For the last 3-4 years I have been both a freelancer and the client. I'm the client mainly when I outsource projects I cannot handle myself, or when I seek a specific expert as a part of a project (designer, multimedia experts, etc).

From the beginning, I established my own quality standards which are in short:

  • perfection in details
  • future-proof applications
  • top-notch graphics.

To achieve something like this means that my projects take longer to finish, but the quality is the top one and the application is quickly appraised by the community (the client more quickly return money invested). Because of that I got a solid base of clients, both long-term and new ones recommended by other ex clients. And you would say this is ideal case? Umgh, no.

When the projects started coming faster than I was able to finish them, I started outsourcing projects. I changed more than 20 contractors and all of them work the same "1st project done by my quality standards, the next ones they usually don't finish". I then tried hiring guys part-time to work for me solely until the project is done, this did not work as well. They all lost spirit at some point and I have to let them go.

I first thought that the money is an issue but I am paying them as same as other companies in the area.

Then I asked myself if I am a nightmare boss - I don't think so. I usually leave contractors alone until they reach deadlines. Then I try pushing them in a polite manner so that they to do break deadline. If they break deadline and the client is not complaining, I am not penalizing them. The only thing I do is related to quality: I send dozens of request for small fixes until the app is perfect. But this is not wrong right?

After 2 years of outsourcing, I am alone again with a notion "if you want to do it right, do it yourself". Yet again, I am too deep in this business, have too many clients and if I start rejecting their project, I will lose them for sure. And how can that be good?!

Did anyone have such problems as myself and did he solve them?

Do you maybe see where the problem here is?

I must have been making mistakes, but where?

  • 8
    If you have too many projects and too many clients, have you considered raising your rates? In general, I've found that that's a good way to handle being overloaded with work. – Josh Brown Aug 16 '13 at 20:06
  • Can I do some work for you? I realised while working for a company, that they charge very high rates to the end company, inflated deadlines (to keep us stress free, but also enough time to fix bugs and resolve issues) but the high profile company comes back, because it was money well spent. So they reveal the next 10 projects that need doing. Then you have 1 client,that is very happy, worth the lost 10 clients that were kind of happy. (Seriously, I am looking for contract work though) – WillyWonka Apr 10 '14 at 21:57

10 Answers 10

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Probably, everyone who's in freelance/outsourcing business have had these problems. I'm not thinking my answer will contain an exhaustive list of your possible mistakes, but here are several ones that caught my eye when reading the question.
Prepend each item with "possibly", "IMHO", "YMMV", etc.

  • Too high quality standards. It well may be that you are requesting too high quality from the very beginning. For instance, if it's a mockup/prototype, your contractor may spend too much effort while developing it with full quality when it is not needed. Altogether it would lead towards losing time when working an actual product. I would expect that each subcontractor in a line may produce lower-quality result, and your role is to make it higher (finally, you are getting paid specifically for that).
  • Don't be afraid to delegate. "If you want to do it right, do it yourself" seems to be a wrong approach. Some tasks, indeed, require maximal quality your business entity (yourself plus subcontractors) can reach, hence they require your best attention, but it does not mean they can't be delegated — at least, partially.
  • Poor communication. "leave contractors alone until they reach deadlines" — I can't really think of a worse thing.
    "Fire-and-forget" subcontractor is a treasure, I have barely seen a dozen of such people working as subcontractors as they usually quickly rise towards opening their business which is larger than mine. Finally, they are in position to hire me, not vice versa.
    Usually, we are working with average people (not in a negative sense). People tend to make mistakes, and continuous communication is the way to let average people to produce great results.
    So, Schedule Your Communication. Don't set up yourself for a failure by breaking deadlines, ever.

A bit of philosophy to answer a question raised in a comment. This is a pure opinion.

There's no ultimate answer on how to keep with own tasks.
My (a bit idealistic) understanding is that if I'm getting paid for a job, the job is mine. I can outsource it partially, but I can't avoid personal involvement, quality check, etc.

