Should Zirtual's Turmoil Scare You Away From Virtual Assistant Firms?

2015-08-18-1439931499-2452449-AlfredoAtanacio.jpgAuthor Alfredo Atanacio is the co-founder of Uassist.ME.

Virtual assistant startup Zirtual's sudden shutdown (and now, a class-action lawsuit) stunned employees, clients, investors and the startup community that had celebrated its rapid growth. Employees received a middle-of-the night email letting them know they'd been laid off and clients received a note saying the company was "pausing operations."

And just as fast, Zirtual announced that it would be acquired by Startups.co, the parent company of Launchrock, Clarity, and Fundable, and re-opened for business. It was an all-stock transaction, for an undisclosed amount.

As the founder of Uassist.ME, a competing virtual assistant firm, I was not entirely surprised by the news. I've long had concerns about the sustainability of Zirtual's business model. But I hope their troubles don't dissuade people from working with virtual assistants across the board. There are still a number of great virtual assistant providers out there. You just have to take a little time to make sure they are a good fit for your needs.

Lessons From Zirtual's Sudden Fall

It would be easy to blame Zirtual's sudden fall on the relatively new VA firm model or the long-distance nature of VAs in general, but I believe it's more complex than that. Management surely contributed to Zirtual's problems. On Friday, Aug. 7, just before the company shut down, founder Maren Kate Donovan told Jason Calacanis -- who is also an investor in the company -- on "This Week in Startups" that Zirtual still had a lot of legacy contracts from its early days when it promised unlimited concierge services for just $99 a month. That deal was probably great for publicity and getting the company off the ground, but it's just not a sustainable business model.

Zirtual may also have ran into problems because it was trying to serve its clients with a dispersed workforce. Donovan was proud about employing stay-at-home moms and offering women an opportunity to work a flexible schedule from home, which is great for those employees, but not always as good for managing them and serving clients.

At Uassist.ME, we believe we can serve our clients and our VAs better by having all our VAs work together on-site. We give our VAs training, support, opportunities to take on more work to make more money, and create a supportive workplace community. This helps them build a relationship with the company, which motivates them to work hard and stick around -- something that helps provide our clients with high-quality, consistent service.

How to Choose a Virtual Assistant Firm

If you're looking for a virtual assistant firm that will provide you with high-quality, consistent service, do your due diligence upfront to determine which type of firm is the best fit for you. Here are some important points to consider:

  • Decide what you want to delegate to a VA. Start by making a list of everything you do over the course of a typical week. Then decide which tasks are part of your core business and are things only you can do. The remaining tasks -- the ones you do simply because there's no one else there to do them -- can be handled by a VA. Use the resulting list to find a company that offers similar services.
  • Determine when you need help. If you'd be happy with a VA who gets the work done at any point in the day, you may be OK working with a firm that has employees working flexible hours from home. But if you anticipate needing real-time assistance, look for a firm whose VAs are working regular hours and who have backup for days off, lunch hour and other times when they aren't working.
  • Figure out how much help you really need. Some companies charge by the hour. This can can be appealing if you are on a budget -- but it can also be misleading. They might charge a low hourly rate, but then take forever to complete your tasks. Avoid this trap by hiring someone who tracks progress, rather than hours.
  • Ask about the VA hiring process. When evaluating VA firms, you'll want to know how they screen and select employees. For example, here at Uassist.ME we do psychological testing, cross-check references and perform background checks to ensure we're hiring the best people. Think about what sort of screening you would do for an employee at your own firm; you want your VA firm to be just as strict.
  • Ask about training. Find out what kind of training each VA firm does both at the time of hire and on an ongoing basis. Are the VAs familiar with the latest updates to common software? Have they had formal training on common cloud-based programs?
  • Ask about support and coverage. If an assistant needs help, is there a supervisor or coach there answer questions and offer support? If an assistant needs to take a day off, is there someone to cover your work? If so, how will that fill-in know what to do?
  • Ask about security. Whenever you're hiring an individual or company to handle potentially sensitive personal and business information, you want to know they have strong systems in place to secure that information and protect your privacy. Companies can use tools such LastPass to make sure the actual passwords are not shared. They may also have all workers and contractors sign non-disclosure agreements.