I have worked extensively with freelance contractors during the almost four years my company has been in operation. Even in 2009, Newsweek declared the tough economy "a freelance-based job market." I do not exaggerate when I say that Handshake Media, Incorporated would not soon be celebrating those four years in business without the work of online contractors and their expertise, creativity, availability, and ability to deliver value.
The Context of Working with Contractors
Contractors are independent. Whether by choice or necessity, they work for wages by the hour or for agreed-upon fees by the project – without benefit of health care, vacation days, sick leave or profit-sharing. They owe their loyalty first to themselves. Their business model requires them to be free to be opportunistic, whether that be working for a competitor’s company or taking off for two weeks. Goodwill or enlightened self-interest might inspire concern for the company’s welfare. But the gifts of loyalty and teamwork are the prerogative of the contractor and not something my company has paid for to receive.
What my company can pay to receive from contractors is good work products. I have found that specifying per task or per project expectations, communicating and negotiating about them, then agreeing upon them mutually before assigning those tasks or projects, guides the process by which my company and contractors receive the greatest value from our work together.
Our "Best Practices" for Working with Contractors
1) Articulate your company’s vision and mission on your website. Indicate that hired contractors will be paid for their time for having read it. I cannot buy buy-in, but I can give contractors the opportunity to be aware and conscious of the context in which they will work.
2) Write a job description applicable to all contractors on your website. Indicate hired contractors will be paid for their time to have read it.
3) Ask prospective contractors how much time they have available and for how long they have it. The goal of the question is to find out, even generally, if the amount and duration of time available from the contractor fits the company’s production needs and schedule. If the availability and need are a match, reply with an estimate of the type and number of projects in the queue you desire to have completed in the time specified by the contractor. Negotiate until mutual understanding is reached so that both company and contractor have a “handshake” agreement on how long you will work together for the first engagement.
4) Ask the contractor what motivates him or her to do excellent work and what motivates him or her to deliver ahead of schedule. Answers to those questions aren’t always the same and money isn’t always one of the answers. If what motivates the contractor is within my power to provide it, I include it as a bonus for excellent work delivered ahead of schedule.
5) For each task, write a specific description that includes a) what outcomes are wanted, b) the criteria by which the quality of those outcomes will be measured, c) your estimate of the amount of time the task will take, d) a required delivery date and time. Ask the contractor to bid on the task, either per hour with the total included, or per task.
(Note: My challenges with contractors have been almost exclusively about quality and timeliness. I have had so few disputes about fees that I can’t remember the details from the two or three times questions arose and I have chosen to pay the contractor’s version every time. As a result, mediocre contractors haven’t criticized me online but usually haven’t come back; great contractors have come back for more good wages for good work with fair treatment.)
6) Add a bonus for early or on-time delivery. If the bid is acceptable, add to the agreement that, upon evaluation that the product has met the criteria for quality, the contractor will receive a) a specific bonus for early delivery (based on the contractor’s answer to the “What motivates you?” question), b) a smaller, but specific, bonus for on-time delivery. If I have worked with the contractor before and the work was outstanding but the delivery date was not met, I add a dollar or % penalty discount if the project is delivered past the due date and time. Ask the contractor if these terms are acceptable. Negotiate until mutual agreement is reached.
7) Pay the contractor's invoice upon receipt. I try to do business with contractors as I want business done with me – directly, straightforwardly and respectfully. If I have a "cash flow issue," that terrible excuse start-ups and small companies use for not paying invoices in a timely fashion, I don't hire a contractor. It's simply not fair to hire a contractor who, by defintion, has an uneven revenue stream, and not pay immediately.
Writing job, task and project specifications for contractors and negotiating with contractors takes time, but not getting the right work done at the right time and price can cost more than time for a company's business. And I have learned that the practice of task description is a good business practice and contributes to the evolving quality and specificity of a good business model. I hope this guide helps you with your company's good work with good contractors.
Graphic: Kelsey Sarles
Of possible further interest:
Guide for Freelance Contractors on How to Make an Invoice
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First Bank & Trust Company is a client of Handshake Media, Incorporated, the parent company of Handshake 2.0.