AS Seen On

By: Stephan Spencer


Carolyn Ketchum
“If you’re hiring a VA, it won’t happen automatically, but finding somebody you can trust is crucial… I think if you can’t almost automatically trust them, it is not worth your extra time.”
Carolyn Ketchum

You might know Carolyn Ketchum for her highly popular food blog, All Day I Dream About Food, which receives over a million views per month. What you probably don’t know her from is her past as my rockstar virtual assistant. That’s right, in this very special episode I’m baring all and breaking down the secret entrepreneur technique of having a virtual assistant. Carolyn was an absolute rockstar VA, and we discuss how the entire process works in this little-seen role. If you’ve ever considered your own virtual assistant, or have hopes of working as a VA for a successful entrepreneur, this is a can’t miss, because we are rattling off essential tips for an optimal entrepreneur/VA relationship. We cover the three lists of freedom, how to find and screen the perfect VA, and why you deserve to outsource the things you don’t want to do.

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This is Stephan Spencer, you’re listening to Get Yourself Optimized. I’m going to give you a bit of a preview to this one because this is such an unusual interview. I decided to open the kimono a bit with you and do an interview with a virtual assistant. Not just any virtual assistant, but my rockstar virtual assistant who worked for me for several years, she’s an online influencer, a popular blogger, a social media maven, and just an amazing person. The reason I normally wouldn’t share this with you is that internet marketers tend to keep our rockstar VAs to ourselves, we don’t want them getting poached by other folks. We put a lot into the relationship, a lot of trust and access to our rolodex, our business processes, even passwords, so forth.

The reason I’ve done this is I believe you could massively benefit from seeing how the structures, systems, processes, are set up. And the whole nuances that make it work or not work. I will also mention that if you are a rockstar VA yourself, please reach out to me, I’m always on the lookout for rockstar virtual assistants, I always believe in having multiple VAs working for me, so please whether it is a part-time or full-time role, I’d be interested in talking to you at Apologies for that little commercial if you are not a VA, but I think you are really going to benefit from this episode.

Please enjoy, here is Carolyn Ketchum talking about the inside scoop on being a virtual assistant. I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming Carolyn Ketchum to my show, she has this really popular blog “All Day I Dream About Food”, which is a brilliant name. Adidas brand is “All Day I Dream About Sports”, I don’t know if you knew that. But All Day I Dream About Food gets over a million page-views per month, she’s been running the blog for almost six years now, and stemmed from her finding out that she was diabetic, she had to adjust her diet, and she got on with gluten-free cooking. She decided to blog about it, and it just took off from there. While she was working on her passion for this blog, she also wanted to do some outside contracting and put her shingle out as a VA. I was lucky enough to meet up with her. I just had this incredible VA who allowed me to scale my business and scale myself in so many ways. We’ve actually never met in person. She’s out in the Boston area, I live in Santa Monica, and was in Wisconsin prior to that. We never met in person, but we really got to know each other pretty well. Welcome to Get Yourself Optimized!

Thank you, Stephan! That was quite an introduction. I have to say I’m impressed with the Adidas reference because so many people look at me blankly when I say “you know, like All day I dream about soccer? or all day I dream about sports?” But thank you, quite an intro, and I sound better with your words than I do with mine.

That’s ironic that you would say that because it is not true. First of all, you actually wrote as me. That is one of the things we would do together, I would have you ghostwrite blog posts, articles, and so forth, because one of the things I hated was looking at a blank page and starting with nothing and having to write something. So for years and years even before I had heard the term virtual assistant, I had assistants working for me. And I had one when I was living in Christchurch, NZ who could write in shorthand. I would dictate to her and she would write in shorthand and then write it up and send me a word document. It got to the point where she could save a draft directly in WordPress and then I would tweak it and so forth. It was so much better for me to start with something, even if it was very imperfect.

But you are a great writer, so it was always awesome from the beginning, but if I’m just looking at this blank screen, I just get this paralysis, I cannot write. You were just a lifesaver in that area. And so you would ghostwrite blog posts, articles, emails, in fact, that you were also managing my email. So let’s talk about all the things that an amazing VA can handle for a thought leader, a consultant, for an author such as myself or something. Because it is not often you get to peek behind the curtain. We all are very secretive about our VAs because we don’t want them to get poached. Now I’m willing to let it out there that you were my rockstar VA for several years because you’re not going to get poached. You are working in your passion and you’re not going to stray from that. Someone could be like “I’ll pay you x to be my VA, and you’ll be like …yeah.”

Right. It would have to be a lot of money to go back to being a VA. Not that it wasn’t wonderful working for you, but you’re somebody else’s bitch. You’re working for somebody else. Once you are working for yourself, it is very freeing.

You can never go back, pretty much. At one point I was an employee when I was very young, and of course, I could never go back. You get the bug and you’re like “I’m going to be my own boss for the rest of my life. I’m literally unemployable. Nobody could employ me, nobody would want to because I would be a terrible employee. I’m not going to want to take somebody’s orders.

Right, exactly. Exactly.

I tell my clients – this was years ago, I worked with Steve Spangler on a big site redesign and so forth, he’s a famous science guy –

I remember his name!

Famous science guy like Bill Nye, he’s been on the Ellen show over a dozen times and so forth. Really fun guy to have as a client. I refused to let him get this ridiculous flash thing that was going to cost all this money. I’m like “No, you are not doing this, you’re going to start a blog”. This was 2004.

Blogging was in its infant stages.

It was so early on. It was such a great call. He thanks me to this day for sending him in that direction. It really created a lot of momentum for him. There were a lot of instances like that where I would trump their decision and say nope, that is not going to happen. Whether it Steve Spangler or whoever. Having that ability to call your own shots, you can never go back. Being a VA is really having someone call the shots for you, even if you are an independent contractor.

Right, but I would say working for you gave me in many ways the courage to jump off and take it on fully because I saw what you did and how you managed to be in your own way an independent contractor. Once my blog got to a certain point of income, I thought, okay I can do this. I can go and be my own boss. Because that always worked for other people too, and you think that is how life is, unless you’re, you know, Donald Trump, god forbid. You think that is how life works, until you realize there are so many ways to be your own boss.