Think of a large company (call them A) outsourcing at a subcontractor (B). B well may have different quality standards (not necessarily weaker than A's, but anyway). In order to place A's label on a product they have to be involved, e.g. run their own testing. This is why you may find cheaper "copies" of electronic equipment labeled B (or illegally labeled A). Chances are that you will find absolute copy, but out of a shipment of 100 items, say 5 would fail, while the A's quality allows maybe 1.

  • Thanks for a great reply. One question thou: How do you keep up with your own tasks if you have to spend a couple of hours each day communicating about outsourced project? Let's say you have to code your own project and do detailed monitoring of 3 outsourced projects. – Peter MV Aug 16 '13 at 13:57
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    I have just updated the answer to address this. It was too large to fit in a comment. – bytebuster Aug 16 '13 at 14:19
  • 1
    Good reply. I wish I can oursource the project and just leave communication between the client and my contractor :) – Peter MV Aug 17 '13 at 14:18

While not programming or development related, I have subcontracted and been a subcontractor.

When hiring, I have found it very necessary to remain in constant contact with the subcontractor. Not incessantly so, but regularly. My favorite phrase is "Okay, I'll check back in X days to see where we're at." And I do that repeatedly regardless of where the deadline is. Closer to the deadline, communication becomes more frequent. The communication isn't about changes or verifying work 90% of the time, it's about letting the subcontractor know I'm available and seeing if they are having any troubles or have questions I can answer. It's more about showing the subcontractor that I'm invested not absent.

In short, the hire and forget until the deadline mentality is not serving you well. And may not be helping the subcontractor. Just touching base frequently can be of great benefit.

Now, all this depends somewhat on the subcontractor themselves. Some subcontractors I've had to be in communication with every single step of the way to ensure the project was on the right path and avoid massive delays due to corrections later. Needless to say, these subcontractors were a 1-project-only venture.

As to standards, if fees are the same for a client with very high standards as they are for a client with low standards, then subcontractors will migrate towards the clients with lower standards to earn properly. While you may be paying "fair market rate" your quality standards may demand you pay above market rate to ensure you retain the subcontractors. Double the work for the same amount of return is never fun for anyone.

As a subcontractor, I prefer the same sort of communication. I don't mind if a client/employer contacts me daily or weekly for a progress report or to see if I have any questions. In fact, it may be easier then my trying to get in touch with them. And I will quickly find other streams of income if a client becomes too demanding without compensation.

As someone who makes a living building teams of contractors to handle projects for my clients, I can say positively that communication, accurate expectations, and finding people who will work well together are crucial elements to a successful project. 10x that if your contractors are remote.

You mentioned that at one time you had 20 contractors working for you. That seems like a very heavy workload and some of your problems could stem from the need to delegate the management of at least some of those people and the work they're doing.

If you're hiring good people, as a general rule they won't leave you in the proverbial lurch unless they have a reason for becoming disenchanted with the relationship or the project. If you're not communicating with your people throughout the project and then suddenly pushing them once a deadline is approaching, I know from experience that can create a stressful environment for a contractor. Again, if you're dealing with a talented person they won't stick around in that environment. I've seen that happen personally.

Basically, I suspect that the majority of your problems come down to delegation and communication. My suggestion would be to get an outside consultant who can become deeply familiar with your process and procedures, and give you actionable steps to improve how you do business.

I am going to speak as the outsourced freelancer, specifically with IT projects (not necessarily programming).

When I am given assignments, we would usually get treated like idiots, meaning that there is documentation up the ying-yang, including pictures and exact keys to press (i.e. Type ipconfig /all and press enter to execute the command). There was a mis-communication with the instructions when doing work on a Cisco router (which I've never used before), and our instructions were to call in if there are ANY hiccups. We called, and had to wait almost 2 hours as they had to address all the other people with the same issue. The command in the documentation was off by a single digit; I knew the issue, but was not allowed to follow my instinct. I trust your situation is not as extreme.

To get the best quality of work, I have found that giving a large-picture scope, and letting the minions (for lack of a better word) do their own thing within my scope, worked best. I would provide bullet points for the mandatory items (i.e. labeling the plugs as FH1 for Front Hall 1), and then at the end, provide the EXACT steps if they get lost. I'm the type of person who will look at how it's expected to be done, then see if I know a better way to get the end result.

