the shortest amount of time possible.

Clarissa Steinhöfel of Startup Safary on hiring virtual assistants

Clarissa Steinhöfel is the co-founder of Startup Safary.

Do you have any best practices on hiring virtual assistants? Share them in the comments section below!