The Care and Feeding of Subcontractors
There will come a time in your freelancing life when you’ll tackle a project that’s too big for you to handle alone. Which may make you feel like the project is tackling you.
You can eliminate that tackling-you feeling when you think of those extra-big projects as extra-big opportunities for you to bill higher than ever before. And, since I’m well into the sports analogies realm, this article will show you how to build a virtual team for handling the work.
Let’s take website development as an example. You might be an ace at figuring out the design of the site. But the programming? Forget it.You couldn’t program your way out of a wet paper bag. And your Web Standards-based XHTML and Cascading Style Sheet skills may not be at expert levels.
So, you take the development of a content management system-based client’s site and break it down into tasks:
- You’re an ace at firing up Photoshop and creating a knockout design concept that the client absolutely loves. Time to get those wonderful Photoshop files turned into valid XHTML and CSS. Since this isn’t your area of expertise, subcontract it.
- Once you have the valid XHTML and CSS, it’s time to start building the site with the content management system (CMS) that best suits your client’s needs. And, since you’re not a programmer, you’ll need to subcontract to one who can get your files playing nicely with the CMS.
- Okay, so you’re probably thinking that this gig doesn’t require any more work on your part. Well, wrong. Now it’s time to build the site. And that’s going to be your job. After all, you can’t teach your client how to use the CMS if you haven’t delved into it yourself.
- Since you’re a thoughtful website developer, you’re going to take your “I just built your site with this CMS” experience and turn it into a training manual for your client. It will be a useful supplement to the hands-on training that you’re going to provide to the client. But, since your spelling and grammar aren’t always perfect, you subcontract the copyediting.
- Want to be sure that the site’s working and conforming to Web Standards before it goes live? Subcontract this job to a website tester.
On this project, your virtual team consists of:
- XHTML/CSS specialist
- CMS Programmer
- Website Performance and Standards Tester
This might not be the lineup for every big project you take on. Some clients may need multimedia, which means that you’ll need to find a Flash expert. Or your client might be concerned about making the site accessible. Several years ago, I met a blind man who worked as a computer consultant. Website accessibility testing was one of the services he offered.
Five tips for the care and feeding of subcontractors:
- The secret to managing big projects is to stop viewing yourself as a one-man band. Those days are over. You’re a symphony conductor now.And, like real-life conductors, you may have to work out conflicts between subcontractors. You may need to cajole them into doing their best work. You might also have to quickly find another sub when the first one walks off the job. Or says that he can do the work, but never gets started on the project. It’s all part of project management, so brush up on those people skills.
- You’ve probably heard those stories about the ad agencies that tell the freelancers that they’ll get paid when the agency gets paid. And, six months later, the freelancers are still looking for their money. Hint to you: Don’t be like those agencies. Pay your subs quickly. It’s the cheapest public relations move you’ll ever make.
- Give your subs clear and detailed instructions. You want those instructions to be down to the level of telling the sub that you want your website pages’ filenames to have hyphens instead of underscores. And, even if you think you’re making things perfectly clear, be ready for questions and comments from your subs. In those questions and comments may be ideas that will help make your work better, so be open to them.
- Keep your subs in the loop about upcoming projects. Don’t expect them to drop everything when you land the Great Whale of a project.
- In tip #1, I warned you about the idea of having to quickly replace a sub if he or she walks off the job. This happened to me a couple of years ago. Fortunately, I found someone else to take over the work. Which leads me to the point of this tip: You’ll need to add “talent spotter” to your job description. Always be on the lookout for good subs. You never know when you’ll need them.
I’d like to close with a warning about subcontracting: There are times when jobs are best handled through referral, rather than subcontracting. Print designers usually have a stable of printers they prefer to work with. But it’s best to let the printer bill the client directly, lest the client decide not to pay you for the entire job because of some printing problem, be it real or imagined.
Same goes for search engine optimization. A few years back, I had a website redesign client who was working with my favorite SEO guy. In addition to being one of the most ethical people I’ve ever met, this guy was good. He had one of my business websites ranked #1 in Google for several years.
I’d subcontracted the work to SEO Guy, and guess what. Even though SEO Guy and I had repeatedly told the client that high rankings can take a long time to achieve, he didn’t think he was getting there fast enough. Long story short: I ended up having to refund $1,000 to the client. And I told said client to find someone else to handle his website work. (Some clients just aren’t worth having.)
A few months later, the former client contacted me with a question relating to the design of his site. Our conversation touched on the topic of search engine rankings. Former Client informed me that he’d found another company to do the SEO work – and he was paying them $6,000 a year for their services.