How WordPress freelancers can attract the most lucrative projects
Interview with Tomaž Zaman, Co-Founder & Operations Lead at Codeable
When you think of freelance marketplaces in WordPress one company usually comes to mind, Codeable. Its co-founder and CTO, Tomaž Zaman, is a developer who discovered the gap in the market in the WordPress ecosystem while he was working with his business partner, future co-founder Per Esbensen, on other projects.
But how did they attract customers with the best projects and find the best developers to work with them? Tomaž sat down with WordPress Marketing to offer his tips for anyone hoping to launch a business and attract the best paying work.
How to attract early investment for your company
One of the most challenging tasks for any start-up is getting that initial funding. Tomaž explains how he pitched to everyone he could and what he learned from those first investors and customers.
Using customer feedback to improve the service long-term
Tomaž says he made it a point to create a “Codeable community” which gave his customers and developers the freedom to offer their opinions on the company and what they could do to improve it further.
In particular, he goes into detail about how he changed the long-term business model of Codeable thanks to client feedback.
Attracting the best projects and avoiding the untrustworthy ones
For any freelancer, the key question is how they can identify the most profitable projects and avoid wasting time on ones that will not work out.
Tomaž reveals how Codeable identifies spam projects and how the community of experts helps with this. In addition, he discusses how Codeable uses marketing and partnerships to ensure the marketplace only receives the best tasks.
How to communicate with your clients to boost your business
A theme with almost all of the most successful WordPress companies is the value it places on communication with clients. Codeable is no exception.
Tomaž emphasizes the importance of meeting people face to face in order to get their feedback on your business. He also reveals other ways you can keep in touch with clients to further improve.
In addition, Tomaž outlines how the support team structure at Codeable functions and how they get so few refund requests from the thousands of projects they handle.
How to attract and filter the best developers
Codeable is known for its tough and strict selection process for identifying new developers to join its marketplace and Tomaž explains in detail how it works.
The co-founder also discusses how Codeable works with the developers once they join to ensure the new experts are as successful as the previous ones.
How Codeable promotes its business
Tomaž tells WordPress Marketing Codeable’s most effective channel for promotion is forming partnerships with some of the most influential businesses in WordPress.
He also explains how he gets in touch with them both in person at WordCamps and also through phone/email conversations.
A day in the life of a successful WordPress entrepreneur
One of the things I kind of wanted to know was what was your daily routine like? Now, obviously, as a co-founder, I imagine you're very busy every day and there is always a host of things that you need to do.
My days are quite hectic, to be honest, especially lately with the whole company transitioning into a bit more of a hierarchy. We’re just a team of 19 people right now. So basically, I’m just trying to help all the people transition successfully by taking away the mundane parts of their work. Like if I can help them with some, you know, databases or some basic code or whatnot, so they can focus on tasks, their tasks. That’s what I do.
So basically every day brings something new and there is no set schedule for me to work on. I mean, obviously, there is an overarching narrative that I stick to. But day to day, it may vary quite significantly. On one day I’ll help the marketing team. On the other day, I’ll help support. On Thursday, I’ll help the developers. So it depends on the day.
How many hours working a day? As a rule?
That depends as well. Now that the company is a bit bigger and we have delegated some of the tasks to our employees, the hours are not that crazy. So I may work anywhere between five or 12 hours.
It depends on the day. Sometimes I have to work on a weekend, especially if the servers misbehave, which is rare but does happen. Or we have a nasty bug then. Then I’ll pull an all-nighter. But those are extremely rare now. Honestly, there isn’t like an eight to nine hours schedule in my life.
Starting your business and getting that first investor
How did Codeable begin and what was it like in those first initial months working at Codeable?
My career started in college when I approached my professor to make a website for the university. I studied it here in Slovenia. And they, to my surprise, said yes. And that’s kind of how I got into web development. But soon we, me and my wife, we got our first kids.
So we moved to a remote area here and I struggled to get any work because the area is quite underdeveloped from a web perspective. So I found this beautiful world of online outsourcing services. So I started to work on some projects there but quickly discovered two problems. One, if you sell hours, you have a finite amount of them daily, weekly or for whatever period. So that was the first issue. And the second was it really was a kind of cutthroat competition to win those projects because some developers would bid really low — as low as four dollars an hour, which was something I couldn’t afford to live off.
