Everyone knows the pros and cons of using freelance, consulting or contract professionals to grow a business. You get agility, immediate value and dynamic supply, but you delay investing in a team for the long term. Talent costs can be variable instead of fixed, but those costs are going to people without the same commitment to growth. Seemingly, every invoice paid to a contractor is a sunk cost while a paycheck to an employee builds a little bit of equity value in the company in the form of skills and institutional knowledge.
But what if we could buck the conventional wisdom and invest in external partners for the long term? Is it possible — and even advisable — to develop freelancers in much the same way a company tries to develop and grow the individuals it employs?
I believe that you can and you must — that as work becomes more distributed and project- based, employers who can take a workforce development approach to their “external staff” will have a strategic and competitive advantage.
After all, don’t the 5 or 10 individuals that a marketing department might call on for freelance work collectively represent a critical function and an opportunity for improvement as great as any single key employee?
This approach to freelancers is necessary not because it’s difficult to find capable people. What’s difficult is finding freelancers who don’t treat their own work as a commodity in response to the signals they’re getting from the marketplace. You can get freelancers committed to doing high-quality, thoughtful, and strategically aligned work if you send a different signal than most of their clients do.
You can take this workforce development attitude only so far, obviously. It’s not possible to invest in freelancers and employees in exactly the same way. You can’t extend the same tuition-assistance or conferencing budget to people contributing only 10 hours a month, no matter how essential that work is. But you can have the same mindset and create investments scaled to the appropriate level.
Setting goals for your external team
When I started my content marketing business, I wondered how I could develop the freelancers I would rely on to be a team much like I did when I was a department manager in a traditional workplace. Initially, it seemed like I would have the same tradeoffs described above. But I began to wonder if I necessarily had to live with those tradeoffs. Perhaps I could get the advantage of a flexible workforce but one that worked like a real team.
Beyond the deliverables contracted for, I set a few basic goals for how I grew my team of freelance writers, editors, and designers.
- That they understand my goals and my clients’ goals.
- That they do their best.
- That they keep getting better.
- That they work together effectively.
- That they answer the phone when I call, and say yes to the gig.
Traditionally, fee-for-service assignments do nothing to incentivize the first four goals, and the last goal really comes down to who is the highest bidder.
Naturally, as they are freelancers, there is very little I can require of these individuals. I can’t ask them to do outside reading or take a course. I can’t ask them to be at an all-hands meeting. I can’t even expect any individual to work tomorrow.
What I could do, though, was set myself apart from any other editor or agency they may be working for. So I came up with a number of activities that are essentially about developing their capacity and professional potential. I think of these activities as my workforce development strategy for independent contractors.
The bad news/good news is that the customary way of working with outside contractors is a low bar and not that difficult to beat. As you’ll see, a lot of it boils down to treating freelancers with respect rather than as disposable.
Independent contractors are usually hired because they can provide immediate value. But taking the time to make sure a contractor knows the big picture and all your processes is good both for short-term results and a long-term relationship.
My assistant editor and I developed what we call “the company manual” with several process documents that we refer the rest of the team to. It also helps us get clarity in our minds about how we are working with the team so we can surface opportunities for operational improvements. For example, our creative brief document has become a critical part of getting everyone on the same page.
I set aside a small budget for my freelancers to use for online courses on digital marketing. These are never assignments but opportunities that I offer them to learn more in ways that help them do their work better — for me and for their other clients.
I’m not talking about a lot of money but an amount that is commensurate with our relationship. The point is that it is greater than $0, which is the amount of support most freelancers get.
Help them succeed in the short term
In a fee-for-service arrangement, many clients have the attitude that they get more value the more responsibility the contractor takes, to the extent that they may not contribute their own effort where it’s effective. But while work is in progress, the client should pitch in the way a manager or leader should on any project their team is active with. I ask freelancers what support they need, and I spend time finding research leads or other resources to help ensure the project is going to get delivered successfully.
