Hiring freelancers through sites like oDesk and Elance can save your business a ton of money, a ton of hassle and a ton of time.  They’re wonderful places to find freelance professionals who offer everything from copywriting and marketing to website design and coding – even virtual administrative assistance.  Whether you need just a little help or a lot or work, chances are you can find somebody who fits the bill on one of these websites.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know how to go about the process of hiring, you may end up accidentally scraping the bottom of the barrel and forking good money over to someone who either doesn’t deliver the goods or worse – someone who simply can’t provide what you’ve asked for.

Every freelance portal site is set up a little differently and each has its own pros and cons.  But there are a number of overarching themes that apply to hiring on any freelance worker site – so dig in, take notes and start building your roster of virtual workers wisely!

Failing to Vet Applicants Thoroughly

This is absolutely the biggest hiring mistake you can make when using one of these sites.  Both oDesk and Elance have thousands upon thousands of registered freelancers available.  Unfortunately, the sites don’t have much in the way of prequalification.  There are a number of tests (mostly optional) that freelancers are offered, but generally all that’s required to become a listed freelance professionals is a payment account and some very basic web skills.

Therefore, the responsibility of vetting the job applicants falls heavily upon your shoulders.  The first thing you should look at is the quality of the language on each applicant’s job proposal.  These are multinational websites, which means you’ll find that many of the registered freelancers simply don’t possess adequate grammatical skills in either American or British English to assist you effectively.

Next, read over your responses again and see if any of them sound canned.  A number of online freelance professionals use the “buckshot” method of applying for jobs – blast out hundreds of canned responses and hope for a miniscule ROI.  However, you want service providers that tailor their work to your needs – and that means that they should be tailoring their proposals as well.

It’s also important to take a look at your candidates’ profiles.  Both of these sites allow freelancers to build profiles which contain job histories, portfolios of past work, feedback from previous clients and more.  A few of the things you should look for are good feedback scores and solid samples.  If experience or certification is desirable to you, check the provider’s profile to see if they have it instead of making assumptions about his or her skills.

Lastly, determine whether you’re dealing with an individual or with a larger group?  Many agency-type businesses operate on these sites and will farm your projects out to their underlings – in essence, subletting the work they were hired to do for you.  While the person you’re interacting with may pass your “sniff test,” the person actually doing the work may not.

Staying On Top of Payments

Elance offers an escrow system to safeguard your money.  oDesk does not.  However, you should always be looking out for your best interest.  Arranging a satisfying payment agreement should be one of your top priorities.  First of all, never pay for anything in full up front!  Always use a milestone system or escrow program to ensure that your money never leaves your hands before you have something in return.  Some contractors may require an upfront payment, but that amount should never exceed one half of the total project price.

In addition, it’s important track your invoices and payments as if they were being carried out on paper.  Relying on Elance and oDesk to keep all of your records for you (essentially in cloud storage) may seem like it’s saving you headaches, but these sites rarely integrate with tax software and can get “buggy” from time to time.  Protect yourself by maintaining your own financial records.

Being Too Vague In Your Job Description

Your job description is the single most important aspect of enticing the right contractors to bid on your jobs.  Your descriptions must be as detailed as possible in order to secure the interest of top-quality service providers.

As an example, instead of stating “I need a website built” and calling it good, outline the number of pages you need, the length of each page, and whether the listing is for content creation, graphic design, coding or all of the above.  Also, give the contractor a comfortable timeline for completion and – if possible – submit examples of what you’d like the finished product to look like.  The more information you can provide, the more likely it is you’ll find the right freelancer for your needs.

If you don’t yet have all the details of what you need, don’t post the job.  Contractors will get cold feet if they hire on with an individual who is constantly changing the size of the project – a phenomenon known colloquially as “scope creep.”

Sticking with the Same Contractor for Too Long

You may find a contractor that fits all of your needs and that you can see yourself building a long-lasting relationship with.  That’s great.  But don’t settle – there are plenty of fish in the sea.

The online freelancing game is definitely a buyer’s paradise.  There are more freelancers out there than there are jobs, so they’re competing for your work.  Don’t be afraid to set up test projects with new providers similar to those you’re currently running with your go-to guy or gal.  You don’t have to make the switch, but by testing the waters, you may find someone who can do it better or cheaper (or both)!

Dropping the Communications Ball

Just like in the real world, communication is the key to success in business.  You can’t simply unleash your freelancer and expect things to go well without proper communication.  For this reason, it’s important to create a two-way communication stream that involves regular contact, both coming and going.  This will help you to prevent your projects from straying too far from what you had envisioned when you first started.

On a similar note, it’s often best to set up project milestones so that deliverables are handed over piecemeal.  This allows you to survey the work in bite-sized chunks, offer feedback and provide corrections that keep the project on track.

If you have a task or job function that can be accomplished virtually, chances are hiring a freelancer will save you time and money over hiring locally.  Outsourcing allows you access to qualified professionals at more affordable rates than you’ll find at area agencies – especially if certain types of services are in high demand in your geographic location.

However, you have to be smart about hiring anybody to work for you – whether online or off.  Apply the same skills to hiring a freelancer that you would to hiring an employee for your brick-and-mortar location.  If things get out of hand, don’t be afraid to pull the plug and find another service provider before your doomed project ends up costing you more time and money than the finished work is worth.

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About the author

Matt Faustman

Matt Faustman

Matt is the co-founder and CEO at UpCounsel. Matt believes in the power of online platforms to change antiquated ways of life and founded UpCounsel to make legal services efficiently accessible. He is responsible for our overall vision and growth of the UpCounsel platform. Before founding UpCounsel, Matt practiced as a startup and business attorney.

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