Virtual assistants look to raise real-world profile
By TYLER CHRISTENSEN of the Missoulian
They have their own associations, training organizations, chambers of
commerce - even their own international day of recognition.
Yet few understand what a virtual assistant
is or does.
Lorri Morin, for one, is out to change that. Morin is a new virtual
assistant in Missoula, and she is among the thousands of like-employed
workers worldwide who are celebrating the second annual International
Virtual Assistant's Day on Friday.
Virtual assistants, or VAs, make up a relatively new and rapidly growing
field, Morin said. They are essentially contractors who use the latest
in communication technology to assist executives, small-business owners
and other entrepreneurs - wherever they might be.
While it's hard to peg the exact number of virtual assistants (estimates
range from 5,000 to 20,000), there is little doubt the field has grown
since it was created 11 years ago. Stacy Brice, founder and president of
the first formal training organization for virtual assistants, said her
group has trained nearly 1,000 VAs and currently counts 600 active
“We're growing by about 30 percent a year,” Brice said via telephone
from Maryland, where AssistU is based.
Virtual assisting is now an international industry, with VAs working not
just in the United States, but also in Australia, Canada, England and
India, said Sharon Williams, chairwoman of the Alliance for Virtual
Businesses and president of 24-Hour Secretary.
“It's a worldwide phenomenon,” she said. “It's the wave of the future.”
The occupation got its start in the mid-'90s, when Internet advances
made it possible for many business owners and managers to run their
ventures remotely. At the same time, Williams added, a lot of companies
were downsizing, and many administrative assistants feared for their
jobs. They began looking for ways to put their skills to use while going
into business for themselves.
The field came together slowly at first and then surged in 2000, aided
partly by new technology that made cross-country communication easier
than ever and by an increasing focus on work/life balance, Williams
said. The majority of virtual assistants, she continued, are skilled
women who want to work - but who don't want to sacrifice their family
lives to do so.
“I think a large number of us are mothers who wanted to be able to spend
more time with children, who wanted more flexibility with our time,”
said Missoula's Morin, who worked as an administrative and executive
assistant in various capacities for more than 20 years before deciding
to strike out on her own with Virtual Synergy in early 2005.
“I got to the point where I wanted to be more available to my family,
and have more balance myself,” she explained.
While some virtual assistants go into business with just their
administrative knowledge, Morin received training and certification
through one of AssistU's 20-week intensive programs. She graduated in
May 2005, and has been growing her client list gradually in the months
“I'm selective about my clients and want to be sure I'm bringing in
clients that would be long-term,” she said.
Her clients work in a variety of industries, from book publishing to
“I don't work with just one niche,” she said. “I like working with a
variety of executives and administrators in different fields.”
Certain people tend to be more likely to need a VA, Williams explained.
A lot of small-business owners and entrepreneurs, for example, don't
need a full-time assistant.
“Anyone who has a flexible business style themselves, they could easily
see the benefits to using a VA,” she said.
Virtual assistants aren't always less costly than an in-office
assistant, Morin said, but usually they are because employers don't have
to provide benefits and other brick-and-mortar supplies.
Her clients, however, are more interested in convenience than in cost
savings. They like the fact that Morin tries to be a one-stop shop for
all her clients' needs. If they are looking for a Web designer or a
bookkeeper, for instance, she can help them out with that.
“I have a great network of colleagues and contacts, and I'm always
looking to meet new people who may become a resource,” she said.
Morin herself handles a number of tasks, from calendar-keeping to
customer intake. She also acts as a sounding board for new ideas and
delights in helping her clients focus their business strategy.
In fact, there's very little these days that can't be done virtually,
“I've known somebody that actually put all their files in a box and
shipped them to a virtual assistant to be sorted into neat little
folders and shipped back,” she said, “so the client could just pick up
the whole box and drop it in a filing cabinet.”
However, virtual assisting requires near-constant training to keep up
with the latest technological advancements, she added. To that end,
there are a number of online communities that allow virtual assistants
to trade information and stay connected. For the past few years, one of
Morin's groups has even organized a virtual Christmas party.
Missoula's economy is expanding and more residents are starting or
growing new businesses, Morin noted. She sees western Montana as a place
that's ripe with opportunity for entrepreneurs like herself.
From what Williams has seen, she expects the number of virtual
assistants worldwide to double within the next five years.
Right now, the most common question Brice hears is “What is a VA?”
“I genuinely believe,” she said, “that in the next five to 10 years that
question will change to ‘Who is your VA?' ”
Reporter Tyler Christensen can be reached at 523-5215 or