Online freelance platforms are awesome. For 10 years I delegated work that was either outside my skill set or that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Yet it isn’t a magic arrow to get you retired early. Working with freelancers can be tricky. If you bungle it, you send the money for nothing and get sh*t for free.

Or you might miss crucial deadlines and lose your own customers. This guide helps you navigate that lucrative but dangerous landscape.

When should you use online freelancers?

Before you rise to the top of the corporate hierarchy or turn your business into a Google-size behemoth, you will have to delegate bite-size tasks.
Freelancers can help.

They can assist you:

  • When the job is menial and involves a lot of mindless repetitive Data checking, data entry, web scraping and the like.
  • When you are busy and need some extra hands to do a task that you can perfectly do This means business is going well. Good for you.
  • When the job is beyond your Perhaps you can’t code as well as you told your client.

Know that option 3 involves danger since it’s hard to judge work that you couldn’t have done yourself.

Your freelancer might have smelled the weakness and will try to get you to sign off on sloppy work. She will point to the briefing and claim the work is done. This brings me to an important point:

Online freelancers will always choose the path of least resistance.

They will bury clumsy code where you won’t find it. They will use workarounds instead of elegant fixes. They will misinterpret the briefing and hope that you won’t complain. They will deliver half of work and pray you don’t notice. And they can twitch like an eel in a bucket of snot if you try to get a grip.

Freelancers are not your employee. (Doh.) There are no promotions in it for them. Most assume this is a one-time thing and that you will never do business again. This incentivizes them to perform the minimum needed to receive their money and get a good rating. (More on this later.)

Of course, such behavior tends to fade as you build a relationship. But for now, I take it you’re starting from scratch.

Which freelancers should you work with?

So why is there so much misunderstanding on deliverables? Freelance platforms are populated with people from cultures different from yours.

This means that besides different communication norms they also have different definitions of done. You might think an experienced freelancer can climb into your head and divine your wishes, but they can’t.

Besides, they have no incentive to. They rather stick to your lousy briefing if that means less work. So remember:

The more exotic the culture of your freelancer (relative to yours) the more specific your briefing has to be.

If you want neat data, give them a template with some examples. If you don’t, you’ll get an Excel that looks like a madman’s diary.

If you are asking for designs, send a bunch of references and specify your file type and resolution. If you don’t, they’ll scan used toilet paper and brag about art-deco creativity. (Ok, this is hyperbole.)

So don’t skimp on detail. Read your briefing imagining you’re the worst slacker on the internet. (Briefly. No need to become depressed.) Then scour your document again.

Find the holes in your briefing that can be filled with misunderstanding.

Then plug them with more detail.

Now I will not recommend any cultures. That would ruin any political aspirations I don’t have. But this is the internet, so let me share my experience and articulate it carefully:

Don’t trust [expletive] [racial slur]! 

Just kidding. You can try anyone from anywhere. I’ve had the best and the worst experiences on every continent. As with every business relationship, you will have to sniff each other out to ensure you are on the same page. So:

Start small and build trust. 

Then take it from there. See if you grow into real partners. I have some guys and gals I’ve worked with since the beginning. Others I waved goodbye after the first dollop of work. Before you know it, you’ll grow a circle of trusted allies that help you win big.

What to pay online freelancers?

If you are like me, you want everyone to get a fair share of the pie. You want long-lasting relationships with business associates you trust.

This attitude is great. You might even feel tempted to reward your freelancer royally for helping you with your project. After all, it’s so cheap compared to what you used to pay!

But be disciplined. Perhaps you’ve never come close to hard labor. Maybe you feel tremendous guilt of paying these people peanuts. Don’t.

Online freelancers love peanuts. 

Don’t believe me? Check the average salary in her country. It might be $100 a month. It might be $300 a month. You’re probably crowning her queen of the neighborhood by paying what you pay.

But that’s not the point. Paying more can be detrimental to the relationship. Because every bonus signals that you were willing to pay better. And every extra dollar means they lost a negotiation so brutally that you felt the need to compensate them.

Now the next time you bring work, she will up the ante and double the rate. And if you continue your redundant charity she might triple it.

The relationship is now less profitable for you, forcing you to abandon it and find a fresh one, uncorrupted by your habit.

You will incur the transactional costs of effort, time and risk as you build trust again. Needless to say, this is good for nobody. Remember:

Only pay more if it was more work than the briefing implied.

This is fair and keeps expectations clean as a whistle.

How to identify good online freelancers?

The moment you post a project online, you are swarmed with hungry workers. Most of them respond without even reading the briefing. So how to know which ones are good and which ones to avoid?

The best indicator for the experience of your freelancer is the number of projects completed. 

But you want to check out their rating as well. With today’s ratings, anything less than a perfect 5 stars means you’re rubbish to work with.

This means that freelancers will do a lot to maintain their rating. Some can be pressured to upgrade their work by going the extra mile. Yet they also get to rate you as an employer.

And for you goes the same: anything less than 5 stars means that you’re rubbish to work for. So it is in your mutual interest to be extremely clear in your expectations, but also forgive each other if the proverbial excrement ends up in the fan. So how about:

The best indicator for the quality of your freelancer is repeat hire rate. 

Hiring someone again is the true sign that someone got value for money. Not the rating. This is because the (relatively rich) employers don’t want to ruin their 5-star employer score for a few bucks. Disappointment is swallowed.

They curse their freelancer, vow to never work with her again, and then trade 5-star ratings just to burnish their own reputation. (Naturally, yours truly is the noble exception to this practice.)

How to identify good online freelancers?

The moment you post a project online, you are swarmed with hungry workers. Most of them respond without even reading the briefing. So how to know which ones are good and which ones to avoid?

The best indicator for the experience of your freelancer is the number of projects completed. 

But you want to check out their rating as well. With today’s ratings, anything less than a perfect 5 stars means you’re rubbish to work with.

This means that freelancers will do a lot to maintain their rating. Some can be pressured to upgrade their work by going the extra mile. Yet they also get to rate you as an employer.

And for you goes the same: anything less than 5 stars means that you’re rubbish to work for. So it is in your mutual interest to be extremely clear in your expectations, but also forgive each other if the proverbial excrement ends up in the fan. So how about:

The best indicator for the quality of your freelancer is repeat hire rate. 

Hiring someone again is the true sign that someone got value for money. Not the rating. This is because the (relatively rich) employers don’t want to ruin their 5-star employer score for a few bucks. Disappointment is swallowed.

They curse their freelancer, vow to never work with her again, and then trade 5-star ratings just to burnish their own reputation. (Naturally, yours truly is the noble exception to this practice.)