Experiments with Outsourcing

This summer, I was confronted with the challenge of starting a masters program at the Harvard School of Public Health while attempting to maintain my IT consulting business. I had only 2 options: outsource my business or cut most of my clients. I read Timothy Ferris’ book, The 4-Hour Work Week (which I highly recommend), which convinced me to give outsourcing a try. In a nutshell, it is possible to reduce your profit-generating workload to 4 hours per week through automation, outsourcing, eliminating waste, and prioritizing. Here’s a taste from a blog you should all be reading: The Not-to-do-list – 9 habits to stop now.

Step 1: Eliminate Laptop Dependency

My first test came in May 2008 when I planned to travel through Germany, Belgium and Amsterdam. I had 3 active projects and decided not to notify any of my clients that I was traveling. A few simple steps made it possible to spend 3 weeks away from my desk without one client ever noticing:

  • Stop using Outlook – Forward all email to a single Gmail account. Use Google Calendar for scheduling and Google Contacts for contact management. All of these tools are available from any internet connected computer.
  • Stop inefficient meetings or conference calls – 90% of the work done on a conference call can be done over email. Ensure that all calls have a definite end-time (30 minutes should be sufficient) and that the agenda is clearly laid out.
  • Use Google Docs for non-published document generation – Google Docs can now do word processing, presentations, spreadsheets, and stores PDFs. It has fewer features than Microsoft products, but is more than adequate for non-published documents. Document sharing is so convenient, that the limitations are often acceptable.
  • Setup free LogMeIn.com account for remote desktop access – Leave your desktop computer on with LogMeIn enabled to allow desktop sharing and file access from any web browser. Works on port 80, so firewalls are never a problem.

These steps allowed me to accomplish 95% of my work related tasks from any internet-connected computer in the world (and sometimes a phone).

Step 2: Outsource

After eliminating my dependency on a single computer, the next step was to outsource. As an IT consultant, I needed the following:

  • Programmers – I chose a Serbian development team with a project manager based domestically. The manager travels back and forth between the US and Serbia. The results from small projects have been good and we are just about to start on a large contract.
  • Graphic Designers – I use Micah Kandros (www.micahkandrosdesign.com) for logos, graphics, and printed materials with excellent results. As it turns out, website design is a different task entirely and typically requires different skills. I am still searching for a good web designer. Have heard good reviews of 99designs.com where designers compete for your contract.
  • Administrative Assistant – Many tasks, such as online research, document preparation, or converting images/diagrams to documents, are time-consuming. I hired a virtual assistant from Tasks Everyday (www.taskseveryday.com), a company based in India. I have had mixed results on this, but on the whole, it has been beneficial. This will be the topic of my next entry.
  • Project Managers – I have not hired any project managers yet, but view this as an essential step to remove myself from the day-to-day work.

The most critical lesson I have learned from outsourcing has been that the learning curve is mostly on my side (rather than the contractor’s). Learning to effectively manage contractors and integrate processes between them while reducing my workload and producing a net increase in productivity and profitability is not easy. I have found that outsourcing graphic design is the easiest but outsourcing administrative tasks and programming the most essential. The effectiveness of outsourcing programming is directly related to the project manager’s ability to create clear, detailed technical specifications. Outsourcing administrative/personal tasks is directly related to the assistant’s skill level and my ability to manage remotely.

My next entry will discuss my experience with my Tasks Everyday virtual assistant in India.

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5 responses to “Experiments with Outsourcing

  1. Outsourcing to a Virtual Assistant is a great way for small business entrepreneurs and solopreneurs to accomplish more with less. However, many people are unsure about how to go about finding a virtual assistan to fit their needs. VAnetworking.com has resources for potential VA clients such as an ebook on how to find a virtual assistant, a directory of virtual assistants, and a place to post a request for proposal from quality virtual assistants.

  2. Great post Jonathan. I am looking forward to reading about your experience with Virtual Assistants in India. Did you use any online tools to manage all these outsourced tasks from a single place? For example – your designer might have a plan for executing your request while your programmers may be working on a different plan altogether. I am wondering how this affects your working style/pattern. Different plans, different teams, different time zones – any issues, recommendations on how to manage this?

    -Vinod

  3. Great article!

    A good contact management system can help you coordinate with a remote or outsourced team easily.

  4. Outsourcing is fine, but make sure you are dealing with someone truly experienced before committing to a long-term project. Try a few short projects first and see how well you communicate, meet deadlines, understand each other’s methods. It may take 1 or 2 tries before you get the right person for the task. But once you find that person your life will be immensely easier.

    My biggest concern with outsourcing is the lack of effective communication. Especially when the outsourcing involves people overseas. As a virtual assistant who specializes in legal cases which often involve review of medical files, I am truly appalled at the poor quality of medical record transcription. Either the transcriptionist doesn’t understand the words and/or does not commit to finding out what was said, or he/she simply has no medical background to support that kind of transcription activity. Either way, it reflects poorly and creates problems down the line.

    In short, look for experience, check references and try several short projects first. And if the first virtual assistant is unsatisfactory, keep looking. Just because one is bad does NOT mean everyone is.

  5. Hiring outsourced programmers requires contracts and contracts can be very tricky. There are 9 clauses in custom programming contracts that you must take extremely seriously or risk losing a lot of money, time, and even your most valuable information. Visit link for more information.

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