Fiverr versus Elance

As a bootstrapping entrepreneur, I’m looking for low cost, high yield situations. Of course, that applies to any business owner, small or big. So, today, I’m introducing this site called Fiverr to you. It’s called that because you can get a specific service done for 5 dollars.

I dipped my toes in Fiverr as a service provider (I offered to edit pieces of writing), but stopped. I’m going to tell you straight. As a freelancer, I do not recommend you offer your services here. Go to Elance instead (beware they don’t take polymaths though). 5 dollars is not much if you’re doing it as a sole source of income.

That said, it works great as a side income. I’ve seen people offer to do maths assignments, VB.NET programming tasks and writing articles for $5. Here are some of the interesting ones:

I bought a custom signature (it will appear in the next issue of my magazine!). I also bought an ebook cover design for my book. Let me tell you, I’ve spent $30 and $50 (and those were the cheaper services) before on a 125 by 125 pixel square ad design, so $5 for an ebook cover is cheap. I’m a programmer. I don’t do so well with coming up with an ebook cover design, ok?

One thing to note. Do not expect professionalism from Fiverr service providers. I don’t mean they’re not professional. Some of them are professionals doing great work. What I mean is, some of them are putting up a gig for fun. Do not compare them with the service providers from sites such as Elance. Besides, it’s 5 freaking dollars. If you don’t like that person, find another who offers a similar service. Also, consider the hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands of dollars, that you’re saving from not hiring a “real” professional.

Quality is also suspect. Read the feedback for that gig. If there are samples of work, preview it. If nothing else, go with your gut feeling. I will say this again. It’s 5, freaking, dollars. Don’t spend half an hour agonising over your decision. Don’t spend half an hour ranting about your disappointment with the deliverable or result. It’s $5. Let it go. Your time’s worth more than that. Learn, move on, find another service provider.

So if you’re strapped for cash, but you need something done (for your business or personal reasons), check out Fiverr. You can also offer your own services (“I will write an accounting program for you for $5”). If nothing else, you can look at what people are willing to do for $5. Some of them are hilarious.

Elance hates polymaths

Spiky tree

So a few weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at freelancing. Specifically, freelance writing through a third-party site. I wanted to try something other than programming, and I felt my writing skills were up to par. I researched on the freelancing sites available, and 2 of them stood out. One was oDesk, and the other was Elance.

Let me just say, both of them hate polymaths. Through reading their terms and conditions, I surmised the reason (which I’ll tell you later). Let’s talk about oDesk first.

I hate timesheets

There are 2 types of freelancing jobs: project-based or timesheet-based. For a project-based job, you get paid a predetermined amount of money. You finish the job, you get paid in full (there are also “half now, half when done” arrangements).

For timesheet-based jobs, you get paid by the hour. For oDesk, this seemed to be their focus. An hour’s work for an hour’s pay. In these unhealthy economic times, I can understand the need for people to feel that if they put in the hours and the work, they get paid. oDesk even has a desktop software that tracks and records your desktop screen to prove to the buyer/employer that you’re indeed working on their project.

The thing is, I hate timesheets. They imply I can’t be trusted to do and finish a job.

When I was working in a software house, where I was a small part of a programming factory, there’s nothing else I could do. “Working on inventory workflow class” was as meaningful as “I’m coding”. That filled up 8 1-hour slots in my timesheet.

When I was in the start-up or telecommunications company, the tasks were varied. Well, to be fair, I didn’t have to fill in a timesheet in the start-up. But that’s because the founder was seated right behind me.

At the telecommunications company, I took phone calls, answer user queries, fix computer/browser problems, write code, fix bugs, design interfaces, create graphics, attend meetings, and talked with directors, sales staff, marketing people, product managers, customer service officers and sometimes, even customers. My timesheet activities were all over the place. And I hated filling them, because the activities bleed from one to another, and I can’t remember how long each took. So I guessed. Which made the whole exercise kind of pointless, but the upper management wanted to know how their system analysts spent their time, so there.

