Getting Help So You Can Focus on Your Strengths

Some recent discussion on the MacSB list about what kind of system people recommend for handling technical support got me thinking that what is important for dealing with support is not what tool, but who is doing it.

One of the best things that has happened for us engineers at Karelia is when we found somebody who could handle front-line technical support for us. If you can hire somebody, part-time, to handle your support inquiries (and, as it often turns out, sales inquiries as well), and insulate you from all but the most complicated cases, it means that you can focus on the engineering that you are good at.

Taking this step is a critical early step for an indie developer to go from struggling to successful, especially when he/she discovers that once their software is released, they hardly seem to have time to do development any more!  Last year at WWDC, we were chatting with Kevin Hoctor about doing this, and look at where he is now! You're welcome, Kevin.

What does this have to do with marketing? OK, maybe this is just a little bit off-topic, but really the idea here is that if there is something that you are not that strong at, and you would rather focus your time on something that you are better at, then you should find some help.  And of course that means marketing as well as tech support.

Here are some ideas of some tasks that somebody might be able to help you with:

  • Tech support, as mentioned above
  • Writing newsletter content for your mailings
  • Updating your website's design or sales content
  • Graphics. Not just application icons, but other kinds of graphic generation and manipulation for your website, mailings, blog posts, etc.
  • Writing and editing of documentation, help pages, etc.
  • Work on your website's PHP or Rails back end, online store, etc.
  • Creating screencasts to show off your application for your website
  • Keeping an eye on the Mac forums and participating in online conversations where appropriate
  • Managing your company's Facebook presence
  • Any other kind of thing where a remote assistant can come in handy

If you can find somebody to do tasks that need doing, and they are charging you less than your (theoretical) hourly rate (e.g. by dividing your annual income by 2000 working hours in a year), you are better off having somebody else rather than you doing them!

The trick is, where do you find somebody to help you with this kind of stuff? Certainly you can ask around on Twitter, blog about your needs and see if one of your readers is available, post on Craig's List, ask other developers, and so forth.

Another approach is to use one of the various online contractor matchmaking services that take a small cut in exchange for hooking you up. There are several — RentACoder is one that is more specifically for finding programmers; eLance is one I have tried but I didn't have as good of an experience as I would like; there are many others as well.

The one service that I really like is oDesk. (That's an affiliate link, BTW; I might as well try to pay the bills around here while I blog.)  The thing that I like about oDesk is that while the contractor you hire is logged in and billing hours, the time-tracking software is taking occasional screenshots at random intervals so you can verify that they aren't goofing off.

The community of oDesk providers is vast and diverse. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. Of course there are more PC users out there, but there are plenty of Mac-using oDesk providers as well, and we've managed to find some real gems for doing all kinds of tasks along the lines of the list I mentioned earlier.

This is a world-wide marketplace, which means that if you open up a job, you may have people bidding from all over the world: far-off (to me, at least) places like Philippines, India, and Ukraine. But also plenty of providers in the US and Canada and other natively-English-speaking countries.  For tech support, the person we found is American; I think that this helps for communication and cultural reasons. I've found many good contractors in other countries where that isn't as important.

Here is some advice that I've picked up along the way. Be very, very specific in your job posting. If you post a job, be prepared for an onslaught of applications, with a huge variation of hourly rates.  Cheap might mean worthless, and expensive might mean high quality, but it might not. You can help narrow things down by looking at people's portfolios, test scores (oDesk has a suite of tests that people take to show off their qualifications), and cover letter.

One trick that is very useful: Since you want people to be able to follow your instructions, put some instructions in your job description that they must put special code at the start of their cover letter when they apply. If they don't bother to do that, they were too busy applying to every job they could find rather than actually reading your instructions. This will help cull out a lot of stinkers right away.

Then, when it comes time for an "interview," don't hesitate to put out some tough questions. If you have a lot of candidates, this may be the only way to really separate the wheat from the chaff.

You may find your obvious "linchpin" in your results. For example I had a bit out to do some motion graphics, and one of the candidates actually understood my detailed description for the job I wanted so well that he made a prototype and sent me a snippet of it.  It was exactly along the lines as I had pictured, so he was a shoo-in for the job.  You might not have that obvious of a winner, but hopefully by being specific in your description and questions you will find somebody who is a good match for your needs and your budget.

Once you find that right person — it might take a bit of effort but it will happen — then you will find yourself able to accomplish a lot more and leverage your own strengths. Here's to your success!

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