A Guide to Killing It on oDesk

A Guide to Killing It on oDesk

Note: oDesk is now called Upwork. I have left oDesk as it is for now in this post.

A year ago, if you would have asked me about oDesk, I would have said something like “hire 100, fire 99,” which would have been pretty accurate for me. Hiring on oDesk was insanely stressful because that much more of my day was spent on stupid HR related tasks and not money making. Not to mention the money I was wasting hiring vendor after vendor, all of which who would screw up my site just a bit more. Thank goodness this is behind me, and we have a proper site now.

The worst part about outsourcing via oDesk (before I knew how) was the under-delivering and the late nights. Under-delivering because the vendor wasn’t half as good as they led on, and late nights due to having to crack the whip so as to make sure they did the job. If I wasn’t online, they just wouldn’t show up. No accountability. No shits given. Hell of a thing.

Anyways, I can’t possibly tell you that if you follow this guide you will always find gold. I can tell you though, since I started using these techniques, I sleep a lot better, and usually within a few hires, can find one star.

Here is my guide, put together based on a lot of reading, many brains picked and a ton of real experience.

Is Good Help Hard to Find? Not If You Know What You’re Doing

If you want the most elastic, responsive, and affordable crew: They need to be yours.

Off to oDesk then, to find some help.

If you are familiar with oDesk that sentence probably just gave you heart burn – I know it used to for me.

oDesk isn’t some well-ordered temp agency—it’s a f*cking jungle.Click to Tweet

I can’t explain it without cussing – sorry. It’s a hot mess of freelancers from every age, ethnicity, and hole of the world.

For the purposes of this article I am going to assume you need a virtual assistant (VA). If you have hired more than a couple , you have most likely experienced some (if not all) of the following soul-wrenching scenarios.

  • The VA has changed his or her mind about prices after a 10-day selection process
  • The VA will not take direction on the project
  • The VA informs you that they have dropped your emergency project to work for someone else on the day that project was due
  • The VA has fed sensitive campaign data to a competitor
  • The VA has stolen from or defrauded you, and they live in a country where any recourse is impossible
  • The VA has inexplicably disappeared
  • The VA power and thus internet went out.
  • The VA got attacked by a wild pack of dogs, and dragged out into the woods. No lie, I actually was handed this baloney.

These scenarios are not rare. They happen to almost everyone (okay, maybe not that last one), and they will continue to happen to people who don’t know how to machete through the crap that is oDesk. That’s why you need help. There is a right way find the a VA. Here are some steps you can follow to get the best out of your freelancers.

Advertising the Project

Advertising the project is the first thing you’ll have to do. oDesk allows you to build a small description of your project so you can begin to take bids from the VAs. Writing this description correctly can dramatically impact the quality of the applicants – and weed out the delinquent doofuses. Here are some pro tips about how to write your gig in a way that draws in the best:

  • Be Precise: Say exactly what you need, vague requests will lead to a flood of unqualified bids. And frankly, no matter what, you are going to get a ton of these as it is.
  • List All Skills Required: Don’t leave anything that you need out. You will get plenty of bids for any gig, so cast as narrow a net as possible.
  • Leave a “Test” in the Description: Some people will spam a bid for any gig they see. Get around this by hiding a test in the description. Declare a specific word must be listed in the bid for any gig. If the word doesn’t appear, you know the VA never read the description. I like to use the words “Festivus” or “The Big Salad.”



Choosing Compensation for your Advertisement

VA’s have the power to offer their own bids for your project. Because of this, you may not feel the need to be too specific about pricing in your advertisement. This could be a huge mistake. The rule “you get what you pay for” applies to oDesk just like it applies anywhere else. If you lowball to see what you can get away with, the best VA for the job might just pass your project right up. In the meantime, you’ll be left with 5,000 bids from VA’s that barely speak English. Of course, this is cool if you speak every dialect of Filipino and/or Punjabi. Let’s just take a wild guess, and suggest that you in fact do not.

In most cases, it is better to offer a little more than you are willing to pay, and let the quality VA’s compete to offer you the best price for what you need. Remember that the structure of the pricing is important too. Try to offer compensation based on completion whenever possible. Offering hourly pay may sometimes be necessary for high-skill work, but you should avoid it for most small projects.

If you have followed these steps, you should have a good pool of applicants to choose from. Narrowing down your applicant pool is your next step in getting the best VAs for your operation.

