My Secret To Learning And The Rules To Follow When Outsourcing

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Sometimes I get criticized by my peers for the way I get things done with my businesses. And to be frank, I’m fully aware that the way I do things is not always the most efficient.

readingFor example, whenever there’s a problem that I need to solve, I try to spin my own solution before I look for outside help.

When it comes to my WordPress blog, I absolutely hate using plugins and I only use 3rd party software for functions that I already know how to implement myself.

When I do in fact use a plugin, I like to study the source code in order to understand how the plugin works at a high level before I hit the “activate” button.

I’ve also been known to reinvent the wheel. Even though there are perfectly good solutions out there that are sometimes free, I’ll often take a stab at coding my own implementation in order to fully understand the problem at hand.

Now a lot of you who are reading this post are probably shaking your heads. And I’ll be the first to admit that my method of operation can be quite inefficient from a time to market standpoint.

After all, if you read practically any small business blog out there, the general rule of thumb is to outsource as many tasks as possible that are outside of your core competency to someone else.

Focus on what you are good at doing and have others do the rest. Seems like perfectly logical advice right? But I try not to follow it.

My Take On Learning

book

Now before you close the window and stop reading altogether, I want you to hear me out and listen to my own point of view on why I do things the way that I do.

First and foremost, the most important aspect of starting a business for me is the learning experience. Of course, making money is important as well but the fun part for me is furthering my business and technical knowledge.

If there’s a problem that needs to be solved, I want to understand every facet of what I’m trying to achieve. I want to understand all of the details and options at my disposal.

So whenever I need a new feature implemented on my blog or online store, my first instinct is to do things for the sake of learning so that I can add yet another skill to my tool belt. And most of the time, I don’t care if things take a little longer to get done as long as I’m gaining more knowledge and depth.

Sometimes the learning process requires me to write my own code from scratch. Sometimes, it involves doing extensive research online. Sometimes it involves carefully studying someone else’s methodology. But the end result is that I always come out of the process more self sufficient, more confident, more knowledgeable and more experienced.

Being Self Sufficient Will Save You Time And Money

tool belt

Now it can be very tempting to outsource as much as you can to a 3rd party. And honestly, if you have the money and limited time, it often makes sense to do so. But as a small business owner or solopreneur who doesn’t have a ton of resources, it helps tremendously to become a jack of all trades.

Now you don’t have to be a master at everything you do but keep in mind that when you outsource a task or a feature to another individual or company, you learn absolutely nothing. And when you know nothing, that puts you and your small business at the mercy of someone else who may not have the same interests as you do.

For example when you hire a programmer or a designer and know nothing about web design, it’s very easy to be taken advantage of. And I’ve seen even the simplest of projects turn into big time money pits because of a lack of knowledge and poor specifications.

When you outsource your ecommerce store to a fully hosted provider, you are essentially handing over the reins for your business to someone else without an alternative. Now you might think that they can do a better job than you can, but I’ve seen many fully hosted shopping cart platforms go down for extended periods without an apology or refund.

In fact, one of the best known fully hosted shopping carts on the market has been extremely unstable since their last update (ask me about this privately if you want to know which providers to avoid).

I’ve also seen 3rd party platforms like Ebay jack up their rates to the point where it’s hard to make a profit. I’ve seen providers like Etsy change their policies and leaving many sellers in the dust.

That is why I always recommend to all of my online store students to at least give the open source shopping cart route a shot and completely owning the source code for your shop. By investing a little bit of time in learning the basics, you can be in full control of your own destiny and contain the risks of long term failure.

Becoming A Jack Of All Trades Has Saved My Butt

stop bullets

By taking some extra time to learn instead of outsource, I’ve saved myself from a ton headaches on several occasions. For example, because I host my own sites and I have a pretty good working knowledge of the source code since I set everything up myself, I can usually fix problems quickly as they arise.

When my site got hacked, I was able to diagnose the problem quickly and close the holes. When my blog kept crashing my server, I was able to figure out the cause and apply the appropriate fixes as outlined in this post.

When my accountant screwed up my tax return, I was able to diagnose the issue and found additional tax deductions in the process.

But what if I had outsourced everything and had no clue what was going on? When my site got hacked, I probably would have been down for a long time and lost countless dollars in the process.

With my blog, I probably would have blindly upgraded my web hosting and needlessly spent more money. With my taxes, I would have missed out on a few key tax deductions if I didn’t study up on the tax rules.

Bottom line, it pays to learn the basics especially if these skills are not a part of your core competency. As a small business owner, you can greatly improve you chances of success by becoming a well rounded entrepreneur.

My Rules For Outsourcing

So to conclude this post, I’d like to present to you some of my own basic rules of outsourcing. Now these rules may be a little extreme for some of you but the more that you can afford to follow, the more well rounded you will be.

