Aderson Oliveira: I've spoken with Brett Levert about how outsourcing is a key aspect of his business and how we should all embrace it if we want our business to grow in the future. We also discussed about the tools that he used to manage his outsourcing team, and we had enough time to do a "Tough Call", which is our role-playing segment.
Hello, hello, Aderson Oliveira here. This is the OuchSourcing Podcast where we talk about outsourcing, and I invite guests, as well, that can help us relieve a little bit of the pains that goes together when we are outsourcing. And today, I have with me, Brett Levert. He's the owner of Levert Design, which is a digital consulting firm. Brett, welcome.
Brett Levert: Hi, Aderson. Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Aderson: Perfect, perfect. Let's talk through the basics here, Brett. Where are you located, and tell me a little bit about your business.
Brett: So, we're actually headquartered in Evanston, Alberta, Canada. The company started with just me about four years ago. We started building websites for friends and family, and it slowly grew from there, and it got to a point where we started adding more and more clients, and we needed to hire some people, and instead of hiring people locally, we decided to look to outsourcing.
Aderson: Great. Perfect segue, because then my first question around outsourcing is, what is your experience of outsourcing? When did you get started, and so far, how is that working for you?
Brett: Yeah, so basically, it was our third or fourth project where we decided we needed to hire some developers, and at that time, we were using a sit called oDesk, which I'm sure you're familiar with. It's called Upwork now. Back then, it was a pretty new thing still. So, we ended up, through trial and error, going through probably 10 different developers, and eventually found one that was really great.
So, a little bit of a rough start, but once we found a good contractor, it was really an eye-opening experiencing where we realized this is something that could help us grow really quickly, and allow us to provide better services at a higher quality without hiring a whole bunch of staff, getting in office, and all those kind of things.
Aderson: Got it. Okay, so which -- and the reason for this question is depending on the country and the region of the world that you outsource to, you're going to get in touch with people from different cultures, they behave slightly different. So, which countries have you worked with this far in your outsourcing career.
Brett: Everybody. So, we've got, currently, employees all over the globe. We find that there are certain countries that seem to specialize in certain areas, at least through the Upworking website. So, we've got a lot of -- go ahead.
Aderson: For instance, which country you see this specialization or that specialization? Give me some examples.
Brett: So, we've found that a lot of the developers who apply to our jobs are coming from India, Pakistan, and a lot of the virtual assistants, writers, social media managers, bookkeeping, and those type of things are Philippines, and it seems like those two countries, more than others, really get it. They really understand the benefit of applying for outsourcing positions. Then, of course, now, the rest of the world is starting to wake up. So, we've started hiring people even remotely in Canada and the United States, because for whatever reason, they decided that they want to start working remotely. So, they've put on profiles on the site.
Aderson: Got it -- sorry, go ahead.
Brett: I was going to say, it's really all over the world. It's no specific country that we work with exclusively. It's wherever the best employees are. We're always looking for good understanding. You mentioned cultural differences. There's also time zone differences to take into account. Time zone is probably the biggest consideration that we deal with. If someone's able to work on a time zone that matches with ours, it makes our lives a lot easier.
Aderson: Got it. You mentioned you do some outsourcing to U.S. Usually, it's the other way around, you know. So, you must be, I guess, at getting a very good type of professional coming out of the U.S., because usually, when you know someone is working from U.S., I tend to think that you are paying higher rates there. So, can you talk a little bit about that?
Brett: Yeah, so a lot of times when we hire contractors out of, let's say, India, for example, we'll find that the price is very good, the quality might be good, but there might be a lot of differences in the way that projects are run. So, there might not be a lot of oversight, there might not be a lot of scope of work documents, and like detailed planning before things get started. It's more of, "Tell me what you want. Okay, I'm going to build it, and then here you go," kind of thing versus a lot of the developers in Canada and U.S. who really follow a strict methodology where everything is outlined in great detail, wireframed, and marked up, and all that at the start, and the budget is set, time frame is set up, and then everything kind of follows that original plan.
