13 Tips for Becoming a Rock Star Freelancer

13-Tips-for-Becoming-a-Rock-Star-FreelancerA couple days ago I received an email from my friend’s son, a relatively junior web developer who was looking for ways to make money and build experience working as a freelance developer on Elance or oDesk. Some of the questions he asked me were in line with questions I hear many times:

  • How can I get my first project given that competition is extremely high and I have no reputation/ rating?
  • What can I do to keep my clients happy and coming back to me?

Here are a some of the tips I gave to him, hopefully you will find them helpful: Continue reading

How to Find Great Developers on Freelancing Sites Like oDesk, Elance or Guru

How-To-Find-Great-Developers-on-Freelancing-SitesFinding good developers has never been easier! Hundreds of thousands of first class developers are waiting to bid on your project.  Submit your idea to our marketplace and have dozens of qualified developers bidding on your project in just a few hours.   Some of the brightest minds from all over the world have come under one roof to offer their services for rates as low as $8 an hour!…    NOT!

While the above commercial sounds great, the old adage is still correct – if something sounds too good to be true it most likely is.  No world-class developer is going to work for $8 an hour.

Great Developers are Hard to Find

The good old days of $5 Ph.Ds. are long gone and never coming back. As a matter of fact someone once said, “What makes them good old days is a great imagination and a bad memory.”

Yes, the world is not yet completely flat and there is a significant difference in standards of living and that can greatly affect the rates offered by developers. Take a look for example at the comparison here. Today the difference between the average web developer in India and the USA is staggering. So it is conceivable that you can find some solid developers that are charging their average local market rates through market places like Elance or Freelancer (see, here for a comprehensive list of freelancing marketplaces).   It is also conceivable that in order to compete better that developer will reduce his or her rates. But let’s examine the chances… Continue reading

The Mystery of ROI for SEO Campaigns

ROI imageThis blog used to attract a lot of visitors and then due to circumstances beyond my control I had to shut it down for almost a year. When I was finally able to bring the blog back to life a large portion of the traffic was lost, various popularity rankings were down, and I realized that restarting would be even more complex than what I had to go through when starting from scratch a few years ago.

I had to undergo many pains including inevitable investment in SEO, a potential bottomless money pit, and the first question on my mind was its financial impact, budget I need to allocate, and the ROI to expect.

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How to Find Someone to Build an App

How-to-Find-Someone-to-Build-an-AppA few days ago an old friend of mine called me with a question that I’ve been asked many times before. It typically goes something like this: “I have an idea for a great app, but I don’t know anything about programming. How can I find someone who can develop that app for me? And, I don’t have much money to spend on it”.

Jane (the friend of mine) is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience. She is great at her craft, but has zero knowledge about building software, outsourcing, and building apps. I wasn’t completely sure where to start when answering her, because there are actually a lot of questions behind the question here, and to answer all of them in detail would require me to practically write a book! In this post I will attempt to answer this very question without going into every detail so I can keep this at a blog post appropriate length.

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“Outsource it!” is now in beta

A couple days ago my first full size book went into beta and is now available at the publisher website – http://pragprog.com/book/nkout/outsource-it. I feel very happy and relieved that the book is finally out, writing it was far more challenging than I’ve ever anticipated. At the same time I feel happy and proud, proud to be one of the authors of the pragmatic bookshelf, the group of technology writers that earned respect across very broad and demanding technical audience.

It will take a little while before the book hits the shelves of Amazon and other bookstores, but you don’t have to wait and get your e-copy of it today. While the book is in beta your comments and suggestions would be taken quite seriously and could result in changes and additions to the content, hopefully making the book even better. I am not sure how long the beta would take but hopefully much less than it took me to get here –

Roughly two and a half years ago I came up what seemed a great idea at the time – compile my blog material into an easy to read eBook. In a couple months I produced the first volume that was dedicated to making decisions on whether and how to outsource. In a short order I received substantial feedback that made it apparent that just recompiling the blog and doing surface level clean up won’t add too much value, and probably was not worth the effort. Continue reading

