If prizes were ever given for poorly-coined terms, “freelance” might well have to hire a writer to put together its acceptance speech. Few of us carry lances around these days and if the “free” refers to anything, it’s more likely to be the amount clients expect to pay for their products than the freedom that should come with being free of a boss.
In practice, freelancers just have lots of bosses, multiple deadlines (sometimes in the same day) and, thankfully no shortage of work.
That might sound surprising. After all, there’s no shortage of people hoping to replace the 9-5 with a 10-4 routine of café-hopping, down-dressing and downstairs commutes. eLance alone, a site that lets freelancers bid on gigs, has more than 110,000 freelancers on topics from Web and Programming to Engineering and Manufacturing.
And yet, the top earners regularly generate six-figure sums, amounts that many freelancers might have struggled to earn in a regular job.
Or perhaps it only looks that way. One of the biggest untold secrets of freelancing is that some freelancers freelance for… well, other freelancers.
When a good freelancer finds work plentiful and time short, a solution is to switch sides, become a client and pass the work on, paying a slightly lower fee and pocketing the difference.
Clearly, there’s a danger here. You’re paying less so there’s a chance you’re going to be receiving less. The last freelancer in the chain also knows that it’s not his name on the line, so he has less to lose by turning in lower-grade work. Even if he loses a client by not being as careful as usual, he might also have damaged a more powerful competitor. And the time it takes you to correct lower quality work and bring it up to scratch, might not be worth the small profit you generate from the work itself.
There are methods though that freelancers can use to keep their own freelancers motivated and working at their best.
One is not to be too possessive. There is a danger that if the second freelancer knows who the client is, he’s going to cut out the middle man, head straight for the client and steal the show. That’s possible, but it doesn’t happen often. Most people are well-behaved, and even those without ethics would have to think twice about risking a certain income for only the possibility of earning the same or only a slightly higher income directly from the client.
Usually, it’s a risk worth taking because understanding exactly what the client is trying to do lets the freelancer see the big picture. It provides context, a feel for the client’s tastes and preferences, and — most importantly – a sense that their work has meaning.
It takes a certain type of freelancer to produce work without being interested in how that work is going to be used. In general, those are the sort of freelancers you want to avoid working with.
“I Did That!”
Asking your helper for advice can have a similar effect. When one freelancer outsources work to another, the relationship between them changes. The worker with the money has more power than the worker who wants to earn. But at every other time, neither has any power over the other and they compete as peers, respecting each other’s work and status. Keeping some of that respect in the freelancer-freelancer relationship can prove to be very rewarding too. It helps the supplier feel invested in the project, especially when their opinions are listened to and acted on.
Being able to say “I did that” – even if you’re only saying it to yourself – can be a better motivator even than money.
Not that money isn’t important, and this is perhaps one of the hardest things about paying other freelancers. Because the freelance world is so competitive, there’s very little room for a winning bid to include someone else’s pay. The more generous you are though, the more the supplier is going to feel that his work is valued and that you’re hiring him not to make a profit – although you should be doing that – but because you just can’t take on all this work yourself.
Again, it’s always more comfortable to feel that you’re lending a hand rather than just renting yourself out, even if you’re actually doing both.
Praise though is free and yet it’s oddly rare in the freelance world. We expect our work to be well-received, and we’re always more interested in the checks and the Paypal receipts than the kind words and slaps on the back. But it is still amazing how much being told that your work is good can raise your motivation. Being generous with the compliments can do the same thing for your own freelancers – and it’s cheaper than paying more.
Freelancing is a tricky business and few things are harder than finding good help that you can rely on. When you need it and you find it, it’s worth getting the most out of it.