My secret weapon: How a virtual assistant changed my life 

Photograph by J Carter Rinaldi

I am not the most tech-savvy person. I’m the one reading the print newspaper on the subway and using an iPod with a scroll wheel. But like many tech novices, I have jumped into the user-friendly sharing economy with both feet. I use Uber religiously, I stayed in an Airbnb on my last business trip, and I’m a Rent the Runway member, a Shyp shipper and a hirer of TaskRabbit taskers. All of these services have altered the way I navigate my way through the world. But none of them has been as transformative as a little-known startup that has quietly changed my life over the past three-plus years: Zirtual.

If you haven’t heard of it, Zirtual is a startup that offers shared virtual assistants. For a monthly fee, you get matched to a dedicated personal assistant—a Zirtual Assistant, that is, or ZA—who can help with scheduling, email, travel booking, research, and a myriad of other tasks. It’s like a real administrative assistant, only each ZA has a handful of clients, and they work remotely, typically from home, in locations all over the country. Right now, I exchange a very large number of emails each day with Mary Schein, who’s based in El Paso and soon moving with her family to Georgia.

Let me tell you—this is my secret weapon.

I’ve never had my own dedicated assistant before. A long time ago, in a resource-rich galaxy far, far away, Fortune had a four (four!) assistants who were shared among the editors. But I rarely made use of the help. I always thought it was just as easier for me to make my own lunch reservations and book my own travel.

But my role expanded over the years, and then I wrote and published a book (author plug here: The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving), a massive side project with a million moving parts. One day during a coffee meeting with Camille Preston, an executive coach I was interviewing for a story about productivity, our conversation turned to the importance of outsourcing and delegating. Camille told me about Zirtual, which she had recently started using—she described it as a sort of Zipcar for personal assistants—and sent me an invitation to join. I signed up for the most basic level of service—at the time, $199 per month for eight hours of assistance—and soon heard from Samantha Baker, a friendly recent college grad who lived in central Connecticut and was active in children’s community theater. We set up a Skype call to talk about the ways we’d work together, and we were off.

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

Most of these tasks may only take only a few minutes, but when you add several dozen of them up, they consume hours. I am an obsessive paper list-maker (known around the office for an elaborate system of Post-It notes); the ability to start crossing some of these items off of my lists, one bold stroke of a pen at a time, gave me untold joy.

Sam cheerfully tackled some seriously annoying tasks. When I lost my phone on a business trip, she spent the better part of the following day with the Washington DC taxicab commission trying to track it down (to no avail–there’s only so much a ZA can do; making me more responsible with my belongings is not one of them). She exhibited a zenlike calm while sorting through a series of irrational requests for documentation from our company’s truly horrendous Flexible Savings Account provider at the time. Soon it was book launch time, and the task list doubled overnight: hiring a designer to get a personal website up and running; starting a Google calendar to manage speaking engagements; sending flowers and wine to people who’d done me favors. All done, done, done—or “all set!” in cheery Zirtual parlance.

When I first signed up with Zirtual, I was worried that too many of my needs would require on-site help: those annoying physical errands like dropping shoes off to be repaired, returning items to stores and the like. But Zirtual has partnerships with other vendors to fill those gaps. When I needed a birthday cake delivered to a friend’s house, Sam hired a TaskRabbit through a Zirtual partnership that entitled me 20% off.

I soon started talking up Zirtual to anyone I met. My friends got used to hearing about “Sam.” I gave a testimonial for the website. Naturally, I also wanted to know what, or who, was behind this idea, so I set up a call with Maren Kate Donovan, the company’s 29-year-old founder and CEO.

Photograph by J Carter Rinaldi

Donovan grew up in the suburbs of Las Vegas, the daughter of a Syrian-Armenian mother and an Irish father. A serial entrepreneur, she started her first business while a student at the University of Reno in 2005, importing jewelry from Thailand and Bali and selling it on eBay. By the time she was a senior, her business was booming and realized that her degree in English literature had little to do with her aspirations, so she dropped out.

Early on in her entrepreneurial efforts, Donovan discovered the world of offshore virtual assistants. She hired her first one while she was still in college, and soon came to rely on them to help get her various businesses off the ground, quickly learning they could help with almost anything. After meeting the stars of the show Pawn Stars in a Las Vegas bar, for example, she pitched herself to them as a social media consultant. She didn’t have social media experience, but she knew her virtual assistants either did—or could learn. She became fascinated by the concept of leveraging one’s time. “It’s the idea of being superhuman, having more time than you’re allotted,” she says.

As her businesses grew, she became an expert in the topic of virtual assistants, posting in online communities and writing a blog documenting her trial and error with various services. It didn’t take long for her to realize that teaching others about the virtual assistants was her true passion. In early 2011, convinced that there was going to be a large market for U.S.-based virtual assistants, she decided to “stop everything” and start Zirtual. She brought in two friends as cofounders, one to head up the community and training and the other to oversee design. They all moved to San Francisco, cramming into an 150-square-foot studio in the Tenderloin.

Donovan’s path to Zirtual was also inspired by her childhood roots. She grew up in the booming call center hub of Las Vegas, giving her an early appreciation for customer service. Her family was part of a tight business network in the Syrian and Armenian communities, though her father, a successful real estate agent, still suffered the ups and downs of the industry. “Real estate is always feast or famine,” she says. “If my mom had had something like Zirtual when we were little kids, it would have made all the difference,” she says. (Most ZAs are stay-at-home moms; Donovan’s own mother was an account manager for Zirtual and now leads the company’s inbound sales team.)

