Imagine what it might be like to reach through the computer screen to confront a person on the other side.
Years ago, I read some articles and a couple of books on outsourcing, and it changed the structure of my life. Every time the media mentioned outsourcing or a presidential candidate shunned contracting work overseas, I assumed this only affected big dogs, major corporations rather than little guys like me. Manufacturing a shirt is cheaper in China; so is routing customer service calls to India or accounting work to Bulgaria.
But I’m not in manufacturing, my handful of customers can ring my cell phone for service, and Brian does my taxes over his lunch break.
The Internet changed all this, bringing virtual assistance to the commoner on a digital silver platter. Individuals can now (easily) shuffle their menial duties abroad, freeing up time to expand their businesses or cut their work hours in favor of extra time with the fam. Regular people—you and I—with a local lawn care business or a side project trying to sell homemade reversible purses can find someone elsewhere in the world to handle every task that makes us want to rip our hair out. The little guy can now research affordably, manufacture affordably, and market affordably. A recent Google search lists limitless tasks available for outsourcing: sales lead development, website management, software upgrades, article submission, fact-checking, travel research, slideshow creation, meeting preparation, party planning, online-dating profile management, wake-up calls, and shopping.
Attending a wedding soon? Don’t write the toast yourself, silly! Let us do it for you!
I read an article about some fella who experimented with literally outsourcing everything in his life. Everything. He sent work-related tasks abroad, sure, but he also farmed out tasks like ordering books online, arguing with his wife, calling his parents to wish them a happy anniversary, and reading a bedtime story to his son. Honey, his personal assistant, whom he would never meet in person, was up early and eager to work for him.
If you can somewhat coherently list instructions in an e-mail, assignments will be completed for you overnight, finished by the time you sit down at the table for your bagel in the morning. Globalization allows for a collaborative effort to be affordable and efficient for everyone.
“But wait! Sending jobs abroad is an abomination for the American worker!”
“But wait! Investing abroad allows room for sharper creativity and increases profits Stateside!”
Reality dictates that you’re losing a competitive edge if you aren’t exporting uncomplicated tasks that can be completed online. Having your website built in a foreign country is going to cost you half the price (or better) and much less time. There are many, many jobs—old ones and new ones—that must be completed in the States, but there are other tasks that can be sent abroad.
So, a couple of years before my world adventure began, I had plopped down on my sofa and flipped my laptop open. A few clicks and I began my search. India grew expensive for outsourcing, so the Philippines became the new it place. John Jonas, the foremost expert on outsourcing to the Philippines, said: “They speak American English in the Philippines, and, unlike some other countries in the world where you might outsource tasks, Filipinos are loyal. They aren’t going to spend a hundred hours working for you and then run off to become your competitor. They just want to support their families with a stable paycheck.”
A Rafael Apolinario III’s credentials spanned my screen. I had spent half an hour sifting through many others to get to him, those quoting a higher rate and those less expensive, when I settled on him due to his glowing enthusiasm. “Yes, sir!” he wrote. “I can get that done, sir!!! And I can do it quicker than your deadline!!!”
Well, okay then, Raf. Let’s see what you got.
Here’s the thing. Not only is my boy Raf logging hours for half the cost of America’s burger-flipping minimum wage, he’s doing some pretty advanced computer work for me: lead generation, search engine optimization, linking, submitting articles to various websites. I can send him a list of one thousand colleges and universities and say, “Uh, Raf, I need the names and e-mail addresses of the vice provosts at these universities. You think you can do that in forty hours?”
He says, “Yes, of course, Sir Adam, but I will try hard to do it in thirty!”
I asked him once whether he knew how to put together a video from a file of pictures, and he wrote, “Not today, Sir Adam. But I can learn by tomorrow!”
Also, the advantage here falls one hundred percent in my favor. If I find Raf’s work unsatisfactory, I move along to the next Filipino. If he takes too long to complete a task, I move along to the next Filipino. If he’s too busy working for other people, I move along to the next Filipino. I can always simply move along to someone else. I’m not obligated by explanation or reason. He’s fired; another is hired. I don’t pay for health care or Social Security or sick days or a stipend for gas. I don’t match his 401(k) contributions. There are no company retreats to the mountains or appreciation luncheons or snacks in the break room. He pees when he has to, and then he’s back to work. Raf is responsible for his own training and for buying all his own computer equipment.
