A few weeks ago we sent out a request to our over 700 blogging partners asking for pitches for our blog or permission to interview them on a topic about which they had experience or expertise. Today we're thrilled to present this interview with Maggie Zhu of Omnivore's Cookbook all about her experience with hiring a virtual assistant (VA) and building out a team to help grow her site.

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Can you start by telling us a little bit about your blog in general? 

I started my blog Omnivore’s Cookbook three years ago as a hobby on top of my full-time corporate job. I didn’t have a focus at the beginning. I narrowed down my topic a year into blogging and began to view it as a serious business from last year. My blog shares Chinese recipes and recipes that employ Asian cooking techniques and teaches my readers how easy it is to cook them.

So, why did you decide you wanted to start working with a VA? What were the “markers” that you needed help?

When I started spending more time growing my blog, it became a frustrating process of striking a balance between my day job and blogging. Which I never did. Blog promotion and social media drove me crazy.

Reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and Virtual Freedom by Chris Ducker put the concept of the VA into my mind and I started to consider hiring people. I was still living in Beijing at the time. I monetized my blog with ads, and my income was still tiny.

I hired my first VA from Elance (now Upwork). She was based in the Philippines and helped me with some very basic blog promotion, a few hours a week. It was more of a small project for me, just to see what it felt like to hire someone.

The biggest shift happened at the beginning of 2016, after I moved from Beijing to the US and started blogging full time. I soon found out that I couldn’t juggle everything myself, even when I didn’t have a day job. Around that time, my VA got pregnant and stopped working for me. So I started doing all the basic tasks myself again.

That situation didn’t last long. I realized that when I would spend three hours doing repetitive and brain-numbing work, that I was losing three hours I could have used to do creative work and develop my business. That’s when I decided I couldn’t grow my business with a one-man team.

I worked with a company this time, to again hire a part time VA on an hourly basis. I soon realized that I wanted my own team, someone who understands my business and shares my vision. I wanted someone to work with me over the long run. So I took the plunge and hired a full-time VA.

My criteria were simple. Good English and communication skills, quick to respond, with some social media experience. Also, a person with the type of personality that I’d like to work with, which you can usually tell from an interview. And of course, within my budget.

Are there any groups or job boards that people can/should use for their hiring process?

It depends on the role you’re looking for, or on your project. There are many different resources.

  1. If you’re looking for a part-time assistant to get things done quickly, I highly recommend Outsource Your Team. It is a small group of VAs based in Asia. Kim, the leader, is based in Singapore. You can purchase their monthly package (from 10 to 40 hours), for a very reasonable fee. I hired them for two months to work on my Facebook. They are really experienced and do not need a lot of instruction to get the work done. I know that a lot of my friends are using their services. I stopped working with them only because I decided to go to another direction.
  2. There is a Facebook group, Virtual Assistant for Bloggers. You can find many part-time freelancers there, who can help you with social media posts and blogging-related work.
  3. You can ask around among family and friends, or circulate an ad at a nearby university, to hire an intern on a low budget for basic work.
  4. You can also put an ad on Facebook to hire a freelancer or neighbor who works from home (to hire local). I know many bloggers use this method and have great success.
  5. You can use Upwork (formerly Elance) to hire a part-time VA either by the hour or by the project, or a full-time VA. Upwork has an international usership meaning you can find workers at many budgets and time zones.

How did you decide that someone was ultimately the right fit? Did you have any kind of formal agreement for actually hiring them?

It is not easy to find the right fit, and you’ll probably never find a perfect fit. It is more about setting practical expectations with a reasonable budget, and finding someone that fits most of your needs. You can always train them after hiring.

From my experience, the best practice is to conduct an interview. It is like dating. You can learn a lot more when you’re talking with someone face-to-face.

Through an interview, I can find out whether my candidate is fluent in English, and whether he or she is friendly and easy to talk to. Does she initiate conversations and have her own opinions? What does she feel about previous jobs and is she willing to learn? What are her expectations toward the new job and will she stay with the company? You can get these answers if you ask the right questions. More importantly, you want to find someone that is prompt to respond and has a personality that you like.

