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Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

I fell in love with tech 15 years ago, when I got my first job as a Javascript developer. It was like a puzzle, putting parts together to create something bigger. Piece by piece, it came together into a working application, which was amazing to me.

I stuck with tech as a career, and since then I’ve been involved with three startups and two public companies. I’ve also angel invested and/or advised a handful of startups. I’m now a co-founder at my fourth startup, Acompli.

But I didn’t start out in tech. In fact my work history is all over the place…

  • First Job: Chief Slopper at my family’s pig farm in California’s Central Valley
  • First Small Business: Head of biz dev for my siblings’ baseball card stand in our garage (where I got my negotiating chops)
  • College Job: A t-shirt embroidery business I ran out of my dorm room, serving the finest fraternities and sororities of UCLA
  • College Job: LAX ramp rat at FedEx loading airplanes
  • Somewhere in between all the other jobs: Co-founded Alpha Brand Media, publisher of Search Engine Journal

The Job I Loved Most

Ironically, my favorite gig is one of my least technical jobs: working the ramp at FedEx.

Every day after class, I would head to the airport for my evening shifts. (If you’re wondering when I slept, I took care of that during lectures.) Millions of packages arrived daily, and each needed to be sorted and reloaded in the fastest time possible, without mistakes.

fedex Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

Image credit: Shutterstock

I slung boxes and loaded planes with my crew; we were measured hourly both on an individual and team basis on how many packages we could process. FedEx management was very shrewd in fostering a competitive atmosphere amongst the ramp crews: who was the fastest, most error-free in the house?

That’s where I got hooked on the value of operations optimization. How do you make your business more cost-effective? Faster? More time efficient?

There is nearly always a way to tweak the system and get more done in less time while keeping overhead down. That’s where outsourcing comes in.

Why Outsource?4hourworkweek Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

Late in 2007, I read Tim Ferriss’ book “The 4-Hour Workweek”. Ferriss walks through the concept of company automation, where through process efficiency and outsourcing, entrepreneurs can escape the daily grind to focus on either more sophisticated tasks or just have more free time.

Clearly, a literal four-hour workweek is mythical for many people, but there are a lot of accurate insights in his book I took to heart:

  • Your time has value, and not just the hourly rate you earn. You need to ask yourself: what part of your current workload can be done by someone else, at a cheaper hourly rate, so you can use your time more effectively? Or, can someone do it even better than you?
  • Stop thinking you are the only one who can do a job. A lot of people fear losing control. When you start working with a team, there are many ways to influence and provide guidance to those you work with.

 Quality of Work

Outsourcing can be a hot button issue with marketers – we’ve all gotten those poorly written link building emails asking to submit a guest blog post.

I also hear from people who got burned by outsourcing. Their stories are roughly the same: they hired the person who applied with the lowest rate, hoped the person would be a “set it and forget it” employee, and were disappointed by the results.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

It all depends on who you hire and for what types of jobs. Sure, you can outsource your whole operation and maybe even stay afloat for a few months. In the end, it will show if you are hiring based upon how cheaply you can get a job done. Look for high quality workers, not just the lowest hourly rate.

Start by deciding which jobs to keep in-house, which jobs you outsource globally, and which jobs you outsource to US-based workers.

For example, it is probably in your best interests to hire native English speakers to write articles and blog posts. Some non-native speakers have trouble writing in a natural tone. But, if you need a programmer or web researcher, a non-native speaker can work just fine.

Cost of Hiring Workers

Hourly rates you can expect to pay:

  • Web Researcher $2
  • Virtual Assistant $10
  • Designer $15
  • Developer $15
  • Video Editor $10

Outsourcing Tools

It is pretty easy to understand the why of outsourcing. But building a virtual team from scratch may look overwhelming. Here’s the services and platforms I use to delegate tasks both at work and at home.

oDesk

oDesk is my favorite platform for hiring workers. It has a really clean interface where you can view candidates’ work history and ratings. You can build up an employer profile as well. oDesk also has a snapshot feature, which is installed on your contractor’s computer and takes random snapshots of their desktop every few minutes. It tells you if your workers are actually working while on the clock, or catching up on ESPN.

Additionally, oDesk handles all the tax paperwork, which is really nice when you are hiring people from all over the world.

oDesk Tips

I find oDesk is a great place to find writers, researchers, and fill tech positions. I prefer to hire individuals instead of agencies, as personally I’ve found agencies’ quality of work can vary greatly from project to project, depending on who they assign.

Also, if you are not technically inclined and aren’t sure how long a development job will take, try fixed price jobs instead of hourly. That way you only pay for the completed job and are protected if they take longer than normal to complete the task.

Local Workers

Another way to outsource your work is to use local workers you find through craigslist, backpage.com, and TaskRabbit. For example: help at a conference, scan documents, or any other miscellaneous onsite office work. The benefits of hiring local temp workers are it can be cheaper than flying your employees in, you can bring on bodies as-needed, and you can radically reduce the time required to complete larger projects.

Graphic Design

My favorite site for project-based design work is 99Designs, but I have also used CrowdSPRING and Design Crowds. These design contest marketplaces are great for project-based design assignments: banner ads, landing pages, marketing campaigns.

If you’re not ready (or don’t have the budget) to hire a design firm or full-time designer, design contests are a great alternative. Here’s an example of a t-shirt design contest on 99Designs:

Screen Shot 2014 07 25 at 2.16.11 PM Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

Image Credit: 99designs.com

Tips for running a design contest:

  • In your contest description, give examples of designs you like
  • Give daily feedback and ratings on entries
  • Eliminate designs you don’t like ASAP

Crowdsourcing

Tips for Using Crowdsourcing

  •  Consider the ROI. The tasks themselves are cheap, but $0.05 can add up for very large task groups.
  •  Success on crowd platforms is based on the quality of the jobs you create and the simplicity of the task.

