Archive for December, 2012

Why You Should Use Ziptask as Your Business’s Virtual Assistant

Friday, December 28th, 2012 by shawn@ziptask.com

© Zsuzsanna Kilian 2009

I recently read an article on Entrepreneur.com detailing the various ways in which virtual assistants can help small businesses save time and get more work done. While reading the list, it occurred to me that many of these tasks were similar, and almost all of them could be completed with Ziptask. Using Ziptask as your company’s de facto virtual assistant is preferable to going through the process of hiring an in-house worker, and will allow your company greater flexibility and more focus on important tasks.

Why Ziptask Over an In-House Associate?

Ziptask’s services are best used for small, insular tasks, which are precisely the type of work that an assistant would commonly perform. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the process of hiring a flesh-and-blood worker is an extreme headache. For the relatively small role of an assistant, the process is understandably not worth it for many businesses. On the flip side, if you find yourself in desperate need of someone to handle all the small tasks that fall by the wayside, your new worker may find themselves overwhelmed by the volume. Ziptask can easily scale up to handle any amount of work; the same can not be said about a standard human assistant.

The article I read detailed 10 services your assistant could provide you, but I found that they could essentially be distilled into three categories: data collection, data synthesis, and data organization.

Data Collection

In a thriving business, which yours hopefully is, the people up top may find it difficult to keep up with all the information they are expected to know, much less seek out new research. Ziptask can help by sending its workers out to collect new data for you. Based on what your company needs, Ziptask can research potential new clients, keep tabs on changing industry standards, or keep an eye on competitors. Provide Ziptask with a general prompt delineating what information you want collected and simply send it out once a week. You can even automate the process so you just get a simple weekly “newsletter” directly in your inbox!

Data Synthesis

Conversely, sometimes your business has the information it needs already, but it’s not in the most convenient or accessible form. An assistant can provide structure to these heaps of data, and Ziptask is similarly more than up to the challenge. Send us a scan of your date book, and we can send you back a calendar file with all your meetings and reminders perfectly squared away. Send us your fresh-off-the-press business report and a few key points, and we’ll make a visual presentation for your coworkers, clients, or yourself. Send us a pile of receipts, and we’ll transfer the values to a nice, clean spreadsheet for you. Having your data in an accessible form at all times without having to do it yourself is practically invaluable.

Data Organization

Keeping tabs on all that data is possibly the most tedious part of your job, and therefore the part that screams the loudest for you to hand it off to someone else. Ziptask can, for a start, keep your finances in order by filing away all your statements and keeping track of upcoming bills. Simply having that part of the money matters off one’s mind can be a huge relief. In addition, Ziptask could also help you build and maintain a database of your employees or business contacts, keep track of your website’s traffic and hits on social media, and even manage your email inbox.

When faced with the seemingly endless amount of minor tasks we encounter on a day-to-day basis, many people would jump at the chance to pass some of that work off to a reliable third party. Ziptask feels your pain, and we want to help. Free up your time and your brain, and congratulate yourself on avoiding the hiring process when you’re done.

5 Reasons Why Your Business Needs Crowdsourcing

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012 by shawn@ziptask.com

Infograph from Saleschase Blog:5 reasons

In summary, crowdsourcing helps save time and money, improve quality, and make your business more flexible. Ziptask falls under the “Crowd Sourced Labor” category, and we’re ready to do whatever heavy lifting you need! Embrace the power of the crowd, and super-charge your business.

ReBlog: Clickworker.com Offers Tasks to Finnish Online Jobbers

Friday, December 21st, 2012 by Seth Weinstein

clickworker

Clickworker.com offers tasks to Finnish online jobbers (PR-inside.com)

The clickworker.com platform has been providing micro jobs in the areas of text creation, web research, translations, tagging and data categorisation for the last five years. Worldwide over 300,000 Internet users are registered on the platform. They are ready to handle any number of tasks according to their skills and preferences. An increased demand from Finnish e-commerce businesses for short product descriptions has prompted clickworker.com to offer text creation and editing jobs to Finnish Internet users.

Read more…

It’s nice to see platforms like this succeed, especially when their goals and methods are so similar to Ziptask’s. Cloud labor is worldwide!

