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PREOCCUPATIONS
How My Assistant Saved the Day
By BRIAN OLIVERSMITH
Published: January 22, 2011

IN May 2008, I started Urban Planet Mobile, which provides English language lessons over cellphones. Our customers include people whose first language is Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, Thai, Arabic or Bengali, among others. In the United States, we offer test preparation over cellphones, and other companies hire us to offer health tips and so forth by phone.

The first person I hired was an executive assistant, Chrissy, to take care of billing and travel arrangements, and to schedule interviews with Web site developers, voice actors and contract employees. I also asked her to research possible markets for our product. There’s an awful lot to do in starting a company. I thought that if I hired someone who could handle the details and the chaos, I could go faster.

People who employ assistants become spoiled. You become accustomed to being able to ask: “Can you do a spreadsheet on X? Can you book me a flight to Y?”

When I worked in a sales organization, I hired my own assistant and paid her out of my own pocket. I couldn’t keep up with the paperwork and still perform at the level I wanted to. I’m high-energy and generate a long to-do list, so I need someone detail-oriented to keep it all organized.

Six months after I started the company, the financial crisis hit and my funders pulled out. I had to pull back financially and try to cut costs. I asked employees if they wanted to go part time for a while before I was forced to lay them off. At our peak, we had 10 employees, including my wife, Catherine, who is my founding partner and our editor. We had thought we’d have to lay off everyone but the two of us, but we were able to keep two others.

Chrissy stayed for 30 days and then found another job. Suddenly, I had to do everything she had been doing. The business had slowed because of the economy, so there were fewer administrative tasks. But without Chrissy, we had to stop researching markets. We focused on shorter-term results. I did everything I could to be as efficient as possible, using QuickBooks for accounting and a contact management database. I also bought online backup so I didn’t have to back up files manually.

Not all managerial jobs require an assistant, and not everyone can delegate. But for a manager who has too much to do and is comfortable delegating, hiring an assistant can change his or her life. A friend of mine had the same assistant for 10 years. Managers seem to have the best results when they respect the position. It is not an entry-level job; assistants have valued skill sets.

An assistant can be a lifesaver in a crisis. After Chrissy left, my travel bag was stolen four days before I was to leave for China. It contained my laptop, my passport and my visa. I got an older computer and restored my files from backup, and I flew to San Francisco to get a new passport and visa in a day. But if I’d had an assistant at the time, he or she would have gone into emergency mode to help, and I could have put together information sheets and press kits.

Chrissy would have also remembered to pack our company banner for the trade show we were attending in Asia. Since I had forgotten to pack it, when I arrived in China I had to ask a guy who sublet office space from us to ship it, and he sent it to the wrong place. I had to have another one made and have it sent by express mail.

I’m doing the filing now, and I haven’t filed anything since the holidays. Before that, I hadn’t done it since July. I know where everything is now, but I spend an awful lot of time even deciding what to file, scan or shred. At times it can be frustrating, and some nights I get just a few hours of sleep.

The only upside I’ve found in not having an assistant is that because I now handle every task, I know immediately where every penny goes. I checked expenses before, but I’m now more aware of what I’m spending, and I cut costs where I can. Once I saw how much it was costing to supply employees with bottled water and soda, for example, I asked them to buy their own.

In November, my chief technology officer and I went to Bangkok, Jakarta and Hong Kong, then back to the United States. The airfare cost $3,700 for both of us, and I made all the arrangements. I was so proud of myself, especially for getting such a good price. I’ve learned that I can manage on my own if I have to, and I actually like the challenges.

So I’m torn. I’ve been going through the motions of hiring an executive assistant for a year and a half now. We’re up to 12 employees, though that includes some part-time and contract workers. I really want another assistant, but every time I think of spending that money, I decide to pour it back into the business. One minute I’m frazzled and say I can’t do all the work by myself anymore. The next minute I’m fine.

Recently, I hired someone for two days a week, but she works for others in the company, too. In two days, she leveled our piles of papers, organized our receipts and set up recycling stations. I could really get used to this again.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen. E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

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