Outsourcing SMO

Search Media Optimization / Outreach has become one of the most popular traffic building activities to outsource. And paraphrasing comment on my previous post, when it comes to finding a qualified needle in a freelancing haystack SMO is even more challenging than SEO and others activities alike. First, a couple words on typical aspects of SMO, here are just a few things that you can consider:

  • Building Twitter follower crowd and posting ongoing tweets to the community you’ve created
  • Creating Profiles on Social Networks, generating “friends”, update of status / spam friends with info
  • Creating SM advertising campaigns using follow / vote / fun tools
  • Bookmaking the target using sharing engines such as StumbleUpon
  • As well as traditional resources such as forums

Each of these activities present a fairly easily outsourced task, at least it appears to. For example you can create a mascot for you’re your service. That mascot can have its own twitter page. Using variety of available tools and offshore labor you can

Continue reading

Outsourcing Blog SEO

I had several interesting discussions about blog SEO outsourcing with a few of my friends a colleagues. I think some highlights of those discussions deserve a full size post or two. Since we are talking about blogs I just have to start with some classic points. Trisha Okubo did a phenomenal job covering those in her almost classic “Blog Your Brand”

In case you did not read the presentation, here are the main points:

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Updates to the List of Freelancing Sites

In case you found Best Places to Find a Freelancer helpful you may want to check out the updated list. It now has 42 entries and also includes Google PR and Alexa ratings. These two numbers are quite helpful indicators of traffic. Google rating is a mystery number that measures from 0 (I guess “O” is for obscurity) to 10. Sites with PR 0 are typically brand new, inactive or have been penalized by Google for applying “black hat” SEO techniques. Sites with high PR are active members of web community, with a lot of traffic, popular content, and large number of quality back links. There are a lot of theories and speculation behind what determines PR, ask any SEO expert and you will get an ear full. How much of that would be true is a big question though. Many of PR rating aspects are kept secret by Google for a very good reason.

Alexa rating is much more strait forward measure, it goes from 1 – top rating to I do not know how many gazillions or zero, what apparently means the same. The higher the number the lower the rating. So there is practically no limit to how bad the could rate on Alexa. With Alexa rating being fairly simplistic there are plenty of ways a company can increase it by buying traffic and other means, that to a degree decreases the value of rating, however it’s still one of the best, easy to understand measures. Generally, Alexa rating consider low and a site practically irrelevant if the site doesn’t appear in Alexa 100,000. I would not recommend dismissing the sites with low rating though. Low Alexa rating means a bad news for the company’s traffic. On the other hand it could mean less vendor competition / niche market / and so on for you. However, for you convenience I will soon add a list sorted in Alexa rating linked from the table header, stay tuned :)

Here are the top five by Alexa rating (as of 2/1/2010)

Site PR Alexa Brief Description
www.craigslist.org 7 37 Oh should I say anything here?
www.elance.com 6 628 Elance is an online workplace where businesses find and hire people “on demand” to get work done quickly and cost effectively. Founded in 1999, Elance was established to help small businesses easily and efficiently hire freelance talent. Today, Elance is the leading workplace for hiring and working on demand. Elance is privately-held and
headquartered in Mountain View, California.
www.odesk.com 6 709 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 organized, fast and reasonably priced – that’s if you are prepared to pay fees. Last time I looked at it the brokerage fees were 10% of the contract.
www.GetAFreelancer.com 6 844 GetAFreelancer.com claims to be one of the largest sites of its kind. It indeed earned a decent reputation in freelancing community. You can find a large number of freelance programmers, web designers, copywriters and translators at that site.
www.rentacoder.com 6 1,908 The site has about 20,000 registered buyers. When you get a project done through Rentacoder you put the entire project fees into an escrow account. You don’t release the fees until the project is complete. This is good because it gives reassurance to the coder that they are going to pay you

Best of luck and let me know if you find sites that are worth including in the list.

