Check out the updated version of this blog here: Virtual Assistant vs. Online Business Manager (VA vs OBM)
Something I’m asked all the time by my fellow online service providers is: What are the real differentiators between a VA and an OBM?
What are the concrete steps I can take to position my current services as true OBM services? Am I already an OBM? Am I completely undervaluing my current skills and services?
Some of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve had recently have ended with a light-bulb moment. After I lay it all on the table, they’ll say,
“WAIT A MINUTE — I’M ALREADY AN OBM!!! Why am I still positioning myself as a VA!?”
And boy, do I know that feeling! That was once me too. The VA who was busting my balls, but actually operating as an OBM in disguise.
When a VA recognizes the VALUE of making this transition, it opens up a whole new world. Greater job satisfaction, new skills to master, and fewer, higher quality clients to serve (to name a few!). It’s all there for the taking when you’re ready to level-up!
Top 5 Most Powerful Differentiators Between a VA and an OBM
1. Implementation vs. Strategy
Within the OBM industry, virtual assistants are referred to as the “workhorses” of the business. Which isn’t a bad thing! These roles are integral for a healthy business and a functioning team. Every business needs a few solid workhorses to implement the details when the higher-level strategy is in place.
You could say that VAs are the implementers. They take orders, and they make shit happen with the help of detailed instructions. They ask questions to clarify when they are uncertain. And they have a safety net of higher level guidance to catch them when they fall.
On the other hand, OBMs are not implementers. They are strategizing, forward-thinking, big-picture thinkers. OBMs stand at the forefront of a client’s business, side by side with the entrepreneur themselves, helping take over the daily operations of the biz.
I hear it over and over again from business owners. They work with a team of workhorses. On paper, they have a crazy amount of support. But they’re the only source of strategy, big-picture thinking, and guidance for their team. They are the visionary leader AND the manager. And that formula is simply unsustainable. That’s where us OBMs come into the picture.
An OBM provides an additional perspective on strategy and stands at the helm of the business WITH the entrepreneur. They serve as a buffer between the entrepreneur and the team. As the leader in a business, entrepreneurs SHOULD be focusing the majority of their time and energy on the vision, the next step, the creation of new content, the heart of the business. They are the heart and soul of the business, and the source of fresh inspiration and new ideas.
It’s incredibly hard to be a good leader AND a good manager. In fact, I would argue that it’s damn near impossible. And that’s why OBMs are so valuable! The OBM can step in as a great manager, allowing the entrepreneur to be the visionary leader they need to be.
2. Assistant vs. Manager
The second most powerful differentiator between a VA and OBM is being an assistant vs. being a manager.
Assistants take orders, are accountable for their own tasks, and complete their part of the project. In contrast, managers disperse orders, are accountable for their tasks AND those of the entire team, and they ensure that those tasks are being completed and followed up on. Managers guide the team and oversee the WHOLE project from start to finish.
This is one of the parts about being an OBM that I find makes VAs the most nervous. But on the whole, most VAs who are considering becoming an OBM are ALREADY MANAGING. They may not be managing every nook and cranny of a client’s business, but they are already heavily responsible for managing high-level projects within their client’s business. They may even already be responsible for overseeing a lower-level team member.
In truth, a lot of the transition from VA to OBM all boils down to CONFIDENCE! OBMs don’t ask “how?” They trust their abilities and figure it out themselves, before giving detailed instructions to a client’s team. OBMs do not complete their tasks in a vacuum. They manage every last detail and field every last question from the team as the project takes shape.
If you find yourself rolling your eyes when a last minute project hits your desk because you KNOW in your heart it’s not a priority, you already have a mind for strategy. You’re not in charge of setting strategy in your client’s business yet, but you have enough of a big picture mindset to identify priorities, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. You can leverage those skills and take that final leap towards becoming an OBM!
