What Spending 117K Has Taught Me About Working With Freelancers

Have you ever thought about hiring a freelancer online before?  If anyone could benefit from outsourcing, it would be small business owners, Lord knows us small biz owners have our plates full.

Over the years my web marketing company, 3Bug Media, has outsourced over 100k worth of freelance work.  That's only counting using online freelancing platforms like Odesk and Elance, it doesn't include hiring one off contract jobs locally.  I've hired online freelancers for things like web development, graphic design, CAD drawings, writers and bookkeeping to name a few.

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While I do have a few in-house employees, when things get busy, it's a lot easier and more cost effective to outsource the excess work rather then go out and hire someone and have another mouth to feed regardless if you have work for them or not.  It also allows you to hire (temporarily) for specialized skills that you may only need occasionally, like a graphic designer.

Today I'm talking about hiring freelancers online, where you use an online platform like Odesk or Elance to find a freelancer.  When people think about these platforms they think about hiring overseas, when actually you can find freelancers from all over.  More than half of the freelancers I hire are either in the U.S. or Canada.

I've made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of my time and the time of the poor freelancers that had to work for me in the beginning, but I got better over time and learned how to find exactly what I'm looking for in a freelancer.

I've only been burned twice in 5 years doing this and it was for a grand total of $800.  Not bad considering how much I've spent over the years.  I've found that most freelancers, regardless of where they are from, are generally honest and hard working people.  Do you get some bad apples?  Yes, but no more than you would have if you were hiring people locally.

So for you small business owners out there that would love to be able to outsource some of their workload, here are some of the things I've learned when it comes to hiring freelancers online.

If You Pay Peanuts You Will Get Monkeys

No, you can't get a top notch web designer for $3 an hour.  You can't pay someone $10 to write a killer 20 page ebook that will be the cornerstone of your sales funnel strategy.  Yes, you can often get a better rate hiring overseas (or outside of your metro area), but you still have to pay them a decent wage if you want quality work.  That actually applies to hiring for anything, you have to pay a decent wage if you want good people.

The beauty of hiring a virtual freelancer is that you have a worldwide job market of skills to choose from at good rates, it's not about trying to hire someone at the cheapest possible rate.  You'll be disappointed if this is what you expect to get.  In fact, some of my freelancers get paid more than what I would pay for someone locally to do the same job, they just have the exact skills I'm looking for.

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Write a Crystal Clear Job Posting

Most people new to hiring freelancers create poor job descriptions because is they are not clear themselves about what they want.  Before you create your first job posting, make sure you understand what skills are needed for the position you will be hiring for so you can write a clear job posting  Depending on what type of job you post, you may receive hundreds of applicants for a single job posting.  There are two things I've learned that has helped me write good job postings.

1 – Be very specific about what you want.  Remove all superfluous language from your job postings.  A  job description like “I'm looking for a fantastic writer with a passion for the written word” is totally meaningless.  What's fantastic to you may be awful for the next person.  State exactly what you want, you are looking for the basic criteria at this point and will be looking for style and skill at the next stage when you start whittling down your list of applicants.  Something like “Looking for a writer with experience and in depth knowledge of the mortgage industry, please provide reference links to published articles related to this topic”.

2 – Write about what you don't want.  Start excluding people you know you won't hire right off the bat, it'll save you time going through resumes later.  If you need a specific expertise, be very clear about it.  Something like “I'm looking for someone who has experience maintaining Magento databases, if you do not have experience in this area, please do not apply”

Be courteous with your job posting (you don't want to sound like a dictator), but also be very clear and concise with what you are looking for in a freelancer.

Be Patient and Thorough When Hiring

Within the first day or two you may get flooded with hundreds of job applicants.  If you don't have hiring experience and have never had to sift through hundreds of resumes, this can be intimidating.  The quick and lazy method would be to quickly scan through them, look for a friendly face and some good reviews and go ahead and hire.  Wrong! The time you save at this stage will come back to haunt you when you hire the wrong person and spend the next 2 months pulling your hair out trying to get that freelancer you hired to return your emails.

In all of my job postings, I ask for links to previous work and also look through their reviews (more on both of these below).  Make sure you take the time to look at their sample work and read through their reviews looking for anything that jumps out at you and also for red flags.  Also look at the cover letter they send, I've had writers apply for positions (asking for $30+ an hour) and it is riddled with grammar and spelling errors.  Not cool, but they saved me the time of interviewing them.

Dig Deeper Into The Reviews

This is something important I've learned with working with freelancers online.  You'll see lots of 4 and 5 star reviews, even for freelancers that are awful.  So if everyone gets high ratings, how can you tell who is good and who sucks?

For most online platforms like Odesk and Elance, both the freelancer and the contractor get the chance to review each other after a job is closed.  So what happens?  You leave a freelancer a bad review for a crap job and they in turn leave you a bad review as revenge.  So what happens most of the time, even if the job was not satisfactory, many contractors will still give a freelancer a 4 start rating just so they will get one in return.  Other times the contractor feels bad because the freelancer was nice (but did a crap job), so it's easier to give a good review and be gone rather then cause any friction.