You think that is how life works, until you realize there are so many ways to be your own boss.

Right, and speaking of Donald Trump, if you were his intern, you would probably clamor for that opportunity, even though you would probably get beat up emotionally and so forth all the time. Having that kind of life experience and having a mentor like that is a lot of the reason a high performing VA or somebody who has the capacity to be a high performing VA would take you on because they are going to open the kimono for them and teach them all this amazing stuff about how to organize your life and how to be productive and in the flow state and get five times as much done in an hour as you normally do. And how to work in your purpose and your values, and how to efficiently delegate, defer, and delete and all this amazing stuff that you couldn’t pay somebody like that for that kind of learning and opportunity, but you could get paid for it. So, it’s a win-win but it can’t last.

Yeah, you’re always saying that you want me back, but if you get a VA and they get to the point that they are really good, they are going to leave you.

You have to have the systems in place so you can replace somebody when the time has come.

Yeah, so you bake that into the equation, saying I have to have redundancies. I’ve never had just one VA, I’ve always had backups, so when we lose somebody, like Josie was great then she got this offer for a full-time job she couldn’t refuse, so we had to replace her. We had to go through this whole process. Systems and processes are so important because you’re going to be replacing people. Nobody is irreplaceable, that’s a key concept in business. You have to have the systems in place so you can replace somebody when the time has come. So we had a lot of systems in place, things like VA duties documents and videos and stuff like that. We also had a process for finding, hiring, and onboarding new VAs. Let’s talk about that. Craigslist was part of the equation.

Yeah, it always was intriguing that you chose to use Craigslist over anything else.

That’s how I found you!

Yeah! I know! And that is what is interesting. I think when I go job searching, I haven’t done it in ages, but when I think back to – Craigslist wouldn’t be high on my list. I don’t even know why I was on that day, I just saw the VA ad and threw my hat in the ring. One of the curious parts of it was the riddle that was part of the process. We had to answer a very complicated riddle.

Yes, that’s a bit of genius there, to screen out all the riff-raff, because they won’t bother to answer.

Right, and I would love to tell you that I knew how to do the riddle. But instead, I just typed the riddle into Google and found the answer.

And I tried to make it so I was not easily Google-able, I changed some of the parameters and some of the keywords and so forth. But, you know what, you could even get the answer wrong, and it is okay. If you show your work and it was a solid attempt, that is good enough.

Well, I worked on it quite a bit by myself. And thought “Well, I’m a very logical person, this isn’t how my brain works”. I think a good part of being a VA is knowing how to look things up, so I did!

Yep, absolutely.

And I found out from other people they did the same thing. “Oh I worked on it for a while and then I gave up and Googled it!”.

Totally fine, yep.

It is not necessarily about how smart you are or how your brain thinks, it is about how resourceful you are.

It worked! As you said, it will keep people who aren’t willing to put in the effort out, but it is not necessarily about how smart you are or how your brain thinks, it is about how resourceful you are.

Resourcefulness and attention to detail. If you’re not going to follow the simple directions of leaving the answer to the riddle in your inquiry, or the social media example profiles that I asked for, you don’t have to give away your personal FB or something, but show me examples of you being active, doing some cool stuff, on social media, if it is your business Pinterest account or whatever you built from scratch. I need to see some examples, and if they don’t follow the instructions, they are out before they even get the first interview.

Yeah, and when I was screening people when Josie left and we were looking for more people, the moment I got something that didn’t have the answers I just deleted them. Delete, delete, delete. And then you have, you know, about 25% is what you are left with.

And to have you take the next step with them and me not even involved with the first interview, where I get involved is the second interview. It is such a time saver. The hiring process for me is not very enjoyable. I don’t really want to do a lot of frivolous interviews of people who just don’t deserve my time. Having you do that screening was a huge timesaver. Yes, and I remember one distinct one who looked great on paper but she swore part of the way through our interview. I have a potty mouth, I’m bad, but I don’t do it in a formal interview. I thought, no, you are done. She kept pestering me later and I say, I’m sorry, we just decided not to. It was awful because I thought, what if I put you on the phone with a client? You are just going to start dropping the F-bomb. That’s not helping anybody.

Your reputation is on the line. I remember before I hired you, I tried a company out of India. I forget which one it was. It was something like GoFriday or something, it was recommended by Tim Ferriss and 4-hour work week. It was atrocious, I actually wrote a blog post about it. The emails this guy would send back was just in the most ridiculous broken English. I couldn’t have him represent me. He certainly couldn’t pretend to be me in an email, which you’ve been able to do, which is fabulous. Like “let me check my schedule and get back to you”, and it is not me saying that. As well as responding as yourself as your VA. I just can’t take that kind of risk if the person is not a native English speaker. That is just oof – scary.

Right, and if native English isn’t their language but they can still write emails in perfect English, great. But if they can’t and it is clear, that’s not good. Especially if they are pretending to be you. Because I do remember one time when you were away. You were traveling, I believe it was in Colombia, there was a little mini-crisis. And we, Josie and I together, brainstormed on how to deal with it. It just happened with the social media piece, that I had seen I think it was something with Google, everyone was getting these alerts that Google was going to penalize them with XYZ. And it panicked one of your clients completely, and I had just happened to see it on Twitter as I was on your account being you. So I did a little investigation and was able to pretend to be you and kind of modify it and checked with Hamlet to make sure I was saying it right. When he confirmed, I sent off the email, and they never knew you were traveling.

That’s brilliant.

That was the only moment where it was “I’m saying something technical and that scares me”. But I confirmed with someone else before I did. I don’t think they ever knew.

