By Melissa Brock
A whopping 36 percent of the United States population did some freelance work 2017, according to the Freelancing in America Survey from the Freelancers Union. This represented a growth of 8.1 percent from the year before, while the overall workforce grew only 2.6 percent. If this trend continues, the survey estimates that 50.9 percent of the workforce will do some freelancing by 2027.
For association publishers, who often work with limited resources, tapping into the growing freelance market offers many opportunities to augment existing efforts. Freelancers allow you to dramatically expand the pool of talent at your disposal without the need to keep that talent employed full time.
Entrepreneurs frequently take advantage of freelancers’ skill sets to help with project management, marketing, accounting, customer service, communications, and more.
That doesn’t mean freelancers are a cure-all. There are many things to consider before seeking one out.
Pros of Freelancer
“When people start a new relationship, they're usually optimistic, positive, and hard-working. By hiring freelancers, you can always have staff in the honeymoon period where they put in their best effort,” says Jason Lavis, managing director of Out of the Box Innovations in Devon, England.
A few other items to consider:
- Specific skills and expertise: You’re not limited to who you can find in your backyard when you reach out for freelancers. You might need a writer who can write about a specific type of insect found in South America or a design a specific widget on your website. When you hire freelancers, the sky’s the limit when it comes to talent.
- Project-based work: You can set projects and then accomplish them as needed instead of trying to keep an employee busy during a slow season. Hiring a full-time employee might make financial sense if you know you need a specific employee for a long project or multiple projects. However, short-term and one-off projects can be ideal for a freelancer.
- Swift work: Because their compensation is dependent on how many projects they complete, efficiency and therefore speed are paramount for freelancers. They excel at short-term projects because they’re used to being given one-off tasks.
- Cost of full-time: The average cost of hiring and training a salaried employee is six to nine months of salary, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. Full-time employees require benefits, too, including health insurance coverage, 401(k) plans, vacation, life insurance, and dental insurance. Freelancers usually charge by the hour (or by the word if you’re hiring writers). They set their rates, and that’s all you’ll pay.
Cons of Freelancers
“The freelancer may not be familiar with your target audience, your services, your industry, etc. The onboarding phase is critical for this. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way,” says Datis Mohsenipour, director of marketing of Outback Team Building and Training.
A few other items to consider:
- Advance planning: You have to plan in advance when working with freelancers or be ready to pay the premium amount for last-minute work requests. It can be especially difficult if you have never used that particular freelancer before.
- Finding consistency: Freelancers may not rely solely on your business for their income so they don't need to be as dedicated to you, particularly if you aren’t paying as much as your competitor down the street. This again comes back to planning ahead to allow schedule flexibility.
- You can’t just pop by their desk: An in-house employee is a short walk away. The communication process with freelancers may be delayed. “To help mitigate this, I make sure to set out a service level agreement on response times,” Mohsenipour says.
Coming to an Agreement
Mohsenipour prefers to hire contractors on a month-by-month basis. “A great lesson I learned from my CEO is that contractors will always work hard to impress you at the start of the contract, but efforts may wane as time progresses,” he says. “If you’ve got them on a month-by-month agreement, they are in a position where they are motivated to continuously earn your business.”
A month-to-month contract may not be realistic for all freelancers. You could give them a maximum term of six months with a 30- to 90-day grace period if they do require a contract, particularly if things aren’t working right out of the gate.
Some things to consider:
- Be sure to set clear expectations so the freelancer understands what needs to be accomplished — and so you get exactly what you want. Include that information on the contract so there’s no ambiguity.
- Build specific response times into the requirements so a freelancer addresses particular points of projects in the least amount of time as possible.
- Brian Cairns, founder of ProStrategix Consulting, says he likes to get a statement of work (SOW) from the contractor prior to the job. The purpose of the SOW is to have the contractor specify their methods, timing, and check-in points. The important distinction is that the contractor specifies how and when the work is done, not the contractee.
There many examples of contract templates online, but if you want to be absolutely certain you’re getting what you want, ask a lawyer to write up a contract. Many can do so for around $200. “The contractee can agree or disagree on terms, but once signed, it’s set,” Cairns says. “Contracts can be altered, but there is a clear paper trail when changes are made.”
The lack of ability to walk down the hall or pop over a cubicle wall to check in or talk with a freelancer can be a major hurdle. “Telephone or Skype conversations are forgotten and emails get lost or ignored. You need a rigid set of instructions to follow. It's fine to communicate any way you want from the point of relationship building,” Lavis says. “When it comes to the work, the more you can spell it out, the easier it is for all parties. We've found that standard operating documents and carefully crafted work specs are the way to go.”
Lavis suggests creating a set of step-by-step instructions so you won't need to keep saying or typing the same thing over and over, no matter how you choose to communicate.
Team messaging apps such as Slack, Hive, and Workzone can be a great way to get the freelancer involved in the discussion while letting them refer to older messages for context. However, without some team discipline, these channels can become convoluted and filled with unnecessary messages. This clutter can lead to more confusion or wasted time.
One of the great strengths of using freelancers lies in being able to find experts for a specific issue. Of course, this begs the question: Where do you find freelancers?
The AM&P Member Forum is an excellent place to request recommendations, call out specific needs, and exchange information with association communicators who likely have experienced your current need or project. Find out more about the forum and subscribe to the emails here.
“I found many freelancers I've worked with by networking with other entrepreneurs. My main assistant came as a referral from a good friend who had previously worked with her,” says McKinzie Bean, creator and owner of MomsMakeSense.com. “Solid recommendations from others is by far my favorite (and the easiest) way to find a strong freelancer to help your business.”
Online resources that can help or are specifically designed for arranging freelance work include Thumbtack, Fiverr, LinkedIn, Clutch.co, and even Facebook. For those looking to take up freelancing, there are many excellent online resources, such as Toptal's freelancing guide.
For managers and entrepreneurs, freelancers can provide sweet relief from the daily pressures of maintaining staff workers. Don’t neglect freelancers who might be roaming your own backyard, either — they don’t have to be halfway across the world. After all, they may even turn into full-time workers.
Melissa Brock is a personal finance expert and the money editor at Benzinga.