Bidding Sites and Building Frustration

A couple weeks ago I put an RFP out for a very specific set of SEO activities on one of bidding sites. This SEO project was for my darling app – WWHOW!.  Since WWHOW! is based on user generated content it offers serious SEO challenges. Having spent a few months fighting those I knew fairly well what I was looking for and did not make a secret out of my expectations. To no surprise my straightforward SEO request generated a lot of responses primarily from India-based providers. I just finished going through all responses I received to date and it looks like I will have to go through bid-response process again, maybe I have to try a new bidding site, maybe change my request format, content, layout… Frankly, I doubt that changing much on my side will affect the dynamics of the campaign and quality of responses. I might need to change the target development community…

The fact that I received not a single proposal that I could remotely go with was quite irritating. One of the reasons I was annoyed by it is its effect on my “buyer’s reputation”. In some way majority of established bidding sites penalize buyers for not accepting proposals. Some of them will even cut buyers off if they do not meet some criteria, e.g. certain percentage of project acceptance. It appears that they will cut you off independently from the reasons you do not accept the proposals. It happened to me on www.eLance.com a little while ago and since despite multiple attempts I could not reach the customer service I ended up moving to another bidding site.

Continue reading

Notes from a Data Entry Gig

Large pool of cheap resources sometimes is enough of a motivation to outsource tasks. Sometime even those that you might not have done in the first place ;) It also is very tempting to engage manual labor rather than create, debug and use tools. Those reasons along with some business drivers were behind a data entry project I started a few weeks ago. While small and fairly simple the project offered a few interesting lessons to learn and a couple of interesting points to share.

  1. There are many places where you can find freelancers. Most of those places offer offshore labor. Even local resources such as craigslist will generate more response from offshore than from locals, even if you specify “locals only”. In my case I was specifically looking for offshore resources and the rock bottom rates. I knew that every site has its own community of freelancers, what was somewhat surprising is how substantial the difference in response would be. Response to my ad from 5 sites I tried in the first 3 days was 0, 2, 3, 6, and 78. The last figure was the response from oDesk community. It’s no surprise that the best candidates also came from oDesk. As a matter of fact I ended up to picking all providers from oDesk (I was looking for 5 people).
  2. The rates diversity was quite surprising as well. My project which was a basic internet research and data entry attracted freelancers from all over the world with majority of applicants from India, Pakistan and Philippines. There were a couple bids from USA (I frankly doubt that the work was planned to be performed by USA resources though). The lowest bid was $0.78 an hour (Bangladesh), the highest was $26 an hour (India).
  3. The quality of responses varied greatly from thoughtful and professional to “Need a job!”, the last one incidentally was one of the highest bids as well.
  4. Fit between the job and skill set was decent with a few exceptions even though I had somewhat of a difficult time categorizing my project – fitting it into one of the categories / subcategories provided by the sites.
  5. Each of the sites has its own idiosyncrasies and proprietary conventions; that makes search for freelancers across several sites rather cumbersome. In this case I did not have to work across the sites – the difference in response clearly made oDesk a better place to seek for my resources. That is not always the case though. In particular many type of projects such as web design, graphical arts, etc. would find equally strong support on many sites.
  6. For this project pruning candidates was not complex – I cut off everyone with rate above $5 an hour and those who did not appeared to put any efforts into their bid. That still gave me about 25 candidates, at that point ratings and hours worked helped me quickly pick top ten.
  7. I did not put a lot of efforts in the “Interviewing”; a quick email exchange quickly showed whether the person appeared professional and responsive enough. A few of candidates requested Skype conversations, that was a bit more time consuming and I am not sure whether for this kind of project the time is justified.
  8. I picked 7 suppliers (my target was 5). Can you guess why? Of course the quality of suppliers, especially when you scrape the bottom of the rate barrel is a hit or miss. One of them “did not show up for work” after the bid was accepted, one turned out so dense that I had to stop working with her after two days into the project.
  9. I now have only three suppliers left. All three are from Philippines and all are doing a decent job. The rates are 1.11, 2.78 and 3.33 an hour. The communications are sufficient. Productivity as expected or even better. I think so far I can call this project a success.