Check out this site if you’re interested in other services like Ziptask. Our operations and capabilities seem pretty similar; the main difference is that Clickworker is more focused on creative endeavors, where Ziptask is more focused on processing and refinement. Both systems have their merits, and it’s always cool to see how the “other guys” are doing things.

Have a good weekend, and Happy Holidays!

–Seth

Work3.0 Featured on Crowdsourcing.org!

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 by Seth Weinstein

crowdsoucing.orgThree cheers for recognition! The article I posted last week about Automan and Amazon Mechanical Turk was picked up as an editorial feature on Crowdsourcing.org, the leading site for news and discussion regarding crowdsourcing, crowd funding, cloud labor, and distributed knowledge.

Professionals in the field would be wise to check out the content on Crowdsourcing.org with some degree of regularity. Their articles are well-sorted, submitted from a variety of sources, and will be seen by bright minds from a multitude of distinct industries. When I reported for Tiny Work, many of my news leads could be traced back to Crowdsourcing.org, and the attention my articles received on the site was instrumental in getting me where I am today.

Thank you, Crowdsourcing.org, and I hope we continue to have a mutually beneficial relationship with each other.

CrowdFlower Under Fire: Lawsuit Threatens Employment Status

Friday, December 14th, 2012 by Seth Weinstein

crowdflowerIt is not a good day to be CrowdFlower. The website, based on crowdsourcing, offers a service akin to Amazon Mechanical Turk: huge amounts of data handled cheaply and quickly by large crowds that are paid per task. But a new lawsuit leveled by an Oregon man who works for the company claims that its employees are drastically underpaid. According to the suit, CrowdFlower pays its workers much less than the federally-mandated minimum wage for employees, with some fees going as low as $2 to 3 an hour.

The sticking point in the suit is the classification of CrowdFlower’s work force. The suit claims that they are employees, like at any other company, and must therefore not only be paid the minimum wage, but also must have income and other taxes withheld. CrowdFlower, however, claims that their employees are independent contractors, and subject to less strict guidelines. The results of the suit will most likely hinge on the classification of their employees into one category or the other.

It’s tricky, though. According to the official IRS website, there is no one deciding factor that determines if an employee is or is not a contractor:

Businesses must weigh [behavioral, financial, and relationship-related] factors when determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor. Some factors may indicate that the worker is an employee, while other factors indicate that the worker is an independent contractor. There is no “magic” or set number of factors that “makes” the worker an employee or an independent contractor, and no one factor stands alone in making this determination. Also, factors which are relevant in one situation may not be relevant in another.

The keys are to look at the entire relationship, consider the degree or extent of the right to direct and control, and finally, to document each of the factors used in coming up with the determination.

In a nutshell, this means that the plaintiff’s side of this case will likely launch a large-scale investigation into CrowdFlower’s employment methods and worker duties, as well as peer into how the workers are paid, and by whom. If I can be honest, it does not look great for CrowdFlower. The lawsuit claims that some of their employees aren’t even compensated monetarily, and are instead given online gaming credits or points towards award programs. If it turns out that CrowdFlower’s workers cannot be classified as contractors, that is going to be all but a fatal blow. Further complicating the matter is the fact that CrowdFlower does not directly employ its workers, but instead hires them through channels like MTurk.

Further reading on the IRS site details what will happen if the employees are found to not be contractors. In the most likely scenario, CrowdFlower will have to pay both back taxes to the IRS and full retroactive compensation to the plaintiff, plus damages. Since the plaintiff is also attempting to get his suit into class action status, he may not be the only one who gets paid. However, CrowdFlower can claim that it had a “reasonable basis” for treating its workers as contractors, in which case they may not have to pay the aforementioned compensation.

There is also the possibility that CrowdFlower will be forced to reclassify its employees and give them all the tax- and compensation-related baggage that goes with it. Again, this could be a huge blow to the company since they’ve built their model on the idea that their workers are contractors. Without drastically increasing prices or dramatically cutting costs, they are simply not going to have the money to keep their namesake Crowd around.

It’s times like these that I am very thankful for how Ziptask runs things. We hire contractors as well, but with two major differences when compared to the CrowdFlower model: we are unequivocal about labeling our workers as contractors, and we pay them a fair wage. Crazy, right? But it turns out people like feeling like their time is worth something. There’s a reason that there isn’t a huge line at McDonald’s to be the next fry cook. Some work is menial and less-than-desirable, but it still has to get done. And if CrowdFlower wants that to happen, it’s in their best interest to not get sued for treating their employees poorly.

