Smart businesses and entrepreneurs are increasingly getting more hands on deck by using freelancers online. Gone is the need for an endless list of “stuff I need to do” (aka everything). Whittling down your to-do list to the stuff you want to do (and are best at) and getting someone else to do the rest frees up your valuable time.
Across Elance and oDesk there are over 8m freelancers covering over 2,500 skills – that’s a big pool of talent you can tap into. But it’s not just a question of posting a job and then forgetting all about it. Online hiring can make a huge difference to your business but only if you approach it in the right way. Avoid these schoolboy errors and you’ll be laughing.
If you don’t know what you want, you’ll never get what you want. Whether you need a mobile app created or a piece of content written, clarity and details are all important.
The very first question you need to ask yourself is quite simply, what exactly do I need them to do? The more clearly you can define this the easier the process will be. Let’s say your website needs an overhaul. Perhaps you’ve gone as far as you can with free website templates and now need more functionality. Or perhaps it’s time to integrate a customised ecommerce engine that connects your market with your products. Take the time to work out exactly what you need. If you have an existing site, note where you are having issues currently (eg technical problems that come up on a regular basis). Prioritise your wish list into “must-haves” and “nice-to haves”.
If you don’t have the technical know-how to write a really great brief, your first job should be to find someone who can help you craft the brief before it even gets to the freelancer who will actually do the work. Trying to write a brief for something you don’t understand yourself is schoolboy error #1.
In the same way that you don’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive and you wouldn’t buy a year’s supply of wine you haven’t tasted, don’t launch into an enormous project with a freelancer you haven’t worked with before.
Start with something small to test the waters. Bite-size chunks are what you’re after. You could even try giving the same small job to a couple of different freelancers (paying them both of course – nobody should have to work for free). That way you get to see firsthand whom you like working with best. When you’ve selected your freelancer, again make sure the project is split into clear milestones and deliverables – and don’t forget to check in regularly.
You can find talent very quickly online. Often within minutes of posting a job you’ll receive proposals from relevant freelancers and it can be tempting to choose quickly and let them get on with it. Don’t. If you were hiring a full-time employee, you wouldn’t take the first CV that lands in your inbox, you’d wait until you’d had a few applicants, conducted interviews and checked references. All this can happen much more quickly online, of course, where you can see a person’s portfolio and read feedback from previous clients.
The bigger the job however, the more time you should take selecting the right person for it. On Elance, for example, you can conduct a video interview with your shortlisted freelancers to get a better feel for whether they are right. Also bear in mind that often the best freelancers are busy people and they may not have chance to see your proposal right away. For bigger design or development jobs you may be better off posting the job and then inviting selected freelancers to apply. Be sure to tell them why you’ve selected them specifically – flattery gets you everywhere!
• Blog supplied by Hayley Conick, Country Manager for Elance UK & Ireland.
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Telecoms are an essential part of any new business – so you need to get them right from day one. Here are nine of the most common (but easily avoidable) mistakes new business owners make with their telecoms…
Research shows more than 30% of people do not trust and therefore will not contact mobile numbers. Plus, you’ll only have a single voicemail for personal and business calls.
How will you know if it’s a friend or customer calling? Also, you can’t turn off your business in the evening and at weekends, while there is limited functionality for handling a second call and personalising voicemails.
It’s tempting to accept offers of free installation if you sign a long-term contract, but if you expand and/or move you could face penalties for cancelling the contract. Plus, you are locking yourself into prices in an environment where prices are generally going down.
Using inbound numbers such as 0800, 0844 or 0845 creates two problems. Firstly, using 0845 for post-sales service is now illegal. Secondly, if most of your customers call you from their mobile, they’ll get a warning telling them it will cost a lot of money, at which point 40% hang up.
Check contract lengths, notice periods and penalty clauses, and make sure your supplier is signed up to the Telecoms Ombudsman (here’s a list of participating companies).
Are the telecoms flexible and scalable should you expand? If you are working from home, is the number portable should you move into premises?
This can be very expensive compared to organising your own telecoms and they may not release the number should you move out. Some business centres offer to forward calls but this can be costly. Always ask if you can bring your own and if not are the numbers portable if you leave.
Not everyone in business uses Skype, particularly larger businesses. Also, Skype phone numbers are not portable, so when you have outgrown Skype you’ll lose the use of that number.
What do you want them to do? If it is just to take a message you need to ask yourself what value is that adding. However, if they can handle certain queries, that can enhance your offering.
