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12 lessons I learned by firing 22 outsourcers in 5 years

Back in 2009, I hired my first outsourcer. It was a very nerve-wracking position to be in. I did not have enough money to make mistakes, so finding the right outsourcer was very important. During those few months, I was often reminded (read: bombarded) by "experts" about the great benefit of hiring talented workers from developing countries for a fraction of the cost compared to hiring from either the UK or USA. There was also a lot of buzz about companies outsourcing to India, so that's where I set out to search.

Not wanting to give real names, let's call my first outsourcer "Amit". He cost me $4 per hour. Amit was from Hyderabad in India and gave me all the promises I needed to hear about how effective, diligent and skilled he was in the tasks I was seeking to pass to him. He told me he was a fast worker and didn't need much training; that he could speak - and more importantly write - the English language very well. He also told me that I could rely on him to meet realistic deadlines that I would set him.

I had spent a couple of weeks searching for the "perfect" first outsourcer and wanted him to manage my MySpace profile, contact industry experts for interviews, research topics for my music business and communicate with customers for product support and new enquiries.

It took just two weeks for me to realise that Amit actually required a lot of training than I had imagined from his original sales pitch. He did not write well, which annoyed my customers and destroyed my Myspace profile and community. He did not give me the thorough research I would request him to compile and I lost the authority in the eyes of a few experts I wanted to interview and befriend.

My worst nightmare was unfolding...

As it is, I was scared of giving anyone some responsibility in my business because I believed "nobody could do it as well as me" - and just when I was starting to loosen the grip on that belief, I made the biggest mistake in my startup which cost me a lot of time and money.

I fired Amit soon enough.

I took back all my tasks and continued to do them myself, straining myself with the extra hours every week. I didn't have the confidence or the money to risk another wrong hire.

I learned a few key lessons:

  • Outsourcers are in the business of selling. Never take their pitch as gospel.
  • Never promise a long-term job right at the start.
  • Have patience.
  • Share your goals right from the start.
  • Your first hire will probably always never be perfect.

After eight months, and a little increase in my confidence, I wanted to try again. Many millions of small businesses succeed with outsourcing their tasks to assistants, so why couldn't I?

Hiring specialists vs hiring generalists

One important theory I wanted to test was to hire people for specialist services - instead of hiring one person to be my jack of all trades.

I wrote out job descriptions for one personal assistant, one graphic designer, one website coder and one marketer. I still decided to keep my focus on the developing countries where I was convinced I could spend less money and still find a high level of craft.

To cut this story short, I hired Jack from Bangalore as my personal assistant, Jamie from the Philippines as my customer service agent, Daniel from Serbia became my graphic designer, Tobie started to code my websites and I still struggled to find someone for my on-page and off-page SEO marketing.

I had a great time working with this small team for three months. Jack was responsive enough, he saved me at least ten hours per week. He would have tasks completed and in my inbox when I wake up, and I'd have tasks for him when I sign off by the afternoon. Daniel was an amazing graphic designer and very responsive and fast at first.

The one mistake that caused my team's downfall

Things started to turn sour with this round of hires with one crucial subconscious mistake I was making myself. This mistake became evident over time when I started noticing a pattern occur in their work habits. Over time I began to relinquish the idea of deadlines, not setting them for each member, and instead listened to what they were able to - and wanted to - achieve.

Daniel told me it would take five days to get me a DVD cover instead of the two I was giving him. I listened. When five days came, he gave me an excuse and asked for another three days. I listened.

The same thing happened over and over again, yet I stuck with him.

Tobie would code and promise me a new landing page within 3 days so I approved that. I remember that I would want it done the same day (it was easy enough for him!) but he said three days, and my previous encounters had taught me about patience. Still, after three days, he did not deliver and asked for an extra few days. I obeyed.

When I reflected on this, one of the reasons this all happened was because I only communicated with my team when I needed stuff done. I did not check in on a regular basis to see how they are doing. I did not engage with their personal lives. I did not follow their own personal blogs. I did not send them gifts to express my gratitude and appreciation. I did not show the kind of care and concern I ought to which may have made myself appear to not be interested in their own livelihood.

This was the biggest mistake I made with my team of outsourcers. It does not mean that I am a great leader and manager now because I do not listen. Many times I let my team dictate the deadlines that are most comfortable for them, but this one crucial mistake started the downfall and I fired Jack, Jamie, Daniel and Tobie one after the other.

I learned more key lessons about this entire process:

  • Patience is important for nurturing A-players in your team, but do not let them walk all over you.
  • Set deadlines that push your staff to work smarter and harder. You don't always need to increase the hours. Instead, focus on getting them to do more in less time.
  • Schedule and conduct regular meetings.
  • Shower appreciation and gratitude unconditionally.

Like a turtle, again, I went into my shell and started to operate my entire business on my own. My work hours increased, my productivity decreased, my social life suffered, I became tired and I wasn't a fun person to be around. This was not how I had envisioned my company to run.

I needed a reliable solution so here's what happened next.

