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Fri, Oct. 18

Virtual assistants carve out niche in digital world

The Daily Courier/Jo.L.Keener  
Katie Baird checks her digital camera Wednesday afternoon. Baird works as a virtual assistant for clients from a remote location, assisting with photo and website design work as well as executive assistance.

The Daily Courier/Jo.L.Keener Katie Baird checks her digital camera Wednesday afternoon. Baird works as a virtual assistant for clients from a remote location, assisting with photo and website design work as well as executive assistance.

PRESCOTT - Katie Baird took a break from her 20-year teaching career in 1995 to reassess her options.

Baird said she accepted an offer from the Yavapai County Superintendent of Schools Office to organize a one-day workshop for teachers countywide. She arranged for vendors, speakers and registration.

"I ran into a former boss," the 54-year-old Baird recalled. "He said, 'Gosh! You should just invent a new title or service.'"

After the workshop, Baird said she thought about who else would pay for her services.

"I did not know what to call what I was offering," she said. "It was kind of like project organizer/administrative assistant, (and) lots of different slashes."

A year later, she found out about the International Virtual Assistants Association, apparently while surfing the Internet. She said virtual assistant fit in with what she was doing, and she has stuck with that job description since then.

The association's website, www.ivaa.org, defines a virtual assistant as "an independent entrepreneur providing administrative, creative and/or technical services."

Christine Durst founded the virtual assistance industry in her Connecticut home in 1995, and helped to incorporate the association four years later.

Acknowledging that virtual assistance is a relatively new occupation that falls under the "independent contractor" category, Baird said secretarial services would be the closest comparison. She belongs to the association and holds the title of certified virtual assistant.

She owns Loose Ends Virtual Assistance, and her purple business card, which folds in half, lists a number of tasks that she performs for her clients. They include black-and-white photography; project management; virtual office support; executive assistance; meeting, planning and facilitation; and website design, production and maintenance.

Informed about what Baird does for a living, Joyce Anderson said, "I have never heard of a virtual assistant, but that is marvelous."

Anderson has owned home-based Word Processing Services in Prescott since 1992, and lists her business in the yellow pages under secretarial services. Her business card states that she does correspondence, mailing labels, newsletters, reports, resumes and term papers.

"I literally am a secretary, and these people (clients) can go ahead and dictate over the phone to me a letter," Anderson said. She said her clients include college students, psychologists and elderly people.

Anderson said the tri-city area is growing, and that growth could create opportunities for virtual assistants.

Virtual assistance is "truly an emerging industry," said Hazel Bowman, owner of Celebrations by Bowman (event planning and wedding coordination) and www.PrescottWeddings.com in Prescott, and a virtual assistant for more than two years.

"I don't think we even heard of virtual assistant five years ago, and now this newspaper is writing about it," Bowman said on Monday.

Bowman, who sets aside three days a week as a virtual assistant, said she started in the field by helping Michele Pariza Wacek, owner of a marketing business bearing her name in Prescott, with holiday cards. She also has worked on projects with Baird, who updates Bowman's copy on PrescottWeddings.com.

By doing the holiday cards, Bowman, who admits to being "over 55," said that she saw a need to establish a database of names, addresses, telephone numbers, website information and e-mail addresses. She said that she also schedules appointments, maintains calendars and performs administrative functions, such as making phone calls and sending thank-you calls for referrals.

In fact, she checked Wacek's schedule while talking on the phone with a reporter from The Daily Courier, and arranged for Wacek to call back at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Wacek, who started her business in 1998, said that she began using Baird's services five or six years ago, and relies on Bowman, another Prescott woman and another female virtual assistant, who lives in Salt Lake City.

"And I really started building my team (of virtual assistants) two years ago," Wacek said. "Right now, I've got those four (assistants), and probably will add a fifth one for my admin team."

Wacek explained that she uses virtual assistants for several reasons.

"One is that they are not employees but (independent) contractors, which is nice because I am not paying benefits," Wacek said. "I am not paying salaries. And they take care of their own taxes. I work out of my house. I don't have to buy or rent office space."

Baird and Bowman cited the same benefits to business owners and professionals who hire virtual assistants.

"Many find themselves in cyclical work patterns where they are swamped, and they don't have enough work to hire somebody full time, and they don't have enough work to hire somebody part time on a regular basis," Bowman said.

Virtual assistants also spare their clients the costs of updating computer software, Baird said. Her tools of the trade include high-speed Internet service, a laptop and personal digital assistant.

Virtual assistants include people with backgrounds in bookkeeping, web development, copywriting and editing, Baird said. Her clients include Realtors, nonprofit organizations, artists, architects and small-business owners.

Baird said she has clients throughout the United States and in Mexico, and prefers doing business with long-distance clients.

"If they are not local, you don't have them showing up at your place," said Baird, who works 30 to more than 40 hours a week.

Baird, Bowman and Linda Williams of Prescott work out of their homes and said that they enjoy the flexibility of being virtual assistants. Baird and Bowman check their e-mail inboxes after they wake up in the morning to find out whether their clients have given them any assignments.

A virtual assistant for a few months who previously worked for stock brokerages, Williams, 41, said her new arrangement enables her to stay at home with her two children, Alec, 9, and Claire, 4. She has three clients, and performs tasks that include QuickBook and Excel spreadsheets.

"I just enjoy the flexibility because dinner can be in the oven, and I can sit down and do 20 to 30 minutes of work," Williams said. "I can just fit it in whenever I want."

Other advantages of the occupation are being able to choose their clients, and saving on gasoline costs, Baird said.

Baird said the pluses of being a virtual assistant can be minuses as well.

"You are working in isolation most of the time, and that can be a problem," she said. "Loneliness and lack of contact with people can be a problem. ... I also like working by myself."

However, Baird said the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and recommends the work for people who are "incredibly organized and dependable. Because if you are not organized, you are not going to get anything done. The skill set does not matter so much."

Contact the reporter at khedler@prescottaz.com

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