  • Never outsource anything that has to do with your unique value proposition or core competency. If one of the value adds of your business is great customer service, don’t outsource your customer service. Always handle mission critical tasks in house and don’t even think about outsourcing them.
  • Never outsource a task that you have absolutely no clue about. In other words, you need to get a clue first. For example if you don’t know anything about web design, take some time to learn about the limitations of technology and get a good idea about the extent of the work involved before you hire anyone. You don’t have to become an expert but you need to know the basics.
  • Only outsource tasks that you could probably do yourself but don’t have the time and inclination or if it doesn’t make economic sense. If you know how to do something already and you don’t enjoy doing it, then it makes sense to outsource the task because you wouldn’t be learning anything by doing it yourself anyways. For example, I could create my own email marketing platform by myself from scratch but it’s much easier to use Aweber for my email needs
  • Don’t blindly use 3rd party software. This especially applies to free WordPress plugins. I’ve considered using several useful plugins in the past only to discover that they were horribly inefficient and poorly written when I looked at the source. Be careful what you install on your blog and spin your own code if possible!
  • Consider how you would do things yourself before even thinking about outsourcing. Do whatever it takes to figure things out. Sometimes, this might mean coding something up yourself. It could mean having to perform extensive research on best practices. The more you think about a problem, the more effectively you’ll be able to weigh your options
  • Do as much in house as you can. Every single aspect of your business that you outsource is another potential point of failure. No one else is going to care about your business more than you so it pays to be in control of as much as you can.

Conclusion

So that’s how I like to roll. It might not be the most efficient way to run a business but it ensures that I’m constantly learning and that I’m able to gain a depth of knowledge in a wide variety of areas.

My main philosophy is that even if your business falls flat on its face and fails completely, you’ll still have the knowledge gained in the process.

If anything, running my businesses this way has allowed me to teach my online store course that much more effectively because I have a depth of knowledge in many different topics. What do you think? Do you agree with my philosophy?

photo credit: susivinh JonathanCohen

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20 thoughts on “My Secret To Learning And The Rules To Follow When Outsourcing”

  1. Hi Steve,

    Super interesting post.

    I agree with your underlying principles, yet I work hard to outsource almost everything that does not make my business money or I dislike doing – which is almost everything.

    However like you, I usually only outsource after I have a reasonable understanding of how to do it myself.

    In the case of tax, graphic design and coding however – I’m afraid that would be enough for me want to work for someone else again :-) On the other hand, I love building teams and seeing others do well within my teams – ultimately helping to take my business to the next level.

    Great to hear how you like to do things and what works for you. Got no doubt it does make you great at teaching others in your course too.

    Thanks for the post.

    Quinn

    1. Hey Quinn,
      That’s funny that you dislike doing everything. I think I am quite the opposite but I’m an engineer at heart. When I talk about outsourcing though, I’m not referring to building internal teams. I’m a big supporter of hiring employees and building them up to take over the heavy lifting. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hi Steve,

    You make a compelling argument for going against what almost every other business guru says about outsourcing.

    It took us a lot longer to get up and running because we took the time to figure out everything from photography to coding on our own.

    Now we’re taking a crash course in all things SEO. We can hire an SEO firm to do this stuff, but it’s obviously an ongoing process, so it makes sense to learn it ourselves—we’ll save thousands of dollars every year as a result, and we’ll always know exactly what’s going on with our business.

    DIY takes longer. It’s more difficult. But in the long run, it’s well worth it.

    You’ve convinced me :-)

    1. Hi Catherine,
      You are one of the few students that have actually implemented the scripts that I provide in the course and it makes me happy:) I’m glad that you are becoming more self sufficient and it’s always a pleasure to hear your questions because I know that you’ve given things a shot.

  3. Vinh D says:

    Hi Steve,

    I’m just like you. I like to be in control of everything and want to know everything before I outsource it. But my biggest problem is memory… when I don’t do something for a short period of time, I tend to forget them very quickly. Do you have any remedy to fix this problem?

    1. Hey Vinh,
      I have a memory problem too, but having low level detailed memory is not as important as high level memory. For example, if I haven’t coded in a certain programming language for a while, I have problems when I want to write something useful. But at a high level, I understand all of the concepts involved and would feel comfortable outsourcing the work if I didn’t want to do it.

  4. Steve- Enjoyed reading this post. I am in between. There are some areas I LOVE to learn everything I can about even though it would be much more efficient to outsource.

    Then, there are other areas that either bore me or overwhelm me and I totally outsource . . . and would be better off learning a little bit more about these areas myself so I can better manage the services.

    Over the past decade, I have learned that outsourcing is vital to scaling a business while still maintaining lifestyle flexibility but I also have been burned way too many times wasting a lot of money on overpriced services and ineffective providers.

    I have found that once I learned a little more about the service needed, I could then hire more affordable taskmasters (versus professionals who I blindly trusted) and this worked best for me!