It's great that you leave the contractors to do their own thing, but you will need to check on them, or ask them to check in with you every so often. Quality is an ongoing project, and you need to maintain that connection throughout the entire process. Do not micromanage, as that will get angry contractors. It's a fine-line balance, but remember: you are the professional, since you're the freelancer. Trust that the other freelancers you're hiring are professionals as well. If they do not perform up to your standards, let them know. If they continually go below your standards, you are in the right to let them go and find someone else.

I've run into exactly the same problem. I left a web design firm where I was an account exec, went out on my own, built teams and won some large scale contracts, and made great money with some great people.

(I took a 3yr hiatus to windsurf - reflected on what I wanted to do, and realized, I love coding - I want to stick with that - so I'm longer trying to build a bigger company and manage large teams (i.e. 6 or 7 consultants)).

So based on that, here is my suggestion on how you can approach this.

Most importantly, you have to begin by deciding why you are in this business and what type of freelance company you want to be - this is key because the more you scale up, the more you are in hands-on management and less involved in actual design and development.

1) If your first love is programming and design, then stick to that, build your company on personal attention to projects, your reputation and excellence. That means taking on less projects, but being much personally involved in both - everything you touch will be done to your standards - you can take a lot of pride and have a lot of satisfaction in that.

2) If you want to grow a company in size (number of consultants and projects), you are then switching hats to becoming great at managing people and clients.

My suggestion is to take some to reflect on what you want for yourself as a career.

If it's the first, take on less - do what you love to do.

If it's the second, then accept that you are now a team manager, project manager ad account executive at the same time.

Here is some helpful advice if you want to grow your team and clients and keep that growth sustainable:

1) I avoid taking on employees. My preference has always been to hire freelancers who have worked for companies, gained that experience, but then went out on their own. I've made exceptions for freelancers who have been highly recommended and demonstrated great attitude. I found the ideal is to be their biggest client, but not their only client. Don't overload them either - keep them hungry and available to scale up to take more work as you get more work.

2) It takes time to find the right people to work with (i.e. I've had to go through about 6 or 7 prospects before finally finding 1 good one). When trying somebody new, hope for the best and expect the worst - make sure you have a project with a long enough time line that if they don't work out, you can hire somebody else to fill the gap (this going to happen from time to time).

3) Here is how I price out my projects, protect myself, my clients and the freelancers from a financial perspective.

  • Handle the requirements phase - get this down pat. Your requirements need to be detailed so that everybody on the team knows the scope and specs they are building towards. Have provisions to handle 'scope creep' that are understood by all involved - and require a written change request and approved cost-estimates for those.

  • Break the project up into skills-sets required, then get the prospective freelancer to quote (tip: I add 10% to the contract for the freelancer to guarantee no cost overruns - they happily take the extra cash with no complaints)

  • Once I have all my costs added up, I double the price and request 50% upfront and 50% on 'substantial completion' of the project. The 50% covers my costs, so I know I can always pay my freelancers (important! - even if it's the clients who stiff you, the freelancers expect to get paid and you are responsible)

  • I give my freelancers a 50% deposit on their quote (that's half of your 50% deposit) on project commencement. I don't touch the rest of the client's deposit. It sits in a bank account until my Freelancers have delivered, at which my Freelancers get fully paid out. As far as I'm concerned, until all deliverables are met - I haven't earned a cent - it's more important to have that cash on reserve to pay your freelancers (or to hire somebody if one isn't delivering). You are fully responsible to the client for project completion - remember that.

  • When the project is completed, the client is invoiced, you get the second 50%, everybody's happy, your freelancers have gotten both a substantial deposit upfront and paid timely (pay them fast on completion and get them used to that - they will automatically prioritize your projects because they know they will get money quickly after completion!!!), the client has their project delivered, and you've made a good profit.

You will build a great team over time with this approach. Some freelancers will come and so will go. But you will build a core team that knows that they 'get clear specs, get a deposit and get paid in full' every time the work for you - and that's rare and sought after these days.

