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Virtual Assistants, Virtually Indispensable

Life would be so much easier if we all had assistants. Think about what we could be doing with the all time we allocate to tasks like scheduling meetings, prepping for meetings, booking flights, and keeping track of our calendars. The reality for startups is that, on one hand, the opportunity cost of time is tremendous and we need to let go of these distractions. But, on the other hand, a mistake in even the most tedious of tasks can be profoundly punishing. 

And on the third hand, there is not enough work to justify the cost of bringing on a full time, human assistant. Due to the ever present balance of needing administrative tasks completed, but not bringing on a full time employee, the trend of hiring virtual assistants is on the rise, which could be the solution that you’ve been looking for. According to Virtalent, the virtual assistance industry will be worth $5 billion by 2018.

It helps to look at virtual assistant solution as one of two types: 1) smart AI and 2) real people working remotely. While many big virtual assistants are based around making your phone more efficient, we did some digging and found some tools that would benefit startups as well.

Smart AI

Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing how we use our smartphones and technology to better suit our needs. Apple and Amazon have entered the AI marketplace with their own products geared to increase efficiency and lifestyle. Apple’s Siri was instrumental in ushering in a norm of virtual assistance by effectively replacing manual entry and search. While this saves time, Siri is not able to think and act like a human assistant and respond accordingly – but along came Amazon’s Echo more recently, which is designed more with the idea of making home tasks smoother, as opposed to administrative tasks.

So what AI-driven virtual assistant tools are helpful to startups? Founders have told us about quite a few that are critical to their growth and day to day survival.

Charlie: being in the know before your meeting

Going into a meeting prepared is key to having a successful meeting. However, with the hustle and bustle of the workday, it’s hard to find time to adequately do your prep research and do it thoroughly. Charlie saves that time and does the work for you.

“I use Charlie App a lot. It is a completely awesome tool. It’s a virtual assistant that collects a lot of information on the person you are calling, and emails you everything an hour before the meeting.”

-Stan Bokov, Co-founder and COO of TradingView

Charlie combs through 100s of sources and automatically sends you a one‐pager on everyone you’re going to meet with, before you see them, including information and news from sources such as twitter, your calendar, LinkedIn, and Google. On average, Charlie will perform 57 Google searches on each person you are meeting with, saving you at least 30 minutes a day.

This is a very niche app, but incredibly useful for the startup community. By doing your homework for you, Charlie makes sure you never walk into a meeting unprepared again.

Pricing: free.

x.ai: outsource scheduling

Setting up meetings can be tedious, but necessary. Virtual assistants are all about productivity and making sure you are using your time wisely. x.ai, or Amy, will schedule your meetings for you and take care of the logistics.

“This virtual personal assistant tool almost completely eliminates back and forth emails scheduling meetings.”

-Coleman Skeeter, Co-founder and CEO of Truman James

Once you need to set up a meeting, with one quick cc ([email protected]), you can hand the job over to Amy. Amy emails with your guest to find the best time and location, knowing your schedule and preferences. This effectively eliminates the back and forth on your end. The best thing about Amy is that there is no signup. All you need to do is shoot her an email. According to some founders though, Amy has been suffering from reliability issues when it comes to less basic requests, such as establishing who will call whom.

Amy is great when you want to boost productivity and cut down on scheduling time. While it may not be wise to trust her with complicated scheduling tasks, for the basics Amy can be an aid in your everyday life.

Pricing: free.

Alfred: snippets and saving time

Alfred is an app that helps you search through files on your computer and identify what you’re looking for. It will search through all the documents you have on your computer to locate the exact one you’re looking for.

When doing research on Alfred, the first thing that came to mind is that Apple has outstripped the app and incorporated many of the features that made it unique into the general Mac interface. With the advent of Command + Space, much of Alfred’s utility was usurped. However, it does have some features that could save you time on your computer.

“My favorite piece of functionality is “snippet.” It’s great for when you have to write the same emails over and over.”

-Amanda Rinderle, Co­-founder of Tuckerman & Co.

Alfred’s most useful aspect is its snippet feature. With this, you can save frequently used text clips and expand them anywhere. This will save time when writing out generic emails you send 10 times a day or quickly expanding a greeting.

Overall the app is disappointing and outdated. Macs now do natively what Alfred accomplishes. Beyond the snippet feature, there isn’t much this app can do.

Pricing: free for Alfred 3, £17 for a single user license for powerpack, which is necessary for many of the features.

Human virtual assistants

The alternative to smart AI is to have real people on the other end. These are also termed virtual assistants, but online assistant may be more apt. These are real humans who you send digital requests to and then they are met. This is not Siri, this is not screaming into your phone, this is a living, breathing, intelligent human completing tasks for you, like a real assistant, but in affordable, bite sized time slots.

Some of the peer-to-peer companies that have been creating a market for virtual assistance are Upwork, Fancy Hands, Zirtual and eaHelp. 

“We use Upwork to find assistants to help us out with tasks. We get a fair amount of data and create content from original research on things like the Oscars and racism, or texting and falling in love. Assistants help us compile this data.”

-Eugene Woo, Co-founder & CEO of Venngage

Fancy Hands: hands off work

Fancy Hands is an affordable method of using a personal assistant only when you want one.

“We use Fancy Hands for outsourcing certain repetitive admin tasks. I used to be against it, since we have an administrative assistant who is more than capable of doing administrative tasks. But the beauty of Fancy Hands is that you don’t have to explain things to them.

”-Zach Obront, Founder and COO of Book In A Box

Fancy Hands is a great tool if you need research or scheduling done. While many of the tasks you would assign Fancy Hands could easily be done yourself, this argument holds true for human assistants. The value is the same as a personal assistant, except you pay as you go.

Fancy Hands works by submitting requests, usually 20 minutes worth of work. There are two different kinds of requests: standard and live. Standard requests will be answered within 24 hours, but usually much sooner. They are for tasks that require coordination with a 3rd party, where you don’t want to be on the phone dealing with it. This is the perfect way to book a lunch meeting or schedule a recurring appointment. Live requests are requests sent by SMS and get an almost an immediate response. These are for gathering little bits of information.

If you need an assistant to complete tasks for you throughout the day, then Fancy Hands could be for you. The pay as you go business model makes it great if you don’t need a fulltime person working around the clock. Fancy Hands is a great substitute for a personal assistant and can help you grow your startup.

Pricing: basic with 5 requests is $29.99/month, premier (recommended) with 50 requests a month is $199.99/month.

Final thoughts
Startups are very busy. Anyone who works at one knows this to be true. Often times, administrative tasks can pile on, and you need to sift through them before you can get to your actual work that needs to be done (like write this article). Virtual assistants are a great way to cut through a lot of the tasks that start piling up throughout the workday. They are an efficient way to make sure you are getting the most out of your time. There’s also no limit on the amount of virtual assistants you can use. Since many of these tools are niche, feel free to try a bunch and see which is the most productive for you!

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