Zirtual CEO Maren Kate Donovan announced Monday to both clients and Zirtual Assistants (called ZAs) that the company was shutting its doors due to “a combination of market circumstances and financial constraints.” Zirtual was a company that connected college-educated US-based virtual assistants with individuals and companies.
This morning new information has surfaced that the company is in acquisition talks and that the former management team may have misrepresented the company’s financial situation to its investors. I’ll leave the speculating to the press and the lawyers, but I do want to discuss how Zirtual or another company like it should re-imagine itself.
But first a bit of background on my experience with Zirtual: I had been a Zirtual client for exactly 12 months before canceling the service this July, just a month before they shut down. My experience with Zirtual had been nothing short of a rollercoaster (both ups and downs) and I was very fortunate to find a full-time employee to fill not only the responsibilities that Zirtual was helping me with, but also many more strategic functions for my business. I was extremely fortunate to find my new VP of Operations before the shutdown since losing my former ZA would have crippled my business for weeks.
I was such a large customer of Zirtual’s that I was called a “Special Circumstance” and had not just one plan, but two plans with Zirtual. I had met personally with Zirtual’s CEO Maren Donovan to pass on feedback and discuss ways that the service could be improved for high-volume clients who have different needs than a client on a 16 hr/mo plan. I was spending over $2,000/mo with Zirtual and it was one of my largest costs. I had worked with 7 ZAs over my 12 month time with the service and at one point had a mini team of 3 ZAs working with me.
I first got the idea of a virtual assistant from Tim Ferris in his famous best-seller The Four Hour Work Week. I have used services both overseas in India and here in the United States and worked with dozens of people all over the world via Fiverr. My point is that I’m not new to the world of outsourcing or virtual assistance and that I ultimately needed something else than what Zirtual could provide when I left.
I already run a business I love and I really hope that someone will fill the gap that Zirtual’s shutdown has left in the market so I’m going to share a few ways that I would reimagine the Virtual Assistant Services space for any entrepreneurs out there looking to capitalize on this unique moment.
1) Use Technology
While Virtual Assistance is fundamentally about human beings working together, the remote nature of the work and the abundance of good tools available, make good technology not only a nice-to-have, but a necessity. I’ve written about my favorite tools here (and I gave Zirtual a huge shout-out below the list).
The entire client-VA relationship should be run through a mobile app. Start simple, listen to clients, and gradually make the app’s functionality more and more sophisticated with chat, task management, profile and other client essentials, one-touch phone calls/face time, a basic dashboard, etc. I’d probably start by integrating with world-class services that already do these things well like Slack, Asana, Google Drive, and Evernote. Build an MVP quickly that helps both clients and VAs feel empowered and stay in touch.
If I were to build a new VA company, I’d focus the product packaging and pricing on a higher-value, long-term client, someone who will eventually need over 80 hours of assistance each month. This helps VAs focus on just a few relationships instead of 10-12 sixteen-hour/month clients.
The sales are a bit harder initially, but nearly everyone I know or meet finds out that I had a VA since they often had to interface with them to reach me or because I was encouraging him or her to consider getting an extra hand with the things in their professional and personal lives. So, while the sales cycle for a more expensive service is typically a bit higher, the quality of the clients is disproportionately higher in this case. When I was a Zirtual client, I simply could not afford to lose my ZA, just like I could not afford to lose my amazing VP of Operations now.
3) Constant On-the-Job Training
An old ZA of mine used to always remind me that I really wasn’t a “special” client. Sure I did a few things that were out of the ordinary, but in most ways I wasn’t that different than the average client. While I still like to think that I’m a unique a beautiful snowflake, I think that she was probably right. Millions of people need help with routine things like inbox management, booking travel, basic book-keeping, scheduling meetings, basic content management, help with social media and website management, etc. Unfortunately, I lost my ZA every few months with Zirtual (once because I wasn’t happy with the service, one because my ZA was hired away from me by Zirtual’s sales team, and once because the ZA quit since she didn’t like the lifestyle) and each time I lost my help it cost me weeks in lost productivity since we had to re-train someone new.
If I were to re-invent a virtual assistant service, I’d make sure to heavily invest in the basic skills that clients need. I’d also be careful not to pack more than 40 hours/week of client-time into each VA’s schedule since carving out a few extra hours each week to reinforce recently learned skills and train on new skills is extremely valuable.
4-15) I have more tips I’d use if I were reinventing Zirtual – like much more specialized client matching, implementing quality assurance, and offering clients better third-party partnerships – but I’ll look to your comments on whether I should write up the rest of my advice for what the future of virtual assistance should look like.
I’m confident that we’ll see the rise of another Zirtual and I’m confident that it will learn many lessons from the companies that have come and gone before it. A focused, mobile-first company that has an emphasis on teaching and training it’s virtual assistants will not only earn and retain clients, but also help build a community of happy VAs that are far less likely to churn and leave their clients hanging.