The Way We Work
May 20, 2010 by Guest Blogger

By: Brian McDonough

Contractors new to online work  often find it easier to begin with a small, contained assignment rather than a hundred-hour undertaking or an ongoing gig for 15 or 20 hours of work every week.  On the flip side, employers looking for the superstar worker who can lead a major programming overhaul or provide steady support for the foreseeable future usually don't want to trust something of that scope to an unproven talent.

Enter the fixed-price job.  It has less flexibility than hourly work, and requires more clarity up front, but it can be great way for an employer to quickly whittle down a list of promising applicants. "For one assignment, I hired five people for small projects and I kept one,” says entrepreneur Ben Muñoz, “and that guy has been one of my favorites.”

A fixed-price job can also be a great way to try out a service provider who seems like the right person for the job, but hasn't established an online work history yet. Robert Tilley, CEO of SafeTek USA, says a clearly contained assignment lets him feel comfortable hiring an oDesk rookie. “With fixed price jobs, I'm more apt to give a new guy a chance,” he says.

One of those new guys was John Demain, a Romanian programmer who was eventually able to quit his day job to support himself fully through oDesk.  He did a flash landing page for SafeTek, which provides occupational safety training and consulting, and has worked with Tilley again on follow-up jobs.  Demain says fixed-price jobs laid the groundwork to help him get established.

"The good feedback helped me get that next hourly job,” he says.

Doing It Right
With hourly positions —which make up 90 percent of the work done through oDesk—you have the work diary to help employers check progress and offer guidance. Fixed-price positions don't have that visibility, so it's very important that a fixed-price test job be carefully defined up front. Even with clearly detailed specs, fixed-price work offers unique challenges to a new working relationship. Here are some tips to make a fixed-price job work for you:

Fixed-price jobs can help whittle down a list of potential candidates.
  • Employers must properly define the scope and the deliverables. Because there's little room to adjust mid-project, fixed-price jobs need to be laid out in full from the get-go. “Be very detailed and clear, leaving no gray areas, and conduct thorough interviews,” Tilley says.
  • Contractors should make sure they've got it all straight. “I always ask for a full description and get as many details as possible to avoid having to redo things or having to work extra,” Demain says. “When working on an hourly job, you don't care if the buyer adds more tasks for you, but while working on a fixed-price job, that can be frustrating, to say the least.”
  • Scheduled milestones can provide check-in points, perhaps with a partial payment as each stage is completed. “This way the buyer can keep a closer eye on the project and ensure everything goes as planned,” Demain says.
  • Don't just look at the end product, if the fixed-price job is a test for bigger things down the road.  Bin Xu, oDesk Vice President of Engineering, pitches the same problem to a group of finalists and watches how they solve it. “I'll ask multiple candidates to solve the same problem,” he says, “and I'll compare their responsiveness, their results, how available they are, the questions they ask, how quick they turn out the results and the quality of their solutions.”

That initial effort, and good communication as the job proceeds, can really pay off.  The contractor is earning money and building a reputation, the employer is vetting the candidate in the best possible way, and when it's over, not only is one job done, but a valuable work relationship may have been born.