In the end, it is going to be your 'people skills' and your 'management skills' that will be your greatest assets - you've switched from designing and development to running a business and managing people and projects.

Expect it will be a rocky road at times - your challenge is to foresee potential risks and navigate those.

If it is excellence you seek, then be very careful in who you bring on - look at their past work - you'll see very quickly if they are the type of people who push out 'mediocrity' - or if they have that same 'gleam in their eye' for high-quality work.

Also, and I've saved this for last, because it is so important for dealing with people, and you brought up the loss of motivation.

I've found that, in the long-term, money is not much of a motivator to drive 'excellence' - you have to recognize it in people, compliment them on it and express appreciation - people thrive on validation and if you can give them that, it's like an addictive drug that keeps things challenging, fun and rewarding!!!

For those who work for you and excel, build up their confidence, tell them how much you appreciate having somebody on the team you can count on - make it a very rewarding experience for those who do great work.

Two things come to mind.

You're not hiring the right people.

Or

You need to let go a little, which is a vital part of being a good manager.

In general I'd say to trust your instincts, but your high turnover leads me to wonder if you don't understand that delegation means letting go to a certain extent. Maybe their work is not what you would do, but it may still be the right fit for your client. Getting outside of your own ideas is hard, and as a creative having specific ideas is the value you bring, but if you can't do it while managing someone else than you're not cut out to manage other creative people. Motivating people to do there best can be a full-time job in and of itself, don't take it lightly.

Freelancing, inherently is about being dynamic, flexible, negotiating. You are not beholden to any one client, and no good client expects that from a freelancer. They get flexibility and so do you. If you have too high a demand, raise your rates, or stick with the clients that treat you the best or give you the most interesting work. It sounds like you value the work, and less maximizing billable hours - seems good to me, why are you even worried about outsourcing? A solid referral goes a long way too.

Always remember it's a two way street, and to focus on finding clients and collaborators that are a good fit - go for quality over quantity.

I have been working in the IT sector since the last few years; actually started a venture back in 2000 and have it going good now. Initially i used to get projects as the third party where someone from the US or some other country got the job from his client and he/she used to outsource the job to us.

I felt it many times that my client was not very happy with the job we delivered, not that the job we delivered didn't work, it did, but it always had something or the other missing that we forgot to test earlier. Your issues, rather than lying at your side, i believe lies at the side of the developer. I managed to find after a lot of bitter experiences that the quality of job I was working on and the quality of jobs my current employers expected from me were a lot different. For example, In India we have most of the people who just check if the project works or not, once they feel it does work, they say that the job is done. Like there is hardly any proper testing of the project at the client side, even a lot of times we have had situations here we delivered projects late; but still our clients were not too worried.

These resulted in making us a bit less proactive to the jobs we worked on. So once we got more professional jobs, we followed the earlier ideas we had, and the result; it didn't work out. After working on a number of jobs we understood that its quality that my client needed, along with the project working perfectly under every conditions.

I guess you should take a proper look into the jobs, the guys you employ, have done earlier, the quality they have delivered and the effort they have put into it. That shall make it more clear about the abilities of the people you are going to hire.

Hope it helps.

This is a great problem to have!

While many freelancers struggle to keep there pipelines full, you've got your hands full, so firstly congratulate yourself on being so reliable and great at your job that you're literally overflowing with work.

Now onto your question, finding a way to successfully outsource your work all while making sure that:

  1. it is both up to your standards (which is what to you to the number of projects you're getting at a time, so keep up the great quality of work!)
  2. and that the person you outsource it to won't go MIA.


To better answer your question, I'll break down what you can do to improvement your outsourcing in three categories:

Note: The following advice will take some time to implement, but will be well worth it in the long run.


Get a Well-Documented Process

If you're planning on replacing yourself, you need to document everything you do for a client project, so even if your contractor does go MIA, you can have someone else jump in, read your docs, and continue on the project. Doing this not only is a great way to ease growing pains, but it also helps preemptively prevent contractor-related problems. I cannot stress how important this is for a freelancer to small-business transition. Even if you want to remain just a freelancer (1-man shop), I highly recommend you document your process so you can objectively take a look at it later on and make some improvements.

