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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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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    Outsourcing Made Easy?

    I recently listened to a podcast episode from Internet Business Mastery.  [Internet Marketing is not my business model, but as a busy entrepreneur I do appreciate all their tips on how to maximize your time so you can get more done with less effort.]

    This particular episode  had to do with outsourcing and coincidentally I was just about to start researching how this VA (Virtual Assistant) concept works. So after this podcast I decided it seemed easy enough, so I dug in.

    There are many places you can find VAs, many more than the ones I found in my research, but I went with oDesk.com because I found my developers there, am relatively happy with their site, and am familiar with the interface.

    There are tens of thousands of VAs on the oDesk site.  I narrowed my search by using keywords for the type of work I was looking for (market research, content writing, statistical analysis, databases, etc.).  I narrowed it down further by selecting only those with “Excellent” English skills (self-assessed), 4 star or above ratings, tests taken, and a rate of $10 per hour or less. The vast majority of these people are young women from the Philippines, but there were a few men, and a smattering from India and the US.

    If, like me, you have had visions of paying $2.00 an hour for a top notch assistant, you can forget it.  It doesn’t really happen like that.

    Then I carefully read each person’s profile, work history, reviews, and work samples if they had them.  I chose the ones I liked by adding them to a”favorites” list and when I had about a dozen, I wrote up the job description and sent out what oDesk calls an Invitation to Interview.

    I got responses from a few right away.  Then the hurricane hit the Philippines and I got nothing for several days.  As they recovered from the storm, I got a few more (with apologies!) and then it pretty much fell off.  Some never got back to me at all.

    I found that in general, even the ones who claimed excellent English skills do not have excellent English skills, at least not in writing.  I chose two that I felt had the best combination of relevant work, decent written English, and had good reviews from past customers.

    I decided to split the work up between the two of them and gave them each half the hours and half the work.  I had an expectation that one of them would be better than the other, but after two weeks I found the opposite to be true.  (My hiring skills have never been spot-on, so I have learned not to completely trust my instincts in this area.)

    I “un-hired” the one I felt was not cutting it, and I’ll keep the other and increase her hours to the full 10 hours per week.  As I discover more and more things to give her I can increase her hours as needed.  I also have two more that I liked, as runner-ups, that I could easily slot into the job if I want to try another VA out.

    An interesting thing I’m finding out about using VAs is that you can hire them relatively quickly, test them out for a week or two, and if you’re not happy, replace them.  You still got the work they did, the work is not specialized, so it’s not hard to retrain someone new, and eventually you’ll get someone you love and stick with them.

    In addition, there are other, even cheaper, resources available (in the $3/hr range) that can be used to do tasks that require brains but not great English.  Researching and compiling lists of clubs is one area that comes to mind.  That will be the next job I outsource… as soon as I have time.

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    Choosing My Million Dollar Development Team

    This past week was spent collecting proposals for the grouvia.com project, in response to the RFP I sent out last week. I had about a dozen early candidates and two dropped because they didn’t feel they could respond within the very short timeframe I required.

    I suppose if I had to do it again (you’d have to put a gun to my head) I’d change my RFP to request that each company put their proposal in a specific format. One of the biggest challenges I found was having to “re-frame” each proposal into a common format so I could put them into kind of a mental comparison matrix. I don’t know if I succeeded that well, and I think when it came down to it I went with my gut feeling about which proposals would ultimately rise to the top of the list. But I believe strongly that gut feelings are generally based in some fact. So after reading each proposal carefully, I had a good sense of what kind of company this was, and whether I felt strongly about them one way or the other.

    The three that have made it to the short list are quite different from each other. They each suggested different technologies, they have different approaches, and different personalities. The longest proposal (of the three) is 40 pages long and came with 10 supplemental documents. Another one was seven pages long and I had to go back and ask for some missing information. How am I supposed to interpret that?

    BTW I didn’t hold it against any of them for missing information. My turnaround time was very short and they did their best I’m sure. I merely asked for it and they gave it to me.

    So here I am with a decision due tomorrow and feeling a little paralyzed by indecisiveness about three major factors:

    1. Drupal vs. Symfony (I know, I know, they’re not the same type of thing!)
    2. Eastern Europe vs. India
    3. Hourly vs. fixed price – there’s more to this but it’s too much to go into here.

    Did I mention that none of the US companies I asked to participate responded? The overwhelming majority of the firms are from India. One was from Sweden (they dropped) and one from Ukraine. All their english skills are good, they all offer US based phone numbers, they all work late hours to compensate for the time zone issue. None of the offshore issues are really issues, to me at least. And the prices are all very close, and all within my budgeted range.

