Freelancing Together

Future of Web Design London 2010

Editors Note: In his first article for Think Vitamin Matthew Smith, Principal Designer at Squared Eye Design, discusses the benefits, risks and infrastructure required to work effectively with fellow freelancers.

Working Alone

Working alone can be great. There’s a pleasant autonomy of knowing exactly what you’re  doing and when. There are few unknowns. You work directly with the client and don’t have to worry about managing others.

In the past I’ve done everything from branding, strategy, IA, design, front-end dev, and CMS integration on a single project. These days, if I’m working alone, its usually providing PSDs to a client who has an internal dev team or something similar. I love it!

These projects are less complex than my collaborative projects, so life is simple. But if I limit myself to the size  and quantity of projects that I’m able to complete all on my own, my business will stagnate. If I am unwilling to pursue entrepreneurship and management, I will forever remain a technician.

Be a Jumbo Shrimp

Growth isn’t for everyone, but for me it’s a matter of defining my future. I want to be a Jumbo Shrimp — a big presence in a niche area. I don’t want to simply design interfaces for the next 30 years; I want to change the world – even if only in a small way. Growth can magnify my ability to directly affect positive change.

Working Together

By partnering with other professionals, I can grow my business and take on projects that can’t be harnessed by one man. A huge beer one man can tackle, but a huge project is another undertaking all together. Forming partnerships with others can be overwhelming at first.

But with the right team and a poorly paid talented project manager, you can take on more challenging, higher paying projects. Bolster the success of your partnership (and avoid massive cardiac arrest) by setting the stage with a healthy understanding of the risks and the infrastructure required to harvest the bountiful benefits.

Risks

As with any great opportunity, you’ll find an inherent level of risk involved. The normal stuff applies — what if someone gets sick, eaten by a whale, or discovers that working for you is a level of ass pain they never before imagined? What happens if you have a different work ethic than others on your team?

No one to manage the project

A project lacking management can quickly descend into the hells of scope creep. When that happens, you may be forced to nominate someone Survivor-style to run point. Managing might not be their strong suit or even what they want to be paid for. This can lead to real frustration within your team, and if combined with alcohol and firearms – there will be blood.

Your team is flat

It doesn’t matter if its soda, tires, or teams – flat is bad. If you don’t know who’s in charge of your project, it’s destined for confusion. If you prefer stress and direct path to insanity, then I highly recommend no leadership whatsoever.

No consequences or incentives

If you don’t have a clear set of consequences and incentives to encourage your team to stay unified and on target, you’re likely to end up with a wayward child on your hands (I want those sweeties!). Recovering from team disunity or distraction costs valuable energy, which distracts from the project goals.

Infrastructure

There are a few areas that aren’t quite risks, if they are well defined and everyone has a clear understanding of them, they are as follows:

Choose a project manager

Once you’ve chosen the right PM, does everyone agree that he has the authority to tell them what to do, and when? Making sure that everyone is ready to receive instruction from your PM and that everyone trusts the PM is critical to keeping the project’s flow. If my PM told me to stop enjoying beer, I’d fire him, so your PM’s authority should have some boundaries.

Give your team a hierarchy

A flat system will cause confusion and delay. It’s important that there is clear delineation of responsibility and authority. Sometimes this may coincide with who brought the project to the table, or it may be defined by who is the better leader.

Whatever the case, make sure you have a clear chain of command. Let your PM define the workflow of your partnership. Ideally everyone has moments of overlap and involvement in every stage of the project so that you aren’t simply running a relay race.

Choose incentives or consequences to govern your team

Finding the right incentives and consequences helps you cover your risks properly to ensure that everyone has the right level of stake in the project and their reputation. Done well, this is a document that everyone can sign on to, so that if the project goes south because of someone’s error, it’s their agreement with the document that hands out the punishment – not one of your team.

For our partnership, one incentive/consequence is very simply the ability to be re-hired on the next project, or fired from the current one dependent on whether you’re meeting the project expectations or not. We also spank, though for some in our coworking office that’s an incentive, so we use it sparingly.

