Last month Automattic announced the acquisition of WooThemes – one of the largest WordPress theme companies out there. In addition to adding Woo’s portfolio to Automattic’s arsenal, the company behind WordPress.com added a team of 55 to its manpower which is something incredibly important when you’re growing.
I’m not going to cover the story behind the acquisition since the public data has already been covered in various sources and the future roadmap is not transparent (we are yet to see what happens), but one of my email newsletter comments covered the hiring aspect and how do we deal with it. I have also participated in meetups, mastermind groups and podcasts discussing hiring and my perspective on leveraging human resources in a good way, so this is my overview on outsourcing and hiring talent.
This overview is focused on hiring technical people, although it’s applicable in other fields as well – design, QA, project management, even marketing or sales. It’s useful for small and growing businesses dealing with products, memberships or services.
Hiring With Money Is Easy
I started my freelance career right when the recession in 2007-2008 started. It was a bold choice and my friends called me names, but I had a simple theory: if I can survive the financial crisis with a new business, things can only get better from then on.
Small businesses are not easy to run. Growing from a one man show to 2 people is really hard. Shane from Modern Tribe discussed the incredible challenges of hiring the first employee in an online session few months ago and most of the time it’s an adventure that requires you to teach every day, then work overnight, and still pay your own costs and a salary on top of it.
That’s just crazy.
Hiring for a business with initial capital (from other businesses, a VC or somewhere else) is easy – you need resources and you can offer a nice salary, a training period, and different benefits. Large international corporations and Fortune 500 companies often provide a full employee package including tons of benefits that allows them to find the best talent available. They can invest in internal training courses, hiring leading HR agencies, outsourcing to the best consultants in the world and so forth.
And that’s not something that a freelancer or a small business owner can afford to do.
Time Is Money – Choose One
My favorite Project Management Triangle states that there are three variables in building a project:
- Scope (or number/extensibility of features)
We can build a high quality project fast, but it would be expensive. A cheap project would either lack quality/features, or would take a very long time. And a high quality project requires either a long time, or capital.
Running a business and hiring people allows you to amplify your power by spending more time – collectively – on your work. Even if you work 80 or 100 hours a week, your time has limits. Hiring a staff of 5 people would let you to scale to 200 hours or more a week, and get more work done.
But since the best experts out there cost a lot of money, it’s up to you whether you can invest in them, spend your time entirely on work, or make a compromise between both.
And that is the single most important lesson that I’ve learned.
Different Effective Forms of Hiring
I’ve successfully hired people using different strategies and I’m going to cover each one of them below.
I was able to hire several experts for some of our projects, on a project basis or as a long-term retainer for ongoing services.
The “Experts” group of people are proven people from the industry with a solid record of successful projects, experienced in building all sorts of things. You can relate to most vocal people in the WordPress community – plugin or core developers, theme wranglers and other talented people with hundreds of successful projects and in-depth experience in different verticals within the market.
This is a safe bet since quality is more or less guaranteed. The experts provide impeccable code (or design, or whatever), they are committed to their assignment and are very efficient.
However, this is also the most expensive option in terms of monthly costs. It’s a good option if you have a large long-term project, that you can’t handle yourself and you need involvement in terms of time, expertise and even a higher level of knowledge that you or the rest of your team have.
For instance, if your business charges $120/hr and you land a project for 8 months and commit to 80 billable productive hours per month, it’s a $76K project. You’ll probably have to involve other people in the process – general development work, project management, QA and more, account for taxes, your own time, communication and so forth – but hiring an expert at $67,000/year may be a great fit for that.
I’m using sample numbers here without focusing on a certain area with incredibly large financial standard as we can see, for example, in Silicon Valley. I’m also assuming that a full-time employee at $35/hr earns $67K a year.
A $76K project would let you to dedicate your expert and find additional billable work for them in the meantime, and spend 4 months extra building other projects. This is an employment option that is worth investing in when we’re discussing steady recurring revenue or a good number of large projects coming in – suitable for profitable product businesses, productized services or higher end agencies. One-off projects would put you at risk hiring a long-term expert.
Hiring people with a year or two of practical experience is less productive than hiring an expert, but it’s not a bad solution in the long run.
From my experience the majority of the WordPress agencies build products or projects that are not 100% “rocket science”. Even if you’re building a distributed SaaS, a massively complicated framework or a custom eCommerce platform, there’s a good percentage of your work that doesn’t require high-level engineering skills.
