shadow playerWhen I decided to hire a virtual assistant, I had no idea how much I’d learn from the process.

Here’s the story:

As you know, I’ve relaunched my business (new website coming soon, I’m so excited to share it with you!) and have very specific areas I want to grow it in.

I’ll tell you more about those later, but there were a couple of things I realized when I made the decision to dust off my entrepreneurial shoes:

1. I needed to have a system with which to track, develop and maintain new business relationships – hence my exhausting search for a small business CRM system that would work the way I needed it to; and

2. I needed help with certain elements of my business, particularly on the administrative and marketing side of things. Do you have any idea how long it takes to do much of the nitty-gritty an entrepreneur has to deal with, as well as how long those tasks can take, particularly the marketing tasks?

Image: Freddie H. via Flickr, CC 2.0

Now, “marketing” is what I do. So when it comes to my business, it had better be good. Else baby won’t get a new pair of shoes!

Enter oDesk

I looked around, checked out various VAs I heard about, and then decided to place an ad on oDesk. I’d heard good things about it from a few different friends and fellow women entrepreneurs (Donna Vincent Roa and Tinu Abayomi-Paul, to name just a couple), and they seemed to have a pretty solid system.

So I posted a job opening. I made it as detailed as I could; I specified certain skills, how much I was willing to pay, etc., I was looking for. Before I could even count to 10 – ok, maybe 79 – the applicants started rolling in.

Over a period of a couple of weeks, there were 27 applicants. Most of them ignored at least some of the specifics of my posting. Many had frighteningly high opinions of their language skills, and some applied even though they would be incapable of using certain platforms I needed them to.

When I did shortlist candidates – I think six or seven – I asked them to follow a specific process to set up a Skype interview with me. It was easy enough (at least, I thought so): I gave them my Timebridge link and asked them to send me a couple of options for a chat.

Guess how many did exactly as I asked?

One.

Just one.

And the others?

Here beginneth the lessons

Well, there was the one candidate who couldn’t figure out how to use Timebridge, and kept asking me for help.

Lesson #1: if your potential client wants you to use a particular piece of software, or platform, you better figure out how to use it … without asking the client for help.

Then there were the candidates who were in China. Very eager, but unable to use Twitter. Or Google.

Which would make working on the social media marketing side of things difficult. No. It would make it impossible!

Lesson #2: if your physical or geographical (or any other -cal) circumstances preclude you from working with platforms the client needs you to… why should they hire you?

Then there were the candidates who completely ignored specific do’s and don’ts – e.g. I did not want anyone working for an agency to apply, but they did anyway. And I may have considered them if they fit the other criteria, but they didn’t.

So they were doubly irritating.

Lesson #3: it’s one thing to be ambitious in your reach, but the job specs are the job specs. And either you match, or you don’t; if you don’t, you’re far better off focusing on finding what is a good match for you.

The person I ended up hiring was a bit of a surprise.

I thought I might find someone in the far east, because of my small budget, but I actually found someone right here in the U.S. I’m also paying more than I originally wanted to (still within my overall business budget, though, so I am being a stickler about that, I have to).

Because, after talking to her, I believed she’d be worth it, and someone I could work with over the long haul.

Lesson #4: the right person for the job might be someone completely different to the image you had in mind. The same goes for PR agencies, business partners and strategic partners. Keep an open mind.

Something else I hadn’t anticipated happened. I got a few emails – not applications via oDesk, but direct emails – from virtual assistants who must have seen the job posting, checked me and my company out, and decided to write in personally.

Every single one of these was personable and while I didn’t hire them, I am in touch with at least a couple who I may end up working with on different types of projects – maybe even client work – as I grow the business.

Lesson #5: you never know where your next client might come from. “Cold calling” can still work, but only if it’s done right.

I’ve been working with my VA for close to a month now. While it’s early days yet, she is smart, eager to learn, takes direction well, and is teaching me a thing or two herself (anyone tried Join.me for screen sharing, now that Skype doesn’t let you do that without a premium account? It’s awesome!). She is conscientious about work, time (both when it comes to time sheets as well as learning some elements of the job on her own time) and someone I lean on just a little bit more every day.

And she better not get a big head as she reads this, Karelyn. Heh!

And the lessons I’ve learned along the way will be invaluable as I take SBC Inc. to the proverbial next level.

What about you? Have you gleaned business insights from places you wouldn’t expect? And speaking of VAs, do you have tips on working well with them? That could be a future post, so I’d love to get your thoughts. You know where to drop them… down there, in the comments section!

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps smart businesses make bank by taking their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso®, which provides online, on-demand training that helps you unleash your inner Social PR superhero. Shonali is mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke