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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Jess Ostroff. She’s the founder and director of Calm at Don’t Panic Management, a firm that provides virtual staff members and assistants. She’s also the author of a book we’re going to talk about today, Panic Proof: How the Right Virtual Assistant Can Save Your Sanity and Grow Your Business. Jess, thanks for joining me.
Jess Ostroff: Thank you so much for having me, John. I’m so happy to be here.
John Jantsch: Well now, do you qualify as a millennial age wise?
Jess Ostroff: Yes, technically I was born in the millennial years, although I don’t identify with all the millennial traits.
John Jantsch: Well, your job title is certainly very millennial-like I think.
Jess Ostroff: Yes, yes.
John Jantsch: Director of Calm. Everybody needs one of those though, don’t they?
Jess Ostroff: Right. Well, that’s the benefit of starting your own business. You get to create your own title, too.
John Jantsch: Well, that’s right, that’s right. I’ve chosen to go no title and people will say, “Well, what should we call you?” I said, “Just John works.”
Jess Ostroff: Just John. Well, that’s great.
John Jantsch: You have this virtual assistant space really. I probably hired somebody virtually that I would call a virtual assistant, 12, 13, maybe 15 years ago, but this space once was kind of an odd thing that people did out there like me that were online has really, very, very mainstream in the last five years. Would you say that’s accurate?
Jess Ostroff: Absolutely. I think you were probably one of the earliest adopters if you were doing it 15 years ago. It was definitely a strange phenomenon at that time.
John Jantsch: In your view, and again, I know you have … Don’t Panic’s what? 6 years old or so? 5 years old?
Jess Ostroff: We officially started in 2011. I had started freelancing in 2010, so eight years of freelancing, but seven years or so of the business.
John Jantsch: Okay, so you have a long enough view to kind of say here’s how it has changed. Do you want to share that with us?
Jess Ostroff: Sure. Well, for me, I mean, one of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed is that people are getting more specialized in their requests, so it used to be I need a virtual assistant, period, you know, and that was the big ask. Now, it’s like, I need a virtual assistant to produce my podcast or I need a virtual assistant to schedule my meetings and book my travel. People are getting more specific with their needs, which I think is great because there’s not a one size fits all approach with virtual assistants and a lot of times assistants may think that their Jack’s or Jill’s of all trades, but they’re really not. I think it’s important for the assistants to hone in on the skills that they are really good at and for the prospective clients to really understand what exactly they need because you could find someone who’s really great at scheduling and also really great at podcasting. Those people do exist. I think you have one of them that’s working with you right now John, but those are rare and so the more specialized you can get, the better or I think you need to be willing to be able to spend some time training your assistant and making sure that they understand how you like things done and when you want them done and deadlines and all those kinds of things.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and we’ll definitely cover that in very specific detail. I’m going to ask you some questions about that, but going back to that idea of specialization, I think that that’s kind of gone both ways.
Jess Ostroff: Yeah.
John Jantsch: I think a lot of people have realized, hey, you bring an employee in and you’ve got a task for them to do. They do that for about 20 hours a week and then you realize, I got to fill up their time and so I’m going to give …
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: … them all this other stuff that they don’t like to do, but I need done. I think that that’s really what people are waking up to is I can get somebody just to do this one thing because they’re really good at that one thing and so I can get really good for very affordable.
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: I think that that mindset has really changed, hasn’t it? That both the virtual folks that are out there marketing themselves as virtual staff and the buyer of that have realized that specialization’s a good thing. I’ll get five virtual assistants because they all do five different things.
Jess Ostroff: Absolutely. I think that it’s not their fault for not thinking of that sooner. I think that it seems like the obvious solution, right, but for the longest time people were bound by their geographic location and whoever was around them. They either didn’t want to or didn’t trust that somebody that wasn’t sitting right next to them could actually get the work done and now that we’ve seen you and all kinds of people have found success with working virtually, there’s no reason not to hire somebody that’s not right next to you. I mean, I think that’s the reason why people were hiring employees in the first place, even if they only had 20 hours of work they’d hire full-time because they’re saying, “Well, I like this person. They’re good at what they’re doing. I want to have them, so I don’t have any other choice.” Now, the choice is, I mean, there’s so many choices and so many ways to get the right person for the right job.
John Jantsch: Well, and I tell you one thing that people don’t think about, I think it’s unfair to both parties. When you bring an employee in and you don’t either have enough for them to do or you have them do five things because you want to fill up the time, there’s a good chance that three of those five things they hate …
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: … and probably weren’t hired to do.
Jess Ostroff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Jantsch: I think it’s kind of unfair for both parties.
Jess Ostroff: Absolutely. I think that once you realize that, I mean, sometimes you have to have a bad experience with that before you realize, but that’s also just a challenge of whether you want to grow your business or not, too. I mean, if you hire someone that you are investing in to be a full-time employee and you maybe don’t have all of the full-time work for them yet, but you want to grow into that, that could be a good investment because you’re kind of building on their skills and you’re training them as you go. You’re getting their buy-in in terms of culture and things like that. Yeah, they may have to do a few things that they don’t want to do in the meantime, but I think if you can nurture that relationship it could be a good thing, but if it turns out that you don’t actually want to grow and you are just hiring a full-time person because you thought you had to and you thought you had no other choice, then that’s right. It’s not great for anybody.
John Jantsch: The first two virtual assistants I hired were terrible. They kept asking me what I wanted them to do and how I wanted them to do it and I just wanted them to do stuff.
Jess Ostroff: Like, figure it out.
John Jantsch: Well, I’m being facetious, but I think that that is such a crucial component. I think, in some ways, you might feel like I need to hire somebody, but boy, the work that you do to figure out what you’re going to hire them to do is so important. I mean, how do you come up with what I want help with, what I want this person to specifically do?
Jess Ostroff: Well, I think that if you are struggling with come up with things, you might not be ready for help. I think that the people that are really ready are the people who find themselves being pulled in a million different directions. They feel like things are slipping through the cracks, they wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something that didn’t get done. Just really bursting at the seams with things.
John Jantsch: I guess that was really my question. I’m talking about somebody who is now trying to figure out, what’s going to be the most valuable to get off my plate because …
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: … I can’t do it all, let’s put it that way.
Jess Ostroff: Okay.
John Jantsch: How do we figure that out?
Jess Ostroff: Right. Well, I also recommend doing sort of an audit on your life and that includes the …
John Jantsch: That sounds painful.
Jess Ostroff: It is painful. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty painful, but it’s really useful and you only have to do it for a few days to start to see some patterns in what you’re doing and what you’re focusing your time on. I know for me and for a lot of clients that I’ve done this exercise with, you notice that you’re spending a lot of time on little tiny things and all of those little things make up a day, but you’re never getting a chance to spend the time on the things that you truly care about or the things that you built your business on in the first place. If you do get to do them, you’re having to do them late at night or on the weekends. It shouldn’t be that way. Unless you’re a total workaholic and you just love it, love doing it that way, you should be building in time during the regular work hours for those big, important projects and those things that you truly love to do or are uniquely qualified to do, but you can’t figure out what those are until you actually are honest with yourself and you write down every single, little thing that you do every day. I recommend doing this for a week, but you may only get through a couple of days and that’s okay.
Once you have it all written down, you can start to see hey, you know, I spent an hour writing this proposal or I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out how to send this invoice or I called the car place to get my car in for an appointment and they put me on hold for 20 minutes or, you know, little things like that where that’s already like two hours right there that a virtual assistant could have done for you. Once you’ve kind of identified all the things that you’re doing, you can start to look at basically two buckets. What are the things that I love and am uniquely qualified to do in one bucket, and then just everything else because you really should only be doing the things that you must do and the things that you love? Then, everything else should either be delegated or automated or relegated. There are a lot of things that people are doing in their work and in their life that they don’t need to do for any reason. It’s not contributing to the bottom line, it’s not something that’s making them happy, it’s just like a waste of time.
I mean, checking Facebook 10 times a day, like if you’re not a social media manager or a PR person, you don’t need to do that. Save Facebook for after work or save it for specifically designated hours, but don’t waste all your time getting sucked into social networks and wasteful things because time is money. I think that a lot of people don’t realize how much time they’re wasting each and every day. I think when you look at that from a really data-driven perspective of how each minute and each hour of your days are being spent, you can see the real value of what a virtual assistant can bring because theoretically, if you’re doing it right, your rates per hour are going to be exponentially higher than what a virtual assistant rate will be, which means that as soon as you hire a VA to take those hours off your plate, you can be billing at your normal rate for more work that you love to do.
John Jantsch: I a lot of times like to tell entrepreneurs, you know, I always chuckle when people, young couples, talk about waiting to have children until they’re ready and you’re never ready. As somebody who has been through this experience, you’re never ready and I think it’s true of hiring a virtual assistant. There’s that trap in thinking, oh, I’m going to do this when I get to this point or when I’m ready.
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: What happens is, I think if you don’t … I tell every consultant that joins, you know, that starts a business, joins the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network, plan on it right now.
Jess Ostroff: Yeah, yeah.
John Jantsch: This is going to be something that you do because otherwise your plate will get full and it’s actually, sadly, sometimes it’s harder, it’s a step backwards to hire a virtual assistant for a while …
Jess Ostroff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Jantsch: … in some cases, because you’ve got to train them, you’ve got to get up to speed, and you’ve got to hold their hand until they get up to speed maybe. If you’re so busy that you can’t invest that time, you kind of are trapped.
Jess Ostroff: Absolutely. I always say that it’s an investment. People think it’s like, oh, it’s going to make me money right away. Well, no. That’s not how investments work. You have to put in the money, you have to put in the time, and then you’re going to get something out of it, but it’s going to take a little while. Depending on how many hours you have with this person, it’s going to take, you know, one, to three, to six months for you to start to see the results, but it’s going to be worth it because all of a sudden, you’re going to find all this time back in your schedule and you’re going to be able to grow your business in a much more intentional and focused way. Yeah, …
John Jantsch: Have you ever gone into an organization and helped them figure out what would be the best use of a virtual resource or two?
Jess Ostroff: Yeah, I help people with operations consulting, if you will, because a lot of them, you know, it’s like you can’t see the forest for the trees.
John Jantsch: Right.
Jess Ostroff: I do go in and talk to them. Some people have said when they talk to me it’s like they’re in a spa, which was really sweet because I’m just saying, here’s something that can get off your plate, here’s something that can get off your plate. Here’s something that this other person should be doing. Why isn’t this person doing it? Why are you doing it? They’re like, oh my goodness, I feel better already. It’s like, okay, that’s good. Cherish that feeling right now, but you’re still going to have to do some work to get another person up to speed with all of this because, like you were … I mean, you understand this, John, but a lot of people think that it’s a magical, turnkey solution where it’s like well, I signed the contract, that’s all I have to do. They’re a virtual assistant. They should be able to figure it out. That’s just not the case. I mean, you wouldn’t do that with an employee. You wouldn’t do that with someone who was coming into your office to work with you, so that’s a big misconception that I think people need to sort of get over that it does take not only a financial investment, but a time investment to make sure that the person is doing what you want.
Again, I think the more that you put in upfront, the more you’re going to get out of it and the better your relationship is going to be. You want a virtual assistant that you can be with for as long as possible because you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel, you don’t want to have to waste that time again going through. I definitely think putting processes into place and even get your assistant to document those processes. That always helps in case you do have a turnover for what … You know, someone gets sick or has some kind of an emergency. That does happen, but you want to try and put your best foot forward to make sure that your assistant will want to stay with you forever and ever.
John Jantsch: I want to go back to that point because I’m going to hole you to that. I think offering a service that came in and help somebody free up 10 hours a week first, you know, get stuff off their plate would maybe give them the ability then to start seeing where the processes needed to be implemented. I think you ought to promote the heck out of that.
Jess Ostroff: Okay.
John Jantsch: The second scenario I want to run by you is, I know stuff I shouldn’t be doing, but I like it.
