One of the Most Time Consuming Startup Roadblocks

This post is an excerpt from the Micropreneur Academy, an online learning environment designed to get one-person web startups from zero to launch in four months.

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

I’m in the process of buying a house. The listing for the house we made an offer on last week has 45 digital photos that I would like to share with family and friends, but they are hidden behind a questionable JavaScript interface.

Using my advanced knowledge of web hackery (i.e. View Source), I grabbed the list of each image URL and put them in a text file. And the following ten seconds made a huge difference in how I spent the next 20 minutes of my day.

I copied the first URL into my clipboard and began to paste it into my address bar when I (for the hundredth time) realized that this is exactly the kind of task that appears to produce something, but is completely rote and repetitive. It would be simple (and fun) to write a Perl script to do the fetching, but that would take around the same amount of time.

So I sent the task to my virtual assistant (VA). It took me exactly 90 seconds to get the request to him, and within 24 hours I had a zip file of the images. It took 20 billable minutes and at $6/hour the 24-hour wait was well worth it.

This morning I realized I needed an image for one of my websites, and a change to the CSS. I’m not a great designer but I could have designed something in about two hours. I could have also made the CSS change and tested it in a few browsers in about an hour.

Instead, I opted to send these simple tasks to someone else at the cost of $15/hour. I wrote up an email and the task will be done in the next day or two.

  • Time spent: 10 minutes
  • Time saved: 2 hours, 50 minutes

I just received from a woman named Amy who lives in Canada. She has experience with multimedia and podcast editing. I contacted her because the editing process for the audio versions of the Academy lessons takes 60-90 minutes per lesson. Two lessons per week is 2-3 hours that I’m going to outsource to her for $15/hour.

She will likely produce a better finished product than I can.

How Much Can You Really Gain?

These are trivial examples of what I call drip outsourcing, outsourcing small tasks as I perform my daily work. Drip outsourcing has become invaluable to my productivity.

If you total up the three instances above it only amounts to 6-7 hours. But I do this constantly, every day. Before I start any task I think to myself “Could one of my contractors possibly do this?”

Over the course of a month you can easily save 20-40 hours without much effort. These days I save 60-100 hours a month.

This ties back into a topic I’ve spoken about previously: when it comes to your product should you build it, buy it or hire it out?. While you don’t have to (and should not) hire out every aspect of your product, I cannot imagine handling every detail yourself (or within your team).

The roadblock that so many entrepreneurs encounter as they try to launch is thinking they, or one of their co-founders, has to perform every task necessary to get their product out the door.

Just for kicks I’m going to spit out an incomplete list of tasks needed to take a web-based product from idea to your first week after launch. Here we go:

  • Niche Brainstorming & Mental Evaluation
  • Niche Evaluation
  • Niche Selection
  • Product Selection
  • Product Architecture
  • Functional Design
  • Database Design
  • Graphic Design*
  • UI Development (AJAX/JS)*
  • Business Tier Development*
  • Database Development*
  • Creating Unit Tests*
  • Creating UI Tests*
  • Manual Testing*
  • Fixing Post-Launch Bugs*
  • User Documentation
  • Installation Documentation
  • Sales Website Site Map Creation
  • Sales Website Copywriting*
  • Sales Website Graphic Design*
  • Sales Website HTML/CSS*
  • Sales Website Programming*
  • Sales Website Payment Integration*
  • Product Delivery (via email, link on site, etc…)*
  • Setting Up Email List
  • Setting Up Domain Name & Web Hosting
  • Setting Up Email Accounts & 800 Number
  • Setting Up Analytics
  • Pre-Launch Search Engine Optimization
  • Pre-Launch Pay-Per-Click Set-up
  • Initial Social Media /Viral Marketing*
  • Pre-Launch Video Marketing
  • Pre-Launch Partnerships
  • Launch Press Release*
  • Pre-Launch Email Marketing
  • Pre-Launch Blogging or Podcasting
  • And probably a few others…

That’s a list of 37 tasks ranging in duration from 2 hours to a few hundred.

You’ll notice many have asterisks next to them. These are the tasks that will be easiest to outsource – the tasks that require a technical or common skill that’s not specific to your product.

Outsource your product architecture? I would consider it only for small applications.

Outsource your graphic design and HTML/CSS? Every time…

Avoiding This Roadblock

The best way is to to start small, gain comfort with a contractor, and gradually increase the amount you outsource.

Outsourcing is a learned skill, and you’re likely to screw it up your first time around. Start with non-critical tasks and be very specific in how they should be executed. At first it will seem like you could do the tasks faster than the time it takes to assign them, but as you get to know the person you’re outsourcing to it will quickly begin to save you time. If it doesn’t, then you need to look for a new resource.

Hiring a Virtual Assistant (VA) is a great way to get started with almost no financial commitment and a low hourly rate (around $6/hour overseas, $10-20/hour in the U.S.). I have a few VA’s I use for various tasks, and I’ve had great luck finding them on elance.

Graphic design and HTML/CSS are also great ways to dive in. Graphic design is nice because it’s not complicated and what you see is what you get. It’s either good or it’s not. I’ve found design to be much easier to outsource than programming.

Finding decent designers is a little more challenging – elance is a good route, but asking around is an even better approach. Unfortunately I don’t want the designers I use to become overbooked so I can’t mention them here (I do provide contact info for all of the companies I outsource to inside the Academy).

So take a risk this month: outsource your first task and see where it takes you. When was the last time a single tool or work habit offered the opportunity to save 20-60 hours in a month?

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#1 Tim on 07.14.09 at 12:55 pm

Great read!

I started a project recently and just started thinking about outsourcing parts of it. The thing that makes me ponder it is that, on one hand, I know that there are many parts that I’m not an expert in and could use some help, but on the other hand, I think I’d enjoy learning them. The engineer in me would be proud to finish the project by himself!

Of course, it’s all a matter of how much risk I’m ready to take (money spent outsourcing vs. time lost learning) and how much of an opportunity I think this project is…

Still pondering. 🙂

#2 Rob on 07.14.09 at 1:42 pm

@Tim – You’re thinking about it the right way. One thing you should consider is whether you’re building the project more for fun, or to make money.

If it’s fun there’s no question you should learn it yourself. I would guess you will enjoy learning the technical aspects more than outsourcing them.

If you want to make it into a real business that generates real income, seriously consider a small amount of outsourcing. In the long run you will be much happier once you’ve built the skill of outsourcing. It’s like a muscle – it has to develop over time.

It’s not to say you cannot have a project that’s both fun and a business, but it seriously decreases your chance of success. There are a few examples out there, but they are the one in a million long-shots that you shouldn’t count on.

If you’re trying to build a real business, learning new skills that you can otherwise outsource for little money is not an optimal business decision.

#3 Chris Mullins on 07.14.09 at 2:30 pm

Rob, at what point are you going to outsource the writing of your blogs? You send a one sentence idea to your virtual blogger, (s)he sends back 3 or 4 pages worth on that topic….

#4 Rob on 07.14.09 at 2:33 pm

@Chris – Who says I’m not doing that already? 🙂

Actually, I’m not doing that, but I have used a VA for research-heavy content and I would do it for a research-heavy blog post.

But having someone write blog posts for me? Nah…I’m too picky about what I say and how I say it to put my name on someone else’s words.

It’s funny you should mention this – Tim Ferriss posted this post on April Fool’s day last year.

#5 Josh on 07.14.09 at 2:45 pm

Excellent post. I’m sold.

I’d like to hear more about your experience interviewing, hiring, and tasking VAs and other outsourcers. I’ve read Tim Ferris’ book and I’m convinced getting some of my work in other people’s hands is the way to go…but I haven’t figured out how yet. I need smaller steps and a better visualization of what happens. (That or I just need to jump in the pool )

#6 Rob on 07.14.09 at 2:55 pm

@Josh – It feels like a big risk when you first start outsourcing. I made a lot of mistakes in the early days both with drip outsourcing and outsourcing in general, so I think it would be helpful to share some of my experiences.

I’ll make a note to write something up on the subject.

#7 P on 07.14.09 at 10:37 pm

Perl? Please. Put your links in a text file, then:

for $i in $(cat links.txt) ; do wget $i ; done

Save yourself $2 and 24 hours of waiting.

#8 Josh on 07.14.09 at 11:42 pm

To P:
Please wait by the phone. My outsourced assistant will be calling you with my response to your post.

#9 Rob on 07.15.09 at 12:23 am

@P – I don’t even know where to begin. You’ve completely missed the point.

#10 x on 07.15.09 at 2:19 am

@p: it’s the view source, copy paste that takes most time

you can cookup a script to fetch source code, regex find image links, loop fetch the images — maybe a one liner wget downloading 1-level-deep jpg file is easier

@rob: the whole deal can be done in at most 5 mins. if this step is critical to an important project, you eliminate the delay of 90sec+20min+waiting_hours, not mentioning the dollar wasted

your va probably did the same (view source, copy url, get image) that s/he spent 20 mins. a better va maybe spends only 10 mins. however, the 90sec+waiting_hours delay won’t go anywhere — that’s it, you only save 10 mins switching to better va assuming waiting_hours is the same

#11 Josh on 07.15.09 at 3:03 am

To x:
The point is that as a software engineer you get obsessed with irrelevant detail. You have ego and a desire to solve problems yourself. You can’t let go. You want to be the hero of every situation and the bride at every wedding.

You may be able to solve the problem faster. But you can’t do it cheaper. If you think you can, you have very much underestimated the value of your time.

If it were critical, sure. You’d have to do it. But almost nothing is that critical. And you’ll never learn the difference, or how to delegate, if you do everything yourself.

#12 AJ on 07.15.09 at 4:01 am

Thanks for the article Rob.
Very insightful.
I have used outsourcing in the past for certain projects, yet I never made the distinction of ‘drip outsourcing’.

Work has been done from all over the world for my projects… everything from graphics design, to software installations in my websites, legal documents, presentation ‘pretty-up’ by a graphics designer team, etc.

I am browsing with interest the website.
It is new to me! Thanks!
The two websites I always worked with was and looks very slick!

Have a great day everyone!

#13 Josh #2 on 07.15.09 at 4:57 am

This is a great article. I especially liked the list of tasks to take a product from idea to 1wk post-launch.

#14 P on 07.15.09 at 10:08 pm

I realize it’s better to not spend your time doing laborious work. However knowing enough about bash/grep/awk/sed can save you even more time than outsourcing. You don’t have to know everything, but grepping out links and getting images? That’s something *incredibly* simple.

#15 Rob on 07.16.09 at 12:35 am

Command line commands are incredibly simple, indeed. And in this case by some incredible coincidence it would have saved you 15 minutes.

But the other 30 things I outsourced this month could not have been solved by bash/grep/awk/sed.

Claiming that knowing command line tool can save you more time than outsourcing (unless all you do is download photos all day) is just plain missing the boat.

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[…] One of the Most Time Consuming Startup Roadblocks So take a risk this month: outsource your first task and see where it takes you. When was the last time a single tool or work habit offered the opportunity to save 20-60 hours in a month? […]

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