Let’s take the eCommerce platform as an example – a solution like WooThemes or Easy Digital Downloads comes to mind.
Are there complicated areas that require an expert? Yes. Building the general framework, payment gateway integrations, making sure that the transaction management is in place, calculating all permutations for taxes, weight, number of products, quotas and what not. There is plenty of work for aces here.
But there’s also a list of simple and straight-forward tasks.
Working on basic UI changes. Adding a metabox or a custom post type for something. Adding a custom options page with several fields. Validating or comparing some dates in the reports module.
A junior developer can deal with these – either spending more time figuring these out, under the supervision of a technical expert, or following a specific set of predefined “templates”. That “template” was one of the reasons I’ve built DX Plugin Base, since it’s fairly easy to start a plugin with the main WordPress core features without touching code, and extending it by copy-pasting elements here and there. I’ve seen some plugins built on top of my Plugin Base with additional 20-30 lines of code to run a completely separate and functional extension.
A junior is more cost-effective, requires more time – mentoring or the time it takes to solve a task, and has a limited set of skills. But knowing their strengths would let you teach them slowly while assigning them doable tasks that are profitable. In addition to that there are tasks that simply require straight-forward development – and it makes no sense to waste your seniors’ time on these if you have a junior on board.
This is a really time consuming matter and requires at least one very experienced technical person in the team. It also requires a specific management style that allows the technical person to spend a lot of time with trainees/interns for a long period of time so that the process goes smoothly.
Cost-wise, speaking directly of finances – this is the cheapest options. Interns either work for free at first, or they can start for a very low compensation. After all, they know (almost) nothing and they will waste a lot of your time. And their chance to join the industry relies on a company that trusts them to start and prove themselves. WordPress is also easier to start with, and become effective without having to learn complex maths and physics or high-end networking skills for a year or more.
But it’s truly rewarding. Take a look at the large corporations and giants across the world – most of them have training facilities for internal education, or partner up with large training companies that deal with growing staff.
There are also universities and other training institutions training people for free (or at a low cost) and selling people to companies. I call that a triple-win:
- People learn new skills for free (or at a low cost), and eventually land a good job
- The training institution employs trainers and earns from commissions
- Large companies hire talent that has gone through a specific process and a set of exams
I’ve trained people in three of these training institutions and I’ve seen that first-hand. I know other people from the WordPress industry who teach as well, and have access to amazing people who are yet to polish their technical skills.
Either way, you can grow, shape and improve your own staff without a significant recurring initial investment. And given the demand for IT experts and the competitive salaries from large companies, attracting employees as early as possible is becoming a necessity.
One of the other viable options for scaling a business and growing a team is outsourcing. In fact, the majority of our work at DevriX now is from technical companies outsourcing work to us, or creative/marketing/business agencies looking for a long-term technical WordPress partner.
Hiring people has several specific drawbacks:
- Employment plans include different benefits – including holidays – that may be crucial for a small business
- Taxes and different legal/business regulations may be a serious overhead
- You need to be able to effectively book 120+ hours of work each month for each employee, unless you’re charging A LOT
- Non-experts require some coaching or training from technical people – if you don’t have a technical co-founder, or you’re swamped, that may not be possible
Outsourcing is a flexible model that allows for offloading work and scaling your availability without a long-term commitment.
Hiring a consultant is usually a shorter term activity (or long-term, few hours a week/month). Consultants are reputable professionals with deep understanding of a given technology, stack, methodology.
They have usually spent several years solving all sorts of potential problems that could come up, and could save you a lot of time and trouble by pointing out the right strategy, finding the possible bottlenecks and even implementing it if possible.
You can work with one or more WordPress consultants at a time, and decide whether it’s cost-effective for them to build everything (a specific module) or lead you through the process, define the scope for your technical person and review the work.
Some companies offer employment leasing. The term sounded offensive to me a while ago, until I joined a company that leased people.
Three of us in the same room were leased to two offshore companies and one government. It’s practically the same as working for a client, you’re just 100% dedicated to a specific client at a given time.
Leasing employees has several benefits:
- You can hire people under different terms, including part-time. The agency can “lease” a person to two clients half-time so it’s not your problem.
