The explosion in technology solutions in the last 15 years has created a world where specialized skills are commoditized. WordPress made creating websites simple and cheap. Freshbooks help you do your accounting without needing to pay a bookkeeper. Even apps like Over (disclosure: a client) make graphic design something anyone can do.
That is both good and bad for small businesses. Motivated small business owners can learn to do these specialty tasks leveraging the software and cut out the expense of paying someone else to handle it. But doing that adds more time to a schedule already thin on openings. The commoditization has also put financial pressure on those who do specialize, so today’s graphic artist (for example) probably charges more than he or she did 10 years ago as the supply-and-demand curve is giving them fewer, but more complex, opportunities.
Fortunately, the Gig Economy is upon us and can fill the gaps created in small business needs and available options.
What is the Gig Economy?
The Gig Economy is essentially the new marketplace of the freelance workforce. Young professionals with a fair amount of technical skill, equipped with laptops and mobile devices who work for themselves as free-lancers doing everything from managing other’s Facebook accounts to scheduling a client’s travel and beyond. Call them virtual assistants, free-lancers, consultants or whatever you like. There’s a world of people out there who may not have deep expertise at any one thing, but know the basic skills to leverage the available softwares to handle all those formerly specialized tasks with a high degree of speed and efficiency. They demand flexibility in their schedule and place of work.
And they can help your small business!
Let’s call these workers Freelancers, for lack of a better term. But keep in mind we’re not talking about freelance writers or graphic designers exclusively. They could be freelance secretaries, schedulers, strategists, HR staff, customer service specialists, controllers, legal clerks, billing specialists and more. If you have a job or set of tasks that you just don’t have the staff or time for in your small business, you can find someone online who can do it for you.
Where do I find Freelancers?
There are lots of great resources to tap into the Gig Economy. Many small businesses start by posting job openings or projects on Craig’s List. They have a whole category just for “Gigs.” But you may not want your website and social media management job listed along side someone needing a toilet replaced or the deviant offering “shaving services” for erotic dancers. Fortunately, where there’s a market need, there’s probably a solution.
Upwork, Outsourcely, Freelancer and Guru are all freelance networks where small businesses can post opportunities, search for qualified free-lancers to fill the role you need, and even connect through the platform to assign the work, pay them and so on. If you want something a bit more custom and personal, I highly recommend and have used Don’t Panic Management for a virtual assistant before. Jess Ostroff, the entrepreneur behind it, was once my V.A. She saw the need for specialized technology-savvy assistants and built a nice business out of it. Her team works to create a custom price with you based on the hours you need worked and the skills you need from them. You can hire them for a short project, or just add one or more of them as a part-time team member who takes care of the tasks you need to delegate.
UPDATE (3/2/20): I recently discovered the folks at Small Revolution put together a great roundup of online job boards worth looking at, too. You can click through to the ones that post jobs like yours and get a more targeted set of candidates.
What do I need to watch out for?
When you hire a freelancer or virtual assistant, you want some assurances you’re not getting a dud. Using the sites I recommended above, you can see reviews and feedback from previous clients like you to have some idea they’re competent and trustworthy. But I recommend asking them for references like you would any other employee.
You’ll also need to take the time to clearly outline what you want them to do, when you want it done, for how long and what your ultimate definition of success is. That clarity on the front end gives them a roadmap to satisfying your need. The good ones will do just that and you’ll be happy with the experience. While you may think that hour it takes you to prepare the instructions is an hour you could just use to get the job done, trust me: Delegating these things is good for your business and your sanity. Invest a little time to save you a lot.
Am I dealing with flaky millennials?
The honest answer is maybe. But I think we can stop categorizing younger professionals who are hip to technology and not so to working in offices or adhering to dress codes negatively. The empowered generation works hard, they just work differently. If you need someone to physically come into the office to do the work, then hire someone locally. But if you need them to come into the office to make you feel better about having control over their every moment, you may want to reassess your approach.
Whether they’re millennial or not, whether they work 9-5 or whenever they feel like fitting in work in their day, no one can expect to be paid, successful and earn a living if they aren’t meeting your expectations. Be clear on what you expect, when and for how long or how much and today’s freelancers may just surprise you.
What am I going to pay?
The good news is that in many instances, you can set your budget. “I need someone to manage my email newsletter each week and I have a budget of $250 a month.” Throw it out there and see if you get any takers. If not, think about how many hours it takes for someone to do the task, divide your budget by number of hours to get an hourly rate, then ask, “Is this a respectable wage for what I’m asking?” The market may surprise you. But it may also teach you what the going rate is for certain skill sets.
In general a decent virtual assistant with basic computer skills can probably be had for $20-30 per hour. Add some social media skills, maybe some writing and you might look at $40-50 per hour. Work with a highly customized approach — someone who can check and prioritize your emails for you, write blog posts, polish Power Point decks and such — and you might get north of that or at least have to commit to a set number of hours per week. But think of it like this: $1,000 a month gets you $250 a week of work which is 10 hours of time at $25 per hour. That’s not bad, depending upon the task at hand.
What do I do next?
Make a list of the tasks you need help with in your small business. Is it creating and sending your invoices each month? Is it calling delinquent accounts? Responding to customer service emails? Writing your email newsletter? Managing your social media accounts? Scheduling appointments for your sales team? Ordering parts and supplies regularly?
Define how much time each task takes you, how much you’d pay a part-time person to handle it for you and settle on a budget. Now write up a job description and head over to one of the freelance websites where you can match your need and budget with someone to do it.
Establish clear goals for the role and a time frame you’ll be willing to test the new person out to see if it does help you get more accomplished and takes the stress of that task off your plate. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, adjust and tweak until it does.
The bottom line is there is no reason to have these important tasks sit idle because you think you don’t have time for them or need to stop and train yourself to do them. This new, vast network of professionals is out there to help. Use them. You’ll thank me later.
So? Have you tapped into the Gig Economy and used a freelancer or virtual worker before? What are the ups and downs from your perspective? Tell us about it in the comments.