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How I’d Negotiate With Clients Wanting oDesk “Features”

spying on freelance writersI just read oDesk: One Writer’s Experience and His Plea to Clients. It’s a guest post by Greg Minton over at Deb Ng’s Freelance Writing Gigs.com.

The post made me furious. According to Greg, oDesk not only provides the usual functions of a bidding site, to use it, freelancers have to download time tracking software that also takes sporadic screenshots of the writer’s screen! That’s as bad as keystroke loggers tracking work.

oDesk Claims

If you go to oDesk you can watch a video that sells this idea to employers. The pitch includes the notion that in an office what a writer does is obvious and she gets paid based on “time worked.”

Well, maybe. When I’ve written inside the boss really didn’t have much idea of how I did what I did. They either liked what I had written or didn’t. Nor did they have much idea if what I’d written took 10 minutes or three days.

oDesk claims that when employers are working with freelancers there is a wall that prevents the client from knowing what the writer is doing which oDesk solves with the screen shots of the writer’s computer and automatic time tracking with the company’s software.

Talk about a big brother attitude and engendering total lack of trust between the client and the freelancer!

I’d Negotiate This Way

So, if a client wanted to use this system what would I do?

I’d first try to discover what about that system really appealed to them. I’d try to identify the fear that made them feel a system like oDesk’s would get them a better product.

I think I’d be quite frank too about how it felt like spying on me – that I acknowledge I’m not at my computer every minute I might bill them for. I’d talk briefly about the inspirations that come in the shower or on a walk  and try to move them to a flat fee for the project, paid half or a third up front.

I might also ask them if they understood how much of their budget oDesk was getting and make sure they realized I was getting less.

Finally I’d simply tell them I’m not willing to work under those circumstances.

If that meant I’d never sign the client, so be it.

I suggest you do the same.

Have you worked under this oDesk system? What do you think of this kind of system?


Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 34 comments… add one }
  • guest

    hi anne.
    thank you a lot for contributing. but we were not talking about the human beings who these junk posters want to ‘write’ their web junk. no one of us here is that blue-eyed to muse about their hiring ethics. who the poor person will be – the desperate person at another continent with these obvious lacks in even the most important part of writing – mastery of language – not mentioning research skills and ressources – who this person will be is of absolute no interest for these brokers. they don’t care and no one here is surprised about this.

    but: we were talking about the absolute lack of logics inside their own system: the fact that these are human beings who consitute their own target group, therefore making their own penny ‘deals’ senseless from the very first start of it. (like e.g. the creation of a blog design in order to get it filled in order to get the blog sold at the end. or the opening of an article seller account on an article directory page in order to deal with the junk there.)
    the ‘web products’ do all have a target readers group. articles don’t target analphabets. and since pages wit quality content for any reading person is just one click away, any person aimed at a reading end customer has to be aware that it’s competing. trying to deal with stuff which will be simply ignored by any reading person is not only senseless but without any potential value from the very first step of the whole deal and from the very first letter on. and this – actually – is a fact which the brokers can try not to see or not to realise. but trying not to realise a crucial strategical structure function in their own system is somehow… – missing the center point of their own business. and you have to admit that this in fact is something one can just be surprised about.

    there is a post at the mentioned and linked oDesk forum coffee break page hinting at it:

    “but these penny brokers simply forget that the final users are human beings. that they are online. that a user can make a simple click to get to a more interesting page: the times… the guardian… the gutenberg project… the taz (an interesting newspaper, good for readers with german language skills), regardless where they – the aim group – are. knowledge and interesting content they compete with is a click away for every potential client on earth. the potential client is per se a critical one. it’s a reading human being having access to knowledge and quality just a single click away. the penny brokers, however, behave as if their aim group would be a tribe of native americans (from the western perspective in the, let’s say, 15th century) who never saw a quality text online and therefore for sure will buy their glass marbles. they forget about the aim group by ordering these filling ‘products for web placement’. instead of searching for the text quality they would need in order to reach their own aims, they hunt for b…sh..t and wonder afterwards why in spite of all their 1000-for-1$, 2000-for-1$, 3000-for-1$-”deals” this all doesn’t work out.”

    it was this thread here

    (this a reply to: a post in the fourteenerwriter blog – the reply copied into this comment field here, too – in order to make a follow up of the dicussion easier without clicking around all the time)

  • guest

    click – just a short invitation to a neighbourhood blog post with a newly started discussion thread. still about oDesk, this time more about “1000 words for 1$” – deals. what’s a bread and what’s a tomatoe in freelance writing, how to differentiate between an ‘article’ and a ‘bunch of words’ and what’s the exact difference between them. feel free to click over.

