The Highs and Lows

I have been really pathetic past couple of days. But we all need those days now and then. When you experience something that tears you between what you know is right and what you know will make you happy. It can be professional or personal life. “Succumb” – my heart tells me. “It’s not you” – my mind chastises. Not being a very strong person I always take the easy route. Turn to Him. Lay it all out into the open and tell Him to do for me what’s right because I don’t have the strength. So, when I was weak, He stepped in. I tell you dudettes, His decisions are realllllyyyyy tough and you gotta be a 100% sure you want an intervention. So I was saying … I have been down in the dumps, hating myself, hating on the world, hating on everything. And I am still not all the way OK but the worse is over. I am here writing this blog, ain’t I? So … deep breath … inhale … and EXHALE. Phewww …

Back to my former glory .. almost.

I was at Alauddin Academy. You know about that, right? It’s crazy fun, I tell you. And so gratifying. The online work workshop is going well thanks to the very hard work of Amna Zafar. Initially the plan was to just teach them basics of Elance and let them figure out other things on their own. But seeing how enthusiastic everyone is and what a wonderful bunch of students we have, we are now covering all the basis. So Elance, oDesk, Freelancer and LivePerson. Also, basics of blogging, creating WordPress websites using simple templates (tweaks really), Facebook and Twitter and how to use them for running small online businesses. Exciting, right!

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Again, I request you … if you have any data entry work or SEO article work or some other small thing you think you wouldn’t mind getting done on the cheap while helping these women please ping me.

So long.

OK Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

$0.5 for 2 Hours Anyone?

ImageFirst things first – was looking for an image to express anger at oDesk – typed in “mad at oDesk” and found this. Loved it, and hence it’s there – it’s my blog – deal with it. Now, to the topic ….

Do you know how friggin’ hard it is to write “high quality articles with no plagiarism, that read naturally and are 500 words +”? Over 2 hours! Back to oDesk – lurking around, pouncing on decent projects that don’t have a “No Pakistanis Please” policy. It makes me furious when I see the high expectations and the price clients are willing to pay for the work. $0.5 for a 500 words article … WTH! And then they usually follow it with how its going to be a long-term assignment and they will need about a 100 articles per month. A $125 which roughly equals Rs. 11k is ridiculous even for Pakistan.

To be a good writer you must have a higher degree in English, or should be an A-Levels student at the fanciest, most elitist school that only a very few can afford in Pakistan. A typical Pakistani professional who works at a dead-end 9-5 Government job that he (notice how I am not using my favorite gender here!) probably acquired by paying a bribe to some politician is not going to be able to write a decent article fulfilling all the client’s requirements. And why in God’s name would a person with a good Master’s (yeah, we have good and PATHETIC) or a kid that goes to a school that boasts of it’s own Pizza Hut and McDonalds franchise want to work for $125 k a month? 

A request to clients: it’s OK if you can get your work done for $0.5, no one is forcing these people to bid in the first place. But when they are unable to come up to your expectations please don’t trash them. After all, you get what you pay for. 

OK Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

P.S. Those of you searching for “Angry Mom”, yeah you are at the right place. 

oDesk Wire Transfer

Went back to my oDesk account the other day after a long, long time. They have added an option for Wire Transfers now. For a moment I was excited. Yipppeeee … no more signing up for Payoneer and waiting forever to receive the card. No more setting up Skrill (formerly Moneybookers). I quickly went on and set up my account only to find out oDesk charged $30 per withdrawal via Wire Transfer. WHAT THE HELL! So the portal charges 10% of the withdrawal amount and then another $30 for the transaction and then another $4.99 as currency conversion fee. It’s ridiculous considering most of the tasks pay $1/hr and the fixed price projects are like $4 an article (for example). I can write about 5 500 word articles a day so let’s say I have a good month and write 5 articles every day for 30 days that would come to around 150 articles and a total earning of $600. oDesk subtracts their 10% and another $34.99 for the transaction and that leaves me with $505.

