VAs leading the way

While the formal virtual-assistant (VA) industry is still young, hundreds, if not thousands, of independent contractors have been providing virtual services for many years. Being a VA today means using the Web to communicate and transfer documents so you can work for anyone, anywhere. But back in the ’80s, it typically meant you provided services locally, outside a traditional office.

Claudia Slate has been both an “old” VA and a “new” VA. A long-time paralegal for a Dallas concern, Slate launched her own business in the late 1980s, when the firm laid off several of her colleagues. She promptly hired all the laid-off co-workers on a contract basis.

“This was the most rewarding experience,” Slate says. “We were all single mothers, working our butts off to support our families. By working for ourselves, we charged much less than the large firms and still did quite well. We bought houses, and gave our families what they needed.”

Over time, however, Slate became an environmental activist, disillusioned with city life and an “overly consumptive lifestyle.” Driven by the desire to “live simply so others can live,” nine years ago, Slate moved to the Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest communities in the United States. Slate and her companion (who teaches at the local middle school) live in a house made of straw bales, without running water. Until two years ago, they did without electricity or telephone service.

When she first arrived, Slate taught reading and GED (general equivalency diploma) preparation, and launched a library and learning centre. She also studied technology, teaching herself database programming and network administration, then took a job doing tech support for the district schools.

When electric lines were installed, Slate bought a refurbished Compaq laptop and launched a formal virtual-assistant practice while still working part time. She provides Web research, mail list, database and spreadsheet management services primarily to other VAs. Until her phone line was installed a few months later, she accessed the Web using the school’s T-1 line after hours, and regularly drove to friends’ homes to use their phone lines to download her e-mail.

“Working virtually helps provide the income I need,” Slate says. “I use less gas, and have more time to work in my garden or on the house, take time off to spend time with elderly relatives, or attend ceremonies. Things that make life important to me now.”

While VAs like Claudia Slate are drawn by the freedom a VA practice affords, others, like Virginia Parham, find it’s one of the few practical careers for an Army spouse. Parham, who currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, relocates with her husband and daughter every three or four years.

Like Slate, Parham started her VA business in 1994, providing secretarial support for a company near her home then at Fort Stewart, Georgia. When the family moved in 1995, Parham sold the business and launched a wholly virtual company. Much of Parham’s work is in Web development and translation services, but her specialty is providing personal-assistant services to high-profile clients and entertainers who typically “travel frequently, have no staff and demand a lot of attention,” Parham says. One client in Washington forwards Parham all her e-mail – on average 350 messages a day.

When Parham and her husband got word they’d be relocating from Maryland to Anchorage last year, she took the opportunity to put her virtual company to the test. Instead of flying, the family drove the 5,500 miles with Parham working from the back seat.

“It was important for me to see for myself,” she says. “It’s one thing to talk about it, another to know for sure.” Parham’s equipment included a laptop, cell phone, mobile printer, pager, and video camera. She downloaded her e-mail by connecting a modem to her cell phone using AT&T’s wireless service.

Today, Parham says her business is successful, and she’s working on landing some federal contracts. “Before Sept. 11, the Fed wouldn’t even return my phone calls,” she says. “Now they are. It’s changing.”

Like Claudia Slate, Nancy Somers is a self-taught technician striving to earn a living as a full time VA. With a background in environmental health, Somers went from being a bar and grocery health inspector for Indiana counties to a database administrator, project manager, and back-up network administrator for the air-pollution division of the Indiana department of environmental health. She bought her first computer in 1995 and she and her son built the next two together.

Even with no formal technical training, in 1999 Somers landed a support technician job for a software development firm. She also launched a part-time VA practice, specializing in desktop publishing and Web site design and development. Business is good; Somers designed the Web site and handles marketing for a local commercial real estate company, and says many clients would give her more work if she was available during the day. She says she’d love to quit her day job, but can’t because that would mean losing her employer-funded health insurance. Her husband, a Canadian citizen, receives workman’s compensation and a disability pension for a work-related accident.

Regardless, she’s determined to break out on her own within the next six to eight months. These days, while home recovering from an operation, Somers is weighing her insurance options, and making plans to expand her business.

“It’s gonna be pretty hard to go back to work,” she says.