  • I agree that writers have no business showing their work time and writing clients have no business asking for it. I just think it’s a different matter for the coders, or even Data Entry Workers, who work per hour. I guess we have moved away from those kind of jobs now, but there is still a market for them and there are still people who do it.
    .-= Roy Daniel DSilva´s last blog ..Work at Home Tips: A Paid Subscription to a Job Site? Hold that Thought! =-.

  • Wo Wo Wo.. quite a few comments in here. Here’s my two bits.

    I have worked with Freelancer, Scriptlance and now oDesk and I did find their ‘Eye in the Sky’ bit a bit weird in the beginning. I am like every other computer user who doesn’t like to share what they’re doing on their PC. That’s the reason behind the term ‘Personal Computer’, anyway, I digress.

    I can understand when clients use the nifty lil oDesk thingy with coders because there are many module makers (not framework builders) who are paid by the hour anyway. As writers, we may or may not have an idea as to how much time we’d take to write an article, or a press release, because there are several other aspects other than that, and therefore we have the deadline

    And yes, though it is simple to turn off the oDesk thingy taking screenshots (come on, who doesn’t like to poke friends while a drab article), I found it had it very difficult to turn off the screenshot feature. I have been using the Internets and the Computers since eighteen and run my own site. If I have such problems, what about the average writer?

    Then again, the virtual meeting stuff on oDesk is great, and works wonders when you have a team of workers. I once worked on a website project where I had to interact with a guy over in the US. I didn’t work on oDesk at that time, but I can understand how it’d help me today – a lot.
    .-= Roy Daniel DSilva´s last blog ..Work at Home Tips: A Paid Subscription to a Job Site? Hold that Thought! =-.

    • Anne

      Roy, there are other virtual meeting sites/ways to go. And yes, if you’re having trouble turning off the spy feature in oDesk others will find it impossible. I guess, other than my instinctive don’t spy on me attitude I also hate the mistrust I suspect they breed – but maybe not.

  • I saw a lot more logic with oDesk working for clients who hire coders or some sort of workflow that’s linear. With writing, I often brainstorm ideas on a walk to get coffee or in the shower. Not to spark an angry debate or anything, but how do you oDeskers plan on billing for that time? Not everything happens on the computer.

    • Anne

      Exactly, Clint. And when I’ve worked with or around coders that too isn’t exactly linear… hence the ping pong tables in the dot coms and a google.

  • Hi, Anne. I understand your concerns about oDesk. It was weird for me at first, but at this point after being with them a year, I like it so much that I recently told a big client I wanted them to go in and hire me at oDesk instead of working outside of it. I really consider it a service that is for my benefit. I’m fine being paid by the hour, but I’ve also been paid per project on oDesk. You can do it either way, as several have already pointed out. The funny thing is, even when I was paid a fixed price, I still went in and logged all my hours. I like the security it gives me. I know I’ll get paid–and promptly! What’s more, I can do all kinds of things off line and go in and add the time–easy as pie. For example, if you have to do a phone interview for a piece, you just go in and type the amount of time you spent on it. Done. I’ve never had a client complain. Any client with half a brain understands that writing is about more than typing 80 wpm–and if they don’t, do you really want to work for them anyway? And as many have already said, yes, for the love of God, they do not have to see you while you work. The first thing I did was shut off the web cam! lol I still control what my client sees, and I have no problem showing them that I work and how long I work. I have nothing to hide. People get ripped off. It’s a reality. The last corp. I worked for had all kinds of securities in place and most companies are reading company emails these days whether you realize it or not. We just live in an era that requires those measures to prevent fraud, cheating, etc. Those of us who have nothing to hide shouldn’t be up in arms about it. It sucks, but it’s life. I’m trustworthy, so I have no problem being transparent in order to reassure my clients–some of whom have been burned by other freelancers–that I am the real deal.
    .-= Tamara´s last blog ..SHOPPING TIPS: 10 Items You Won’t Regret =-.

    • I think you have some good points there Tamara, but a trusted mentor of mine once told me the following:

      Never charge the client the time it took you to do the work. Charge them the value it provides to you and your client. If you can not agree on that value, then don’t do the work.