If you are facing a data entry, web scraping, email response, etc. project here are a couple tips I suggest for you to consider:

  1. Using freelancing sites saves time of sourcing candidates, simplifies management, and helps with payment aspects.
  2. Today the rate target could be $3 an hour plus / minus a buck.
  3. Have a very simple, concise and unambiguous project description. A step by step operating procedure should be developed. (remember the 3rd fundamental rule of outsourcing?)
  4. Do not invest too much effort in selection of the candidates; it’s easier and faster to start another project and get a bunch of new candidates than try to pick just the right ones. Using the project above as example – the candidates I thought were the best are no longer on my team, one of them was the no-show.
  5. Use the site communication methodology rather than your own email. That reduces the clutter in your own inbox and helps with categorization of email and follow up.

I guess that’s as much as this project deserves. I am kicking off  a SEO/SEM project shortly. It will be a bit different will see how it pans out and whether there is much to learn from it.

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Slowing Down, no Intentions to Stop

This month has been exceptionally busy for me and I had almost no time to put against anything but my day job, unsurprisingly so my blogging debt started to grow at a pretty good pace. There were a plenty of articles published in the blogs I follow, many industry news worth discussion knocked on the doors daily, and despite serious slowing down in the rate of posts I saw a notable increase in traffic.

When it comes to blogging I face a few serious challenges, first of course being ESL. As a matter of fact ESL has been a huge mental obstacle to overcome, it took a lot of internal and external pushing before I could step over the fact that I won’t be able write to even my own standards of quality needless to say to the benchmarks established in technical blogosphere by top notch professionals.

Other ones were concerns so typical for a techie:

  • I can talk at rate of 100 words a minute with occasional gusts of 250, but when I put my thoughts on paper the productivity drops 100 fold.
  • Talking towards invisible audience and literally no feedback and total absence of control over that audience really freaks me out.
  • Concerns about spilling the beans in so many aspects of our work and educating vendors and competitors.
  • Copyright / IP concerns. Many of the items I cover related to projects I’ve done as work for hire – how far can I push that envelope without compromising my integrity – which is by far one of the most important aspect of our professional image
  • Position concerns – what if I change my opinion tomorrow? Image concerns, and many many others…

Of course like anyone else I also have to deal with shortage hours in a day, occasional writer’s blocks and gazillion of other challenges any blogger deals with.

When I realized how much time blogging is going to take from my day and how unproductive I was my visceral reaction was to follow my management approach: do what you do the best – delegate the rest. And I decided to hire a ghost writer. In theory it appeared like a great idea – I just tell a ghost writer what I think about a particular topic and s/he will write it up… In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is. My fabulous idea did not work out, not for the lack of offers though:

I put a project request on several freelancing sites (see those plus more on my list of places to find freelancers). I got more offers that I could look at in just a few days. The price varied from $2 to $50 an hour. Many of writers who replied to my post did not even red the post, some did not understand it. The remaining minority either asked for rates I could not possibly afford or after a brief discussion with me bailed out. After I went though ~100 bids there were a couple still standing, and they only made me realize that time-wise I won’t see any savings and the only thing I could benefit by using a ghost writer would be grammar, SEO, and other important yet secondary aspects.

So I ended up in square one with a notebook in my laps blogging away while BARTing. The last couple months brought more and more to my plate. Isn’t it strange that poor economy, slower business and a fewer opportunities do not mean less work? So even my office commute doesn’t offer much time for pragmatic outsourcing. But I have no intentions to stop, at least yet. There is still so much to cover…

Using Freelancers: Pros and Cons

I work with freelancers on many tasks / projects and find using freelancing force very meaningful in many aspects. I have been working as a freelancer myself on and off as well, so to some degree I have a double insider view on IT freelancing phenomena.