Common Uses:

  • Find contact information
  • Verify business hours
  • Language translation
  • Sentiment analysis

mTurk

mTurk is great for getting a lot of small, similar jobs done quickly. For example, we used it to create lots of accounts for software testing. We did notice the speed of completion was linked to price. For example, if we paid $0.25 it took a few days to get a batch of 50 accounts done, but if we paid $0.50, it was done in a few hours.

CrowdFlower

CrowdFlower is like a better Amazon Mechanical Turk. They have this notion of “Gold”, which helps you judge worker quality. This is really good way to sort through a ton of data.

My last company had CrowdFlower workers rate dozens of tech reviewers to see which tended to be more positive. We then targeted those reporters for PR as we figured we’d have a better chance of getting a positive review on our own product.

Virtual Assistance

Fancy Hands

I have been using this platform for a year or so, and I love it. They are US-based workers who can complete any task that can be done with a PC and a phone. For example, I might say “Hey, I am going to Napa this weekend, I need a car and a hotel. Go research the best deals and give me the top five options.”

They can also buy items online up to $200. So, for example, you can email them “I need to send a thank you gift to a client. Can you pick out a wine and cheese basket for $75 and send it to them by Friday?”

Costs start at $5 per task and after a few jobs, scales down $2 for tasks that take up to 15 minutes. You can even assign tasks directly from Asana, the project management platform.

The thing I use Fancy Hands for most is phone calls with vendors. I absolutely hate being on hold, so I use them to call the cable company, the dentist, or whatever. They take care of the whole phone call from sitting on hold, pulling up your account and telling the company what you want. Then you get on at the last minute and just say “Yes that’s what I want”. And it’s done.

Common VA tasks:

  • Sitting on hold
  • Web / phone research
  • Make reservations
  • Dispute charges, bills
  • Setup meetings

Offshore Teams

The above tools show you ways to streamline your personal and professional life with project-based, as-needed help. They are the stepping-stones towards actually building a full-time outsourcing team.

The best advice I can give is to start with a local top-notch coach/manager who has experience working remotely. This allows you to have someone onsite who you trust to help build a great team for you.

For an offshore or remote team, building the right culture is also important, arguably even more critical than for an in-house staff. You need to inspire confidence and loyalty in your workers, but from thousands of miles away. It can only be accomplished with TLC and empathy: you have to treat them as you would an employee who sits next to you.

I have seen too many companies treat their offshore teams as second-class citizens. The little things matter: when we get t-shirts, our offshore team gets t-shirts. They have a nice office with a professional sign and we travel to see them a few times a year. These things go a long way to building a loyal, dedicated team.

Summary

The biggest take away is to always focus on ROI and cost benefits. The reason I started with the personal productivity hacks is because that is where you should start in terms of outsourcing. When a task comes up, ask yourself: “Is there someone who can do this better or faster?” Is there a more productive way you could be spending your time?

When you do start building a team, start small. The key to building a highly productive offshore or remote team is to build slowly and with purpose.

Do…

  • Keep on top of your ROI
  • Monitor progress, and give immediate feedback/take action when work isn’t performed to your satisfaction
  • Constantly ask yourself: Can what I’m doing right now be outsourced?

Don’t…

  • Limit to business related tasks
  • Set it and forget it
  • Give up!

Let me know if you have questions in Comments below. I’d be happy to answer them.

Image credit: Shutterstock

 Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

Kevin Henrikson

VP of Engineering / Co-Founder at Acompli
Kevin Henrikson is currently leading engineering for Acompli in San Francisco. Previously he was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Redpoint Ventures, a venture capital firm for early stage technology companies.
 Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

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7 thoughts on “Free Yourself from the Grindstone: Getting an Edge with Outsourcing

  1. Hi Kevin, that’s an awesome blog post. The amount of effort you gave in to explain the work optimization and outsourcing information is simply amazing. I liked that and loved it too. I almost agree with all the points. But I would disagree with the point of outsourcing works to US based writers only. Yes, there are some writers globally who may not write in the exact US way. However, the quality of writers vary too. When it comes to natural international English and quality, global writers provide great quality works, sometimes better than the US writers and essentially at a less price. So, what the person giving work needs to check out is the quality the writer is providing and not the country he or she is based in.

    1. Martha Great point. My experience so far with writing for native English readers are better served by native writers. I’m sure there are many international English writers who have great command of written English, I’ve just not found many that can write in a way that sounds totally local and natural. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great article with good resources. I did all my outsourcing on Elance – found sourcing agents, manufacturer (who is brilliant) and really ambitious designers, I friggin love Elance

  3. I feel that there’s a bit of discrimination in this article. Also the rates that you’ve mentioned are really far from reality. You might want to check this resource from Elance: https://www.elance.com/trends/talent-available#TopSkills

    This article limits the chance of other freelancers from all parts of the globe to get a decent gig. It also sets a horrible precedent of modern online slavery. Evaluate first the economy and location of the person you are hiring because $2/hour for a researcher might not suffice the minimum hourly wage for people living in Asia.

    1. Thanks George for dropping by. oDesk/Elance do now enforce any new profile rates or hourly bids to be $3/hr or higher.

      A discussion of the change is here: https://www.odesk.com/community/node/31800

      That said there are still existing jobs for like some of our web research jobs are at $1.11/hr so quoting $2/hr was a typical rate. To get that today on oDesk/Elance a hiring manager can post a fixed price job and specify the details in the job.

      In all cases location and skillset dictate the rate. Both the hiring manager and contractor need to agree. No one ever is forced to work at any rate nor hire at any rate. As you noted competition from great (or poor) working situations and ever increasing employee skillsets keep the system in balance.