You don't have to be a big corporation to outsource. In fact, you don't even have to be a company. As Timothy Ferriss outlined in his 2008 book The 4-Hour Workweek, you can just be a guy who wants to hit the beach while someone in Bangalore does your work.
That's the dream, anyway. If you're looking to outsource website design, SEO or other technical work, then the firm that Ferriss cites in his book, Your Man In India, may make sense. But if you want to get someone to do the non-technical stuff Ferriss outlines—like checking e-mails, screening his phone calls and sending gifts to family and friends—then Your Man in India will direct you to its subsidiary, Get Friday.
Get Friday does what's known in the business as "virtual assistant" work. It's a vague term that encompasses a host of activities including calendar management, secretarial, online research and travel scheduling, but the company's website outlines some other "pretty crazy tasks," including finding a lost dog and teaching algebra to a sixth grader.
Nevertheless, Get Friday doesn't offer "specialized" work. For example, when I asked them if they could write this article for me, a representative said the company doesn't have people on hand who can write, though there are people who can research an article. (I declined the offer.) If you're looking for something that takes higher-level communication skills, then Get Friday will refer you to the Mountain View, Calif.-based Elance, in which case you're back in the U.S., paying U.S. rates.
What are those rates? Elance declined to say, but Doreen DeJesus, president of the International Virtual Assistants Assocation, says you can expect to pay $40 and up, per hour, for a VA skilled in communications. (A VA with a lot of technical know-how might fetch you as much as $120 per hour.)
Despite the disparity in pricing—India-based VAs can cost as little as $1 a day—DeJesus says there are a lot of benefits to working with a U.S.- or Canada-based VA. At the very least, she says, you avoid the two major pitfalls of working with a far-flung VA: time zone differences and a language barrier.
Mumbai is 10 hours ahead of New York time, for instance, meaning that if it's 9 a.m. and you need something done right away, you'll probably have to wait a few hours. As for language, although India-based VAs generally are quite conversant in English, they can get tripped up by the nuances of the language, which could create misunderstandings. "I've had many people who've tried to outsource abroad," says DeJesus, "but a lot of times the language barrier and the time difference send them back this way."
Fabio Rosati, Elance's CEO, says that despite such drawbacks, going with a foreign VA makes sense sometimes. For instance, for a project that's not that time-sensitive, like a Christmas circular you're preparing in August, going with a VA in India or the Philippines might be a good option. But generally, "You want to be able to pick up the phone any time and talk to your assistant," he says.
That relative luxury may cost you more, but it fits Rosati's conception of a VA, which is basically a cloned version of yourself that takes care of the duller tasks. When asked why someone should consider a VA, Rosati replied immediately: "You can amplify yourself and your business. You can do a lot more than you are able to do." In Rosati's estimation, those 15 minute periods you spend every day answering e-mails or entering data on Salesforce.com add up. If you don't have to worry about executing such protean tasks, you can spend your time being more creative.
One challenge to this argument, though, is that hiring an assistant, virtual or otherwise, can also be a time suck. Despite the sour economy, it's not uncommon to hear that good help is hard to find. Rosati has a couple of tips to make working with a VA easier, though. First, if you can afford it, hire two or three people for one opening and then, after a week, pick the best candidate. Second, work with your VA on a mutually agreed upon schedule. That way, you'll avoid situations in which you need to hear back right away and your VA is MIA.
By this point, it should be clear that hiring a VA and then spending the rest of the day surfing, as Ferriss advocates, may be trickier than it appears. But if your workweek is more like 40 or 50 hours, hiring a good VA may ease your stress. If you're on the other side of the equation, or the other side of the globe for that matter, it may also provide a lifeline in a brutal economic climate.
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