A virtual assistant’s skill universe knows no physical boundaries. He or she could be performing a secretary’s work or that of a specialist, such as an IT support personnel, a tax consultant or an investment adviser. Only a mode of communication such as a computer or a phone is required to execute the work.
How to start
Before you embark on this career you need to know the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of yourself and your business model. This SWOT analysis will help you prepare and iron out the kinks.
It is a business that requires self-motivated professionals. You can initially register with websites, such as oDesk.com or the India-specific one such as worknhire.com, that bring together the buyers and sellers of such services.
Some of these sites charge a fee for playing the intermediary and bringing the two parties together, and provide services such as providing escrow accounts so that you don’t get cheated. For example, oDesk deducts 10% of your earnings as its fee.
What to do
First, decide on your field, and whether you are equipped and experienced to offer the particular service. Fix the amount of time you are ready to dedicate to your business. Do not stretch yourself by trying to provide too many services. Instead offer niche service in area of your expertise. Also, find out whether there is adequate demand for your field of work.
Learn from others
You must interact with people who have experience in the field. The interaction can be online, at workshops or one-on-one. You may find a mentor who will make your journey smoother.
There are websites that host discussion forums, such as therodinhoods.com and nextbigwhat.com, where you can seek advice from other members. The networking may bring you business. For example, attending a seminar of Startup Weekend, a non-profit organisation that encourages entrepreneur, can be a life-changing experience.
There are two facets you should consider.
First, how much money you can spend on work-related equipment, and running expenditures such as electricity and phone bills. You will also need to advertise, whether on the Internet or by distribution of pamphlets.
Second, how long can you support yourself without the venture yielding any return? You will have to be patient as customers will not start streaming in from the first day. Also, your business strategy will have to change with the demands of time and clients.
Type of business
You can either set up a sole proprietorship or a partnership firm. If you are providing a direct service, then opt for proprietorship. Partnerships are better if you are pooling skills or financial resources with friends.
Proprietorships are a one-man show. You are not required to follow complicated legal rules. You may not need to register with a government organisation. A licence from a professional body, like the Institute of Chartered Accountants, or local administration may be required. The profits and losses are borne by the owner. There are no income tax or service tax burdens if the annual turnover is below Rs 10 lakh.
A partnership firm can be formed between two to twenty people. There are no complicated legal rules applicable and registration is not mandatory. All partners can provide the services of the firm, unless there is an agreement specifying the roles of the partners. The partnership agreement can be written or oral. The registered partnership deed should specify the duties, rights and liabilities of each partner. In case the deed does not specify these, the rules of the Indian Partnership Act will apply.
Limited liability partnership (LLP) is a new option. It has benefits of both -- the flexibility of a partnership and limited liability of a company, and at a low cost. It is the preferred choice globally, especially for professionals and the service industry. An LLP should have at least two partners and two designated partners, with at least one being an Indian resident. Its accounts are audited and its affairs can be probed by the central government. You should hire a chartered account to guide you on details.
Building a clientele
Be sure to prepare a list of possible clients and how you are going to approach them. When you do approach client, be professional and succinct, tell the client how you can help and provide samples if you have experience. There are free websites like skillpages.com where you can advertise your skills or scout for people skilled in the work you want performed.
Planning for business
You should open a separate bank account for handling payments and receipts dealing with your virtual assistant business. Your computer hardware and software should be upgraded as it is going to be the sole mode of delivery for your business.
The website will be the first impression a potential customer will have of you. It should have details of your experience, what you specialise in, services being offered, price list and how you can be contacted.
How to accept payment?
You can ask for payments to be made using NEFT service of banks, or sign up with a third-party payment gateway, like CCAvenue. This will allow your customers to make payment pay using credit cards, debit cards, cash cards, mobile payments or Net banking. These gateways charge a one-time fee of Rs 7,500 or more.
Then there is an annual maintenance charge of Rs 1,200 onwards depending on the scheme you choose. The payment gateways also deduct an amount of 1.25% to 7% of the transaction as fee. They give you the option to receive the payments in your bank account via NEFT or collect it as a cheque.
Knowing the legal obligations
There are many services that now come under the service tax net. In case your clients are based in India, check with a consultant to know whether you need to charge service tax from customers and register with the service tax department.
If you are getting paid in a foreign currency, you will not have to worry about service tax. But seek the advice of a chartered accountant to find out if you need an Importer-Exporter Code (IEC) number from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade.
Also, consult a lawyer to know which statutes of the Indian Contract Act and Indian Penal Code, IT Act, and other relevant Indian and international laws are applicable in your dealings with foreign clients.
Currently, if your annual income is more than Rs 2 lakh, you have to pay tax and file income tax return. If the income from the profession is likely to be more than Rs 1.5 lakh, or was more than this amount in any of the last three fiscal years (April 1 to March 31) then you should keep a record of all payments, including original bills, and receipts -- whether in cash or by cheque.
This income limit is for lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, accountants, technical consultants, interior designers, authorised representatives, technical consultants, film actors, company secretaries and information technology professionals.
For journalists, writers and consultants in fields other than those mentioned above, small sellers trading using the Internet and commission agents the trigger limit is net income of Rs 1.2 lakh or gross revenue of Rs10 lakh. You must hire a tax consultant or chartered accountant to file your income-tax returns.
Unlike the regular 8 hour office job, you may have to work long hours. Plus, the timings could be odd, and there may be no weekends or holidays. The family will have to be second as the clients will demand that you stick to deadline, and not compromise on quality even if you are facing a physical, emotional or family problem.
At times, the client may create problems at the time of payment. Especially if the two of you are dealing directly with each other and there is no written contract. Taking the client to the court for the payment may be too much of a hassle. Especially, in case of foreign clients whom you have contacted through a website like oDesk.
Also, unlike an office job, there is no assured career progression or salary hikes. In fact, competition may undercut you and eat into your business. After all, saving money is on top of mind for clients employing freelancers.
Use a small business software
Zoostr allows anytime anywhere access on PC, tablet or smartphone giving the small business owner the ability to carry out admin tasks on the move; for example creating a price quotation or recording meeting notes on the way back to the office after meeting or checking who has outstanding invoices and calling the clients direct from inside the software.
With Zoostr it truly means you can carry your business with you in your pocket. You can connect to the office whenever you want. Mostly, time spent on the road is wasted time. Zoostr allows you to use this time to get admin tasks done. If you are coming back from a meeting with a potential customer, then create a price quotation on the go or record meeting notes, or look at who owes you money and call them direct from your phone or schedule the next meeting. Reach the people and information you need—anywhere, anytime.