I luckily got a client that paid me well. He also had some issues on Elance (now known as Upwork) in particular when he hired developers, he would have to sift through 50, even a hundred of them sometimes for his projects, which was a huge time-waster for him.
So at some point in our two ish year relationship, I said, “Listen, I’m kind of fed up with this Elance and I think we could do something better. And I’m a developer by trade. So why don’t you take care of the business end of things and I’ll develop a platform, so if you want to join this business idea I have, I’ll be more than happy to have you on board.” And this person’s name is Per Esbensen, and he’s now my co-founder of Codeable.
And the first I would say two years were really tough. We were basically broke. We were trying to fundraise. But even explaining to people what we were trying to do was hard for us because we would either talk too much or not enough. And we probably pitched the idea to like 30 people. And it wasn’t until we had already launched our product, being completely broke, that some of the investors approached us and offered some money to help us move along. And we took some of it. And we are today where we are — a successful, profitable company.
Why do you think those first investors eventually said yes to you?
I would say because they saw perseverance in us. Like we would work crazy hours. We would pitch to everyone that would listen to us. We would network as much as possible at the same time taking care of our families and still flying to conferences and different startup workshops.
So they saw that we were going to do this. And we knew in our hearts that we were going to do this with or without them. So the biggest lesson here for me was that you will hear no from people at the beginning and the more you persevere, the more people will change their minds. And that’s the name of the game.
Lessons learnt from the first customers
I guess one of the things people like yourself, entrepreneurs, always remember is that first customer. Do you remember the first project that you got for Codeable and what happened?
Honestly, I don’t remember the very first project, but it was relatively easy in retrospect to get the first customers, because what we did is we reached out even before we had the product. We reached out to WooThemes which were the people behind WooCommerce, obviously.
And we approached them and asked basically one question. And that question was, “Do you provide support as extended support to the customers who buy your themes?” And the answer was no. So our follow up question was, “Would you send those people to a platform that would have X amount of prescreened developers?” And we would guarantee that the work that they would do would be of the highest quality possible. And the answer to that was, of course, yes.
So when we launched, we already had one of the bigger or biggest names in the industry at the time sending us clients. So we basically earned our first 14 dollars, I think it was on the third day after launching the company. And those 14 dollars, that I do remember and we were ecstatic. We were jumping in the air over fourteen dollars, but it was a huge milestone for us and one worthy of celebrating.
What did you learn exactly from those experiences with your first projects that put you in good stead for getting future work?
The importance of customer support, I would say, and the importance of community. Because for many of our competitors it’s kind of an every person for themself scenario whereas we really try to nurture our community of developers of people that provide and do the work we think of them. We want them to think of each other as colleagues rather than competitors.
And it worked wonders for us, like we still go to WordCamp Europe or WordCamp US every year. And we hosted a dinner party for them this year in Berlin. We had a hundred people coming. So a hundred of our experts that provide work on the platform came to the Codeable experts’ dinner in Berlin. My heart was literally filled with joy, pride, gratitude, humility, even, because all these people came together, had a dinner, had a couple of drinks.
The power of community in general is something that people don’t recognize fast enough. And I think that half of the work for us was done by WordPress itself because WordPress is good in bringing the community together. You know, outside of Codeable.
The importance of word of mouth and using feedback to improve the service long term
Would you say word of mouth was an important factor in your company's growth from the start?
Yes it was. By a huge margin. I would say that word of mouth is by far the most important thing, because when many people talk about you, it spreads outwards very fast.
We have this network effect that people like and I’m talking the provider side of things on Codeable. So our experts started to bring their friends who they could vouch for to Codeable and so many people started to apply to our online forum that we had to take it down because we couldn’t process all the applications. And I think the reason for that is not the word of mouth of Codeable itself, but the word of mouth of the Codeable community. How people treat each other. How we, the core team, treat our experts. How we treat our clients, what the standards are like, the high standard of communication of work and of course, the high standard of pay as well. So all of this combined creates a good, I would say, a word of mouth/networking effect.