So when I run into an old and rather popular article 101 Reasons Freelancers Do it Better I was compelled to comment; yet while reading I realized that regular comments just won’t do it. I saw that I could play devil’s advocate pretty much on every point made in the article, e.g. just a few random notes

Reasons to Freelance Nick as Devil’s Advocate
Save on child care: Instead of paying for full-time care, you may be able to cut care back to part-time hours or even work out a schedule with your spouse that allows you to eliminate child care altogether. Oh yes, and all the money you lose by shortening your work day. And of course the quality of your work will skyrocket with kids hopping around and helping you type.
Your level of career-loathing spending is reduced or eliminated: Expensive vacations, trips to the spa and gallons of fruity alcoholic drinks are often indulged in because of a need to release work- related stress. Freelancers are generally happier and more satisfied by their work, so
this type of spending is not as prevalent.
Absolutely. No career thoughts, aspirations, politics, anxiety – total nirvana. You probably should take it even further, drop working altogether. That will be especially helpful in releasing stress that comes from freelancing commons such as waiting to be paid, bidding against 10,000 me toos, being screamed at by a client.
Diversity: Instead of doing the same thing day in and day out, you can pick up a variety of projects to keep you occupied. That’s phenomenal – learn java today do graphical arts tomorrow, learn one customer’s domain and apply it some other. Become a pinnacle of multi talent – Jack of all trades
and respected master of None…

I guess any Smart Alek can do the same and it would be much more meaningful to look at the freelancing as an option from a VPE’s standpoint. Freelancing is a complex phenomena and covering it in detail could keep a few very prolific bloggers busy. Take for example a look at freelanceswitch.com For this post let me take a high road and cover only some of the main Pros and Cons of Freelancing:

Pros of Working with Freelancers

  • No job is too small is a common freelancing motto. So when you need things like light graphic touch up, setting up a yahoo store, basic SEO services, etc. using freelancers is often the best option. You can have the entire project done by the time a sales team from a large agency schedules initial meeting with you.
  • One of great advantages of sourcing through freelancing is access to a huge pool of resources. Nowadays with powerful aggregators / directories of freelancing resources such as odesk.com, guru.com, and elance.com you can probably find almost any specialty or skill you may need. See the list i compiled so far.
  • Nimble, fast and flexible freelancing community caters to ever changing needs of businesses quite well. The difference in turn around time between freelancers and even small service oriented companies is staggering.
  • Low commitment on your part combined with a large resource pool caters toward disposable outsourcing model exceptionally well (read more about disposable outsourcing ).
  • One of the unadvertised benefits that a freelancer could offer comes from cutting corners and that could offer some huge short time benefits – need someone to pull an all-nighter to push a change to production, need access to some expensive software and ready to close your eyes on it’s being properly licensed, want to build a prototype without going through mandatory steps required by corp. SDLC… all that could be done with a right freelancer(s) on the job.
  • Competitive pricing – sometimes cheap, sometimes ridiculously expensive freelancers bring great competitive offering to the market place. The price freelancers can charge is market regulated and fluctuates with market; it includes minimum overhead and typically is substantially more competitive than the rates offered by outsourcing companies.
  • Many solid talented professionals end up or start up as freelancers because their true passion for what they do and that makes them so much fun to work with. I had a pleasure of working with amazingly talented freelancers in all areas of creative and technical aspects of IT – writers, graphical artists, developers, and security pros and I can not even start to describe how much their passion for work elevates the quality and productivity not to mention positive energy they radiate…

Cons of Working with Freelancers

  • Some jobs are just too big for freelancers to handle. That is a fairly obvious issue, more so, there is an important aspect to it as well – some jobs grow to be too big for freelancers to handle. That is potentially a serious trap. You start with something that appears to be a freelancing sweet spot, the spot starts to grow (scope creeps, a few cans of worms get opened, etc.) and before you know the project is out of control…
  • The word freelancer starts with “free”, not with “process” or “restrict”, and that reflects something you have to be prepared. Following strict SDLC or other processes is not typically freelancing MO. That could become a serious obstacle in project delivery, significantly reduce productivity, and in general annoy the world out of you.
  • On a similar note even basic discipline is not exceptionally common among freelancers. I guess working on the project while at home wearing your PJs affects the mind set and eventually bleeds into all aspects of professional life. Creative arts freelancers are in particular notorious for being casual in treating basic obligations – they are late for meetings, miss due dates… and sometimes (that’s my favorite) forget to bill you.
  • Finding good freelancers even with help of marketplaces such as oDesk.com or Guru.com is a challenging task. Just recently for one of my projects I needed to find a few bolggers, that seems like a no brainer, there literally millions of them… well that’s a part of the problem – you end up dealing with a lot of spam (people that reply to you post without even reading it), a lot of people who are not remotely qualified, and so on.
  • Quality of freelancing resources is very much a gamble. In my experience for every gem you have a several dozens of pebbles. It is in particular notable for short ramp up technologies and skills like “web developer”, “blogger”, etc. Pretty much anyone with PC and internet connection can claim to be one of those. With the short nature of freelancing projects by the time you realize that you got someone with no substance or skill half of your budget is gone.

