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We’ve all read a lot about business outsourcing and the use of freelance help for everything from website design to accounting.  In the past few years, the rise of low cost freelance services is making it easier to “virtual-ize” yourself and focus your time on more productive (or enjoyable) activities. In particular, there is a new group of workers – virtual assistants – who will help you manage every aspect of your personal and professional life.

Consider the case of Hilary Henshaw (left), a professional singer and speaker.  She travels extensively and originally contracted with a virtual assistant to handle routine secretarial duties like answering calls and taking messages.  When she needed help with her book layout, designing promotional flyers and building her website, she decided to use virtual assistants again.

So what is a virtual assistant exactly?  The Wikipedia defines virtual assistants as:

. . . entrepreneurs who provide professional administrative, technical, or creative (social) assistance to clients from a home office.

There are some very compelling reasons for businesses and time-pressed individuals to consider the services of a virtual assistant (see video below).

Benefits of hiring a virtual assistant

The math can pencil out well, especially if you only need the services on an occasional or project basis.  For example, here is a sample comparison of the costs of a full time employee versus a virtual assistant for a project:

Virtual Assistant
Hourly Rate of Pay $20.00 $35.00
Fringe Benefits @ 35%
(Health/Dental/Life Insurance, Retirement Plans)
7.00 None
Overhead Rate @ 50%
(Office Space, Equipment & Office Supply expense, UI Insurance, Worker’s Compensation, Overtime Pay, Administration Costs)
$10.00 None
Total Effective Rate of Pay $37.00 $35.00
**Hours Per Year 2,080 hrs. 480 hrs.
TOTAL Annual Labour Cost $76,960.00 $16,800.00

VA Networking has compiled some demographics for virtual assistants based on a recent survey:

  • 96.8% of all Virtual Assistants (VAs) are women and that
  • 69.3% of these are married of whom 76..1% have children.
  • 59.2% have college or trade school training
  • 82.5% starting their businesses after being in the workforce for some time
  • 32% of the VAs surveyed charge $31-40 per hour for their services with the majority of VAs putting in 31-40 hours of work per week
  • 43.6% of the VAs surveyed normally work on weekends
  • 93.7% of the Virtual Assistants surveyed stated that their clients are found through word of mouth referrals with 80.1% of VAs also marketing through a website online

The once cottage industry has now grown to the point where there are national andinternational associations which help new virtual assistants get started and match members with potential clients.

One of the most outspoken advocates of using virtual assistants in everyday life, as well as business, is Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Workweek.  He believes that the key to managing time is elimination of the less important tasks from your daily list rather than just being efficient about the tasks you do.

Interview with Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek

In the end, it may be the best way to arbitrage the value of your time.  You hand off the less valuable activities for the opportunity to do something more valuable with your time; whether that value is measured in dollars or time to enjoy life more.

In the recent financial turmoil and economic tremors, some believe we are witnessing the decline of Western style capitalism and the American way of life.  As a serial entrepreneur who has experienced first hand the benefits of our economic system, I naturally find such sentiments disturbing.  But an interesting counterpoint to such gloomy predictions is presented in an article in the January / February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled America’s Edge.  In it, Ms. Slaughter argues persuasively that each era requires a different set of strengths for a nation to remain competitive or not.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, advantage was about control of trading routes.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, characterized by rapid industrialization, advantage was about access and control of industrial “inputs” – raw materials, labor and capital.  The second half of the twentieth century saw advantage accruing to those with access to global markets for their goods and services.  And in the 21st century, competitive leadership will be defined by our ability to create and manage networks whether for commercial, governmental or social purposes. In this scenario, power flows to the most connected network centers rather than to the top of hierarchies.

There is plenty of evidence that the transition to a networked society is well underway.  Businesses now operate in integrated, global webs.  Samuel Palmisano, Chairman and CEO of IBM, has promoted the idea that when everything is connected, work flows to wherever it can be done best – where the most advanced expertise and open environments enable the most powerful innovation.

The power of networks to transform politics has also been amply demonstrated during the 2008 presidential election.  The Obama team was able to very successfully leverage the social networking power of the Internet to efficiently get their message out to voters and raise campaign funds.

Social Media during the 2008 US Presidential Election

Not-for-profit organizations and  non-governmental organizations (MGOs) are also increasingly using networks to address global social issues such as poverty, disaster relief and disease.

A promising development in light of this thesis is the emergence of a new global generation in the United States.  This is a segment of the population, identified by pollster John Zogby, which is aged 18-29, makes extensive use of the Internet, has far more than the average number of family and friends living outside the country and travels outside the country far more frequently than other groups.  This group, which he calls the “First Globals,” also believes it will end up spending a significant amount of time living outside the United States, whether for career or personal reasons.  Mr. Zogby has recently written a book about this phenomenon called The Way We’ll Be. In fact, following the election, Mr. Zogby pointed to the role this group played in Mr. Obama’s victory.

