Read this from top to bottom to find a path to success built on a pillar of failure.

You are busy. You are valuable to the organization. There are things that you are uniquely good at. This process will help you focus on those things. Invest in freeing your time, and reap huge benefits as your productivity increases through the systemization of your repetitive tasks.

Goal: Create a transformative experience that increases your productivity 80%.

For any information related task, find a mechanism to discover information workers, assign the work, and get 80% of the quality of results in 20% of the time of doing each step manually yourself.

There are many resources espousing the benefits and mechanisms for finding a virtual assistant. Some of the best:


Outsource Entrepreneur

This document is about the specific tactics used to find a virtual assistant to help with biotechnology research related tasks. The main assumption to be tested is that the search, identification and collation of data can be outsourced. The first step is to identify a goal, and then walk through each portion of the creation step manually. Then, once the variation in research paths has been reduced to a known set of states, (including an 'unknown' state), apply quantification metrics to each end state. Communicate the exact process to potential candidates, and then evaluate their performance quantitatively.

Here's a quick example of what not to do:

Go into a local life sciences research library funded by the state's biotech program. Ask for help finding market research reports on diffraction gratings. Watch as they type in 'defraction grading' into a life sciences database search tool and get zero results.

This is not their fault - this is your fault. This is an under specification of search requirements, coupled with poor communication on your part.

A better example is:

Search google for "diffraction grating" with quotes
Click the company page
Click products
Find any diffraction grating
    none available? -> Go to next google result
    At least one available?
        Create a new google doc for that company
        Append every diffraction grating specification of size, lpmm,
        center wavelength and cost on a new row in the google
        Add the company name to the main diffraction grating research
        Add a link to the company specific google doc to the main
        diffraction grating research document.

Understand that this level of verbosity is not demeaning. This specification of exact work products and steps to achieve them is exactly what is required for effective collaboration. They have deep, valuable skills in interpreting difficult to read web pages and understanding where to find the information you are looking for. Leverage their capabilities by first establishing a highly detailed set of rules for building a shared language of activities.

The goal here is to eliminate the task as a variable. You're looking to refine your candidates by spending approximately 500$ and 80 hours collectively. What you're testing here is not your ability to write a coherent task, but rather which candidates can communicate effectively immediately. Then you take it to phase two where you interview them in person and share more of the strategic direction to see what level of insight they can provide.

Day 1: Post job, invite candidates
Day 2: Screen candidate responses
Day 3: Screen candidate responses, evaluate estimates
Day 4: Screen candidate responses, evaluate estimates
Day 5: Qualify results

At the end of day 5, you'll have a list of all the companies that make volume phase holographic gratings. Ideally they will have found new companies, if not you've at least had a bunch of eyes searching for the same thing.

They also have a spreadsheet that lists all of the diffraction gratings from the company, along with costs and size and lpmm, etc.

This is the data on which you can build your knowledge. You're strategic goals are to understand the direct competitors. What you will then be in a unique position to do is look at the competitors and see where their products compare directly in specification to ours.

That's the analysis you will do. The theory here is that because I will outsource the collection, it will be faster than if I do it myself.

Then instead of a countless iteration of manually checking websites to collate the data and fighting off fatigue, I'm meeting with people and utilizing my unique strengths.

Details for actual posting on

Write the full job text first:

Title: Find the names and product listing of transmission diffraction grating companies.

Follow the steps below and stop after 3 hours and share your results.

Search google for "transmission diffraction grating" without the quotes

Ignore google scholar links.
Ignore google image links.
Ignore 'people also ask' links.

The Stop List, Found List, and gratings list is available on this google

1. Select the next link of the google results
2. Is link in 'Stop list'?
    Yes -> Go back to step 1.
    No -> go to step 3
3. Is link in the 'Found list'
    Yes -> Go to back to step 1
    No -> Go to step 4
4. Add the link to the Found List:
    Open the 'Found List' tab of the google sheet.
    Add the company name and the url
    Continue to step 5
5. Find a list of transmission gratings on the links' website. 

For each grating found, update the "Gratings List" tab of the

Equivalents for lpmm column include: lines/mm, l/mm, groove density.