So for a whole month worth of work I get what? Only $505!!! Recently an SEO client-turned-friend from the US said the low rates were the fault of the contractors. They bid so low in order to get a job it makes the rates so pathetically low. It’s sad how the low employment rate in our country and in others like Philippines and India forces people to work for peanuts. I know how hard it is to get work on these portals and maintaining a good rating. There are predators out there that will hire you for pennies, give you an impossible task (25 articles 500 words each in 3 days) and when you deliver they will still bug you over the money threatening to give you a bad rating if you complain to the admins. It has happened to me so I know what I am talking about. And if it comes to the worse and you do go to the admins, chances are they will side with the buyer. So what options do online workers have?

What has your experience been like using these portals both as clients and service-providers? I know you will never comment coz you are probably here looking for info on “honesty and generosity” as per my stats. But miracles happen. Which reminds me of MJ … :’( “And I believe in miracles, and a miracle’s gonna happen tonite … “

Passion

The language of art is universal. What’s better still is that you can interpret the same painting, music, poetry in different ways. I was reading through Charlotte Bronte’s “Passion”. Look at these lines:

Wild, long, a trumpet sounds afar;
Bid me–bid me go
Where Seik and Briton meet in war,
On Indian Sutlej’s flow.

Blood has dyed the Sutlej’s waves
With scarlet stain, I know;
Indus’ borders yawn with graves,
Yet, command me go!

Though rank and high the holocaust
Of nations steams to heaven,
Glad I’d join the death-doomed host,
Were but the mandate given.

Passion’s strength should nerve my arm,
Its ardour stir my life,
Till human force to that dread charm
Should yield and sink in wild alarm,
Like trees to tempest-strife.

I don’t know what they mean to you but they struck a chord with me. Our country is going through some very hard times. Karachi is burning, Waziristan has burned already, a huge mass of the population is living in IDP camps under some very tough conditions. There are drone attacks, visits from some very angry US officials, there is an energy crisis, so much so, our industries are shifting to, lo and behold, Bangladesh. Sectarian violence, terrorism, target killings, people burning down their own country and going on killing rampages because they hate America, America sending in drones and causing civilian deaths and crushing the economy because it hates extremists. Either way, it’s a Pakistani that is killed, or suffers in some way. I get depressed. I get very, very unhappy on certain days. But then I ask myself; what are you gonna do about it?

Who? Me? I am a nobody. I have no power, no voice. And a voice inside my head says; “WRONG! You are somebody – you are YOU! So think hard and tell me what are you going to do about everything that’s upsetting you.”

I know nothing about politics so that can be checked off. I know zilch about governments and how they should be run, so another check off. I can go out and start a  revolution Egyptian-style only my family would kill me and I also am not sure what the Egyptians were doing (see, I honestly don’t watch TV or read the newspapers). So what can I do? Ah, I know. I can stop whining for one. Another thing, I can help a bit with the economy of the country and earning my own $$$ and not being a dormant parasite.

Go one step ahead and try teach others how to do same. Maybe even find them work because let’s admit it, getting work on oDesk and Elance etc is REALLY hard. Now if each one of us would just FOR THE LOVE OF GOD stop feeling sorry for ourselves and go and do whatever little we can do, that’d be much appreciated. It doesn’t take fancy speeches, it doesn’t take quoting verbatim from Rumi, or shaking our heads in dismay and saying, “Pakistan has gone to the dogs – I am moving out of the country soon as I sell my mansion in Islamabad”. It takes just a little bit of sincerity.

Become a VA. Have your friends laugh at you and think you need a job. Earn a dollar an hour and have your family pass snide remarks about paying their janitors more than that. Think SMEs. Think startups. Let people think you are an emotional fool who needs to grow up. As Bronte said:

Blood has dyed the Sutlej’s waves
With scarlet stain, I know;
Indus’ borders yawn with graves,
Yet, command me go!

