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A few weeks ago, I was pondering (ok, complaining about) how hard it is to be a one-person show, and how, as a solopreneur, I do e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g from offering high level methodological and strategic counsel to data entry and invoicing. One thing I’ve heard over and over again is to work ON my business, not IN my business– to delegate the mundane tasks so I can free myself up to do the big thinking. But, despite several attempts to hire people to help with these tasks, I’ve had not-so-great experiences and usually ended up re-doing the work myself.

Things changed recently when a friend from LaunchPad introduced me to her virtual assistant, who was able to take on more work. Working with S. has been an awesome experience; within 2 days, I started feeling hopeful that I would not be “in the weeds” forever. This has been awesome mostly because S. is awesome. She’s smart and experienced, so she can often predict what I need. A past employer said she was able to “make herself appear clairvoyant,” which has been true– and incredible.

But, I’ve also done a few things differently this time. Some things I’ve learned:

1.  Find help before you need it. In the past, during slow weeks I would think, “I’m not busy. Why do I need help?” Then suddenly, I would find myself under an avalanche of work, needing someone to get me out of it, but not having the time to teach them how to help me. This time, I brought S. on during a slower week, when I could devote some time to training her and answering her questions.

2. Play the long game. When I was about three, my mom taught me how to set the table for dinner. Later in life, she explained, “Once you teach a little kid how to set the table, you never have to set the table again!” I took the same approach in teaching S. how to read data tabulations. This isn’t brain surgery, but it is a specialized skill that requires some teaching to get right. S. picked up on this unbelievably quickly, partly because she paid attention and asked really good questions, but also because I had the time to answer her questions. In the past, I might have done all the data-reading and chart-making myself, which might have been more efficient that day, but did me nothing in the long term. Now, I never have to read data tabs again!

3. Start with low pressure tasks. I didn’t make S. dive into entering data for client reports before she had done a “practice run,” creating charts from some old data and checking her work closely. Now, when I have a quick turn-around deliverable, I’m confident she can handle it with minimal teaching from me. I also had her send some “low stakes” scheduling emails– not to clients, but to my accountant and some vendors. This way, if she had turned out to be a careless writer, I would have been able to coach her before she sent out more meaningful emails.

4. Find the right fit! I thought I needed someone with research skills or at least some demonstrated experience with data and numbers. In fact, what I needed was someone who has great multi-tasking skills and phenomenal attention to detail– everything else could be taught. S. could easily do more intellectually demanding work than what she is doing for me; but right now, she is very motivated by the flexibility of being a virtual assistant and being able to work at home so she can spend time with her young son. So for now, it’s the perfect fit.