If you’re in a mid-size to large business, then you may have never heard of Elance.com, Guru.com or oDesk.com. In which case this article is like the radio traffic report of construction delays headed northbound when you’re in the southbound lane of marginal value. On the other hand, since you might come back that way, it could be worth a listen.
Elance.com, Guru.com and oDesk.com are matching services for businesses seeking outside help and the experts who want to help them. They’re supposed to work like this:
1. You, a sharp, progressive professional, realize you need help from an outside expert such as a consultant, designer, programmer, writer or virtually any other type professional.
2. Selecting from a global pool of thousands of experts beats settling for one of a few dozen consultants known to you or your colleagues. Therefore, you post a carefully crafted description of your project on a find-an-expert site.
3. Myriad contractors review your proposal, then a handful who are qualified submit thoughtful responses to your RFP, quoting surprisingly reasonable rates.
4. You iron out the details with a few applicants who have impressive portfolios, then choose the most promising expert.
5. Two months later your problem is solved, your business is booming, you receive a promotion, and your kids get into Stanford. All thanks to that nifty, online experts clearinghouse.
The reality of how these sites work is this:
- You realize you need outside expertise.
- You sketch out a rough description of your project, perhaps borrowing from some templates suggested by the website, though none of them seem to match your project exactly.
- Myriad contractors see the title of your project and submit generic bids, using boilerplate language and guaranteeing success. Within a week, you have 85 bids, many of which are ridiculously cheap. Some quote an hourly rate that sounds suspiciously like sweatshop labor.
- The sheer volume of proposals is overwhelming. Most come from providers with very little experience on the site and none are detailed enough to give you confidence in the outcome.
- You try clarifying the bids with a handful of promising providers, but quickly realize most will say anything to win the job. Finally, with wavering confidence, you choose an expert.
- Two months later you’re frustrated with the project’s progress and resign yourself to a mediocre result.
Online dating sites are great for single adults in search of life-long love, but the format’s hit-or-miss results demand caution from businesses looking for expert help on a project. Just as in the personal dating sites, when it comes to Elance, oDesk or Guru, there is virtually no quality control. As a result, their stables of experts are populated primarily by generalists, mediocre performers, dabblers, and inexperienced practitioners.
Outstanding consultants, who are narrowly focused in their expertise and who win projects based on quality and reputation, do not belong to online clearinghouses. As a result, the dating pool on these sites is like the bottom half of the graduating class at medical school. When they graduate you still call them “Doctor,” but ideally none of them will treat your family.
On the other hand, not every date has to be with Prince Charming and not every project needs world-class talent. These sites have matured to the point where some perfectly respectable consulting firms have joined the throngs of poor-quality providers. The cream of this crop is still not a prize consultant, but is acceptable in many circumstances.
Guidelines for Choosing a Consultant Online
Based on my mixed experiences engaging a multitude of contractors online, I have learned that these clearinghouses can be very good when used correctly. Below are the guidelines for having a successful experience with an expert you find through an online matching service:
- Use these sites only for implementation projects, not strategy or plan-development. Implementation is, for example, coding a website you’ve already thought through and laid out, or designing a brochure after you have thoroughly articulated your communication strategy. Experts on these sites can even work on complex implementation projects, such as vetting a new market, as long as you have explicitly defined the exact process you want them to follow.
- Think through your project requirements and construct a precise, detailed design brief.
- In your job posting, state loudly and clearly that you will immediately delete generic bids.
- Eliminate all boilerplate bids from consideration.
- Disqualify vendors who have little-to-no project history on the site and who have no portfolio of work.
- Review portfolios with a lump of salt; extreme puffery is common.
- Develop your selection criteria before the bids start rolling in.
- Read each bid one time, using your selection criteria and eliminate any that do not meet 90% of your criteria. This will speed up the process considerably.
- Ask the vendors questions. You have a right to clarify and get more information.
My final suggestion is so important I’ve separated it from the list. Number 10 is: hire three different experts for the first phase of your project or for a pilot. Tripling the cost of a small portion of your project is a tiny price to pay to test out the contractors who are going to do your work.
I doubt you’ll find the love of your life trolling the expert clearinghouses. However, as long as you’re careful, you can enjoy a successful project with a consultant you find online. And who knows, maybe once the project is over the contractor will send you a bouquet of flowers.
David A. Fields, author of The Executive’s Guide to Consultants(McGraw Hill, 2012), improves companies’ success with outside experts. Read an overview of his advisory service or contact him by e-mail at [email protected].