When I tell people that Brainscape currently has only eight full-time employees, they often express astonishment at how much we are able to accomplish with so few people. The level of customer service, educational content and software quality we provide appears to exceed what is possible, without having a dedicated employee for each area.
But we have a secret. And that is our ability to use freelancer marketplaces like UpWork to fill many noncore responsibilities with part-time team members who are experts in each domain. Brainscape's team of eight is able to work as if we were a team of 25, but at a much more efficient cost.
The beauty of UpWork is that it eliminates all points of friction in the process of recruiting, hiring and billing contractors. In the old world, if you needed someone to handle customer service or software testing, you had three sub-par options:
- Hire a full-time employee, even though you didn't have 40 hours-per-week-worth of needs in those domains;
- Divide the work among your existing employees (who were not necessarily experts at those tasks); or
- Post a part-time job or internship on Craigslist, then deal with all the 1099 paperwork for each new consultant that you hired.
Using UpWork is a much more efficient option. With its enhanced method of hiring virtual freelancers that requires less time and less energy to manage, this and other freelancer placement sites have completely changed the game. Outsourcing is now much more efficient and automated than ever before.
Following are the steps I would recommend to help your company grow, using "virtual assistants":
1. Determine which tasks are outsource-able.
I would never advocate outsourcing leadership of your team's core competencies, like product development or marketing strategy. But for the dozens of tasks that are either repetitive, distracting, unpredictable or better addressed by an expert whom you can't bring in-house, you may be well-served by getting it off your plate and freeing up your valuable management bandwidth.
At Brainscape, we use virtual assistants for customer service, software testing, copywriting, editing, bookkeeping, translating, voice recordings, market research, data entry and the occasional graphic design touch-up task. We’ve paid wages ranging from $7 per hour to $100 per hour, depending on the level of skill and experience we need. Eventually, some of these roles may become full-time positions, but for now, UpWork provides us the perfect balance of talent and flexibility.
2. Post clear job descriptions.
If you want to limit your applicants to only those who are qualified and committed, then you should write a realistic description that neatly summarizes the work expected, e.g., is the role part- or full-time? Is it on an hourly or project basis? Temporary or ongoing? Sporadic or predictable? There’s nothing worse than wasting your time talking to someone who eventually bails out because the project is “not for me.”
3. Set effective vetting criteria.
To help filter out unqualified candidates and not waste time, UpWork offers key features like Tests and Preliminary Questions. For example, Brainscape recently used both features to hire a part-time assistant to help test and proofread our recently updated Spanish app. We were interested only in candidates who scored in the 95th percentile in UpWork’s Spanish vocabulary test and who confirmed that they owned an iPhone 6 with sufficient memory storage space for our project. This was a pretty specific requirement! UpWork’s vetting features saved us significant headaches in the interview process.
4. Hustle to find great candidates.
As with most roles, the best talent on UpWork is often not looking for jobs in the first place, since they’re busy working for other clients. You frequently have to find them and convince them why your project is worth their time. UpWork allows you to browse freelancers by skill, price and client reviews, and to invite specific freelancers to apply to the job you have posted. Taking 20 minutes to browse top candidates and send them short, personalized invitations to apply is nearly always worth the effort.
5. Assign a practice project.
Once you’ve determined that you might like to work with a particular candidate, it’s usually helpful to give a small practice task representing the type of work that the real-life project will entail. This mini-project may be assigned before an actual interview and will likely be the best method of selecting your winner. Just note that any significantly burdensome practice project (anything that would take more than 10 or 20 minutes) should be compensated with some type of monetary incentive.
6. Skype with finalists.
If the freelancer role you’re filling is a long-term position, or one that could potentially end up representing your company to the public, it is a good idea to video-chat with the finalist before pulling the trigger. Making sure that his or her character fits with the internal culture and external brand of your company can be nearly as important as seeking cultural fit among your core employees.
7. Hire with a clear mandate.
Even if you have posted a good job description up front, you should always be careful to reiterate expectations at the start of any new contract. How much training will there be? What are the milestones at which payment will be made? How will you evaluate task completeness? Are price quotes being quoted before or after consideration of UpWork’s 10 percent processing fee? Confirming all parties’ responsibilities is critical to ensuring a successful project or ongoing role.
8. Provide consistent onboarding and communication.
Nearly all “UpWork horror stories” I’ve heard have been caused by poor communication between the client and contractor. It is actually incumbent upon you, the client, to provide adequate training, to schedule sufficient check-ins and to monitor progress as the freelancer moves up the learning curve. The degree of required handholding is proportional to the complexity of the task or role.
9. Put successful freelancers on autopilot.
Once you have found a freelancer you like, do everything you can to help that person become fully self-sufficient. Our company has come to trust our two customer service assistants so much over the past two years that we really only have to check in with them once a month to see how things are going. They respond to customer queries and complaints on their own time and send us weekly summaries, informing us of any trending issues. Reaching this “autopilot” status is the goal of many UpWork hiring investments and will quickly begin paying management dividends.
10. Challenge your team members to outsource their own work.
The luxury of outsourcing noncore tasks does not only apply to CEOs and managers. Even entry-level employees can be given the opportunity to delegate to virtual assistants tasks that are repetitive or possible to do externally. The challenge is that learning how to compartmentalize your job and break it into delegatable, trainable tasks can be very difficult (and threatening).
Managers can help employees better grow their roles by allotting each core team member an UpWork budget and coaching him or her through the divide-and-conquer process. Consistently abstracting and delegating roles is the means by which small companies grow into large ones, and by which junior employees evolve into seasoned executives.
Handled properly, the business efficiencies the new “freelancer economy” offers can be so large that they can separate mediocre companies from exceptional ones. Twenty-first century managers will increasingly need to determine the right time to hire a virtual freelancer versus a full-time employee or intern. We must always consider the expanding suite of digital labor options as our business needs multiply.