The quality of the code at the end may or may not be better. I've worked with developers out of India, or Pakistan, or China, or Philippines, or Bosnia, or Russia, or anywhere who had fantastic unbelievable code, and developed stuff that blows us away in an incredibly short amount of time. I feel almost like it's a Wild West versus like a more structured flow in the U.S. and Canada.
Aderson: On that note, what types of works and jobs do you outsource?
Brett: We actually outsource all kinds of things. The number one thing that we outsource is development, obviously. Simple technical tasks, we outsource. So, configuring, and setting up, and installing services and features on websites. Custom coding is probably our biggest expense just because there are higher hourly rates for those type of staff. We even have writers, social media managers, assistants, bookkeepers, accountants, all of that stuff is outsourced for us.
Aderson: So, if I ask you what's one key element to make an outsourcing initiative successful, what would you say that would be?
Brett: I would say there's two things. The number one most important thing for a new company who's interested in outsourcing would be make sure that you understand what you need. Because, if you don't have a clear plan, you can't expect the person you're hiring to do that for you. Or, if they do, you're going to end up with a "just one more thing" situation where it's, "Oh, we forgot about this, let's add this," and it's a never-ending kind of waterfall effect where the project just goes on, and on, and on, and on, and there's never a clear end.
The other thing would be make sure that you understand how to explain what you want. So, just because you know what you want doesn't mean that you're going to be able to translate that to someone, especially if there's a language difference and a culture difference. A lot of the times, it takes us just as long to explain a task as it would for me to do it myself, but that's part of the process where you need to ensure that communication is clear, goals are defined, and the scope is outlined in great detail. Because, essentially, that's the road map you're providing.
So, a lot of times, I spend time applying to contracts on Upwork as well as a developer or as an outsourcer, and I'll see three sentences. "We need this, this, and this." Okay. You know, there's 10 different ways to do that, and each of them is going to cost a different amount of money and take a different amount of time. So, for us, I think the learning experience was being on both sides of the process where we have clients who ask us for things that we have to then translate to the developers so that when we go to the developer, we understand this is not a good explanation, it needs to be more detailed. Here's exactly what you want to do.
But, again, that's difficult for everyone because a lot of companies don't know the technical terms, they don't know the programming language, they might not know the platform, they might not understand all of the things that are going to be involved in building what they want. And in that situation, for sure, I would recommend hiring a project manager.
Aderson: Got it. Very good, very good. We have worked a little bit in the past. Just disclosing that to anybody that's watching this. So, my question to you is, there are two types of tasks or projects that we outsource. One-off, like you have a new client, you have a new project, and you need that to get done, so it's one-off engagement. Then, there are things that you outsource because it's a recurring item. Maybe that is a recurring delivery that you have to do for your client. Maybe it's an SEO assessment that you have to do every month. So, there are one-offs and recurring ones. I remember that one thing that really stuck with me from you, Brett, is that you document things very well. So, talk a little bit about documenting stuff that you can hand out to somebody else to take care of.
Brett: Yeah, that's a great question. So, it kind of plays into what we were talking about before where if you're hiring someone, you want to outline things clearly. So, for a one-off project, there's a little bit more wiggle room, we'll say, where you could get away with not being super clear and having everything set up because it's only one time. For anything like you're saying where it's a reoccurring task, you absolutely want to, first of all, understand the task yourself, and usually, that requires that you have done it. So, if either you or the person who's helping needs to have done the task at least once for a few reasons. The first is to be able to explain it properly, the second is to understand how long it should take, and the third is to understand how difficult it is. Because, those three things are going to determine what you should pay for it.
One of the things that we will usually do whenever we have a new task that's going to be repeating is myself or one of my staff will actually record the screen of themselves doing the task and do a voice-over. So, essentially, you spend 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, however long it takes, do the task and explain, "Okay, this is what I'm doing now. This is why I'm doing this, this is the next step. Here's what you should do here. Don't forget about this. Okay, now you've done that, everything is done." Once you create that template, that can then be sent to an unlimited number of staff. So, really, the training document provides the foundation for the success of your outsourcing efforts. Because, if you just develop screenshots and a Word document, that can work. But, really, the power is in having a training video that walks them step by step through the process.
