A Freelancer Writer’s Guide to Subcontracting

A Freelancer Writer’s Guide to SubcontractingIf you’ve been a freelance writer long enough, you’ve probably found yourself in over your head with some of the work that you take on. It could just be the amount or the particular skillset that’s beyond your current grasp. Whatever the reason, you need help.

The solution? Subcontracting. By hiring other freelancers out there to do your bidding, you can increase the breadth of your output. However, entrusting others is an art all of its own—if you’re not careful, money can be wasted, projects could linger, or the finished product could not be up to snuff.

There are a few guidelines to follow in order to have subcontractors do your bidding. Let’s take look at some wide-ranging topics:

Budgeting

One of the first roadblocks you’ll encounter when subcontracting is budgeting. You’ll have to get used to the idea of portioning off a part of yore budget for every project. As an example, if you have to write a 10,000 word ebook and you charge $500 (which is kind of on the low end) but you can crank it out in a short period of time, you should probably partition a portion of that for the designer.

But how much do you charge? That’s where knowing what the going rates are.

What’s Out There?

You can use online content mills for a little bit of market feedback. For instance, scanning Upwork for freelancers, try to find hourly rates in the domestic country you’re working in. For instance, I’ve found Photoshop experts that were willing to work for $15/hr. Pay attention to the quality of their portfolio and profile—if it passes all the “crap filters” in your intuition, you’ve got your going rate.

Got the Basics?

Another tactic I use to determine how much I should pay for a designer is to have some knowledge of the programs I’m outsourcing. Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and any other part of the Adobe suite are heavily used for writing ebooks, just as knowing WordPress, CSS, and HTML are all related to websites. Knowing the basics — even if you haphazardly create a website based on your love of the gila monster — gives you a way to ballpark how long it would take to work. This process gives you an idea of how much time is actually required to do something, or whether the subcontractor is price-gouging you.

Now that you’ve got the going rate and the ballpark, just multiply them and adjust based on how fast I need the assignment. Expedient stuff bumps up the price, so factor how soon you need it.

Profit?

It doesn’t always have to be about making profit from your subcontractors, either. Sometimes, it’s necessary to just have their services eat into your budget to make yourself more attractive to clients in the future.

But on the bright side, if you maintain a long-term middle-man relationship with a client and subcontractor, you can begin offering more services and taking a cut. Why not? Facilitating is a job.

Renegotiating Budgets

In regards to subcontracting, here’s a good example of renegotiating a contract I experienced when taking on a client:

Because of a period of low client activity, I took on an ebook job that was priced 50% lower than it should have been. A week after I started on the project, the substandard client changed the parameters of the project from a step-by-step guide, to an overview of the entire industry operation with a step-by-step guide thrown in…

It was disheartening, especially midway through completing the project. I was spent from the first attempt (my InDesign skills were failing me). So, I subcontracted.

The project was finished in no time, relieved me of a tremendous amount of anxiety, but I didn’t submit the finished project just yet.

What I did was renegotiated the contract before submitting the deliverable. It’s a risky move to pull this type of ransom, but making your client aware of their indecision should be your aim. I cited the need to subcontract, with the tacit understanding that the indecision needed to be outsourced. Much grumbling ensued, but this gave me an opening to justify my raise in light of extra help. I communicated that a few things: one, that I have the ability to work as part of his business in regards to management; two, that I can translate his vague ideas into deliverables at a market rate, and this market rate can extend to other parts of his business.

I’ve just become valuable and it’s all down to just using a worthwhile “budget hack.”

If you don’t get the extra cash, write the client off—it’s hard to suffer fools and you deserve higher-status clients

Don’t Mix Business and Pleasure

One rule of thumb that I’ve learned the hard way is that it’s better to use loose acquaintances rather than friends when subcontracting. It seems like an obvious rule and it makes sense. It’s not so much that you lose the friendship—friends do come and go—but it opens up a can of worms that can ultimately be counterproductive. The real problems with using friends are:

  • Lack of Accountability: Would you rather forgive a complete stranger or your close friends? Friends may feel that you’d be willing to accept substandard work because, after all, you’re friends, right? Worse, they might feel that you’re too demanding when deadlines and money are on the line.
  • Resentment and Exploitation: Hiring friends might make them feel indebted, especially if you’ve given the work to help them out of a financial situation. However, this creates the feeling that because you have work and they’re the recipient, you’re trying to out-do them.