Choosing From Your Applicants

Hopefully by this point, you’ve been able to pull the deadweight out of your applicant pool. If you haven’t done that yet, it isn’t very complicated. Go through all of the applicants and immediately remove the ones that can’t form a coherent sentence in English. That should weed out about 75% of the applicants. After that, cull out all the ones that are asking for too much or too little money. There should be an easy sweet spot to aim for while keeping a good range of offers.

Narrow Down by Nation of Origin

The bids you receive may come from many different countries. Pakistan and India are the most common, but you may see dozens of countries represented. Since you are likely to get the best deals from foreign applicants, they are worth considering. Always a bit of a delicate topic, possibly rash generalization, but it has been my experience, the best (inexpensive) foreign applicants come from the Philippines. And if you have a bit more coin to spend, I would take a stab at Eastern Europe.

What you don’t want to do is choose a VA who will make your work look bad by turning in barely legible projects. There is a happy medium to be found, because some foreign VA’s have grown up speaking English as a native language. Always a bit of a delicate topic, possibly rash generalization, but it has been my experience, the best (inexpensive) foreign applicants come from the Philippines. People from the Philippines speak English natively but they are still around the same price as other VA’s who have only recently learned English. And if you have a bit more coin to spend, I would take a stab at Eastern Europe.

One final observation about origin, if you are hiring one of these inexpensive foreign applicants for design work, be prepared to spearhead the creative aspect. I have found that their school systems tend to teach students to do. To follow orders. Creativity, and out of the box thinking seems to have taken a back seat. Just a heads up : )

Arrange Your Top Candidates

Now, you should have a solid list of candidates. If you don’t have any when you are done removing the obviously bad fits, then you may want to review the way you made the advertisement. There may be something wrong with it that is driving away good talent, or attracting the worst.

Once you have built a strong list of candidates, you will have to pick from the best, and that will take a lot more effort. Begin by reviewing all of the candidate’s references. oDesk allows prior employers to leave reviews of the VA’s work. Make sure your VA’s have a lot of these reviews, and make sure those review actually have variety and come from different countries.

After you have chosen your prime candidates it’s time to put them through the ringer. You want to judge the capabilities of these candidates in a much more personal way. You are going to want to interview them.

Interviewing Your Pool of Candidates

There is a lot you can get out of the interview. If you do it right, you can judge a lot of personality traits without the VA even realizing it. Here are some things that you should use the interview to establish whether the VA can:

  • Speak English
  • Commit to deadlines
  • Demonstrate technical  proficiency

You should consider using Skype or some other kind of VOIP service for the interview. Some people on oDesk will have better writers produce their bids for them, so hearing them speak in English will establish whether they can actually speak the language or not.

The VOIP interview is also an excellent time to find out whether your VA can commit to a deadline. Try testing them by asking them to have something written up for the interview. Also set a very specific time for when the interview will take place. If the VA can’t show up on time for voice interview, it’s probably a good clue that they are going to let you down again.

Be sure to ask as many questions a as you can about the technical details of your project. If your VA candidate can’t answer your questions, then they probably aren’t going to be a good fit for your project. It’s much better to know if this is the case before they start working on your project.

Working with Your VA

You should expect your VA to be able to act independently. However, if you stop providing any direction on the project after you assign it, you only have yourself to blame when it doesn’t turn out the way you like it. If you want to have a good relationship with your project and your VA, you should do the following:

  • Establish clear guidelines about the:
    • Specific duties of the VA
    • appearance of the final project
    • deadlines
    • Respond to questions and concerns from your VA
    • Monitor your project to make sure it is being done properly

Sometimes, it may be necessary to replace a VA mid-project. If you follow these steps, then you’ll be able to decide when that is necessary sooner rather than later. Remember though, micro-managing will be a waste of time for both you and the VA. The best way not to get caught in that trap is to make sure you hire only the most competent applicants for the price. Good luck out there!

If you have any oDesk/Elance/Freelancer nightmares, please be so kind to share them below. I’d love to laugh at someone else’s bad experiences for a change haha ;)

Updated June 8, 2015 by Adam Steele


About Adam Steele

A SEO & Local SEO by trade, Adam spends the majority of his time creating new efficiencies through smart processes and the leveraging of technology. He is ruthlessly passionate about building smart, lean businesses, and exploring new, lean, internet marketing techniques. Find him on Twitter @AdamGSteele.