Simple stuff, really.

Cloud Labor Scuffle: Ziptask, AutoMan, and MTurk’s Flaws

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 by Seth Weinstein

AutoMan

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have recently created AutoMan, a new cloud labor algorithm that intends to outsource not the worker, but the boss. New Scientist’s Douglas Haven reports that AutoMan is a fully automatic system that analyses and delegates tasks to human workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Where Ziptask simplifies task outsourcing via our task management team and a “set it and forget it” setup, AutoMan seeks to tackle the process completely automatically. If AutoMan is successful, it could end up wildly improving on the original Turk by automating oversight, the one remaining untouched process.

In a report published by the UMass researchers, the grievances against MTurk are laid out quite succinctly on the very first page. Turk doesn’t scale well to complicated tasks, it’s often difficult to determine the appropriate payment or time scale for a job, and there’s no guarantee that the finished work will be of acceptable quality. Being so similar, both Ziptask and AutoMan have their own unique ways of addressing these flaws.

Scale and Complexity

MTurk is great for simple tasks like identifying the subjects of photos, but when it comes to complicated, iterative, or interrelated tasks, its power often falls short. The problem lies in the fact that clients need to separate complex tasks into bite-sized chunks of work, which are better suited to the platform. Ziptask solves this problem with its team of project managers, who can break down and assign tricky tasks to multiple workers, or pore through their database for a worker who is qualified for all aspects of the task. Unfortunately, it does not appear as though AutoMan will have any innate capability to split up or delegate a task in such a way; perhaps this functionality will be addressed in a later update. We’ve discussed the strength of Ziptask’s scalability before, so I hope the UMass researchers have something good up their sleeves.

Payment and Time

Those who wish to assign work via MTurk not only have to format and post their task, but must also determine how long it should take and how much money they think it’s worth. Since task posters are already short on time by definition, this step becomes an unnecessary speed bump. Ziptask, again with its human team of supervisors, assigns prices to jobs automatically based on the difficulty and type of work. Since the labor is compensated per-minute, they’ll also determine a cutoff price to help you avoid going over budget. By contrast, AutoMan turns the process into trial-and-error based on a series of formulas. Price is calculated based on the duration of the work and federal minimum wage, and task time limits are set to 30 seconds by default. AutoMan will automatically adjust both the task price and time limit (upwards) if it’s not getting the results it requires. Clients can set these parameters to other defaults if the task requires, but the process is otherwise very standardized.

Quality Assurance

Any cloud labor platform, regardless of its makeup or the details of its process, will live and die by work quality. Who wants to pay for substandard results? Quality assurance is an absolute necessity, and MTurk has next to none built in. Ziptask once again turns to its supervision team, who personally make sure that every document is up to standards before presenting it to the client. The client provides the final pass/fail check, and no money changes hands until everyone agrees that the work makes the cut. AutoMan, by comparison, automates the process in the simplest possible way; it has multiple workers complete the task, and waits to see which results are the most common. The workers are paid once the majority has reached a statistically viable agreement, with no payment going to workers who provided incorrect answers.

Will My New Boss Be A Robot?

Rest assured, it’s probably not gonna happen anytime soon. The relative inflexibility of both the AutoMan algorithm and the MTurk interface mean that this combination is going to be very effective, but only for certain kinds of tasks. In a nutshell, this isn’t going to add any muscle to MTurk; it will continue to be bad at intricate or skill-based work, but good at work that’s just above “a monkey could do it”-level. The only difference is that the AutoMan algorithm could highly increase Turk’s effectiveness at completing these types of tasks. For all other office work, especially things that you can’t wait around for five or six workers to agree on, Ziptask is going to get you better results, faster, and most likely for a better price.

Huffington Post: You Can’t Outsource HR

Friday, December 7th, 2012 by Seth Weinstein

HR

From Liz Ryan at Huffington Post:

[You] can’t outsource HR. That’s like running a business in Indianapolis and using contractors in India to water the plants on the desks. HR is local. It’s what’s happening on the ground, in the culture and among the troops. You can’t do that sort of work long-distance.

