Read this from top to bottom to find a path to success built on a pillar of failure.

You are busy. You are valuable to the organization. There are things that you are uniquely good at. This process will help you focus on those things. Invest in freeing your time, and reap huge benefits as your productivity increases through the systemization of your repetitive tasks.

Goal: Create a transformative experience that increases your productivity 80%.

For any information related task, find a mechanism to discover information workers, assign the work, and get 80% of the quality of results in 20% of the time of doing each step manually yourself.

There are many resources espousing the benefits and mechanisms for finding a virtual assistant. Some of the best:


Outsource Entrepreneur

This document is about the specific tactics used to find a virtual assistant to help with biotechnology research related tasks. The main assumption to be tested is that the search, identification and collation of data can be outsourced. The first step is to identify a goal, and then walk through each portion of the creation step manually. Then, once the variation in research paths has been reduced to a known set of states, (including an 'unknown' state), apply quantification metrics to each end state. Communicate the exact process to potential candidates, and then evaluate their performance quantitatively.

Here's a quick example of what not to do:

Go into a local life sciences research library funded by the state's biotech program. Ask for help finding market research reports on diffraction gratings. Watch as they type in 'defraction grading' into a life sciences database search tool and get zero results.

This is not their fault - this is your fault. This is an under specification of search requirements, coupled with poor communication on your part.

A better example is:

Search google for "diffraction grating" with quotes
Click the company page
Click products
Find any diffraction grating
    none available? -> Go to next google result
    At least one available?
        Create a new google doc for that company
        Append every diffraction grating specification of size, lpmm,
        center wavelength and cost on a new row in the google
        Add the company name to the main diffraction grating research
        Add a link to the company specific google doc to the main
        diffraction grating research document.
Understand that this level of verbosity is not demeaning. This specification of exact work products and steps to achieve them is exactly what is required for effective collaboration. They have deep, valuable skills in interpreting difficult to read web pages and understanding where to find the information you are looking for. Leverage their capabilities by first establishing a highly detailed set of rules for building a shared language of activities.

The goal here is to eliminate the task as a variable. You're looking to refine your candidates by spending approximately 500$ and 80 hours collectively. What you're testing here is not your ability to write a coherent task, but rather which candidates can communicate effectively immediately. Then you take it to phase two where you interview them in person and share more of the strategic direction to see what level of insight they can provide.

Day 1: Post job, invite candidates
Day 2: Screen candidate responses
Day 3: Screen candidate responses, evalute estimates
Day 4: Screen candidate responses, evalute estimates
Day 5: Qualify results

At the end of day 5, you'll have a list of all the companies that make volume phase holographic gratings. Ideally they will have found new companies, if not you've at least had a bunch of eyes searching for the same thing.

They also have a spreadsheet that lists all of the diffraction gratings from the company, along with costs and size and lpmm, etc.

This is the data on which you can build your knowledge. You're strategic goals are to understand the direct competitors. What you will then be in a unique position to do is look at the competitors and see where their products compare directly in specification to ours.

That's the analysis you will do. The theory here is that because I will outsource the collection, it will be faster than if I do it myself.

Then instead of a countless iteration of manually checking websites to collate the data and fighting off fatigue, I'm meeting with people and utilizing my unique strengths.

Details for actual posting on

Write the full job text first:

Title: Find the names and product listing of transmission diffraction grating companies.

Follow the steps below and stop after 3 hours and share your results.

Search google for "transmission diffraction grating" without the quotes

Ignore google scholar links. Ignore google image links. Ignore 'people also ask' links.

The Stop List, Found List, and gratings list is available on this google doc:

  1. Select the next link of the google results
  2. Is link in 'Stop list'? Yes -> Go back to step 1. No -> go to step 3
  3. Is link in the 'Found list' Yes -> Go to back to step 1 No -> Go to step 4
  4. Add the link to the Found List: Open the 'Found List' tab of the google sheet. Add the company name and the url Continue to step 5
  5. Find a list of transmission gratings on the links' website.

For each grating found, update the "Gratings List" tab of the spreadsheet.

Equivalents for lpmm column include: lines/mm, l/mm, groove density.

Equivalents for diffraction efficiency column include: efficiency, absolute efficiency.

If the links website is not a company (for example an education page about gratings), add to the 'Stop List' and go back to step 1.

If the links website is a company, but does not have gratings for sale, add to the 'Stop List' and go back to step 1.

If the links website is a company with gratings for sale but does not have one of the fields of specification, fill in the value with NA.

  1. If this is link 1-39 processed, go back to step 1. Otherwise, continue to step 8.
  2. If this is the 40th link processed, stop the entire process, share results.

The first example of the results populated are shown in the google drive document. Edmund optics is a good example because it lists the required fields for each grating. These gratings are all transmission gratings, not reflective gratings.

Only include transmission gratings in the document. Here are examples of reflective gratings, do not include these or any like them:

Stop after 3 hours and share your results.

Thank you for your fastest reply.

Posting the job

Go to

Jobs -> Post a job
Create a new job post

More specifc -> Market Research -> Competitive market research

Name job posting: Find the names and product listing of transmission diffraction grating companies.

