Thursday, March 28, 2013

Freelancing From Home

If you have skills as a designer, writer, programmer, translator, or other business related tasks you can market your services, find work, submit your work and get paid online.  The internet has opened up the world for online workers.   This presents a challenge for American workers where our cost of living is high and we have to compete with workers in countries where the cost of living is very low.  However, when understanding and using correct English is essential, an employer may opt to pay more for a native English speaker.

I’ve been investigating the two most popular sites for finding freelance work, Elance and oDesk.  Both work in very similar ways, and there are differences and pros and cons of each. 

What does it cost to use Elance & oDesk?

Elance memberships have four levels; the lowest level is free but limits the number of skills you can show on your profile page and the number of proposals for jobs you can make per month.  oDesk is free to join, but there is a limit to the number of proposals a new member can make, that limit will be lifted after the member has taken a number of skills tests.

Even though oDesk is free to join, you will pay a commission on what you earn on the site.  oDesk takes 10% of your earnings.  Elance takes their cut as well, their commission is 8.75%.

Getting Started—Setting up your Profile

When you join one of these sites you first set up a profile where you list relevant data about yourself, your skills and experiences; it's like an online resume.  You can also post examples of your work for potential clients to see.  One difference between the 2 sites is that Elance has a limit on the number of skills you can display on your profile page based on your membership level.  

Both sites offer numerous skills tests that you can take and post the results on your profile page.  Both sites probably have the same number of skills tests but Elance has the edge in this area because their tests are neatly organized by category, making it easier to find the tests you want to take.

Searching for a job

You can search for jobs by category, keyword or skill on either site.  Job postings give a description of the job, the pay range either as an hourly rate or fixed price, when the job was posted, and some additional information about the client.  Again Elance has a better feature on their job postings; the posting includes how many proposals were already made and what the bid prices were.  This information allows you to decide whether to make your own proposal and at what price.

Applying for a job

On both sites there will be a link to submit a proposal for each job.  The proposal should include your ideas for the project, how your skills and experience match those needed to complete the job and what you propose to charge for your services.

After receiving your proposal the client may ask for an interview either by phone, skype or online.  Details about the project, pay and timelines for completing the work can be hammered out at that time.

Doing the work

Each site has their own method of tracking the work that contractors do.  Elance uses “milestones” where the worker records & uploads each phase of the project for the client to review.  oDesk has an online work tracker that the contractor must download to their computer.  This software takes screenshots while the worker is logged in and working on the job, it also allows the worker to record work at different phases.  Some workers see this as intrusive, but it does allow the client to be assured that the contractor is working during the time being billed.  Thus the work tracker is required for jobs that are paid hourly, but is optional for fixed fee jobs.

Getting Paid

Once the worker submits the final job the client is allowed a certain number of days to review the work and approve it.  If approved  the money is added to your account, which you can withdraw according to each company’s policies.

Elance has an escrow system that helps ensure that freelancers are paid for fixed price jobs.  The client puts the money in the escrow account and the contractor does not start work until the money is deposited there.  Once the job is approved, the money is released to the contractor.  oDesk does not have any guarantee that a contractor will be paid on fixed price jobs. Both Elance and oDesk guarantee payment when you use their work tracking systems.

Both Elance and oDesk provide dispute resolution services, they want the work to go smoothly to the benefit of all parties.

Feedback System

Both sites have feedback systems where clients can review the work of their contractors and vice versa.  This helps contractors know who are the best clients to work for and clients have more information to help them choose the right contractor for the job.  It is always a problem for a new client or contractor to break into the system with no feedback so a new contractor may have to agree to work for a low rate and do a terrific job in order to build up some good feedback.

There are pro’s and con’s to each site.  From looking through some of the jobs available it seems that there are more high quality jobs on Elance, but that may not be true for every category of work.  Some people (me included) might not feel comfortable with screenshots being taken every 6 minutes like the oDesk work tracker does.  As a writer, I spend time thinking and researching the topic before I begin writing, nothing will show in a screen shot of that, yet I’m still working.  But from a client’s perspective, they might like the security of knowing that they are getting the work they pay for.