  • http://www.alexfusman.com/ Alex

    Nice tips. I’ve gone through this many times on oDesk, always with sub-par results. However, my latest VA is pretty good. I agree with you regarding Filipinos – some of them grow up speaking English and go to English schools from the beginning. If you’re serious about hiring a great VA, take some time to learn about the geography of the country and the socioeconomic differences in the regions (because of the schools they attend and consequently their proficiency in English and other skills). That way, you’ll know right away if you should be looking for someone in Manilla, Oton or elsewhere.

    • http://www.leanmarketing.ca Adam Steele

      Huge Alex. No doubt, workers from different areas are not all equal. Where have you found the best are located? I’ve had good luck in Laguna Province.

      • http://www.alexfusman.com/ Alex

        I think a good approach is to go where others aren’t looking. There are thousands of people like us, looking for the best candidates. And they’re mostly looking in the big cities. I say, take a look at the surrounding suburbs/towns. They’re close enough to enjoy a similar quality of education, but far enough to have a lower cost of living – therefore, good quality for cheaper.

        I think the areas about Cebu and Davao are good places to look. There are a lot of call centers for major US companies there, meaning the workers have to have good enough command of English to be able to speak on the phone all day and represent a reputable company. Plus, they have a lot more exposure to American/English/UK colloquialisms and idioms because they’re talking to those people every day.

        • http://www.leanmarketing.ca Adam Steele

          Thanks for this Alex.

          I can testify to Cebu, as I have found a solid programmer and a very creative designer there.

          Sounds to me like there is a post to be written JUST on WHERE to find the best offshore employees.

          Appreciate the contribution Alex!

  • http://www.smallbusinessonlinecoach.com Matthew Hunt @ Small Business Online Coach

    Adam, awesome guide. I also always add this to the end of all my job postings:

    reply with: “I pay attention to details” so I know you read the whole posting and pay attention to details.

    Then when I am going through candidates, any of those who didn’t put that first I don’t pay any attention to. You’d be surprised how many nimrods don’t even read the job posting and just blindly submit bids for the project. this will weed out those folks right away. I also never let agencies every bid, only individuals.

    • http://www.leanmarketing.ca Adam Steele

      Thanks Matt! Hilarious phrase. And may I congratulate you on the usage of “nimrods” – a highly underrated word : )

      Don’t let agencies bid! Thank you for bringing that up! More times than not, they are horrible. That is a GAPING hole in my guide. I hope everyone reads these comments :s

  • http://www.virtualassistantassistant.com Nick Loper

    Hey Adam, great guide! (And one that very-much needed to be written)…
    Like many people I’ve been burned badly by flaky contractors (Elance was my vice of choice), but have built up a similar set of rules over time to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
    In addition to the “detail-oriented” test, I like to look at the feedback ratings — or more specifically, the volume of completed jobs without any feedback. I think a ton of work done with no ratings is a red flag because many people subscribe to the adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
    I would also stress the importance of a video interview whenever possible. With so much of our communication being non-verbal, being able to see the other person (and them being able to see you) is a big help.
    That’s an interesting idea about disallowing agency bids. Never thought about that before!
    Great stuff,

    • http://www.leanmarketing.ca Adam Steele

      Hey Nick! I am so pleased that you liked it.

      I definitely subscribe to that adage. If you’ve done a good job for me, I want to brag about you. Furthermore, if you know you’ve done a good job, you will most likely solicit them for a review if it means it will bring you more business.

      I do work with a couple people from agencies and they have been generally good. Though, I have heard more times than not, that you should steer clear.

      I appreciate you stopping by and leaving your thoughts : )

  • Jeremy

    Nice Guide :) I feel like I probably follow a similar set of rules when I oDesk, but it’s almost like I’ve developed a sixth sense over the years. I do like oDesk more than sites like Guru or Freelance because of the payment leverage the employer has.

    I’m very upfront with all the applicants who get my first response back that I will terminate a contract for missed deadlines, review time sheets, and leave negative reviews for poor performance. I basically act like a dick which does weed out the losers.

    Once I’ve hired, I initially set short milestones and try to get as much work as I can out of them before the pay period cutoff. Miss a deadline, and you’re fired with a strict time sheet review. Argue with my review, and it’s negative feedback.

    Once the contractor proves successful, the leash loosens and I offer pay upgrades and other performance based incentives.

    And I NEVER work with agencies.

A bad ass guide, that takes you through the most CRITICAL tips & tricks.


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