    I wish I had your engineering mind- HTML is about as far as I can go- wish I could learn to program and code as I know it would help me and my businesses!

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

    Amyli McDaniel

    1. Hi Amyli
      We all have our weaknesses. Mine happens to be anything that requires an artistic eye. While I’ve been trying gain more knowledge and experience in design and artistry, I find myself struggling to create stuff that is appealing to the eye. I have a friend that can whip out attractive designs at the drop of a hat but I clearly don’t have that skill or talent.

      1. Steve- I am with you totally on design matters! One thing I have learned is that if you first start with picking the right complementary colors, you will be way ahead then most in terms of coming up with a resonating look and feel.

        I discovered this tool http://colorschemedesigner.com/ – it is really cool, you can plug in a color you like and it will give you complementary colors (either for a two color or a three color scheme). I use it to create book covers, banner ads and website color palettes. Makes a huge difference!

        Also, if you are interested in learning more about design, Pamela Wilson’s free Design 101 series is really good. http://www.bigbrandsystem.com/ I’m learning a lot from her!

        Sincerely

        Amyli

  5. Hey Steve, I can totally relate to this post. Being an engineer at core, it’s almost natural to want to take things apart and understand the details before building it up again on your own.

    There are always pros and cons and I think you’ve nailed most of them.
    Keep it up. Always enjoy reading your stuff!

    ~TA

  6. Steve – There are times when outsourcing makes sense and other times when it doesn’t. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to outsourcing. The rules you have laid out before making outsourcing decisions are excellent rules of thumb. I particularly like #1. You absolutely cannot outsource something that falls within your core competence.

  7. Hey Steve, what do you think about outsourcing SEO. I kind of know how to do it but some firms like “Attracta” guarantee top page google spots for several keywords of your choice and for a monthly fee, they guarantee to keep you there at a top spot. I might like to learn more about seo but they say they will get me to the top page in 60days…it might take me years.

    1. You’ve got to be really careful about outsourcing SEO. They might be using black hat techniques that may get your website banned someday. Also, I would never trust any SEO that “guarantees” top page google spots. There is no such thing as a guarantee and it depends on the competitiveness of the keyword.

      1. Thanks Steve, great advice! I will definitely learn to do this myself because i think it is much more valuable to my future business and in the end, it will do a better job.

  8. Normita says:

    I see you don’t have a problem with using images that don’t belong to you, it would be nice if you try working harder and respect other people’s copyrights and trademarks. You can also try and spending some money and actually purchasing images to use here.

    1. These are creative common images and there’s proper attribution at the end of the post with a link back to flickr.

  9. This is a really great post. I agree that you should have some level of competency of any task before outsourcing it. Even if you do an hour of research, that can save you loads of time, money, and frustration down the road in case anything bad happens with the company you’re outsourcing to. Also if you show the company that you know a thing or two about the topic, it’s less likely that they’ll take advantage of your novice (and there are unfortunately companies that do that).

  10. This is an interesting take on outsourcing. It’s important to know something about the part of your business that you’re outsourcing so that you can recognize the 3rd party’s mistake and protect your business from it. If you outsource, you lose a little control of your business. But if you keep everything in-house, it can take up a lot more of your time to teach yourself how to do everything. Each small business owner has to decide what his right for his or her business. If you’re thinking about outsourcing your customer service, try Anser. We respect the reputation of our clients’ businesses and will make your decision to outsource customer service worthwhile.

  11. Being self sufficient is great, but there comes a point when some help is much needed. Outsourcing is great as long as you have a full understanding of what exactly is being outsourced, how the company is measuring results, and what their competitors are offering.

  12. Sunni says:

    I grew a very profitable and successful PR/Marcom using your model, despite all the counsel I had to let others do what I didn’t know. It’s a question, I think, of when to halt the learning, to assure that the learning has benefit to the business, and to make sure you are truly tackling the learning of something you can do. I learned all there was to learn about accounting/bookkeeping/state B&O taxes/commercial banking/audits before those tasks were handed over to an internal bookkeeper, external bookeeper, retained CPA and attorney. The result? I was a competent client when I met with legal and CPA. I understood them. I knew the right questions to ask. And they knew that I knew. As far as internal, I never had one fraud/theft financial situation despite having several people inside handling considerable dollars. I knew the accounting flow. I knew the bookeeping flow. I knew how to create my own internal system of checks and balances.

    When it came to our creative unit, I initially ramped up my design skills and luckily, I’m creative. When we had enough business for me to begin building our own creative unit, my artists and other creatives knew I understood the problems they faced and I also knew how long it took to “make” something, which gave me credibility with them and also helped me to supervise and then to let the supervision go to another.

    I could keep going. But my point is that you have to let go but in my experience, the learning aspect was key to our profitability.

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