Lean Business: Freelancers for ALL My Friends!

This year a great deal of my blogging focus has been on the struggles many small businesses have with capacity. In the business context capacity can refer to the physical space a company resides in, or the manpower available for a company to leverage. There is another aspect of capacity that is equally important and that is the abilities or skill sets a company can offer to it’s clients or customers.

Sometimes these skill sets can be an important part of a company’s DNA and are a key aspect of the product or service offered. Other times these abilities have to be brought in from outside the firm, often in the form of a vendor or freelancer. The challenges with on-boarding  both vendors and freelancers are many, and the waters can be deep and dark. Using vendors can, on many projects, represent a huge expense and a margin-gobbling strategy. On the other hand, they may also provide a life-line, enabling you to serve a client in ways that you could not do on your own with the resources you have available. Freelancers offer similar challenges, but they can provide a wonderful way to control expense, increase capacity, and offer value that a company might not otherwise be able to offer. But freelancers represent an  additional challenge: finding, vetting, and hiring them can be time-consuming, frustrating, and expensive. And the risk inherent in hiring freelancers can , in many cases, be great.

Many companies use a three prong strategy when hiring freelancers; managing this process can be tricky, but the rewards can be great.

1. Identify the best. There are lots of freelance fish in the ocean and they come in many shapes and colors, but at the end of the day the smartest and most capable of them are the most difficult to catch. The strategies for finding the best of the best are pretty much the same strategies that the freelancers themselves use when looking for work: seek out recommendations from people you trust; network constantly to uncover opportunities; and look for the right matches in the right places. The first of these may be the most important: ask people whom you know and trust about the freelancers they have used or worked with; the probability of success increases dramatically when a talented freelancer comes to you via a professional reference. A part of this process is networking. Yes, that old chestnut applies as much today as it did 40 years ago when people first started using the term and practicing its virtues. Get out there and meet people, dammit! Go to events, join groups online and off, teach a course or attend one. By simply introducing yourself to professionals and practitioners and expanding your network of contacts the likelihood that you will be able to identify a good candidate for freelance work will increase exponentially. Finally, look for the right match by writing the best possible job description when searching for that special freelancer. Just as the most successful job-searchers use the strategy of only applying for the positions that are the best match, your job description should also be designed to attract the best match. Take the time to think through who you are looking for for the project and craft the description that best reflects your needs.

2. Stay on the lookout. Don’t make the mistake of starting your search the same week that you need that freelancer. Many companies keep job postings up even if they do not have an immediate need to fill the position described. Why? Because they recognize that talented workers are very hard to find and when the right one comes along it can be a very good idea to grab that person whether or not the timing is optimal. Same with freelancers. Make an effort to always be on the lookout, always be interviewing, and always be building relationships with talented freelancers. You might not need to hire that person today, but won’t it be wonderful to have some go-to options when you are ready to hire?

3. Build your own fishpond. It comes back yet again to the importance of building and maintaining relationships with valued freelancers. Keep lists of the people you most like to hire and make sure their contact info is at hand. Invite your most valued freelancers to the company party or out for drinks or lunch. Build your rolodex carefully and assiduously with the goal of having the largest pool of go-to workers that you can practically maintain and take the time to  keep your list up-to-date and accurate. Take care not to let it lapse; once you have built your own well-stocked pool, it takes effort to keep it stocked and it is a good idea to constantly bring in new freelancers, new talent, and new skills to keep the pool fresh and healthy.

Drawing: Leonardo da Vinci’s il Condottiero, 1480. (Note: The word Freelance is derived from “Free Lance” a term for a mercenary. Condottiero meant “leader of mercenaries” in Italy in the Renaissance.)