Outsourcing using Elance, ODesk, and other outsourcing websites continues to grow. However, the satisfaction rating from most job providers is low. Just take a look at a simple Google search of “Elance Reviews”. The results are riddled with blog posts and comments portraying outsourcing as a minefield. I happen to be a self-proclaimed “power user” of outsourcing sites, having contracted over $20K in projects over the past 6 months on Elance alone, and figure it would be useful to let others know what works and what doesn’t.
1. Leverage skills you already have through outsourcing.
I see endless complaints about how a contractor has failed to meet project requirements, missed the deadline by 6 months, etc… Ironically, almost universally these are situations of someone posting a job that they couldn’t perform themselves and/or have no clue of what is involved. These are the “Build me a clone of Facebook, but for horse lovers” type projects, usually posted by an investment banker that just finished reading The Four Hour Work Week. You are battling too many obstacles when you do this. Communication is against you, your inability to hire contractors with the correct skills is against you, and your inability to critically define the project is against you. Most importantly, foreign contractors (not just online) culturally want to please right off the bat. They almost always say YES to a sentence that starts with “Can you…” even if they are not even close to the right person for the job.
A better approach that I’ve executed flawlessly is to hire your “skill counterpart”. If you are a Ruby on Rails programmer, hire a Romanian RoR programmer to help on your projects. The time zone is to your advantage. Now instead of working 8-9 hours a day, your team can work 8-16 hours a day. Most importantly, you can immediately judge the contractors skill level and fitness to your projects because you know the domain. You pick up a cost advantage, too. Take the time/money you saved and hire a local expert on projects outside of your domain expertise. Eventually, you will be able to hire more and more “skill counterparts” as your skills expand.
A less intense version of this strategy is to perform extensive research on the technology and requirements of your project. If your not a programmer but need software built, I’d suggest learning enough about the software you want to use to make a basic program yourself.
There are a couple exceptions to this tip as it relates to simple projects. I have limited experience in the following and still have success hiring contractors:
a. Basic graphic design (logos, landing pages)
b. WordPress theme design and theme creation from PSD’s
c. Any brain dead work like data collection
2. Don’t accept the cheapest proposal.
Everybody has to start somewhere, but I don’t have the time to wait for a struggling contractor. Particularly on software projects, the cheapest bid is going to waste your time and money. It typically plays out with a product way overdue and shoddy coding. You will have to have it redone eventually. This all sounds obvious, but I still continually hear from job posters how the pro Indian php programmer they hired for $3.50/hr didn’t perform.
3. Have some dignity and pay up.
I have found that treating contractors like they are your neighbor goes a long way. Believe it or not, there is a huge quality gap between the best and the worst contractors but not near as big of a corresponding cost gap. Without exception, good contractors are proactively looking for work on Elance for only a short period of time. Before long their schedules fill up and they focus on a few clients, so it pays to have a good relationship with them.
A mentor of mine taught me a trick when it comes to paying people. Always lean to the side of paying too early, but divide payments up enough that if you get screwed it is only for a small amount of cash. Foreign contractors really appreciate being paid on time and they constantly remind me they do.
Americans who outsource tend to consider these projects a “one off” project, so they can be rude and withhold reasonable payment. When you do find good contractors this will backfire!