CXO

Nurturing the freelance network

Consultants who complete their engagements with the help of freelancers can take steps to ensure that independent contractors will be around when needed. Keep freelancers happy with these suggestions.


When you’re presented with a potential contract, it's not uncommon to need a small team of subcontractors to complete the project. But assuring that your project makes it to the top of those freelancers’ priority lists can mean the difference between losing a client and signing a contract with a client.

How do you nurture a network of independent contractors to be on hand when you need them? We've compiled the following tips to gather, grow, and reward contractors for those times when you need them most.

Partner with other firms, individuals
Keeping a database of freelancers and partners is what helps Ted Chappell staff his contractor needs. His company employs almost 30 full-time staff members, and Chappell, managing principal at Eagle Technology Consultants in Atlanta, often hires more experts in certain areas for short-term projects. He says he finds freelancers with specific skill sets through his partners.

On occasion, the firm refers projects that call for a skill their staff doesn’t have, he said. He suggested that such goodwill can help his company eventually gain projects from the potential client and work from the contractor.

"We're all in this together; it's almost like we're an agency," says Valentina Guazzoni, owner of V-1 Design, a design consultant shop in New York City, who routinely hires independent contractors to help her complete projects. The partnerships that Guazzoni has created assure that she has a steady list of available freelancers.

During the past three years, Guazzoni has worked without employees but is able to branch out using her contacts. "It's kind of a guerrilla approach," she said. To keep the network up to date, Guazzoni says she is diligent about asking current contractors for recommendations of people she might need for future assignments.

"You have to have a couple of good backups for each category," suggests Guazzoni, who has only once passed on a major project—a Web site for a photography museum—because she could not find enough contractors to work with the client’s tight deadlines.

Match projects with people
Once the project has been sold, the goal is to expedite it to the top of a contractor's to-do list. Both Chappell and Guazzoni agree that assigning tasks that match a contractor’s skill and interest level helps ensure a degree of enthusiasm for the work. For example, Guazzoni said that one person on her team of freelancers loves to work on database programming and takes on any such project she may offer. The arrangement benefits both of them.

"The people that are contracting are trying to make money, but they're also trying to…get more experience, more expertise," said Chappell, who has hired people in the past that did not match well with the project.

But sometimes being seen as an expert isn't the only draw for a contractor. Often, cutting edge projects will be more interesting to freelancers than tasks they’ve completed dozens of times before, said Cain Wong, an independent Web developer in Glendale, CA. He is regularly hired by consultant firms, including Eagle, to work on projects.

Be clear, honest, organized
Once you've hired a team of contractors for the project, managing them is the next hurdle. Clear organization and communication are critical to a good working relationship between clients and contractors.

To that end, you and the contractor should sign off on project scope, budget, deadlines, and expectations in writing. Schedule weekly phone or in-house meetings and establish a common mode of communication, such as e-mail or instant messaging, to establish a routine for answering questions and getting approvals.

All these steps, besides helping you deliver your project on time, will save your freelancers from frustrating delays. For example, having to track down people to answer queries or get approval was a source of frustration for Wong on a recent engagement during which no one knew whom to turn to for approval. He’s uncertain if he would work with them again.

"I'd take less pay for a client that is going to have their stuff together because, overall, I want to get a better value," Wong said. "I don't want to waste my time when I could make money on another project."

Understand the independence factor in "Independent Contractor"
Guazzoni says that independent contractors are experts who often prefer to work autonomously whenever they choose. As long as they hit deadlines, the arrangement is fine with her.

"You have to have a flexible approach and not get caught up in 'Oh my God. This guy is missing,’" Guazzoni said. "And you can't micromanage. I wouldn't even know where to begin because I'm hiring them for their expertise."

Wong said that the freedom to work from his home office, particularly during night and weekend hours, is critical to his success.

"Having responsibility over my own area and being able to follow up rather than having someone over my shoulder all the time—that's the best part about being freelance," he said.

With such independence comes a level of trust the contractor must have with the consultant—and that, Wong says, is something he must earn by being responsive and meeting consultant deadlines.

Pay on time or earlier
Freelancers are often at the mercy of the consultant's client as to when the checks are written. Chappell's Eagle Technology sometimes pays freelancer invoices while still collecting money from the client. Chappell says while this practice leaves his five-year-old business at risk, he knows it keeps the contractors happy.

When an advance does come in, Guazzoni says she quells freelancers’ worries by splitting those monies with them, so they have at least some funds in the bank.

The lack of overhead for Guazzoni and the fact that she is not supporting employees is what makes the payment structure work well for her business. She contends that it benefits clients too: "That's a positive aspect of having a guerrilla team of freelancers. You don't have the overhead so you don't have to overcharge your clients either."

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