      (Paraphrased a little)

      There are dozens of SaaS based project management tools that provide the ability to log milestones, hours and the likes. For the volumes most freelancers do, they are usually free as well.

      I’d rather use one of them than something like oDesk. Some of the Zoho products for instance are simply awesome for freelancers.

      If concerns about getting paid are the issue, the 50% deposit and very firm terms and conditions are the answer. Few clients will default after paying a deposit.
      .-= Karl Rohde´s last blog ..Creative juices not flowing? Give the other side of your brain a workout! =-.

      • Anne

        Karl, your mentor is right… charge the value not the hours.

    • Anne

      Tamara, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I’m with Karl who points out there are solutions that you can implement, on your own, without the big brother aspect.

  • Thanks for an excellent follow up to that article, Anne. I caught it when it first hit the Internet. This is a great discussion and I appreciate all of the perspectives. Thank you all.
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..Books and eBooks: Keep or Purge? =-.

  • I find the whole concept of “hourly” rate sickening.

    Having just had to go through a painful negotiation, I managed to get the new client to agree to a flat fee.

    My argument was they can budget for it, and if I rip through the work faster than expected, I am not penalized for being good.

    A recent IT contract I got was to assist a company while a key staff member was away. It was hourly rate work. I got the work completed in 1/3 the time their staffer had estimated (for him to do it), and got sent home as they had no other work for me. i.e. I was penalized for being damn good at what I do.

    I will no take on writing work on an hourly rate, nor use oDesk. I find eLance a much better system, with escrow and the likes.
    .-= Karl Rohde´s last blog ..Creative juices not flowing? Give the other side of your brain a workout! =-.

    • Anne

      Hourly makes me crazy for exactly that reason… you get penalized for being good or learning to be.

  • Anne,

    I agree with you. While full-time, in-house writers are technically paid for having their butt in the chair eight hours a day, in reality, you never spend eight hours a day writing. When I worked as a full-time newspaper staff writer, my editor didn’t know, care, or want to know what I was doing all day–as long as I produced quality stories that were up to the paper’s rigorous standards. And, like you said, tracking down sources and leads, doing admin stuff, and interviewing on the phone made up the bulk of my day, not writing. On more than one occasion, I had days where I worked more than 8 hours covering something and didn’t even make it in to the office, which was fine by my editor because it meant I was getting out there in the community. I can’t imagine working with a program where clients would expect me to literally be writing the entire time I’m working on their project. The idea that a client would want to keep tabs on me that closely is kind of disturbing. I prefer not to use programs like oDesk, and instead meet potential clients the old-fashioned way, through networking. If a client couldn’t trust me to bill them fairly and honestly, or if I suspected I’d need a program like oDesk to get them to pay me on time, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

    The Strategic Communications Maven blog latest post: Why you shouldn’t have your graphic designer write your Web site copy: http://thestrategiccommunicationsmaven.blogspot.com/

  • dannett frey

    I too looked into ODesk and was not at all thrilled with the website or process. I have looked into several middle man companies to find the ones that I felt met my needs and fit my writing style.

    I have a system for writing when I get a project to work on that involves reading through the project instructions, researching the project, moving away from my writing and then coming back to produce excellent material.

    I also have a process I undertake with the clients to ensure that I will be paid for my work and that they will be very happy with the product I produce.

    The key certainly is to figure out what I can live with and what I can’t live with and develop my own version of ODesk or other company that works as a middle man. I receive 3-5 inquiries weekly on referrals from past clients or new projects from past clients. I also have the option to fill in with projects from middle men companies. I can charge the client less than they would pay to the middle man companies but receive more than I would in those same middle man companies.

    I have limited time to build trust between a prospective client and myself, which often includes developing a time table of when to send completed work and when I will be paid.

    Whether a writer decides to work for ODesk or another company, consideration should be made as to how you want your business to be handled. Yes, freelance writing is a business and needs to be treated as such. Having a plan on how to handle your business is essential. I would much rather build the trust between a client which includes delivering the product and receiving the pay myself instead of having to give a middle man more of my income.

    • Anne

      Good thoughts Dannett – I have two writing friends who actively subcontract out parts of their writing business. One has been doing it for years, another is really just getting started. I take an occasional gig from the second but not the first and it’s based on what I write well and enjoy writing more than anything else. Hammering out the subcontracting contracts is, of course, critical as well.