John Zogby talking about First Globals

The United States has many challenges ahead and some very tough decisions will need to be made at all levels of our society to get through this difficult period.  Yet, in many respects, America, despite its current problems, has the best opportunity to redefine and strengthen its leadership in the 21st century.  As Ms. Slaughter writes:

In the networked world, the United States has the potential to be the most connected country; it will also be connected to other power centers that are themselves widely connected.  If it pursues the right policies, the United States has the capacity and the cultural capital to reinvent itself.  It need not see itself locked in a global struggle with other great powers; rather it should view itself as a central player in an integrated world.  In the twenty-first century, the United States’ exceptional capacity for connection, rather than splendid isolation or hegemonic domination, will restore its power and renew its global purpose.

I share her optimism about our ability to adapt and succeed in the new world which is beginning to take shape.

By Neil Peterson | December 29, 2008

According to the National Geographic, the word “hurricane” is derived from Hurican, the god of evil of the Carib people of the Caribbean. Hurican was himself inspired by the Mayan god,Hurakan, who destroyed humans with great storms and floods.  Hurricane Katrina, which struck Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005, seemed the very embodiment of those mythical figures.

The scope of the Hurricane Katrina disaster is hard to comprehend:

  • The storm had sustained winds of 140 mph when it came ashore and a storm surge that was 20 feet high
  • At one point, 80% of New Orleans was underwater
  • The number of housing units damaged, destroyed, or inaccessible because of Katrina was 850,791
  • The final death toll was at 1,836, with over a million people displaced by the storm
  • Hurricane Katrina caused $75 billion in estimated physical damages, but had an estimated total economic impact in Louisiana and Mississippi thought to exceed $150 billion

A Tour of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans following Katrina

The rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina have often been marred by bureaucratic wrangling and political finger pointing.  Some critical infrastructure – like fire stations – has still not been restored in some areas of New Orleans.  However, the regional reconstruction now underway demonstrates how an extended community can make the greatest contribution toward helping a population overcome a disaster of such unimaginable scale.

Consider the case of Alice Craft-Kerney and Patricia Berryhill, two nurses living in the Ninth Ward when Hurricane Katrina struck with such devastating force.  After being rescued, both relocated to other cities for several weeks.  Upon returning and seeing the desperate need of their neighborhood for a local healthcare facility, they set up the Ninth Ward Health Clinic with the support of a number of grassroots support organizations.

There were plenty of volunteers and community organizations from outside the affected areas, too – ready to lend a hand in the reconstruction efforts, including groups such as:

Community groups rebuilding New Orleans

Many celebrities have also pitched in with time, money and other resources.  One notable example is actor Brad Pitt, who is helping to rebuild over 100  homes in the Lower Ninth area of New Orleans.  He chose a firm focused on building environmentally friendly homes that are more energy efficient and can better withstand extreme flood conditions.  Other celebrities contributors have included Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, Barbara Streisand and Jimmy Buffett.

New Orleans has also become a hub of grassroots social innovation in the face of extraordinary difficulties.  Fast Company magazine recently featured a story about alldaybuffet, a group of creative professionals focused on social innovation, created a list of projects – called the the New Orleans 100 – aimed at attracting tourism, rebuilding homes, overhauling the educational system, and stimulating economic activity. Urban planners at major educational institutions like MIT are also looking at New Orleans to see what lessons can be learned to prevent or mitigate future disasters.

As Hurricane Katrina reminds us, Nature still has the power to wreak considerable havoc on even the most technologically advanced and wealthiest countries.  Ultimately, it is the resilience of those affected and the compassion of those that come to their aid which allows communities shattered by a natural cataclysm to regain hope and eventually recover.

As the economic future seems to become more uncertain with each news report, there is much anticipation about infrastructure spending programs to be initiated early in the Obama administration.  Critics of such programs argue that they don’t really provide a global economic stimulus.   However, “big infrastructure” can sometimes provide something more than an economic shot in the arm.

One of the most important examples in US history was the building of the first transcontinental railroad.  Big infrastructure projects, by their nature, can take a long time to set up and complete; this was no exception. The first proposal for a railroad spanning the continent was made to Congress by Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, in 1845.  Though Congress failed to act on Whitney’s proposal, he continued to promote the idea and the idea caught the imagination of the public and many in the government.  It was seen as a way to settle the frontier more quickly, open up trade with the West, and by extension to Asia.  The discovery of gold in California in 1849 gave the project added impetus.  In 1853, the government commissioned surveys to determine the best route.  Finally, Congress passed the Railroad Act of 1862 which provided the financial support to ensure the project’s completion.

The transcontinental railroad brought about a number of innovations:

  • The creation of large scale railroads corporations which required a more elaborate governance than businesses of the time.
  • Innovative, massive public financing through the sale of corporate stocks and bonds.
  • The employment and integration of large teams of German, Irish andChinese immigrant workers.
  • The management of an engineering project whose scale dwarfed anything previously undertaken.
  • New techniques for creating the road beds, trestles and tunnels required.

And the physical rigors of construction tested the will of all involved.  The railroad was approximately 1,600 miles in length.  It had to be built across rugged, often poorly surveyed terrain, inhabited by often hostile tribes of Indians.  The management of the construction was complicated by large turnover among the workers who, for example, often abandoned their construction tasks to prospect for gold.

In the end, the transcontinental railroad became a symbol of American unity – both physical and spiritual – in the post Civil War period.  The railroad became something more than the fulfillment of its original economic goals; it was the grand physical embodiment of America’s hope and confidence in the future.  We can only hope that whatever national initiatives we undertake in this new era will have the same effect.