This is a guest post by Dave Doolin.
David invited me to write an article about my “red clay” perspective on outsourcing.
First, a disclaimer: I’ve outsourced around 6 figures worth of work in the last 4 years, over $90,000 in 2008 alone. I’m a big believer in getting the right help for the job, and I’ve put my money where my mouth is. But I’m also a huge believer in self-reliance and just “getting it done.” That said, let’s get on with it.
What You’ve Read About Outsourcing Is…. Incomplete
Most of what I read about outsourcing in the blogging community is well-meaning, and not exactly incorrect, but it is incomplete. It seems mostly about the excellence of outsourcing: “Profit! Riches! Yes! Outsource! Outsource! Rah rah rah!” While I agree in principle, this irrational ebullience is a little short on specifics. And the specifics are where it really matters.
Nevertheless, outsourcing, in general, is a good thing. You must outsource to scale up. Outsourcing tactics flow from outsourcing strategy, so it’s critical to get your strategy correct. In this context, strategy means having some vision of how you want to operate your business, and the milestones you need to pass to get there. Everyone’s strategy is different (that’s a good thing).
Let’s use my vision and strategy as an example. Succinctly, I want a “4 Hour Work Week,” with a twist. The twist being that I refuse to be dependent on a single point of failure, viz, I’m not going to be held hostage by a vendor of any product or for any service. I’m looking to build a smallish business which is flexible and allows me to stay “close to the metal.” (Reasons for which are the topic of another longish series of articles.)
Being independent is part of that red clay, do-it-yourself mindset. See, my father’s kin come from that part of the country where the dirt (red clay, technically, terra rosa) mostly grows rocks. Geodes, actually. (But they call them something else in those parts.) The soil is ancient. Paleozoic. Worn out. Few nutrients unless you’re in the bottom lands. Which flood, of course. Farming in that country requires tremendous self-reliance. It’s not lucrative. As it turns out, my grandfather Cornelius moved the family to better land in Iowa (I believe in the ’90s), then passed away in ’22, whence my grandmother moved my father back to Kentucky. As a teen, my father supported my grandmother during the Great Depression, in Louisville, successfully escaping family roots in Pulaski County.
But the red clay ran deep. Even when my father earned a management position in the 1950s (a very big deal in those days), he still had a home workshop, and still did most everything around the house. And we had the garden. Which was big enough to feed our family of 4. I was driving a garden tractor at age 7.
Times, They Are A-Changin’
Unfortunately, skills for surviving a depression don’t work that well during a technical revolution, when the economy is expanding rapidly with easy credit. There’s too much to know and not enough time to know it. And while you may be learning real skills, your competition is leveraging a relationship (or a dozen) to put you out of business.
So why insist on starting out in the virtual mailroom? It’s not 1937 anymore… red clay. Dirt farmers are fiercely independent… or they are nothing. I know enough design to get by; I’ll never be held hostage by a designer. I know enough about every other aspect of my business to run it by myself if I have to.
I’m not growing my business as quickly as others, perhaps, but I can’t be put completely out of business either. This is my strategy. Your’s will surely be different and that’s cool. There’s more than one way to succeed.
Enough of that, let’s switch back to the “4 hour work week” and get some outsourcing done.
There Is No One Right Way to Outsource
Recall: I’ve spent around $100k on outsourced work. I’ve had great success; I’ve had real failure. And one thing is certain: there’s more than one way to outsource. For any claim anyone makes about outsourcing, I can likely provide a counter example (with invoice) from experience.
Here’s one: “You need to build strong relationships with providers.” That’s not necessarily true. I’ve had graphics work turned around at a reasonable price within a couple of hours… from ads on Craigslist. Same with technical writing and documentation.
On the other hand, for some work, without a strong relationship with the provider, you’re almost guaranteed to fail. If that relationship is good, it’s practically a guarantee of success. In one situation, I had a programmer who understood my vision well enough to implement – correctly – on relatively vague descriptions of how I wanted the finished product to perform. In another case, I ended up firing someone. No matter how detailed my specification, he insisted on building his vision of the product instead of my client’s vision of the product.
Relationships don’t always matter, but when they do, they matter a lot.
Where DIY Pays Back
When it’s my money on the line, I like to learn enough about the whatever-it-is to get it done myself (that red clay runs deep), within reason. If it turns out to be something I’m not strong at, or don’t want to do, I definitely outsource, where that DIY experience pays back in two ways:
- When I outsource tasks I’m currently doing myself, I save an enormous amount of time specifying the work, because I have a picture of what needs to be done, roughly how it gets done, and, critically important from the providers point of view, I know what’s possible and what isn’t. I already speak the provider’s language, and I’m not going to be adding an “anti-gravity unit” to an “underwater barbecue.” (That is, specifying something impossible to build. Trust me, there are people happy to play you for a fool and take your money.)
- I can perform due diligence on the deliverable. Since I know about what the work requires, I know where the corners get cut and where the mistakes are made. In other words, I know when I get good stuff, and when I get crap. Knowing this difference has saved me, and will save you, untold grief.
In the end, you have to decide what works best for you. Outsourcing everything can get you ramped up pretty quick. Outsourcing can also leave you broke, held hostage by your provider, with no viable product, and having learned no marketable skills. Do it all yourself and you may see your market grabbed away by competitors who move faster. But you will have learned new marketable skills. And that’s not a bad thing either.
There are always new markets to conquer. To really get outsourcing done right, you may find yourself learning far more about something than you think you ought. For example, back in the day I pulled a motor (Chevy straight 6 250. In a tree. In Manchaca Texas) to change the journal bearings. Nowadays, I go to Jiffy Lube to get the oil changed. Was pulling a motor “smart?” I dunno. It was fun, though, and definitely red clay. And I’ve never had a hassle with an auto mechanic. Not ever. I take that back, sort of. I’ve been overcharged exactly once. Instead of fighting it, I simply inform people that I was overcharged and now go somewhere else. Not really a hassle. (Turns out this shop developed a reputation for overcharging.)
This is just the first layer of the outsourcing onion. There are many more layers. For example, sometimes it makes sense to outsource work you’re really good at. And supervising outsourced work can eat up great crazy gobs of your time. But this is where this essay needs to end.
Tell me, how much red clay runs in your veins?
About the author: Dave Doolin blogs at Website In A Weekend, where you can learn how to blog.