  • Dee

    I have to agree with you, Anne. My very first freelance job was an hourly project on Odesk. Not only was I uncomfortable being “watched”, but the program ate into my computer’s memory and made it sluggish. Of course, I have a much better computer now, but I still don’t want that type of software installed.

    I would use Odesk again if necessary, but my first experience left me with a bad taste for hourly projects. I now charge a fixed rate for all my work and feel much better about it. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and sometimes the work takes longer than the buyer thinks it should, so we’re both happier with the fixed rate.

    Still, I must applaud Odesk for creating opportunities for beginners. I will always be grateful to them for giving me a chance to get started as a freelance writer.

  • I agree, Anne. It’s certainly not a system for everyone, and it doesn’t really suit me, either. I went into freelancing partly to get away from that Big Brother thing breathing down my neck every minute. Writing is not like data entry, or piecework. There are plenty of times in an hour where I just stare off into space, letting the subconscious do its thing. It might *look* like I’m not working, but what I’m doing is wrangling those words into line.

    I much prefer working on a flat-fee basis. You just never know how much time a project will take, sometimes…it really depends on research, how much you know about the subject, and how difficult the words want to be on that particular day. Even with non-fiction type jobs, it’s a creative process. That’s like watching a sculptor and holding a stopwatch to see how much he can carve in an hour.

    Bottom line is, do you get a quality product and do you get it on time?

    How about when a mechanic fixes your car? Do you stand over him every minute to make sure he’s doing what *you think* he’s supposed to be doing? The writing process is different for every writer, but the truth is, I’m doing my job. If you have to watch me every minute, then YOU do it. You certainly don’t need to babysit me.

    *Phew* Sorry for the rant.
    .-= Netta´s last blog ..As You Wish =-.

  • I will not use oDesk under any circumstances. I do not work on an hourly rate. My clients get sparkling, original writing – top quality – with my 22+ years of freelance experience. For those to whom oDesk appeals, enjoy, but it’s not right for me.

    • Anne

      Although I agree, it’s worth noting that apparently if you work on the flat fee basis for odesk you’re free of what I call the spying.

  • I ran into Odesk a few months ago as well and I kind of agree for the most part with your post. I tend to lean more towards payment per project instead of hourly anyways. Besides I think it’s a little odd too.

    But I have to say, from a clients perspective I can kind of see why that would be nice to see the progress of who you have hired. Just not my thing. Or yours for that matter lol. What works for some doesn’t work for others I suppose.
    .-= Christopher´s last blog ..Is Your Being Nice Scaring People Off? =-.

    • Anne

      I don’t know, Christopher, I have clients who want to see progress which is why I send them drafts, etc. As you know, the writing process isn’t linear – it’s not like putting x widgets in the y widget holder per hour or other jobs where production can be quantified on a minute-by-minute basis.

      When I worked in telesales (thank the gods I don’t have to do that anymore) I understood I needed to make x calls an hour which would mostly generate y sales. That’s quantifiable – my words per hour don’t mean much to me or to a client… its the total project with, often, more or less identifiable steps, like chapters or sections. I’m always happy to let a client know about those and send ’em along.

  • I’ve been using oDesk for over 2 years now. In fact, when I get clients outside the oDesk system, I often ask them to hire me through oDesk instead. The 10% fee is worth the guaranteed automatic payment.

    Contrary to your expectations, clients are very reasonable and I have no problems switching applications while working – even if a screenshot pops up at that time, I’ve never had a client who has complained. In fact, most clients of mine never check the screenshots at all.

    The key is to properly convey expectations. The client needs to know how much you can deliver in an hour. If you manage to deliver that, then they don’t really care what you do.

    I feel people should relax a bit and realize that when they get paid by the hour, that time doesn’t belong to them, but to the client. It makes perfect sense. And for the client to have six screenshots in an hour, is perfectly fine.

    If however, a freelancer on oDesk doesn’t want to work this way, then it’s best not to apply for hourly jobs! Take up fixed jobs instead. When you work on an hourly basis, I don’t think its criminal to let the buyer see what you’re doing during that hour.