Things are bad – things are REALLY bad – Sutlej, Ravi, Indus – they are all dyed with the blood of people who haven’t got a clue what they are fighting for. But hang in there and do your bit.

I promise the next post will be more about tools,tips and tricks, and info on virtual assistance. For now, thanks for bearing with me. Have got a lot on my mind lately.

OK BYeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Business is Common Sense

The 25-yrs old does it again. Couple of days back I was whining to him about work and how I should do what my friends say and just get a job, and he says, “Business is common sense, Maria – perhaps you need to rethink your expectations”. Much as it pains me to admit it but that made sense. This blog is not about him so I’ll skip to what it actually is about. What is business really?

In her guest post on Women 2.0, Jennifer Toney, Founder and CEO of  WeMakeItSafer describes business beautifully (and I am a little jealous of her for being so eloquent).

“If I’m cursing, there is a business opportunity.” You know, every time you say, “@*#*! I hate it when that happens!” or “@*#*! Why in the world did they make it this way?!” …. if a problem is big enough and important enough that it makes you mad; if it evokes enough passion that you are writing about how stupid it is on your Facebook wall, or better yet, a three-page blog post; it just might be a problem worth solving. After all, if it irritates you, chances are good that it irritates others.”

I just LOVE the simplicity of this definition. I can relate to it when it comes to WDL. I was working as a teacher at a private school and hating every minute of it. I naturally quit though it took me three long years to reach that decision. While sitting at home, I kept thinking to myself there HAD to be a way around this problem. I couldn’t do anything but teach – no one would let me – but I am not one to give up easily …. :D I started looking around, found Rozee online. Wrote 200 essays for a lady in Multan for Rs. 15k. Found oDesk while shadowing her on the Internet (I am evil, I know), earned about $400 in the first month. Was approached by founder of a not-for-profit startup in SF, CA and became a full-fledged VA from a content writer. Heard about Women 2.0 Startup Competition, and became an entrepreneur. Ladies (GET OVER IT – I am a feminist), motive behind the brag? I had a problem and instead of sitting down crying about it and shouting at God for not  being fair to me, or having a sighing competitions with other women over who has had the hardest, saddest life and hence deserves a place among saints, I found a solution to the problem. I know, I am AWESOME! :P

You don’t have to start big, you can start with making beaded jewelry, or embroidered mobile pouches and selling them on Etsy or Folksy. Or you can start from your home designing clothes for friends and family, taking pics of all the dresses you made so far and putting them on a Facebook page, or you may want to start a cooking class for little girls. It doesn’t have to be a social enterprise. It doesn’t have to have a huge social impact changing people’s lives for the better. Look at Facebook, Evernote, Angry Birds. I don’t feel like a better person for using any but man is a social animal and wants to mingle with people, we all have our own crazy ways of unwinding, many of us have trouble keeping track of our ideas. These businesses banked on those needs. Look around you and see if you can identify a problem that you can solve, something you feel passionate about, something you can do better and differently, find out if there is a market for it. Start with friends and family, neighbors, the random people you have added to your FB list, twitter – and then stop contemplating and take the plunge. See where procrastination landed Hamlet? I always say, “I’ll never know unless I do it”.

Trust me, it has its pitfalls – there are days you want to commit murder – you curse yourself for refusing to get an easy 9-5 job at some huge multinational whose owner is best buddies with your uncle – but it’s fun. The adrenaline, the small conquests, the way the world unfolds before you gives you a high like nothing else. It’s the strongest addiction ever. Try it and let me know how it goes.

OK byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Accounting

I hate handling money. I absolutely abhor it. I suck at it. For me managing money means spending it and not having any so you don’t need to worry about managing it. That’s BAD – really bad – I know. But what to do? I need an accountant, WDL needs an accountant – BADLY!