Was there anything you did that you used to improve your service further and helped you out in the long term?
Yes, I would outline two things here. Probably one was that we made the application unnecessarily overcomplicated. It wasn’t that complicated because it was just me and another developer working on it. So we had very limited resources back in the day. But we made some features unusable or not understandable for our clients. So it made it difficult for them to easily hire someone.
And that goes into my second mistake, which was that I started Codeable with the idea of people helping other people with small fixes, because that’s what I’ve done in my career. So I was, in a sense, scratching my itch when I would provide a small fix for somebody for, let’s say, 60 dollars or a hundred dollars. So that was our starting point.
But now we’ve grown significantly and people have come to us posting projects north of a hundred thousand dollars now. So the problem here is that our app was not equipped to handle those kinds of volumes or even the wording itself was, you know, kind of implying that people should post small projects. And even after we did a couple of client surveys, we still discovered a lot of our clients think of us as a place to solve their small issues, which is not the case anymore, at least for, you know, five years now. So we’re trying to fix that issue as we go with wording inside the application with some features with our website and whatnot.
So how did you go about changing that in the long term?
Well, we first changed all the occurrences of the word «task» because we have a lot of them in our app, in our emails, on our website. So we replaced the word «task» with «project» because that kind of implies that projects can be of any size as opposed to a task which is usually a smaller one.
However, the big step that we’re taking right now is that we’re doing a complete rebrand of the company. It will hopefully convey the message of what we do much more accurately.
So in those early days when you were getting feedback from your clients, what were the overriding points that they made that you used to improve your service further?
Well, what we mostly asked for was the application structure, as in how easy it is to post a project. Furthermore, how easy or difficult it is to communicate with your developer because our platform supports real-time chat. It always had. So we would ask them about the usability of the application.
And this is something I would encourage everyone that does any kind of app development to do. Even as soon as you can run the prototypes with some people that need to be in potential customers’ groups.
So, by far, the most feedback that we got was not understanding the process flow of, you know, submitting the project, getting an estimate of how the estimation works and then how to hire and then how to communicate and how to get the work delivered. So I think this expectation management process is something that we neglected for far too long.
How do you teach people how the process through your application will go and at the same time how to make it as short as possible? But there is also a catch there. Like if it’s too short, then you make it too easy for people that don’t necessarily convert that well.
So you make it easy for, not necessarily spammers, but people that don’t have the budgets or are just kind of trying to see how much something costs but don’t have any intentions to pay and whatnot. So yeah, it’s a balance and we’re still working on it. I don’t have a solution because it’s not something you get done as your company grows. Do your customers evolve or change or do you attract new ones, bigger ones from different cultures or segments?
How to spot a potentially untrustworthy job or client
What are the warning signs that tell you that maybe some contracts are not trustworthy compared to other ones?
It really depends. There is no silver bullet here. We, of course, have more than a hundred thousand projects posted on the platform now. So it’s getting easier and easier for us to recognize those. But it’s usually, you know, a mix of their project brief. How they describe their project. Usually, if they’re overly confident in their wording, but then provide a budget that is not reflective of that brief that’s usually our first kind of warning sign.
If somebody says, “Hey, this should be really easy for someone that knows what they’re doing, right.” I mean, people come to us because they don’t know how to do something. And if they say that this should be easy, or simple, or fast, or cheap. Those are the phrases/words that we kind of look for and we manually evaluate every project just to see and we assign a viability flag on it. So how viable is it?
And we’re getting more and more accurate with this. The more data we have, honestly. But it’s still a very manual process. And even then, some projects slip through our fingers. And then that’s where our community of experts come in and they usually flag the project. As in if it is spam or if they need to take it down or if something’s wrong or, whatever. That is the beauty of the community, that even if something slips through your fingers, you have people that catch that and report it.
How to attract the most lucrative projects
So on the other end of that scale, obviously, you want to avoid spammers, but you also want to attract the best projects, the most lucrative ones. So what do you do to ensure that the best quality projects appear on Codeable?
Well, first, we try to partner with some of the companies that share some of our values or most of our values and provide the extended support, as we did with WooThemes for this company.