Describe work to be done: The full job post from above

No Attachments
On-going projects
I need to hire more than one freelancer, select 5.
Select start date today
Pay by the hour
Entry level
Make sure the job is not-weekly. That is, it starts and then it ends and
does not repeat on a weekly basis.
Less than 1 week
Less than 30 hours a week
Only freelancers I have invited can view job
Yes, require a cover letter

Add a screening question of: 
Please respond with what you plan to do to get started and when you will
stop and share your results.

Click "Post Job"

Search for candidates:

    Search for a keyword from an education field that would include the
        subject, for example "physics".
    Set the filters to the following settings:
        Hourly rate: $10 and below
        Earned amount: 1K+
        Freelancer type: Independent freelancer
        Location: Asia
Look through each candidates short biography. If they contain any of the
keywords listed below, invite them to the job:

Data Entry Technical report writing Academic writing information extraction attention to detail graduate of BS physics (anything indicating an actual Physics degree, has to be BS or higher)

At first pass, this has produced about a 90% invite rate. Have invited 26 out of the first 30 entries.

This did not produce good results. This was a failure. The best results you had was a cut and paste job from Susil 3 hours at 6$/hour that would have taken you maybe 1 hour at most.

Well, maybe it wasn't a failure. It just feels like it's the wrong person. That it's not an ultra-refined process so you need to spend alot more, but you don't have a budget for alot more. Hmm.. If my time is worth 50/hour, then every hour I save at 45/hour is still coming out ahead.

Failure of upwork process due to lake of refinement

2017-12-26 13:15 I'm not clear enough about what is plain processing according to rules, and what requires inuitive savvy that truly represents your value.

Working backward - the face to face interaction with innovation professionals, spectroscopists and potential customers is the place where you can bring unique value. Everything else is a task that needs to be automated to serve this purpose.

The following are the steps required to create these rules. This is inspired primarily by: Email system that saved my life and the partner video

The goal here is to create a flow chart image for sharing. The time should be spent on rules, not on moving the components around or manual edge labelling.

Use graphviz to create a directed graph that will catch every email. The initial strategy is to setup a framework and have the discipline to categorize all of the emails. Write down the exact decision making process for each email. This is the core skill that will take time up front, but will pay off very quickly for you, and whomever you outsource your email to.

Start with this general framework.

/* Workflow for processing email.

The goal here is a portable set of rules that anyone can be trained to
digraph {
    node [color=green, fontcolor=green];
    edge [color=green, fontcolor=green];

    1.0 [shape=diamond; label="Inbox empty?"]

    2.0 [label="Update email processed worksheet, stop"]

    3.0 [label="Open oldest email in inbox"]

    4.0 [label="Label as Handle this Nathan"]

    99.0 [label="Archive"]

    rank=same {1.0, 2.0, 3.0 };

    1.0 -> 2.0 [label=yes]
    1.0 -> 3.0 [label=no]

    // Iterate here - alwasy go from 3.0 to a new rule, and end up at
    // labelling as Handle this Nathan for new rule creation
    3.0 -> 4.0

    // Create rule always updates this flow chart
    4.0 -> 99.0

    99.0 -> 1.0 [color=red] // always go back to inbox


Download the graphviz wrapper script from the BioWize blog entry:

use strict;

my $usage = "setdotlabelwidth [char-width] < [dotfile]";
my $width = shift() or die("Usage: $usage $!");

    my $labeltext = (;
    my @words = split(/ /, $labeltext);
    my @newtext = ();
    my $newline = "";
    foreach my $word(@words)
      if( length($newline) > 0 and
          length($newline) + length($word) > $width )
        push(@newtext, $newline);
        $newline = "";
      $newline .= " " if( length($newline) > 0 );
      $newline .= $word;
    push(@newtext, $newline) if( length($newline) > 0 );
    my $newlabel = join("\\n", @newtext);

On linux, run this shell script at every test iteration:

# - push the provided dot language file through
# the newline label insertion tool, then render and display in eye of
# gnome full screen

if [[ $# -ne 2 ]] ; then
    echo "You must specify a dot language filename, width"
    exit 0



if [[ $? -ne 0 ]] ; then
    echo "Problem running line converter"
    exit 0

cat ${OUTFILE} | dot -Tpng -o ${OUTPNG}
if [[ $? -ne 0 ]] ; then
    echo "Problem running png maker"
    exit 0

eog -f $OUTPNG])

In practice it looks like:

    (Make a change to the workflow graph)

    ./ email_workflow.gv 5

    (tweak, repeat)

Implementation Narrative

You're probably thinking - that's nice, but who wants that level of process and abstraction impinging on my productivity? If you're a person like me - hugely vulnerable to visual distractions, you desparately want to live with the wrongness of the dot language edge routing. You explicitly do not want to use ASCII art by hand, LibreOffice Draw, or google sheets to position boxes. You want logical flow only in text mode so you can rapidly iterate through the real value add: The exact creation of a workflow to make email processing faster:

Step 1: Follow the workflow document.

Step 2: When an email arrives that does not meet any rules, iterate through the creation of a rule at this position: Iterate rules