I recently had the pleasure of appearing on the Design and Play podcast with Steve Brophy and Dean Pearman, two teachers that are actively raising awareness for and doing their best to drive much needed change in K12 education in Australia.
One of the many topics we discussed was virtual assistants and how they are being used in entrepreneurial circles - by necessity more than anything else, due to both time and capital constraints.
I’ve been using virtual assistants for several years. Today, virtual assistants are a big part of the reason why I can maintain what people consider a very high output (in the past two years - in addition to running an innovation consultancy - I founded a children’s entrepreneurship program, published two books, launched a podcast that as of writing is 187 episodes strong and still maintain a solid social life, daily fitness routine, have ample time to learn and maintain interests outside of work - my team will tell you I’m rarely in the office past 7pm and rarely work weekends).
With this in mind, we explored whether or not virtual assistants are something that teachers (and corporate executives) should be looking into or using.
Why We Should Outsource
What makes someone successful or distinguished is their strengths - their unique skillset, their competitiveness, their hustle, their ability to connect the dots, to strategize - whatever their magic formula or secret sauce is that’s what they need to be spending more time doing rather than engaging in rudimentary process-oriented tasks that numb the mind and take them away from doing what creates the most value and leaves them feeling unfulfilled.
Aside from that, outsourcing obviously saves us not only time but also money, particularly if offshoring to countries with a significantly lower cost of living and minimum wage. This can be valuable in a number of ways but especially so for entrepreneurs and startups who have a limited runway (time to make things happen).
Ultimately, outsourcing allows us to do more of what we love and create more value.
The use of virtual assistants amongst teachers and corporate executives is no different to entrepreneurial circles, insofar as the thought process behind what to outsource goes.
You might want to first consider some of the risks.
Privacy and Sensitivity: sensitive intellectual property or personally identifiable information
Some questions to ask when considering privacy:
Next up, I’ve heard heaps of horror stories from entrepreneurs who had outsourced the design and development of a minimum viable product (MVP) via a platform like Upwork or Fiverr. These platforms, or tools, are awesome but like any tool it comes down to how you use it.
The problem in these cases is that entrepreneurs often outsource both the design and development to the same person - most people rarely have both skillsets. So something might function but look like crap, or look great but not have the functionality it really needs and be buggy as all hell.
In others cases it might be because they haven’t effectively assessed candidates based on past work and reviews and offered the gig to the first candidate that applied.
You really can’t leave anything to chance as far as your instructions go.
Key: don’t assume!
Be explicit about every nook and cranny if you expect your hired gun to deliver what you envisage upstairs in the dark corners of your mind.
For example, our process document for the curation of our weekly email is 14 pages long (that’s a 2,000 word Google Doc with 10 point font, complete with screenshots, arrows, bubbles and captions!).
Types of Tasks
So what kinds of tasks might you outsource? Here’s 14 to get you started.
At its core, anything that can be effectively codified into a clear, actionable step-by-step process, that doesn’t come with unacceptable privacy or quality risks can and should be outsourced.
(Just Some of) What I Outsource
Where to Find Your Virtual Assistant
Really, just Google ‘virtual assistant’ and you will find countless places.
My preferred approach is to find somebody on a platform like Fiverr or Upwork, evaluate them based on past work, buyer feedback and an interview and then engage them on short projects where I pay by the hour.
You’ve got to cut them some slack initially and give them a little time to find their groove and after a few weeks if I’m not happy then it’s back to the drawing board - otherwise I look for ways to formalise the arrangement and incentivise them accordingly.
Remember - mastery, autonomy, purpose - I strive to make a virtual assistant feel like part of the team and remind them of their why and also surprise them with random bonuses or gifts which they tend not to expect from most buyers.
The benefit here is clear not only for the individual but for the organisation too. An engaged workforce is a productive one and is likely to stick around longer, sparing us the cost of employee churn and helping us work towards our mission.
I actively challenge my team to look for opportunities to turn tasks into processes. I’ve gone as far as giving people an entire week simply to identify and codify tasks into process instructions.
We might lose some productivity in the short term, fine, but in the long term the return on that small investment is several orders of magnitude because it means that my team are engaged on tasks where they can add the most value (the reason I hired them in the first place). It also means they spend more time in flow and doing deep work.
In the past year, our core team of six has worked with over 20 large organisations across Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong and rolled out our children’s entrepreneurship program to over 1,000 children. We’ve run corporate accelerator programs, countless hackathons and bootcamps and published about 200 blog posts (not to mention ebooks, videos and webinars). We wouldn’t have been able to do anywhere near this if we spent half our time on rudimentary tasks.
Using a VA also empowers people to do work they find enjoyable, therefore making them much more likely to stay aboard the good ship Collective Campus for much longer than they would if they spent half their time doing boring, monotonous, repetitive tasks (which incidentally, to bring this full circle, is one of the primary reasons why many teachers leave the profession).
At its core, whether it be outsourcing, automating or 80/20 thinking, it’s virtual assistants can help to liberate people from self-limiting systems so that they can unlock their true potential, create more impact and engage in more fulfilling work.
This supports the development of virtual prototypes and minimum viable products to rapidly test assumptions, increase the speed of learning and iterate towards product market fit.