Experimenting with virtual assistants

What is a virtual assistant?

Earlier during the year, I read a book called “Four hour work week” from Tim Ferriss where I first learned about the concept of personal virtual assistant.

Some people make a living out of being virtual assistants and helping busy people with their everyday tasks (such as organizing a meeting, doing some online research, calling someone, etc…)

Depending on the skill set and the country of origin, the cost of hiring a virtual assistant can be as low as 5 US$ an hour.

I regularly reviewed my tasks to see whether I should hire a VA, but unfortunately very few tasks were delegatable to a virtual assistant. First of all, many of my time-consuming tasks need to be in french and the virtual assistants market is almost inexistent in french (or not at 5$ / hour).

Why do I need a virtual assistant?

I am an extremely busy person. I have been that busy for almost a year now. So busy that for the first time in my life I don’t do sports on a regular basis and I see fat on my belly (for the ectomorph I am, this is a shocker), and I have to turn down social invitations I am craving to go to.

Paradoxically, time is what I cherish most. And the reason why I am so busy is because I want to earn more time in the long term.

Because I got burnt out by my self-inflicted busy-ness, because I realized my time was the  primary bottleneck of my productivity, I started looking for alternatives.

Trial with TimeSvr

Recently, a new company generated some buzz online, TimeSvr. They offer a three day free trial, and then for 70 US$ a month, you can submit an unlimited number of tasks that would take under 15 minutes to a pool of virtual assistants.

I registered for the free trial to see whether a virtual assistant could be useful and whether I should hire a dedicated virtual assistant.

The first day, I sent 15 tasks I wanted them to do, from internet research, to answering questions about them.

I found that it is hard to find things another person you don’t know could do. I started asking to do some research on internet. “Please find me where I can buy barefoot shoes in Australia” “Please find me alternative products to the mobile printer PoGo” etc…

Unfortunately, the results I was getting from the virtual assistants weren’t very accurate. And usually, they were returning me the first result of a google search.

I think the 15 minutes limit is too constraining. If a task can be done under 15 minutes, it is faster for me to do it myself (I will be assured of the accuracy) rather than taking the time to describe it correctly and taking the time to review it, without being assured to get the results I wanted.

For example, for the task “Please find me three shops where I can buy barefoot shoes in Australia (online or not)”, I got back three links from the US.

I stopped the trial after the three days.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Although I heard about Amazon Mechanical Turk only a few weeks ago, it has been around for several years already. Requesters submit tasks publicly, workers do them and get paid if the requester approves the task.

What is remarkable with mturk is that it has an API that allows developers to submit tasks programmatically. FeedbackArmy takes advantage of the API to provide cheap usability testing.

The second remarkable thing about mturk is that workers are willing to do things for almost nothing (could be 0.01 cents to leave a comment on a blog). There are three categories of workers: those who work for money (not enough for a living but enough to pay for books or gifts), those who work for fun (some tasks can be entertaining) and those who work out of boredom.

I decided to submit a first task. In short it was “Help me find a asp.net developer” for 10$. Although some workers are currently working on it, I haven’t received any results yet.

Because somehow I see a huge potential behind mturk, I decided to learn more about the turkers (workers). This is why I decided to create a community for Turkers to allow them to connect with each other and to share any tips or experience they want to share: Social Turker

Usually, the hardest part of building up a community is the beginning.

When the forum is empty, why would someone join your community? I answered this question with a second task for Turkers: “Please join Social Turker and write something relevant in the forum” for 0.01 cents. Because this social network has been created for them, I feel no guilt for paying someone 0.01 cents to do something. And, if they don’t want to do it, they won’t do it.

After a few days, 23 people have joined. This is not bad, this is not great either (I was expecting 700 people in the first week, a bit ambitious). I can see in the mturk stats that a lot of the workers have a look at the task and return it. I am not sure what “returning a task” means yet. I will probably create the same task with a higher pay-out to see if I get a better conversion rate.

oDesk, RentACoder, Elance, and GetAFreelancer.com

Then, came a second crisis. After having spent my whole (sunny)weekend working, I couldn’t manage to do the progress I wanted. I felt very frustrated. This is when I decided to hire someone fulltime. I decided to convert my savings into time for me by hiring someone to help me develop my ideas.

I posted several ads on various websites and I am amazed at how many answers I got. I got more than a hundred answers of developers willing to work with me. More than half of them are actually companies specialized in outsourced development. I am thrilled to have to filter these offers, it means I have a higher probability to get a good quality developer (actually, I am searching for two). I have sent to some candidates a mini project to do to see the quality of their code, I am waiting for their answers. The great thing about using these websites is that you can read the feedback left by previous customers. Anything under 90% of positive feedback is not acceptable for my criteria.

Hopefully this week I will find my first two employees.

What’s next?

I will keep searching for a virtual assistant whose mother tongue is french (because most of my users are french at the moment) and I will start looking for someone who can improve the marketing strategy used to promote my facebook applications. I contacted the University of Sydney to see whether some students in marketing would like to experiment with a userbase of over a million users.