Equivalents for diffraction efficiency column include: efficiency, absolute

If the links website is not a company (for example an education page
about gratings), add to the 'Stop List' and go back to step 1.

If the links website is a company, but does not have gratings for sale,
add to the 'Stop List' and go back to step 1.

If the links website is a company with gratings for sale but does not
have one of the fields of specification, fill in the value with NA.

7. If this is link 1-39 processed, go back to step 1. Otherwise, continue
to step 8.
8. If this is the 40th link processed, stop the entire process, share

The first example of the results populated are shown in the google drive
document. Edmund optics is a good example because it lists the required
fields for each grating. These gratings are all transmission gratings,
not reflective gratings.

Only include transmission gratings in the document. Here are examples of
reflective gratings, do not include these or any like them:

Stop after 3 hours and share your results.

Thank you for your fastest reply.

Posting the job

Go to

Jobs -> Post a job
Create a new job post

More specifc -> Market Research -> Competitive market research

Name job posting: Find the names and product listing of transmission diffraction grating companies.

Describe work to be done: The full job post from above

No Attachments
On-going projects
I need to hire more than one freelancer, select 5.
Select start date today
Pay by the hour
Entry level
Make sure the job is not-weekly. That is, it starts and then it ends and
does not repeat on a weekly basis.
Less than 1 week
Less than 30 hours a week
Only freelancers I have invited can view job
Yes, require a cover letter

Add a screening question of: 
Please respond with what you plan to do to get started and when you will
stop and share your results.

Click "Post Job"

Search for candidates:

    Search for a keyword from an education field that would include the
        subject, for example "physics".
    Set the filters to the following settings:
        Hourly rate: $10 and below
        Earned amount: 1K+
        Freelancer type: Independent freelancer
        Location: Asia
Look through each candidates short biography. If they contain any of the
keywords listed below, invite them to the job:

Data Entry
Technical report writing
Academic writing
information extraction
attention to detail
graduate of BS physics (anything indicating an actual Physics degree,
has to be BS or higher)

At first pass, this has produced about a 90% invite rate. Have invited 26 out of the first 30 entries.

This did not produce good results. This was a failure. The best results you had was a cut and paste job from Susil 3 hours at 6$/hour that would have taken you maybe 1 hour at most.

Well, maybe it wasn't a failure. It just feels like it's the wrong person. That it's not an ultra-refined process so you need to spend alot more, but you don't have a budget for alot more. Hmm.. If my time is worth 50/hour, then every hour I save at 45/hour is still coming out ahead.

Failure of upwork process due to lake of refinement

2017-12-26 13:15 I'm not clear enough about what is plain processing according to rules, and what requires inuitive savvy that truly represents your value.

Working backward - the face to face interaction with innovation professionals, spectroscopists and potential customers is the place where you can bring unique value. Everything else is a task that needs to be automated to serve this purpose.

The following are the steps required to create these rules. This is inspired primarily by: Email system that saved my life and the partner video

The goal here is to create a flow chart image for sharing. The time should be spent on rules, not on moving the components around or manual edge labelling.

Use graphviz to create a directed graph that will catch every email. The initial strategy is to setup a framework and have the discipline to categorize all of the emails. Write down the exact decision making process for each email. This is the core skill that will take time up front, but will pay off very quickly for you, and whomever you outsource your email to.

Start with this general framework.

/* Workflow for processing email.

The goal here is a portable set of rules that anyone can be trained to
digraph {
    node [color=green, fontcolor=green];
    edge [color=green, fontcolor=green];

    1.0 [shape=diamond; label="Inbox empty?"]