Aderson: Got it. But, how would you convince, how would you argue with someone that would say -- you briefly mentioned that they would say, "It's easier for me, it's faster for me just to get it done instead of going through this recording process. I mean, come on, it will take me five minutes to do it, and 30 minutes to an hour to get this whole thing documented." How do you convince someone to go one route instead of the other one?
Brett: There are countless books on that topic, and it's the entrepreneur's dilemma. What do I delegate and what do I do? There are entire courses you can take talking about this. Really, it comes down to where you value your time. If it's a high enough paying client where you want to be the person who's managing the task, fine, go ahead and manage it yourself and do it. But, at the end of the day, you're not going to be able to grow the business or scale if you're doing everything yourself.
A lot of times, even in my own business, I find that I am the biggest bottleneck. There will be a request that comes in from a client, and you say, "Oh, I can do that. It will take me 10 minutes, but I can't do it right now," and then two days, three days, four days go by, and you should have just sent it to someone else.
So, having those processes in place is really important, and I understand making them the first time is super difficult. But, once you've done it and it's a usable template, then it's done, and you can theoretically not have to worry about it again, because as long as the training document is good, anyone can follow it. So, it's not like there's special training required, because you've shown them exactly step by step what they need to do.
The rule of thumb that we usually go with is the video shouldn't be longer than two minutes, or the Word document shouldn't be more than one page. If it is, then it's not broken down enough, and you need to simplify it further. That's usually our rule.
Aderson: I love that rule there. I really like that. You know, a short video and a short document to summarize that particular aspect. I really like that.
Brett: Usually, we'll combine the two. We'll actually have a Word document that explains what it is, gives any login information that they need, provides any links, and then at the end, a link to the video.
Aderson: Got it. Okay, on that note now, let's talk a little bit about the tools that you use for project management, whatever you can remember there. I should have gotten you ready a bit more on that one. But, whatever tools you remember that you used to communicate to project manage -- come on, give me a few tools in your tool belt.
Brett: I have them all open on my computer right now, so I could -- I'm sure, as you know, they're open all the time. The biggest tasks, or tools for us fall into two categories. There's internal and external. So, internally, for our own task management, we use Rake. It's fantastic, it's really fast and very easy to use. Then for time tracking, if it's a contractor who's working with us through Upwork, we'll use their built-in software. If it's someone who's not on Upwork, then we use Hubstaff. Hubstaff is great because it integrates with a lot of different things.
So, internally, email, obviously, Rake, and then time tracking software. In terms of communication, Skype and email, I would say, predominantly, are the number one and number two. Externally, we have a lot of different tools that we use to provide services to the clients and to manage their sights and to make our lives easier. So, one of those would be Freshdesk, which is our help desk support system. Another one would be ManageWP, which is a great tool for automating a lot of your client reporting and updates and all that. Another one would be social media scheduling tools. We use those all the time. Ad budgeting tools. So, for Facebook ads and Google Ads, and that kind of thing. Then, for content delivery, we use Textbroker, which is a service to provide articles and content. Basically, anything that works, we'll use.
Aderson: I'm going to get back to you and ask you for some of those URLs. But, we can do that offline. Great so far, everything is very good so far. Next one, do you have any horror stories that you can share with us? And by horror story, I mean, "Man, this outsourcer, he just disappeared. This developer disappeared. He showed up a month later with no excuses." Anything along those lines that you can say, "Hey, there was a problem here, this is how I came about to fixing it, and this was the situation that we went through"? Anything comes to mind? I'm sure it would come.
Brett: Every day.
Aderson: That's Friday, isn't it?
