One of the hottest “work at home” businesses is becoming a VA (Virtual Assistant). Virtual assistants are, technically, freelancers who may do anything from social media management to secretarial tasks. Whatever skill you have that can be done remotely, is marketable under the ‘Virtual Assistant’ label.
This guide will take you through starting a Virtual Assistant business in Canada specifically. To learn more about starting an online business in general, use our Checklist: How to Start an Online Business in Canada.
I’ve done many things online, including providing Virtual Assistant services to clients in Canada, the US and the UK. In fact, my first job online (over 20 years ago) was producing a newsletter for an online marketer in the UK. These days, I provide digital, management-level services under long-term contracts, among other things. I don’t have to look for clients, they find me. I’m always as booked as I want to be and I have a waiting list. Evidently, there’s plenty of virtual work to go around.
Hiring remote workers is perfect for Canada. We have a lot of space between people and major centres in this country. Working remotely as a virtual assistant becomes easier every day, with options like working and collaborating in “the cloud”. Tasks like collaborative design and accounting are easily accomplished thanks to “the cloud”, along with other online collaboration and file sharing tools (see below). You can work with someone for years and never physically meet them!
And Canadian companies are catching on. For instance, more Canadian companies are hiring freelancers to help them reach their marketing goals. In fact, 66 percent of employers plan to increase the number of freelancers they use, according to research from The Creative Group.
“If I lost everything and had to start from scratch, I would find a problem everybody had and I’d solve it,” Kevin O’Leary recently told CNBC Make It. He says the best way to do that is to start a side hustle as a virtual assistant. “There are so many people scrambling to figure out their lives right now that need help in all kinds of things.”
This comprehensive guide to starting a virtual assistant business covers everything you need to know to get started in Canada. Reading the entire guide is recommended, but we’ve also provided a Table of Contents so you can jump to the section you need.
Table of Contents
- Popular Services Offered by Virtual Assistants
- Defining Your Virtual Services
- What You’ll Need
- Virtual Assistant Courses & Certification
- How Much to Charge for VA Services
- Contracts & Policies
- Marketing & Finding Clients
- Backup Plan
Popular Services Offered by Virtual Assistants
Basically, there are two reasons people hire VA’s:
- Because they don’t have time to do something.
- Because they don’t have the expertise to do something.
It stands to reason that you’ll find more clients if you are able to perform tasks that are time consuming, and/or offer an exceptional level of expertise in a category that’s in high demand.
The more specialized you are, the better. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer a wide range of services based on your exceptional skills. Most people who hire virtual assistants don’t have lots of employees. The more you can do for them, the more often they’ll use you and it gives you an edge when they’re deciding who to hire.
Following are a few services commonly provided by Virtual Assistants:
Data tracking & analysis
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Social Media Coordinator
Online Administrative Assistant (a variety of tasks that may include several “office” duties, such as email management, transcription, data entry, documents, collections, scheduling, communications, etc.)
Website Developer, Designer or Graphics Designer
Digital Project Manager
Sales Lead Administrator
Content Translator (English-French translation is in demand in Canada)
Online Customer Service, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Tech Support
You can also specialize and define a niche, such as a certain industry (manufacturing, food, music, etc.) or client (authors, entrepreneurs, real estate agents, lawyers, etc.). If you have some sort of specialized education or experience to set you apart in that niche, all the better. For instance, if you are experienced in selling on Amazon and other online marketplaces, you can offer to manage that for businesses.
Before you offer a service, make sure you have a notable level of expertise. If you only know what the average person knows, you are not in a position to help others at a professional level in most cases. For example, just because you use social media every day, doesn’t mean you’re an expert in social media marketing. You might think you can fake it until you learn it, but it can quickly ruin your reputation. Be honest about your experience level. If you find a demand for something, take a course and practice what you’ve learned before offering to do it for someone else.
Defining Your Virtual Services
What services will you offer? It’s important to be specific so you attract the right clients who will set reasonable expectations. Your services will evolve with your skill set so keep your list updated. If you see a big gap in your skill set that prevents you from offering a full service, you can prioritize courses in that subject. For example, you may be familiar with Microsoft Word, but most of your potential clients are also looking for Excel skills. That said, unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t offer services that you won’t enjoy providing. It defeats the purpose of being self-employed and it will probably reflect in the quality of your work.