Now writing words (and for that matter, writing code) is a creative endeavor. This means that given a task, you can’t say exactly how long it’s going to take. My blog articles range from 300 to 2000 words. I take anywhere from half an hour to 5 hours to finish writing them. And I don’t know how many words each article ended up with until I start writing. Sometimes, I just wanted a short 500 words article, then it blew up to 900 words. Sometimes, I allocated 2 hours (the average writing time for each article) and I ended up working on the article for 4 hours. Yes, I have more leeway since this is my blog, and I can limit myself to a certain number of words to practise concise thought and writing. I just find being a writing machine which churns out some average number of words per hour, regardless of the hour, to be unnatural.

Just to illustrate the phenomenon, I intended to just write a couple of short paragraphs on the timesheet-focussed nature of oDesk, but it’s already blown up to a few hundred words.

It’s the same with working on code. There’s a bug and you’re going to fix it. You guess how long it can take you, but it could be simple and you’re done in 15 minutes, or unexpectedly complex and takes up your entire day. As you gain experience, your guesses become more accurate, but sometimes you can never really tell how long it will take you.

You may be super lethargic this afternoon, but awesomely productive the entire next day. While you can’t guarantee every hour that you work on something to be productive, you can sort of guarantee that it’ll be done by next Monday. Following this logic, project-based jobs fit me better than timesheet-based jobs.

Pre-categorisation of service providers

So I decided to try my luck at Elance. I mean, I used it to outsource my blog design before (which turned out to be a total disaster), so I had some familiarity with the site. Now Elance has this “New provider” badge, to let service buyers know that the provider is new, that’s why there’s not much of a portfolio. Well, Elance kept my account, which means it’s more than 3 years old without me ever bidding or providing services of any kind.

Orcasquall Elance ID

Strike one against me before I did anything.

Then I looked at the kinds of freelance jobs I could do. Ok, I could probably do “Web & Programming”, “Writing & Translation” and “Admin Support”. Then I found out that I could only choose one of those categories. If I wanted to work on jobs spanning more than 1 category, I needed to pay additional monthly fees to Elance. Elance hates polymaths.

So the reason I surmised, was that Elance wanted to prevent people from bidding on jobs all over the place. This filters out non-serious providers, and increased the perceived quality of those who are in a particular category. I was a bit tired of programming, so I chose writing.

Just in case you’re interested, website programming (WordPress blog customisation in particular) and mobile app (iPhone) development are hot.

The Internet is filled with loveless words

I bid on 2 writing gigs. There’s a monthly limit to how many I can bid since I have a free account, though I can upgrade to a monthly paid subscription to increase that. Since I’m a “new” service provider with an “old” account, I took advantage of Elance’s certification tests.

Orcasquall Elance skills

I was surprised that I ranked in the top 5% in “Internet Marketing”. I don’t talk much about it here because I felt it wasn’t relevant. It’s about time I told you why I know so much about Internet marketing, which I already started here.

Oh yeah, I took the test on C#, and I scored below 60% (basically I failed). I was so sad about that until I started laughing at myself. The test had a lot of theory questions, with only a few questions with code. Interviewers, if you’re testing a candidate for a programming position, throw code at them, not theory questions.

Anyway, for one of those gigs, I was to edit and proofread some manuals on Internet marketing. I bid a fair amount (gauging from “market rate”), a low 3 digit (it starts with an even prime number), to go through more than 40,000 words in 7 days. I thought I had a chance, what with my fluency in English and knowledge in Internet marketing. Then I found the job was awarded to some provider offering an amount less than $100 (it starts with the highest single digit prime). I was a bit upset.

The other gig I bid on was to do with writing blog articles for a start-up. The job was never awarded to any provider. There’s this “trick” that you can use to determine market prices. Go post a job and ask for bidders. You’ll get to know what’s the typical asking price for the job based on the bids. It wastes the time of the service providers. So you’re either cheating the system, or you’d better have a good reason to withdraw the job. Elance discourages this by posting the history of the service buyer, such as how many jobs posted and how many jobs awarded.

Now I went through the descriptions of a lot of jobs. Basically, there’s a lot of people out there paying other people to write blog articles, newsletters, product material (to be sold), and even books (ghostwriting). There’s the “it must be original material, and I have software to check uniqueness/copyright” clause. After about 2 weeks of trawling through the job descriptions, I got discouraged by the state the Internet became.