The best jobs are going to go to the contractors that have been working on these sites for a while and have built up a good track record of work, so a new worker will be at a disadvantage.  An American worker will also be at a disadvantage because our cost of living is so much higher than workers in other countries, who can bid much lower for jobs.  I think this is less of a problem for writers because foreign workers usually do not have the English communication skills that an American or UK writer will, but for web design or programming the language won’t matter as long as the client and contractor can communicate effectively.

I haven't joined either site yet so I don't have any actual experience working for them.  It would be great to hear from readers who have experience with either Elance, oDesk or a similar site.  Please leave a comment if you'd like to share your experiences.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mechanical Turk Part 2

A recent article in the Huffington Post referred to Mechanical Turk workers as the “new underclass” and as workers in a feudal system.  I agree in the sense that many of the HITs are very low paying, there are many $.01 HITs and even some that are listed as $0.00 (I don’t know who does those).  I’ve been lurking on a forum for Mturk workers, and some folks there claim they can make $10-20 per hour and some say they are making their living on Mturk. It does take time to gain the trust of the major requesters so that you get the higher paying jobs. 

Another issue brought up in the HuffPo article is that there are scams (surveys that ask for personal information) and some requesters that take your work but reject the HIT so you don’t get paid for it.  Amazon will take reports of these scams and ban those Requesters, but the workers who did those HITs have still paid the price in lost time and compromised information.

Besides not being paid, when the job is rejected it has other implications for workers.  Most HITs have requirements for an approval rate of at least 95%; every rejection lowers the approval rate.  If a worker’s approval rate falls below 95%, that worker will have to do a large number of penny HITs (these HITs usually have no approval rate requirement) in order to raise their approval numbers high enough to get back over the 95% threshold.  So this explains why there are HITs that only pay a penny, some people need to do them to raise their approval numbers.

If a worker has a proven record of accurate work on a particular type of HITs, but across several requesters, they can attain “Master” status.  This status gives the worker access to additional, and higher paying, work.  A worker can’t apply for this status, it is given based on their work statistics.

Based on what I have read in various blog and forum posts, my strategy is to do a lot of easy HITs first to build up a wide base of approved HITs before delving into HITs that seem more likely to be rejected.  I will also consult the forums for information about requesters to avoid.  I have also learned of an application called Turkopticon, that rates requesters so that workers can choose only the requesters that are not out to cheat or scam them.  Also I read on a forum of one worker who worked on over 100 HITs of the same type and had them all rejected either because of some technical issue or misunderstanding.  But whatever the reason, the worker now has a very low Approval rate, and is very limited in the work that is available. To avoid something like this happening to me, I only do a few HITs of the same type until I see that they were approved, just to be sure that I fully understand the instructions and that the requester is honest.  So far I have 100% approval.

That said, I am not working a great deal of the time on Mturk.  I still have Leapforce that pays much better.  I will work on Mturk when Leapforce is down or does not have any tasks for me to do, or when I only have a few minutes to work and don’t want to get into anything that will take a lot of time or effort.

In regard to the articles I’ve read critical of the low pay, lack of response to worker concerns, and the fear that micro job sites like Mturk are the wave of the future and will have the effect of lowering wages over all, I see their point, but don’t have the same concerns.  Being a free-market believing Libertarian, I think it’s all good.  Requesters get the work done cheap; no one is forced to take the jobs.  Each worker can decide whether it is worth their time to work on each HIT, if a requester pays too low, their work will go undone.  The HITs on Mturk are mostly very simple tasks, I don’t see micro job sites taking over anyone’s job except maybe temporary workers who are low paid and without benefits as well.  I see this kind of work as a supplement to one’s income, not the sole source of income, but its each person’s choice how they use their time and effort.

See my post on Mechanical Turk Basics