A case study describing how oDesk leverages a team of 43 online providers from around the world to deliver an award-winning service

We're often asked if we at oDesk use our own service to manage our business. We do. Or, as our CEO Gary Swart likes to say - "We drink our own champagne and we eat our own steak."

In the span of a few short years, oDesk has built and learned to manage a multi-million dollar business with a high-performing, globally distributed team. Here's how we do it:

As of May 2008, the oDesk team is comprised of 61 people located in eight countries. Sixteen employees work from our corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, California, USA, one works from his home in New York, New York, USA and another works from his home in Athens, Greece (oDesk co-founder, Stratis Karamanlakis).

The vast majority of our team members (43 people), though, are oDesk providers that work in various locations around the globe (see sidebar). These team members are an essential part of our success and they are integral to every function within the company. Also important, because of the difference in wages between the Bay Area and elsewhere in the world (and because of oDesk's ability to track and bill only the actual time worked), expenditures for the entire remote team equates to what we would spend on eight to ten full-time, salaried employees working in the corporate headquarters.

The oDesk Approach

oDesk successfully leverages a culture of transparency to build trust and cohesiveness across a global team. There are four key components to our approach that enable us to succeed with our heavy reliance on remote team members:

oDesk Team client software

oDesk Team with its Work Diary feature provides us with real-time visibility into the work that remote team members are doing. All team members (remote and local) have access to one or more Team Rooms, most run the oDesk Team client, and many use webcams. Regardless of how frequently we review Work Diary screen captures and activity metrics, this transparency provides a strong basis of trust and respect between team members, we believe, simply because remote team members are exposing their work at the same level as the local team.

Web-based collaboration tools

We utilize numerous online tools to facilitate collaboration among remote team members. We want everyone to easily find information that is relevant to their work and for the information to be available regardless of timezone. We use Subversion (SVN) and Bugzilla integrated with the Team Room for source-code management and task tracking. Product and other company documentation is stored online in our company wiki (Google Sites). We frequently use oDesk Share (real-time desktop sharing), oDesk ScreenSnap (screen capture and manipulation tool), Skype, chat, and email to support collaboration. As a matter of fact, this case study was edited (using GoogleDocs) by at least 7 team members spread across 4 different continents.

oDesk's Online Team by the Numbers

The oDesk payment platform

Paying 43 people located in eight countries could be a tremendous challenge for a small to medium-sized business, but oDesk's billing and payment platform makes it easy. We take full advantage of the time-tracking capabilities of oDesk Team and the Work Diary that offer an automated, accurate account of all freelancer payments. These tools also give us real-time visibility of all freelancer expenses broken down by the person, by the day, and by the task with integrated links to the associated Work Diary images for any expense. The system even generates Form 1099's for our US-based team members. It's equally easy for our remote team members to 'cash their paychecks' by withdrawing earnings from their oDesk accounts using their choice of method: wire transfer, PayPal, oDesk Debit Mastercard powered by Payoneer, direct deposit (US only), or Moneybookers.

The oDesk provider marketplace

With tens of thousands of tested and rated professionals, the oDesk provider marketplace made it possible to hire the breadth and depth of talent we needed to build our team. We post public, detailed job openings for all of contract positions and search for providers who may be a good fit for our needs based on their past work history, test scores, feedback, and work samples. We interview candidates around the globe via phone, chat, and email. Often, we hire multiple candidates for test projects and then continue the engagements with those candidates that meet our high performance expectations. We recognize that every candidate is unique and we take the time to ensure our hires have not only the specific technical skills, but also the personality fit required for successful long-term positions. This recruiting process can be time-consuming and hard work, but we find that we are able to fill most positions in under two weeks and with less effort than it takes with the typical local hire.

More About the Work Done by Remote Team Members

oDesk remote freelancers are critical to almost every function within our company:

oDesk Engineering

The oDesk Engineering Team develops and maintains all oDesk technology including oDesk.com and our client applications for the PC, Mac, and Linux environments. oDesk.com is a three-tier web application using an open source technology stack built on apache, PHP, Perl, PostgreSQL, and Linux. oDesk.com also provides integrated instances of the source-code management tool, SVN, and task tracking tool, Bugzilla. We currently support hundreds of thousands of visitors per month and our applications are designed to scale with oDesk's rapid growth.

