A software developer phoned recently to ask me to edit the writing in a PowerPoint file that will be shown to possible investors. Nothing is unusual about a self-employed writer getting a phone call from a potential client. What is a bit unusual, however, is the fact that the developer resides in Gujarat, India and I am situated in Vancouver, Canada.
Like many owners of small or home businesses, the software developer has discovered that it is both economical and convenient to outsource various aspects of his operations. And, thanks to the Internet, the labor pool is worldwide. In this particular situation, the gentleman wanted a writer who could fine-tune his marketing materials for North American audiences.
With today’s technology, many aspects of an outsourcing procedure can be conducted electronically: locating a contractor, communicating, file transfer, delivery tracking and financial transactions.
Where to Find Them On the Net
The simplest way to find an independent contractor on the Net is to visit your favorite search engine and run a keyword search. Identify the key words that best describe the skills you are looking for (i.e. business writer, graphic designer, IT programmer, web developer, accountant, administrative assistant, etc.). You’ll find plenty of choices.
Alternatively, check one of the fee-based web sites promising to match skilled freelancers (or independent professionals as they prefer to be called) with businesses in need of such skills. Elance, FreeAgent, and JobBid4me are among the better-known possibilities. Alternatively, Allfreelancesearch.com will do a keyword search on an array of freelance and work-at-home sites, then present you with a compilation of results.
Contracting with a professional found on the Internet requires the same due diligence that you use when contracting with someone across the street. Ask for samples of their work. Check references carefully. Insist on full contact information, including phone numbers and mailing addresses. Run a Whois search on their domain name, if applicable. Be clear about what you want, and when and how you want it delivered. Use a contract for anything but the smallest of jobs. Agree upon a payment schedule in which partial payment is made throughout the project, but the final payment is made only after you are satisfied with the completed job. Whenever possible, pay via credit card transaction. You will have recourse through your credit card company should the arrangement turn out to be problematic.
The Technology Recipe
Start with the staples — the phone, fax and photocopier. Add an Internet enabled computer and the usual suspects when it comes to business and Internet software. Mix in any custom software that your project requires. Finish with a shipping company that offers online package tracking, and locate a means of conducting financial transactions and you’re all set. (If your project involves import and export, a customs broker will make life easier.)
Electronic file compatibility is a consideration. Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint) is a good choice because the software is widely used and is available for both PC and Mac systems. Some formatting could be lost in cross-platform computing, however.
PDF files are also good cross-platform choices. You will need an application such as Adobe Acrobat to generate the PDF files. Once created, they can be read on any computer that has the free Acrobat Reader installed.
If your project requires special software that the contractor could not reasonably be expected to own, you will want to provide them with a licensed copy.
Ongoing communication can be accomplished online using email, chat, instant messaging and web forums. Internet conferencing software allows real-time collaborating and conferencing. Microsoft’s Net Meeting is a well-known example, but there are many others. Refer to Internet Conferencing at About.com for more information. Finally, don’t forget the good ol’ telephone and the option of telephone conference calls. Just remember time zones, please.
And finally, you need a way to transfer the files. Ordinary email attachment works well for smaller files and when security is not a concern. Products like SecureExpress(sm) from Verisign are an answer if you need secure email. Otherwise, you can upload larger files or files with sensitive content to a secure web site, then provide the contractor with download information. Ask your web host about setting up a secure area (SSL) on your web site, or check with etrust companies such as Verisign for the various options they offer
Businesses without a web site might consider using one of the services offering online data storage. For a small fee (sometimes free), you can open an account that allows you to store electronic files on a private area of their web site. By sharing your login information with the contractor, you will both be able to upload and download files. To locate these services, run an Internet search for “online data storage.”
Alternatively, you could allow the contractor remote access to your computer using a product such as LapLink Gold, PC Anywhere or GoToMyPC.com. These solutions allow authorized users to access your Windows computer from an Internet-enabled computer anywhere in the world. For best results, you’ll need a computer with a constant Net connection (ISDN, DSL, cable, etc). However, with pre-planning, you can manage with a dial up connection.
When outsourcing with an independent contractor, you’ll want to consider the following:
1. Taxation. Find out what record keeping procedures your taxation department requires. The contractor is responsible for meeting tax requirements in his/her state or country.
2. Contracts. Develop a contract that stipulates the obligations and responsibilities of both parties. You can locate a contract template on the Net and amend it to suit your unique requirements. Ensure that both you and the contractor sign and date the agreement. Contracts are legally binding, but are not guarantees that everything will work out well. They do ensure that both parties fully understand what is expected, and both parties have legal recourse in event of problems down the road.
3. Confidentiality agreements. Sometimes called non-disclosure agreements, these are documents that contractors are asked to sign if they will be party to confidential information. You can find examples of confidentiality agreements on the Web.
Show Me the Money
In most cases, the contractor will ask for partial payment before delivering the finished project. Just as you worry that you might not get what you’re paying for, the contractor worries that you’ll renege on the payment after they’ve devoted many hours to working for you. It happens!
Once a relationship is established, sending a check via postal service might work well. If the contractor lives in another country, find out if he or she can accept a check written in your currency.
Initially, however, credit card transactions or electronic fund transfers via banking institutions offer better protection to both parties. For smaller jobs, services such as PayPal are possibilities .