Brett: Yeah, exactly. It's like where do you want me to start? There's been a few big ones. We had an app developer who we paid a deposit for to do a relatively large app for us, and just disappeared. Didn't deliver anything. Took the milestone payment, nothing was delivered. That's a couple thousand dollars that we wrote. With really no recourse. There was nothing we could do. There was no way for us to get the money back or to get the product. So, we ended up being out. That's one thing that you really have to be careful of. You have to make sure that the person that you're hiring has good feedback, that they are well-reviewed, and they've been on the platform, or it's a reputable source that you're getting them from. A lot of times, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
That is probably the second issue that we run into more often than not: someone who's promised you something on a certain date, and then you turn around to the client, and say, "It will be done by this time," and then it's not. That probably happens once a week. It's difficult because even your best people can miscalculate, so you end up in a situation where this guy's awesome, he always delivers on time, so you promise the client it will be done by Friday. Friday morning comes around and it's not finished.
The expectations that you set with the client are very, very important in those situations, and usually, my recommendation is don't promise anything until it's in your hands. Because, 9 times out of 10, even if it is in your hands, there might be some revisions or tweaks that need to be done. So, you might be looking at another day. Go ahead.
Aderson: Just a follow-up question on the delay, the project is late. I think that you partially addressed that, but how do you minimize the impact of something like that happening? I mean, what is the strategy that you use?
Brett: So, usually, that will happen in this situation where you're working with a contractor who's not exclusive to you. They're working with a lot of different people, and you're not employing them for eight hours a day. You're giving them, maybe, eight hours in a week. So, they just take on too much on their own plate and then they end up having delays on their side. Really, it's communication. It's ensuring that they feel comfortable coming to you and saying, "Hey, I'm not going to be able to get this done on time," so that they set the expectation versus just delaying it, right?
So, it's kind of a relationship thing, making sure that you have a good relationship where they can come to you and let you know it's going to be late, or they're too busy to take it on, or whatever the issue is.
Aderson: Got it. Good, good. What is it that you -- because, I believe that you still struggle with one or another aspect of outsourcing. What is one aspect that you may still struggle with in regards to outsourcing?
Brett: Finding good people. It is absolutely the number one most difficult thing, and when you find a good person, keeping them, because they are in high demand. There's a ton of people out there posting work on Upwork. It's crazy the amount of work that's on there every day. So, finding someone and keeping them and making sure they're happy so that they stick around is the number one thing.
I would say that that's another problem in brick-and-mortar businesses when you're hiring actual staff. You know, you hire an employee, you train them, and they start doing great things for you, and then they decide to leave for whatever reason. Someone offers them more money, or a better position, or they're tired of the type of work. So, it's the number one problem, I think, of any small business.
Aderson: Got it. So, finding good people. It's a struggle, still, for you. Now, what is your process of selecting good people? Do you have anything specific that you go through that helps you to minimize selecting the wrong person?
Brett: Yeah, certainly. So, we've learned a few tricks. It's difficult because the interview process and the application process is completely online for most of the jobs that we post. We can do Skype video chats, but really, you're not getting much exposure to the person before you decide to hire them. I'll speak specifically to Upwork just because it is the largest online marketplace for workers. In those situations, the number one thing that we do is we usually have a screening question.
So, somewhere in the job posting, there will be a question that's hidden to prevent people who copy and paste their applications. That's probably the number one thing when you post a job on Upwork. You're going to get 30 applications that are just copy and pasted. They didn't even really read what the job was. So, to filter those out, what you do is you ask them a question related to the either product or service, or the task, and if they don't answer it, you just immediately ignore it. That's usually the first filter that we employ.
The second filter is we usually require a specific number of hours that they've worked, and a few of those jobs should be at least related maybe not directly, but indirectly related to the task that we're asking for. And Upwork is pretty good with that where they'll automatically screen people for you. So, we found that to be very useful.
The third thing is we'll always, 100% of the time, give a trial task. So, usually, we've got at least one small thing that is related that we've figured out is a good test of ability, or a test of understanding of what needs to be done. So, it may be, "Provide us a mock-up," or, "Explain to us the steps that you'll take to complete this," or, "Here's the first part. Go ahead and plan this out," or whatever it needs to be. If you can make it something that doesn't take a lot of time, it's easier for the person to accept.
However, in most situations nowadays, we're finding where you'll have to hire the person before a trial job. So, you're going to hire them and expect to pay two to three hours of their time so that they do this trial and make sure that they understand things, and that when you move forward, it's going to be successful. Really, those things together provide us with excellent experiences all around.
