Brand New Territory

How the heck do you outsource and manage creative intellectual property at the same time?  Here are some tips to make the world your oyster.

I’ve noticed that ‘outsourcing’ still has a pretty unpatriotic stigma attached to it in the news. Let’s face it..It’s got a bad rap. Aside from North America’s struggling manufacturing industries, maybe it’s because in any game of word association where you find ‘outsourcing’ you may also find the words ‘sweat shop’, and ‘exploitation’. It may not always be true, but it’s just what happens when you live in a media saturated society that’s hell-bent on providing groundbreaking exposés. One minute you’re loving your squeaky new shoes, the next minute you are evil incarnate for supporting the corporation who enables terrible squalor and inhumane working conditions in a developing country.  Damn you fashion! But I digress.

I used to mentally envision a scenario when I heard the word ‘outsourcing’ and then naturally thought ‘sweat shop’.  It was this vignette of a malnourished woman, working 40 hours straight at some wooden bench or something, doing it for her family, and making pennies.

Then I got to work in mobile publishing and realized that outsourcing, especially in the techie world, was a fantastic tool to optimize productivity. Not only that, but everyone got to reap the benefits of revenue generation. Sure, not everyone was making dollars, but they were living pretty well. In that world, you could be waiting on builds from Viet Nam, from India, France, Ukraine, the list went on. Someone was always working, day and night. We’d come in the morning, and pick up tasks made possible by someone else’s work across the world the night before. It was amazing. A business’s ability to output can accelerate to phenomenal levels using this ‘outsourcing’ thing.

So years later, here I am working away, back to my design and brand roots. I’m a new mom, my business is booming.. this would all be great if I wasn’t floundering a bit to keep everything together. I remember a time when I was working pro bono just to feel like I had accounts. Now I feel bummed out when I get another gig. When did that happen? Well, I was working for like 40 hours straight, too busy to grab lunch, thinking about my little girl and my husband, telling myself that the money was worth it..when I realized that I was very nearly the woman in my sweat shop fantasy. It was time for action.

Now around the time that my daughter was born, I started reassessing what ‘time management’ meant. I realized that when I tried to sit down and have a ‘time management planning session’, I was essentially playing Tetris with the same freaking tasks I had to do, in the same teeny amount of time I had in the first place. This stressed me out even more. My goal was and still is, to enjoy as much time with my teeny daughter as possible. Something had to give. But it couldn’t be my baby, and it couldn’t be the money coming in. Hmm. Conundrum.

I thought about getting a VA, but somehow grew shy as I checked out websites. It felt somewhat taboo. It might have been ok to work for a bigger company that relied heavily on outsourcing, and it might have been ok to manage a virtual team myself, but for my own small business? Really? I felt like a little kid playing dress-up in my mom’s high heels.  Then purely by coincidence, I downloaded Timothy Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek audiobook and felt that there was synchronicity in the positive reviews of having a virtual assistant. Or perhaps it was Tim’s hypnotic voice. I’m not sure. At any rate, I finally had the reassurance I needed to wade into the pool, and I did. My new VA contacted me two weeks ago and started taking care of a smattering of projects so I could take care of my daughter’s teething issues. Voila!

OK, now don’t get the wrong idea. I would have liked it if my VA could magically wave his hands and make all my problems disappear. But this isn’t just a hands-free catch-and-release situation. I’m not out there on the playground while someone else does my homework. Especially when it comes to branding and design, I believe there can almost be an increase in management and quality assurance when outsourcing is used. I am sure I will add to this list as I gain experience, but there are a few things I remember from back in the mobile publishing trenches that I think will help for anyone getting started.

  1. Master Scheduling
  2. Security, Protection, and Intellectual Property

Master Scheduling

Get comfortable with time zones, and be sure you know exactly what your help is doing and when. Knowing their schedule will help you optimize your own. In fact, it will be integral to planning. And just like you account (hopefully) for contingency in your own workflow, be sure to include it in theirs too.  Make sure you have a reporting system set up with them as well, and don’t forget to ask regularly for timesheets.

Also make sure you really examine your own work and project processes before you go ahead and book someone who works for you overnight. It might seem like you’re doubling your work day while you sleep, but some tasks and projects might lend themselves better to real-time editing, feedback integration, etc. which you might just need to be awake for. You might benefit from someone else on your team rather than having a tag-team.

Security, Protection, and Intellectual Property

I handed over my first login and password to my VA (gulp) and though I had a sense of dread leading up to that moment, I felt oddly liberated after I realized I was no longer the ‘ring bearer’ of the task.  Something that is very important to examine before you contract a VA is your own degree of being a control-freak. Ask yourself (as I force myself to ask everyday) what part of this am I hanging on to because I’m a Type A, and what part of this do I really think might be at risk for a security breach for my business.  Is my ‘needing’ to do this a real need? Am I really the only one who is qualified/educated/experienced enough to carry out this task? You will quickly find that the answer is no. At least I have found this to be true about 8/10 times. And I ask myself a lot. A LOT.

At the same time, it is vital that you keep valuing your work, and that does mean monitoring security and taking precautions with any intellectual property that you outsource.  Yes, when you sign up with a VA you will have an NDA as well as a contract that keeps you feeling good about everyone staying mum. But let’s face it. It is easy to hit a ‘send’ button. It is hard to physically travel to the other side of the world to see if someone has stolen your idea and is at that moment replicating it.

I think a great approach to managing IP security is to approach task delegation from the natural assumption that there are always going to be parts of projects that will remain internalized. It’s a lot harder to rip off a project component with no real context, than it is to misappropriate an entire idea.

And ok, yes, I know this sounds completely paranoid, but the truth is that risk management demands a small dose of pessimism in order to solve the ‘what if’s’ before they happen.  (I was also one of those kids who, in anticipation of others cheating off my test, would protectively wrap my arms around my paper like some kind of ‘screw you’ force-field. What can I say? Risk management.)

Ideally, all aspects of managing direction should be kept internal. That includes project management and task mastering. All decisions should be made internally unless you specifically outline differently. Also, there is no need to fill in your VA as to the whole background of your project, who your clients are, etc. Some people feel compelled to do this and I’m not sure why. I don’t. I simply say, “I need this and this done, like this, by this time.” And I add a smiley face 🙂 to make things sound happier and nicer than they would be otherwise. Basically though, my VA only gets the cubist perspective of my project. But I know he ‘gets it’ because I am very happy with his work..yet I also feel happy knowing that my IP is relatively secure.

After execution of their tasks, the final outcome should be assessed internally again before release to market. This is especially important for branding and design. Always look at things that one last time and put your stamp on them before they go out.  Here’s my summary:

 

1. The first part of a task can be handled in-house (task outlining, planning, and delegation)

2. Part 2 (and however many steps in between that and the final outcome involve execution) can be outsourced.

3. The final step of the task can be brought back in-house for certification, quality assurance and authorization.

 

That’s it for now. If anyone has experience with VAs jump in with comments. I’ll keep you posted.

Cheers,

Kat

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