So we already know, for example, that some of these companies have great clients. So partnering with these companies is really a natural step for us and for them. And we get great clients from the get-go. That would be number one.
Number two would be to explain the sales/marketing side of things. Well, primarily marketing, for which, you know, the first driver is our website. So the new website, we’re kind of hoping, will convey the message of what we do and more importantly, to whom we want to do it much more successfully. But we’ll see. We’ll run tests. We’re already improving the existing site with this in mind. The results are promising. So that’s why we decided to go into a rebrand. So hopefully we’ll get there eventually. But yeah, it’s an ever-evolving process.
So on the subject of the website, how did you identify that as a way for you to improve further the quality of the projects you get on Codeable?
Speaking with clients. As in speaking in person with them. Not even, well, we did some remote interviews, but we did a lot of them in person as well.
We will do user testing for our website, not just the application. So we would show them the website, we would give them a particular task on a paper, ask them to try and complete that task and also share their thoughts along the process with us. So that’s how, for example, we discovered that people perceived us as a small tasks, bug fixing company rather than, you know, a whole project-providing platform that connects great developers with clients that need them.
So, I would say by far, talking to people is the most valuable thing you can do in listening to feedback. And also one step that was unintentional but happened anyway was providing support through the live chat on our site. We would get a lot of presale questions there. And through those questions, we discovered what messages we didn’t give out on the site or what we didn’t explain well enough. And those questions through the customer support very quickly started to repeat themselves. So we would get multiple threads out of those we tried to address them through various changes, both to the website and our application.
How to maintain a high level of customer service
How do you communicate with your clients?
You reach out to them. Well, first, if you provide a live chat support to them, then they’ll reach out to you, obviously. And from that alone, if you’re the shy type, I guess, then just providing a live chat button on your website is a good first step to give people a means to reach out to you. And they will reach out and they will have a lot of meaningful questions.
So it’s very important to listen to those questions and not only answer them on a per client basis or per prospective client basis, but on a wider one, meaning to create an FAQ part on your website or explaining on the landing page if the question is really important or if it’s asked often, that will be my first thing.
Then second would be to find people in your vicinity. Go to them, buy them a drink and do some proper user testing. There’s loads of books on that topic and it’s usually not that hard. It takes five people. That’s all it takes to get a couple of those major aha moments for you as the company owner, as in what the people struggle with on your service or your website or your application. All it takes is five people spending less than an hour with everyone. So my first suggestion would be to read a book about it. User testing, at least initially when you’re small, you know, some basic knowledge and talking to people in real life does 80 percent.
Of course, once you evolve and grow, you then send out surveys to people or schedule calls or do some work with usertesting.com. But starting out make sure you provide an amazing support, you’ll get tons of feedback and just talk to people in real life. Talk to five people every half a year and you’ll have a lot of work to do for the coming years even.
And besides communicating with the clients, I know something that you guys at Codeable pride yourself on is your level of customer service. So something I'm intrigued to know is how do you approach it day by day to ensure it stays at such a high standard?
We have a relatively small, all things considered, support team, but at the same time it’s also big relative to the size of the company. I think we have seven people or eight people on support right now. And what we do is we keep a book, well not exactly a book. It’s a GitHub repository, but we call it the black book of how certain things are handled, because of course, with one hundred thousand plus projects, we’ve learned a lot and there’s a lot of repetition. There’s rarely anything new these days that would surprise us.
So what we did along the way and I must thank my partner, co-founder Per, for that, because he was our first customer support person for quite some time. And what he did was he kept track of all the possible scenarios and did, I would say, manual A:B approaches or what he thought was right. But then also documented his encounters with clients, with disputes, with refunds. Also with people being thankful, with sending t shirts and thank you letters and whatnot. And he kept track of it.
And we eventually produced what we call a customer support black book, which now is mandatory for any new customer support hire. Not only to read through it, but to understand it and then follow it with a mentor, which is usually our head of support for a couple of weeks when they start. So there’s a lot of content in there by now, obviously, but it’s good content. New hires are usually amazed by how well things are documented there. How to proceed in certain situations.
In the early days was there any sort of message you used or anything that you learned that you had to change drastically when it came to customer service?