Help them succeed in the long term
When my assistant editor and I are editing a piece, there is a certain category of edit that is “easier to fix myself.” But we try to resist taking that shortcut every time. Instead we pause in strategic spots to give feedback that helps the writer understand the edits we are making so that we’ll be able to work together more effectively in the future.
Help them work together
The library of research, domain expertise, contacts, old interviews, and other archived material my team is gradually building is a valuable institutional asset, so I encourage the habit of referring one another to that material during work in progress.
Give them references
Write on their LinkedIn pages, and document their good work in emails that they can file away to use later on their websites for testimonials.
Candidly, some freelancers aren’t very career or business savvy. They may not know to put testimonials on their website or how to develop opportunities for themselves.
I noticed recently that one of my team, over a number of assignments for my clients, had developed a new area of domain expertise, so I suggested she leverage that for assignments with trade publications. I also made a couple of introductions to editors. She now has a new gig paying more than mine do, so I’ve created some competition for myself for her time and attention. But not doing that because I want her to be more available when I need her would be like the line manager who won’t recommend their best worker for a promotion because they can’t spare that person.
Again, this is not much, but it’s more than $0. The freelancers on my team are providing a deliverable for a fee, but when the holiday season rolls around, I try to acknowledge my appreciation for their contributions during the year.
Give them work in downtime
As much as my marketing budget can allow for it, I try to “float” my core team when they are between jobs for my clients by giving them paid work writing for my own site. This works for both of us since I always need more material for my agency blog than I have time for.
Stay in touch
Sometimes I don’t have work for someone I like using, so as time passes I try to keep the relationship warm.
I also stay in touch with people who have moved on so when I’m busy I can check in to see if they may be available after all. An editor who has done two different stints with me turned me down recently because a full-time job is still keeping her busy. But if her situation ever does change, I want to be the first editor she lets know.
Respond to applications
I’m ashamed to say that the first time I put out an ad on Craigslist, I hired the person I wanted and never responded to the rest. That started to nag at me, and whenever I’ve searched for freelancers since then, I’ve set up a system to acknowledge and give a definite answer to every person who applies. This adds a couple hours of work for every position I advertise.
You wouldn’t believe the effusive thank yous I get for these simple rejection emails because it is such a departure from how freelancers are treated. And in some cases where my response was, in all sincerity, “maybe later,” I was glad I had done so, because I have gone back to people later and had a respectful foundation with which to start the conversation again.
Support their other interests
Marketing professionals tend to have other creative passions. Most of my writers are aspiring novelists, my former designer is a filmmaker, my editorial assistant is a touring musician, and my marketing associate runs a nonprofit arts collaborative. I try to make time to watch, share, and celebrate all the videos and other news they post to their social profiles.
When in doubt, round up
I can’t afford to overpay any more than any other business can, so I try to keep rates under control. But after we agree on a rate, I never want a member of my team to feel they are bearing the cost of change orders or that somehow the project was a tougher deal than they expected.
Keep building your freelancer workforce
I have several other ideas that I haven’t had time to implement yet. (And I’d like to hear yours.) It would be great to bring the team together for social events via Google Hangouts, to have a “matching gift program” that realigns my charitable giving around what is important to my team, or to have an internal “company newsletter.”
By taking the approach above, my direct expenses are probably slightly higher than at my competitors, and I’m probably spending slightly more of my time working directly with my existing team. But I probably also have less churn and less of the expense that goes with that.
I think I also get better results. I know my clients appreciate consistency in the writers they are working with. Developing my team also allows my agency to work higher on the value chain, charging a premium for high-quality, fully developed, in-depth, and polished work rather than competing on price for clickbait at volume.
I believe this gives me a competitive advantage in the war for talent. All of my team is working for multiple clients besides myself. I’m confident, though, that the approach described above is the reason my team never goes radio silent on me, is never slow to get back to me, and rarely says, “No, I’m sorry. I’m too busy.”