So there are thousands of sites sprouting every minute, and many of them aren’t written by the owners. Many of those 300 to 500 word articles, designed to attract search engines and hopefully provide useful information to humans, are churned out by people whose job was to fill up some 2000 bytes of some Internet server’s disk space. You want good search engine rankings? You need content. As one Internet marketer said, “You need to own more of the Internet“.

Sure there’s the problem of ensuring the high quality of articles. Some bloggers already repeat what other bloggers are saying without adding any significant value, causing what’s known as the echo chamber. I’m not saying those paid writers create poor quality pieces of writing. I just feel there’s not a lot of love given to those words, since they’re given to and owned by the site owner.

I want to differentiate this from sales letter writing, copywriting and writing marketing material. These perform useful and needed functions for businesses. I just feel discouraged by the rampant bloating of the Internet with articles.

So for now, I’ve given up on freelance writing at Elance. The forces of specialisation grows stronger, and I have to find another avenue of work. And if you need help in editing, proofreading, writing, Internet marketing, advice on product creation, selling products online, email marketing, membership sites, just contact me and we can work something out.

First dance with Elance

Outsourcing is becoming a major consideration for corporations, big and small. Even individuals are outsourcing some of their work. It has also caused concern for many people, who’re afraid of what will happen when their work is outsourced.

I, am a programmer. The company I’m working for does offshoring, which means work is given to other employees, but they are located in another country. I say that’s just a long-winded way of saying you’re outsourcing my work to another person.

So I’ve decided to experience being an outsourcer. The project I had in mind? A custom WordPress theme for this blog. I am totally capable of creating simple graphics, working out HTML/CSS and even going through PHP (which I’m unfamiliar with). I might even enjoy the design process.

However, the whole point of this exercise is not the blog theme, but the experience of handling a project with an outsourcee. I’m lucky in that I’ve prepared documents and work requirement for my offshore colleagues, so I leveraged on that experience. Now to find a freelancer…

There are many web sites I can use, such as Elance, Rent A Coder, Guru and Odesk. First, I need to know if the site can service my WordPress theme project. I spent some time browsing through the web sites, doing searches on “custom wordpress theme” and see what comes up. Using the unscientific method of gut feelings, such as “Do I like how the site works?” and “Do I like the general feel of freelancers at the site?”, I decided to use Elance as my base.

Hereafter I detailed some suggestions and advice for you, after I went through the whole thing.

1. Sign up for an account only
Elance gives you the option of posting your project and signing up for an account all at one go, if you’re a new visitor. DO NOT do both together. I strongly suggest you sign up for a new account first.

If you’re like me, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time thinking up a user ID, and another chunk of time thinking up a password. Having to figure out how to post a project is going to add to your stress level.

2. Verify your credit card
The moment you login to your brand new spanking account, go verify your credit card. Elance requires you to have a valid and verified credit card, because that’s how you’re going to pay your service providers. The verification process takes 3 to 5 working days, depending on the credit card company and your bank.

What does your bank have to do with it? Elance actually charges you, through your credit card, two small amounts. You are supposed to login to your Elance account, where you’ll enter those two amounts, and thereby complete the verification process. If you don’t do Internet banking, you’ll have to either wait for your credit card bill to arrive or call the bank to ask for the two amounts.

Be at ease, because Elance will credit the two amounts back to you, minus currency conversion loss. I lost a few cents due to the US dollar and Singapore dollar conversion. I’ve decided to accept this level of loss. It’s a one time thing anyway.

The verification takes time, and service providers like to know that payment is assured. A project has a payment icon, featuring “Credit Card Confirmed” and “Elance Billing and Payment Confirmed”. The latter, which means your credit card is verified, is more likely to attract more and better service providers. Which is part of the reason why you should just sign up without posting any project, until your credit card is verified first.

3. Posting your project
There are quite a few options available. Depending on your project, you’ll have to decide which category to post it to. Choose one major category and the sub category. You don’t have to post it to multiple categories, because the service providers will be able to search for new projects. The last thing you want to do as a new buyer of services is to project spam.

3a. Project description
Be specific. Describe your project in simple, clear and unambiguous language. Even if you want ambiguity, state precisely that, as in “The requirement for the image is deliberately ambiguous to encourage your creativity.”