Here is what I do to keep a track of WDL’s finances: have a folder on my desktop with 2 sub-folders. One sub is for invoices that have been paid and another for unpaid ones. And THAT’S it! This is hara kiri, I am telling you. (what is hara kiri? GOD GALS – you don’t Google at all, do you? Now is a good time to start … :P) OK so you would think, that’s not too bad. It is! Because I often forget to add invoices to the folders or put them in the wrong folder or something like that. Why I am confessing this? Because unless I admit I have a problem I won’t be able to find a solution to it. About ‘fessing stuff, some people/well-wishers have come up to me and said this blog will be the death of WDL. To them I say thanks for the concern but I have made so far with “this kind of attitude” and I don’t have regular Girl Fridays or Happy Hour dates with my clients. It’s more like Hey there, Can you please work on xyz task and return it by 10 PM? and that’s it. How I talk or what I talk about outside of work hours doesn’t bother them. I’d be surprised if any of my 5 avid readers turns out to be a former or current client. :P Chillax!

Digression thy name is MOI!

Yeah, so what do you guys suggest I do? CFOs are expensive. WDL can’t afford one. Volunteers – dunno where to find them and if I do get someone am not sure she will take it seriously enough. Back when I was partnering as a service provider with a not-for-profit in the US I was surprised to see how almost all of their staff was made of volunteers and each performed her duties like she would at a paid job. Here, in my dear country, I am afraid that ain’t gonna happen.

So, what are my options? Any free software available that’ll manage WDL’s finances? At the business skills course, they’ll be giving us classes on accounting and finance. Am hoping to pick something there – fingers crossed.

So, if you are a VA, which makes you into an entrepreneur, like it or not, you must keep a track of your money. Know what comes in, how much goes out in payments to team members, how much is spent on office stationary and power backup (I have to change the battery for my UPS every year and it cost me Rs. 12k this time), etc. Don’t get super excited by the total figure at the end of the month – learn to differentiate between total revenue and profits. Put aside a certain amount every month no matter how irresistible the lawn sales are – there will be lows and you must be prepared for them. I didn’t listen when a friend advised me to do just that a year back and I found myself so broke I put Oliver Twist to shame – Please Sir, I want some more … (have you noticed how when you are broke even a Rs. 100 DVD, that is roughly $1.2, seems like a fortune that mean, old fate has deprived you of?)

Lap up these words of wisdom, Ladies! oDesk and Elance don’t teach you this. Only experience does. And of course MOI!

OK byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Discovering Twitter

Yep … I have finally joined the brigade. I am on twitter and am tweeting. I DO hate the name twitter. How ridiculous. Ever since I heard some comedian compare it to a bladder control problem on the Jimmy Kimmel Show (I swear I hate that show, only know this coz of the constant ads on Star World) I have hated Twitter. But everyone is on it and harping on all the wonderful miracles it can perform so what the heck … I created meself an account.

Now twitter can help a lot if you have a product to sell and a decent website or blog. I for one don’t have a website or a blog I can show my potential clients because showing them this would be absolute suicide and my website is a complete mess (have a look here) but I am tweeting so I can test it for meself before I tell you to go try it. See, I care. Hope you appreciate it!

So now I have my twitter account but I am twittering alone. How do I find people with similar interests? A potential clientele? You can do it either by entering a search query for your keywords (I used virtual assistants) into the Twitter search box. Or, better still, by using Twiangulate. I went to Twiangulate and searched for all members who had mentioned the word virtual assistant in their profile. I filtered out the good from the bad – basically just started following members who had 250 and over followers. This gave me my target audience. Cool, eh?

So now I am getting tweets from fellow VAs about recent articles they’ve written, online seminars taking place for VAs, the odd job posting for online assistants. I have added my blog to my twitter feed so every time I write a post it gets “tweeted” out automatically.

If you are a VA (VA is used here in a very broad term and includes all kinds of digital work you can do online) and have a profile on oDesk, Elance, Freelancer etc you can tweet out a link to your profile with a few words about what you do and where to find you. So all in all, it’s a pretty neat tool. Give it a try.

