Offshoring – A Cautionary Tale

I keep telling everyone how I’ve been outsourcing a lot of my work to offshore workers.  I usually paint a pretty rosy picture, but it has its ugly side.  This week I managed to learn something from it.

As you know if you’ve been following my blog, I’ve had some issues with my offshore development team.  I won’t go into those details again, except to say that it gets better for a while, and then gets worse for a while.  The fact is I could not have gotten the work done for the price I paid any other way.  The ups and downs come with the territory.

Working with non-technical VAs is a little different, and usually not as volatile.  One of my VAs was this awesome guy I hired last October.  Oddly enough he was from India and not the Philippines… I wonder if that was part of the problem…

He was so cheap I almost couldn’t believe my luck when I realized how good he was.  For a long time I had him doing research on clubs, compiling a list of as many clubs as he could find.  After some initial training he was pretty much on auto-pilot for 20 hours a week.

Then I felt that he was starting to lose interest, his work was still good but he wasn’t putting in the hours.  I figured he was bored and I needed some testing done so I put him on that (he had some experience testing).

The first week was great, he did all the regression testing, learned the Bugzilla interface and entered bugs and all seemed fine.  Then I put him on writing test cases.

And he disappeared.

I didn’t even notice.

I was so lulled by his previous competence I just believed he would continue to do what he was supposed to do and didn’t need babysitting.

WRONG.

Rule number 1.  Your offshore VAs always need babysitting.  ALWAYS!

Here’s the story in a nutshell… a week and a half after I put him on test cases, I happened to be on oDesk doing something unrelated, and I noticed his work log was emtpy.  It was halfway through the week and he had not logged any hours.  I looked at the previous week.  0:50 hours.  Huh?

So I shot off an email to him asking what was going on and he got back to me immediately and apologized and said he had personal issues that had nothing to do with work.

I was so mad I fired him on the spot and ended his assignment and gave him a lukewarm rating and UNshared him from all my Google Doc files he was using.

Now I’m a little upset with myself for letting my anger drive such a bad business decision.  It was my fault.  I never should have put him on a critical task.  If he had still been doing internet research on clubs I would have just let it pass and waited for his personal issues to sort themselves out.  Then he’d come back and pick up where he left off at his ultra cheap rate and all would be well again.

Damn.

So to recap the lessons learned…

  1. Don’t assign a part-time, low-level, offshore resource to any task you consider critical to your business.
  2. Check in with your VAs once a week at minimum.  If they are doing something important, check with them twice a week.  A 10-minute Skype chat works just fine.
  3. When a VA disappoints you, don’t do anything until you’ve given yourself 24 hours to cool off and figure out who’s fault it really was.

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My new site looks like it’s funded.

I recently decided to bite the bullet and commission a redesign of Grouvia.  The current design, although it’s nice, is too complicated and is causing problems with implementation.

I hired this awesome offshore contractor to do the design and I got a preliminary screenshot today.  I sent it to a colleague and we were talking about it, and to one of her comments I said, “yeah, it looks so much better, cleaner… like we’re funded.”

She laughed.

I can’t put my finger on what that really means, but I feel like it’s true.  The new design makes Grouvia look like the other Web 2.0 sites that have been professionally designed… and those designs probably costs tens of thousands of dollars.  This is costing me about $350.  Of course I have to implement it myself, but that’s ok.  If I wanted to I could probably get that done for a few hundred bucks also.

[Speaking of cheap labor, I said to my Dad the other day, “these people are my staff.”  By this I was referring to the subcontractors I’ve hired from the Phillipines, India, and now Belarus (where they heck is that anyway?).  I’m addicted to offshore staffing.  Need something done quickly for practically no money?  Hire a Filipino!]

Anyway, I’m totally thrilled with this new design – I can’t wait to get it up on the site.  It just feels right.  It feels… funded.

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Another Milestone Moment

This week we had our 6th release of Grouvia Beta.  This release marked another major milestone for us – all the 1.0 features are implemented.

That’s not to say they are all implemented perfectly, or even completely.  We still have some missing pieces and a few hundred bugs.

But I’m just sayin’…

For the next two and a half weeks we have to focus very clearly on launching http://www.  This means we will…

  1. FIX BUGS.
  2. Work on the SEO strategy.
  3. Fix more bugs.
  4. Post as many free ads and links as possible.
  5. Test bug fixes.
  6. Improve the site’s marketing copy and landing pages.
  7. Fix more bugs.
  8. Convert the static  marketing pages to Drupal content.
  9. Fix… etc.
  10. Build demos and how-to articles.
  11. LAUNCH.

I’m torn between having one more bug fix release to beta before the production launch.  But honestly I just want this thing in production.

I mean, Facebook has tons of bugs, and people keep using it!

I’m really excited.  We’re turning a corner.  And getting to the next phase is always fun.

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Link Building – It’s a messy job but somebody’s gotta do it.

I can’t seem to get through the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for Dummies book on my own, so my friend who is an SEO expert agreed to do some barter work for me.

Link building is a key component of any good SEO strategy.  Or so she told me and I had to agree because I didn’t know any better.

Link building is an ongoing effort, she says.  You do it a little bit every week, for several weeks at a time, and then repeat that over and over.  In a nutshell, it requires 2-3 people posting comments, blog entries, forum replies, answers to questions, etc, on high ranking sites a whole bunch of times, all containing links back to your site.

At some point, you will see your site’s PR (page rank) improve enough that your SEO effort takes on a life of its own and you don’t need the manual link building any more (or much).  At least that’s the idea.

So now that I’ve done a little research into how this works, let me tell you something: it is not as simple as it sounds.  Let’s go over some of the finer points of link building:

  • First of all, this work is BORING and I certainly can’t spend hours and hours every week doing this.  So I decided to get some cheap VAs (virtual assistants) to help.  I posted a very simple job opening on oDesk and within 2 hours had close to 50 applicants.  Whoa horsey!!!  I shut that faucet off as soon as I could chat the help desk to ask them how.
  • My personal ethics will not allow me to use black hat methods.  If you don’t know what that is, look it up on wikipedia.  Trust me, it’s bad.  But what it means is that I have to filter out any candidates who I think might use these techniques, because the last thing I want is for Grouvia’s reputation to be tarnished before we’re even one lap into the race.
  • You have to hit all different kinds of sites, from ebay and craigslist to blogs, article comments, review sites, and answer sites.  You have to hit the ones that have high PR, you have to hit them at different times of the day, and you have to hit them from different IP addresses and different devices and browsers.
  • Here’s a critical piece:  the things you hit have to be RELEVANT to your subject matter.  You can’t just hit anything — you have to hit stuff that means something to your site and your site’s audience.  For Grouvia I could hit anything group-related.
  • Finally, the things you say in these posts have to be relevant and valuable.  You can’t just put a comment on a blog post that says “thanks for the great post, signed soandso at http://www.grouvia.com”.  That would be spam and I get that all the time on my blog.  I trash them, even if it’s the only comment.  Especially the ones that are written by a non-English speaker.  Please.

My friend (the same one I talked about earlier) does this for a living.  She started doing it with stock sites when she was a day-trader, and according to her it works like a charm.

The whole thing seems really scummy, but everyone does it.  Apparently if you don’t do it your site is destined for Internet purgatory forever because nobody will ever find it.  Either that or you’ll have to pay for search engine advertisements which, when you have no money, is not much of an option.

[I just found this hilarious post called 101 Ways to Build Link Popularity.  Maybe he’ll see my link and link back to me.]

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