In part one of this series I suggested the basic home office set up required for the budding Virtual Assistant — of course, the information is also relevant for homeworkers and freelancers who carry out the majority of their work on a computer at home. I gave the minimum IT hardware you’d need to get up and running. In this installment I’ll list the main software you’ll need and any extra items of hardware to complement it.
Software: The Basics
First and foremost, a good, sturdy browser — most people will use Internet Explorer because it comes loaded with the Windows operating system, but there are many others. I strongly recommend Firefox by Mozilla (free to download from their website), along with a wide selection of plug-ins.
No matter how much we Mac users rile against Microsoft, there’s just no getting round the fact that most businesses will be using the Microsoft Office suite. Which particular programs you buy depends upon the services you’re going to be offering as a virtual assistant or virtual PA. The minimum I would suggest is Word and Excel. If you’re going to be working on presentation slides, the majority of office users will be working on PowerPoint. For Mac users I highly recommend Entourage as an email program, simply because of it’s Project Center — I find it invaluable for managing email messages, documents, contacts, and To-Do items when working on projects for clients.
NB: I should point out that it is possible to run Windows XP on an Intel Mac, so you can have the benefits of a beautifully designed Apple computer and run the OS of your choice. Of course, you’re then opening yourself up to the myriad of malware aimed at Windows, so it’s a decision not to be taken lightly.
If you’re not using Entourage or Outlook, then you’ll need some kind of email, calendar, and address book software, preferably ones that will integrate well with each other. You can also use online services such as Google’s Business Apps which provides you with an email address and message archiving, a calendar with sharing capabilities, and various communication and collaboration apps — and don’t forget Yahoo! which also offers free email, an address book, and a calendar. BatchBook is a great and simple-to-use online CRM (customer relationship management) system [Read our review on BatchBook]. You can use services such as Basecamp for project management and collaboration — they offer a free plan which includes one project and unlimited users (no file sharing, though).
So that’s your wordprocessing, spreadsheets, data entry, presentation slides, diary management, contact management, project management, basic bookkeeping, and even your email address sorted. You’re now ready and able to offer a range of services to your prospective clients — this is, of course, assuming you already have the necessary knowledge and experience of using these programs and technologies! You also have the tools to keep yourself and your projects organised.
For those virtual assistants or homeworkers with the skills to provide a professional and efficient audio transcription service, you’ll need some digital audio transcription software and a USB foot pedal. There are several companies distributing digital voice recorders: Olympus, Philips, Sanyo, etc, and you can purchase their dedicated transcription kits — such as the Olympus Transcription Kit (PC & Mac) we use at Freelancealot — although these tend to be on the pricey side (eg, £109 for the Olympus kit) and can be limiting in the number of audio formats they support. A cheaper solution is the excellent Express Scribe, available for free download from NCH and the VEC USB Foot Pedal (available from Digibox Store for £49.99) to work with it — you will, of course, need a set of good headphones.
Part 3 will include further software offerings, more useful online services for freelancers, and another helping of hardware.
[WARNING – Blatant Horn-blowing Ahead: Please visit our secretarial services page for information on the audio transcription services offered by Freelancealot.co.uk.]