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Using freelancers has always been a somewhat divisive subject. Freelancers can be a helpful addition to any team when used in the right way and at the right time. But when is that right time? How do you find a good freelancer? How can platforms like Upwork help? How do you ensure your freelancer will do a good job? There is so much to consider.
When Should You Consider Outsourcing?
Some teams rely heavily on a network of freelancers, but I would argue that is rarely a good idea. For a start, using freelancers works out more expensive in the long-term if they are being used regularly. If you are running an agency, this can quickly eat into your margins and even make projects unprofitable.
Secondly, you cannot always guarantee a freelancer will be available, and they tend to come and go much more regularly. That can prove particularly problematic when they have been working on business-critical functions. Being reliant on outside knowledge for your business to function is an unacceptable risk in most situations.
That said, there are times when using freelancers makes a tremendous amount of sense.
- Supplement a lack of capacity.
The obvious example is when you haven’t enough people to deliver a particular project. For example, it makes little sense to have a permanent in-house team that is large enough to undertake a complete redesign of a website, as this will only happen very occasionally. In such a situation drafting outside help to supplement that team is a sensible approach.
- Introduce specialist skills.
The other occasion when freelancers can prove helpful is when you need specialist skills. For example, you may only occasionally need to do video work, so it wouldn’t make sense to have a full-time videographer as part of your team. Instead, you would hire a freelancer to bring those skills in as required.
I have already said it is unwise to outsource business-critical work, but that does raise the question of what kind of work should or should not be outsourced?
What You Should And Should Not Outsource
I see organizations make many mistakes when it comes to what they outsource. For example, I see in-house teams hire an agency to redesign their site while handling the business as usual work. That is not a good idea.
- Avoid outsourcing work that needs to be maintained in-house.
The problem with outsourcing projects like a site redesign is that it leads to the in-house team supporting something that they are not familiar with. That said, using freelancers to redesign your website is not always wrong, especially if you don’t have the required experience or expertise in-house. However, it is best to avoid outsourcing work that you will later need to maintain in-house. In addition, it is never easy supporting other people’s code.
- Outsource to overcome short-term capacity issues.
A lack of capacity is another good reason for bringing in freelance help. In my experience, in-house digital teams are rarely resourced adequately for all that is asked of them, yet management is often reluctant to increase the company’s headcount. Bringing in freelancers can be a helpful way of bridging this shortfall. Equally, an agency may go through a busy period and require additional help. Unless you are sure that a ‘busy period’ is likely to become permanent growth, taking on a freelancer may be a more prudent course of action when compared to increasing your headcount. In both cases, taking on a freelancer is not just a great way of meeting the demands placed on the team.
- Outsource to make space for strategic actions.
It also provides an opportunity to free up your capability to focus on longer-term, more strategic work that, although not urgent, is important. For example, hiring a freelancer to work on business as usual while your team builds out a design system or addresses technical debt can be a helpful tactic. Although this can work well with a freelancer you embed in your team, it isn’t as easy if you take on the services of an agency.
An agency has its working practices, project management, and team culture. All of that means they are better suited to managing self-contained, well-defined projects in a largely independent way rather than handling business as usual work. Understanding the respective weaknesses of freelancers and agencies is essential when choosing to outsource work.
Should You Use A Freelancer Or An Agency?
As I said, agencies are superb for offloading entire projects, with only minimal oversight being required internally. By contrast, freelancers will require more management on your side. However, they are often less expensive and can be more closely integrated into your team.
Hiring a freelancer has another less obvious advantage too. If you find an excellent freelancer who works well with your team, you may find that you can persuade them to join permanently. This approach can prove a low-risk way of expanding your in-house capability. Of course, whether you are hiring a freelancer or agency, the real challenge is finding a good supplier.
Where To Find The Right Supplier
Word of mouth is probably the most common way of finding a freelancer, but it is not always the best option. Unless the person making the recommendation has a lot of experience hiring freelancers or agencies, there is no guarantee their judgment is reliable. Neither would I recommend just Googling for an agency or freelancer, unless you want an SEO expert. Their ability to rank well on Google is no indication of their skills in other areas.
A slightly better option is to look at other websites you like and find who worked on them. However, this does come with some problems:
- It will depend on what the freelancer or agency did on the site as to whether it is a good indication of their skills;
- If you are looking at your competitor’s sites, approaching the same supplier who created that might not be the best idea if you want to differentiate yourself from the competition.
The Power Of Networking
The way I find good freelancers and agencies is primarily through networking. By attending conferences, taking part in online communities, and being involved in meetups, I meet many people. I get to know their skills and can easily judge whether I could work with them. Of course, this takes time and is only worth the effort if you intend to hire freelancers or agencies relatively frequently.
Using A Platform Like Upwork
Failing that, there is something to be said for using platforms like Upwork. These platforms make it easy to find precisely the skillset you need and allow you to compare basic information on multiple suppliers quickly.