Some helpful items/tasks to document are:

  • Client on-boarding process
  • Design workflow and Management (e.g. File naming, backup systems, software plugins, etc.)
  • Design Process
  • Project management.
  • Deliverable handoff
  • Revision process


Finding Great Talent

Assuming from your username, you most likely live in Canada. You have the option of both finding freelancers in metropolitan areas like Vancouver of Toronto as well as stretching your dollars much further by going to UpWork or freelancer and finding freelancers in the Philippines or India.

As you've probably thought of, there are pros and cons of hiring both local freelancers/consultants, as well as hiring people across the world.

Hiring Locally:

Pros: you can meet them in person. Understand the western culture a lot more. Better communication. You can trust them to communicate with your clients. Laws apply to them. Much better chance of finding an replacement for yourself. Same time-zone.

Cons: Relatively pricy as a "extensions of yourself"

Hiring Across The World:

Pros: The first things is you can hire pretty competent freelancers at a substantially cheaper than hiring someone at a first-world country. Rates between $5-$20/hour are quite common, and I suggested you hire someone in the $15-$20/hour range for quality control reasons.

Cons: Communication. Work Culture. Over promising. not what you want.


Contractor Management

While it's great that you've done some introspection, and from reading your answer, I suggest you do the following:

  • Be more hands-on (even if they're not employees). Its literally your job to make sure the work your contractors are delivering meets your standards.

  • Make upfront expectations. Communication is the biggest factor here. (as you've learned from dealing with clients yourself). Make sure you're both on the same page from the start. I cannot stress enough how important strong communication is. you've stated that you don't get in touch with your contractors until the time of the due date. Can you see the margin of error in your current method? Make sure there's constant and open communication between both parties.

  • Take an objective look at what you're paying your contractors to outsource your work. Is it worth your high standards and the multiple rounds of revisions you ask of them? As I stated before your high standard of work is great, and a big reason of why you have so many incoming projects in the first place. But you to have to pay for the talent and skill that will be essentially replacing you.

  • Make sure your'e not losing more time than doing it yourself. Instead of individually training every contractor you hire, I suggest investing a lot of time upfront by creating documentation of your process, and even doing screencasts of yourself working on some projects and keeping them in a private folder. You can then share this folder with new contractors and pay them ~$100 to go through the entire thing. This is a tiny investment compared to how much you will benefit in the long-run.


Manage Delegation

As others in this thread have suggested, handle your favorite part of the project yourself, and delegate the rest. This way, you'll be able to do what you love without getting burned out. You can even hire a part-time project manager to take care of some of the business stuff so you can take care of the design/development role yourself. But that's only doable if you thoroughly document your process..


Conclusion

Even if you're planning on staying as a 1-man operation, start thinking of yourself as a business and adjust your growth accordingly. Make the changes as you would if you would if you were a CEO of a small company.

You may want to investigate a decent Agile project management methodology such as XP, Scrum, SOC, and so on. They can be harder to fine-tune for remote workers, but by doing this, you can get some work turned in earlier, review it, and give decent feedback to correct things before they go off course. Sending dozens of requests at the end of the app isn't good. This needs to be an ongoing process while developing the app. And you won't be able to independently manage 20 contractors like this.

That being said, you have a classic dilemma: excellence doesn't scale well. A master chef might open a top-notch restaurant, but for them to open more, they have to delegate their excellence and try to make it repeatable. That's not an easy task because a competent chef will see specials, or new foods, and try to incorporate them on a daily basis. The competent chef will work with what they have, but if you're trying to get other chefs to repeat what you're doing, they're locked into your working style. Thus, your excellence and flexibility often has to be dialed back as you scale.

For me, if I subcontract, I let my client know and offer them a lower rate, along with lower expectations. Some clients are happy to do this and by setting expectations better, you can have more flexibility in what you offer a client (though I prefer to settle for fewer features instead of lower quality).

Also, have you asked your contractors why they won't come back?

One of the best suggestions I've heard is to charge according to how busy you want to be. You book yourself full, then you raise your rates. A few clients will leave, but then you book yourself full again and then raise your rates again. Then just keep repeating this process.

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