Personal assistants carve a virtual niche

October 14, 2004|By Barbara Rose | Barbara Rose,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Kelly Kalmes can recall a time when a secretary sat outside her corporate office. These days, her right hand is based on another continent.

Kalmes, a corporate trainer and consultant, works from home in Evanston, Ill. Her assistant, Carolyn Moncel, works from home in Paris. They collaborate using e-mail, shared computer files and an Internet telephone service.

"All of my clients know who Carolyn is," Kalmes said. "If I'm not around, she speaks for me."

Moncel is a "virtual assistant," a personalized extension of Kalmes' business. She also has other clients whom she bills monthly for her services.

It's an emerging occupational niche spurred by the Internet and a desire of some tech-savvy professionals - typically working mothers - for more flexible hours. They are finding a ready market among small-business owners and traveling professionals who need support but can't justify the expense of full-time assistants.

Since the term "virtual assistant" surfaced in the 1990s, an estimated 5,000 have hung out shingles. Several trade organizations and a handful of advocates are promoting the occupation as a growing industry.

Ursula Huws, an expert on virtual work, said the niche may evolve in the same way as telephone answering services, which she said grew largely from home-based businesses during the 1960s into call centers.

"Something that started out as a cottage industry has evolved into a new kind of personal service, but one that's carried out as a mass industry," said Huws, director of Analytica Social and Economic Research in London.

Others consider the trend to be the small-business owner's equivalent of enterprise outsourcing. "With the advent of the Internet and its commercialization through the Web browser, entrepreneurs have access to talent regardless of where it's located and to skills at a level they might not otherwise access," said Michael Russer, a professional speaker.

Russer works virtually with an administrative assistant in Virginia, an editor in Idaho, a bookkeeper in Kansas and an e-mail manager and marketing assistant in Toronto to keep his speaking firm on track.

He believes the industry will grow by specialization. His firm, PROVAST (Professional Virtual Assistant Support Teams) LLC, last year launched REVA Teams, a network of VAs who serve real estate agents.

Christine Durst, co-founder of the nonprofit International Virtual Assistants Association, launched Staffcentrix, an online incubator for VAs that claims about 2,500 members, in 1999 in Virginia. For the last three years, Staffcentrix has worked exclusively with military spouses under a Defense Department contract, giving them portable careers to fit their nomadic lifestyles.

"We're training people who are CPAs, Ph.D.s, lawyers, nurses - people who can't find work in a traditional environment," Durst said. "We're teaching them how to transfer their skills into the virtual marketplace."

Stacy Brice, founder of AssistU, claims about 1,000 graduates of her VA training program. She charges $2,695 for a 20-week group course.

Clients are "hungry for relationships, for someone to climb on board and make contributions at a high level" rather than do piecemeal work, she said. "Long-term collaboration is essential."

Several groups offer certification programs to set standards and justify higher wages. A Staffcentrix survey found that fees average $25 to $35 per hour, but that the range varies from $10 to $75.

Certification "allows business owners to understand this isn't just a work-at-home mom who wants a few extra dollars," said Jodi Diehl of Altamonte Springs, Fla., president of the International Virtual Assistants Association, which has 600 members in 16 countries.

Moncel, the Paris-based virtual assistant, started her firm, MotionTemps, in the Chicago area before her husband's job took her abroad. "I wanted a way to balance my work with my family life," said the former marketing professional. One of her first clients was Kalmes' firm, Project Knowledge LLC.

"I was devastated when Carolyn told me she was moving to Paris," she said. "But with all the technology we have today, we decided we could do this."

They use the GoTo service to access each other's computers and hold regular teleconferences. And a benefit of the time difference is 24-hour workflow.

"I write my courses, she edits and formats them overnight, then I go to her PC while she's sleeping to check the changes," Kalmes said. "She takes the file and uploads it to a fulfillment house. Then she calls the client and tells them when it will be delivered. It moves as smooth as silk."

Moncel limits herself to six clients at most, charging $25 to $55 per hour, depending on skills required.

"For once I really feel like I'm in control of what I do," she said. "It's very empowering."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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