Toptal Review: Using their developers for 6 month

Toptal is a talent agency similar to Upwork / Odesk. With one key difference. The talent gets picked for you thus eliminating the guess work.
A quick note: I am using referral links to Toptal in this post, you are free to remove them and go directly to their homepage.

 

Backstory and my experience with Freelance Sites

Being in charge of a design agency I always have to be on a lookout for a new talent. Back in the day that meant checking job sites like Monster, CareerBuilder, Job.com and even Craigslist. The issue with those sites is that it’s hard to find temporary talent. Sometimes you need that specialized developer who is specialized in a niche market that you don’t often support (Ruby on Rail and ASP for me). It’s too costly to hire them full time since you need them on part time per project basis. This is when I turned to freelance sites such as Freelancer.com and Odesk (now Upwork).

 

 

My experience with them is that I always ended up with botched work that I had to redo. Even after you spend a considerable amount of time researching and going with a middle priced developer/designer you end up with someone who is rushing through your project but worse of all you lose time and you have to redo at least half if not all the work. I would still try them from time to time to see if anything improved. The last time I tried Upwork was in 2015 when I had to find ASP developer for a small project. They do try to improve the process, last time I had a “project manager” contact me and go through my list of picked developers. Even after going with a more expensive option I ended up with a mediocre result. It was mediocre enough where I couldn’t really complain and left with an unpleasant overall experience. I still ended up redoing the work by hiring a local developer.

They do try to improve the process, last time I had a “project manager” contact me and go through my list of picked developers. Even after going with a more expensive option I ended up with a mediocre result. It was mediocre enough where I couldn’t really complain and left with an unpleasant overall experience. I still ended up redoing the work by hiring a local developer.

 

Stumbling on Toptal

I stumbled on Toptal when I was managing my Google Adwords. Something annoying was happening: a company called Toptal kept outbidding me on all my keywords. Sure I would show up in search results but my ads always ended up second compared to theirs. I needed to know who these people were.

At first glance, it seemed like they were going to be another Upwork type company but with one difference: They claimed to have a network of the top 3% of designers and developers. Intrigued I decided to try them out for my next project. A few month later I had an overflow of work, and I needed another developer to join my project.

 

Site design and first impressions

Being a designer myself I didn’t think much of their site design. In 2016 and as of now it looked very similar to Upwork but with a different color palette (I believe now Upwork looks considerably better).

 

Looks like just another freelancer hiring site.

This is important to me since if a company is claiming they have 3% of the world’s best designers they should have a home page design that looks like it. Their site looks very modular and blocky almost like it was designed by a marketing team that needed to check all the boxes for what a homepage should have. Everything has the same hierarchy making things look busy, this usually happens when a company is developer focused. Ok, so this might be a good thing since I do need good developers. If a developer runs the show they might have a strenuous developer testing. Upon further research, it looks like only 3% of the talent that applied got in and that’s how they get 3%. A classic example of great use of marketing slogans.

 

Free Trial of your hired contractor

Maybe I wasn’t going to hire them for designers yet but I was willing to give them a try since they have a free talent trial (something I’ve never seen before, great move on their part). Meaning if you are not happy with the work of who they picked for you during the trial period then you don’t have to pay.  They also claim a high success rate: that 98% of people they pick for you end up working on your project. I was ready to give this freelancer staffing company a go.

 

I guess you will have a 98% success rate with your talent

Setup Process

Once you start you end up in the first step of the process:

Even though this looks like it’s going to be a long journey there is only 1 more question after this

The next step gets straight to the point: this is not going to be like Upwork where I am going to find really cheap developers working for $5-$15 an hour. This is hopefully going to be something different. At the very least it will cost you more 😉

Clicking a “no” will give you a polite sorry message and won’t allow you to go further

This was actually a green flag for me. One of the things I notice about other freelance sites is that I ended up paying the same local rate of $45-$75 per hour even though I would hire someone at $25-$35 an hour. They simply billed me more hours and I felt like I was being cheated despite having screenshots of their desktop to “prove” that they were working hard. I figure I would say yes to that box and see if there are developers with the flexible budget once I am in the system.

 

Last part: Your project details and phone call

After that step, you are greeted with a project details form. It was fairly easy to understand what’s going to happen. The design on this page although outdated felt very polished and thought out like it was designed 5 years ago by a developer who prides themselves on details. It takes precious time to develop all the rounded corners and subtle textures.

Remember when subtle shadow borders were all the rage? I love that it’s clear on what’s going to happen next without any marketing jargon.

First meeting

Despite writing a summary of my project I was a little skeptical that I had to schedule a time and set up a call to talk to real person.  Not because I am afraid to talk to people it’s just most of the time these calls end up being a waste of my time and a sales guy will try to upsell you to something you probably don’t need. I scheduled a call 2 days from the sign-up date. (the current day was taken and I was busy the day after). When I got a call I was pleasantly surprised that I was not talking to a sales person but a person who understood technical details and a development stack I was working with. I didn’t have to explain what Git or Grunt is. He even made technology recommendations so I would end up with a product that would provide a better experience. We talked about project budget, if I wanted someone in a specific time zone or if I had a preference to a specific region for my talent. Bravo sir! The call ended with the recruiter promising me to find some good matches by the end of the week.