Jess Ostroff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Jantsch: It’s the stuff that makes me feel good to do, even if it’s not the best thing for the business. How do you get business owners, and I really am sort of telling on myself a little bit, but how do you get business owners who, all good intentions set all that up, but then they won’t let go? I mean, what’s the process to finally get them to let go?
Jess Ostroff: Well, I’ll tell you what I did because I’m just like you. I worked with a financial accounting company and also with a business coach and what we did was we actually created a spreadsheet that was all about the cost of services. The cost of services sheet showed, of course, not only what actual hours we were billing and delivering to clients, but also all of the hours that we were spending on internal tasks, like invoicing, like sending Christmas cards, you know, anything and everything, and we kind of did our own audit as a company. What I saw was that the things that I was spending my time on that were not being billed or being somehow accrued at the hourly rate that my salary was charging, we were losing money as a company, physically. It’s right there. It showed me in the spreadsheet.
When I did that, I did it with my leadership team, so there was some visibility and transparency in that. Then, I said, “Well,” and they were like, “Come on, Jess. You’re not just losing money for yourself, you’re losing money for us. If we took these few things off your plate, we could get a raise.” I mean it wasn’t that simple of course, but having the accountability of my team saying, “Remember, Jess, you shouldn’t do that. Who can we get to do it instead?” Also, seeing that the bottom line was directly affected by the hours that was spending that weren’t earning what my salary charged, I just, I had to do it as soon as possible because even though I was physically hiring someone else to do some of those things and yes, that costs money, it didn’t cost as much as me doing it myself.
John Jantsch: I think that you used the accountability word. I think that’s huge because a lot of business owners don’t have anybody to hold them accountable.
Jess Ostroff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Jantsch: [crosstalk 00:18:55] I’m the boss.
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: I do whatever I feel like doing.
Jess Ostroff: Right.
John Jantsch: I mean, that’s such a great case for a business coach or a mentor of somebody to at least try to make yourself accountable because I think that’s [crosstalk 00:19:06] …
Jess Ostroff: Yeah.
John Jantsch: I think that’s a big gap.
Jess Ostroff: Every month when we have our meetings, they say, “How are you doing? How are you doing getting those 10 hours off your plate,” or whatever it is? I say, “Well,” and if I’ve done it I’m really excited, and if I haven’t, then I’m embarrassed. You don’t want to feel that way when somebody is directly watching you and making sure that you’re doing what you said you were going to do.
John Jantsch: Here’s a question I suspect a lot of people have. I have worked with several folks that you have helped us find and have been extremely happy, but I’m sure people want to know, how do you find these people? How do you qualify them? How do you make sure that they are going to deliver, not only on your brand, but on what I need?
Jess Ostroff: Yeah, it’s not easy. I think at Don’t Panic we are fortunate to have a … We’ve been building up on our blog posts and working on our website for years and now, we do have a little bit of search juice, so when people are searching for a virtual assistant job or remote job or a thrival job, which I had never even heard that term before, but we have a couple of blog posts about thrival work, which basically means like you’re able to live the life you want and pursue your passions while still having a job. It’s kind of like, well, it’s exactly what a virtual assistant job is in many ways, but we get a ton of applicants from that search term, so we have sort of a pool of people that are always coming in. Our [tech 00:20:43], you know, “hiring” process is always open. Anybody can fill out a form at any time and we are always doing interviews.
I think that, like to your point before when you said, “Clients should prepare to do this,” I think that it’s a good idea for people to just always keep their eyes and ears open, even if they don’t have sort of a formal application process on their site or somewhere, if they come across somebody that they like or that they know is looking for some remote work or that they know is looking for some remote work, do an interview with them and see how it’s going. Even if you’re not ready to hire them, I think it’s always great to have people like that in your back pocket. If you’re not sort of, you know, if you can’t find people that way, the first thing I always recommend is asking your network. John, you’re a great resource for people and there are ton of other people in the industry and in your industry, if it’s not our industry, who have experience with virtual assistants. I think you’d be surprised, a lot of people keep their virtual assistants under wraps. A lot of people, they don’t know that they’re working with a virtual assistant. They’re not hiding it on purpose necessarily, but you just wouldn’t know.