    • Anne

      Interesting points. The payment system I truly appreciate and recognize is needed. I can see that it can work well for both client and freelancer. The tracking is an anathema to me… at least as I understand it. When I think back to my inside writing jobs I come to the conclusion that even though my pay was, in theory, based on an 8 hour day, the actual time spend writing was rarely more than three or four hours – about what I do here in my home office. The other hours were spend in schmoozing, phone calls, research, meetings and what-have-you, some of which is necessary, but a whole lot was what I consider made-work.

      It’s the watching aspect of oDesk’s hourly approach that I’m against… that the client can peer at my computer from wherever – I’d have to work there on a flat fee. Which is what I do anyway.

  • Anne,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on oDesk! I always find it useful to hear directly from users… though you mention some common misconceptions about oDesk Team that I’d like to address. (I also shared some of these on Greg’s post which inspired yours, in the hopes that I can help clear up any confusion!)

    – Misconception: oDesk users are forced to work through oDesk Team.
    Reality: oDesk encourages all users to try the oDesk Team app and be familiar with it, and many users find compelling reasons to use the system. Over 70% of work performed on oDesk is hourly, and our users tell us that they prefer this model because it lends itself to longer-term relationships with their buyers, and to more meaningful and lucrative work.

    However, some contractors find that they don’t need the benefits of guaranteed payment and choose to work on an “all offline time” or fixed-price basis. oDesk guarantees payment on hourly work logged through the oDesk Team app, but also handles invoicing for offline time and fixed-price payments if that is how the user prefers to work.

    -Misconception: oDesk Team shares private information and is distracting.
    Reality: Users have complete control over information shared in their Work Diary. They can turn the oDesk Team app on and off with a single click, make notes to accompany their uploaded screenshots, and discard screenshots either before or after they are uploaded to the shared Work Diary. Webcam shots are optional, and default to “off” unless selected otherwise. Accidentally share an email with info from another client? No problem, just delete that screenshot from your work diary. Distracted by the screenshot notification? Disable it.

    Not everyone will find the Work Diary and payment guarantee aligned with the way they work. We’ve tried to account for other ways people work, and we encourage contractors to have conversations with their clients to decide if oDesk Team, offline work or some combination thereof is the right fit for them.

    Best regards,
    Erica Benton
    Marketing Communications Manager

    • Anne

      Erica, I appreciate your clarifications. That oDesk is big enough and profitable enough to guarantee pay is great. (I’m guessing occasionally you have to eat a bit when a client defaults – it happens.) So is your ability to get writers paid in so many countries. Am I understanding you only guarantee pay if the freelancer uses oDesk Team?

      After watching your video I’m still put off by what you’ve named oDesk Team – I don’t even like the name. I reject the idea that freelancers can’t be trusted to bill accurately and I think your video tends to promote the idea that freelancers must be watched or they will rip the client off – that’s the implication I’m afraid.

      However your points that the freelancer has the choice to work hourly (and be watched or potentially tracked) or flat fee is good to know.

  • Ron

    Several years ago when I was just starting out freelancing I signed up for Odesk. When I realized their Orwellian approach I dropped them entirely and wouldn’t go back for anything. Even though you can turn off the camera and do whatever else you can to minimize the “oversight,” I’m just not interested in that kind of a working environment. I get paid for the quality of what I produce not how long it takes or how I go about doing my work.

    Love to read your posts!

    • Anne

      Thanks Ron… you’ve got some impressive credentials yourself.

      Don’t know why I didn’t think of Orwell when I wrote this, but you’re right on.

  • I have one client who likes to use oDesk, but only because he uses freelancers from all over the world and it’s the easiest way for him to pay them and manage them. I turn the camera off when I work, so it doesn’t take pictures of me. When I work on something beyond the computer but I need to record clicks, I just keep a relevant window up and hit the down and up arrows a few times while working offline. There have been times when I have had to work offline away from a computer, and I let my client know for how long and he pays me based on trust. I don’t feel like he uses oDesk because he doesn’t trust us; it’s just easier for him to pay one big bill at the end of every week and have oDesk distribute the funds appropriately. Not a big deal.

    • Anne

      JoAnna why can’t he use paypal and pay to invoices?

      • He’d be paying into a dozen accounts off of a dozen invoices every week. There’s a lot of room for error trying to keep track of everyone and making sure everyone is paid correctly and at the right time. It saves him a lot of time and effort to just log into oDesk, pay one thing and be done with it.

        • Anne

          sounds like a perfect niche for a new business… international payroll or something… something that wouldn’t require you be watched in order to be paid.

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