You might wonder, why Boston? I was in Madison, Wisconsin, that is where my base was. I put a Craigslist ad out to Boston and the reason why is among other places, that was one of the Craigslist locations, there were NYC and a couple of others. But I specifically chose Boston because you get the pedigree of literate smart people who are college-educated. There are a lot of colleges in Boston, a lot of universities. So, that really appealed to me. And by also incorporating in the job advert that I would like the person to have a college degree in English, that gets through a lot of the riff-raff as well.

The other good thing is that in Boston you probably have a lot of people who are partially college-educated, still going to school and still looking for something part-time. They are trying to make their way through school and they are willing and well-educated. And they are willing to work as a part-time VA around your schedule besides maybe their classes.   A big college town.

For sure. So talking about managing VAs and making sure they are productive and on task and so forth, let’s talk a bit about Odesk or now it is called UpWork or a system I use now called TimeDoctor. Let’s talk about this process and why it was important.

You trusted me and I never abused it.

Well, virtual assistants, you can’t see what they are doing. For me, it was kind of a relief that you can clock in and know that it was basically taking snapshots of my screen. It was a relief to me for not having to account for my time because it was being accounted for me right there. And you would see it. There were a few times I would forget to clock it, and I would just let you know that I’m manually putting in a little bit of time, and you were okay with that. I think it is a good one when you are taking on someone – you don’t know if you can trust me, you’ve never met me! And so I actually really liked that. After a while, you decided to switch, something that wasn’t taking snapshots any more but I think you trusted me and I never abused it. That was fine.

Right, so at the time there wasn’t a replacement that it would find that would take random screenshots. Now I found one. What Odesk does is they take 10% of everything you spend on a contractor. So if a contractor says that hey I’m $15/hr, you have to pay an additional $1.50 an hour to UpWork or the privilege of running all that through their system. On the flip side, they handle a lot of the administrative stuff for you, like the 1099 forms at the end of the year, and there’s a lot of processes they take care of for you. And they are contractors to UpWork, not to you. If you have issues with having to pay attention to what the IRS thinks of your team, are they employees or independent contractors, this could be a workaround. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an accountant, so don’t take that as legal advice or financial advice, but Odesk definitely does have a really cool business model. Which is great for somebody new that we haven’t tested, or they are still in the trial period with the organization.

Then, you switch to a tool like TimeDoctor. Before I didn’t have the screenshot capabilities. But now that I found, all of my staff who get paid directly through my bookkeeper, instead of using UpWork, they use TimeDoctor. It is just basically like UpWork, where you clock in, you clock out, and it randomly takes screenshots, it measures the activity in terms of 10 min keystrokes. So if there is all this inactivity over a 10-minute segment, you are like, what the heck happened? They are billing me for the time! It’s a really helpful thing not only for the person hiring the VA but the VA who is managing other VAs. You were managing other VAs, my current mega VA, super VA, I don’t know what to call her manages my other VAs in TimeDoctor and UpWork all the time. Checking screenshots, what are they working on, my bookkeeper also goes in to see what sorts of things are billable to my various clients and that sort of thing. This is a key, key component and a lot of people miss it.

Yeah, because I only have my VA six hours a week, so I have been trying to make sure of her time and I could take on something like that. But I think if you have a team of VAs in particular, and not somebody that you have had for a long time that you trust inherently and making sure they are working, because who knows? So.

And it is not just for VAs. My whole team is on TimeDoctor. They could be a high-level consultant. They could be a programmer, a designer, it doesn’t matter. Everybody is using Time Doctor. That is the way their time is tracked and that is how they get paid. Unless they are using UpWork.

That sounds good, that is a good way to do things.

Onboarding. Let’s say we hire somebody, give them a trial period so they don’t get locked in and then they end up being terrible. We’ve done a good job of screening them, but some people just interview really well and they sound great on paper, and they just have some quirk about them that makes it unworkable. They would have a trial period, have some sort of training as onboarding process, and you handled that as well. I didn’t have to get involved in teaching them my email and travel bookings and that sort of stuff. Let’s talk a bit about that.

Being an independent worker is really important for a VA.

Yeah, I think what helped was you already had some documents for onboarding, and before I left I think I completely rewrote them based on how you were doing things at that time. I think that helped to have processes in a word doc or to someone new and expect them to. The thing is there are little particulars that no matter what you do you are never going to be able to put it all into a word doc and so I’d always make myself available. Usually, we’d use Skype, which was really helpful. So everybody was sort of on skype with their names and I’d get messages like “how do I do this again?” or “How do I do that?”. Then I just kind of walk them through things, hopefully only once, and then they do it on their own. I think being an independent worker is really important for that kind of thing.

And an independent thinker too.

Right, because if I forgot something I would just go back through the skype scrolls and look at it and go oh! That’s how I did it. I think some people’s immediate thing is to ask again, which is a waste of both people’s time.

There are some places where you offshore, and if it is not on the checklist, it doesn’t get done And that is so frustrating. You need an independent thinker who says, “well, wait a second. We are building a car here and you didn’t add a steering wheel to the checklist, so the car is seriously going to have no steering wheel? No, that is not okay, we have got to rethink this. So if you are trying to save money on a VA and get one for $2 or $3 a hour, you get what you pay for. There is no independent thinking and I’m not in for that at all, that is not my game.

Absolutely. And I think that shows up really quickly in the trial period. If someone is capable of for one thing, hold on information in their heads, and two, being able to work a little independently and come up with things, and think of “Oh! Maybe this would help.”

Exactly, and when you are walking them through a training regimen, giving them all the documents, if you just simply hit record on your skype when you are screensharing and walking them through on this email spreadsheets, etc., now you have a video you can add to the training library. I have the call recorder app, that is what we are using right now to record this conversation! It is an app for skype, it is great! There is also screencast recording software like Fantasia, for PC and Mac. I use Screenflow for Mac and I love it, it is essential to have a video library of training materials for the onboarding process.

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Yeah, that’s what we did do while I was working with you, but that was after I was already working with you, so I didn’t have that access. But it’s good because why would you reinvent the wheel every single time.

Exactly. So let’s talk about email because this is a real bugaboo for a lot of people, I know so many people who have this insanely huge inbox, with like 10,000 emails. How can you live like that? It’s like living in an apartment full of newspapers dating back the last 15 years or something. It is just insane! How can people live like that? But all these people do! And I subscribe to the concept of inbox zero. Let’s talk about a way to manage email that is out-sourceable specifically to a trusted VA and how you managed that for me.

Well, I think you had really good labels in your Apple Mail, which was really helped. You had a lot of folders. Some of the folders when I started working for you were a little unclear, and then we would revisit how to organize them in a way that made sense to your current VAs. Once you get to a certain point, if you have a VA that’s really trusted that says “This doesn’t make sense to me, and when I’m organizing your email I’m dumping things in the wrong place”. They have the ability to say, “Well, I’m going to change it”, and let them know you are going to change it. But your labels were important, especially the ones I knew you visited, because you didn’t even look at your inbox as far as I could tell. You went to certain folders most of the time. So if I thought something was really important, I made sure it was in one of those folders. But then I would also text you or call you even if something was exceptionally important for you to see. I thought it was crazy at first that you didn’t look at your inbox or pay attention to your own email, but then I realized you were never going to do it and I was never going to get you to do it so the most important thing instead of leaving it in your inbox was letting you know where it was and that you needed to deal with it.

If you’re managing your life based on your inbox, you’re managing your life based on other people’s priorities.

There’s gold in here, right? So if you’re managing your life based on this inbox, you’re managing your life based on other people’s priorities. So you are not in control of – essentially you’ve got this big bucket and you are putting in all these little pebbles first instead of putting the big rocks in and then the pebbles will fit around the big rocks, and then the sand after that. You’re putting the pebbles in and the sand. It is urgency addiction. If I only check my email once or twice a day, that should be plenty. If something is on fire, that is what I have you for. You would give me a text or a call that says this needs to be addressed immediately”. Otherwise, you know 11 o clock or 4 pm or something. You have this regular schedule for checking your email. Otherwise, you are down this rabbit warren, wasting all this time and training your brain to have urgency addiction instead of this creative flow state. It is critically important.

Now I have a question for you. Do you have email alerts on your phone? Because my phone is constantly just beep beep beep beep.


That’s smart.

Hell no, and you turn them off on your computer too.

That’s really smart.

So I only get mail when I hit the “get mail” button.

I think I need to implement that. The problem is I get all these PR pitches and they clutter everything up. So I have hired a VA myself and one of her jobs is to sort through the real pitches that might be worth something for me to deal with versus the ones that are “hey, can you mention our product on your blog?”

Well, you know what else you can do that is more automated than that is you can set up a filter –

– a label, yeah.

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Well, you set up a filter that puts a label on the email and takes it out of your inbox if it has the phrase “for immediate release” in it. So you know, “oh, here’s one of those spammy press releases going to everybody and his brother”. That’s not important to me. It should go in a separate folder. When I have time for it I check it. Also I use Apple Mail, as you said. I don’t believe in going to Gmail on the web, as you said, I email that way because there are all sorts of issues moving entire conversations when I want one email that is midway through the thread to be in my action folder and the rest of it can be archived. Let’s just quickly talk about the folder structure because less is more. When you have too many folders, a folder for every client, it is ridiculous, it is unnecessary, and you don’t even use it. Because most stuff gets archived and you don’t need to look at it again. So I have an archives folder, I have an action folder, and I have a read/review folder, and I’m taking a page from the Getting Things Done book. Read/Review, Waiting for – if you’ve read the Getting Things Done book by David Allen, These will be things you’re familiar with. Waiting for, Next Action, Archives.

And I have now subscribed to the idea that I never really delete anything. I archive it. Because then you search your Apple Mail. You type in something. And it still comes up, even if you never really need to see it again, you can at least – you’ll probably never need to see it again, but just in case.

Air on the side of caution. I always say that. Then, a someday/maybe folder. Sometimes you may need to create an additional folder.

Well, you have one for travel or receipts.

Yes, I have one for receipts so my bookkeeper could go in and go right to the receipts folder. I had, and I still do, a travel folder, if I am going somewhere and I need to get the confirmation number for a hotel for car rental, I can go directly to that travel folder and there is only a handful of emails in there, nothing old from past travel, that is all archived in the archives. Anything that is current or upcoming – confirmation numbers, etc. all those kind of bookings, all that goes in the travel folder. So there are a few other folders that are nice to have but the real core ones are the action and the read/review, the someday/maybe, and the waiting for. The one I would always go to is the action.

Yes, the action was the place I would put something if I thought you really needed to see it, I would put it in there.

Yes, read/review is for something that is nice to know, but it is not essential. If I get an FYI on something that keeps me in the loop, like “Hey, we are having a delay with signing your statement of work, Stephan, our legal team is out and they are going to be back on Monday or something”. Nice to know, but I don’t have to respond to it. Read/review is the place for that.

Taking over somebody’s email is scary!

And I think the thing, no matter what, no matter when you hire a VA, you’re going to have a learning process. Taking over somebody’s email, which was a revolutionary idea to me at the time, is scary! So give them at least a month to start really learning where to put things. You’ll see if they are smart, if they are an independent thinker, you’ll start seeing results within a week. At first, it’ll be like “Nope, that doesn’t need to go there”, “nope, that doesn’t need to go there”, “Oops, you forgot to tell me about this”. The great thing about having a VA is if the ball does get dropped, you can say “uh oh, my VA did XYZ”, even if it wasn’t true. I often told you, “just blame me!” They don’t know me. They’ll think “Ugh, VAs!”. It’s no skin off my back. Because sometimes things get dropped. No matter what.

Right, and having this action folder and read/review folder requires constant maintenance and trimming down. Because if I’ve responded to an email and it is still sitting in my action folder and I’ve dealt with it, it is just clamoring for my attention and it doesn’t need to be, and it is distracting me. There are things that are in the action folder that need to stay there because I say “I’ll get onto this as soon as I can, I am traveling at the moment, I’m not in front of my computer.” You actually have to look at my sent folder, see what I responded with, and see “is the matter closed?”. If it is, then it goes into the archives.

Yeah, you had to cross-reference. If you are going to have a really good VA, they should be working at least 15-20 hours a week because they need to be watching your email almost all the time so they know what is going in, what needs to be responded to, what is going out. I mean I found that knowing your email was critical to my own peace of mind because then I could be like, if I knew what was going on quickly at a glance, then it shortens my work time, then having to cross-reference. I did end up crossreferencing a lot of the time, but if I didn’t need to because I knew what was coming in and going out, then that helped a lot. I actually put your email on my phone so I knew what was going on.

Oh, I miss you. So let’s talk about other kinds of systems that will really help out somebody who is going to hire a VA, or as I suggest a team of VAs so you have that redundancy. We talked about systems for onboarding, training, screening, and email. Let’s talk about appointments. Call appointments, in-person appointments, and so forth. I use Google Calendar. I have it synced with my phone, I have an iPhone in the settings so that my Calendar app uses Google Calendar data. So when I set something in the Calendar app on my phone, it shows up in Google Calendar. Then you would have access to my Google Calendar to add new appointments, reschedule, and so forth, and then it would show up on my phone, as long as I had internet on my phone at the time. I could be flying on a plane or so forth. It could be problematic if there is no wifi.

In most cases, I have internet 24/7 and it would show the latest stuff that I needed to do. So a couple of things I’ll mention, then I’ll pass it on to you to show the intricacies of this. One is if it is going to be a same-day appointment you are scheduling, on an iPhone at least, I have to go into the Calendar app, then it synchs, and then I see the latest stuff. If you were to have set up an appointment for an hour from now and I didn’t know about it, because I didn’t continually check my calendar app, so you’d have to text me and call me if I didn’t respond to the text that “Hey, that call we’ve been trying to set up for all this time, it came through at it is at 3 o’clock. You really need to be there for it. That was a learning process, I did pick that one up on the school of hard knocks, unfortunately.

One of the hardest parts onboarding was teaching people to be really careful with the time zones on your calendar and watching for it.

That’s when if you miss it, you go “Oh, my VA. ” I’m serious. But one of the biggest things on your calendar was that people were in different time zones. You were in a different time zone than I was. And so I always had to be thinking, normally Google Calendar, when you would land in someplace, you’d be flying somewhere and land somewhere. Once you synch it should automatically update into the timezone. And that can throw off someone who is in a different time zone, when oh it was in PST but suddenly it is in CST now. So you have to be careful with that. I got burned a couple of times, or you got burned because of me, because I messed up the time zones. And so that was one of the hardest parts onboarding was teaching people to be really careful with the time zones on your calendar and watching for it.

And one thing I do that I’m careful about is when I arrive somewhere, I don’t change my, the web interface, to the time zone that I am in. If you are not used to this time zone I am in and suddenly it throws everything off and then you are trying to set up something two weeks from now when I am back in my normal time zone, it is just too much chaos and having to rethink something. So my time zone on my Google calendar is always Pacific time.

Another thing that would be tricky is flights into different time zones. Particularly, when I worked for you, you flew a couple of times to Australia. I found a method that I tried to teach everyone after me. It was to put it in for where you were departing from, usually LA. Then what I’d do is I wouldn’t try to figure out when you were landing in Australia, I would use the flight time, and I’d use that to schedule the entire flight so that it showed that you were landing in the time zone you wanted it to be in. So I didn’t have to try to sit back going “okay it is really one day before but now you are one day ahead”. International date line crazy ones. It was easier to just but the flight time in.

And you know what is just a beautiful thing now, it’s automatic that Google provides assuming that you are using Google Apps for business, it used to be free and you’d be grandfathered way back when but. It is very affordable, and if you are running your email through Google mail and your google calendar and so forth, it is all integrated. Google is smart enough to sniff for these travel bookings and things. They actually pull the flight time, the departure, the arrival, and they put it on your calendar automatically now!

That is so nice. I need to start doing that. It didn’t do it back in the day.

I always get it right now because it is being pulled automatically by Google and added to my Google calendar.

Getting back to scheduling in general, one of the things that was also really – there were times where you had a lot of client calls, and the good thing to do I found was to give you a little bit of time between them if possible. Back to back worked some of the time if you were going to be completely on schedule but often that wasn’t the case. So to book in a little bit of extra time for one call knowing the next was coming.

Kind of getting into the head of the client, of the boss, is so important. Because if this is an in-person appointment, hey, there is travel time involved. Hey, what about traffic because it is rush hour? It might be hard for Stephan to do a call that requires him to be in front of the computer like a GoToMeeting that is showing some stuff on the screen. Can’t do that in the car. Thus we need to allow enough for the travel time, given where he is going and traffic at that time of day and stuff.

Always have a buffer space when scheduling a call or appointment in the calendar.

The other thing I think we did that was really important, probably screwed it up a few times but got the hang of it was you wanted who was calling who, and even if you were calling them, the number where they could be reached just in case. The amount of information you had on those appointments was critical because you know if something went awry, you could fix it. You don’t have to contact me and say “what’s going on?”. You could look up. There was definitely some confusion, when you are booking appointments like that and somebody says – I got to the point when I was scheduling things for you with a client, I would respond to them and say “he will call you at this time, in case, here’s a number.” Things like that. And putting all that in the Google calendar. What I used to do was cut and paste the email so you’d know that I had already said these things.

That’s really handy. Also just as a failsafe, I should always have access to the latest admin email password, because when you are sending emails, there is this generic virtual assistant email account. It is So when you’re sending emails trying to set up appointments or whatever for me, you are doing it as you but using the generic admin email account, signing with your name. They respond back to that email address and so forth. If the details get lost, I don’t know what’s happening, if the person confirmed or not, it still says “tentative” on the schedule, I can jump into the admin account. I don’t normally have it set up on Apple Mail, I have to jump onto the web and use the web interface to access that admin account.

