Toptal vs Crossover – a designer’s perspective

If you’re a freelancer looking for work, you’ve probably heard of Toptal and Crossover, 2 outsourcing companies that hire talent remotely, from around the world. In this article I’ll present my experience with both companies, having worked for them as a UI/UX Designer.

How I got in

Before we dive into the comparison, let me paint the picture a bit better and tell you how I got into each company. One important thing to understand about both is that you can work in one of two sides of the business: either as a collaborator, or as part of the core team.

 

At Crossover, I applied to be a collaborator. There was an English language proficiency test, and then a lengthy test project that takes 1-2 days of work. (if  you’re curious, the test project I’ve done is showcased in my portfolio under the project named Koncept). After getting approved, you land in the Talent Marketplace where you have the chance to be picked by a client. Usually they open hiring pipelines for a job when there’s demand for it. Finally, when a client considers you for a job, they have the right to ask you to do another unpaid test project. This is where I dropped out. I argued that the test project I’ve done to get into the marketplace, in addition to my portfolio, is enough to show what I’m capable of. They insisted on the necessity of this step, so we parted ways. However, I was still in the talent marketplace. A couple of months later a recruiter for the core team reached out to me and offered me a job. After a call with the PM I was going to work with, I was in.

 

At Toptal, I also applied to be a collaborator. The process was somewhat similar: language test screening, portfolio review, test project, and a call to present it. You can read more about the process on toptal.com/top-3-percent. Finally, after getting approved, I worked with another designer (thanks Alex 🙏) to put together my Toptal profile and portfolio. After a couple of weeks project requests started rolling in. As of today, I’m still a member and planning to be for a long time.  Now let’s dive into comparing the two.

Job security

At Toptal, you’re a freelancer and you have to freedom to take on or reject any project you’re offered. It’s not a full-time job but if you do good work, you update your portfolio to showcase your best projects, and you’re active in the community, you’ll probably have a constant stream of projects. It depends on your niche. Also, you’re free to take on other projects outside of Toptal. If you’re trying to build your freelance business, it’s a good place to start. Toptal takes care of finding clients, signing contracts, invoicing, and getting you paid.

 

At Crossover, in most cases, you’ll be a full-time contractor for a single client. Switching projects is not easy because there aren’t that many opportunities. If you decide to switch, you have to go through the hiring pipeline, which is basically like applying to a new job. In most cases, you’ll have work constantly, but there’s no guarantee. One day, because of bottle necks in other departments, or simply because the project is done, you won’t have anything to do, and therefore, no billable hours. The problem is, in my experience, there’s no forewarning of when this will happen, so you can plan for it by filling in the gaps with other freelance projects. Another issue is that, at Crossover, having other engagements is frowned upon. They expect you to be fully engaged and even be available for overtime, when it’s needed. This would be fine if the payment model would be a fixed, monthly salary, but it’s not. This brings us to the next point.

Payment models

Crossover is very transparent about what they pay but also very rigid. Each pipeline has a fixed hourly rate attached to it. You can see it before you apply and it’s “a take it or leave it” offer. There’s no negotiation. If you want a higher paying job, you need to apply to another pipeline that pays more. The company rarely increases the hourly pay for a pipeline because supply is almost never an issue. Why? They advertise a lot in developing countries where these rates are 2-4 times the average salary. In my experience, design is paid between $20-$40/hr.

However, there’s a catch. You’re paid only for productive hours of work. Trust me, if you’ve worked 40 hrs./week in an office, you’ve never done anywhere close to 40 hrs. of actual productive work. This means that, if you want to get paid for the full 40 hrs, you’ll end up working late, or over weekends.

 

At Toptal, you define your own rate. If you’re good and you get plenty of requests, there’s nothing stopping you from increasing your rate. Regarding work time, Toptal projects come in 3 formats: hourly, part-time (4h/day), or full-time.(8h/day).  Tracking time is only required for hourly projects but it’s recommended you do so for part-time and full-time also, in case of a dispute. In my experience, if you communicate with the client, set expectations, and deliver on time, you won’t have any issues.

Tracking time & mutual trust

Crossover forces everyone to use Worksmart – their tracking app. It tracks what software you’re using, keyboard strokes and mouse clicks, and grabs a screenshot every 10 minutes. In some cases, it alo takes a webcam shot to make sure you’re the one doing the work. If you don’t have mouse clicks or keyboard strokes in a 10 min. block, it’s flagged as “Idle” and those are not paid. To avoid this, you need to constantly review your “Workbook” and mark as “not idle”, whenever the case. This happens most often during meetings. If you’re listening in on a meeting and the video conference app is not in focus on your screen, Worksmart won’t detect that you’re actually in a meeting. Idle blocks marked as “Not idle”, need to be approved by your manager. Same goes for logging manual time – you can add time blocks, but they need to be approved before they can be paid.

Worksmart is integrated with Payoneer – the payment platform used by Crossover. Every week you’re paid automatically by multiplying logged time with your hourly rate. There’s no rounding-up. If you’ve worked 39h 50m, that’s what you get paid for.

Finally, any amount of time over the 40 hrs. that you’re expected to work, needs to be approved by your direct manager.

 

At Toptal, there’s no mandatory tracking tool. You can use whatever app you like and there’s no screen grabbing, app tracking, or supervision by a direct manager. You’re independent. That means more freedom, but also more responsibility. You need to treat each client with great care. Toptal invests good money in customer acquisition and, rightfully so, doesn’t want to see clients disappointed due to lack of professionalism.

Culture and community

This is the most subjective part of this comparison, but an important one, nonetheless.

At Crossover, there are community meetups in different cities and, in some places, you can even join co-working spaces. There are some good people there. However, I felt that, due to the company policy, people are regarded more as small cogs in a big system. No one is irreplaceable. In fact, management organizes product development as factory production lines. If a piece doesn’t perform, it’s replaced. Everything is plug-and-play… in theory. In practice I think this model is inherently flawed, but that’s another topic for another post.

Regarding the technical skills of the people in the company, depending on your niche, it’s better or worse. Because rates are non-negotiable and often are in the mid-to-low ranges, the best talent, that can earn more, will never join the company. For example, $30/h is below what you can charge if you’re a good designer.

 

At Toptal, the culture is more open. There are regular meet-ups, and there’s a large community you can interact with. I think the quality of talent here is better because there are no rigid policies to push them away. Other than that, there’s not much else to say. It’s a good place to be.

Final thoughts

Depending where you are in your career, your work ethic, and your financial expectations, one company might be better than the other. Keep in mind that once you become a remote contractor, you are, in effect, a business. Job security is relative and work can dry up faster than you expect. My recommendation is: if you can’t get into Toptal yet, use Crossover as a stepping stone. Learn how different working remotely is from a regular, in-house job. Regard each company as a client, and have a long-term plan. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t count on just 1 revenue stream for a long time. Grow your business and build a career that is your own, and that can keep you afloat even if you sometimes need to drop a client, or a reject a project.

Comment

  • Loghin Alexandru says:
    Jan 9 at 01:57

    Good insights for those who are thinking about transitioning to freelancing.

    Thanks :)

    reply
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