Fathoming the O in oConomy

Back with a post about good ol’ oDesk. Last night as I was recovering from the shock of Salman Taseer‘s assasination I ended up haunting my first love, oDesk. oConomy is where “(we) showcase fascinating data from the work activity of over half a million oDesk users in over 150 countries.” I am confused, angry, and then a little more confused. Here is why.

So according to the oConomy, Pakistani providers are ranked as the 50th best quality-wise based on their average rating which happens to be a cool 4.45 (the best you can get is 5 and Latvia which is ranked as numero uno is 4.82). Now this is affected by several different factors a huge one amongst which is the total number of workers using oDesk from a particular country. For example, Latvia has 135 providers working on oDesk which is a joke comapred to the 6000+ freelancers from Pakistan. Now being a Pakistani I did what every Pakistani does sub or un-conciously: quickly checked what number India was on. *I am pathetic I know*. India is at number 65 with a rating of 4.17 but WAIT … before you do a happy jig it has 31, 000 providers working online. Don’t give me crap about India being 10 times the size of Pakistan and hence having a larger workforce etc. Give credit where it’s due for once. :P

Anyway, this isn’t the place to discuss what we have been taught in our Pakistan Studies books from Punjab Text Book Board but about oConomy and where Pakistan ranks and why.

So, at No. 49 with 6000+ freelancers with a 4.45 rating I am very happy. This brings me to some other statistics like the number of hours Pakistanis are working online and their … wait for it … rates. Consiering we are doign so well on the quality rankings and that we are working over 15, 000 hours a week I am surprised, shocked, confused (again) at the hourly rates. Have a look at this graph:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I am no good at reading graphs but this one speaks for itself. Why the dip? WHY, I ASK YOU? Especially when the quality/rating/feedback graph looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See what I mean? This demonstrates my frustration and THE POINT I AM ALWAYS TRYING TO MAKE better than anything else. It’s a tough, mean world out there. It’s hard to get work and when you do get it you have to work at reduced rates. But don’t get disheartened. It’s always tough in the beginning. You have to be patient and stay positive and gradually work your way up by letting your work speak for itself. Once you get those ratings up believe me things will change. But if you are not going to try and be mediocre then you don’t have the right to complain. Again, look at good ol’ moi. You have read my blog – I suck at writing. I am obviously not a native speaker and make tons of grammatical mistakes but then how did I maintain a 4.9 rating on oDesk (it was 5 but a B**** who made me write her 20 articles instead of the 5 we had agreed on for the same price is responsible but that’s a story for another day my dears)? I worked off my behind (I wish that were true and not just an expression). I researched, I wrote, I rewrote, I edited and then I edited some more and kept at it till I edited the crap outta it and only then I sent it to my client. Honestly, I enjoyed doing it. I remember when I made me first $100 on oDesk. I was ecstatic. No, it wasn’t just about the money though money is always GREAT … let’s not kid ourselves … but because it was something I did all on my own. No one helped me, no one guided me, people actually thought I was crazy trusting faceless people living gazillions of miles away to pay me for my work. I was even told that the jharoo-wala (sweepers) made more than I did. It hurt but I kept at it. And here I am now. Eat that humble pie dahlins … hope you choke on it. :P

So, chins up, work hard, bid low, pocket those first few assignments, impress the clients, and you can start asking for what you deserve.

Until next time … this is how Sue sees it . Seriously guys, don’t tell me you don’t watch glee.

What most clients want from Content Writers

As you take your first tentative step towards becoming a content writer you’ll see that most clients have similar demands: quick turnaround, (pathetically) low rates, native-like proficiency in English and content that’s passed from CopyScape. Now the first 3 are pretty self-explanatory but most of you would not have heard of CopyScape. Let me enlighten you …

What do I do when someone asks me to write 10 articles on getting rid of freckles? I rush off to Ezine or ArticleBase of course. There are other places such as HubPages and About.com etc but the first 2 are my fav. Both are databases of info about any and every thing. Anyone can join and start uploading articles as long as these are original. People use them mainly for SEO purpose. (What is SEO??? That’s for another post dahlins!)

