It’s now easier than ever for an entrepreneur to find specialized help with minimal risk. A one-person business can do a pretty good impression of a small company by hiring a creative freelancer – even one on the other side of the planet – without having to pay a regular salary, benefits or get locked into a contract with commitments the growing firm isn’t quite ready to keep. In fact, as anyone who has ever posted a wanted ad on the Internet knows, when it comes to freelance help – even from specialists like Web designers or illustrators — entrepreneurs are spoilt for choice. And with that choice comes challenges. It might be easy enough to find a freelancer but finding one you can rely on requires a whole new bag of skills.
Unreliable freelancers come in a variety of forms. Contact is perhaps the biggest worry for hirers. When the person you’re working with isn’t sitting in the next office, and your biggest communication tool is email, there’s always the danger that your mini-employee has taken your instructions, your mock-ups — and your deposit – and run off to Timbuktu. Or at least relegated dealing with you and your project to the bottom of a to-do list that includes “getting a haircut,” “helping junior with homework,” “building my own company” and “buying a Caribbean island.” Your messages go out but nothing comes back.
For growing businesses, that lack of contact can feel like the worst of all worlds. You’re not certain whether you’re hired help is hired and helping or whether they’ve dropped the project and not bothered to tell you. You don’t know whether you should be looking to give the site plan to someone else, or sitting tight and hoping that it all works out. For many entrepreneurs, the result is stasis, worry and wasted time.
What You Want, When You Want It
That time ends at least when a deadline passes. If a freelancer disappears and still hasn’t made contact after the delivery day then he can have few complaints if you hire someone else. More usually though, missed deadlines — another common characteristic of unreliability — can be seen a long way off. Milestones get missed, apologies are made in advance and dates have to be rearranged. It’s all frustrating stuff and life would be much easier if everything were delivered exactly when you wanted it.
And it would be perfect if you didn’t just get your logo, your design or the copy when you wanted but it was always exactly the work you needed. The quality delivered by freelancers is rarely a hirer’s first worry but perhaps it should be. The kinds of people who make themselves available for freelancing range from stay-at-home moms hoping to make a few extra bucks from the doodling they’ve been doing for fun to seasoned pros who have long been making a living out of their training, talent and skills. If you’re lucky — and you’re willing to pay the full rate — you’ll get the second type. Get the first and you could find yourself unexpectedly looking at an image you can’t use or a design that needs to be redone almost entirely.
Finding — and Creating — Reliable Freelancers
Each of these problems has fixes. Communication trouble can be solved by having more than one way of staying in touch, and it also helps to restrict the number of contacts. Shoot out an email every time you get a new idea or whenever you want to alert your freelancer to a model you’ve spotted and they won’t all be answered. If all she does is answer your emails, she’s not going to be working on your project. Save up all your comments for one email a day. And understand too that people respond to email at different times. You might treat email as chat and reply to a message you receive immediately, but others are happy to wait. Many followers of Getting Things Done, for example, aim to increase their productivity by only writing long emails at the beginning and end of the day.
Deadlines can also require flexibility and are often broken even outside the world of freelancing. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once said that he loved deadlines; he enjoyed the “whooshing sound they make as they fly past.” Assume that there’s always a chance that deadlines might be missed and set them so that they can be adjusted. And as you approach the deadline, track the project’s progress so that you can see how close the finish actually is. For tasks like website design, you should be able to see how many pages have been completed and what still needs to be done.
Both of those are fairly straightforward. It’s finding a freelancer whose quality you can rely on that’s much harder, but there are a number of options here too. Freelance sites like Elance, Scriptlance and Guru all have feedback ratings and portfolio spaces but don’t rely on those ratings — or those sites — when you’re looking for someone reliable. Different clients are satisfied with different levels of quality. Nor is it easy to compare the work of creative people who are meant to think outside the box. So to get a deeper impression and to understand whether a freelancer might be good for you, try social media. If the person you’re considering is on Twitter, their tweets should give you an idea of their personality, their interests and what they’re saying about their current clients. You might also be able to find comments, links and examples of projects they’ve recently completed to supplement the top picks that made it into the portfolio.
More importantly, social media can also give you word-of-mouth recommendations. Search for the type of freelancer you need on Twitter’s search engine and there’s a good chance that you’ll find plenty of other people tweeting the same need. You’ll be able to check their timelines and see who’s replied to them and who is getting the recommendations. There’s usually plenty to choose from. A search for “web designer” turned up three requests, a job search from a design company and a personal recommendation, complete with sample link, all posted in the space of an hour.
But if you really want to check the quality of a freelancer you’re considering, forget the generic terms and get specific. Instead of searching for “programmer,” search for “ajax,” “vectors” or some other term that would only be discussed by a freelancer who knows his stuff — and likes talking about it. Groups on Facebook, such as “Web Design,” can also be rich hunting grounds where you can browse the discussions and offer work to the contributors with the best ideas.
Even LinkedIn can be useful for plotting someone’s previous work experience, especially the short periods which they might have left off their freelance profile.
If all of that research sounds like more work than you’re really inclined to do, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not unusual for freelance-employer relationships to break down quickly. Companies often find themselves ditching flakey freelancers then searching around for a more reliable replacement, often on a much tighter deadline and far smaller budgets.
Investing the time and effort to find someone you can rely on when you first hire a freelancer is always the best move, second only to the most important one: when you do find a freelancer you can rely on, make sure you keep her because there aren’t too many of them around.