Aderson: Just want to take the chance, the opportunity here to quickly do a segue on what Brett just mentioned about his selection process. I put together a webinar that I usually deliver that once a month, and it's about how to hire an awesome freelancer, and that deals a lot with many things that Brad is talking about. So, just inviting if anyone is interested in that. There will be somewhere on the website that you will be able to sign up for that webinar.
Carrying on here, going back to our conversation, Brad, give me a few red flags that tells you, "Hey, this person here, this outsourcing provider here, this developer, this writer, I don't think that he's a good fit." Tell me a few red flags.
Brett: So, some of the easy ones are an extremely well-written cover letter, and then as soon as you start chatting, broken English. That's a dead giveaway, right? So, you'll see the most beautiful flower language, fantastic cover letter talking about how great they are, all the projects they've done. Then, you start the chat process, and it's just like a different person, completely different person. So, that's an immediate red flag.
The other ones are built into the system, I would say. So, negative feedback, haven't worked in a while, not working on projects that are related to the task, or brand new profile. One of the other things that you do need to watch out for, sadly, is agencies. So, a lot of times, you'll hire an agency, and the person you'll be dealing with will be fantastic in the interview process, but then they'll assign someone else to do the work. And you'll really have to be careful if any conversations start where they're asking you to hire someone else to do the work other than the person you interview. You need to watch out for that, because usually what's happening is it's being delegated and it's not going to be managed properly.
Another thing would be if you're doing the trial, like we've discussed where you give them a trial task, and it's not something complicated, but they're having a hard time understanding, for sure that's a red flag. Then, finally if the trial task takes three times as long as it should based on your estimation.
Aderson: Got it, perfect. That's good, that's good. Now, I've done this segment once before. It worked fine. We're going to try to do this once again, and I'm going to try to do that with you, Brett. This is what I call a "Tough Call", and a Tough Call is a five-minute segment that I'm going to throw both of us in a situation that you, as Brett Levert, from your firm, and I will be an outsourcing provider. I'll be doing some developmental work for you. But, what happens is that now, myself as a provider, I think that you are asking something that is beyond the initial scope of work, and we have to have a call and talk about it.
So, it's a five-minute thing. We're just going to try here, just going to do this play here, see how things will play out, and you can call me Anderson, okay? Feel free to call me Anderson here. I'm the character here. I'm the outsourcing provider. So, I'm going to buzz your phone and you're going to start talking about that, okay?
Aderson: [mouths phone ringing] Okay, this is my best impersonation of a ringtone, you know? Hey, Brett.
Brett: Hi, this is Brett speaking.
Aderson: Hi, Brett, this is Anderson. How are you?
Brett: I'm good. How are you?
Aderson: Very good, very good. Brett, the reason why I'm calling is because we have been going back and forth about this new feature that you want to include in the project. The project was scoped for three hours, and with this new feature, we're going to have to add an extra 10 hours there, and I just want to make sure that we are on the same page about that.
Brett: Okay, so can you outline the reasons for the additional hours?
Aderson: Okay, good point, good point. So, if you have a look at the initial scope of work, you may think that this new feature was part of it. But, just have a look at the scope of work. It's not in that original document. So, if I knew that this was supposed to be in the original scope of work, we would have estimated that as part of the job as well. But, it's not there.
Brett: I have the scope of work document in front of me, and I see that, yes, it wasn't included. In that situation, that's my fault. I completely apologize. However, the client has come to me expecting this to be a part of it. So, in this situation, the best thing to do is if you can provide me a detailed explanation of the additional work that's going to be required, I can then go to the client and explain to them that there's going to be additional costs for this feature. And if they're willing to pay the additional fees, then we'll move ahead with it. Otherwise, we'll have to discuss with them, maybe, omitting this feature.
Aderson: Okay, okay. Brett, I really appreciate your understanding here of the situation. Of course. So, just give me one day. I'm going to write back to you specifying what needs to be added there, why the additional 10 hours, and hopefully, that would be enough for you to discuss with your client. So, again, we can keep moving forward and finalize the project.