Hiring through an established virtual assistance house

I gave up searching for an individual outsourcer in this way and looked for a company that hired outsourcers and kept them in a real office. I also made the conscious decision only hire my outsourcers from the UK or USA.

I found Mira, through a well-known virtual assistance company called Time Etc in the UK that had been featured on the Dragons Den reality show. Mira was amazing. She worked incredibly hard, she learned everything diligently and she conducted all my tasks on time.

I certainly would recommend this company, however having been through the experience of paying relatively cheap for my assistance Time Etc's bill each month sent pain waves through my body, charging me £35 per hour.

I had worked with Mira for just over two years. She came to know everything about my business and could solve literally every major problem that would arise if I was unable to respond or if I was away on travel. I operated my business whilst traveling through 8 countries in Africa living on a truck for 8 weeks. She ran my operations whilst I backpacked for three months in India during January 2010. When I got married and became busy in the planning, she handled many customer issues and kept the boat sailing ahead. I relied on Mira a lot, and if I was going to replace her with another assistant, I had set the bar pretty high for myself.

I wanted another Mira, I just didn't want to pay the charges Time Etc were billing me every month. I wanted to move away from Time Etc mainly because I believed I could save a lot of money in the process. The move away was painful. I became comfortable with their great service and for months I kept putting it off. Of course, I was convinced I could find someone but I was afraid of having to train and teach them everything all over again.

Finding my best hire to date

In the end, I built up enough courage. I began my search for the right candidate using elance. This time I became very clear on my values and the kind of person I was looking for. Instead of concentrating on their skills, I became laser-focused on their personality traits, their attitude to work and their motivations. I only searched for an assistant in the UK or USA. I spoke to every candidate at least 2-3 times, until I came across Amanda.

Amanda has been a blessing to work with. Her motivation for my vision and purpose shines through in both her daily communication with me and our clients. She's picked up everything I've showed her - including many technical things - and ran with it as if she were an expert from the start.

In the process of hiring and moving on from Mira and bringing Amanda on board this vessel, I learned a lot about sharing workload.

Here's what I mean by that. I had Mira deal with everything from writing articles, managing the blog, customer service, dealing with our fulfilment and distribution center, answering telephone calls, event management, and more. She became complacent with some areas and great at others, and by no means this was never her fault. In the hours I had allocated her, if she were to complete all the tasks (which she did) her quality of work was naturally suffer going to suffer.

So I learned, and I set out to fix that when I hired Amanda. I initially hired a lady entirely dedicated to our customer help desk. I hired a call answering service for our telephone calls. I took on a specialist writer to research and draft content for me. I hired an events manager. I spread the work to specialists instead of giving everything to Amanda, and to date she has always produced quality work to a high standard. The result of which has been happier clients and better quality of life all around.

12 crucial lessons learned...

Looking back over the last five years… in total, I have hired over 22 outsourcers from at least 7 different countries in the world. I have not given the details of every experience here. That would probably be too boring. I made some mistakes one too many times without learning and moving on, and I made more mistakes once and then swallowed my lessons. I certainly wouldn't call myself the perfect leader just yet, but I'm better than I was three years ago and can definitely manage and motivate a team to create win-win-win situations.

All in all, I've learnt numerous lessons that I'm thrilled to share with you here. I hope you can take these lessons and shorten your own learning curve. Hiring and firing is a very expensive experience so with these lessons you can hopefully get it right from the start.

1. Outsourcers are in the business of selling. Never take their pitch as gospel. Ask for samples of real work they have produced. Ask names of clients they may have worked for.

2. Never promise a long-term job right at the start. Suggest a trial period of two weeks, one month, three months, etc depending on what the speciality is.

3. Patience is important for nurturing talent, but do not let your team walk all over you.

4. Share your goals right from the start.

5. The only way to do meaningful work that has a positive impact is to come from a place of love, passion and enthusiasm. Speak to every candidate on the phone or via Skype. If you don't feel the passion and enthusiasm, end the call. That should always be your first point of communication.

6. Share your company's vision with your team. They must buy into it for a fruitful, long-term relationship that pushes your profit up.

7. Set deadlines that push your staff to work smarter and harder. You don't always need to increase the hours. Instead, focus on getting them to do more in less time.

8. Schedule and conduct regular meetings. Get weekly (if not daily) input from your team on their progress. Even if they are not full-time staff and work on specific projects, schedule this catch-up to review their goals for the upcoming period.

9. Shower appreciation and gratitude unconditionally. Send gifts when deserved. Don't forget the important festivals too. They count.

10. Everyone comes into your life for a reason. Forget and do not linger on the missed opportunities and the lost money. Only remember and take every experience as a learning. Failures become learnings for the positive and collective improvement of each individual.

11. Find tools to help you work better together when you're operating from different timezones and working remotely. More on this in a future blog post.

12. Come up with a set of rules and advice about how to operate. This requires it's own blog post, so I'll write more about this soon.

I want to hear about your experiences.

Have you hired and fired outsourcers in your team?

What have you learned through the process?

Please take a few moments to share…

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