 

Finding that perfect developer

I ended up presented with 2 people. My recruiter talked to me about each one and why he thinks each would be a good fit. I then got a link to each person’s profile. The profile goes over what projects they worked on, some of their personal quotes as well as employment history. Think of it as a resume. All presented developers seemed reputable. I was also surprised that I didn’t see any ratings like stars etc. I thought this was an interesting concept, in the end, you are only going to want to go with someone who is 5 stars anyways so I don’t see why anyone would present anything less than 5. In addition by not having a system in a first place you are avoiding people with over inflated and fake reviews, a trap I fell into with Freelancer.com site. It’s probably because all talent at Toptal supposed to be the best already so everyone is 5 stars 😉

Profile example

Once I chose my developer. I scheduled an interview. We met through Skype and I got to see my contractor in person, this is something I have never experienced on other sites. I always got an excuse of why I couldn’t see who I was talking to. To me, this is very important as I can see who I will be working with and their work environment and self-presentation. The guy also spoke great English (as in fluent with only a slight accent) despite being from Odessa. I had an option to interview other candidates but I felt this guy really understood my project and I ended up going with him. I ended up getting him part-time for about $35 an hour for some front-end work that needed to be finished up.

 

The result

During your trial period of 3-5 days, you get contacted by your recruiter/manager to see how things are going. I was impressed with my developer, he used all the latest technologies in the development process like Grunt, Sass and Node. He pushed updates each day to Git and I checked in with him daily (without me having to tell him). I ended up working with him for 2 months and was really happy with the end result. The best part is he did what no other freelancer I been with did: He cared for my project by writing clean code and implementing best practices. For example part of his work involved working on the backend interface, he didn’t have to go in and remove unnecessary UI clutter, but he did. This made my managing life a lot easier since I didn’t have to QA check every part of the project.

 

Managing your talent

You will still have to check work, create a list of tweaks and corrections that might have gotten overlooked (I use Asana for this). Without this oversight, you will get about 85% of the project done correctly and on track from the get go. This is great for Freelancers by the way, where the rate for me is around 60% to 50% on Freelancer.com or Upwork, and anything with those numbers is not worth taking on in the first place. To get a project accuracy rate of 90%+ you will have to hire someone in the office or perhaps at much higher rate. I don’t mind doing a little bit of management and QA here and there to pull the project up 15%, so this was not a critical issue. I expected a success rate of about 70% so this was much better than I expected. I would certainly suggest creating a schedule as well as specific time for meetings as this will keep your project organized and on track.

Your initial point of contact that picked your talent for you will stay with you for the entire time and if something comes up you are free to reach out to them. This is great since I feel that the recruiter cares about my project and will be there to help me. One time my contractor needed to take a few days off and all of us discussed how to better handle this process. I think this is great system since I know from experience sometimes freelancers will be too shy to tell the client that something is wrong or can’t be done. This way there is an outlet and they can talk to their recruiter instead of promising something they can’t deliver.

 

Payments, rates and hours

Once you sign up with Toptal you have to add your bank account or credit card details. You get 3% discount if you pay with your bank account. A clever reversal marketing, since companies like to charge you 3% extra for credit card payments. When you hire someone at Toptal you get an option to hire them full time (usually 40 hours a week), part time (20 hours) or hourly. I went with a part time option since I needed them to focus on my project. I also wasn’t sure if hour inflation would happen if I was billed hourly. If you pick a part time or full-time option then you automatically get billed every 2 weeks and your contractor won’t be submitting hours or providing any sort of desktop screenshots. At first, I was a little worried about this: “how will I know if they are working?” But then I realized that the concept here is different. Toptal screens and trusts their people to do great work. They are treating their talent with respect and because of that I respect them back and don’t expect fraud. This is a contrast to Upwork of 2016 where they have all these tools to monitor their freelancers. It’s almost like they were telling me: “Look these guys are shady, we got all this in place for you to watch them so we have a reason to charge you”. I also felt that I could reach out to my recruiter and say “Hey this guy is not doing his work”  and he would take care of it if needed.

 

Final Thoughts

Overall I was pleasantly surprised with Toptal. I ended up working with my developer for 6 month total on a few different projects. I recommended Toptal to a few of my colleagues and they all had similar good results.  Their main feedback was that their projects ended up being on track, at a fair cost and with good results.

Overall: 8/10 score.

Pros

  • Good talent that delivers good results consistently
  • Having someone else find talent for you especially to work on some exotic/archaic technology is great
  • Trial period where you get to see if you have a good fit
  • Personal technical manager that works with you, and is there if you need them

Cons

  • It took about a week to start a project (so if I was in a hurry this would have been an issue).
  • I also feel they could be a little more personal. You still feel that you are working with a freelance contractor and not a design agency that bends over backwards for you.
  • Sometimes things can get pricey quickly.

My cons are just minor gripes compared to Upwork and Freelancer.com where I always ended up having to redo a project. Right now they are the best talent staffing company I know of that will get me good consistent results that I can entrust some of our workload. One of these days I will try their design talent as well.

I’ll continue to use them and will update this post if things change. You are free to give them a free trial like I did and post your result in the comments (direct link to their start project form). After my initial success with them, I also tried using them as a freelancer myself, stay tuned for my full review on that soon.