andrew makes things

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My Experiences With Personal Outsourcing

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Over the last few years I’ve been experimenting with outsourcing. I’ve done this both for personal and business projects. In the personal domain, some people call this “lifesourcing”: the practice of modularizing and outsourcing parts of your life that you don’t enjoy so that you can maximize the parts that you do. It’s outsourcing (with many of the same pros and cons), but for your personal life.

A growing number of sites have popped up recently to facilitate lifesourcing, and while these sites aren’t strictly needed- you can still find skilled people to help you on Craigslist, for example- they make this sort of outsourcing even easier.

I’d like to talk about some tips and tricks, but first, let me list a few of the things that I have outsourced over the last couple of years.

Personal Things

  • My wife and I outsourced hand written, cursive wedding invitations on TaskRabbit. (My mother-in-law preferred them to be hand written, my hand writing stinks, and my wife didn’t have the time.)
  • Also for our wedding, someone on Fiverr polished our save-the-date photo.
  • After the wedding, we hired a wonderful, well-traveled woman on TaskRabbit to help plan our honeymoon in South America.
  • We paid a TaskRabbit to scan all of our wedding cards for posterity.
  • Currently, we have a virtual assistant from oDesk who helps us with the ocasional life task. She has proofread documents and called gyms around San Francisco, looking for ones with good pools.
  • We’ve given friends custom, hand painted watercolor birthday cards from Fiverr and custom wedding presents from Etsy. (Which, one couple swears, is their favorite wedding present!) We designed the art (roughly) and then it was made with skill by the artists.
  • When I have outstanding questions, I turn to Aardvark, Yahoo! Answers, and other outsourced question answering services. I would gladly pay for a better one.
  • A carpenter on Craigslist designed and built a custom, adjustable standing desk for me. (Arguably outsourcing, arguably not.)

(Micro-)business Things

  • I’ve hired artists and logo designers on Fiverr. (I actually bought some excellent artwork and had an ongoing business relationship with an artist who I found for $5 on Fiverr.)
  • Workers on oDesk and TaskRabbit have helped me brainstorm domain names.
  • I’ve paid users on Mechanical Turk and later on oDesk to label data for me for some Machine Learning research.
  • I’ve brainstormed with a worker from Coffee & Power.
  • oDeskers have also written software, done graphics, wrote blogs, sent emails, maintained website communities, and researched ideas for me.

Okay, so clearly I’ve experimented with this a fair bit. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned:

  • Outsourcers take maintenance. It only makes sense to outsource something that would take you more than some threshold amount of time to do yourself. Repetitive tasks are great candidates.
  • Be creative- what could you do, if only you had the time?
  • Outsource things you’re bad at, or simply hate doing.
  • Art is a great thing to outsource. Finding someone’s work that you like on Etsy is fun and addictive and custom gifts make a lasting impression, often costing the same as something far more mundane.
  • If you’re trying to get art off of Fiverr, I recommend contacting 5-10 different providers, having them all do the work for $5 each, and then continuing to work with your favorite. This same strategy, of redundant hiring and then consolidating, works well across many lifesourcing and outsourcing domains.
  • You should think about hiring people on oDesk in the same way as you would any other interview process. Ask to see work, look at portfolios, and, ideally, provide interview challenges that directly map to the work they will be doing for you. In my case, when I hired someone to maintain one of my websites, my interview questions revolved around writing example emails and deciding which links were worth posting. When I hired people to classify a dataset, I gave them access to the real classification application and had them do a sample set. If they did well, I hired them.
  • If you’re going to go through the trouble of interviewing and hiring on oDesk, I strongly recommend codifying your interview and training instructions as reusable documents. When your current worker(s) inevitably leave or flake out, you can hire and train the next set more quickly. You can also hire more than one at a time for added redundancy.
  • There are a shockingly large number of people on this planet who speak (nearly) perfect English, have sharp wits, and are looking for work. If you have tasks that you can pay them a fair wage to solve, you’re helping everyone. And remember, a fair wage in the Philippines (where many people speak English perfectly), is significantly less than in the US. Do your cost of living research and pay fairly and generously!
  • Accountability and incentives are important. I left Mechanical Turk and instead interviewed and hired individuals off oDesk for data labeling tasks because I received better quality and had more consistency over who I was working with.

Are you a lifesourcer or a micro-outsourcer? What have you learned?