Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Kim Murray's dream to go "virtual" has become a reality, but it hardly happened overnight.

The longtime administrative professional thought hard about leaving her pleasant bosses and secure but somewhat routine position at Potomac Hospital in Prince William County to become a virtual assistant -- someone who does administrative work, often for a number of clients, from home. She researched the field for five years, talking with Stacy Brice, who in 1997 opened Assist U, a pioneering program that trains virtual assistants.

Kim's uncertainty is not unusual, according to Brice, whose company is based north of Baltimore. Administrative assistants are often undervalued, Brice says, and it may take a while for them to recognize that "you can use the great skills you have and do the work you love and . . . only do it for people who value you and be paid fairly."

In 2002, Kim realized it was time to move forward. She'd been at the hospital job for more than 10 years and had become fully vested in the pension plan. And her two children, then 12 and 8, were outgrowing their day care. "The timing worked out perfectly," says Kim, who lives in Manassas and whose husband is a government contractor.

Kim, now 49, was accepted to the 20-week Assist U training program (current cost $2,695). The lectures and coaching sessions are held via telephone conference and help students learn how to set up home offices, attract work and deal with clients who can be next door or halfway around the world. The program also offers a job registry for graduates, and the fellow VAs are a huge support network that, Kim says, is "worth the whole price of tuition. You're in business for yourself, but not by yourself."

Kim launched her business at the beginning of 2003. She works on a retainer of at least 10 hours a month per client and charges from $40 to $70 an hour. She currently has three clients -- a local writer, a career and executive coach in the District and a business consultant in Boston. Attracting clients is the toughest part of the job, says Kim, who finds them by networking or through the Prince William chamber of commerce and the Assist U employer registry.

The career and executive coach, Marshall Brown, says Kim has been working with him for about a year (they've met in person once). Kim makes his appointments, edits his articles and keeps his contact lists, among other things, he says. "She runs the business when I'm out doing what people pay me to do."

Kim's practice -- named Harmony Virtual Assistance, in reference to the smooth functioning she wants for her clients -- now brings in about $25,000 a year, compared with the $58,000 Kim made at the hospital. But her start-up costs were minimal, as are her expenses, she says, and she plans to add more clients. She hopes to eventually earn at least $60,000 a year.

In the meantime, there are benefits: She's doing the work she wants to do, when she wants to do it, with people she wants to work with. She's able to get to the gym and, most important to her, she's around to monitor her kids, drive them places and occasionally see one of their sporting events.

With her new business, Kim seems to have found some harmony herself. "The frazzle level has gone down," she says. "Overall, there's more peace and balance to my life."

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