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May 21, 2015

Zirtual reinvents market for personal assistants

Startup employs full-time virtual assistants

Start-ups Personal Assistance
052115_zirtual Stock /AP


Hiring and retaining personal assistants can be a real crapshoot for reasons that make sense to both the employer and the employee. It's one of the broadest job categories, often defying description beyond character traits that will ideally translate well to a mix of work-related and personal tasks.

One startup is reinventing how busy people in need of assistance can connect with competent, friendly professionals. What may come as a surprise to some is that the company, Zirtual, is premised on virtual assistance -- a surefire sign of growing trust in the gig economy.

Fortune writer Leigh Gallagher is so taken by her experience with "Zirtual Assistants" that she calls the service her secret weapon.

I was dubious I would be able to create enough work to fill eight hours of time a month, but I tried, starting Sam off with some simple things—booking travel for a few business trips, ordering some items online. Sam was quick, easygoing, friendly, and, it turned out, a wizard with free shipping. I waded in a little more deeply: I’d been trying to locate an exact replacement for my favorite Orla Keily wallet, but I couldn’t find the same version anywhere. Could she sleuth around? I was about to take my final book-writing vacation in a country house that had a piano, and I wanted to learn how to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Could she track down the sheet music? I asked her to take on a few things that had been languishing on my to-do list for months: update my frequent flier accounts; start a database that tracked my favorite restaurants by neighborhood; figure out how to get Showtime Anytime and HBO Go to work on my iPad.

Gallagher was so impressed by Zirtual, and grateful for the creative space it opened in her life, that she decided she had to talk to the company's founder and CEO, 29-year-old Maren Kate Donovan.

A serial entrepreneur from Reno, Nevada, Donovan grew up in a bustling land of call centers, where she gained an early appreciation for the importance of customer service. She even hired several personal assistants to help her with her early business ventures before deciding to build a U.S.-based service that would cater to high level employees at top companies who need dependable help.

At this stage, Zirtual has 350 employees, a majority of them women, who handle anywhere from 3 to 12 clients at a time. The pricing structure works using tiered plans set to hourly commitment levels -- the company's website says plans start at $399 -- and plans can even include discounts with other on-site service providers like TaskRabbit.

The likelihood of losing a great assistant to another job is also greatly reduced by the fact that Zirtual hires its assistants to full-time salaried positions with benefits and 401k(s).

Donovan is now expanding Zirtual's mission to provide administrative services to entire startups and small companies, but the essential concept she explained to Gallagher is that entrepreneurs and busy professionals can win back the time they spend on little tasks associated with the realization of their larger goals.

Read more at Fortune.