Good HR people are embedded, with at least one ear to the ground all the time. They may process vacation-time requests as part of their jobs, but their real value is in knowing where the good-and-bad-energy currents are flowing in your organization, and using that knowledge (and other skills, like sensitivity and emotional intelligence) to steer around the landmines that come with the territory whenever you work with people.

Luckily, the gulf between “process-type HR” and “people-intensive HR” duties is becoming more and more obvious every day. Much of what we used to view as standard job-description fodder for a typical HR person is now safely in the “process-type HR” arena. You can outsource that stuff, as long as you have a sharp HR person on staff and on premises to run interference between the troops and your outsourced-HR-process vendors.

Ryan goes on to emphasize the importance of delineation between human-based HR work and business-based HR work, the latter of which can (for the most part) be outsourced freely. The human side of things is best left to an attentive, in-house individual who is wise to the company culture and the ebbs and flows of employee opinions.

Ryan also includes a large, but by no means exhaustive, list of situations where an in-house HR professional would be infinitely preferable to an outsourced individual or firm. If an employee is being too sexually forward with his peers, or a sudden medical crisis arises for a worker’s family, or the entire staff fundamentally misunderstands the company’s business plan, an HR professional who is intimately familiar with the company will be a bigger help than a third party any day of the week.

Ziptask doesn’t outsource these people-oriented HR tasks, but the more business-and-administration purposes are easily within the purview of work we can handle. If you have a great HR worker on your staff, hold onto them for dear life! But also ask them if maybe Ziptask can handle some of their more number-crunchy work while they take care of that unfortunate “our receptionist got a DUI and is in prison” situation.

 

Connecticut School District On Track To Save $4 Million Through Outsourcing

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012 by Seth Weinstein

Money

When I reported a little while ago on how some companies were outsourcing their custodial and sanitation departments, I thought it was a neat concept with some solid reasoning behind it, but I didn’t expect the decision to be an Earth-shattering one.

Well, I underestimated the power of outsourcing. In an article released a few days ago in the New Haven Independent, the Chief Operating Officer of the New Haven school district, Will Clark, extolled the virtues of the method. Last year, his district replaced one third of their union custodians with those provided by the private sector, and now they’re on track to save $4 million per year in cleaning costs.

New Haven struck an excellent balance between keeping union workers and hiring new private-sector workers, with most schools keeping two union workers full-time and adding up to seven union part-timers. Many of the old union workers were promoted during this change, raising their pay and responsibilities over the new hires; this is something that would have been extremely difficult if not impossible under the old union rules. In addition, the reapplication process for union workers meant that the district could scrutinize and ultimately trim off workers that had recurring attendance or disciplinary problems. When the dust settled, the district was left with only their best union workers.

The results speak strongly. The district now enjoys qualitatively cleaner schools, workers with more flexibility, and the ability to do more with fewer people. One particular school, Career High, used to have seven union full-timers on staff. Now they have just two, with the rest of the work being taken care of by seven new outsourced part-time workers. Due to the variance allowed by this system, the school can call in more workers for big projects, like when they tackled several gym floor repairs and saved the company an estimated $50 grand. With the abolition of  dedicated workers for things like the pool and lunchroom, workers can go exactly where they need to go without being tied down by red tape.

And in addition to more staff when it’s needed, the district now also has the ability to stop money bleeding from paying overstaffed schools. The current system in Career High has more total workers, but fewer billed hours; the new workers can do the jobs of their predecessors in two employees worth of reduced hours. If a worker needs to call out for the day, one of the other contractors can step in without the school having to pay them overtime hours. This saving alone has almost amassed $1 million this year. And if the work for the day is done, the contract workers can be sent home instead of the district continuing to pay them to hang around. “We don’t need you sitting there doing nothing” if the building is already clean, Clark affirms, and I agree with him.

New Haven’s smart moves have saved them lots of money, allowed more people to have jobs, resulted in cleaner schools in less time, freed up hands and money for other projects, and added heaps of overall flexibility to their work capacity. If it could happen for them, who else could benefit from this method? You, maybe! Take a leaf from their book and get Ziptask to add some extra muscle to your workforce, and you’ll find your business will reach new levels of capability.

 

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