Whether it’s through your own initiative or through experience, your skill set will be in a constant state of evolution. Beyond that, you have to be reliable and organized so you can meet deadlines. Like any job, you may need to be good at a range of things to suit a particular position, such as communications or writing skills. Most of what you don’t know as a virtual assistant, can be learned. You just need to be willing to make the effort.
Along the way, you’ll be asked for recommendations for special projects that you’re not qualified for yourself. It’s a good idea to keep a list of people who have an advanced level of knowledge about things like website design, programming, marketing, and anything else that relates to business. These people should be exceptional because your reputation will be riding along with them, at least to some degree. If you like, you can approach these people and ask them to recommend you too.
What You’ll Need
Following are the basic needs of most virtual assistant businesses. You may not need everything listed here, depending on the services you offer, or you may have to prioritize what you can afford. Remember to save any receipts for tax time!
- Reliable, high-speed internet connection
- Computer, laptop, tablet or hybrid (Most of ours are from Dell, as they’ve proven to be the most reliable)
- Printer (We save a lot of money on ink with our Brother monochrome laser printer)
- Scanner (a portable scanner comes in very handy)
- Communications: Webcam, headset, Skype (you can get a business phone number via Skype too), Facetime, Join.me (Video conferencing and screensharing), MindMeister.com (Mind mapping collaboration tool), etc.
- Microsoft Office, Open Office or similar office program
- Collaboration tools, online project management tools, time sheet tracking tool such as TimeTracker.com, & cloud storage for easy access (Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.)
- Backup storage (I prefer an external hard drive)
- Good accounting software, like the popular QuickBooks, will also track your time and make invoicing easy.
- Antivirus and Malware protection: I use both Avast and Malwarebytes because the latter catches so much more malware.
- VPN to protect yourself from hacking and surveillance, especially when using public WiFi (I’ve used Express VPN for several years).
- Domain name: Even if you don’t intend to have a website, it’s a good idea to have a domain name for professional email communication.
- Website / blog with a great host (see our Checklist: Choosing a Website Host for your Canadian Business). We’re hosted on GreenGeeks’ Canadian servers.
- Payment processing (PayPal, Square Canada, etc.)
- P.O. box
Note: If you’ll be working with french-speaking clients, remember to choose tools that have a French version and French support. For example, some online project management tools have a French version and provide support in French, such as Canada’s TimeTracker (which has a free option and the full version is only $4.99/month). TimeTracker also supports Spanish. If you’ll be working with a team, Montreal’s Done may work better for you. It’s also bilingual and has a free version.
Virtual Assistant Courses & Certifications
There are courses that will teach you how to become a virtual assistant, some of which provide certifications that may help you get hired. Additionally, you can take courses to acquire skills that are in demand. Business and marketing courses will ensure your success, both by being skills that are in demand and so you can effectively run and promote your own business. Udemy has affordable VA certification courses, as well as training for countless services you may want to offer (often free or under $20).
How Much to Charge for VA Services
Most independent Virtual Assistants in Canada charge $25-50/hour, with specialized or highly-experienced VA’s charging more. Some types of work, such as data entry, pay a lower rate. Virtual assistants who work for agencies will probably earn less per hour, but you won’t have to try so hard to find clients.
You may prefer other ways to charge for your work, such as per project, package rates, or a minimum number of hours/month (retainer). Regardless, the first step is to determine how much each hour is worth. A simple calculation for determining your hourly rate as a freelancer would be your desired annual income + expenses ÷ how many hours you’ll work per year = hourly rate.
You can use that basic hourly rate to calculate how much you’ll charge for packages, projects, etc. based on how much time it will take. It can be adjusted according to complexity, length of contract, number of hours required, and so on. Remember to reserve 20% or so for income taxes.
I recommend prepayment so you don’t end up chasing people. It’s stressful, time consuming, and puts a strain on your working relationship. It’s often the potential clients that complain the loudest about prepayment that will become problem payers in the future, so stick to your guns. I’ve only had one client I had to nag constantly for payments and that was enough to make me switch to prepayment.
Note: You may have to add taxes to your invoice and get a GST/HST number, which you’ll want to have ready as soon as you launch your VA business. While you don’t have to add GST if you earn less than a minimum amount, you don’t want to have to explain to your clients when you suddenly start charging it.
Contracts and Policies
Your policies should be clearly stated on your website and your potential clients should receive a copy so everyone is on the same page. Most of your policies should also be in a signed contract.
