Small business owners know how hard it can be to find talented, reliable employees ... not to mention how expensive it can be to keep them around. What's more, work flow in any business ebbs and flows: one month you might be overwhelmed by logistical problems stemming from a software upgrade and the next you might not have enough work to go around.

Fortunately, with the rise of mobile technology, small business owners are now able to tap into a world of skilled, affordable freelancers who can be hired to accomplish just about any task that can be completed on a computer with no long-term commitment.

To offer more insight about using freelancers in your small business, we caught up with Gary Swart, the CEO of oDesk, the world's largest online workplace. Here's what he had to say:


What is your professional background/area of expertise?

Following graduation from the University of Maryland, I began my tech career in sales, leading corporate sales at Pure Software and Rational Software. From there, I went on to serve as the business unit executive for small and medium business sales for the Americas at IBM's Rational Software Product Group. In 2004, I became the VP of Worldwide Sales at Intellibank, where I was responsible for leading the sales organization. In late 2005, I joined the remarkable team at oDesk where I'm responsible for setting the strategic direction for the company, leading our team of employees and freelancers, and enabling our users to access the world's best talent and jobs, via the Internet. In my "free time," I mentor entrepreneurs and students, and frequently speak to these groups about the challenges growing businesses face.


What does oDesk do? How would a business owner benefit from using this service?

oDesk is the world's largest online workplace, freeing savvy businesses and talented freelancers to work together on demand, via the Internet. oDesk removes the Industrial Age limitations of traditional staffing and empowers businesses to staff on demand. Before online work, most small businesses struggled to hire top talent locally, did not see success with traditional outsourcing firms and typical received B- talent from staffing firms. oDesk is creating boundless opportunities that level the playing field by granting access to a global, flexible bench of talent.


What types of services/jobs can a small business use freelancers for?

The skills people hire for on oDesk are varied and include just about any type of work that can be done in front of a computer. Recently, I have heard from clients who hired for bioinformatics projects, translation and HR, and another who hired a theoretical physicist.


What are the benefits of using contractors versus hiring employees?

We live in a world where work is constantly in flux and staffing approaches are becoming increasingly flexible. All businesses need to be able to scale up and down to meet demand more effectively, but small businesses -- who may not want to hire a full team -- especially benefit from on-demand staffing. It is critical to leveling access to the talent they need.


How do freelancers help businesses save money?

Businesses of all sizes are trying to do more with less and mitigate extra costs. Freelancers are becoming a core part of the business model -- the combination of a scalable, customizable workforce, access to worldwide talent, and the decreased costs of maintaining office space and HR overhead keeps businesses nimble, fast and competitive.


Why is it important for small businesses to have a strategy in mind when using freelancers?

Just like hiring on-site employees, it's critically important to have a roadmap in place for the new hire and rest of the team to lean on. Online work absolutely requires some adaptation from the existing way of doing business, which businesses and workers are still learning. New skills are required to manage a distributed team, clear and frequent communication is paramount, and businesses also need to develop strategies for engaging and retaining online workers who may have other clients and other demands.


How can freelancers maximize your productivity?

The global talent supply is going to keep growing, as more people get access to computers and Internet-based technologies. The flexibility of online work spreads the available talent pool to a wider variety of demographics than available in a local market -- and with a larger pool of applicants to choose from, businesses are more likely to be able to locate the right person to get their work done quickly and reliably.


What are the biggest mistakes businesses make when hiring freelancers?

Just like with anything new, the first time you do something you don't know the right or the wrong way. Like hiring locally, you have to invest the time to get it right; but unlike hiring locally, the downsides are much lower. oDesk allows businesses to "try before you buy," spend less time interviewing and vetting candidates, and pay less, in terms of money and time, to hire.

Hiring freelancers includes time zone conflicts and cultural differences, and therefore requires more effort to develop a good relationship. It's important to over-communicate, document experiences along the way, and understand that you hire and fire based on results, and you pay based on time.


What are some of the most sought-after freelancing skills right now?

The top skills hired for on oDesk in Q1 2013, by dollars spent, include:

  1. Web programming
  2. Mobile Apps
  3. Web Design
  4. Data Entry
  5. Desktop Applications
  6. SEO
  7. Graphic Design
  8. Blog & Article Writing
  9. Ecommerce
  10. Customer Service & Support


How has technology made finding and hiring quality contractors easier?

Technological advancements, along with economic shifts and the skills gap, are driving the growth of online work. In 2012, the online work market reached $1 billion and Staffing Industry Analysts expect the market to be $5 billion by 2018. On the oDesk platform, there are 3.4 million freelancers and 630K clients registered around the globe. Working online has enabled freelancers to take control of their career and do what they love, earning what they are worth in a global economy. Our research shows that online work provides a huge opportunity for people to grow their careers: oDesk contractors, on average, increase their hourly wage almost 60 percent in the first year of being on oDesk, and close to 190 percent over three years.

Contributing to the wage growth is the transparency of each freelancer's profile -- previous experience and feedback from former clients are shared publicly. This shared information simplifies the process of finding a freelancer with a specific skill to hire.


What are some best practices for working with contractors?

Think about how you effectively manage in a face-to-face relationship: it's around clarity. Make sure as the manager you can answer "Where are we going?" and "How are we going to get there?" Just like hiring on-site talent, managing freelancers is centered around responsibility, and each team member needs to know exactly what he or she is responsible for and what key metrics will determine success. Managing these relationships online requires constant and consistent communication- whether it be daily check-ins via Skype or regular screenshot shares. It's imperative to make sure all players are on the same page and that they understand the short and long-term goals.