No, not really. I’ll explain why. Because Per was always like with me, a very talkative person. So for him, it wasn’t hard to talk to people. And that proved to be the best thing and still is — sometimes we would avoid the refund. And let me clarify, we have a very low rate of refund. Like out of fifteen hundred projects a month, maybe one or two refund, not percent, one or two as a number refunds.
Sometimes the expectations were mismanaged and all it takes is to listen to the person that’s complaining and the problem goes away. You don’t even need to do anything. They’ll just be grateful that you took your time, an hour of it maybe, and listened to them. And then the issue will be kind of resolved on its own. So this is where we’re good at talking to people. But there is a catch when you have a bigger company, obviously your resources are limited. So then you have to become better. And we’re still working on it, on focusing on which conversations to have as opposed to which ones to avoid.
As you said, you guys are very successful in terms of completed projects and customer satisfaction. When you speak to people, especially the best, most valuable projects, why do you think they ultimately choose to go with Codeable?
Definitely trust. Like one thing we emphasize on Codeable and always have, and we even test this as a pre screening process for our experts, is their communication skills. I can pretty much guarantee it that when things go wrong, it’s not because our developer didn’t deliver the code or didn’t know how to write the code or solve a technical issue. It’s never about technical issues. It’s always a people problem. It’s always a miscommunication problem.
What we do is we put a lot of emphasis on our experts, to be upfront, candid, timely with their client, with our shared clients, so to speak. And if they don’t stick to it, we kick them out eventually. Like we tried to teach them. We tried to give, you know, points, some articles, or we even have a black book for our experts to follow. And a lot of certain areas are described there as well.
However, if they don’t stick to the highest possible standard of communication, then they’re out. And this, I think, brings not only new customers, but brings the old customers back and builds trust in that they’re always upfront with what’s going on with their project.
And secondly, that we’re always around. So if the developer goes missing or somebody gets sick or they have a family emergency, they might not get back to their client. So what we do is we reach out to our expert by phone. “Hey, is everything okay?” They’ll say “family emergency.” We’ll explain it to the client.
So I think that peace of mind is what we give to our clients. And the peace of mind makes them come back for more, even when we’re not the cheapest service around. They’re happy to pay the premium because of what we do or how we do it.
And what percentage of your clients would you say are repeat customers?
More than half.
And how important is that for your business model?
I guess I would say it’s equally important than new clients, we’re focusing on both. So the acquisition and retention.
However, retention is easy, relatively speaking, because they already have a good experience with us. So getting them back when they have issues is not a huge deal for us. We don’t have to advertise to them. We may reach out to everyone once in a while to remind them we’re still here.
But the acquisition part getting new clients is the more time consuming and costly endeavor.
How to attract and filter the best freelance developers
One of the things you mentioned when it comes to your developers is the importance of communication. And I know that with Codeable, you have a very rigorous process when it comes to identifying the best developers for you. How do you attract them and how do you actually try to narrow it down to make sure that only the best work for you?
We have several tools and we have a part of customer support team that does it. We have a standard application form that developers that want to work on Codeable just use to apply.
But that form is the first test. So we check how the form is filled out. Whether the grammar is correct. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but you know, we need to see that their English is sufficient and good because most of our clients are from English speaking countries. So it makes sense for us to check that.
We also check their portfolio they attach, which are open source contributions if they have it. So there’s a lot of work involved even in screening their application forms without actually talking to them yet.
And then they get either denied or they get into the second round. And then we do several interviews, one of which is pair-programming. The second one is a communication interview and even Per, my partner, then finally kind of welcomes the ones that pass all the three tests into the Codeable family.
And then it’s not over yet. We monitor all new experts for about a month and we try to do our best to make them successful because it takes a bit of a different mindset to be a Codeable expert. As in, we are a platform, but we behave like an agency. So Per, the CEO, he will call experts if they do something wrong. He will explain to them what they did wrong. He will explain to them how to improve or what courses to take. How to educate themselves or correct their behavior or whatever.