Asking your network, putting out a post of Facebook or LinkedIn is great because then you actually get vetted recommendations. Then, if you don’t quite have that, I think the best place to start your search is on LinkedIn and like I was talking about earlier, if you know what sort of services you want, do that search, so podcasting virtual assistant or admin virtual assistant. If you just search virtual assistant, you’re going to get a ton and you’re probably going to get a lot of crap, but if the more specialized you can search, the better your results will be.
There are also some other agencies, you know, obviously Don’t Panic is one of them, but there are other virtual assistant agencies. I know Michael Hyatt recommends eaHELP. I think they’re based in Europe and not everybody wants to deal with time zone issues, but there are tons of other agencies out there, too, if you want to kind of go through that process. Then, of course, there’s Upwork. There are places where, again, I think because those marketplaces are so big, it can take a lot more work on the front end to find someone who’s really good and you might not want to deal with that. You might want someone else to kind of help you find somebody instead, but there are tons of places for people to look. Again, I think starting with your own network and trying to get a vetted referral or recommendation is the best place to go.
John Jantsch: Final question and hopefully this won’t be embarrassing, but [crosstalk 00:23:34] …
Jess Ostroff: Uh-oh.
John Jantsch: … might be. What’s the oddest request you’ve ever gotten from a client?
Jess Ostroff: I totally …
John Jantsch: Remember, this show is rated G, so [crosstalk 00:23:43] …
Jess Ostroff: Right. Right, right, right.
John Jantsch: … off the table.
Jess Ostroff: Well, no. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten any R rated requests, …
John Jantsch: Okay, good.
Jess Ostroff: … but we’ve definitely gotten some weird ones. I’m trying to think. When I was living in New York, when I was first starting the business, people thought that I was an executive … or like, a personal assistant and I did have …
John Jantsch: Pick up my laundry kind of thing.
Jess Ostroff: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I did have a lot of people asking me for those sort of, yeah, like pick up tasks and things like that. Well, first, I would say no, but I’ve also had to do a lot of like shipping stuff for clients. What I would do was I would say, “Okay, it’s going to take 20 hours,” and then I’d hire like a Task Rabbit to come to my house and do the packaging. Then, I would just check everything and put the addresses on, but I’m trying to think of the weirdest request. I mean, I’ve had some things where, okay, okay, this is PG, but it’s weird.
One of our clients was going through a divorce and we would do some more admin assistant stuff. We were doing things like sending flowers to people. Normally, we don’t really look at who we’re sending stuff to or where, but we started to be asked to send a lot of things like that to one particular person and it kind of came out that there was a, you know, unfaithful situation and it was just so awkward to kind of piece that together and be talking with the ex-wife and then the husband and the new girlfriend. I don’t know, it wasn’t like the weirdest thing, but it was definitely really awkward for everybody.
John Jantsch: It’s when being a Director of Calm came in very handy.
Jess Ostroff: Exactly.
John Jantsch: Well, Jess, thanks so much for joining us. Hopefully I’ll see you next time we’re out there in the New York area. Author of Panic Proof: How the Right Virtual Assistant Can Save Your Sanity and Grow Your Business. Tell people where they can find you, Jess.
Jess Ostroff: Yes, well, I’m on most social media platforms at Jess Ostroff. My site is JessOstroff.com and you can buy the book there or you can just search for it on Amazon, that always works, too. Then, Don’t Panic you can find at DontPanicMgmt.com and if you’re interested in working with us or becoming a VA, you’ll see links on that site for both.
John Jantsch: Okay, and will you find a testimonial from Duct Tape Marketing I think, maybe, yes, no?
Jess Ostroff: I think so. Yeah.
John Jantsch: If not, it should be because I’m a very happy, satisfied client and that’s why I really wanted to have you on here and have some other people meet you as well. Thanks for joining me Jess.
Jess Ostroff: Thank you so much.