Could you outsource that? The small business guide to online outsourcing

It is now possible to outsource just about anything online. From a simple logo to a customised website built from the ground up, armies of start-ups and business owners are turning to a virtual market place of talent to ‘get a job done’. But just because you can turn to outsourcing, does it mean you should?

I know many a creative type in the industry are feeling increasingly threatened by the burgeoning outsourcing population and the increasing public consciousness that outsourcing is an option.

Just this week on a private Facebook group I belong to, one of the members, a graphic designer of many years, posted:

“How do you respond to a client who is sooo impressed with fiverr.com? I got my own answers… which one is yours?”

 

My answer to her? “For a fiverr I will prepare a response on why fiverr is not a good outsourcing strategy.”

Not sure what ‘fiverr’ is? Then read on…
In tough economic times when consumers are driven by the dollar, the highly-competitive outsourcing rates which transcend borders and currencies suddenly become highly attractive.

I’ve never been one for judging anything unless I’ve given it a test drive (don’t judge a person unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes right?), so I thought I’d conduct a little social experiment, as much for your benefit as mine, by outsourcing some tasks to some off-shore freelancers, and share my experiences of this exercise with you in a blog post.

First, a little context

Way back in 1998, I was actually a freelancer or outsource talent you could turn to myself. As I led a hedonistic lifestyle of travelling and partying, occasionally I had to do a bit of work to support my luxurious lifestyle, so I turned to sites such as writerfind.com (still unchanged in design I note from the days I used it) and elance.com, which was big even back then in the UK.

Through sites like these, I picked up odd writing or editing jobs, either in between or in addition to day jobs. While I wouldn’t have wanted to rely on those sites to support myself in those days, they were certainly good for some extra dosh.

For some jobs within these sites the budget was set by the person seeking the assistance. Other times you had to bid. And when you won a project it was a pretty good arrangement. Work when you want, where you want, how you want, no boss breathing down your neck. Suited me a treat, actually.

Even way back then, there were plenty of ghostwriting gigs, that is, where you write the ebook, book, article etc. but the person who pays you for the gig gets to put their name on it. Yes. Really. I’m still amazed to this day how many people I explain the concept of ghostwriting who look at me as if they’re a kid who’s helium balloon I’ve let off into the stratosphere. Just think, perhaps that last book you read wasn’t really written by that author at all!

My (somewhat) outsourced business model

When I started The Creative Collective back in 2007, I was a time-poor mum, at home, who knew I couldn’t do it all and that I simply had to find a way to leverage my time. While I could comfortably graphic design, write, edit, plan and execute marketing campaigns, take photos and more, I turned to freelancers to be the ‘technicians’ of my business, while I took the responsibility of sourcing clients, wining clients and managing clients. I soon discovered that this was a pretty good arrangement. By playing on their strengths (creativity and the ability to use software to get the desired end result) and eliminating their weaknesses (marketing, admin and finances) it was a win-win situation. Interestingly however, many a so-called ‘expert’ told me it was a bad business model. “You’ll never get loyalty from a contractor,” some said. “You’ll pay more for the privilege,” said others. “They’ll steal your IP and move on,” I was also warned.

Well today five years on, some of the contractors I had in the beginning are still with me, and almost all of the 35-strong team are Aussies (with a few Kiwis thrown in for good measure). I’ve watched as many a business who thought they had it right with an employee model has laid off staff or even gone under through tough economic times, and I’ve counted my lucky stars that I did go for a contractor model when I started. It is important to note however that I also employ five people and have two franchisees. And of the 35 contractors some of them are living here in Australia, and others living the Life Of Reilly around the world.

Take two Brissie boys for example, who are doing work for us while currently living in Lake Garda, Italy – one with a penchant for sailing, the other wind-surfing, and enjoying regular, low-stress work that allows them plenty of time for R&D and plenty of time for R&R. I really should take them up on their offers to go for a visit some time.

Back to the outsourcing test drive

So as any of you who have read some of my previous blog posts will know, recently I stated a new online business, awardshub.com. Being a start-up, with zero capital injection I haven’t wanted to incur any expenses that aren’t absolutely necessary in the early stages while I’m still building it up. So while hiring a part-time staff member that reports to me on a daily basis at my office might seem like a good idea, it ain’t going to happen any time soon because I’d be looking at $20 per hour at least and that is a cost I simply don’t want to bank roll at the current time.

Armed instead with an hourly budget of $5 to $10 I hit the outsourcing sites with a view of nabbing myself a fabulously diligent, hard-working and reliable outsourcer who would help me with my most pressing business development issue – adding content to the ever expanding website.

So where did I look for them?

There are stacks of outsourcing sites, as any Google search for ‘find an outsourcer’ will prove (480,000 results at last check).
Here are the ones I tested, why I tested them and how I found them:

1. Odesk.com

oDesk enables buyers to hire, manage (that’s different from many other similar services), and pay technology service providers from around the world. The service is fairly well organised, fast and reasonably priced – that’s if you are prepared to pay fees. In my case, someone had recommended a particular person on oDesk (which is a way to minimise your risks when outsourcing) so I went looking for her, made the connection and she performed some work for me, at a very reasonable rate of US$5 per hour. This person was a US citizen, living in the US, with impeccable English and courtesies.

