The Poor Web Worker’s Virtual Assistant

Not everyone can afford a virtual assistant (VA), especially if you’re just starting to freelance and it’s a little out of your budget. Still, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to enjoy some of the benefits of having one: You can still delegate and automate some of your tasks without the heavy price tag.
I’ve looked at some of the common services that VAs provide, and found some free or cheap alternatives that you might want to look into.

Internet research

447069_red_robot_2One of the most common services that VAs provide is Internet research. If there’s something you need on the web, but you can’t seem to find it within a few minutes of searching for yourself, it might be time to ask others to assist you.
When I need to get feedback and answers from businesspeople, I’ve always turned to LinkedIn Answers. The community there is generally friendly and helpful. When I’m researching a post I’m writing, I usually go there to ask for other people’s take on a subject. Alternatively, you can also use Yahoo! Answers and AskMetafilter.
Twitter can also come in handy for this purpose, whether you’re looking for a quick answer or if you want to meet a resource person who can walk you through a complex topic. The number of replies you get usually depends on the number of people who are online when you tweet your question, as well as how many followers you have. Still, I’ve had some questions answered by people who weren’t following me, so it’s not a strict rule.
Online forums are also a useful resource, especially if you’re researching a topic with which you’re unfamiliar. Just go to a forum specializing on the subject you need to know about and ask your questions. Usually, most members are willing to help you out.
Regardless of which research shortcut you use, you need to verify the validity of the information you’re getting. You can do this by asking the people helping you to include any online articles, books and other resources that will allow you to know more about the subject. While this means you might need to put in some extra work, at least these helpful people have pointed you in the right direction.
Most importantly, you need to be very polite and grateful. Give thanks and respect to the people who spend a few minutes of their day to help you out. Don’t forget to return the favor and give back to the community, too.

Appointment setting

Scheduling a meeting or a conference call can be a little tricky because of all the back-and-forth communication with the participants. This is why many people hire VAs to schedule these events for them.
But there are also some apps that make scheduling easier as well.  These include TimeBridge (reviewed here) and TimeDriver (discussed in a previous post). Aliza Sherman also listed several scheduling solutions in her post about must-have apps for web workers.

Restaurant reservations

While I was looking through the web sites of several VA companies, I found that restaurant reservations are among their most-requested services. The tech tool alternative to hiring a VA for this purpose is to use a service like OpenTable or DinnerBroker, where you can reserve and schedule your table online.
Of course, these sites don’t have all the available restaurants in the U.S. in their databases. OpenTable claims to have over 10,000, while DinnerBroker covers just over 1,000 restaurants. And for famous restaurants that are fully-booked for a month, you’ll have to get on a waiting list. To do that, you usually have to call the restaurant yourself.
Generally speaking, if you don’t have the money to hire a VA to complete a task, you can find a way to automate it.
Some of the more popular services that VAs offer include reminders and wake-up calls. I’ll skip discussing obvious alternatives (alarm clocks), but if you can get an app to automate your reminders, there’s rarely any reason to hire someone else to do it. If you use Google Calendar to track such reminders and appointments, why not get Google Calendar on your phone and let that handle your reminders?
Every time you wish a VA handled a repetitive task for you, find a tool that will help you out with it instead. I had a friend who hired someone to backup his Google Docs files one by one, but there’s actually a free and simple way to do that with the right Firefox extensions.
I’m not saying that all these apps and sites can easily replace a human virtual assistant: Having a VA can be very good for your business if you know how to delegate well.  But if you don’t have the budget for one, you don’t have to do all the grunt work the hard way, either.

Have you ever considered hiring virtual assistants? What kinds of tasks are you thinking of delegating to them?

Image by Lorenzo Gonzales from