So we do a lot of management of people, of experts on our side. So if a new expert that passed all those tests doesn’t do well in an environment where he has a boss in a way, then they usually don’t succeed. But those that succeed in the first week stay with us for years. We still have some experts that started with us like seven years ago and they’re still active on the platform and they still make money on the platform and they’re basically full time working through Codeable.
Given that you have such a high quantity of developers do you think that plays a large factor in the fact that you get these lucrative projects come into Codeable?
Yes, increasingly so. Honestly, like we started to attract even some of the celebrity developers. Those that contribute to the WordPress core or are very active in some WordPress related communities or others. We started to attract the big names in the industry on the developer side. I think that kind of boosts our image.
Like if we have several, not only one or two, but plenty of elite developers on the platform then I think people perceive us as being, you know, like highly respected. However, it’s also just within the WordPress bubble.
So meaning that a client that needs or has their website done with WordPress, they don’t really mostly care. They don’t even know if they meet a “celebrity developer.” So if they get a celebrity developer working for them high chances are they won’t even know because they don’t care and they’re not in the WordPress ecosystem that they would know.
We know we feel good about it. But the developer themselves, they usually don’t think of themselves as celebrities. But it does it does elevate our position in the WordPress bubble ecosystem and that does kind of seep out outwards. Because somebody from WordPress will be asked by somebody that’s not in WordPress “Hey, I have a site on WordPress, where do I get it fixed, upgrade it migrated?” blah, blah. And of course, the first thing that will come to mind is they’ll say, “Hey, you should try Codeable.”
Do you need to offer different approaches based on different languages in different markets to try and attract the best projects from all around the world?
No, not yet, I guess. But that is far in the future because the majority of our customers comes from western countries in general where the standard of living is a bit higher than elsewhere. So even our pricing reflects that. So the high quality of our services of people, of prices for that matter, kind of makes us interesting mostly to the Western markets, which are mostly English proficient, at least they understand it and can write some basics.
We do get some clients from other countries that pose their projects in languages we don’t understand. But it’s usually not a problem because we have experts from all around the world as well. And somebody will pick it up almost always, and then they’ll be a natural choice for their client. But for now, we don’t have any plans to expand out of the English language just because I think we haven’t gotten to a position in which we don’t have the majority of the possible market or we’re not even close for that matter. So not yet.
Using partnerships to boost your company
Speaking of multilingual clients, I know that you guys obviously work with WPML and have a partnership, a successful one. How do you guys identify the best companies to work with for your partnerships that will see you getting the best paid jobs?
Meeting them in person. meeting them in person is underrated. We go to WordCamps a lot, obviously, and we talk to people and we click with people and then we say, “Listen, we should totally partner up” and they are usually for it.
That was our main kind of driver for quite some time. Now we’re getting more into the kind of cold calling area, not calling, but emailing people. But they’ve already either heard of us or met one of us at a conference. And the people that advertise or have booths at WordCamps are all nice people and it’s very fun to meet them every once in a while.
So I guess it’s just a natural thing for us to talk to them and then at some point offer a partnership because they, like almost everyone, needs some help from time to time. So if we can get ourselves ingrained in people’s minds, that Codeable is the place where you’ll get help regardless of how simple or complex it is. Then that’s a huge win for us.
What have you found are the best marketing channels to get Codeable out there?
That perfectly leads on from your previous questions and that is partnerships. We’ve discovered by far the most effective solution in terms of promoting Codeable is through partners because our current website, our old brand, let’s call it, doesn’t convey the message of who we are and what we do that well.
So the partners would do a lot of our work for us, basically, because what we discovered in all of our partners pretty much is that they don’t offer what we offer, which is perfect. They offer their core service, which is either selling plugins or themes or, you know, providing hosting. But they don’t do any custom development. Nobody has a central repository of high quality developers for WordPress. Everybody knows someone, but there is not one single place you could send people to.
In the end, our price of quality makes it even more valuable. And our stats, which we share with our partners, makes it even more appealing for them to have a reliable partner that they can hand off their clients to and maintain a high level of confidence that their client will be happy. So by far, I would say the partnerships have worked for us the best.
We tried click advertising, Facebook/Google and spent tens of thousands of dollars on those. We didn’t really get any significant results. By far it’s partnerships hands down. This is what works for us the most to match.