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Inside e-ployment: Online staffing services put temporary labor within reach of small businesses

Christopher Null | July 24, 2013
Never mind all the stories about unemployment. American businesses are still clamoring for workers. They just may not need them for a full 40-hour week.

Toptal is careful to distinguish itself from the bulk of e-staffing sites, describing itself as a new "McKinsey meets Elance model," according to Toptal's CEO. Here, the focus is on quality, with a rigorous screening of applicants submit to an in-depth interview process and must complete a small test project on deadline. As a result, Toptal works with only about 1000 registered contractors, all in the high-tech world--either in software engineering and design or high-end IT support, such as database administration.

TopTal performs the deepest screening of applicants

Toptal's fees vary and are not disclosed. The service can take anywhere from a 2 to 40 percent cut of a contract, depending on a wide array of factors. Toptal can also help employers build teams of developers. And companies that want to hire a Toptal contractor full-time can do so by paying a contract buyout fee--typically about $30,000 per engineer. This may sound very expensive, but remember that Toptal is not the place to go to have someone design the icon for your new app. Rather, like a headhunter, the service is more akin to the place you go to find the talent to get your new startup up and running (and hopefully stay with you for the long haul).

Ziptask is a very small and very new staffing site, with only about 500 beta employers and a few thousand freelancers at present. The company describes itself as a "fully managed outsourcing platform," and the difference here is in the way Ziptask manages the contractor relationship. Ziptask employs project managers that oversee any freelancers you hire: Interviewing, managing, reviewing work, and so on. This forces projects into a more structured arrangement: Using the site is more like working with a project management tool like Basecamp than like using job site like Elance. There's not even a way to search for contractors; Ziptask deals with all of that itself to find the best workers for you.

It's surprising that, given all the added value Ziptask provides, it takes only a 3 percent cut of each payment. However, you also have less control over how much your project will actually cost: In addition to handling the hiring, Ziptask also handles the work of estimating the job's cost and duration. For truly hands-off employment, though, the approach is enticing.

The Bottom Line
If you need a job done quickly, and cost is your greatest concern, one of the big e-ployment services like Elance, Freelancer, and oDesk are all good bets. If you're looking for a longer-term relationship with a worker, but aren't ready to hire someone full time, one of the smaller firms, like or Toptal, may be more compelling. Finally, TaskRabbit's heavy background checking make it an ideal pick when you need someone on-site at your place of business, and you want to be sure they're going to show up come Monday.


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