So what are the options? For micro businesses, a simple inbound geographic number can be set up for about £7 a month. For a little extra it can have a voicemail and a whisper facility to tell you that it is a business call.
For larger start-ups, the choice is VOIP or traditional telecoms solutions. The more sites and the greater the likelihood of growth, the more likely it is that VOIP is the best solution. If you’re looking for more sophisticated features then a PBX may be better. This guide and this one will tell you more.
In conclusion, think about your business, not just now, but in the future. Ask the relevant questions of your potential providers and ensure your telecoms align with your plans for the business. If in doubt, an independent telecoms broker can help.
Not enough hours in the day but can’t afford to take on staff? Looking to focus on your passion as opposed to spending hours on time-consuming admin? Wish you could hire specific staff as and when you need them? Well, taking on a virtual assistant (VA) could be the answer.
A VA is a highly skilled professional who can provide a diverse range of administrative, technical and creative business support services to businesses operating in a broad range of sectors. Rather than hiring full-time employees to fulfil numerous job roles, businesses use VAs to provide a wide range of skills.
The VA industry is rapidly growing, as businesses wake up to the associated benefits. However, with varying hourly rates and so many to choose from, how do you know which VA is right for your business and what should you consider before taking one on?
Managers: Many VA companies operate a pool of assistants to complete work. Look out for companies that assign one account manager to complete the majority of tasks. It really helps to have a single point of contact.
Sole traders: Most VAs (72%) are sole traders who work with various clients, so make sure you are clear about specific deadlines so your VA can juggle workload appropriately.
Contract: Although there is no minimum commitment in terms of hours and VAs only invoice for work completed, protect yourself with a contract that includes clauses about confidentiality and data protection.
Fees: Although there are no recruitment agency fees or HR-associated benefits to provide, it is important to double-check what the hourly charge includes. For example, this rate usually covers all normal office supplies but excludes postage or anything bought in specifically for a job.
Workload: Weekly work for a VA ranges from general admin to bookkeeping, marketing to events; there is no all-encompassing job description. VAs are also starting to take on more social media responsibilities so make sure you are maximising a broad range of services.
Networking. Some people do with such ease and confidence, elegantly working a room. How we envy them. Because for some of us the very notion of networking with strangers fills us with dread. But making the most of social small talk is a valuable skill that we can teach ourselves, because you never know what doors a new contact can open in those few minutes. So, what’s the key to effective networking?
It’s just another part of your marketing tool kit, which can be refined and improved. And like all tools – knowing when and how to use it, will serve you well. Prepare by writing down two or three short sentences about yourself and your business or idea and learn these in advance. Make it current, factual and positive. This doesn’t need to be a sales pitch; it’s a conversation-starter; an opportunity to introduce yourself and your business to new people or tell people you already know something new so that they can leave with a refreshed version of your ‘asset value’.
It’s a conversation between people, not you trying to sell your latest product or service, but a taster, an appetiser. Give a glimpse of what you do using positive, confident language (which you’ve already prepared). And it’s two-way thing – show an interest in what others have to offer, so all parties can see if there’s something of mutual interest to follow-up.
Be conversational in your approach with a few casual questions, such as: “How have you found the event so far?”, “What’s your business about?” or “Who’s been your favourite speaker so far?” Top tip for the tongue-tied: worry less about what you have to sell, focus on being interested in the other person person. Top sales people are often great listeners.
If you are at an event where badges are given out and networking is part of the agenda, you’re expected to mingle rather than stick with one person for ages. It’s perfectly polite to spend a few moments with someone, make introductions, have a conversation and then say: “Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. I’ll leave you to meet other people…” or “I must take the opportunity to meet so and so…”
It’s OK to ask if the person can think of another person at the event who might be interested in your service or products. It’s also great when you can recommend someone whose products or interests are similar and agree to connect them via email or social media.
When you get home or have a few moments to spare, make a list of those you’ve spoken to (or scan their business cards or staple them into a notebook) and make a note of interesting things that will help you to remember them another time. And, of course, follow-up with any promised information. You should follow-up within a few days to make sure trust is maintained.
Blog supplied by Lisa Gagliani, CEO of Bright Ideas Trust, a charity that helps young people in London who aren’t in employment, education or training or who haven’t had the same chances as the rest of society to start their own businesses.
I have a Room 101 nomination. It’s media headlines and political comment telling us that 'businesses are unable to access funding from banks, we have to get the banks lending again, we need to make alternative funding available'.
