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Virtual Professionals: A Demographic Snapshot

(1st in a three part series) (Part 2) (Part 3)

Virtual professionals are a relatively new phenomena in the workforce, and all indications are that it could potentially become the norm in the 21st century. The information age presented technology that allows people to work for anyone, anywhere, assuming the right infrastructure is in place. Although some of us were working virtually prior to the turn of the century, a full eighty percent did not begin working that way until 1999. This wave corresponds with the availability of computer technology and affordable, high speed Internet access. Nearly everyone interviewed was the owner or co-owner of their own business, and nearly seventy percent of these virtual professionals became entrepreneurs simultaneously with becoming virtual professionals.

So, who are these virtual professionals? The majority of people working virtually were in the 36 to 45 year old range, with the twenties close behind making nearly eighty percent between 25 and 45 years old. Although the survey was conducted across a broad range of business related forums, a number of respondents said they were virtual assistants (VAs), a relatively new industry in its own right. Building on the concept of secretaries and administrative assistants in the traditional workforce, VAs perform business services and administrative tasks for other professionals. Virtual professionals were also consultants, web designers, programmers, graphic artists and writers. The trades which typically are creative, intellectual and autonomous lend themselves to virtual professions. It will be interesting to see in the future whether the number of other professions entering the virtual world grows to meet the vast number of virtual assistants prepared to help them!

Scott Allen, a multi-preneur and Entrepreneurs Guide, managed distributed teams for an enterprise software company prior to setting out on his own. Suzette Flemming, Flemming Business Services, transitioned into her 100% virtual business from part time telecommuting as a teacher and office manager. Most virtual assistants worked in offices, as secretaries and assistants, and already had the right skills to be able to deliver services before pulling the plug and going to work virtually. Indeed, most virtual professionals had a career which in some way prepared them for this way of life and work - even Blaine Hilton, a computer consultant, said his brief stint as a carpet cleaner provided the motivation for wanting to be self employed!

Not surprisingly, ninety-six percent of the virtual professionals were based in home offices. This is not unusual for small businesses; for some this is a stepping stone and for others, a permanent lifestyle. Many had home offices already set up and found the transition easy once the Internet technology became available. Some, like Janice Byer at Docu-Type Administrative & Web Design Services, had both the corporate and entrepreneurial experience working for her dad but "didn't want to 'go out' to work when he retired." The majority of virtual professionals are solo entrepreneurs without any employees.

Thirty percent of the virtual professionals said that child care was the major factor in starting their business, and for sixty percent, their business provides their sole income. Women working at home with small children in the background have their own unique challenges, but imagine the education their children will get about entrepreneurship. Renae Bolton, owner of Triple J WordProcessing Co., left the office to fix her son a snack and he called out "Mom - one of your clients is blinking you!" when an Instant Message came in.

A virtual professional can be anywhere on the planet, again assuming the technology is available, and for that reason, the survey purposefully did not collect geographic information from the respondents. However, the survey respondents came from global networking environments online in order to get a diverse response. Although the United States was a leader, a significant number of virtual professionals were from Australia and Canada.

Working virtually can be a challenge, and without the right technology, it can be downright impossible. In the next two articles of this series, we will look at the perks and perils of working this way, and later, what tools and technologies are popular amongst virtual professionals in 2003.

Eileen Parzek conducted an online survey of 70 virtual professionals around the world to gather information for this article. Ms. Parzek is a graphic designer and writer providing marketing and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio ( specializes in helping big thinking small businesses market and grow with technology.

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