Tech & Work

Five questions to ask before you hire a freelancer

Outsourcing can be a great way to supplement your in-house capabilities, but you should know what you're doing when you hire a freelancer. Here are five questions that will help you choose the right one.


Outsourcing IT work can be a great way to supplement the power of your in-house team. You can take advantage of seasonal surges in work without making a full-time commitment to a new employee. You can get a fresh perspective, high-caliber work, and results-driven development—without the worry of sick days.

There can be some clouds behind the silver lining, though, and it’s important that you know exactly what you’re doing when you hire a freelance contractor. If you’re not careful, for example, you could wind up with an incomplete project that you don’t legally own, crashing deadlines all around you, and an empty checkbook to boot. Here’s how to avoid such freelance disasters.

Ask now, so you don’t run into trouble later
A freelance contractor is not the enemy, but before you rush to make him or her your new best friend, ask these five questions—and make sure you get straight answers.

1. Who will be doing the work?
It might seem obvious to you, but the answer to this question isn’t always straightforward. Once freelance contractors reach a certain level of success, they often subcontract work for additional profits. You want to make sure that you’re getting the top-of-the-line developer you’re paying for, and that you’re speaking directly to the person who will actually sit down to write the code.

2. What’s your availability? How long will it take you to respond to my feedback, and when can I expect the finished product?
These are all variations of the same question, and it’s important to know up front if, for example, your contractor answers all e-mail within two hours, around the clock—or if she’s a stay-at-home mom who only logs on after her kids are in bed. Mom might do a great job, and as long as you know ahead of time not to expect to hear from her during normal business hours, she might be the right woman for the job.

Remember, too, that someone who freelances full time will be able to complete your project much more quickly than a moonlighter. Expect to pay more for rush services, and make sure you have a formal schedule drawn up before you commit to the project.

3. What are your payment terms, and what exactly am I buying?
You should be prepared to pay an up-front deposit. In fact, if your contractor doesn’t request one, he’s probably new to the business and may lack the experience you need. No matter what you think you’re buying, you need to spell out the terms of the contract explicitly. If you’re buying software, does the price cover just a single-user license, or does it include the source code? Can you resell the product? Obviously, owning the source code will cost you—but it might be crucial to your company’s success.

4. Can you show me samples of relevant work?
If you’re looking for an ASP programmer, you don’t want to look at anything written in Java, no matter how impressive the client or how complex the app. You want to see samples of her ASP work. If you’re dealing with code, examine it closely. Is it written in a way that will make you dependent on this particular programmer for all eternity? Or will you and your team eventually be able to go in and make modifications easily?

You might have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before the developer will show you code developed for other clients. That’s perfectly reasonable—and it gives you a chance to have the contractor sign your own company’s official paperwork.

5. Do you have specific experience in my industry? Can I talk to satisfied clients?
Obviously, software written for financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, differs from software developed for fast food restaurants. Every industry has its quirks and nuances, and if you’re outsourcing, you probably want someone who can get up to speed quickly. The point of outsourcing a project is to save your organization time and money, not to invest weeks or months in walking someone through the basics. And a reputable contractor will be happy to provide you with a list of names and numbers for you to call.

If you find a reliable freelancer who delivers on time and on target, stay loyal. Don’t threaten to go somewhere else to save $5 an hour—it’s not worth it. You don’t have to pay the highest prices, but you shouldn’t be afraid to pay a little more for high quality work. The joy of hiring a freelancer is that the need—and the cost—is temporary.

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