Turning to the online workplace to power his company was a Hail Mary for Adam Neary.
His company, Profitably, a financial analytics platform for small and midsize businesses, was just two years old and suffering a deep backslide.
His six full-time employees had quit, and investors had lost confidence. With just $100k left in the bank, he made one last bid to stay afloat. As Profitably’s Founder and CEO (and its sole remaining employee), Adam upended his business model and turned to oDesk. “At the time, it felt like the worst-case scenario, but it happened to be the best thing ever,” he says.
What Adam found revolutionized his business, revealing a new way to leverage both himself and the assets of his fledgling company. “I discovered a labor market where very talented people are available for an hour, or for a fixed-price project or full-time if you need them,” he says, comparing oDesk to a buffet, where “you can build exactly what you need. That’s totally different than the in-person marketplace.”
Using oDesk, his company did the impossible. He explains, “What we were not able to do with nearly $1.5 million in person, we’ve done there and back again for significantly less. Instead of having six generalists in New York City, we found an army of specialists on oDesk. It has been huge for us. The product we’ve built is great, customers are amped, and investors have followed on with additional funding to keep us moving. It’s a great indicator that we’ve really nailed this.”
The product is just now launching under a new name, Activecell, and while Adam is the only full-time employee, he contracts between 14 and 20 engineers on an ongoing basis. “It’s a very different model from what you see in a startup, but so far it’s been very successful,” he says, adding: “To achieve what we needed to with $100K was all sorts of impossible. And we’ve done the impossible.”
Now a seasoned expert with online work, Adam has refined his strategies for making the most of online workplaces. Here are three pearls of wisdom he has shared with us.
1) Leverage the “pick and choose” nature of online work.
Hiring specialized workers when he needs them has allowed Adam to solve highly technical problems quickly without paying for superfluous work. He explains, “We’re not solving basic web problems. We are solving highly technical, cutting-edge, difficult challenges that even people in New York, quite frankly, weren’t able to crack.”
On oDesk, he was able to find the specialized skills he needed, as he needed them. He explains, “You can hire 10 hours a week of project management, 20 hours a week of quality assurance. You can hire five hours a month of search engine marketing expertise. We’re going to hire 10 hours a month of copywriting. You can just order what you want,” he says. “It’s a lever, a force multiplier—and it’s very powerful.”
2) Don’t rule out a candidate whose spoken English isn’t perfect, but do take advantage of feedback and test projects.
When hiring online, Adam has found success by starting with interviews before turning to test projects and feedback. He typically interviews candidates over Skype, but admits this isn’t always the best way to gauge aptitude. He explains, “There are some amazing engineers that aren’t good speakers and can’t structure a good sentence—that’s true in Brooklyn, not just in Croatia.” For that reason, Adam rarely rules out a candidate when the interview didn’t go smoothly. Instead, Adam also weighs feedback. He says, “They have to have between four-and-a-half and five stars and a number of positive ratings from clients they have worked with in the past.”
Test projects are another, more accurate way to gauge candidates. He explains, “On oDesk you can start everyone out with a fixed-scope, fixed-price gig, and you see them actually deliver real work before hiring. That’s a game changer.”
3) Use communication software to promote constant communication.
Adam has found that communication tools—not meetings—have enabled him to efficiently manage his remote team. He explains, “There are people who believe you need to have a daily video conference where attendance is mandatory. I do not believe that.” For this reason, at Activecell, “There are no meetings—zero. If someone has a question, they pose that question, then work on something else until they get an answer.“
In lieu of meetings, Adam has chat lines set up to enable near-constant communication and accountability, and to streamline workflow. He says, “We use group chat (HipChat, specifically) as our office. We have messages piped in from all of our services: the global engineering team is working 24/7, so there is a continuous dialogue. When you start your day, you can read everything that happened since you left. Fantastic.” Adam believes that the right communication software is key to his business’ success. “You can’t build a house without the right tools,” he says, adding: “You can’t manage a remote team over email.”
What are your favorite online work best practices? Share them in the comments section below!