Odesk and Elance are full of scammers. How to find the rockstars and ditch the scam crowd.
oDesk and Elance are awesome secret weapons for expanding your reach in this world. These websites allow you to contract work out to people all over the world. Whether you need a virtual assistant to handle many of your administrative tasks, or you have some specialized tasks that you can’t do, oDesk/Elance probably have hundreds or thousands of people who would love to do the job for you.
oDesk and Elance recently announced a merger, so I thought I’d write up my secret sauce for using these services. Skip down below to the money section- where I give away my secret formula for no-fail, no scam hiring.
Why use oDesk/Elance
oDesk/Elance is great for any tasks that can be done remotely, are very well-defined, and do not pose a security risk.
For example, we have an oDesk contractor color correct and remove the backgrounds from a lot of images on FringeSport. We take the pictures locally, upload them to a shared Dropbox folder, and email the contractor any special instructions. Then we go to sleep, and wake up to finished images in the folder!
This particular contractor is in Bangladesh, and he receives about $4/hour for this work. We also use contractors in India, the Philippines, and the USA through these services to do:
- Web design
- Mechanical Engineering
- Admin tasks
How to leverage oDesk/Elance in your business
Rule #1- Don’t be stupid.
Whenever I say that I use oDesk/Elance, I get one of four reactions:
- “That’s awesome, how can I use them too?”- Read on and I’ll show you
- Quiet- this person is probably already using oDesk/Elance and wants to hide it.
- “How dare you! Why don’t you keep those jobs in the US?”- I’ll address this below.
- “You’re going to get scammed. I outsourced development of my iOS app to oDesk and the jerks held my code ransom and did a shitty job.” This response is my favorite.
Most people who get scammed on oDesk/Elance deserve to get scammed!
If you do not understand the task that you are outsourcing, do not use oDesk/Elance! You probably won’t be able to adequately scope your project in the first place, and you will be in an extremely poor position to judge whether the applicants are well-qualified for your contract.
Plus, oDesk/Elance are swimming with people who are looking for clients that don’t really understand the tasks. This is a great way for an unethical person to get a gig by bidding low for the gig, and then demanding more money by claiming that the scope of the project changed between the agreement on price and the completion of the project.
So, if you’re just looking for cheap labor and you don’t understand your task well, oDesk/Elance is a terrible place for you to look for help.
oDesk/Elance is great for well-defined tasks.
As I mentioned above, oDesk/Elance are great for well-defined tasks. Remember, in many cases you are communicating across a language barrier, so make sure the task is well-defined, and well-communicated. Here is an example of an email to our graphic designer:
I hope this message finds you well!
I added a new folder to dropbox- “Pics 12 July”. Please color correct, remove the backgrounds, and save these four images as 500×500 and 500×300 jpegs. Quality should be for the web as always.
Note that the above email is brief, but it explains exactly what tasks are required and what the deliverables are. I omitted a time frame, since this contractor turns things around overnight (my night) 90% of the time, and in two nights the remainder of the time.
If this was a new contractor, I might also include a line like, “Please do not spend more than 20 minutes per image. If you cannot complete these edits in that time frame, let me know before continuing.” However, this contractor always works fast with little waste, so he’s earned a level of trust.
It also would be a good idea to separate my second paragraph in that email into bullet points for clarity.
Delegate, don’t abdicate!
If you really don’t understand your task, you should not be on oDesk/Elance. This is abdicating responsibility and oversight to someone else. Rather, be sure that you are delegating- that you give well-defined tasks, with clear directions and deliverables. I guarantee, your results will be orders of magnitude better via delegation vs. abdication.
What if you don’t understand your task well?
Then go to a company that can take on your task and do all of the “under the hood” stuff without you worrying about it. Make sure that the firm is reputable in this online world, it is easy to google anything and find references. Also ask companies for references and actually call to check.
This will cost more than going through oDesk/Elance, but the risk of getting scammed is far lower.
Secret Weapon- My never-fail system to hire oDesk/Elance contractors.
Whenever I have a project that I need a new contractor for, I use a two-step process to hire the perfect contractor.
- I break off one smaller, but representative task from the larger project. I make sure this task requires the competencies that the larger project requires
- I place an ad on oDesk/Elance for the small task
- I hire 5 contractors. I make sure to hire a range of hourly wages, i.e., some “cheap” contractors and some “expensive” ones
- I wait for the contractors to complete the tasks
- I pay the contractors
- I examine:
- Their work
- Their timeliness
- Their work diaries
- Their total cost
It is key to examine the cost per task! Some “cheap”contractors might take a long time to complete your tasks, while some “expensive” contractors might do your task swiftly. For example, for my mechanical engineering projects, a very “expensive” contractor based in the US completes these tasks fast- so his cost per task is actually lower than contractors that charge 1/8th his hourly rate!
Also pay close attention to the work diaries of the contractors. oDesk/Elance take screenshots of the contractors’ screens randomly as they work. Do the contractors appear to be working on your task, and vigorously? If not, you may have a scammer.
I would also decline to pay any “extra” or unlogged hours for this task. If the contractor is trying to get some extra pay this early in the relationship, they’re probably not a good choice.
After sifting through all of the above, create a new job and offer it to best contractor from your test!
Note that I typically compare contractors across a few dimensions, i.e., cost isn’t everything:
- Cost (40% weight)
- Timeliness (30% weight)
- Ease of communication (30% weight)
This process has led me to a number of contractors that I have worked with for years!
$4/hour for graphic design? Those are slave wages. How do you sleep at night?
I mentioned earlier that we pay a graphic designer about $4/hour. While that does not sound like a lot, that is more than 7x minimum wage in Bangladesh (where he is located). And it’s just below the average hourly wage of a manager or executive in Bangladesh.
So while it seems low by Western standards, it’s really quite a nice wage for our contractor.
In other words, many things disturb my sleep at night. This isn’t one of them.
Why don’t you keep these jobs in the US?
I do hire graphic designers in the US- and I pay them many times the wage of my Bangladeshi friend. But our designer in Bangladesh is usually faster than my US designers and color correcting hundreds of photos and cutting the backgrounds out is really not what most graphic designers even want to do- it’s grunt work. So I give it to someone who does want to do it- and who does it well and inexpensively.
But most importantly, my first priority is always my customers. Running a lean operation allows us to keep our prices aggressive and deliver more value to my customers, as it should be.
Why people who are good at Odesk don’t talk about it.
I mentioned above that many of my friends use odesk but don’t talk about it much. Why?
This is because of the people who hate the idea of outsourcing these tasks, and separately, the people who demand to know who our great contractors are!
Here’s the rub: Most of my friends want to hide their great contractors! They put in the effort to sift though the scammers, and they may have trained their contractors- so they want to reap the rewards.
So, can you refer me to your $4/hour graphic designer?
Maybe. If you would be a good, consistent client for him, and you agree to pay him more than I do (!), I’ll refer you. But if you’re a cheap, one-off, or inconsistent client, sorry Charlie.
Now go forth, and contract away!
Did I miss anything?
Let me know in the comments. Whether you are a newbie with unanswered questions, or you’ve hired a million Filipina VAs, I love all input and feedback.
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