- You don’t deal with formal employment and receive an invoice for the work (tax refunds for the win)
- Flexible agencies can shift resources as needed, and you can hire more people from the same team
- Some agencies compensate you when the employee is on a sick leave or on a holiday – by assigning another expert or reducing the hours from your monthly invoice
Two of our full-time guys for the last 18 months are in fact hired this way. The team is 100% dedicated to our projects and they work just like everyone else on our team.
Outsourcing to another agency
Instead of leasing employees, you can also outsource a project to another agency. That’s handy when you don’t require long-term commitment as with hiring or leasing staff, or when you need an entire team of people – developers, designers, QA, a dedicated team leader and/or project manager.
It’s usually an expensive solution, but it frees up a lot of your time and also allows you to delegate the right resources at the right tasks. The dedicated project manager can distribute the staff depending on the requirements, and everyone applies their expertise as needed, which generally leads to a high quality and well tested final product.
That’s what we do for clients looking for technical WordPress work, and we also outsource to PR or sales companies that are more capable and well-versed in those departments than we are, hence more effective.
Hiring a Freelancer
Outsourcing to a freelancer is usually handy for specific modules, small projects or projects that are not time-sensitive. I personally use freelancers when I need an extra hand for a project (during holidays or so) or for a separate project that is not urgent.
Freelancers, similarly to consultants, can also be handy if you work on a specific plugin or a platform and need someone experienced in a given library, framework or a platform. Delegating that specific part to a freelancer can free up some time for you and your team to work on the rest of the project.
Different freelancers have different availability, and the good ones are both expensive and booked a few months upfront, but it may be an arrangement that could be done upfront as well, depending on the requirements and your agreement.
That’s a small separate category that I find unappreciated even though it’s great.
Most of the time we are unable to partner up and share work with some of the people that we work with. The main problem is costs – usually the people who outsource to us charge way more than we do, and we outsource to companies that charge less than us.
It’s hard to balance these up, so we try to compensate with extra work or small discounts whenever possible.
But there are several WordPress agencies that we partner up with and share work as well. We have similar skills and setup, and charge similar fees.
When we have more work than we can handle, we either outsource the client to our partners, or share the work with them. And when they land a large project, we handle part of it accordingly.
It’s a great opportunity to form an “alliance” that works together.
Where To Hire – Cost vs. Time
After discussing the different forms of outsourcing, the logical question is: how to find WordPress talent?
That depends on the time-cost-quality factor that I mentioned before. With an unlimited amount of money you’ll probably hire a lot of top level super-experts that would be incredibly efficient.
But since we live in the real world, you need to decide for yourself – what are you looking for, and can you afford it?
Recognized Experts and Consultants
There are quite a few vocal WordPress people out there – consultants, freelancers and agency owners – who work with clients. Those people have proven record in the WordPress community – recognition, contributions with themes, plugins or even WordPress core patches, experience with various platforms, programming languages, or know-how on security, performance or other internal verticals.
Some specialize in BuddyPress, or membership websites in general, or eCommerce websites. Others profile in multisite, DevOps, migrations.
You will likely be quite happy – quality-wise – reaching out to any of those people. You can find them on Twitter, WordPress.org, notice their appearances at podcasts, interviews at recognized WordPress websites, guest posts, and talks at WordCamps and meetups (or even meet them there).
Those folks usually charge more than the industry standard since they know their stuff and are popular enough to get some good amount of work. You can hire them as consultants, or outsource an entire project to them as long as you can afford it. While this may be pretty expensive for you, it may as well be really fast and affordable if you’ve negotiated the right terms and number with your own customers.
Sites such as WPhired, SimplyHired or other general large job boards will list your job offer. You can list the applications and hire an expert or a mid-level specialist working with you in the long run. Some WordPress-related websites have their own job boards as well.
Using job boards is usually a passive process. You post a job and wait for random people to apply. Most of those would likely not be a good fit due to a mismatch in skills or pricing, but some of them may actually work. And if you’re growing steadily, that should certainly be one of the channels you use.
Whether you’re looking to lease people or outsource an entire project to an agency, that may be the way to go.
There are numerous aggressive ones pitching everyone on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, filling in every contact form and pitching with cold emails. I’m not the biggest fan of these hardcore attacks – even if I fully appreciate the power of sales, it’s just way over the line.