Ironically, the number of potential suppliers these platforms can introduce you to can feel overwhelming. Therefore, it is essential to give careful thought to how you will find the right supplier for you.
How To Find The Right Freelancer
Hiring a freelancer is tricky, especially if you do not have a lot of experience in doing so.
- Avoid choosing based on price;
- Avoid asking for unpaid work;
- Carefully review previous work;
- Favor experience solving similar problems over sector experiencs.
Avoid Choosing Based On Price
One of the most common mistakes is to focus too heavily on price. Although it can be tempting to go for the cheaper option, that can often be a false economy. Suppliers tend to be cheaper for a reason.
Avoiding the ‘cheap’ option is particularly important when working on a time and material basis. For example, somebody may have a low hourly rate, but if it takes that freelancer twice as long because of a lack of experience, it will be more expensive.
Avoid Asking For Unpaid Work
Another common mistake is asking freelancers to complete unpaid work to prove their capability. This behavior is widespread when working with designers, although I have seen similar ‘tests’ with developers.
Unsurprisingly, freelancers don’t want to do this kind of unpaid work, but it is also not a good idea from a client’s perspective.
Freelancers and agencies are usually in high demand. So those willing to do this kind of work tend to need work either because they are inexperienced or simply not particularly good. By insisting on this kind of unpaid work, you effectively rule out better suppliers.
Secondly, a freelancer has to recover the cost of any unpaid work they undertake. If they didn’t, they would go out of business. That means they will factor the hours spent doing this into the price they quote you. So you will ultimately pay for the work you requested if you hire them. However, it is worse than that. You will also pay for the unpaid work requested by others who did not hire the supplier.
So how do you pick the right supplier if you cannot base the decision on price or speculative work you asked them to complete?
Carefully Review Previous Work
The answer lies in looking at the work they have done for previous clients. Depending on the type of work, you may have to request access, but much of it will be online.
Get the potential supplier to talk you through what they did, and pay attention to the quality of work and the process they used. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for, and follow up on, references. Speak to their clients and ask about their experience working with this freelancer. You want to ensure that the supplier is competent and a pleasure to work with.
Favor Experience Solving Similar Problems Over Sector Experience
Experience is another significant factor to consider. However, don’t worry about whether the supplier has experience in the same sector as you. Yes, there will be a slight learning curve as the supplier gets up to speed on jargon or constraints unique to your sector. But, this is something freelancers and agencies are used to doing, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
Instead, seek suppliers who have solved similar problems to yours — even in a different sector. For example, suppose you are a restaurant seeking to redesign your site. In that case, it is more important that your supplier has experience with booking systems than whether they have done a lot of restaurant websites before. Once you have found somebody, the final consideration is how to work effectively with them.
How To Manage Outsourcing Effectively
Getting the most out of your freelancer requires some careful consideration, as people fall into some common pitfalls. The most common mistake is to throw a large project at your freelancer and then basically leave them to it. That is somewhat understandable as many take on freelancers because they have too much on. However, taking this approach will inevitably lead to mistakes that will ultimately cost everybody even more time.
Instead, start small. Break it into smaller, easier-to-manage engagements if you have a large project. That has the advantage of reducing risk because you can test the relationship and avoid significant costly mistakes. However, it is also good for the freelancer to get up to speed a little at a time.
Maximize The Value You Get From Your Freelancer
Another critical aspect of managing your outsourcing is to get the most value possible from your suppliers. Too often, people hire a freelancer or agency to push pixels or churn out code. That is a huge mistake as most suppliers have more to bring to the table. These are experts in their fields and have a lot of advice and experience. To maximize the return you get from outsourcing, encourage your suppliers to be proactive, make recommendations and even challenge you.
Talk To Your Freelancers Regularly
Of course, to learn from your suppliers, you need to contact them regularly. Integrate them into your team as much as possible and talk to them as often as you can. You are undoubtedly busy, but you will not get the total value from your suppliers unless you set aside time to talk to them.
This kind of knowledge transfer is essential if you will be managing the deliverables they provide. You need to understand how they have been built and why they have been approached in that way. If you are not closely engaged with your freelancers or agencies, you will not achieve that.
Not that you should micromanage your freelancers. Give them as much freedom as possible. The aim is to learn from them and utilize all of their expertise, not to end up doing the majority of the work yourself because you cannot let go of control!
Encourage Different Suppliers To Speak To Each Other
The final piece of advice I would give is to those who end up with multiple suppliers. It is easy to get stuck in the middle of different people telling you different things. So to avoid this issue, I highly recommend getting your suppliers working directly with each other, rather than always through you. It will save you a lot of hassle and certainly lead to a smoother project and better results.
Working with freelancers can be either a blessing or a curse depending on how it is approached. I am sure you have heard horror stories of terrible freelancers who fail to deliver. However, with a useful platform such as Upwork, these are problems that you can avoid. It is not just bad luck. If you select your freelancers carefully, start the relationship slowly and work closely together, they can prove an invaluable part of your team.