    2.0 [label="Update email processed worksheet, stop"]

    3.0 [label="Open oldest email in inbox"]

    4.0 [label="Label as Handle this Nathan"]

    99.0 [label="Archive"]

    rank=same {1.0, 2.0, 3.0 };

    1.0 -> 2.0 [label=yes]
    1.0 -> 3.0 [label=no]

    // Iterate here - always go from 3.0 to a new rule, and end up at
    // labelling as Handle this Nathan for new rule creation
    3.0 -> 4.0

    // Create rule always updates this flow chart
    4.0 -> 99.0

    99.0 -> 1.0 [color=red] // always go back to inbox


Download the graphviz wrapper script from the BioWize blog entry:

use strict;

my $usage = "setdotlabelwidth [char-width] < [dotfile]";
my $width = shift() or die("Usage: $usage $!");

    my $labeltext = (;
    my @words = split(/ /, $labeltext);
    my @newtext = ();
    my $newline = "";
    foreach my $word(@words)
      if( length($newline) > 0 and
          length($newline) + length($word) > $width )
        push(@newtext, $newline);
        $newline = "";
      $newline .= " " if( length($newline) > 0 );
      $newline .= $word;
    push(@newtext, $newline) if( length($newline) > 0 );
    my $newlabel = join("\\n", @newtext);

On linux, run this shell script at every test iteration:

# - push the provided dot language file through
# the newline label insertion tool, then render and display in eye of
# gnome full screen

if [[ $# -ne 2 ]] ; then
    echo "You must specify a dot language filename, width"
    exit 0



if [[ $? -ne 0 ]] ; then
    echo "Problem running line converter"
    exit 0

cat ${OUTFILE} | dot -Tpng -o ${OUTPNG}
if [[ $? -ne 0 ]] ; then
    echo "Problem running png maker"
    exit 0

eog -f $OUTPNG])

In practice it looks like:

    (Make a change to the workflow graph)

    ./ email_workflow.gv 5

    (tweak, repeat)

Implementation Narrative

You're probably thinking - that's nice, but who wants that level of process and abstraction impinging on my productivity? If you're a person like me - hugely vulnerable to visual distractions, you desparately want to live with the wrongness of the dot language edge routing. You explicitly do not want to use ASCII art by hand, LibreOffice Draw, or google sheets to position boxes. You want logical flow only in text mode so you can rapidly iterate through the real value add: The exact creation of a workflow to make email processing faster:

Step 1: Follow the workflow document.

Step 2: When an email arrives that does not meet any rules, iterate through the creation of a rule at this position: Iterate rules

Email Results

This search for a virtual assistant rapidly transitioned to refining your own processes. The good news is email is now one-touch, one shot response. Everything has a rule to follow and takes much less time to process. By following the steps above, keeping that virtual assistant in mind, a ultra-refined set of rules were processed to drastically reduce email processing time.

Mid-2018 search for a virtual assistant

I want help setting appointments, scheduling follow ups, and doing other customer discovery related tasks. The above approach went right to a single product research tabulation task in detail. This approach is about selecting a virtual assistant first, then quantifying their results, then selecting the best option.

I tried reaching out to a variety of virtual assistants on linkedin that were local to Raleigh, NC. I tried connecting with a few offshore organizations. The results were poor. Back to direct connections through upwork.

This is based heavily on the strategies from The Virtual Hub

Post the job first:

Job Title: Virtual assistant with LinkedIn experience

Cordince LLC is looking for a virtual assistant with linkedin experience to complete clerical projects that are anticipated to require around 10-15 hours per week for 3 weeks. The work will include the following tasks:

Linkedin research 
Coordinating and setting appointments
Product research
Calling potential customers to verify contact information

The following skills are a must:

Great communication skills via phone, email and chat
Expertise in linkedin 
Strong knowledge of google docs and google calendar
Some knowledge of tele-sales (phone and email)
Experience with customer discovery a big plus

We're looking for a great communicator who can help us be more effective. We know you have great ideas about how to be more effective, and we want to work together to achieve them.

If you're interested, please send some examples of your work as a virtual assistant.

Thanks for your time!

Invite freelancers:

Search for "virtual assistant" Ensure U.S. Only is checked Earned amount 10k+ Hourly rate 10 and below Any job success

Or, just go to this upwork summary page and then sort by 10$ and under.

This helped a lot too:

Upwork notes

I wanted to continue this process with I tried signing up through Cordince, LLC with It said was not a valid email. I communicated through with their tech support to resolve this. They disappeared. On to other providers.