Benefits

You can now safely move about the cabin, you have a project manager on duty

A PM’s responsibilities and authority can give you room to breathe. It will also allow you to do what you do best — whether that’s IA, design, tweeting, or development. It also bears mentioning that your clients will experience a higher level of care and organization. And if you depend on word of mouth like we do, this is one of your greatest assets.

Organizational clarity leads to total work nirvana

Okay, that’s overkill, but you and your clients will notice the efficiency that grows from a clear structure of authority. It allows your team to operate as a congruent force with a head, rather than an unruly band of independent freelancers.

Great incentives and real consequences keep the house clean

I hate conflict as much as anybody. If you put together a solid document with both incentives and consequences, you’ll find your projects and your team keep clean and free from unmanageable conflict. Everyone on your team wants to succeed, make money, and have a big party when every project’s done – this will make it so much easier.

In Summary

Bringing a team of freelancer’s together to provide a solid end product to a great client is profitable adventure and a joy. The Blue Sky Resumes project was the most ambitious foray into collaboration for our team.

The experience had a high learning curve, some of which I’m hoping to spare you from. If you move in this direction, you’ll see failures along the way; it’ll be as tough as it is fun. But the work you’ll get to engage in, and the great people you get to work with are worth every moment.

Resources

To Read

  • Army of Davids (Good business oriented abstract read)
  • Noded (I’ve not read this, but ought to)

Other Collaborative Freelancers

Coworking Is a Good Place to Start

Treehouse

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Comments

0 comments on “Freelancing Together

  1. Great, and timely, article – many thanks. The point you’re hammering home about Project Managers and a clear chain of command STILL hampers project teams that I’m a part of to this day. I should really move on …

    • I’m collaborating with a couple of other developers at the moment on a project which we’ve inherited from an agency.

      The client has no technical knowledge, the code has no tests and the project is quickly descending into chaos and disorder, to the point where I seriously regret taking it on in the first place.

      It doesn’t help that the client keeps changing their mind about what they want so any idea of a clear spec has gone out of the window. No one wants/has time to take responsibility for turning a random and confusing list of requirements into clearly defined tasks so we’re all just muddling along without any leadership.

      It’s inefficient, frustrating and rather depressing to the point that, for the first time since I started freelancing, I dread coming into the office :(

  2. Yes, yes, YESSS! This is great since I am currently in talks with a MAJOR client – but I contract our my designers and I specialize in the tools. I had to explain it in the email, but that’s never ideal. They buy with their eyes, as we all know. Still, this is becoming more of a normal working style, it is one that I firmly believe in – building a network of professionals and working as a single cohesive unit. This is the office now.

  3. Very Nice, As David Horn said “Great and Timely Article”. This article has really helped me understand the principles of working together. thanks

  4. Thanks for the words of wisdom Matthew. I think it can be scary for some freelancers to take that next step and start delegating certain aspects of their projects to others. I know for me I was more comfortable to control and take on every responsibility in my projects, from design to development to project management and everything in between.

    But I’ve learned that life is too short, and in order to put more focus on the things I’m the most passionate about (e.g. design), then I needed to distribute some of those responsibilities to others. The key for me has been finding the right mix of other freelancers that I can trust and respect and love to work with.

    And like you mention, having someone play the role of PM is a must if the project has any chance of being fun! And depending on the size of the project I’ve seen it work where someone does double-duty, for example a front end developer who’s also the PM. But obviously as projects grow in size this doesn’t work out too well. :-)

  5. You’ll always be a Jumbo Shrimp to me ;)

    One day we’ll be able to pay that talented project manager closer to what he’s worth – his weight in gold.

  6. Great article. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to hire a few employees to run a more efficient, full-service studio. Working with other freelancers is so much more scalable and perhaps less stressful in terms of worrying about how you are going to pay all of those paychecks when you may not have another big project on the way.

    However, I have also found that working with freelancers also has its pitfalls. Mainly, you will inevitably find favorites because of the quality of their work and your ability to work together, but as they are not “yours”, you can’t guarantee their availability. Also, freelancers usually cost more than employees per hour.

    I’m interested to hear how this business model continues to work out for you. It helps that you’ve worn all of the hats at one time, so you at least know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.