    Worse, some people will feel that you’ve only hired them because you’re trying to exploit their position, getting a product for cheaper than market value. On the flip side, if you overpay, those friends may feel that you’re pitying them—and no one likes to be pitied. In the future, that air of resentment will still linger long after they’ve completed the assignment.

  • The Naked Truth: What happens if your friend can’t actually do what they had claimed they could do? Not only is the assignment potentially delayed, but it also changes the tenor of the relationship as you begin to question all other claims that they made in the past. Sometimes it is better not to know.

With strangers, it’s a little bit easier because despite life not being fair and perhaps the distribution of goodness in the world being off-kilter, work remains a meritocracy. Either you have the skills and abilities, or you don’t. Even the idea of mixing negotiation skills in with determining a price or a person’s sense of worth plays a part of this meritocracy. And I don’t feel as much guilt for slaying a digital entity. So it goes…

Beware the Retainer

If you ask me, a retainer is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is necessary to ensure that long-term projects retain clients—that’s the purpose. However, paying out to untested subcontractors can backfire, especially if there’s no accountability for them to finish the project, leaving you out of cash and out of a project. Another danger is the project that’s stuck in “almost-done limbo.” I find that some subcontractors overhype their skill and gladly take money… but coming through is another issue altogether.

Contracts

I’ll admit it. I don’t always use a contract. Some people I trust and some I realize that bringing someone to small claims court simply isn’t worth my time.

What a contract does do, however, is that it shows that you mean business. It makes the working relationship official.

Delegate like a Dyslexic

I look to someone like Richard Branson for inspiration when it comes to delegation.

A little backstory: Richard Branson has dyslexia, so from a young age, he’d been forced to cultivate skills that he couldn’t perform himself, often befriending those with skills to achieve his means. Which makes this interesting is that being aware of this limitation, he was able to avoid the menial tasks and focus on the managerial tasks. Nowadays, you can’t walk around without seeing “Sir” Richard Branson and Virgin gracing a billboard.

Now, I’m not saying you should rely on your visual impediment or, but I am saying that you should strive to incorporate delegation into your workout as if you could outsource all menial tasks—no more typing, only dictating and asking for a writer to craft an article from your thoughts.

I know it may be hard to accept the idea of not writing, but it can be a supplement to your freelancing career. [Insert link to “The Art of Writing Without Writing”] In other words using writing as a way to gain entrance to a world of delegation can free you from some of the menial tasks. You now can just concentrate on the ideas. And after the work is completed, you should take credit for it; after all, you did pay for it.

Consider it as your first experience with an employee, even if they only last one project. Remember that delegation doesn’t come easy and it is a skill, just like correcting academic copy is. Honing it means better rates with subcontractors and more in your budget for your subcontractors.

What you should be heading towards is what programmers, startups, and others lust after: scale.

Being Comfortable With Being the Boss

I guess the hardest part for me after working straight jobs for a good portion of my earlier life is the idea of being comfortable with being a boss. In fact, I think one of the harder bridges to cross when I consider being a boss is actually having sympathy for my former “overlords.”

After dealing with it in my freelance writing business, I’m beginning to empathize with the situation in which my former managers were in at the time. In many instances, I have often felt a deep distrust towards authority, but being thrust into the boss role for my freelance writing career has changed my opinion over time.

Dealing with people can be like herding cats. Some run this way, some run that way—it’s all very draining. Sometimes the only thing you can muster is “hey, are you available for work this week?” when chatting with subcontractors.

Paying on time can be an exhausting issue. I had a subcontractor that lives abroad work on a project with me recently. The only problem was that she didn’t have a working online payment method. PayPal wouldn’t work because, living abroad, you can’t change the address on your European bank while living in South America. We had to a devise a workaround, which gave me a headache, even though I sympathized. The reason? Guilt.

With this guilt, I felt that the project wasn’t complete, even though both my client and my freelancer were happy with the finished product. Just the final transaction was missing… The solution became paying through a South American friend’s PayPal. End of transaction, I was relieved.

Final Thoughts

And so it goes. We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here—outsourcing offers a new set of challenges that go along with commanding a higher workload and a better pay rate. If subcontracting is part of your business, consider yourself at the intermediate stage of your freelance writing career.

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