As a company trying to be lean and mean in these tumultuous economic times we have had to be pretty creative in finding ways to perform many of the functions that for larger companies are simply handled by someone on the payroll. Using companies like to hire help, usually at a fractional cost, from far off corners of the world has allowed us to remain productive while keeping budgets in check. While the economic benefits of using freelancers, especially from overseas, are obvious, they often come at a cost. For example, employing an in-house designer means expectations for such things as quality, delivery and adherence to our companies overall style are already understood, so a new project can be created with a just simple conversation and minimal hassle. In contrast, hiring a freelance designer means all of those efficiencies and the continuity from working together day-after-day are no longer present. Hard dollars are saved but something that is just as valuable is often spent in exchange: your time. That said, we've had some success hiring freelance designers, illustrators, programmers and musicians. We've hired companies and individuals from India, China, Argentina, and right here in the USA. While we think using freelancers is an important way for small, start-up companies like ours to survive and access a universe of talented people, we know it can be daunting to trust your next project to a faceless company thousands of miles away. We have a few tips that will help those of you looking to hire freelancers, especially those companies overseas. Much of what we've learned has been the hard way... through trial and error so we hope this can help save you time (and money):

1. Plan. Plan. Plan. And then Plan some more! With employees it can be easy to change gears midstream after having started a project. When you hire a freelancer, it's much more difficult. We've learned it's a must to take your time, go through the planning process very carefully, and make sure you have included everything you think you're going to want or need into the project description before posting a job. While freelancers we've used are fine removing things from the project's scope (of course!), we've run into problems adding things to a job without reluctantly adding to the budget too. Or, sometimes worse, wasting days determining if the vendor you've already hired can actually handle the new scope you require. In the end, it's best to do all of your work upfront before hastily sending out your RFP. It will pay off on the backend!

2. Build in extra time. One of the few limitations we've had with hiring companies from overseas relates to project delivery. Everything takes longer than forecasted. While I'm sure this isn't always the case for everyone, it has been for us. So, we build in the extra time into our planning and budgeting. As it relates to programming, we've created websites & apps with overseas companies, and in every case the development process has taken much longer than initially projected. One way to combat this is to include delivery bonuses for finishing on or before deadline; we haven't tried this yet, but would recommend doing so if time of delivery is especially critical. We hired an Indian developer to build our first educational iPad app, Letter Buddies AlphaBooks, and saved $20K from what we were quoted to have it programmed here the U.S. While that's a lot of money to save, it took our programmers nearly 3 times longer (6 months) to create the app than it should have. It can be frustrating when this happens, especially when you're midway through a project. I recommend setting your expectations correctly and going into any project with your eyes wide open. Be wary of companies promising an extremely short delivery period for something you know should probably take longer. Also, try to backload payment milestones so that companies are only paid as the project gets closer to completion. This has been one method we've used to align our goals with the company we've hired.

3. Vet. Vet. Vet. Take the time to look through portfolios. Some jobs we've posted have received 70+ proposals. It's a little daunting to go through so many different potential vendors, but you have to look closely at as many portfolios as you can. We generally avoid using vendors without a track record or vendors that propose something too good to be true (too cheap or too short a delivery timeframe). Elance does a good job of showing you details about how many projects and how much each company has earned. As a general guideline, we start vetting the more established companies first. That said, the more experienced companies may not always be the most appropriate for your job, so always try to find a company whose portfolio seems most relevant. We've worked with some of the higher rated companies, and while you feel comfortable your job will be completed, it doesn't mean it'll happen on time. Be vigilant!

4. Over communicate. Once you've chosen a vendor, stay on top of the project. Pretty obvious, right? It's easy to ignore a project for a few days when it's being worked on in another part of the world and there's a 12/13hr time. Don't take your eye off the ball though. If you're not asking questions or getting status reports, then assume your project might be moving slower than it could be. Our advice: be willing to IM/Skype regularly and be available late in the evening if your vendor needs to touch base. Working through emails is sometimes not as effective as a 5min Skype session. We've had more success 'managing' vendors who know we're around to answer questions and keep the things moving forward. When we've been laissez faire, our projects have dragged on. 

Some of what we've learned is common sense type stuff, but sometimes when you're trying something new the most obvious things are the easiest to ignore and most difficult to overcome. We've had mostly good experiences hiring freelance vendors and we will continue to do so. The price and quality just makes it too compelling to ignore. But you have to be willing to manage your outside vendor as well, if not better, than any employee you might have!  Good luck!

- Kevin

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