Even just a few years ago, not a lot of people were concerned about knowing the difference between a virtual assistant and a freelancer. Today, however, the freelance economy is growing. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, and it’s powered by virtual assistants and freelancers. It’s good to know the difference so you will know whether you need a virtual assistant or a freelancer for the different tasks you want to outsource.
Before we begin, let’s take into account that the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible for a person to be both virtual assistant and a freelancer. So let’s set out the definitions of these two and dive into what the differences actually are.
What is a Virtual Assistant?
The term assistant is one that we know well – this is someone who helps out with different tasks. An assistant does not usually take the lead on any major projects but may at times be given small projects to handle independently. Most of the time, however, they assist rather than manage, as the name suggests.
Virtual is a term that gained new meaning in the computer age. It was originally used to refer to something or someone that does not physically exist but seems to exist, through the help of software programs. Virtual assistants, of course, do actually exist. This extension of the term refers to their presence being not physical but by virtue of software. In other words, they attend meetings and do work but not in the same physical space as colleagues and clients.
Virtual assistants basically:
- work from anywhere in the world with the help of the internet and other technologies, and
- help business owners, managers and other individuals complete all kinds of different types of work.
What is a Freelancer?
The term freelancer is a portmanteau that was formed by combining the words free and lance. These people were free – not duty-bound to any lord (which, incidentally, was considered dishonorable in those days). The term “lance” was also used to describe them since they were persons with valuable skills, namely weaponry (not necessarily lances) and hand to hand combat.
Back in the day, the lords controlled all the lands – the primary source of livelihood. Those who would swear fealty to a lord would receive protection in return for some kind of service or a means of living in return for bearing arms on command as the need arose. Anyone who would not pledge to serve had to strike out on their own.
A free lance was someone whose talent was for battle and who sold fighting skills in return for coin, favors, or other forms of compensation. In short, the original free lancers were what we would call mercenaries today – still considered a dishonorable profession.
The freelancers we talk about today are not, of course, these killers for hire. But there is a strong connection with the ideas of resisting a “duty-bound” existence and having “valuable skills” to trade for “compensation” of some kind. Freelancers are independent contractors – they choose to sell their skills independently rather than becoming duty-bound to a single company or individual (a.k.a. being employed).
- sell their skills as independent contractors,
- sometimes limited to a particular local area and sometimes anywhere in the world with the help of the internet and other technologies, and
- bring specialized knowledge into a business to help business owners, managers and other individuals fill in skill gaps.
What’s the Difference?
Virtual assistants can really be anyone providing almost any kind of assistive service from a remote location. Freelancers may work remotely or within their local area. With the boom of the gig economy, however, more and more can be found online.
NOTE: These days, most people understand a more narrowed definition of virtual assistants than the above. In the common dictionary of today’s gig climate in the US, a virtual assistant is understood to be someone providing primarily administrative services to entrepreneurs and business owners. Some will add to that basic creative or technical services, although most think of them as personal or executive assistants based in other countries.
Freelancers, on the other hand, offer more specific services based on specific skillsets that they have developed. Some hone their hard and soft skills to a high level. Freelancers are not just employable but successfully market their skills to a wide range of clients – and prefer to do so. They do not need to rely on the security of a stable position or rely on a company to provide them with opportunities for professional growth. Freelancers are continually improving themselves professionally without prompting from anyone.
There are literally hundreds of tasks that you can outsource to a basic virtual assistant. Usually, they do simple or basic types of work like:
- data entry
- lead generation
- email sorting
- social media posting
- note taking
- report preparation
- appointment setting
In other words, virtual assistants as we know them today mostly do work that does not really require highly developed knowledge or skills. If you need a lot of little things done here and there, then a virtual assistant is who you want to hire. For example, they are great as personal assistants or applying processes that have already been created.
NOTE: Most people who outsource will talk about virtual assistants as people you hire from outside the US. Of course, you can also find virtual assistants inside the US.
Freelancers have already reached a level where they can bring in true expertise and develop new processes for clients. They are thinkers as well as doers, but the highest level experts usually tend to focus more on the thinking part and get help from other freelancers and virtual assistants for the doing part.
You can hire freelancers to take care of mid- to high-level tasks like:
- customer service
- graphic design
- PPC advertising
- digital marketing
- content management
- product development
When Can Someone Be Both?
Virtual assistants can also be freelancers when they strike out on their own. Freelance virtual assistants find work independently from any agency. They also tend to serve different clients as independent contractors instead of seeking a full-time position where they can simply perform and get paid.
Freelancers, as mentioned, can also work virtually. They, of course, provide assistance, but are not just followers. You can hire a virtual freelancer (or remote freelancer) to do just about anything that you might hire a local freelancer to do, as long as it does not require their physical presence. For instance,m you could hire a virtual freelancer to design a shelving system, but not to build it.
To keep it simple, you can consider virtual assistants to be the types that provide assistance in various areas – including assisting freelancers who handle skill-intensive projects. Freelancers, then, are more like specialists that have specific skillsets and focus on a particular area of expertise.
You can still, however, hire a virtual assistant who can create simple graphics and manage your newsletter, which does require some advanced knowledge and skill. Comparably, there are also freelancers who have a wide variety of skills that they have honed to a higher level but don’t consider themselves to be experts in all of these areas.
The bottom line: The real difference between a virtual assistant and a freelancer is the absence or presence of management and leadership abilities and how they prefer to work – more of an employee mentality versus making a career of freelancing and really owning the business aspect of it.