Virtual personal assistants help businesses outsource their tasks saving them time and money which they can utilize to run their business. Pakistan has a big global online gig industry which means many freelancers work as virtual personal assistants for companies abroad. Amazon has a huge virtual assistants’ market in the country. Platforms like Enablers provide training for people who wish to become a virtual assistant mostly because it pays them well. Countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are known to be the hub for businesses seeking cheap outsourcing facilities. It is a win-win situation for the employers and freelancers as the former gets access to virtual assistants at a very low cost while the latter is well paid in their local currency.
A virtual assistant provides various services to entrepreneurs or businesses from a remote location. From digital marketing tasks, scheduling appointments and managing events to personal errands. A virtual assistant can perform a wide variety of tasks creating convenience for the company and a lucrative income for the assistant.
According to the Global Virtual Assistant Market 2021-2025 report , the virtual assistant market is poised to grow by $4.12 billion during 2021-2025, progressing at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of almost 12%. Virtual assistant market also includes Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered assistants (also known as digital assistants), which are application programs that understand natural language voice commands and complete tasks for the user. The North American market for VA services is expected to rise sharply as the region enjoys a high adoption rate of advanced technology and presence of the tech leaders. For Pakistan, this represents a high paying opportunity for home based virtual assistant jobs.
HandyVA is a startup that is tapping into this niche by connecting personal virtual assistants to companies and individuals searching for such services. Its co-founder, Areeba (a contestant for Accelerator Program for Women Entrepreneurs (APWE)), used to do a 9 to 5 job which she found very difficult to manage. She was exhausted to an extent that she decided to take a break. During this break she came across a remote virtual assistant job opportunity. Remote at a time when it was not that common (pre-COVID). She took the opportunity and it proved to be much more manageable and productive for her. She built a very strong reputation of professionalism among her clients. One of them really pushed her to consider the idea of making her own startup around VAs in Pakistan. This really resonated with Areeba because she realized that there was a large number of capable professional women who faced the exact same challenges as her in following a 9 to 5 routine.
Areeba saw how women mostly ended up quitting their jobs after failing to manage regular, full time jobs with familial responsibilities. Most of the women leaving their jobs felt that they had no other options besides just leaving their job. Hence a virtual assistant job could really help them. That is when she co-founded HandyVA. The startup provides administration related services through its pool of virtual assistants who are mostly women. Women who are either studying or are married and others who find a remote job much more convenient. Currently the company has its clientele outside of Pakistan. “The idea of virtual assistance exists in Pakistan but it is mostly outsourcing tasks to freelancers. Many freelancers work as virtual assistants but rarely for local companies as employers get full-time employees at a lesser cost than virtual assistants in Pakistan.” says Areeba.
Employers can hire an executive in Pakistan at a much lower cost due to the high rate of unemployment. “But there is a silver lining when I talk about my own company, I can easily say that a VA can prove to be much more effective. I am also in talks with a few Pakistani companies who are interested in outsourcing some of their tasks to our VAs.” added her. But the idea of a VA job is much more attractive to freelancers as it pays them well if the client is outside of Pakistan. Yet managing this sort of client base and connecting employers with VAs across borders has its own set of challenges.
“The biggest challenge for us is the absence of an international payment gateway in Pakistan like PayPal through which we could make recurring payments.” says Areeba. “Because of its absence I had to register my company in the US, I have to pay double taxes. I then opted for Stripe payment gateway integration which is another international payment gateway. But the entire chain costs me so much that 7 percent of my revenue goes into this.” she added.
Areeba is not the only startup founder who is facing this problem. The Pakistani freelancing community and e-commerce players have repeatedly put pressure on the government to bring PayPal to the country. Former finance minister Asad Umar had also shown commitment to facilitating PayPal’s arrival. However, in the year 2019 the US company informed Pakistan that it would not come to the country.
Fulfilling the legalities is another obstacle for Areeba. “We are a technology based company and do not have a proper office yet SECP has so many requirements that we need to fulfill in order to operate which I believe needs to be reviewed if the Government is serious in facilitating startups and creating ease of doing business in Pakistan. We are definitely okay with abiding by whatever legalities we are bound with but I believe the procedures are all over the place and there is no single fathomable pipeline” Areeba mentioned while talking about the challenges her company faces. The long term goal of Handy VA is to acquire more clients and hire more women after training them for a virtual assistant job.
There are only a handful of companies in Pakistan that act as a liaison between VAs and companies/personnel seeking VA services. Given Pakistan’s unemployment rate, these connections could really help in providing gainful employment as well as steering the economy upwards.
Areeba has been a part of various entrepreneurial training programs and finds them to be very helpful. Her startup is currently seeking investments, Areeba believes that programs like that of APWE are really helpful in letting her identify and concentrate on the most important parts of her startup. “You need to be very realistic with your numbers. Your financial model must be realistic factoring in all important cost and revenue aspects.” said Areeba while talking about the areas that a startup founder must focus on. Areeba believes that the training sessions of APWE have really helped her have more clarity in her goals. She believes that APWE can provide a real breakthrough for her business as it gives her the focus and tools to succeed and scale her business.