What Is an Online Business Manager, Exactly?

Published on August 7, 2013

One of the questions I hear most often from friends, family, business owners - pretty much anyone that learns what I do for a living - is:

"So, what is an Online Business Manager exactly?"

I LOVE this question!  I have a passion for my solo business and I love what I do for a living, so being able to tell people about it is fun and exciting!  It's much easier for me than regular small talk (the introvert in me shining through there).

The answer to the question isn't quite as straight forward as it could be, a pet peeve of mine that I'll get into later.

But first, let's look at the definition of an Online Business Manager, as set by the "mother" of all OBMs, Tina Forsyth, author of "Becoming an Online Business Manager":

The official definition of an Online Business Manager (OBM) is:

A virtually based support professional who manages online based businesses, including the day-to-day management of projects, operations, team members and metrics.

However I like to look at the role from a bit of a different angle – what is the purpose of an Online Business Manager beyond ‘what they do’?

The role of the OBM boils down to one simple thing:

To free up the business owner so that they can focus their time and energy on the things that only THEY can do in their business.

Sounds pretty straight forward, right?  Maybe not quite.

Most people who are conducting business online, by now, understand the (vital) role a virtual assistant can play in their business. And understandably, many people automatically see a connection between a VA and an OBM; often misunderstanding an OBM to be a "super-VA" of some sort.

But that's inaccurate and we (OBMs) need to be very clear when we educate others outside of our industry about the distinctions.  Take a look at this great reference sheet that explains the difference between an OBM and a VA.

What is the difference between an Online Business Manager and a Virtual Assistant?

The focus of an OBM is on 'management'

They  keep an eye on the big picture and manage all the pieces (projects, team members, operations, expenses) to ensure that all projects are getting completed in a timely and efficient manner.
The focus of a VA is on 'doing'

They perform specific tasks (i.e.: customer service, shopping cart maintenance, etc) or complete specific projects (i.e.: setup a new member area or blog) and are the ones actually doing the work.

To further muddy the waters, and here's my pet peeve, there are service providers that are marketing themselves and their services as "Online Business Managers" but really, are offering a totally different set of skills, services and expertise.

For example, in a recent Google search, I found a listing under the search term "online business manager" on Page 1 for a Facebook page that lists services as: Managing your online world with social media management, quality admin services, WordPress web design, and business coaching.

An Online Business Manager will absolutely be involved in some of those areas - but let's be very clear - your web designer (insert VA, assistant, coach) is not the same person as your OBM.  That is a completely different role and requires a completely different skill set and focus.

Another addition to this peeve - successful VAs or former OBMs that have built agencies and still market themselves as OBMs.  A VA agency is like a one-stop shop for business owners to get all of their support needs handled from one company.  This is a very viable and popular option to explore for business owners, and is a very lucrative business model for service providers.

But, while there are business management aspects that are involved to run an agency and service multiple clients, I believe it is inaccurate and misleading to market an agency with the Online Business Manager title.

An OBM will often have a team to support their business and who may also do client work, but here's the difference as I see it:

An OBM works with 2-3 select clients at one time, dedicating themselves to the business operations, systems, and management over the long-term for those clients.

An agency type of business may support 10, 15, 20 or more clients - the manager's time is focused on managing their team to provide services ranging from transcription, web design, newsletter creation, coaching and project management for the multiple short and long-term clients supported by the business.

The Caveat

Online businesses are as varied from one another as the people that are running them.  Just as there are no two coaches or trainers exactly alike - personality and specific expertise both play a big factor here - OBMs vary as well.

And, to be fair, that's one of the great things about entrepreneurship - we're all free to build the businesses that serve our specific needs and goals.  It's up to each of us to market our services for our businesses in the way that best serves us - so while I have strong opinions about what an Online Business Manager is and should be, there's really no right or wrong when it comes right down to it.

That means that the answer to the question "What is an online business manager?" will change depending on who is giving the answer.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it can be confusing for those outside of this business niche.

The upside is that I have the opportunity to continue answering one of my favorite questions!

I'd love to hear from you - do you agree with my stance or have a different view? What have I missed in my answer?  Do you have trouble understanding what an online business manager is and can do for your business?


  1. Nicky

    Would you say an OBM is only for online based businesses? What about a business that has an online presence but isn't an online business?

  2. Crystal Coleman

    Hi Nicky, I don't think an OBM is for online based businesses only. In fact, there are OBM's that specialize in working with brick and mortar businesses! The difference for the business may be that the OBM lives and works in a different state or country.

    This comment was caught in the pending folder - sorry I missed it!

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