The Iron Law of running a startup or microISV is there’s never enough time to everything, especially the important but non-critical stuff. It takes lots and lots of time to do the strategic stuff – often you have to pump in some unknown number of hours just researching.
That’s why I’m excited by Fancy Hands – it’s fixed price virtual assistants for simple but time-consuming tasks. I recently used Fancy Hands (15 tasks per month for $35) to kick off two projects that have been stalled forever: engaging more with other startup bloggers and social media bloggers. Before you can engage, you have to know who to engage with – and that’s an easy task to hand off to someone else and get “good enough” results.
All it took was signing up with the service (FH uses Google Accounts for authentication), then send them an email for a task:

  • Name, email and blog URL and name for the top 25 Social Media Bloggers.
  • Name, email and blog URL and name for the top 25 software Startup Bloggers.
  • (something private)

Here’s something worth mentioning: total elapsed time between putting in these two requests (and a third) and getting results: 45 minutes. Put another way, for that 45 minutes it was like having 3 Bob VMs running in addition to yours truly.
Fancy Hands isn’t a virtual bookkeeper, fashion consultant or speechwriter: they focus on scheduling, web research, making appointments. But getting 15 of those things off your plate for the month is worth a lot more than $35 or the X hours it would take you. Here’s some of their most requested tasks:

  • Restaurant Reservations
  • Scheduling a car service / taxi pickup
  • Find the nearest place that has iPads in stock
  • Find the advertising rates (or contact info) for the top 10 [industry] blogs
  • Schedule a haircut with [stylist] on Friday after 1pm
  • Call [three bars] and find out if they have a private room available for rentals
  • Call [primarily offline company] and get the status of order number xyz
  • Find a couple upholsterer options near where I work
  • Call TD Bank and ask how many checks I can use for free on a standard personal account
  • Call some hotel and extend my stay for three nights instead of two

I’ve been cajoling Mason Levey to add a more technical track to deal with the real IT pains in my butt like:

  • Why are my iCal alarms doubled up?
  • What’s the best online service out there to let people fill in a short questionnaire and book my time?
  • A proven recipe for setting up 3 WordPress blogs on a new VPS.
  • Best current tool for winnowing out low value Twitter follows?
  • What’s the best automatic Twitter background maker out there?
  • What should my Facebook privacy settings be?

There’s a huge market out there for these kind of Internet-related tasks – not just startups and IT people, but all those hundreds of millions of people out there being pulled day by day and step by step into our net-centric world. Give Fancy Hands a try (and here’s a StartupToDo.com Guide on Fancy Hands with a nice discount code), and bug Mason to offer an IT track: it would be awesome!
(P.S – and if you can make any of those IT pains go away, let’s talk: bob.walsh@47hats.com.)

12 Comments

  1. There is no such thing as important but non-critical stuff. If it’s not critical, it’s not important, so skip it in favor of something that IS important.

    • Bob Walsh Reply

      Have to disagree: strategic work (ex. new product positioning, learning a new skill, etc.) is important, but gets pushed aside by critical, but low value, tasks.

  2. The easiest way to get new blogs setup: Get the cheapest hosting plan from ASmallOrange. It’s super cheap and you can go into the control panel and select “New WordPress Installation”, specify which directory/domain it should go in and it’s done. Easiest thing I’ve seen.
    As for Twitter directories, there is http://tweetygotback.com/ which is awesome.
    I’m not sure how well a VA could have answered either of those questions though.

  3. I guess you mean “urgent” when you say critical? So strategic work is important, but not urgent, whereas lots of other stuff is less important in the long term but more urgent right now?

    • Bob Walsh Reply

      Exactly. Whether it’s urgent or critical, except in rare cases they are low value. The high-value things, the tasks that take time but make big differences, get pushed back and back by “urgency”.

  4. After reading your post I’ve signed up at Fancy hands and requested a few tasks that were very similar to yours:
    – Could I please get a list of the URL’s for the top 25 (by traffic) blogs or online/ social communities (like forums or groups), ordered with their alexa ranking, focusing on: (XYZ industry)
    Results: The tasks were split between 2 different VA’s respond and they responded within a couple days. VA#1 came back with a mix of corporate websites, unrelated and dead links. VA # 2 (with a faster response) responded with awesome lists, with URLs and descriptions. I replied to ask for the list to be ordered by Alexa traffic ranking (providing a link to Alexa and detailed instructions) and got it back the next day.
    This is my first exposure to outsourcing and it’s a great example of how you can receive mixed results. I learned how being very specific, providing step by step instructions and providing examples will help your VA understand your requests. I sometimes need to be reminded that not everyone is from “our world” and understand what a blog, online community or what Alexa ranking is.

    • Bob Walsh Reply

      Colin – thanks very much for sharing your experience!

  5. “This is my first exposure to outsourcing and it’s a great example of how you can receive mixed results. I learned how being very specific, providing step by step instructions and providing examples will help your VA understand your requests. ”
    Question: How do you know going into a VA (or any outsourcing relationship) when the time/effort cost of defining your question and the steps to resolve it will be faster or slower than searching with your own intuitive sense of your needs? Also, how do you compensate for the intellectual exercise loss of developing the answer to the questions on your own when you have to repeat the exercise with different inputs in the future?
    Bob, if you got any leads on technical issues (I’d have things like “Find the cheapest price on a dual processor twelve core Dell with 32gb of RAM” and “Build me a new gaming PC that will match the Civ V suggested machine specifications for under $500”) — I’d love to be involved. It seems like there should be a way to stream the types of questions that are asked across the web every day (Stackoverflow and all of Joel’s other sites + Ask Metafilter + …?) into a database for a business like this.

  6. Karl, I’m trying to determine the same thing regarding the time and effort. I think what I’ll mostly be outsourcing is repetitive tasks, so that once the request is explicitly defined enough to receive good results, I can change one or two of the attributes and receive a expected result. For example, once I’ve defined the request above to successfully receive the result that I’m expecting, I can resubmit the request for a different ” Industries” without any additional time investment. This way the investment in effort is front loaded, but the return pays off over the long run.

  7. Hey All – great comments here about virtual assistants. Bob, thank you for writing a such a nice article. At Fancy Hands we’re rolling out some new features that will enable our users to provide feedback on how well the tasks were performed. It should be out soon. Also, regarding time and energy – if you get in the habit of outsourcing all the little things (doctor appointments, travel reservations, price comparisons) we hope that you’ll be able to focus on the more important things in life. We just rolled out an unlimited plan fancyhands.com/subscribe which has been working out nicely. Anyone whose interested in speaking further or who has questions please email me at masonlevey AT fancyhands.com

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