Zirtual raised its first $2 million in seed funding in 2013 from Mayfield Fund and Tony Hsieh’s Vegas Tech Fund, which also offered support for a new call center in Hsieh’s revitalization project in downtown Las Vegas. Last December, the company raised another $2 million from a group that includes those early partners, plus Jason Calacanis, David Waxman’s TenOneTen Ventures, Bauer Capital, Structure VC and Recruit Strategic Partners, the VC arm of Japan’s human resources giant Recruit. Donovan plans to raise another round this year–in part to fund international expansion.

Today, the company has more than 350 zirtual assistants, or “ZAs,” each of whom handles anywhere from 3 to 12 clients. Donovan says Zirtual only accepts 3% of those who apply. A full 89% are women.

Unlike the rest of the so-called gig economy, all Zirtual employees are full-time employees, with salaries, benefits and 401(k) plans. “We wanted to be able to invest in our people so they would stay long-term, and the only way to really do that is the employment model,” Donovan says. ZAs also get bonuses based on client happiness and retention.

I’ve watched Zirtual grow since I joined in 2012. When I started, there was a “Basic” plan at $199 per month, but now, pricing ranges from $399 for the Entrepreneur plan (16 hours of assistance) to $1,199 for the VIP plan, up to 55 hours of help plus email, phone and SMS support and a faster turnaround time (all plans come with same day turnaround service, but customers are asked to use their judgment and make requests within reason—i.e., don’t ask for something 5 minutes before the end of the business day).

Assistants get matched with clients depending on time zone, personality or shared interests. Most are working professionals, including many “heavy hitters” (several NFL players use it, as do many startup founders) but Donovan sees the need for help for working professionals of all levels. “If you’re making a salary and you’re sucking up even 20% of your time with administrative stuff, you’re losing 20% of your time that you could be having the next big idea.”

Zirtual is starting to attract whole startups or small companies, too; the newly rolled-out Zirtual Teams service provides help for 10 people at a time, and is designed for companies that don’t have budgets for full-time assistants.

Corporate assistance plays a big role in Donovan’s vision for Zirtual’s future. Her goal is to go from serving small businesses to medium to large and eventually, enterprise, providing turnkey administration assistance for companies with thousands of employees. “We can really effectively replace an administrative layer for a company that has thousands of heads and needs coverage,” she says.

But the individual plans will always remain a core part of Zirtual’s business, and I can see why. I could have hunted for my own personal assistant, but it would have been a lot more time-consuming and expensive—and I wouldn’t have the resources of the Zirtual infrastructure behind me. When my ZA is on vacation, for example, another ZA steps in, already briefed on my preferences and personal data. (You choose how much to share with your ZA. Mine has literally everything on me.)

Sometime in 2013 Zirtual had a restructuring and Samantha was let go (“we had overstaffed,” Donovan says). The site doesn’t allow for members and ZAs to work together outside the confines of Zirtual, but knowing how much I liked Sam they made an exception for me. For almost a year, Sam and I continued to work together. But late last year, she got a full-time job near her home. I was sad that our time together would come to an end, but happy for her that she’d found a great opportunity at a large company. And I knew I had a safety net: I went back to Zirtual, which matched me with Mary Schein, a friendly mother of two who lives in El Paso. Mary’s husband is in the army (a soon-to-be Sergeant Major); Mary was, too, first as an administrative assistant and then as her battalion commander’s secretary. Let me tell you, if you ever need an assistant, you would do well to screen for “battalion commander’s secretary” on the resume. Mary operates with a precision and an efficiency that is amazing. She’s cheery and always positive and, like Sam, seems to get a genuine joy out of helping me. (When I apologized after a particularly heavy week recently, she wrote back immediately: “No worries at all!! I love to be busy!”)

For Donovan’s part, while she is a rare woman CEO of a tech company—especially one not related to beauty or retail—she doesn’t want to be recognized that way. “I want to be a really successful entrepreneur,” she says. “I don’t want to be recognized as, I’m doing well as a female entrepreneur. I want to be seen as, ‘Wow, that’s impressive across the board.’” But she counts certain women among the entrepreneurs she admires most. One is Barbara Corcoran, to whom she mailed a letter a few years ago. (She never heard back. “I’m sure she’s too busy,” Donovan says.) She’s also impressed by Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, whom she heard speak at last year’s Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit. “I was really impressed,” she says.

For now Donovan is focused on building out Zirtual, hiring a COO and investing in “senioring up our teams.” She ultimately sees potential for offering more than just administrative services; what she calls a broad “Zirtual support umbrella” that would offer project managers, experts in niche fields like bookkeeping or design, and even fully outsourced customer service departments. “You could add on a lot of a la carte services,” she says.

I tell Donovan that I noticed our call had been set up by her chief of staff; would she ever consider offering virtual chief of staff services as well? “Absolutely,” she says, noting that she first heard of that role— and got the idea to hire one for herself—from watching House of Cards. “I always love learning how to delegate more,” she says.


Editors’ note: This piece was published before Zirtual suddenly ceased operations in August 2015 and was subsequently acquired by another company.



Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital