My oDesk experience, and what it means for the future of work

This post describes my recent foray into the world of outsourcing, where I contracted a Filipino to transcribe 3.5 hours worth of audio recordings via the online employment marketplace oDesk.  In what follows I’ll describe the actual experience, and my thoughts on it in the context of how technology is driving change in the world of work.


I had a series of interviews I’d conducted as part of my microgrids research project that needed to be transcribed for ease of use.  I was struggling to find the time to get it done, particularly when I had so many “higher value” uses (do these include writing this blog entry?… I’ll let you be the judge).

My first impressions of oDesk were slightly off-putting.  The number of “freelancers” (= workers) and jobs listed on the site was overwhelming, as was the spectrum of tasks/skills, costs/pay-rates and experience/work history.  The information available on individual freelancers was extensive – star-ratings based upon customer reviews, verbatim reviews from individual customers, hours of work logged through the site.  It felt a little like a horse-racing form guide, where I could get lost down rabbit-holes of statistics and subjective reviews that ultimately I’d have to cast aside in order to place my bet.

Web reviews of oDesk made things worse, with endless complaints from disgruntled freelancers separated by the occasional tale of non-delivery by an unhappy customer.

To compare and contrast, I sourced a quote from an Australian-based transcription service.  Although somewhat confusing due to the number of variables involved, it looked like I was going to be up for a minimum of $2/minute.  Without knowing how long it would take for someone to transcribe the interviews, I guessed that for 3.5 hrs=200 minutes of recordings the cost was going to be more than $400 – way above my budget.

In parallel I put the question to my 600+ LinkedIn contacts as to whether anyone had any experience with outsourcing of this type.  The one response I got from a credible source referred me back to oDesk, so despite my initial reservations I decided to give it a shot.

The first decision I made was to list the job with a fixed-rate.  Not only did this reflect my budget, but it allowed me to get over the pay-rate dilemma.

In the negative web reviews by freelancers, the most common theme seemed to be (unacceptably) low pay-rates – albeit by western standards/reviewers.  I decided to put a fixed price of $100 on my job, which seemed well above the minimum pay-rates and a reflection of what I’d be prepared to pay to avoid doing the work myself.  I reasoned that although this was clearly lower than what an Australian agency/worker would get for the work, it was decent money for someone in a developing nation compared to the bottom-end pay-rates of $5/hr and less being quoted on the site.

I created my job posting which went as follows:

Two audio interviews totalling 3.5 hrs for transcription as follows:
* audio quality good1. NYSERDA
* 1hr 30 min duration
* audio quality good

* three speakers (interviewer + two interviewees)
* 2hr duration
* audio quality excellent
* seven speakers (interviewer + six interviewees)
– doesn’t have to be word perfect; some technical content/terminology – incorrect transcription can be tolerated
– occasional time-stamps/markers would be good
– happy for the job to fit in around your schedule, but finish by mid-May (can be negotiated)
– relatively large filesizes, so would prefer to share files via Dropbox or similar

I then decided to manage my risk by targeting the job directly at highly-rated freelancers with a decent work history.  My main concern related to the mucking around that would ensue in the event of non-performance – my wife had already pointed out that I could have probably done the job myself by now (a typically concise and astute observation).

To find a pool of freelancers I narrowed my search to those listing pay-rates of between $5 and $20 per hour – this still left me with more than 5 pages of search results, so no problems there.  I then sent out direct offers to a sh0rtlist of six freelancers based upon my criteria above, in response to which I had an immediate decline and an expression of interest two days later.

While the job is still underway, so far so good.  The freelancer has been nothing if not professional and responsive, and took on the job following an initial review of the audio recording quality.  His main concern was my Australian accent, but he was quickly reassured by my willingness to wave any errors off (as those bits aren’t what I’m interested in).

I’ll update this post once the job is complete, but at this point it seems like a win-win.


As described in an earlier post, this experience is an example of how technology is creating economic benefits by more efficiently linking buyers and sellers (= ‘gains from trade‘).  Our respective computing/internet/file-sharing access combined with the oDesk platform have allowed me to outsource work at a lower cost than it would take me to do, to someone for whom the agreed payment makes it worth doing.

According to oDesk, they have enabled more than $1 billion worth of work through their online marketplace since it was founded in 2005, and now form part of a global part-time work market worth $422 billion.

What this also means is that professional service workers in developed nations are under increasing pressure to identify and maintain a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

As symbolised by the negative reviews from disgruntled oDesk workers above, pay-rates for work that can be done in developing nations are lower than what those in developed nations can or will consider (I’ll avoid passing judgement on which).  The interesting thing about the oDesk environment is that workers can see this firsthand (unlike their counterparts in the increasingly-vanquished manufacturing sector).

For workers in developed nations, I’ve some thoughts about competitive advantage.

Firstly, education and training are clear sources of advantage.  Investments in education and training by governments, business and individuals, have never been more critical given the ever-decreasing barriers to trade in jobs and income.  Skills and knowledge are critical to establishing and maintaining a competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive market – the day you stop learning is the day you die.

Secondly, access to sellers is a potential source of advantage.  As illustrated by my initial hesitation above, risk – perceived or real – can be a deterrent for trade.  Buyers/investors often manage this risk through knowledge of the sellers credentials.  And the higher the value of the transaction, the more that this knowledge influences the purchase decision – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Want a job that's fulfilling, rewarding and ongoing? (Image courtesy of Hannes Beer,

Want a job that’s fulfilling, rewarding and ongoing?
(Image courtesy of Hannes Beer,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s