How to Outsource Tasks in Your Fashion Business When You’re on a Budget (Because Who Isn’t?)

outsourcing on a budget

Last week we had one of our awesome webinars planned; the kind where we bring in an expert who know a shit ton of great information about a topic that will help you build and grow your fashion business. In this case, that expert was Matt Keener, author of Executive in Sweatpants, and business outsourcing wizard who’s been featured by brands including Elance, Odesk, and Entrepreneur.com.

We were all set to go and boom – technical difficulties. Damn it.

Well Matt was awesome enough to record his responses to the questions I was planning to ask. Very cool. Below are Matt’s…

Top Tips on How to Outsource When You’re on a Budget

You can have a listen above, or read what Matt had to say below. And be sure to check out ExecutiveinSweatpants.com, there are lots of free resources for designers who want to outsource!

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How to Outsource Tasks in Your Fashion Business When You’re on a Budget (Because Who Isn’t?)

What are some signs that your business is ready to outsource?

Well there’s a few signs that you may want to consider and signs that you’re ready to outsource.  First of all, many people get to that point when they simply have a task that needs to be done but they can’t do it themselves.  For example, designing a website, or implementing a content management system for your website.   These types of things are specialty skills that there seem to be quite a few people online who are ready to help you with these types of projects.

Also you may be at a point of being ready to outsource if you simply can’t do it all yourself anymore.  As you take on new clients or new responsibilities, you have new products that you’re launching you simply get to a point where you’re overwhelmed and you can no longer manage everything and so this is a common problem whether it’s fashion designers or any other professional that’s out there. There’s just not enough hours in the day to get things done.

At a certain point, if you’re working one hundred hours a week, you become counterproductive.  So that might be a sign that you’re ready to do some outsourcing as well.

Kind of along these same lines, many people, whether they’re looking to achieve a goal that they can’t do for themselves, for example redesigning a website, or they simply are at the point where they can’t do it all themselves anymore.  Many business professionals are attracted to outsourcing because you’re able to take on specialists on a limited risk basis and you don’t have to hire somebody full time to work for you.  You’re not hiring an employee, and you probably couldn’t afford an employee, but you could hire someone on an hourly basis, maybe five or ten hours a week.

So what are some of the biggest benefits of outsourcing?

Some of the biggest benefits that small business owners typically are attracted toward are first of all they’re not employees.  In the United States especially, there’s a lot of red tape associated with hiring full time or even part time employees.

So by outsourcing through virtual marketplaces is like ODesk or Elance you maintain that client contractor relationship and they’re not your employees so you bypass a lot of what’s involved.

Also, you get a lot of scale-ability by hiring outsourced consultants.  What I mean by that is you can rapidly hire a bunch of freelancers with specific skill sets from all over the globe and if you’re demand picks up then you could instantly expand your outsourcing strategy to include many more freelancers.   So for the cost of one full time employee you can have five or ten different people who all have specialized skills, which is another value proposition for outsourcing.

You could have one graphic designer that you throw lot of work to, you could have another person who’s in charge of your website, and you can have another person whose writing blog content for you.

So instead of hiring a generalist which seems to be the case when you’re hiring a full time employee many times, you can actually hire specialists all of whom add up to probably the cost of a full time employee.  So you get a lot more value in regard to that.

What are some of the negatives of outsourcing?

Well first of all, for somebody new to outsourcing, just not knowing where you actually could get started.  How do I even begin outsourcing?  So to overcome that you know ODesk and Elance some of these other freelancing marketplaces have made it is as easy as they possibly can to get started, create an account, and then start recruiting freelancers through the outsourced marketplaces.  But even that takes a lot of time and effort on your part to learn how to attract good people.  It’s not like you just create an account and good freelancers are going to be naturally attracted to you.

Good freelancers are typically attracted to companies that have a long hiring record online and have proven that they are invested in creating value through the use of freelancers.  So you do have to compete and have to learn how to position your company so that you are able to attract high quality workers.