I send him money; he sends me quality work. It’s a very simple relationship.
And he loves it. Consider this. I’m no bully—Raf and I have developed an e-friendship and mutual respect over the last two years, which he has spent building valuable databases for me—but these practices wouldn’t fly with American workers. Raf’s hustle, though, plays to a different tune. He lives a week-to-week life, balancing five or ten different employers. Some days he works twelve hours; some days he goes to the beach; some days he goes to the beach with his laptop and works twelve hours. Some days he tells me he worked twelve hours when he probably went to the beach instead. No matter to me. When it comes time for a spreadsheet of contacts to show up in my inbox, he is Right. On. Time. And when I say, “Sorry, Raf. I don’t have any work right now,” he writes back, “Okay. No problem, Sir Adam. Maybe next week possibly. Talk to you then.”
This, without a doubt, has lifted my professional life to another level. I can spend a hundred hours generating a list of sales leads or I can spend one hour writing instructions and ninety-nine hours writing or speaking or anything else that doesn’t lend itself to delegation. And this list that Raf has built is going to be better than the one I would create, more content rich and more valuable. I take that list and I work it. Raf heads to the bank to collect a fat paycheck.
From the outback, Ivana wanted to go to a beach. One with powdery sand and few people. One where we could lounge by the shore and eat filet mignon and drink a bottle of chardonnay. One where she could swim without concern for sanitation.
I e-mailed Raf and inquired about a cool place to hit up in the Philippines. “Trying to be easy on my bankroll,” I said. “But I still want to get credit for spoiling my girl a little.” Trading my American dollar for forty-five pesos sounded good.
He replied almost instantly. “Adam…you are welcome anytime! I am excited to finally meet you personally. You can fly into Manila, and I can come meet you there. Or you can take a transfer to Kalibo. I live just an hour and a half ride from Boracay, the most beautiful beach in the world.”
He was exaggerating, kind of. Just this year, TripAdvisor touted Boracay as the second-best beach in the world, just after Providenciales in the Bahamas. This is somewhat remarkable, considering Boracay’s glorious white beaches are still relatively undiscovered by the New World (I met exactly one American under thirty during eighteen days there), and that back home, my boy Korey needed four tries to even pick out the Philippines on a map. We speak of sunning in California or the Caribbean or Australia or Brazil or Thailand. But never on Philippine beaches.
Never mind. There was Raf at my condo at the Nirvana Resort. How awesome to be standing next to this young man!
Around five feet tall, he weighed in at 115 pounds. I was almost literally two of him. He sported a Fisher Price My First Mustache and had curled the top of his hair into a minimohawk, the style of the decade among Filipino men. He was, remarkably, just as he looked in the picture on his Gmail profile.
“Adam, sir! You made it!”
I’ve been less nervous walking out to speak to a thousand people. What was I supposed to say?
“My man Raf. What. Is. Happenin’?” We hugged. I gave him a signed Manny Pacquiao shirt I bought for him in Manila. I insisted we do away with this sir business.
I learned that he was two years from thirty, though he looked to be between fifteen and seventeen years old. I’d never known his age.
If you’ve ever contracted work overseas, perhaps even developed a bit of a friendship with your workers, you can appreciate the eeriness of this experience. It’s quite similar to an in-person encounter with a romantic prospect you met through an online-dating website. “In person? Oh, man. Didn’t think we’d ever actually meet in person.” What are we supposed to say? With my fingers resting on the keyboard, I have so much time to think these things through over the Internet. I’m witty and articulate online; I have a firm presence and identity. I have the time and resources to feign legitimacy by infusing my prose with trivia or creative metaphors. I’m clean-shaven in all images, and the edited sound bites on YouTube portray me as charismatic.