Freelance workforce is just one of the tools in tech leader’s portfolio. If you apply the tool to the right job and handle it with care you can achieve some pretty impressive results. It is a powerful tool and could bring a serious damage if used by someone who doesn’t know how to use it though…

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oDesk Freelancer Stats and Mashups

A few posts ago I mentioned a report covering some insights on international freelancing community that was made available by oDesk. Sine then I had a chance to take a deeper look at oConomy and found information there even more interesting and insightful. oDesk did a great job on presenting freelancer statistics in chats and Google mashups.

Of course when it comes to picking an offshoring destination freelancing data needs to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular a freelancer’s rate is a product of many criteria and only portion of those are locale-dependant. Freelancing through aggregators / monster boards like oDesk is still in its early stage, over time the rates and other stats will have a greater degree of correlation to local salaries, availability, etc. However, even today, these figures provide an interesting reference in terms of understanding the local dynamics. Let’s take for example geo distribution for Russia vs. population and rank for top 10 cities on oDesk list:

oDesk Rank City Number of Providers Average Charge Rate Average  User Score Population Rank
1 Moscow 486 $19.39 4.21 10,470,318 1
2 Omsk 444 $16.12 4.28 1,134,016 7
3 Taganrog 207 $15.82 4.28 281,947 66
4 Saint Petersburg 200 $17.76 3.69 4,661,219 2
5 Novosibirsk 121 $16.75 4.34 1,425,508 3
6 Tomsk 98 $15.83 3.99 487,838 34
7 Rostov-on-Don 69 $15.28 4.15 1,068,267 10
8 Nizhniy Novgorod 44 $15.11 3.28 1,311,252 4
9 Smolensk 34 $14.24 3.54 325,137 56
10 Irkutsk 32 $24.13 4.62 593,604 24

As you can see the figures are somewhat counterintuitive. Take for example Taganrog a small city in the same region as Rostov-on-Don which is roughly 3 times bigger and considerably richer as well, yet freelancer community is 6 times the size of Rostov-on-Don’s.  Taganrog is even ahead of Russia’s second largest city Saint Petersburg.  Most likely these figures confirm that freelancing community’s embrace of oDesk services is in its humble beginnings and that more business will flow to companies like oDesk, Guru, eLance and others.

I hope oDesk keeps oConomy live and updated with the latest info, it would be also great to see their competitors to follow in suite.

oDesk: Freelancing Destinations

Very interesting statistics made available by oDesk, a freelancing marketplace that now tops 150,000 individuals worldwide in over 100 countries. Freelancing geography as seen from oDesk perspective appears quite different from what we see in trends on geography of regular IT outsourcing, for example US freelancers offer strong competition and reasonable costs. The list of top freelancer countries also includes Canada, Russia and Ukraine rather than China and Brazil.

Total Number of Providers: 3,581
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $19.60
Average Feedback Score: 4.32 (out of 5.00)

Total Number of Providers: 27,454
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $12.52
Average Feedback Score: 4.01 (out of 5.00)

Total Number of Providers: 5,960
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $11.13
Average Feedback Score: 4.36 (out of 5.00)

Total Number of Providers: 17,213
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $6.33
Average Feedback Score: 4.30 (out of 5.00)

Total Number of Providers: 2,721
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $16.86
Average Feedback Score: 4.31 (out of 5.00)

Total Number of Providers: 2,929
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $15.96
Average Feedback Score: 4.36 (out of 5.00)

Total Number of Providers: 52,637
Average Hourly Rate Charge: $18.32
Average Feedback Score: 4.40 (out of 5.00)