Virtually none of oDesk's code is written in Menlo Park, California. Instead, our small local team comprised of our VP of Engineering, CTO, and three software architects work with our local product managers to design and implement new oDesk features. As things progress, the local team works with our VP of Development located in Athens, Greece or with the managers of our Ukraine-based front-end development and software quality assurance teams to identify the specific developers best suited to whatever work needs to be done. Our back-end engineers are mostly located in Russia.

Once engineering assignments are made, our architects in California or managers in the Ukraine create tickets in Bugzilla. Each ticket points to the documentation describing the feature (MRDs, PRDs, etc) that we store in our corporate wiki. Throughout the development cycle, oDesk product managers and architects located in California collaborate with remote engineers to develop, test, and troubleshoot issues as the arise.

Our approach to team organization and management evolved over time When oDesk's two co-founders initially decided to build a distributed team, they exclusively hired independent freelancers - one friend in Greece and four work-from-home freelancers in Russia recommended by a mutual friend. Next, they added a front-end engineer located in the Ukraine from within the oDesk provider network. After a few more hires, the oDesk co-founders felt they needed more management leverage to accommodate the team's growth. Two of the team's independent freelancers stepped up into management roles and established oDesk provider companies. They recruited locally for skilled engineers to their teams as affiliated freelancers. These ACs work exclusively on oDesk projects (we have more than enough work to keep them busy). Today, our front-end web development and QA teams are managed in this way. We've discovered that having management capacity in multiple time-zones (Menlo Park, Athens, and Kiev) is a tremendous asset when coordinating the work of such a large distributed team.

oDesk Customer Service

oDesk providers are also critical to the way we provide customer service. While our Customer Service Manager is based in Menlo Park, the other four team members work remotely: one from Texas, USA, one from Tennessee, USA, and two from the Philippines. Working with remote customer service professionals in multiple time-zones enables oDesk to minimize the time it takes to resolve customer issues. This approach also gives us more flexibility by expanding the pool of potential representatives available for hire and, we believe, has been instrumental in keeping costs in control and team member turnover to a minimum. For instance, our first customer service rep has been with oDesk for over three years now. Low turn-over means more management time spent taking care of business, not searching for replacements.

Similar to the oDesk Engineering team, Customer Service takes advantage of online tools including oDesk Team, oDesk ScreenSnap, and Bugzilla. oDesk Team makes it easy for our customer service manager to monitor and pay our distributed team. With oDesk ScreenSnap and Bugzilla it's simple for customer service reps to communicate customer issues to our product and engineering teams. Our customer service requests are tracked in a homegrown, web-based CRM tool that is integrated into the same database that powers our public website. This approach allows easy routing of tickets to the most appropriate representative and enables us to maintain a consolidated view of all customer contact over time.

oDesk Marketing

The oDesk Marketing team is responsible for a broad range of marketing programs that drive customer acquisition and retention. This team is small, but we leverage oDesk providers whenever we can to augment our capacity and bring new skills to the team. As a result, this diverse group includes three employees at the corporate office, one newsletter writer in California, USA (not part of the Menlo Park office), a provider operations manager in India, a BPO firm with several affiliated freelancers elsewhere in India, graphic designers in Florida, USA, and the Philippines, a community moderator in Russia, and a Help Center writer who is adamantly 'location independent' (but calling Brazil 'home' at the time of this writing). These oDesk providers write and publish our monthly newsletters, copy-edit the content found within our website application (including emails and interface copy), manage all of the content in the oDesk Help Center, make sure that we are learning all we can from the discussions that occur in the oDesk Community Forums, manage a variety of programs designed to help new users get started on oDesk, and do occasional on-demand work related to graphic design and data entry projects. As with all our teams, the oDesk Team client, oDesk ScreenSnap, and Bugzilla are key to successful collaboration, but it is the frequent emails, chats, and Skype voice sessions that allow our far-flung team members to become close colleagues.

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