    So I guess I’ll have to keep you in suspense until next week. If you have any thoughts or commments I’d love to hear them!

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    A 5-Step Process for Creating an RFP When You Don’t Have a Clue

    I’ve certainly responded to plenty of RFPs in my career, but I’ve never written one. Recently I’ve gained a new appreciation for people who can do this well.

    In my quest to find a reliable and skilled development team to build the Grouvia back-end, I crafted an RFP. But I’ll admit, I did something any self-respecting entrepreneur would do, I copied someone else’s. Unfortunately the one I chose was from UConn (the University of my old home state) which had all sorts of blather in it about working with the government, etc., which I had to sift through and remove.

    I couldn’t actually *read* this thing, and God help the poor souls who are trying to bid on it. Bidding on government contracts is a skill in and of itself and an advanced degree from a law school seems like a good prerequisite.

    I scanned each section and deleted the stuff I was sure didn’t apply to me, and now I’m left with this icky shell of remaining sections that I have to read through and either (1) delete, (2) keep as is, (3) re-word, or (4) add a note to come back later. Unfortunately most of the sections are 4’s so far. And truth be told, it was giving me a headache to read it.

    So at this point I decided to try a different tactic. I have to create an abstract out of my requirements to include in the RFP so the bidders have some clue about what their bidding on. I opened up my 150-page requirements document (technical writing is one of my strengths) and started by taking each section of the document and creating a high-level version of it.

    This is not an easy task, as I essentially have to READ each section and decide what parts of this feature are worthy of being includedm then figure out how to abstract them. It’s not hard work but it’s incredibly time-consuming! In the meantime I have three development firms waiting for me to send this to them. No pressure there!

    What I’ve boiled it all down to is six fundamental sections of an RFP:
    1. Overview of the project and background of the company and founder.
    2. Legal stuff about holding harmless and confidentiality and no warranties and all that.
    3. My expectations about communications, deliverables, timelines and the like.
    4. Overview of the scope, technology to be used, project phases and skills required.
    5. The functional requirements abstract.
    6. Instructions to the bidder on what I require in their response (such as samples of their work, explanations of their methodology, their support policies and mechanisms, references, etc.)

    In addition, I’ve come up with a five-step process to orchestrate this whole proposal-gathering task, which I believe is going to work out well:

    1. Send out an open call to vendors that includes some basic marketing type of information about the project as well as links to the preliminary website and this blog. Ask them to review the information and links, decide if they want to bid and get back to me with some basic information about their company, past projects and a brief paragraph explaining to me why they believe they should bid on this project. This step should filter out the tire-kickers and the people who just collect RFPs for weird reasons. I sent this message to personal friends and family who probably know people in the business, posted it on a discussion board on one of my relevant LinkedIn groups, and hand-selected about a dozen development companies I found on Guru.com.
    2. Evaluate each respondent, take a quick look at their info, and make a gut decision about whether to include them. If yes, send them an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). I’ve already told them in the first step that they’ll need to sign this in order to get the RFP.
    3. Upon receipt of the signed NDA, send the RFP. They all have until August 21st to get me their proposals. With any luck I will send out at least a dozen, in the hopes I’ll get 50% of them to actually bid.
    4. Receive and evaluate all proposals. This one scares me a little. I know this is going to be a big job. I have no idea yet what criteria I will use to evaluate them. The RFP I copied had a whole section that explained exactly how they intend to do this, using a point-based system thing. Blech. I prefer going by a gut feeling, but I know I have to somehow cull these all down to some logical set of criteria so I’m comparing kiwis to kiwis.
    5. Award the project! This will be the fun part. I hope to have someone on board by the end of August and started coding by mid-September if not earlier.

    I just want to make some quick comments about my gut-feelings. I know when some of you read that you probably thought “Hey, you can’t make a decision like that!” Well, I beg to differ. I agree you can’t choose someone just because you like them, but you should certainly take that into consideration. If the best qualified candidate is a jerk, it might mean we just have bad chemistry, but still I wouldn’t hire him. Not ever. You can NOT work with someone you don’t like, no matter how good they are.

    Another gut feeling that I don’t ignore is when the candidate says something that just doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe they tried to “pull one over” on me because they think I don’t know anything about programming or some technology or other. Many development companies make this assumption because the truth is most of their clients *don’t* actually know much about technology. But I have 25 years of experience in this business, so there’s not much I don’t know and nothing I can’t find out. Anyone who assumes otherwise is not going to get my business. I could go on and on about this, but you get my point. The gut-feeling criteria stays.

    By next week I should have all the RFPs out and maybe I’ll even get some proposals back. In the meantime, I’m running an experiment by starting up a new vegetable-swapping club in my other blog, The Grouvia Groove. Check it out.

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