Hubstaff specific notes

Rejection criteria:

Target 4$ an hour or less offshore 10$ or less on shore, with native english and perfect writing

Offshore: 2 punctuation or grammatical errors in first response Pay rate 2x the target or more

What is the cut off you need? For 8320 per year, you can have a full time 4$ an hour phillipine assistant.

Or at 8$ an hour for 20 hours a week, 4 hours per weekday, which should be plenty. Are you going cheap or not?

Phillipines definetly. Hubstaff talent definetly.

Do two experiments, one 4$ an hour one 8$ an hour

2018-07-11 19:36 Set up 4 calls with Phillipines contractors only. People who responded to the job posting and included examples of their work or email contact directly. All of these are probably just cut and pasters. Sent email requests for a phone conversation.

First one was for Maributh at 19:30 - which she made it sound like she was going to call me on phone number at 19:30 eastern on July 11th. Double checked and it was clear. This is a good test - if they can't figure that out then it's probably not worth pursuing. My guess is she's still asleep because she sent the initial response at 9:00 am her time. I triple checked, and it's easy to find out what time it is here. So that first entry is a bust. No follow up emails from her, no contact after she accepted the phone call request.

Also contacted three local, college educated US citizen virtual assistants. All of whom have not responded days later.

Made another pass through the hubstaff interface and directly invited others to the job. It's saturday in the philippines, waiting to hear back on monday.

Well finally, got somebody on the phone. He wants western union. He wants to send me a list of managers. That seems so shady. Like he's got a list and wants to send it - 4$ an hour sounded great to him.

You said you would look into western union and send him some draft proposals. If he will actually do the work then fine, otherwise this is a giant frustration. In humility, you may not be understanding him correctly. You are new to this and you may be just simply not communicating effectively or mis-applying your cultural norms. The plan is to let that relationship sit and see what others say below:

2018-07-17 13:58 Well the lack of communiation has been seriously frustrating. This page says that is to be expected: VA

Now go through all the hubstaff entries of people who have applied and people who you invited. Look for:

The next step is to filter out the qualified applicants from those that
are unqualified.. In most cases, Rawson says, you can easily eliminate
about 70% of the applicants based on poor quality English, a weak
resume, or entry level experience. Once you have determined the most
qualified applicants, you provide each one with a test; each examination
depends on the tasks of the job. The test can range between 15 minutes
(unpaid) to as much as three hours (paid). At the end, you peruse the
test, evaluate them and you are left with just a few prospects.

So go through each entry and read their response: Do not filter out based on cost, only based on poor quality english (more than 2 grammatical or punctuation errors)

a weak resume no resume posted (no high school, no exact experience with technology mentioned)

or entry level experience. (not enough of the target experience)

That means connect with all the on-shore entries, all the offshore entries that meet the criteria. This is worth it - if you can find a VA even at 1/3 the cost if it's truly transformative then it's will pay for itself quickly.

Specifically, click the first application. If they fail the criteria above, click the 'thumbs down' button.

If they pass the criteria above, click the 'thumbs up' button, then click contact and send:

Hi (Their name) - Thanks for your willingness to help! Our hiring process goes through the following stages:

  1. Skills test (approximately 15 minutes)
  2. Functional test (approximately 2 hours, paid)
  3. Phone interview (approximately 20 mintues)

Our skills test starts simple, can you please read the document linked to below, and send your response to

Skills Test instructions:

Thanks for your work on this!

Then click the arrow to the next candidate.

Contents of the skills test document:

Skills test (should take about 15 minutes):
1. Create a google sheets document
2. Put the time you started this process in the first row
3. Google search for:   "medical device company" near Raleigh, NC -jobs
4. For each link in the first page of results, put the company website
in the first column, then the name of the CEO in the second column.
5. Put the CEO's linkedin profile page link in the fourth column 

Please stop after 15 minutes, or after the first page of results
has been processed. 

Put the time you stopped in the last row

Send the google sheets link in an email:

Subject: Skills test complete (your name)

Google sheets link: (link to your google sheet)

Thanks for taking the skills test!

This test is designed to be variable and specific. Make sure: They email you a link in an email. They put the linkedin profile of the ceo in the fourth column They list start and end times.