So one of the ways to overcome that obviously is the do it yourself model.  You know ODesk and Elance offer you some filtering criteria that allow you to go in and filter out people based on geographic location, the amount of time they work online, the hourly rate, things of that nature. I talk a lot about that in some of my training materials on my website executiveandsweatpants.com  That in and of itself is a specialized skill set.  Being able to filter through the thousands and thousands of freelancers online and getting to kind of a pre filtered pool of fifteen, twenty, thirty people that meet your specific needs.

Also there are some other services out there…  ODesk in fact offers a white glove recruiting service that I know some clients have used.  It’s not clear to me exactly who that’s available to, but I know some clients who have used that in the past where they’ll actually use ODesk’s team to do some of the recruiting for them.  Then also, there are some companies that are popping up throughout the internet these days that are kind of boutique outsourcing services that you can go to.  They may charge you a retainer fee or they may just provide their services free to you and then they’ll mark up the contractor services that you end up hiring.  I talk a lot about those on my website as well, so you may want to check out a few different options there on executivesweatpants.com

What’s the biggest mistakes that you’ve seen small business make with outsourcing?

The first one that comes to mind is that sometimes people get too excited and they go straight to the lowest common denominator and start hiring people that have the lowest hourly rates.  While it certainly is interesting that you can hire somebody for a dollar or two dollars an hour from a foreign country, I find that in most cases you get what you pay for.  While hiring people from offshore countries that the hourly rates typically lower going to the absolute lowest bottom barrel dollar per hour is not a good strategy for finding people to meet your needs.

Also, just assuming that anybody who has a profile online is worth hiring is another mistake.  You really need to do your due diligence here even though you may not be hiring them into a full time contract. It’s very, very, important that you go through a filtering process and you do some pre-screening and then you also look at the people, look at their portfolio on ODesk or Elance, look at the feedback they’ve gotten from other clients, and then try to build in your mind a picture, before you even talk to the person or invite them to interview of whether or not you feel like that what they speak about themselves matches up with your company culture and what you’re trying to achieve.

What are the first steps a business owner should take when they’re ready to outsource?

So if you’ve decided that outsourcing is right for you, some of the first steps that you’d want to take would be before you even go too far down the road of recruiting people, I suggest clients start by identifying their needs.

To do that you really want to understand first of all what the sorts of things are you could theoretically outsource that you’re doing today and then building a system in place to systemize that process so that in some cases clients will just spend hours and hours and hours trying to find the right person to outsource a project that could’ve taken thirty minutes to do themselves.

What sector of a small business is usually the smartest to begin outsourcing?

So you may want to check out, I’ve actually got a worksheet on this on my website executivesweatpants.com/free where you can download a free worksheet that gives you kind of like an overview of all the things that people tend to outsource online through Odesk or Elance.  It’s kind of like a worksheet where you can go through and circle stuff and kind of think in your brain, “OK well here’s all the different things that I’m currently doing that need to be outsourced” whether it’s a website or some administrative tasks that are not adding value for you.  Circle and prioritize a few different options and then from there what you want to do is try to take the outsourcing tasks of the things you want to outsource and rank them in priority from the biggest impact that you could have by outsourcing it, but also the lowest risk to outsource.

You don’t want to go and outsource a core competency of your business right off the bat because first of all you may be revealing confidential information about your business to contractors who could take that and vanish with it.  More importantly, I think that many people make the mistake of going straight to the biggest problem they have, outsourcing that, and then they feel like the contractor that they outsourced to did a terrible job and it’s just a big failure to outsource.

Usually things that are very complex to outsource right off the bat would be unwise to do.  What I typically do is I encourage people to identify things that are very easy to explain, very easy to delegate, and then it’s very clear for you to determine if they did a good job.  And then get them in a routine of doing those things on a recurring basis; stuff that needs to be done constantly like research, keyword research.

I’m a marketing person so these are the types of things I have to do on a recurring basis.  It’s stuff that I can very easily explain to people and if I can get it off my to-do list, then I can focus on more value added things. So start simple and then add responsibility as you go and I think you’ll find you’ll be able to build relationships with these people and build trust in a virtual setting.

What are your top tips for small businesses to outsource when they’re on a budget? What are some ways to make it financially feasible?

