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September 27, 2012 1:18 PM   Subscribe

How can I expand my business from a 1 person independent freelance/contractor to a few people (or with an assistant?) While simultaneously maintaining high quality and being able to trust the project or parts of the project to others.

I'm self-employed and have done what I do now for a couple years now; I'm able to pull in a salary similar to what I was paid before and have a few long-term clients.I could pull in more but I do enjoy my time and cherry pick the projects.

My business is very cyclical and there are times of the year when people really want to work with me and because it would compromise quality and/or I would be working 7 days a week, round the clock.

So I have considered either subcontracting or getting a part-time employee at least during a few months of the year to take on the extra work.

Some of my concerns, however, are about the quality of the work. I do know (please don't think that I have a big head) that I do get some work and/or am often preferred to be the person working for larger companies because of the quality of my work (via feedback from my clients and sometimes even their clients). In one case, someone inside a company told me that their company had failed to deliver anything that their client was happy with over the course of a year, but they loved whatever it was that I did or developed.

So....although I would love to expand and hire either independent contractors during this time of year:
• One of my main concerns is how to maintain quality (especially if larger companies can't do this sometimes). If quality drops, I may lose clients.
• Another concern is how to even trust other people to hand over a project to them. I have subcontracted twice: in the first case the quality of what was handed back was horrible and I redid 90% of it and another time it was person who insisted that they never had heard they should do X, Y, or Z (it would be impossible to be in my industry and not do those things and stay in the field as a freelancer).
• Yet another concern is that in all honesty I am not really a people person. I have found that I LOVE not having a supervisor or having coworkers. So this may translate into being a horrible person to manage projects, too.
• I'm really concerned about dropping $ that goes nowhere for this (I'm happy with what I earn now, but if I pour tons of extra hours/time to get $10 or $20 an hour over the course of a few weeks, it may not be worth it.

My question comes down to "How do you hire (even part time, or assistant, or trainee, or colleague) a person and still maintain quality and ultimately trust the person to do good work? Is there an organization that I should talk to? Or is there a way to think about this? (To go independent, a person or two gave me a good way to think about it gave me the courage to jump). Would something like therapy really help with this?It seems like it would be a strange reason to request therapy, but maybe it is emotion underneath the concern about hiring someone.

Even if I ended up hiring a part-time college student for seasonal work, I'd be happy with that because I can't wrap my head around the next step.
posted by Dances with sock puppets to Work & Money (6 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
How do you hire (even part time, or assistant, or trainee, or colleague) a person and still maintain quality and ultimately trust the person to do good work?

First of all, they all need training. Even someone at your level needs to learn how you do things.

To do this, you need to:

1. Put in writing/checklists/documents/manifestos everything possible, or plan on saying it or showing it all to the new person. Explain why you do things along with how. Either do it early or you'll end up communicating the same things anyway while you correct work that you paid for.

2. Inspect work frequently and correct. You shouldn't be seeing anything for the first time as finished work. Trust comes from their doing good work. Even if someone is supposed to be as good as you, it's your shop and you need to make sure they're working your way, so don't feel like someone's only worth hiring if you trust them as soon as they walk in the door.

P.S. If clients like you and your work, you're people person enough to have help. And if you like your workday and work area a certain way at a certain volume of noise, you can make that the standard. Just communicate that it's the standard as early as possible.
posted by michaelh at 1:36 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is something I've wrestled with too, with similar concerns, so consider this a brainstorm rather than a definitive answer. Thoughts: is there any way you can subcontract chunks of your work that are routine, such as billing or other administrative tasks? Also, could you vet the quality of a potential subcontractor's work as best as possible, and start by giving them a very small trial project that you can redo if necessary (or if it's salvageable, patiently instruct them how to correct to your specifications)? I don't think there is any way to absolutely guarantee the quality of someone's work, so perhaps there's an investment of time that just has to be made if you're going to bring someone on board.
posted by Wordwoman at 1:39 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

For reliability, word of mouth will get you a good way there. So, network and reach out to respected colleagues and tell them you are looking.

One thing to keep in mind is that the person who is working for you needs to be managed and you need to find a way to bill for that. You may need to accept that at the start, you are investing in this person for future returns. But think about the sunk costs at the beginning. The reason to hire is so that they can bill hours while you are billing other hours and this will be a net win for you. You may, in fact, have to regularly polish-up or finalize work done by others. You should expect that as part of the package.

Which is my last point, people are not robots and they are not you. They will have their own take on things and some of those will be "wrong" or not your preference or good enough. It's recognizing that last bit where lots of people fail. I see it all the time. Managers taking over things which run counter to principles of ROI. Perfect is the enemy of done is the enemy of profitability. Teaching yourself how to finalize projects without wasting billable time is an art form. Recognizing that no one you hire is likely to BE YOU will serve you well in the long run.

And sometimes things don't work out with people. Don't waste too much time worrying over that. And when you get someone who meshes well, treat them as well as you can!
posted by amanda at 1:41 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is one of the hardest transitions for a small business to make - going from solo to employer/contractor-manager. One suggestion I would make is to try not to do this during your busy season. Yeah, that's when you need the help but you'll be least able to recover from problems or do any proper training. Try to do it before you get into that season, with some of your less time-strained jobs.

1. It might make sense to outsource administrative work and not core function. Bookkeeping, website updates, etc. Things not related to what people are actually paying you to accomplish but more of the business overhead.

2. Document what you want them to do, any specifications you have, what checks you will put in place and what you expect outcomes to be. Basically, you need to write up training documents. Decide if it's more important that they get the work done to your standards and with the results expected or if they do it your way. You're unlikely to hire your clone but you want someone who has the same values and standards, but maybe not the same ways and means.

3. Hire carefully and try to get people working on small tasks or projects with a lot of check in at first and quickly. If it isn't working, move on to someone else but you will probably have to make sure your expectations are clear and realistic.

It takes a lot of time, which is why I think you need to do it well before you're in a crunch so that when the busy times come you have someone you can trust ready to go.
posted by marylynn at 3:02 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've done this. Brain dump: If you want to grow beyond just yourself and your support team, there are two ways: 1) team up with other freelancers. 2) hire your own manager. 1 makes 2 easier - and more necessary. Either way, you'll have to step up your rates to agency rates, not freelancer rates (losing some clients and gaining others) and invest in training and process definition. Also take a look at the book "managing the professional services firm" by Maister (IIRC).
posted by cogat at 3:11 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say thank you to everyone who provided ideas and recommendations; I highly valued all the answers, but favorited a few that made points that speak to me right now (i.e. the need to document and create an instruction list, or don't do it now when there is tons of work involved).

If anyone has additional ideas, please share. Thanks again.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 7:22 AM on September 28, 2012

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