This has been so noisy since the 2008 sub-prime bubble burst that I’m convinced it’s merely a default utterance when political parties sense that 'business' hasn't been in the headlines of late. The tone sounds so desperate at times as to imply an imminent hiatus if this matter isn't addressed. I’m not convinced that the need for bank funding is as important as we’re led to believe.
We accept as fact that since 2008 the banks have reined in their lending, as a response to previous over-lending. A good entrepreneur will secure investment from other sources, because they will perceive the banks’ reluctance to lend merely as a challenge to overcome. Other sources of funding may even be more appropriate, because some can bring additional commitment and proven commercial expertise.
Interestingly, among my local business community there is no issue around borrowing from banks, it's a message that you mainly hear in the media and from politicians – but why?
Historically we’ve been programmed to approach banks for finance. 2008 caused a paradigm shift and while those of us running our own businesses on the frontline are comfortable with this, the banks and politicians haven't caught up yet. There are two reasons – ego and economics. The banks and the City have always been thought of as the 'big boys' to whom us small firms should turn for support. They’re used to being in control – to dominating us.
However, 2008 showed that they aren't that great at managing their own businesses. Their validity to dominate has been undermined, but their ego has not been humbled yet. I’m not an economics expert, but I’d guess that the banks and the State are used to profiting from failing SMEs. Finding money from elsewhere takes away income from the 'big boys'. These are the real reasons for SMEs needing financing from the 'big boys' being in the headlines, it is their income streams that are being affected.
Our UK DNA as a nation of shopkeepers has prevailed and revealed its talent for resourcefulness and diversification. We don't need the 'big boys'. Question is – how long will it take them to adjust to their new relationship with us? Maybe we'll start asking for their investment once more when they’ve grown up and proved that they can run their businesses as well as they have expected us to run ours in the past.
There's no doubt that as a start-up you live on the entrepreneur diet of hard work and dedication. However, over the years I've also identified five other essentials that have been vital to our success…
My role is to direct the strategic growth of the company and leave the day-to-day management to senior staff. However, from day one I've maintained a keen eye on the 'front line'. Each morning I spend 25-30 minutes reviewing our customer service enquiries to understand what the complaints are, what's being returned, etc. I even listen into recorded conversations for greater detail.
Spending time at the customer-facing side of the business allows me to spot trends I might miss if I were to be removed from the heart of the business. Often trends are only understandable if you have insight into what customers want here and now.
This ethos has been essential to driving our growth. Now, all the decisions we make are based on cold, hard facts rather than instinct. As a result, we take an obsessive approach to data. We trial and test everything to finality, exploring each and every variable to develop the best possible system for all our services.
This means we evaluate all that we do, from comparing our competitor's prices to analysing our customer's feedback to one product over another. Furthermore, we define short-, medium- and long-term goals. With goals in place it's easy to work backwards to identify the stepping-stones needed to reach that success - and therefore all the elements we need to trial and test to get there.
All our analysis is done in-house, we never outsource. The ability to harness data is something all business owners should learn. If you can interpret figures, you can determine your business's strategy. And you don't want to put that power in the hands of someone else.
You can feel compelled to manage everything in-house to try to save money. In our experience, though, it can be a false economy. In your quest to cut overheads, you spend time you don't have striving to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, often leaving yourself vulnerable to mistakes. Outsourcing has been one of the best things we've ever done. It allows us to employ agencies, such as recruitment and PR, to deliver on our goals, achieving what we want, but don't have the time or experience to afford.
Recruiting the very best is great, but ensuring you can offer an ongoing, rewarding experience is crucial. We reward staff in a way that motivates. We have found that if you pay your employees market or above-market rate and offer them praise them when deserved, your staff will meet their targets. People are driven to do well and if you make sure you pay them enough so money is not a distraction, their focus will be that purpose.
It can be very instinctive to run from one great idea to the next. A short attention span seems to be the DNA of an entrepreneur. We soon learned, though, that it's best to focus on one business to the nth degree. We initially set up a number of sister companies alongside Cartridge Save. All were online retailers, built upon a similar model, so in theory, should run like one another. The reality was they were all equally demanding and we spread ourselves too thinly. So, we decided to focus on the cartridge ink business and operate in a market in which we knew we could really make difference.
Blog supplied by Sean Blanks, managing director of express online printer cartridge supplier Cartridge Save.