The problem with these kind of databases is that  they lead to a lot of duplicity – you’ll come across the same info over and over again. So what was I saying about an article having to be original in order to be uploaded to Ezines, ArticleBase?? Well by original I just meant it has to pass CopyScape. You take an article off any of these sites relevant to what the client has asked you for, you rewrite the hell outta it, copy/paste it into CopyScape which runs it through ALL the text on the Internet checking for plagiarism and once your search comes out clean you are ready to send it to your client.

So for example, a client asks me to write 10 articles on getting stains out of a carpet I’ll search for the topic on the mentioned sites, take a couple of decent articles and start rewriting/rephrasing like this;

There is perhaps nothing quite so frustrating as spilling something on a pristine carpet, yet no matter how hard one tries to keep carpets in perfect shape, sooner or later, a glass of red wine, a plate of baked beans or something equally messy winds up on the floor. If this has happened to you, here are five tips on removing the stains and returning your carpet to its former glory. (This is an excerpt from an article on Ezines: http://ezinearticles.com/?Five-Tips-For-Getting-Stains-Out-of-Carpets&id=3976181)

1. Annoyed because a guest spilled red wine all over your new carpet? I know how frustrating that can be. Here are a few tips that will help ease your stress a bit.

2. No matter how hard you try it’s impossible to keep your carpets from getting stains. Tea/coffee, soda, gum are common culprits. Relax! Below are a few tips and tricks to get your carpet back to looking brand new.

3. Oh no, you just bought a new carpet and you accidentally dropped wine on it? Don’t fret – you can get the stain out in a few easy steps and no one will ever know. Here is how.

4. Dudettes, you don’t expect me to give you all 10 examples, do you? SERIOUSLY! *eye-roll*

It is boring and mind-numbing and you don’t have to get a masters in English Literature to do this but it’s good practice for bigger things that will come your way, trust me!

Anyway, so after writing all 10 articles this way, you just run them by CopyScape and you are done. The problem is that when you are reproducing a single article in 10 different ways you do sometimes tend to repeat a phrase that was in the original article and THAT my friend is a problem. Your client will always run everything you write by CopyScape and if a single result comes back pointing to the original you are dead meat. No client is going to hire you especially if you are working via oDesk/Elance etc because you will get a real bad feedback which will ruin your overall rating.

So, yeah, CopyScape is scary but at the same time it is a content writer’s best friend too because you know once it approves something you need not worry about any plagiarism accusations.

My advise? While you are waiting for your first client, try rewriting a couple of articles off Ezines and running them by CopyScape. It’s good practice and you realize how sensitive the tool is to anything that’s copied word for word form somewhere else even if it’s just a phrase.

Ciao for now.

Lesson 3: There is no Lesson 3

Yep, you heard me right. There is NO Lesson 3. I have told you all you need to know in 2 lessons about what VA is and how to get started. You know what to expect, what to do, the do’s and dont’s. It’s that simple! What you need now is to get your ass out there and work it off. Why didn’t I tell you there were just 2 lessons? Because I wanted you dummies to understand you don’t need to pay $$$ to attend some crappy 4 day workshop to hear someone like me tell you how it’s done (trust me I have been offered to speak at workshops). It will be a complete waste of both your time and money. Some crook will throw fancy words at you (oDesk, VA, RentACoder), show you some slides with intimidating figures about how big the outsourcing industry is, give you some case-studies to ensnare you good and then just tell you just what I told you in 2 FREE lessons, you ungratefuls! (I love exclamation marks … they are perfect for creating abit of a drama.) :D

Does this mean the end of my blog? FAR FROM IT. I still have to tell you tons about content writing, transcribing, dealing with clients, virtual companies that can help get you work, and so on. So, keep coming back for more dahlin’s.

See you on the other side … ;)