So you got yourself a VA. Or you’re just about to. Or you’re seriously thinking about it. That’s great. As you know, I’m a huge fan of hiring a VA for support, and a huge fan of supporting VA businesses. But now that you’re here, what do you do?
This is a really common situation. Ittybiz owners hire support staff, don’t know what to do with them, and then let them languish because we don’t know how to meaningfully start.
Now, we could solve this problem by systematically and strategically making a plan for what we’re going to do with our new team member, and gradually on-boarding them like the awesome CEO we are. That would be a super smart thing to do. But given the number of hats we have to wear as ittybiz owners, waiting to do the wise and prudent thing usually results in waiting forever.
Therefore, we need a new solution. The one I recommend is… the starting task. The test. The trial run. Some relatively small, relatively unimportant task or project that stretches your muscles as a leader, gets to know your new or potential hire, and gets something done at the same time.
With that in mind, here are some great trial tasks you can set up pretty much right away without having to go to management school before you can begin.
1. Start with something personal that doesn’t matter at all.
Rachael is my personal assistant. I got her, and almost all of my team members, from Time Etc. My test task for her was to set me up with an appointment for a brow wax. In my world, this is the perfect starting task. It’s short, it’s simple, and it’s pretty hard to screw up. And if she were to have screwed it up? Worst-case scenario is that my brows wouldn’t be waxed on the day I thought they would be. It’s not exactly fatal.
Except under the most unusual of circumstances, my first recommendation to a new VA manager is that they always start with tasks that have nothing to do with work. It reduces the pressure, and non-work things tend to be easier to assign in little chunks. Plus, most of us are already somewhat accustomed to bringing in an extra set of hands in our personal life. It’s our work life that gets us all kittywompus.
2. Something work-related but utterly unnecessary.
Now, you may not want to have them do something personal, or they may not work in a personal capacity. In that case, you’re going to need a task that’s work-related, but you still want it to not matter very much. No pressure, no worries, and no sunk time if it all goes to hell and you have to fix it.
When I’ve had to do this type of thing, I assigned the task of finding me interesting articles to post to Twitter. I’d show them a few examples of what I usually posted, give them a few recommended publications, and a list of the kinda sorta topics I was interested in. Then I’d just let them go wild. Best case scenario, they kick ass at the task, I have a ton of cool things to read, and my Co-Schedule queue is full to the brim. Worst-case scenario? I don’t post an article on Twitter for a few days. This is not exactly the end of the world.
The trick to this kind of task is that it has to be honestly unnecessary. You have to not care if it never gets done. Then you’re not learning how to be a new boss WHILE stressing out that important things are lagging behind.
3. Something short but insanely tedious.
Your next option is to have your assistant or assistant-to-be take on a task that’s relatively short but so tedious it makes your eyes bleed. See, in my mind, VAs come in two flavors: Magical beings who appear to be capable of anything, and mortals like us. How they handle tedium is one of the deciders in what flavor they are.
My favorite test in this arena is having them make a big ass spreadsheet of all of my live blog posts. They have to load a billion pages, and copy a billion titles, and then copy a billion links. If I want to make it extra horrendously boring, I’ll also stipulate that they have to record every outgoing link from each blog post, so we have a record of what posts link to what.
If someone can do this task without losing quality or the will to live, they are welcome to work here for as long as they’d like.
4. Something non-specialized that you’re absolutely dreading.
You may have noticed that my Instagram feed is “mostly just cats giving business advice”. Through keen detective work and deductive reasoning, you may have also surmised that they are not all my cats. Nope. They’re stock photography cats. I buy them from Adobe Stock. And at some point in late 2018 I never wanted to see another picture of a cat in my life.
Thankfully, I don’t have to. “Find me cute pictures of cats for Instagram” is the perfect New VA Test. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to find a picture of a cute cat , so they don’t need any training for the job. It’s a huge task – it’ll keep someone busy for hours. And I never have to think about it again.
Got anything you’re dreading laying around? Something that isn’t exactly in your zone of genius? Yeah, hand that off. You’ll thank me later. Hell, you should probably thank me now.
5. Something impossible in the time frame.
Now we’re getting into the fun stuff. This is where you get your Machiavelli on.
In this case, you give a task you already know how to do, and you already know about how long it takes. (If you’re used to doing this task yourself, you’re going to want to add 50%-100% to “how long it takes”. This accounts for the fact that you already have muscle memory and autopilot, where they do not.) Take a task that’s within their skill set, and give them far too little time to accomplish it. Give them an hour to do a two hour job, say.
Then see what they do.
Good responses include:
- Letting you know prior to starting that it might not be possible to get the task done in the available timeframe, and offering alternatives for you.
- Getting halfway through, realizing it can’t be done in the timeframe, and getting in touch to ask how you’d like to proceed.
- Finishing it, taking the full two hours, but only billing you for one because they should have gotten in touch earlier.
Bad responses include:
- Getting in touch at minute 59 saying it can’t be done in an hour.
- Taking as long as it takes and billing you for it.
- Doing a shitty job in the 60 minutes allotted.
I am consistently amazed by the myriad ways people deal with this issue. It tells you a lot about a person, that’s for sure.
6. A tiny piece of a bigger project.
Now we’re getting somewhere that might actually be useful.
When our work is specialized, it’s easy to assume that there are entire projects we can’t possibly outsource. For the majority of tasks within any given project, that may be quite true. But there’s always something you can hand off. Your new VA can’t write your book for you, sure. But they can source attribution on your quotes, proofread your table of contents, check your galleys for formatting errors, and more.
A nice small version of this is to have them research and create an outline for a blog post. Of course, you can’t have them write the post itself, at least not at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make themselves useful. If I had done it with this post – which I didn’t – the request would have been to come up with something that looks like this:
It’s not going to win the Pulitzer, but it’ll save you some time.
7. When all else fails, give them something to research.
Last, but certainly not least, we have research. It is my contention that if we all stopped internet research entirely and just handed it off to support staff, we’d add a zero to our net worth by the end of the quarter. Seriously. Internet research eats lives.
- Thinking of switching email providers? Research.
- Need an approximate cost of a week for two in Kuala Lumpur flying business class? Research.
- Want a sample itinerary for your trip to Disney World? Research.
And if you’re really just testing, you can even give them something to research that doesn’t matter a damn. Jack’s dad is in India for work right now. If I had a potential hire on my hands, I could have them spend an hour researching interesting things for a bachelor to do while vacationing in Delhi. Does it matter? Not in the least. That means I can truly be objective about whatever they come back with, and my bias about how it “should” be done won’t get in the way.
Give ‘em a small amount of time and let ‘em go wild. And try not to be too Virgo about how they present their findings. See what they do with limited instructions – you might be surprised.
To start working with a VA, you must START working with your VA.
Use these starter ideas as a way to stop overthinking and start getting to know your new hire. Then, one day soon, if you’re very, very good, you might actually get some work done around here.
Things you can do next…
- Explore a bajillion posts on the Start Here page
- Hop on the mailing list to hear about new blog posts
- See cats giving business advice on Instagram