I would start by posting a fixed price job instead of an hourly job.   So try to think about…once you have gone through that worksheet in your mind…go through and try to categorize a few things into a fixed price project.  Again, you don’t want to post a project for ten dollars.  I mean personally, as a contractor I would never look at it.

As a client, I would never post something for ten dollars because you’re going to attract freelancers and contractors who are attracted to these kind of projects that you can never make money on.  So I would try to think of three or four things, or a very value added thing you could package up into a project, post it on ODesk, and I would say a good budget, you know try to think of something maybe two or three hundred dollars right off the bat…and maybe five or ten hours of work depending on what you think the going rate is for that.  Package it up into a project and then that’s a good way to attract people who could eventually be hourly consultants for you.  If they do a great job on a small project then that’s a way for you to build a rapport with someone on a very limited risk basis and then leverage that into an hourly opportunity later on once you built that relationship with them.

The sector of small business that is usually the smartest to begin outsourcing… Again start by identifying your needs, but as I mentioned things that are kind of lower risk tasks but maybe higher value by getting them off of your plate.  So for example, administrative help.  Just managing projects, managing your to do lists, keeping minutes, taking meeting minutes and organizing them and in your shared google docs.

Even things like some graphic design projects, like if you had to come up with a of a new design concept or maybe take some design files and then alter them slightly, something that’s very clear low risk and then it’s not something that the client or the end user is going to see.  It’s kind of like, give the project to the contractor, they send you back the finished product, and you can decide if they did a good job or not.  Start there and then add responsibility as you go.

What kind of time commitment should a business owner expect in the early stages of working with a freelancer or outside agency?

You know what the benefits of hiring a freelancer in theory is that they’re an expert in what they claim to be a freelancer and so hopefully a lot of the training if you’re able to recruit good people, a lot of the training…should either be done or they’ve kind of committed to their own ongoing continuing education program.  So training them on maybe giving them a little bit about your business, that doesn’t take a lot of time and in fact that to be done in the in the early stages of the interviewing process.

Some people don’t think about the basics of getting started.  So you gotta obviously create an ODesk or Elance account, so that takes a little bit of time to verify your card, you know.  You wanna go through and add your logo and build out of a somewhat interesting description about your company so that whenever you’re posting jobs online freelancers will see this and say, “Ok, well this looks like a legitimate company.  I’m going to take the time to apply for this job.”

You also wanna spent a little bit of time learning the user interface if you’ve used Facebook or Gmail you could probably navigate throughout…you know the basics of using an ODesk type tool.

But, where you’re gonna spend a lot of your time honestly is learning how to filter out contractors who don’t meet your needs using the filtering tools and then manually inviting people to your job postings who look like good fits for your specific job posting.

I’ll give you an example of why this is important.  Let’s imagine that you posted a job where you needed to do some sort of design project and you’re looking for a very specific person who knows a certain type of software.

Well you can easily filter the people that have that skill they know this type of software they have experience in your industry, but the problem is if just post the job, you can’t guarantee that those people are actually gonna can see it and you can’t guarantee that they’re actually going to apply for your job, even if they did see it.  As a contractor, somebody who both hires online and works online myself,  I don’t do a lot of prospecting on ODesk anymore for new jobs.  I’m just too busy.

So therefore, if you posted a job for a marketing consultant, I probably wouldn’t see it because I’m not out there looking for jobs right now. So what you wanna do is have a strategy in place to where you post your job but then you very proactively identify people that meet your needs and then invite them to your job posting. If you invited me… for example, if you needed a marketing consultant and you invited me through ODesk profile to interview for this job, I would have to review your project and I would either accept your invitation to interview or I would decline it.   As you can see it’s in my best interest to give you that feedback because I want to maintain a positive perception in the ODesk marketplace as a contractor.  So that step is so important for you to attract good people and for you to get a good candidate pool.

As the rule of thumb, if I post a job and I manually invite, let’s say ten people who I think could potentially meet my needs, I would say out of that probably only three or four are actually going to accept my invitation interview because six or seven are just so busy that they will just decline it or not give you a response.  So if you wanna have five or ten interviews for a given job, you’re probably going to need to invite fifteen or twenty people that could potentially meet your needs.