Note that your potential service providers may not speak your language as their main language. Be precise in your requirements. Do not state anything that might possibly be construed as having any meaning other than what you mean. Believe me, it saves time and anguish to do it right the first time.

Your project description will be seen with a shortened version when searched. Make full use of this short version. I think it’s about 240 characters in length, so put your main points in front. Full versions are seen when service providers log in. Some might just glance through projects, looking at only their brief descriptions without logging in. Just my opinion.

3b. Bid period
The default length of bidding is 7 days. I set it to 12 days, since I thought I could spare the time. Wrong move! 7 days is actually quite ideal. Any shorter, and you might fail to get enough good bids. Any longer, and you lose urgency. On hindsight, I should have set the bid period to 8 days. This should give prospective providers a full week, in case they don’t check every day.

Again, on hindsight, I should have posted on a Monday. I posted mine on a Saturday, and I felt I could have given my project a better chance if I had waited two more days. You can only choose the project post day if you signed up without immediately posting your project too. See, point number one is very important…

3c. Escrow
If your project has a justifiable high budget, consider setting it up as an Escrow project. What it means is that you pay Elance first, which holds the payment. Upon completion of project milestones agreed by you and the service provider, Elance will then pay the service provider. Since you are the new kid on the block, service providers are more likely to trust Elance to pay them than to trust you to pay them.

Of course, service providers can bid with an Escrow option. If you then choose them, your project payment will change to payment with Escrow, even if you initially set it to Standard payment.

4. Managing bids
Check out the service providers bidding on your project. Check their portfolio, their Elance history, their web site if any. Most importantly, take note of their payment agreement or timeline. This gives you an idea of how their business agreement will be phrased.

Then send them messages through the Private Messaging Board (PMB) provided by Elance. You are basically conducting interviews. Ask them questions just as if you are hiring them. Hey, you are hiring them. Now that your money is on the line, you should be questioning them.

The PMB records all correspondence between you and the service provider, and is used to settle any disputes or misunderstandings.

5. Be firm with your budget
Don’t have a rubbery budget. The first service provider I chose had a different idea of what they should be paid versus what I was willing to pay, even though I’ve stated my budget when I posted my project. Be careful when a service provider says the bid is there as a placeholder, and the budget can be discussed further in the PMB.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just not ready to dish out tons of cash with a non-existent budget limit. I was willing to pay a bit more, so I negotiated a higher budget and still the service provider was unhappy. In the end, the service provider dropped the bid, and I had to choose another one. This cost me two days of messaging back and forth. Because I had a rubbery budget.

Perhaps I didn’t do enough research checking out the average prices for doing WordPress themes on Elance…

6. Note the time zone
Your service provider is probably from a different time zone than you. Take this into account when you communicate with them. Your service provider has their country listed. Just find out what time it is in their country.

I’m in Singapore, and my chosen provider is in India, so they are about 5 hours behind me. If I send them a message at night, I can expect a reply say 1 or 2 pm the next day in Singapore, assuming they start work at 8 or 9 am.

7. Be clear in your correspondence with service providers
Having clear project descriptions helps reduce correspondence time. Sending clear messages in the PMB helps too. Once, I said the heading was too “bold”. I meant that it looked too obvious, too in-your-face. My service provider took that to mean the font was bold, as in the font was bold. Always say what you mean.

8. Paying your service provider
Surprisingly, payment was easy. My project was posted with the Standard payment option, so I don’t know how the Escrow paying process is like. For the Standard version, all I had to do was enter the amount I want to pay the service provider and click “Submit”.

The business agreement between the service provider and me was half of payment at the start of the project and the rest upon completion.

So far, my experience as an outsourcer isn’t too bad. Elance is actually quite easy to use and navigate. From my experience dealing with my offshore colleagues, I’ve learnt to ignore certain levels of quality in the work. In this case, the payment wasn’t high, so I decided not to badger the service provider for too many changes.

This doesn’t mean you should settle for sub-par quality work! I’m just saying you get what you pay for. For me, this was a learning experience. Besides, I’m probably going to tweak the design further. Doing the changes myself is faster than sending a message to the service provider, have them do it, send it back to you, and it’s still not what you want.