Some terms you may include:
- Types of payment accepted, when they’re due, late penalties, prepayment, and what exactly you’ll be billing for.
- Hours of the day you’re available, working days, holidays, and preferred method of communication.
- Grounds for terminating the contract and required notice period.
- Some of your policies will be dictated by law, such as privacy laws. Stating these policies will help to establish trust.
“In general, all existing laws that apply to traditional commerce apply equally in an electronic environment,” states Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. “These include things like laws governing business incorporation, business name registration, taxation, consumer protection, deceptive advertising, criminal code, intellectual property and liability.”
Marketing and Finding Clients
- LinkedIn and other social media networks offer a place to both advertise your services and demonstrate your expertise through posts, publishing articles, and posting in groups. Remember to go where your ideal clients are. For example, it’s great to join Facebook groups for VA’s, but if you want to work with self-published authors you’ll need to join groups they hang out in. Don’t be spammy, just be ready if someone is looking for assistance.
- Email marketing (familiarize yourself with Canadian anti-spam legislation CASL)
- Networking events (online or offline)
- Business organizations, associations and networking clubs, such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
- Blog to demonstrate your expertise and to attract the right potential clients via search engines.
- Guest posting
- Self publishing whitepapers, eBooks, etc.
- Testimonials should be on your website and posted periodically on social media. Scatter them around your site, rather than only placing them on one page. Make sure you ask clients for a written testimonial & reference letter. People have a way of disappearing online and their contact information can change. References and testimonials can be from your “other life” as well, such as former employers. If you need references and testimonials, offer to help out a charity.
- Referrals can come from current and past clients, friends & family, or anyone you’ve helped. A source that many overlook is other Virtual Assistants. Offer to take on their overflow or tasks they don’t like. You can encourage referrals by offering a commission. Apply it to the invoice of long-term clients as a discount when you land a client they referred to you, or arrange to trade referrals with freelancers in complimenting fields and pay them directly.
- Freelancer websites (like Freelancer) can be hit or miss and often payment offered is low. They can get you started, however, and can turn into larger projects or repeated gigs.
- Job websites can be a great source of leads, now that businesses are jumping on the opportunities offered by the gig economy. Indeed is a good place to look for legitimate Virtual Assistant jobs in Canada. When searching job databases make sure you also use task or project terms, as well as “remote position” or similar terms. You can try classifieds sites like CraigsList, but I’ve found more scams and laughably-low paying jobs on those sites.
- Virtual Assistant Agencies like CanadianVirtualGurus.com.
Be ready for a response to your hard work. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a desperate post in a VA group or forum, saying something like “I got a response to my email pitch and they asked for my portfolio but I don’t have one.” Make sure your website is built to sell both you and your services, and have everything on hand that you may need when clients contact you. Kick it up a notch with a video intro, skill presentations, industry-specific pitches, and anything else you can do to set yourself apart.
The problem with being self-employed is your income can fluctuate dramatically, often with little notice. If you can’t afford to take a hit from losing a client, you’ll need a backup plan. The best backup plan, in my experience, is to have a waiting list and diversify my sources of income.
For example, you can monetize your blog content so it becomes a source of revenue if you lose a client, get seriously ill, cope with a natural disaster, etc. Additionally, you can build a mailing list and send out newsletters so you stay visible and remind people to come back to your website. That mailing list can also be a source of affiliate revenue.
Of course, having a savings account will not only provide a safety net, but also reduce your anxiety and stress.
You’re On Your Way!
An exceptional, reliable Virtual Assistant can do very well Canada and the demand is increasing in this country. Because it is an economical option to hiring employees, it’s one of the most recession-proof online businesses you can start. You may get so busy, you have to hire a team of virtual assistants for yourself!
Discuss this and other online business topics in the Online Business Canada Facebook group!
You may also be interested in reading:
7 Recession Proof Online Businesses To Start From Home
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Melody McKinnon's formal education is in business management, which she enhanced with more than 60 certifications revolving around business, marketing, health, general sciences and writing. In 25 years of working online, she has owned or managed both educational and ecommerce websites. Her book, 7 Recession Proof Online Businesses to Start From Home, is available on Amazon.
Melody has worked with many businesses & brands in a multitude of capacities. She can often be found on CanadiansInternet.com, CanadianFamily.net and AllNaturalPetCare.com, as well as other quality digital publications. Her content has earned reference links from highly-respected websites, magazines and university textbooks.