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Hail to the General Contractor: How to Subcontract Freelance Work

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As a freelancer, I find it incredibly hard to turn down work: even when I’m already at the point where I’m going to have to pull at least one all-nighter to finish the workload currently on my plate, it’s very hard for me to say no. These days, I don’t even bother.

I work with several other freelancers who I subcontract work to, making it possible for me to take on a lot more work and making it easier for those freelancers to find work, as well. Subcontracting can be one of the easiest ways for a freelancer to grow her business: if you do enough of it and rebrand yourself a little, you can wind up operating as an agency practically overnight. In the meanwhile, though, there are some ways to make subcontracting much easier.

Choosing Your Clients

Before you even consider subcontracting, you need to take a look at what your clients expect. If you’re clients are specifically looking for your touch on everything they bring you, there may be a problem when you announce you’re going to be working with subcontractors. There are clients who won’t care at all if you have help (or even have someone else do all the work associated with their projects). There are also clients who choose freelancers for very specific reasons and have no interest working with someone not of their choosing.

The reasons that clients typically want to work with a very specific freelancer and might feel uncomfortable if you subcontract include:

  • They want your specific style, perhaps even to the point of reprising a project you’ve done before.
  • They personally trust you to get the job done.
  • They’ve worked with you in the past and they don’t have any interest in changing things up.
  • People in their industry normally hire individuals, rather than teams or agencies.

These are all very valid reasons for a client not to want you to bring in a subcontractor on a project. If you ask about the feasibility of bringing in help on a given project where you didn’t establish that option ahead of time and the client says no, back off. Finish the project and keep it in mind for future work you do with the client.

You’ll likely need to adjust your fees upward as you subcontract.

But these are fears that you can calm, especially if you’re discussing a new project. More often than not, on any given project there is preliminary work that has to get done, but that won’t impact the overall style of the finished project. For instance, if you need images for a new website edited to the same size, it’s doesn’t matter who opens up Photoshop — there’s not a lot of style that goes into cropping photos.

When you’re working with a new client, you need to mention that you work with a team. You don’t necessarily need to use the word ‘subcontractor,’ but you need to establish that someone else will be involved in the process. That way, there are no surprises.

You also need to get an idea of where you can afford to subcontract. On big projects, there’s often more room for subcontractors. On small projects, there may not be enough work to justify handing it over to someone else. You’ll likely need to adjust your fees upward as you subcontract. There needs to be enough in the pot to cover the time you spent lining up the work, as well as the rates your subcontractors charge. If there isn’t enough room in your pricing to cover your help, you may not be able to subcontract work out at all.

Choosing Your Contractors

Most freelancers gossip about who landed which client, what other freelancers should never be recommended and the details of freelance life. Put that information to use in choosing who you’re willing to contract work out to. While it may be tempting to rely on your friends, you need to know that you can rely on anyone you work with, no matter what. Some of your friends may be exceptionally responsible; others may expect a pass because you’re buds. It’s generally a better plan to choose subcontractors who think of you only in professional terms because problems do happen.

Once you know who you want to work with, make a formal arrangement with them.

It’s likely that you have a good idea of other freelancers in your field whose work you respect. As long as their prices aren’t far above your own, they’re the best place to start as you look for good subcontractors.

Once you know who you want to work with, make a formal arrangement with them. It may not always be practical to set up a contract, especially if you’re sending a subcontractor odds and ends of work, but write out a letter of agreement outlining the sort of work he’ll be expected to complete, a general idea of timelines and a set pay rate. In general, I would never suggest offering a lower rate to a fellow freelancer, but if you can guarantee a set number of hours of work a week that your subcontractor doesn’t have to go out and look for, it’s not out of the question to negotiate a little.

To make subcontracting flow as smoothly as possible, you should establish a set system of how you’re going to provide work to your subcontractor. Make sure that it’s easy for the two of you to communicate. Expect to ask for revisions and don’t feel guilty about telling another freelancer that she hasn’t done well enough. Don’t just do a project over again if there’s a problem with what the freelancer handed in: if you’re paying for work, make sure you’re getting something you’re happy for your own clients to associate with your name and brand.

The Potential Pitfalls

There are certain situations that pop up as you subcontract out work, no matter how hard you work to avoid them. There are steps you can take to avoid such problems, provided you know that they may happen ahead of time.

  • The Invoice Crunch: In order to pay your subcontractors, you have to have money. The ideal situation is that you invoice the client, get paid and then pay your subcontractors out of those funds. But sometimes clients pay late. Sometimes they don’t pay at all.

    You still have an obligation to pay your subcontractors, because, in their eyes, you are the client. Keep a cash buffer to cover such situations and make sure that you get at least a significant deposit for every project to avoid such situations.

  • The Contractor’s Emergency: Bad things happen sometimes. That includes, with surprising regularity, time-consuming issues that will hit your subcontractor the night before they were supposed to hand in a big project.

    At a bare minimum, set your deadlines with the assumption that you’re never going to get anything earlier than three days after your deadline and you won’t be hit as hard. That’s often enough time for you to go in and do a lot of the work yourself or for an emergency to pass.

  • Clients’ Assumptions: When clients only see one name on the website, they can wind up making assumptions about who is working on their project. You’ve got an obligation to make sure that not only are your clients comfortable with the results of the work you submitted, but they’re pleased with who did the work.

    Even if it’s just a case of a client not hearing you when you discuss who will handle the nuts and bolts of the project, your client may have some problems at the end of the project. The best you can do is make it clear that you’re not the only one working on a project, even if it makes you sound a bit obsessive about the issue.

  • An Imperfect Match: Not all freelancers are cut out to be subcontractors. Moreover, some may not be a good fit for being your subcontractor. You need to find out this information long before you hand a subcontractor a big project with your best-paying client.

    Rather than jumping into things, do a trial project with any subcontractor you’re considering working with. Do two, if you’re still not sure. Then you can cut your losses before anything major happens if the freelancer just won’t be a good fit. It’s a case of ‘better sooner than later.’

There will be other problems along the way: subcontracting does mean that you have at least double the amount of opportunities for communications screw ups. But if you can pick the right people to work with on both ends of the equation and head off the obvious problems, you can turn subcontracting into your standard way of doing business. You can break the tie between the number of hours you have in the day and the number of dollars you can earn. It’s a very good feeling for a freelancer.

Disclaimer

You should always seek independent financial advice and thoroughly read terms and conditions relating to any insurance, tax, legal, or financial issue, service, or product. This article is intended as a guide only.