Freelance Face-Off: You vs. India

Sluggish economy got you down? Can’t find work to (perhaps literally) save your life? Have you ever tried bidding on a project on an online freelancer site? has a monstrosity of a monstrous list, which they call the Monster List (no idea why), which is packed with sites where you can post or bid on a job in the Internatz:

The list also has some traditional sites that traditionally list more traditional job offers:

Looking for an expert in Unreal Engine 3, PERL, Corel Draw 3 (NOT version 3.2), with seven years experience in iPhone development. Candidates interested in banjo will be given strong consideration.

The Boon and Bane of Knowledge Work

But what’s with this e-lancer stuff? i admit that in my darkest moments, i’ve looked into it. Here’s how it works: you sign up with the site for the privilege of bidding on a list of projects. A typical project would be

Wanted: 4-page photography website. Home, Gallery, About Us, Contact. Fast turn-around. Project cannot drag on longer than 6 weeks.

So you think “okay- i could do that.” And you reason it out. Let’s use Toronto freelancer numbers. The project will last 3 days (what’s this 6 week nonsense?). Maybe we’ll pad one extra day for changes and Acts of God. A decent and fair web builder rate is around $20-30/hr. Seven hours a day times four days, times $25/hr is $700. So of you go to post your estimate.

Then you read other people’s estimates, and a sense of horror creeps upon you. India has happened.

Enter India

India says “We can give you five weeks at $43.” And you think “$43? Isn’t that a little high for India?” And then you realize that’s not the hourly. They’re quoting $43 TOTAL for five weeks on the project.

Ganesha's extra arms help him code faster than you

Ganesha’s extra arms help him code faster than you.

And then Also India comes in and undercuts India saying “we’ll do it for $17.” And then Yet More India jumps in with “We’ll do it for free if you send us four cotton T-shirts and a yo-yo” And you realize that you’re likely not in the right league to bid on this, or any other e-lance project on any e-lance site anywhere, ever.

And then you get this unnerving feeling that the Zombie Apocalypse is already upon us, except instead of slow-moving re-animated corpses murmering “brraaaaains”, it’s polite and extremely well-educated Indians working for peanuts and pointing at their heads, bragging “brraaaaains!”


i bet India could make that costume for a third of the price.

i was never one of these ass-scratching Nascar-loving heartland types griping about how all the “foreigners are takin’ our jobs away and marryin’ our wimmin.” But it’s a hard fact to argue when you hop onto e-lancer sites and see the dizzying discrepancy between what you call a living, and what India can get by on.

So what’s the solution?

  1. Get by on less. (But i’m a spoiled, fat Westerner! And i love STUFF! That’s no gonna happen.)
  2. Move to India. (Eww – no. i saw Slumdog Millionaire and it was all, like, gross and junk.)
  3. Change careers. (i hear car manufacturing is very promising.)

10 thoughts on “Freelance Face-Off: You vs. India

  1. Snurre

    The 4’th option is to take advantage of this. Make the indians do the work for you. For a website design, all you have to do is talk with the costumer, and the make the finishing touches. Then you would make 700$, pay 17$ to an indian, and work something like 4 hours max. I know this will probably fail a lot in real life, but in theory it’s really great! :)

    1. Ryan

      Yeah, but damn my morals. i just can’t get past the principle of paying people a fair amount of money for the value they provide.

  2. Paolo

    Having been a consultant, you will find it is difficult to communicate requirements with a person standing in front of you and nearly impossible halfway across the globe. Creating software is not factory work where sheer numbers can make anything happen.

    Software is like surgery, like cuisine, like art. Having too many people can be detrimental.

    And in the end, I believe you get what you pay for.

  3. Paolo

    I know for certain that Government jobs won’t go to India – especially high security development.

    As far as commercial products go… Without factoring in the India “across-the-world” equation, there was a team of 10 consultants who were hired to create a product. The team of 10 spent a year and couldn’t even come close to finishing the product. The company started hiring programmers to take the development in-house. That’s when I arrived with a couple other high-profile developers.

