ODesk was founded 9 years ago, during a surge in the idea of personal outsourcing. Books like the 4 Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris gave broad media attention to the idea of hiring a personal assistant to manage your life or business remotely. I tested out a couple different services like this, and found ODesk was significantly more advanced than the others and had a significantly bigger base of customers and contractors. A month ago, Odesk raised a Series D financing round, signaling that there was renewed growth and opportunity in the space. I have been experimenting with Odesk now for nearly a year, and wanted to share some advice on how to get the most out of ODesk.
Find someone solid
The primary reason to use Odesk is that it’s cheaper than finding someone in the US to do the same job in-person, and that Odesk provides a pool of candidates for almost any online task you could require, many with thousands of hours of experience in similar roles. You can post a job, review candidates, and browse the jobs they’ve done in the past and what previous employers said about them. If you read the instructions for how to get started with Odesk, many of the posts talk about how you should review multiple candidates, look at the kinds of reviews they have received previously, schedule some time to meet with the person via Skype, and have them do one project as a test before moving forward. A power-user tip I noticed was many job applicants don’t even bother reading a job description, and so job-posters had started embedding lines in their job descriptions saying “mention the word ‘Issaquah’ in your reply so I know you read the job description.”
Another power user tip was to always set an expectation for how much time a project should take so that you are both on the same page beforehand, rather than waiting till the end and being surprised that you’re being billed for 10 hours instead of 2 hours.
I found a virtual assistant in the Philippines named Jovelyn who is currently going to school to get a masters degree in engineering. She had some strong reviews, and had a decent number of hours worked but not a ton of experience. I chose her to try out first, among 12 different applicants, and have been consistently impressed. She has been proactive about keeping in touch, and has rarely needed additional direction beyond the thorough directions I give her at the beginning of a project. She has never billed me for what i felt was too many hours. And she is always polite. Finally, I’ve given her projects where she was using an email account I setup for her, so i can see how much work she did, and she completed a tremendous amount of work. I may have gotten lucky and found someone really solid on my first try, but i think that goes to show there are a lot of information workers overseas who are well-educated, proactive, and capable.
Really specific projects
ODesk seems to be best for projects where the work is repetitive internet research and where command of the english language is not paramount. For example, I very successfully used Jovelyn’s help to recruit campus reps for the BookRenter program by systematically reaching out to student organizations at campuses across the US. I gave her an email template and instruction on how to find contacts, and how to customize the email.
Another example, I had her post the job description to different cities on craigslist. Since students are going to look at the job board on craigslist for their own city, I had to make sure that the job was posted in 100 different cities, which is highly repetitive work that can’t be automated. Jovelyn took care of it.
To make a project like this work, you have to provide super-specific instructions. Ideally, something like posting to craisglist is something that we’re doing for BookRenter campus rep positions every few months, so Jovelyn learned it the first time, and was able to use this experience over and over again.
I provided step-by-step instructions, as well as creating the account on craigslist in-advance, and providing screenshots for some of the more complicated steps. Even then, it required going back-and-forth a few times.
Over time, Jovelyn has become an expert on the university market. She now understands where to go to compile class schedules, start dates, and how to recruit students, what kinds of student organizations exist, and what they care about. I’m hopeful that she will find this valuable.
The “holy grail” for me is the idea of a virtual personal assistant. Someone who can book my flights, pick up my dry-cleaning, order flowers for my girlfriend, etc. The trouble is, with someone on ODesk, I don’t yet feel comfortable handing-over my credit card, nor do I feel comfortable that they have good judgment about something like booking flights. Finally, they obviously can’t go pick up my dry cleaning. But that’s still the dream. Someone that actually starts to get into the weeds of my life and make things easier.
The other thing I wished for is someone who can act as my scheduler. Someone who can email back-and-forth with candidates and set up interviews, booking times on my calendar so all I have to do is show up. I also wished for someone who could actually do business development for us. Jovelyn was able to send the opening-salvo emails via a template, essentially putting leads in the pipeline from 0-10%. However, I wasn’t sure her command of the english language, or her understanding of bookrenter’s business, were strong enough to do the follow-ups and move these leads from 10-40%.
The other thing that I absolutely intend to do using social media if I’m ever managing social media directly (as opposed to BookRenter where we have a few full-time employees devoted to Social) will be to use ODesk to find articles and news to share via Facebook & Twitter, and potentially to actually operate a couple channels. For example, there are some people on ODesk who claim to specialize in Google Plus. Since BookRenter isn’t yet active on this platform, simply replicating all our posts on Google plus might be an easy thing to do.
And again, over time, I would want to train-up this person so that they understood social media and how to some standard “plays.” so for example, if our CEO is speaking at a conference, it makes sense to tweet @ the conference handle, as well as other speakers, as well as other brands exhibiting, with some relevant information, or “Let’s meet up” or “we should discuss this article during our panel discussion” – and some of that is really valuable, and is a standard set of tactics that can be replicated every 2 weeks when our CEO is out speaking.
I poked around ODesk’s forums and google for examples of the types of projects that you could get someone on ODesk to do, and didn’t find any good examples. Someone who has the experience and presence of an in-person executive assistant, but who can do most of the same function remotely. In a world of TaskRabbits, Uber cabs, and ODesk virtual assistants, I can see a scenario where an enterprising person, using Odesk, could actually fill the role of an assitant to an executive.
I could see this model becoming a core of how companies of every size operate.
In fact, I could imagine taking Jovelyn with me to the next company I work for, and deepening our partnership over time as she learns more and as I find more ways to integrate the virtual-work style into our division of labor. It might almost become a symbiotic relationship over time, where every individual contributor on a team comes with a small team overseas that is supporting them.
One concern I have is this: If I look at contractors I’ve seen at Microsoft, based here in the US, I think sometimes they get stuck in role where they are typecast and unable to grow professionally. Their years of experience increase, but they have no specialization because they are being thrown on projects in different areas and sub-disciplines. I think the same issue may become a much more pronounced problem for people like Jovelyn, which is why I think she should pursue some kind of specialization in the student market. Couple that with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem, and I could see virtual assistants hitting a very low glass ceiling. Long term, this model may not provide good job advancement opportunities for young people overseas looking to make a real career for themselves, but for someone doing it part time to supplement their income or someone looking for a good way to work from home and take care of a house or kids, this could be huge.