If any of those are not met, add to stop list, with brief reason for failure.

Respond to their email:

Thanks , we will let you know when we are ready to work together further.

Otherwise send the initial task by replying to their response email with:

Thanks for your work on this! The next stage of our interview process is
the paid functional test. Our current preferred payment method is Ria
Money transfer.  The hourly rate for this job is: USD

If Ria Money transfer is not OK, please respond with your preferred payment mechanism.

If Ria money transfer is acceptable, please follow the instructions here:

Upon completion of the task, payment will be sent via Ria Money Transfer.

Thank you for your help, and we look forward to being more successful

Payment sent email:
Thanks for your help with this! Payment has been sent. I will review the
results and get back to you on the next steps.

Thanks again!

On hubstaff talent: 343 Views of job post 41 applicants (does that include people you invited?) 18 of those are cut and paste rejects 23 of those I sent follow ups to 4 passed the skills test 3 failed the skills test (including the M.S. who works for oracle)

Not really enough data, but replicatable. The rates are between 4 and 25 dollars US. In the phillipines, india and los angeles.

2018-07-21 12:30 Sent 4 Functional tests Results: Nobody uses RIA - everybody wanted paypal

Applicants PP - did not respond immediately saying what he would do. Stopped at 2.5 hours according to his documentation

Actual document produced has 8 companies 29 people, some of which are good, some have 'regional sales manager' and 'regional sales specialist'

That was 8$ USD per hour. Sent 16 dollars through paypal The general feel from this doc is that formatting and making it look pretty makes it easier to read and leaves a good impression.

TR - did not respond immediately saying what would be done. No indicators of how much time was spent (but didn't ask for any)

Actual document produced has 19 companies, 41 people. Some of the companies are resellers of xrays, some are not medical device companies at all. To be fair that may be a specialized piece of knowledge to differentiate between a company like orthotools which distributes hundreds of medtech devices and looks like a medtech device company.

Sent an email in between to follow up about paypal that was not seen.

That was 25$ USD per hour for on shore. The general feel from this doc was it was the bare minimum done in anger.

KB - did respond immediately, kind of.

Actual document produced has about 50 companies, the first and last are not even in the state, nor do they have a location in the state. Nor are they even medical device companies. Not even close. Law firms in there too. Shockingly bad results.

That was for 8$ USD per hour india.

Well that sucks. 3 total responses. Minimum cost is 8$ an hour, and is of the quality I was expecting at 4$ an hour or less. If you remove the paypal exercise in frustration it wasn't that bad.

2018-07-23 12:39 8/hr just feels too expensive. It's too much. That's 16k per year. 4$ hour seems more reasonable at 8k per year.

So the plan is to talk with PP just to finish the procedure. Ask him these questions in the interview:

Then decide if you want to move forward with a few-week contract of a group of tasks that you want to see done. Now is not a good time for you actually because you're feeling lazy. Because you're ready to just pack it in and check out. Just like they will feel sometimes. Lead yourself.

2018-07-23 12:48 A friend posted on "Women of Hope Community Church" facebook page a request for virtual assistant help. Within a few days 4 contacts of varying backgrounds.

Hi (Their name) - Thanks for your willingness to help! 

Cordince LLC is looking for a virtual assistant with linkedin experience
to complete clerical projects that are anticipated to require around
10-15 hours per week for 3 weeks. The work will include the following

    Linkedin research 
    Coordinating and setting appointments
    Product research
    Calling potential customers to verify contact information

The following skills are a must:

    Great communication skills via phone, email and chat
    Expertise in linkedin 
    Strong knowledge of google docs and google calendar
    Some knowledge of tele-sales (phone and email)
    Experience with customer discovery a big plus 

Does that sound like something you would be interested in? If so, please
let me know how much time you may have to work on projects like this for
the next 3-4 weeks.  If you're not interested, or you don't think you'll
have enough time, can you please forward this note to someone you trust? 

Thanks for any help! - Nathan

2018-08-03 15:51 None of those women of help references were successful either.

Did get a very long delayed response by following the referall chain from virtual assistants, ultimately went with that on-shore approach.