It's important to read through the reviews and look for clues

  • 5 star reviews but no supporting text or a one liner like “good job”. When I see this,  I discount it.  If a freelancer really did a great job, most people will take 10 seconds to write a few words of thanks.
  • If a new contractor only has 1-2 reviews and they are excellent.  I might take it into account if their are detailed words of praise for the freelancer, but if they are like the above, I will discount them.  This mainly applies to overseas freelancers (IMO) but sometimes they will hire themselves for 1-2 small jobs with another account and leave great reviews for themselves to get started.
  • Look for communication problems in the reviews.  Nothing is more frustrating than having a freelancer miss a hard deadline and then ignore your emails for the next 2 weeks while you go crazy.  If I see comments like “I don't know what happened, she just stopped responding to my emails”, I know it's time to move on.
  • Look at the timing of reviews.  If you see some bad reviews but they were from two years ago, it may not negate the several great recent reviews they have.  On the other side, if a freelancer has dozens of great reviews but the last 3 were mediocre, maybe you need to question them about what's going on before you consider hiring them.

Don't Trust Sample Work Unless You Can Verify It

I always ask for published work that can be attributed to the freelancer when possible.  Sometimes freelancers mislead people with their work experience and sample work so you need to look for verifiable sample work.  Just because they sent you a Word Doc with some articles in there or have screenshots of dozens of websites they built doesn't mean it's theirs.

Take the time to investigate their writing or websites they claim to have created, sometimes you'll find another author actually wrote the article or an agency actually built the site they are claiming credit for.  Most of the time it's impossible to verify, but it's still good to investigate for obvious signs they are misleading you.  And don't be afraid to ask more questions or to ask permission to contact the website owner to verify they created the site or wrote the article Their reaction to this request will usually give you the answer you're looking for.

Be Very Clear About What You Want

I can't stress this part enough.  When you work with a freelancer, be very clear about what you want.  If it's a logo they are designing for you, please do not email them asking them to ” make something nice”.  Be clear what you want and give examples whenever possible.  When you communicate with your freelancer make sure you:

  • Use exact language.  “I would like a Helvetica font or something closely related” rather than “I want a really classic looking font”.  The more exact your language the easier it is for the freelancer to understand what you want.
  • Ask for hard deadlines.  Mutually agree on a hard deadline to finish the work and how often they should give you a progress report. Something like “So we both agree that you will have the Ebook finished and delivered by the 31st of this month.  And you will send me a progress report every Friday and also let me know if you think you may not be able to meet this deadline”
  • Have them repeat back to you the instructions you just gave them.  This is really important, especially for more complex projects.  If you are on a Skype call and you give instructions on the project, ask them to repeat it back to you in their own words to be sure they understand what you want.  You'll be surprised how many times it's different from what you actually wanted.  Usually this is more of a lack of clear communication on your part.  As time goes on, you'll learn how to give laser focused instructions with little room for interpretation.
  • Only give one task at a time.  Don't give them 10 different things to do at once, that's the quickest way for things to get screwed up.  Give one task with specific instructions, when they have finished that task, have them start on the next one.  Every email I send to any freelancer only has a single task in it.

Take Baby Steps When You Start With a New Freelancer

When you first start working with a freelancer, take baby steps.  Don't unload an entire project on them as a first step, ease them in.  Even with really good freelancers, you're going to go through a breaking in period where there might be misunderstandings that need to be worked out or expectations that need to be set.  If I hire someone to write a 30 page ebook for me, I will usually have them start out by writing a blog article for me just to get warmed up.  It's better to clear up misunderstandings and mistakes on a 700 word blog article than a 20,000 word ebook that doesn't sound anything like you wanted it to.

You'll become a better communicator

You'll make some mistakes in the beginning when you first start hiring freelancers online, but they shouldn't be that painful if you go slowly.  The best thing about learning to communicate with freelancers online?  You actually become a very good communicator because you aren't there to look over someones shoulder and correct them, you have to be clear from the start.  This has made me a better communicator with my employees that I work with face to face.

So that's it, hopefully you picked up some tips and are ready to give it a shot,  If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me a message.

Resources:

Odesk – Online platform for finding freelancers from around the world.

Elance -Similar to the above (same company owns both) for finding online freelancers.  Unlike Odesk, Elance lets you search by city in case you want to work with someone locally.

Virtual Staff Finder – A service from a very credible guy, Chris Ducker, who will help match you with a fantastic virtual assistant.

The Four Hour Work Week – Has a lot of info on outsourcing.  Never read it?  It can change your life.

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Gary

CEO at 3Bug Media
Gary Shouldis is the founder of 3Bug Media, a web marketing company that helps businesses create 360 Marketing Strategies to dominate their market. His blog is read by over 20 thousand small business owners a month and has been featured in the N.Y. Times Small Business, Business Insider and Yahoo Small Business.
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