Again, you’ll never know for sure until you start working with them. Once you’ve hired someone, you will ultimately find out whether this is the right candidate. If not, you move on and hire another one. In this way, the process is a lot like dating.

I require my VA to sign a short contract I prepared. I’m working with someone overseas and the whole thing is largely based on trust. A contract does not help if it should ever get to the point that I want to take legal action. But it makes the arrangement appear formal, and the employee will take it more seriously. Just like when hiring someone for your office, the traditional way.

What were your terms when you set the contract and how did you handle onboarding?

The job title is General Virtual Assistant and it’s a full time job. The shift schedule is 8 hours per day, from Monday to Friday, except local national holidays, with 10 days paid leave (5 vacation + 5 sick leave). All the potential tasks are listed, as well, in order to define the role. I also list basic company rules such as how to take sick leave and what to do when an emergency happens.

The onboarding process is simple and straightforward. I create an email address using Gmail and connect all the tools we need with her email. I start the first day with a video call to walk her through all the documents, company rules, and basic tasks. Over the next few weeks, I conduct training with written documents, videos, and live video chat, assigning very specific tasks to get her started. It took about a month for my VA to become familiar with all the routine tasks.

What were some of the early successes and stumbling blocks? What were the first tasks that you off-loaded to your VA?

From various experiences, most of my assistants picked up the work really quickly without too much help from me, which I considered early successes.

My biggest problem was caused by mismatched expectations. I once hired a VA with a relatively high budget, but found she had been slow with her work. Then I found out that my offer was lower than her former employer, so she was not willing to put forth 100% effort. It led to termination of the work relationship and me hiring another person.

Almost all the smaller stumbling blocks were caused by miscommunication. When you are working with someone who’s not in the same office, miscommunication happens all the time. For example, there was one time that my VA didn’t fill out my social media schedule as I expected. Later on, I found out I didn’t communicate the priorities of the tasks clearly, so she had been working on less important tasks the whole time.

Now I use a shared spreadsheet to list all the tasks, with clear descriptions and deadlines. I also make sure to offer detailed tutorials and instructions, and let my VA know when I’m ready for help.

Now that you’ve worked with them for a bit, how have things changed? Is your VA doing the things you expected you’d have them doing?

Working with a VA tremendously improved my workflow. In some ways, it also helps me get organized. I had to write down my workflow to teach her, which also helped optimize the process, to get things done faster, and in a more organized way.

The other thing is that it feels great to work as a team. My VA had previous experience in other fields, so she actually provided me with a lot of information on how to improve things. We developed a Facebook scheduler together, and it made scheduling much easier. Sometimes I also bounce ideas off of her.

When I have a team who executes my decisions, I can conduct more experiments and measure the results. I can spend more time growing my business, not being swamped in it. I feel I have more hours during the day. So now I can actually attend more events and create more content for my blog.

Not only does my VA meet my expectations, sometimes she also brings pleasant surprises.

How do you handle things like goal setting, keeping your VA motivated, or holding him/her accountable for tasks? What is your communications process?

This had been quite challenging but I finally developed a system. First of all, I use a shared spreadsheet to list all the tasks and deadlines, so it is very easy to track my VA’s performance and keep things on the record. We have a weekly meeting on Monday, when I review our accomplishments over the past week and walk through the things we’ll be working on this week.

As for motivation, I try to appreciate her work whenever possible. I also try to pick out small tasks that are a bit challenging and let her manage them with total freedom. I also set up a bonus system that ensures my employee is rewarded if we hit our target at the end of the year. I also review their performance annually and make salary adjustments accordingly.

Any final words of advice you’d like to share about the process with our readers/bloggers?

If you’re planning to build your blog into a business, not just a hobby, definitely consider hiring someone. Because you’re either spending time or money. Making a wise investment will save you tons of time and grow your business much faster.

I know most people will say they don’t have the budget. But in fact, hiring someone is cheaper than you think. It saves you time so you can earn more income. The other thing is, do not get discouraged if you don’t find your perfect VA on the first try. This is a learning process. You will eventually get more experience, learn to find good fit, and build your dream team.

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