3. Team member vs. Team Leader
When you’re hired as a VA, you’re hired to get your work done. When you’re hired as an OBM, you’re hired to make sure that everyone gets their work done. This is another of the key differentiators between VA and OBM roles.
For many online entrepreneurs who have only worked with VAs in the past, this can often be confusing. They’re so used to leading AND managing their team that they don’t know how to let go.
As an OBM, guiding your client through this transition is a critical part of your job in the early days. It’s easy to slide back into being the implementer when you’ve been doing it for so long. In the first months working with a new client, it’s possible that they’ll treat you like an implementer. But an OBM is not an implementer. An OBM manages the implementers.
I’ve heard from so many freshly-minted OBMs over the years who say:
“My client just throws things on my desk and expects them to get done.”
And that can be an issue on the client’s part. But assuming that you are responsible for implementing everything your client throws at you is more about your mindset than theirs.
When a client throws a massive project onto your desk, it’s easy to revert to that team member mentality. But your role as an OBM in their business is all about maintaining your role as the manager and leading their team to get the project done.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still times when an OBM takes on a high pressure implementation task. But as the manager, it’s your job to identify how much of a priority that task is, how often this task will come up, and whether or not it’s more profitable for your client to grow their team to keep you firmly in the management role.
4. Loose Boundaries vs. Strong Client Expectations
One of THE most important differentiators between a VA and an OBM is having the guts and the leverage in a client’s business to create strong boundaries and set expectations.
When you’re a VA and your client has a lightbulb moment over brunch, brace yourself. That crazy last minute request is about to drop straight into your lap. As the workhorse in the business, it’s your job to take orders and implement on demand.
Many VAs work in a bubble – they’re responsible for what they’re told to do. And oftentimes, this means that they lack the perspective – the bigger picture – necessary to understand what is an actual priority and what is simply a symptom of a client’s “bright shiny object” syndrome.
And it’s not only that. As discussed above, an OBM has a huge hand in setting strategy and priorities in a client’s business. When you know what’s going on at all levels of the biz, it’s actually POSSIBLE for you to identify a knee-jerk request from an actual priority.
Great OBMs are skilled at identifying last-minute requests that should be pushed through on a short timeline. And if these requests aren’t priorities, we are skilled at communicating this successfully to our clients because we know the consequences of a last-minute pivot. When you have the knowledge and authority of an OBM embedded in your client’s business, you have the power to say “Not right now. Right now we need to stay focused on XYZ.”
And I’m not gonna lie – that is DAMN satisfying!
5. Clients: Quality over Quantity
As a VA, if you’re tired of last minute requests, you’re easily replaceable. I’ve seen this happen over and over again in my former clients’ businesses. When I was an OBM, many of my clients came to me because they’ve been through a slew of VAs who weren’t able or willing to live up to their requests, and they’d reached their threshold for hiring and firing.
As an OBM, you’re deeply involved in every corner of your client’s business. That means you’re too valuable to be fired at the drop of a hat. When you work with your client to set the strategy on a monthly basis, your opinion matters. And your strategic opinion is worth a lot more money than you’re being paid as a VA.
I started out in the industry as a straight up tech VA. And let me tell you – juggling the last minute demands of 8 – 10 clients was a living nightmare.
I was never able to relax, unplug, or get a good night’s sleep. I found myself constantly on the defensive for the next crazy entrepreneurial idea that required me to cancel plans and hustle late into the night. In the beginning, I enjoyed the hustle. But it just wasn’t sustainable. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career dodging bullets.
Becoming an Online Business Manager allowed me to scale back on my client load considerably. I could manage 4-6 clients on a monthly basis. And even better – I got to be picky about the clients I accepted! Gone were the days of desperately trying to close a client who, in reality, just wasn’t ready for my services. Or taking on a client who, deep down, I knew was going to be a complete nightmare.
As with all things in life, I aim for quality over quantity. And it’s being an OBM that’s given me the freedom to finally subscribe to this mantra.