But I can quickly see the thread and that “Oh, the prospect dropped the ball and didn’t confirm the time”. That is why they aren’t showing up and are 15 minutes late. Having things back to back is a critical lesson we had to learn when I started offering 15-minute mini-site reviews. I would speak at a conference and I’d offer that for the first x amount of people. A little SEO site critique. And if they were back to back and the person was a few minutes late, or if I couldn’t cut them off right at the time, then my next call would be late, and my next call would be late because I wanted to give them the 15 minutes I promised. You have got to have some buffer space in there.

I remember scheduling those calls very well. Those were tough, but we pulled it off!

Speaking of buffer space, that reminds me of this concept I learned from Taki Moore about buffer days. Buffer days, focus days, and free days. I don’t know if this is something you apply in your life, but I find if I have stuff happening throughout the week in terms of call appointments and prospect calls, and all that kind of stuff then you’re essentially putting all the little pebbles in first and not saving room for the big rocks, those big creative projects. You could operate on a manager schedule, which is like that, or you could operate on a maker’s schedule, which is where we pulled out huge chunks of time to be creative and you do it in a time where you are going to be inflow. Not when you are tired or whatever, but when you are at peak performance.

And then you can just create all this great stuff. Get back to work on your great American novel or whatever. And if everything is broken up by all these phone calls and things like that, we end up not having this mental space. And you can Google this too. Maker schedule vs. Manager schedule. Buffer day, focus day, free day. A buffer day is where you have all these little interruption type calls throughout the day. A focus day is for big blocks of time to really get in the flow. Focus day is when you are filming your information product or writing the workbook for your upcoming seminar or whatever. You’re stuck in this project. The final day, which is the one we all forget I’d say, is free days where you take the entire day off, you unplug, you’re not checking your email and so forth you’re hanging out with the family or you’ve got mental space. You’re going fishing or whatever.

For me, I find that the afternoons, because I create recipes, when I do that best. So I just enjoy that time. Mornings are just spent on self-promotion and social media. So I end up kind of breaking them up not in so many days but chunks of time.

What you want to achieve this year is completely different when you go 5 years into the future.

According to this model, you focus the whole day. And you take breaks so you can recharge your batteries. You take meal breaks and if you follow the Pomodoro method, you take 20- or 45-minute chunks and then you take your break and so forth. So just getting focused in on a particular outcome for the day that is like a bigger goal instead of all these little things. It is basically similar to figuring out your day based on your email inbox. It is what you want to achieve this year or 5 years. Completely different outcomes if you go 5 years into the future. Just something to think at for our listeners. How do you manage your time besides listening to your biorhythms and thinking, well, I’m going to be more of at a peak state in the afternoon, so I’m going to focus on my recipe creation then instead of the morning? Beyond that, how do you manage your time for maximizing creativity?

I think that I get sucked in by the little things easily, and get panicked by the little things easily. But then as I was mentioning to you before we started the podcast, one of the things that have really helped me is thinking “Well, jeez. I don’t really need to do any of this. I’m my own boss.” And if I decide I’m going to skip a recipe this week and my readers only get 2 recipes instead of 3, so be it! It gives me a little sanity. So I am kind of coming to that realization after putting myself into a schedule. Perhaps a slightly rigid schedule that was making me a little unhappy. Realizing I can blow it off if I feel like it. Granted, I have the luxury to do that now, and I don’t feel the pressure as much. But yes, reminding myself that this is – I do this because I love it, and I don’t want to hate it.

I think this is an important distinction for our listeners who are looking to hire a VA. If you hire somebody who has a high attention to detail, such as Carolyn, and you also who hires somebody who really cares – like you really care, Carolyn. I love that about you, and that is a feeling of safety for me because if – you’re not just going to say, I’m out, I’m with my kids at a baseball game and he is about to go to bat. You get this notice that all my sites are down, and you are in a panic. You’ve gotta have somebody like that.

It’s not so much balance for the VA, but it is a great balance for you. It is funny because I don’t consider myself as having great attention to detail. But that is just because I’m kind of all over and I fly by the seat of my pants, in my life. But it is funny when I am working for someone, I am not going to let things fall. They are not going to fall on my watch. If it is somebody else’s watch and it falls, not my problem. But I’m going to shut my mind to it. Even then, you’re right. I would get your email to my phone and I’m not even supposed to be working. Somebody else is supposed to be covering it. But I’d be checking it. Absolutely. You need somebody that isn’t just going to blow you off. Sometimes they have to because of their kid or whatever. But as a general rule, they are not going to blow you off.

Sure. So let’s talk about the Chris Ducker principles of the 3 lists of freedom. We were just talking about this before the recording. Those things are the things that you don’t like, the things that you can’t do, and the things you should not be doing. By creating this list of these three types of things, just take a blank sheet of paper with three columns, that sort of thing, you can get a shortlist of all the things you should be delegating to a VA or outsourced team. And I just love that principle. What were some things you remember I didn’t like doing?

You didn’t like – that’s a good one, let me think for a second. Well, you already mentioned you didn’t like staring at a blank page and writing part. But that wasn’t a can’t. Because I saw some of your own writing and it was quite good.

Right, so this first list is a don’t like. It doesn’t mean I’m not awesome at it, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing it. I just don’t like doing it. Therefore I don’t want to do it, I’m not going to do it.

You taught me really well on how to book your travel. You certainly didn’t like doing that yourself. You just wanted me to come up with a couple of options for you. And they were done, and then you could choose like 3 options.

When you hire somebody. You train them and upscale them. Then you develop trust.

This is so critical when you hire somebody. You train them and upscale them and everything. Then you develop trust. Once the trust is there, so many more options become available to delegate and to defer to the VA. It is an amazing freeing sort of thing. I am of course trusting enough that I give my email to my trusted VAs. Not every VA gets access to my email, you have to earn that trust. Eventually, the VA that proves himself or herself to be highly trustworthy can have access to my credit cards or passwords and so forth. You Carolyn even had access to my OnePassword.

As I recall, I was the only person who had access to that.

You’re still the only person I’ve given that to.

Wow, I’m impressed! I remember other people working for you, Michael doing a lot of technical site stuff, and he would have to come through me if he needed a password. I’ve guarded that one with my life. In fact, I still have the notebook buried deep where I wrote a lot of your quick passwords where I had to write them down quickly for myself. And I don’t even – it’s made the move from Boston to Portland Oregon. Because I’m not going to mess with that. If you put that trust with me to not blow it. Your credit cards and everything, not that I would have them anymore, but still. You know, that was like to the grave. That goes to my grave. But you doled them out solely. It got to the point where I kept having to ask you for passwords, and you finally went “here”.

Here are the keys to the kingdom. For those of you who don’t know OnePassword, It is one password that is an app. That is for the Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad. It all syncs between these different versions. I can add a new password into my phone and it will sync to all my devices and to any installation where, let’s say I’m using Dropbox for the location of my encrypted password file is. Then, your VA has access to that Dropbox folder. They have your master password. It should not be easily guessed, and should not be the same password you use for anything else because that is really the keys to the kingdom.

Then they will have access to that encrypted file on that dropbox that you’ve shared with them. To anything that is in that one password file. That includes software licenses, credit cards, bank accounts, and the account numbers, the routing numbers, and of course all my passwords, the randomly generated passwords that are not easily cracked. That is such an incredibly timesaving and lifesaving app. If you’re using the same password across multiple websites, you’re just asking for trouble.

Once someone has the passwords to the things you may not enjoy doing, you can really hand off so much.

Yep. I think as you said with the “don’t like”. Once someone has the passwords to the things you may not enjoy doing, you can really hand off so much.

So I didn’t like starting from scratch on articles and blog posts. I’m a speaker who writes, not a writer who speaks, that’s an important distinction. I learned. Things that I can’t do –

I don’t know.

I can pretty much do anything, right?

Of course.

Please go on.

You’re brilliant, you’re handsome. No, I don’t know, what can’t you do? I can’t touch my toes, that is a physical thing no one could do for me anyway. I think that the can’t do is a tough problem to fill out.

Not if you know yourself. For me, I can fill that problem pretty quickly. For example, there is a lot of stuff in InfusionSoft that I can’t do and I don’t have any interest in learning.

Oh, so you are talking about the technical sides of things.

Sure, it could be technical, it could be that I’m just not a good proofreader. Although I am, just for the sake of argument. Just something that I can’t do it.

Right, for on my end, a lot of the technical blog stuff I have a web designer that does that for me. I say “Can you do this now?”.

Tricking out all the settings inside the Yoast SEO plugin on your WordPress. Probably not the thing you would do yourself. You would outsource that.

No, because I do even look it up and try, I’m probably going to break it.

And things you should not be doing.

Little things that take up too much of my time.

Things that are not of your best use.

One thing that I use my VA for is scheduling other people’s work on my Pinterest account. Pinterest is built on visual stuff. I’m friends with a ton of other bloggers. And they share mine and I share theirs. But I don’t like to spend time scheduling it because it is really time-consuming and very boring. So I pass that to her. What about you?

I was smart enough to delegate it because I knew should not be doing it.

Things that I should not be doing. Social media. It’s like a big-time suck for me. If I get stuck on Facebook, an hour will just disappear. What happened? I was going to be so productive today and I just blew it. So getting somebody to take over my Facebook, even my personal Facebook, and all my other social media. We use Hootsuite and all the posts, all the tweets, and posts get scheduled up and sent out on Hootsuite. That gets me out of all the different accounts. If I need a big overhaul of my Pinterest account which I did, to have someone like you who is really familiar, a power user, in fact, go in and tweak things and built out that account, delete pinboards, rename pinboards, add new pinboards, add thousands of more pins. I have at least 5,000 pins now, and I only did a few hundred of them. Probably 300 more than I should have done. But the fact is I was smart enough to delegate it because I knew should not be doing it. That’s not my highest best use.

I have another suggestion for you. You were going to speak on Pinterest, and you reached out to me and said, “Hey, want to give me like 10 great tips for using Pinterest?”.

That was even after you left, and I was like “No, please! I need you to help me with this thing that I’m not an expert on!”.

I mean it is like, you can sound like an expert if you are given the tips. Right after I gave those tips to you they changed a whole bunch of things and did the smartfeed on Pinterest. Which changed everything of course.

I should send you my deck to update for next year. Just kidding! Let’s kind of do a bit of a lightning round. We’re getting up to an hour and I want to make sure this isn’t too long here. You handled things like personal stuff. Finding me a place to live in Santa Monica when I was moving from Manhattan with my fiancee. So talk briefly about – some people say “VAs are only for my business stuff”. And not my personal stuff. What are your thoughts on that?

Honestly, you were paying me pretty good money. I didn’t mind doing that stuff, that is kind of fun. My father has had a long long time assistant who has done so much for our family, and I used to joke that I was the Lynn Holiday for Stephan Spencer instead of John Curry. Because she did everything. When we were kids, she would help us find things, she’d reach out and -she’d just do everything. That’s how I considered it. I know some people can say it is only business, but honestly having your personal life things in place helped you run your business. So I think the apartments in Santa Monica, I had to know you pretty well by then to know what you’d want though. When I first started working for you and you were looking for a new place to live in Madison. That was a lot trickier because I had no idea what you really wanted. Once I had worked for you for a while, I could instantly go “This place would be good, this place would be good, this place would suck”. That was a lot easier.

Having your personal life things in place helped you run your business.

The bottom line with that is if you’re willing to take that leap and say I’m willing to have my VA do personal things for me as well, it frees you up. There are so many more things that can go in that 3 lists of freedom. Things you don’t like doing, things you can’t do, things you should not be doing. So, I shouldn’t be doing my own laundry. I shouldn’t give that to a VA, but I could give that to a TaskRabbit. I don’t assemble my own furniture if I buy something. I bought a standing desk from Amazon. I have no interest in assembling that myself, that is not my highest best use. So my VA found a TaskRabbit on with experience assembling furniture to come to assemble it for me. I didn’t have to schedule the thing, my VA handled everything up to the guy showing up at the door with his tools and doing his thing.

And that your VA could be quite good at it I’m sure. These days with Uber and all these crazy things. You can find anyone online to do just about anything.

Yep. Let’s say you have an elderly parent that needs help with stuff and you just can’t get to them all the time. There’s There are so many services out there. Everything is uberfied. It is really cool. Let’s talk briefly about what Tony Robbins calls the three different types of people. There are manager/leaders, there are artists, there are entrepreneurs. Which one are you? I know the answer.

You’re telling me I’m an artist, and I would agree, for the most part, I have a little bit of the streaks of other things. But that is probably where I fall. I think working for you was actually perfect because it gave me some income while I was building my blog and my artistry.

Right. But if you are not wired as a manager/leader and you are trying to fit yourself into that box, you are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It just is not going to work. That’s going to be ugly. Know how you are wired and then really focus on those strengths. Don’t worry about those weaknesses, other people will do that for you. So, I don’t like managing staff and so I would delegate that to you.

Know how you are wired and then really focus on those strengths. Don’t worry about those weaknesses, other people will do that for you.

Right, you would.

You’re the one who would find the replacement VA.

It is interesting because you would have to find a VA that you can mold into what you need them to be without a lot of extra work. You’re going to have to do some, you’re going to have to play the manager role for a while, but you should be able to give it up as soon as possible.

Alright, so last question. So what would be your 3 biggest tips that you would want our listeners on either hiring a VA, or being a VA, or just delegating in general?

We’ve said it so many times. If you’re hiring a VA, it won’t happen automatically, but finding somebody you can trust is crucial. And when we were finding people as a replacement for me and as a replacement for Josie, we kind of went through people pretty quickly. And you had a gut instinct. I don’t want this person, this isn’t working. Sometimes I would wonder why, but I get that now. I think if you can’t almost automatically trust them, it is not worth your extra time. That’d be my top tip.

I’ll help you with another one we were talking about before the podcast. The distinction between a to-do list and a get to-do list.

Yes, and I’m not so good at that, but I’m learning. I’m going to listen to this podcast again. Seriously because you have got to hand off more things to have your get to-do list. I have so many things I want to do before the holidays come and I am already realizing I’m short on time. That means I’m going to have to let go of some of the posts I thought I would have up before Christmas. If mint-chocolate whatever comes out after Christmas, it comes out after Christmas.

It’s a mindset shift. If you look at your To-do list as this huge burden, it sucks all of the joy out of the fact that you are calling your own shots. It’s not a to-do list, it is a get to-do list because you are in control of your life and where you spend your time. You get to do these things. Right? You have this thing on your to-do list of writing a book proposal and you are dreading that, but a mindset shift shows that this is a get to do the thing. How many people have a book under their own name? And I could do that, I chose too.

On the other side of that, there are certain parts of it, like I don’t love writing. I’ve discovered now that I can hand it off to somebody else.

Yeah, if it is part of the three lists of freedoms, that you do not enjoy, let’s say doing the market research, give that to your VA.

My third tip would be letting go. I know that it is really – part of my problem with my own business is that I’m the only one that really knows how to answer some of the questions my readers ask me. That can be really tricky to hire a VA and have her manage some things for me like social media where people might be asking questions I don’t really trust her to answer. Not because she’s not good, but because she doesn’t know the material like I do. I have to let go of some of that. If a question doesn’t get answered instantly, it doesn’t get answered instantly. Letting go and giving some of the things to the VA and trusting that they will do a good job with it. You can try to hold on too tightly for fear of them not doing it the exact same way you would.

And that really holds us back. If you’re a control freak and a micromanager, pointy-haired boss, I remember that Dilbert cartoon where the pointy-haired boss is standing behind Dilbert who is in front of his computer and his hand is on the mouse and the pointy-haired boss’s hand is on top of Dilbert’s on the mouse. You do not want to be that kind of micromanager. You do have to let go and let God, as they say.

Learn to let go of some things.

So letting go is a big one, if you are the person hiring, you have to learn to let go of some things.

Very cool. Well, this has been a torrent of valuable advice and insight into an often hidden world of the VA and client relationship. I really appreciate your openness and I’m sure our listeners do as well. So thank you again, Carolyn, it was just an absolute pleasure to have you on.

It was my pleasure too, thank you for inviting me! I’m still thrilled that I rank up there as the best VA.

Absolutely. So, everyone thanks for listening, catch us on the next episode also. Be sure to go to our website for a full transcript of this episode and even a checklist that summarizes and synopsizes some of these great tips we’ve talked about on this episode. See you on the next one!

Important Links

Checklist of Actionable Takeaways

?Start looking for a VA – either through a VA service, or put up an ad on Craigslist.

?Put a riddle in the job posting that applicants must answer – if they don’t answer it, dump their application.

?Get your VA to manage your email so your email doesn’t manage you. Use folders to know exactly what is the highest priority when you access your email.

?Try out a time tracking software such as TimeDoctor or UpWork to make sure your VAs are staying productive.

?Make your own sheet of your 3 lists of freedom to find what you can delegate – things you don’t like to do, things you can’t do, things you shouldn’t be doing.

?Try a system that separates your day into buffer days, focus days, and free days to make the delineate your focus and workflow throughout the week.

?Have your VA manage your calendar and put in details of your meetings and calls such as call-in number, time zone, etc. and sync it to your phone so you are always in the know.

?Try out OnePassword as a great way to keep all your information safe and accessible in one place.

?Find out what kind of person you are – manager, artist, or entrepreneur, and base some of your delegation on that type.

?If you’re comfortable, allow your VA to do some personal tasks for you. I’ve had VAs manage and organize a full cross-country move for me!

About Carolyn Ketchum

Carolyn Ketchum is the writer and creator of, a popular blog dedicated to low-carb, gluten-free recipes. She was my former VA.


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