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Use the Web to hire the best talent

Posted: November 7, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 7, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Gary Swart, CEO of oDesk, an online contractor marketplace, speaks at the Nov. 5 meeting for SCV Startup. Swart shared his advice on successful hiring and the best ways to contract work online.

For early-stage startups, one of the biggest challenges is in staffing. Oftentimes you don’t have the funds or your company hasn’t progressed enough to attract local top talent.

So find the top talent elsewhere, says Gary Swart, CEO of oDesk, the largest online freelance marketplace with 2.5 million registered contractors and more than 790,000 jobs posted in the first six months of 2012.

Swart, from Silicon Valley, was the guest speaker at the Nov. 5 meeting for SCV Startup, a local mentorship group for area tech startups. The CEO shared his most successful hiring philosophies, tips for hiring contractors online and his biggest lessons learned as an entrepreneur.

Online contracting removes the geographical constraints and allows you to use a website’s matching algorithms to find the best person for your specific need, experience level requirement and price.

Attendees expressed concern that online contractors may fudge their experience, hours or skills. In addition to 100 in-house employees, oDesk has taken on about 250 contractors found on its own website, Swart explained, and there’s just as much risk as hiring people in person as online. Treat the two situations the same: Look at samples of work, talk to references, and give them a test project if necessary.

“What questions would you ask if you and I were sitting right here?” he asked.

Swart said for many positions he’ll make “back channel” reference checks before the interview even occurs, where he goes beyond the references provided by the applicant. These are the most telling discussions you can have when considering an applicant, he said.

For tech-related jobs like programming and design, the question comes up of pricing per hour or per project. oDesk allows you to do both, but only pay per project if your project is extremely clearly defined and there is no chance of you changing your mind, Swart said.

Oftentimes a logo design is paid per project. But if you’re hiring someone to make your website, you’ll probably change your mind throughout the process and you don’t want the contractor to tack on huge wages for additions to the project.

One compromise is to pay per project for small aspects, Swart said, then once you find a great programmer or designer you can depend on long-term, switch to paying them hourly.

Beyond the hiring process, Swart touched on the inevitable process of having to replace employees. He explained that a startup starts in the jungle, moves to dirt road as it grows, then becomes the Bentley driving on the smooth highway. There are people who are better at cutting vines through the jungle than driving the Jeep on the dirt road, he said.

“Know when to change,” Swart said.

oDesk recently did that by completely replacing its executive staff with people who had previously worked with eBay, Expedia, PayPal and Amazon.

It needed people who could drive the Bentley, Swart said, which means people who have experience with an exploding company.

oDesk is a leading marketplace for online contracting, but Swart had to make a few mistakes before getting to that point.

The entrepreneur said his biggest mistake in other ventures was “trying to be all things to all people,” he said. Narrow the focus of the product or service, “execute well and then expand.”

Find more information about SCV Startup at




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