But you can spend some time with your Google-Fu looking for potential agencies. Some things that you may consider and look for:
- Who is behind the agency – some agencies are pretty stealth and shady, others are run by recognized experts or at least active and visible developers
- What is the specialty of the team – skills, portfolio
- Are there any public contributions – to WordPress or other projects
- Is there any public activity available – conferences, talks, videos, interviews
- Are the testimonials/reviews real – some shady agencies use fake testimonials or point to projects that are not built by them
It may sound as an overhead, but hiring a full-time employee is not easy either – the right person when it comes to skills, cost, efficiency, culture fit, location, motivation is hard to find, and so is any other long-term partnership.
Offline events may be a good place to meet potential people – and it’s also great to know people personally, one way or the other. WordPress meetups, WordCamps, other technical events, marketing conferences, bootcamps, hackatons, at co-working or hackerspaces – you name it.
That’s always a great option regardless of the type of partnership you are looking for – employment, freelance, outsourcing, leasing people, or partnering with other agencies.
Schools and Universities
If you’re interested in interns and trainees, look at the local schools and universities. Speak with the IT teachers or professors. Give a seminar on WordPress, development or something else. Meet the students personally.
Offer an internship at the school job board or forum. Interact in social media with them. Consider teaching a short course for anyone interested.
Keep in mind that this investment may actually pay off. If you don’t have a large office and the right setup, it may actually be a good idea to teach a practical course for a few weeks (or months) at a school/university and scale with 20, 30, 50, 80 people in your room. You may find several potential people interested in learning more and working in your team.
If you’re too busy or have a friend in the HR industry, try this approach. HR agencies have an extensive and complex program for finding people using dozens of instruments and strategies while looking for a set of skills or qualities.
It may not be incredibly efficient, but they can filter some vocal people that would apply to your job offer (and the ones applying to every existing job description as well).
My specialty is leveraging Upwork (previously oDesk) in finding affordable and skilled talent. It took me a lot of years to master that skill, but using the right comprehensive strategy would let you to find people that are experts in a specific platform and also cost-effective. You can find a freelancer, consultant, part-time or full-time employee, or an agency leasing people.
For those of you who are disappointed with freelance networks – there are way too many people there, so finding the right people is pretty tough. I have been iterating over my strategy for years, but I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) there that have generated several times higher ROI.
In addition to that we’ve generated $100K from a single client who found my profile and skills there, so I don’t find it to be a waste of time at all.
For those of you who are not interested in investing that much time or don’t have long-term plans that far ahead, you can head to Codeable – a premium outsourcing service with contractors that have been preselected based on their skills and contributions to WordPress.
The standardized cost is $60/hr so everyone is bidding with that number. The estimate that you get is based on the average estimate of the experts bidding, and since Codeable is zealous when it comes to quality, experts can only bid to projects where they specialize in, and can do in a fast and efficient way.
I know first-hand that Per, one of the co-founders, is constantly browsing the jobs, talking to both contractors and clients, reviewing statuses, making sure that all tasks are reviewed, everyone is satisfied, and both clients and contractors take ownership for their commitment to the platform.
Codeable is a fast and efficient way to find WordPress experts in particular, and that allows you to hire people specializing in specific plugins, platforms or frameworks as well.
Personal branding is important – and the more popular you are, the more inclined people would be to work with/for you.
Write more and share your experience, give away free stuff, contribute to WordPress, speak at events. That exposure would amplify your message and get more experienced people interested in working with you.
Your Users or Fans
If you are in the product business or run a community in your field, keep a close eye on the active people. Many of my friends releasing paid themes or plugins have hired some of their members through their support forums, or other places where their users participate. Sometimes a freelancer using your product may become an advocate for it, and may be interested in working with you as well. Skipping the entire training process may be an awesome experience for you.
Always Be Hiring
My flexible hiring model allows me to A/B/C – “Always Be Closing”, and similarly I’m in “Always Be Hiring” mode myself.
I have a label in Gmail that has dozens of potential people that I have worked with or I may potentially work with. Some of them are listed by skills, so that I know who to contact for a specific technology.
Keeping an open job offer at all times may be of use for you. One of those applications may be the perfect fit for your business. Don’t miss your chance.
My friend Gin also published a great guide on Outsourcing for Beginners – definitely worth a read.
Are there any hiring strategies that you use for your business?