The tide shifted when I met Raf. I was no longer in charge. Raf, the Raf who always apologized for simple, meaningless errors and always asked me twice whether I found his work sufficient, morphed into a man in control. All five feet of him. He showed Ivana and me to the cool spots on the beach, he took us to buy fresh spices and produce, he gave us a tour of the creaky but clean office he worked out of, he introduced us to his family, and he helped us to avoid getting swindled. “No, man, don’t buy that one,” he advised when we passed by souvenir shops.
He cooked. Sauteed prawns and pork adobo. He combined shrimp, spinach, string beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers, fish sauce, and a tamarind base to make a tangy traditional Filipino soup. I bought ingredients, he cooked them.
Ivana—the Ivana who can serve you a gourmet meal when provided only with ground beef, honey, ginger, garlic, and a bay leaf—scribbled down notes in a worn-out notepad. “Hm. What is that taste? Is that balsamic?”
“Nope,” Raf replied. “Red wine.”
“Hm.” She squinted as if trying to rationalize this new possibility: red wine. Her pen scratched away.
And then we went wakeboarding. Raf spit out Tagalog, the native language, all over that island until we arrived at the only place with the equipment to offer wakeboarding.
“Asgoias7gdata ascpo ia∑jsg9dkin sa.”
“Viearigi wepo∆icgit Zagatafreu denshnei Nede rhavenako.”
I blinked. “What was that?”
“He said they can take us out for eighty dollars for a half hour.”
“Well, tell that man he can go ahead and go take a dive in a ravine full of crocodile shit.”
“No, don’t tell him I said that. Jesus.” I snorted. “Ask him about eighty bucks for the hour.”
“Uuuuu gh!ananaraw masjjjjea3keavich anovhaven™arahova hour?”
“Haep7oiasd ñgheiiiiau manh©÷anuna parama kkeri Jehovah’s Witness.”
“He said a hundred.”
I forget where we settled. It wasn’t in my favor but far better than a white man would have been able to negotiate on his own in Boracay. I really didn’t have a choice anyway. This man owned the only wakeboarding equipment on the island. I spent pocket change to fight bulls in Nicaragua, and I was ready to go to the ATM in order to wakeboard, with Boracay’s lounging green hills and rough cliffs as a backdrop. Boats were zipping this way and that under the sun’s full gleam. A few white tufts littered a mostly cloudless sky. It’s irresponsible to spare expense for these once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
A half hour later, I was sitting next to this dude, this guy I’d known for two years, but really only a few hours. We were relaxed out there, under the sun, on the boat together. This guy was so different from me, yet so knitted to the fabric of what I’m trying to become. This was wild. I steadied myself on the board, riding in ten- or fifteen-second segments, while he took pictures.
“Did you get that one?” I asked, surfacing from a spill after one of my jumps. I shook my head to fling water from my shaggy hair.
“Hm. Yes, man. But I tell you it might be a better picture if you can get off the water a little bit.”
Back home, I often mix business with pleasure. When the work is done, I’m usually off to dinner or to the tennis courts with the person on the other end of the contract. I keep in touch online, even though I know we might not ever do another deal.
Meeting Raf in such a beautiful atmosphere was an interesting blend of business and pleasure. We have nothing in common, and there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about. He was nice; I was nice. We spoke very little about current political happenings and a lot about Manny’s fight.
Raf lives a world away from me, literally and metaphorically. The people of his country are almost as poor as the people of Honduras. Raf lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment and cooks his meals—mostly rice and bits of fish. He deposits most of his earnings into his nineteen-year-old brother’s college education fund or into a savings account for the business he wants to open one day. He walks around town, whether his destination lies one block or a couple dozen away.
I wouldn’t be able to have an assistant if I hadn’t found Raf. Others in the world are far less efficient and always looking for you to sign a month-to-month contract. They call you sir or ma’am, but they don’t mean it. Raf means it, though, and finding him was like finding treasure.
In a way, he and I are living off of each other. His pockets stay full and my business gets a boost to the next level.
And in between home-cooked meals and time on the boat, it felt good to be able to step out of the virtual world, establish a real connection, look him in the eye, shake his hand, and thank him personally.