    We scrapped the previous product and started from scratch. And over the course of a year, my team of (at best) 3 developers, was able to surpass the product that a team of 10 could not do.

    Then company was bought out by General Electric. GE has some 3000+ developers in Bangalore, India vs. our company of (at largest) 5 developers. Despite vast superiority in numbers, GE cannot replicate the success we had in developing our product. It was cheaper for GE to buy the company and our expertise than it would be for GE to duplicate our efforts.

    So from personal experience, I know that what it takes is talent and not just sheer manpower.

    Also, one of my coworkers is a e-lancer. He charges $100/hr and has on occasion picked up projects that were outsourced on the cheap and the client regretted it.

    1. Ryan

      No problem! i REALLY like the surgery analogy. i’ve been on projects that take too long, and the nail-biting producers and time management people throw more resources at it, only to complicate things and delay delivery. i appreciate that it’s a difficult thing to understand if you’ve never programmed … but it’s just one more point in the argument for middle-management types to learn their industry.

      Re: talented Indian programmers charging what they’re worth – i think it’s more of a cost-of-living thing. If you’re a talented programmer living on an al paca farm in peru, your money is going to go a lot farther than if you’re a talented programmer living in a condo in Manhatten.

  4. Paolo

    When I was working as a government consultant, the management wanted to find ways to speed things up and kept asking if they could hire more programmers to make things go faster – but we were working on the core of the system that couldn’t be mass produced. So our typical response was, “Can 9 women make a baby in 1 month?”

    I’ll keep on doing more follow ups because there is still more reasons why I think that outsourcing won’t always work.

  5. saurabh

    I ended up bookmarking half your blog. Its a delight to read, and extremely informative. Im a Flash Game developer (AS3) down here in New Delhi, India. And I know what you mean by the whole $43 a week thingy. And its not just you guys out there that are being flash-bombed (pun unintended) thanks to that. Even a mildly talented guy like myself finds it hard to compete with these ground-scraping quotes from some of our ‘peers’. And I ended up un-subscribing to most of the ‘e-lancing’ sites that seemed like pot loads of money when I got there.

    However I should tell you, that in 9 cases out of 10 its a semi-geek middleman who sits in a small cabin in some shady third floor apartment and sub-lets these projects to dirt-cheap freelancers whose google skills are better than their programming ones. And as a result you have hideously low quotes, since there is still enough to go around. And it’s a royal pain in the ass for guys like me down here as well. There are companies whose turnovers run into annual crores (crore = 10 mil INR) where the CEOs sit in their fancy cabins all day and do nothing except roam the boards on sites like etc posing as boyish freelancers.

    btw: you should come down here sometime. f*ck Slumdog Millionaire. Its nothing like that down here. Movies man!

    1. Ryan

      Wow! Thanks for the view from the other side, saurabh. Before i saw Slumdog Millionaire, my impression of India was … well, exactly what you see in Slumdog Millionaire! Thanks in no small part to stuff like Rohinton Mistry books. (Do you know him? He’s Indian-Canadian). So basically, India scares the crap out of me.

      The folks i’ve talked to here are slowly (SLOWWWLY!) starting to realize that dirt-cheap overseas outsourcing is often not worth the low amount of money they pay. But we do business very differently from a lot of folks … while they may shy away from India, folks here often build a start-up on student “talent”, because students work very inexpensively. They also lack a lot of knowledge and experience, obviously. i’m not averse to hiring students at all, but i’m not sure it’s a wise strategy to build your entire company on.

      But it’s good to hear that we’re not the only ones being hurt by bottom-feeders. You’re probably suffering even more, because people *expect* you to quote those dirt-cheap prices. Wow. And yes, i agree – one or two trips to those elancer sites depressed me tremendously and i haven’t been back since.

      – Ryan


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