Brett: That sounds good.
Aderson: Perfect. Thank you very much, have a great day, Brett. Bye.
Brett: You too.
Aderson: See? I was hoping that you would fight me and I would say, "Hey, maybe we can compromise a little bit here." But, great, great, great. So, what do you think about this --
Brett: So, I'll tell you some behind the scenes information there. So, in that situation, I understand that you're a great developer and I don't want to lose you. Remember, I said the hardest thing is to find good staff. So, if you're a great developer, of course, I'm going to apologize, I'm going to say, "You know what? I understand. We'll get it added in." But, in reality, it might be my mistake, or it might be the project manager's mistake, and we've promised that feature to the client, but we didn't include that feature in your Word document. So, even though I'm asking you to put that together to take to the client, in reality, I might just be losing that 10 hours. I might be on the hook for that cost.
Now, in a different situation where I felt that you weren't a good developer and that you weren't actually doing a good job at that point, for sure, at that point, we would have a much more uncomfortable conversation where it would be me essentially asking if you understood what the scope of Word document was providing, what it was explaining, and if you were even capable of developing this feature.
Because, if someone is coming to me and asking about a feature that was actually included in the document, then maybe they just don't understand how it works, or what to do. Because, 9 times out of 10, when we prepare a document, we have in mind a plugin that they should use or a way to add that feature. We were both being nice.
Aderson: Yes, we are, we are, and I've been trying to get nasty. I'm going to try, not today anymore, but I'll be nastier in the next one. My point was also about the fact that, sometimes, even when we list features and what this should be delivered on a scope of in a document, sometimes there might be things that we assume that, "Hey, but this is so obvious that this is part of this, and you didn't realize that? Do I have to really tell you that?" So, there is also the other angle of how much detailed is enough, you know?
Brett: Yes, and that goes back to the conversation we had before where it might take me just as long to explain as it would to do it, with the level of detail that's required. That's the time where you want to have a good developer on your side who, after working together for a long time, you get to a point where you don't need to be extremely detailed. You can just give them an outline, or you can reference things that you had done together in the past and know that they're going to hit every item.
Aderson: Got it. We're coming towards the end here, Brett. I would like to ask you what is the one thing about outsourcing, from this interview, this conversation that we are having right now, what will be the one thing that you like people to leave this conversation knowing about outsourcing?
Brett: Probably that outsourcing is not a magic bullet. It's just like any other tool that you're going to use in your arsenal as a business owner. It requires work, it requires understanding, it requires communication. But, if it's used properly, then it can be the difference between staying the same and growing as a company. Taking on more clients and being able to provide better services and grow your business. It can be the key for a lot of those things, for sure.
Aderson: Very good, very good. Anything else, Brett, that we may have not touched on certain aspects of outsourcing? Anything else left that you think that it's worth mentioning?
Brett: I think that it's, going forward, going to become more and more important. I find that if you compare job sites -- so, if you're on LinkedIn, or if you're on Indeed.com, the resumes that people are posting on there, it's complete crap. You have no idea whether that is true, whether they even worked at those companies, or what the feedback from that actual employer was. Then, you go to a site like Upwork, and you can see every single project, every single hour that that person has worked, who they worked for, what the feedback was, and what they were working on.
Going forward, sites like Upwork are going to replace the resume. There's no escaping it. Outsourcing and online remote work is going to be the future. So, my recommendation is, as an employee or as an employer, get on board. It's been five or six year, I'm sure, since me and you have been using it, and it's just getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger every year.
Aderson: Very good one. Very good, very good, Brett. So, again, thank you very much, Brett, for your time here. How can people get in touch with you, with your agency? What is the best way for people to reach out?
Brett: So, if they want to visit us online, it's www.leverb.com, and I'm on LinkedIn, I'm on Facebook, I'm on Twitter. So, they can find me on those places as well.
Aderson: Perfect, perfect. So, again, Brett, thank you very much. Thank you, thank you for taking the time to do this interview about outsourcing. Thank you. Bye.
Brett: Bye. Take care.