10 Tips to Landing the Right Freelancer

By Tom Harnish on 8 April 2011 (Updated 19 April 2011) 0 comments

There's a good chance you'll be hiring a freelancer one of these days soon. In fact, we recently heard about a desperate employee who outsourced some of his own work, and paid for it himself. Everyone, it seems, is turning to freelancers.

According to Fabio Rosati, CEO of Elance.com, "Online employment of independent ‘cloud’ workers already represents nearly $1 billion per year.” Gary Swart, oDesk.com CEO says, “(In the last year) the number of businesses tapping this contingent workforce has nearly doubled."

Ian Ippolito, CEO of vWorker.com says, “We’re seeing 40% more projects posted, as employers take advantage of the price savings of freelancers...”

But hiring someone, sight unseen, isn't the same as hiring someone face-to-face. It’s faster, cheaper, and easier; but it’s also different.

So how do you hire the right freelancer?

1. Know what you need.

At an intersection, Alice (in Wonderland) told the Cheshire Cat she didn't know where she was going. The cat said it didn't matter, then, which path she took. Online projects are the same. A vague sense that you need some help to improve your website, and that a freelancer could do it, isn’t likely to produce a successful project. Put another way, if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

2. Know what skills are required.

Do you need a writer or an editor? An animator or a storyboard artist? A web designer or a Wordpress specialist? If you’re not sure, you probably need to think more carefully about what you want to accomplish before you go looking for help.

3. Describe what you want carefully.

We recently needed some help creating four complicated reports from a Filemaker database. In the project summary we mentioned, but didn’t emphasize, that we were dealing with 14 million records and 21 gigabytes of data...on an iMac. The freelancer we hired did what we asked, but the strategy he used to create the reports required hours of processing for each report. We had to create subsets of the database, and managed to produce the information we needed, but his approach severely limits the continuing usefulness of the reports and database. We got what we asked for, but not what we needed.

4. Remember freelancers are unsure about you, too.

In your job description make sure you do a little selling along with your buying. Point to your website, articles about your company, books you’ve written, where you’ve blogged and commented so they have an idea who you are and what you do. You want to find someone that knows what they’re doing, and so do they.

5. Narrow the field up front.

There are thousands of freelancers who list themselves with the keyword ‘Wordpress’, and hundreds of employers looking for Wordpress help. That’s good news and bad news. The good news is you’ll have oodles of responses if you post a job with a title such as “Need Help With Wordpress Website.” The bad news is that you’ll have to sort through them all to find someone good.

If you’re specific about what you need, say, “Need Wordpress PHP Expert to Build Plugin for Quick Response Project” you’ll narrow the responses. Most job boards allow you to filter prospects by the number of reviews they’ve received from other employers and the number of jobs they’ve completed.

Another approach is to make the job private, do the work yourself to find top candidates, and invite them each to bid.

6. Sift the responses once.

You’ll be tempted to peek at the list of responses every few hours. Don’t. Until a reasonable time has passed and you have a good selection, you’ll waste a lot of time evaluating the responses over and over.

7. Quickly trash the junk and pick the "keepers."

When you are ready to review the candidates, make your first pass a quick one to eliminate those who clearly aren’t worth reviewing. The ones that are way over priced, way under priced, and who forward ‘canned’ responses that don’t address your specific needs are easy to spot. Don’t ponder them; gut feel and facts are both useful, and will quickly eliminate the majority.

‘Keepers’ will provide an individualized solution with details that are responsive to your project description. On one recent project I posted, a candidate even included a rough draft of a solution, just to show they knew what I wanted and to prove they could do it. Keepers will also match your constraints on time and budget.

8. Interview the top candidates.

Just because this is a virtual job doesn’t mean you can’t interview your top candidates. Do it first with email, finalize with Skype or a phone call. Find out, interactively, what their experience is with the kind of job you have, and how they plan to do yours. Those are open ended issues, but how quickly they respond, and how clearly they communicate, will tell you a lot.

Keep in mind that some providers may be a half a world away, and will be sound asleep when you’re rarin’ to go (and vice versa). Make sure that time delay isn’t going to compromise your project – it can work in your favor, but not always.

9. Try before you buy.

Hire your final candidate(s) to do a short project, and see how it goes, especially if you’ve never worked with an online freelancer before. Demonstrated performance is more valuable than promises. You’ll have the opportunity to see not only the quality of the results, but how the process works.

We had an expensive website redesign project ahead of us, but hired several candidates to work on an inexpensive stand-alone plugin first. One provider failed to finish the task, the other performed beautifully, and we awarded them the big job.

10. Consider hiring more than one to do a critical job

If you follow the nine preceding steps you’ll probably find just the right freelancer you need. But if you have a critical project, a do-or-die effort, or one that could benefit from creative contributions from more than one source, consider hiring more than one provider to do the same job. It might be cheap insurance.

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