The result?

Overall a good experience (though I found my oDesk account a little tricky to set up), while it lasted. Things were going swimmingly with the person performing as many as 20 hours a week each week for several weeks…until she dropped off the face of the earth. Despite several follow ups, no response.
Fortunately the tasks handed to her were not particularly time sensitive, so there was no real impact on the business. But lesson learned: probably safest not to give your outsourced staff anything that is time sensitive or sensitive full stop. If they ran off into the sunset with your IP, where would that leave your business?

2. Freelancer.com

Created by Aussie entrepreneur Matt Barrie (who won the 2011 BRW Entrepreneur of the Year, which is fair enough with US$23.5 million turnover in 2010) I had heard all about Freelancer but never used it until my experiment. The landing page says it all. They have freelancers across a lot of disciplines. Creating an account was easy enough (they let me connect my Facebook account – a facility I love) and from there I posted my novice listing (for free). Which read as follows:

Subject: Assistance in building up the content of my website

Hi there,
I’ve recently created a new online business and I need someone to further investigate links I send them, gather relevant information online, then upload them to the website.
As the website is also soliciting suggestions from users, they will also need to review and enable relevant content submitted by users.
There is potential for the role to expand to also be writing business awards submissions and doing some PR and/or social media if the person also had this skill set. They may also be emailing clients to respond to their enquiries.
The person needs to have good written English.
Experience with business awards would be ideal but is not essential.
I look forward to seeing who is interested!

 

Note I did not give too much away. I mean, these people could be anybody, and one has to keep their cards to their chest somewhat don’t they?

The result?

Pretty good. All in all I received nine bids, most of which were in a relatively short space of time (2 to 3 days – your listing stays live seven days for free) and from five different countries: India, Jamaica, USA, Pakistan and Indonesia. Immediately dispelling the common misconception that all freelancers are Philippinos or Indians. Interestingly a couple of the American bids were quite comparable with the Indonesian, Pakistan and Jamaican bids, quite possibly indicating that outsourcing is making the world flat.

I hired a Philippino woman at a rate of US$6.50. Similar to my American friend above, this freelancer started off wonderfully. She sailed through the trial (another recommendation I have if you want to dabble in outsourcing), moved into week one as I watched with great excitement as the content on my site seemed to finally be gaining some momentum and then activity flatlined. I receive an email saying she is experiencing problems with her internet connection: “I shifted to another provider and was approved just yesterday. I think installation will be done today or tomorrow” (but no fore-warning that this was going to be happening and I may experience issues), then nothing.

I’d been warned about the dodgy internet and phone connections in the Philippines  before when one of our board of advisors spent some time there scoping out the outsourcing scene (which by the way is pretty interesting – did you know for instance a lot of Indian firms sub-contract work from Western countries to the Philippines?)

Anyway, two weeks later, when I’d started the search for someone new, a bunch of listings went up on the site and I hear from her out of the blue via email: “Our home is 3 metres higher than the street. So, the flood is already waist high and about to enter our home.” Wow, first internet connection, then floods. Well, any Queenslander would have to be empathetic to that. On this front, shall we just say ‘we’ll see’ but I’m certainly not counting any chickens.

3. Fiverr.com

Fiverr is a newer entry to the outsourcing world. It is a small but very powerful micro freelancer site which plays on the simple concept – things people will do for you for $5. That’s right – five bucks. Whether you’re in the market for a freelancer or not, it’s a pretty interesting exercise to visit the site, just to check out the random crap bored or desperate people will offer up for $5. Everything from creating an awesome sketch from your photo for $5, designing logos for $5, answering 10 questions about Tunisia and the Tunisian revolution for $5, to drawing a scary monster for $5.

The result?

I thought I’d struck gold when I found someone offering “Upload content in your website and manage it daily” posted by a guy from India. For $5. So I took a $5 gamble enlisting the guy from India and his outlandish offer. He did an OK job, though some feedback had to be provided to get the first few listings where they needed to be. In his defence he did finish the job, for which I paid him, but no follow-up for further work from him – I fear I asked too much for the princely sum of $5 (but after all he offered in the first place!)

The verdict?

In short: a very mixed bag. Outsourcing is great… when it works. But getting the right team in place that have an operational workplace, who communicate when there is a problem and who are ready and hungry for the work takes some doing.

My latest quest is trialling another team on the recommendation from an industry colleague. He’s had such great success with them, he’s managed to fully autopilot his business and over a coffee last week, explained how he is now in a position that he can provide one paragraph which they turn into a fully fledged online program. Only time will tell if I can get awardshub.com to where I want it to be – autopilot as much as possible, too. With a little tenacity, I’m sure I can.

 

Have you tried outsourcing before? What were your experiences? What do you think of all the work going from Australia to off-shore freelancers? Would love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Yvette Adams
BY Yvette Adams ON 25 August 2012
Yvette Adams is a serial entrepreneur and multi-award winning businesswoman based on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. She is the founder and owner of The Creative Collective, a creative agency offering a range of creative services and training, and awardshub.com, an online portal helping connect business owners to business awards they could enter.