What are some of your favorite resources for outsourcing on a budget? And how do business owners make sure they’re using them effectively?

I think that of course using Odesk and Elance are very, very valuable.  I personally only use ODesk for most of what I do because I feel like… you know that’s just the system I’ve always preferred.  I’ve never really set up an Elance account per say, but I know a lot of companies who outsource use both.

Also I would recommend that you create a free google docs account.  Google docs is an awesome way to collaborate on new ideas, share content ideas with people. Anybody who has a Gmail account can be linked up to your Google docs so whenever I need to have a team collaborate on a new concept we can drop a bunch of ideas in Google docs and it works similar to Microsoft Word except for it’s a web page that’s hidden to only your collaborators.

Also, one of the big tools that we’ve been using lately to manage all of our to-do lists and tasks is Asana.  That’s also a free tool and I would highly recommend you check out all of their training materials on their website. Because Asana is more than just a basic to-do list, it’s a multi-faceted project management system that allows you to add all kinds of different collaborators and you can create tasks and sub tasks, recurring tasks, and sign all those different things to different users which is really powerful in a virtual setting. I mean as you start to outsource all kinds of stuff you have to have a very, very quick way to delegate and simply sending email is a very inefficient way of doing that.  So I highly recommend you check out Asana.

What are some of the questions business owners should be asking possible freelancers. And how can a business owner help to make their outsourced help feel like part of the team?

I like to encourage clients to try creating a little pre-screening assessment test that you could link to from your job posting on ODesk, and really you can create that in Google docs and make it into a little form or something.  Or if you needed somebody to help you with that, just feel free to reach out. I’ve done that for a lot of clients but really what you’re trying to do there is gather the basics before people, like as people are going through the application process, before you ever have to talk to them try to get the basics answered so that you can make sure that the people that you’re interviewing are the best use of your time.

So for example, in the prescreening questionnaire, what I typically ask are: “Are you available to work you know Monday through Friday 8 am to 4 pm, yes or no” and then “Are you familiar with using Asana, Google Docs, and some other software that I use, yes or no.

I’ll ask questions like, “Are you willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement? Yes or no?”  These types of things that are kind of like stuff you have to have before I’m willing to talk to you as a client are very valuable because then whenever you get to the interview portion of actually talking to somebody who’s a contractor, you can get down to the basics.

You can tell them about your company, you can explain you know what it is that you’re hoping to achieve. And you already know the basics about whether or not they’re able to work on your time zone and stuff like that.  So try to get as many basic questions asked out of the way before they ever interview.

Then in the interview questions, you know there’s all kinds of theories about what types of questions you want to ask,  I think it’s obviously going to depend upon what skill you’re actually looking to attract.  One thing that’s important, pretty much any person I’ve ever hired… I’ve never actually met them in person. It’s just through a Skype conversation or a phone conversation.  So the way they present themselves on the phone is actually a lot of times indicative of what type of contractor they’re going to be.  If they’re unwilling to answer questions directly, if they kind of have a…you know…you can tell a lot from the way that they speak as to whether or not they’re actually going to be a quality contractor.

Now in some cases, if you’re…if you’re hiring offshore or into a country that doesn’t speak your native language, sometimes a phone interview may not even be a worthwhile endeavor.  I’ve hired people before just by chatting with them on Skype or Google Messenger… like actually typing questions to them and trying to gauge you know based on their feedback and their responsiveness, you know that can tell you just as much as.., as a phone interview.

Nicole Giordano
Nicole Giordano
Nicole

Nicole is the founder of StartUp FASHION, an online community and support system for independent designers around the world. She’s a traveler, a weaver, and a foodie. A deep love for the craft of fashion pared with an adamant belief that success is defined by the individual, led her to found StartUp FASHION were she helps independent designers and makers screw the traditional fashion business rules, create their own paths, and build businesses they truly love. More than anything else, she’s in the business of encouragement and works every day to remind makers and designers that they have something special to offer the world and that they can, in fact, do this thing!

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