net Magazine issue 286 – Exchange part two

This post is the second in a series where I’ve been answering questions originally posed as part of a feature in net Magazine. You can find details of the printed questions, as well as being able to see part one’s answers over at the first post.

How do you know when it’s time to hire your first employee?

Asked by Sasha Endoh

A good marker to start thinking about this may be when you’re regularly getting more enquiries than you can deal with alone (and want to scale – staying as you are is ok too if you’re happy!), or when you’re regularly feeling the need to bring in specialist skill sets other than your own. Perhaps you’ve frequently had to bring in a freelancer to help with a very particular job, and this has happened on every project over the last 12 months. In this instance, there may be a case for creating a permanent role in that area.

You may notice the repetition of ‘_regularly_’ there, which is intentional. As I mentioned in a previous answer, having employees is a big responsibility. It not only changes the way that you need to run the company, but is a commitment to keep work flowing in to support the full team. You’ll need to start thinking about your policies, how to preserve culture, and to be comfortable with areas such as sick pay, maternity/paternity leave, student loan repayments, or other areas that you may not have previously had to consider. Having a longer-term indication that work levels can sustain more than yourself is probably the most sensible way to approach being comfortable with scaling, but if you’re willing to take some risks then you can hire the team first and chase work second, but everyone will be under a lot more pressure that way.

How to make a freelancer job more credible for the big companies?

Asked by Manolo Martinez

With this question I wasn’t sure whether Manolo meant to go from a freelance job to a big company and to have your experience appear relevant, or as a freelancer how to appear credible to big companies when pitching work. I’m going to address the latter because I don’t have any experience of the former!

There will always be big companies who won’t deal with anyone but Gartner-endorsed, big name, expensive options, and no matter what you do as a freelancer you’re just not going to be on their radar. Outside of this, you may just have a shot. Perhaps I just work with good people, but my experience has been that credibility comes from a combination of the following:

Doing a good job, and gaining referrals – If you can prove yourself to one person, and they personally recommend you to a big company then you have some instant credibility to work with.

Having strong experience that you can talk about, potentially with similar companies, projects, technologies, or size of the brand. The more a big company can feel like you understand their challenges and can be trusted to deliver work at the level that they expect, the more credible you will be.

Being honest – What I wouldn’t recommend is to embellish the truth, either in terms of your experience or your situation. If you’re not an agency with fancy offices and a huge development team, don’t pretend to be (whilst actually outsourcing everything to cheap marketplaces) – it’ll only harm your credibility when the reality eventually surfaces. I’m very honest with my clients that if you hire me, you will get me. Depending on the scope of the project you may also get some of my partners or associates, but these are people that you can meet, that I’ve worked with before, and who won’t be doing work that I’d previously committed myself to. The strength of my situation is that I can act as a completely independent party, bringing in expertise only if it’s needed, but can scale up if necessary. Other times I can work purely on my own, and become much more embedded within internal teams. Knowing these strengths means that you won’t put yourself in situations where you’re likely to do a poor job, and harm your credibility.

Show them – Rather than communicating only over email, coming in to discuss what you could offer in the form of an initial working session can be a great way for both parties to get to know each other, and for you to showcase the ways that you work in a practical setting. I did something similar for one of my clients, a top 10 UK charity, spending the day with their digital transformation team in order to understand the challenges that they had. It not only gave them the opportunity to gain confidence in me, but also allowed me to really understand what the gaps were that I could help with, so that I could put an appropriate proposal together.

Finally, I wouldn’t recommend the following point as generic advice as it will hugely depend on the individual circumstances, but it’s worth bearing in mind that some organisations will only deal with Limited Companies rather than sole traders. Even if you’re just one person, depending on the type of people that you’re looking to work with, it may be worth investigating whether forming a company is right for you.

Whats the best way to upscale my business and win better clients?

Asked by Benjamin Read, and…

How can I end up working for a Formula 1 team?

Asked by Paul Lloyd

Paul’s referring to a specific client of mine here because he’s a big F1 fan, but I think it’s actually a fair question, and related to Benjamin’s. My personal experience is that the best ways are through the following (in order of likely success):

  • Referrals and introductions
  • Sharing your previous work (and your general thoughts on the web)
  • Asking!

The first two are pretty straightforward – if you can be introduced, or can impress someone through work that they’ve seen then you’re in a vastly better position than coming to them cold. The last point is by far the most difficult, and won’t lead to floods of work, but might lead to you being able to work for a few select companies that you really, really love. Working with an F1 team was a huge personal benefit as I’m a big fan of the sport and the team, and this wouldn’t have come about unless I’d made contact. Similarly my work with Hotelplan (Inghams, Ski Total etc) – great companies in their own right, but I also love skiing and got in touch to say hello.

So if you’re not introduced, and nobody comes calling, then what? Nobody likes a cold-caller. Nobody. That said, nobody will know that you and your services exist if you don’t take a chance and introduce yourself. The absolute key here is to do this in an appropriate setting, and to not push your luck. Maybe there’s a networking event, conference or exhibition that brands you’re keen on will be attending. Maybe you shop regularly with a company online and have an idea for how they could improve their checkout process. Maybe you’ve seen a job vacancy advert for a role that your skills would be a great match for, that has sat unfilled for 6 months on LinkedIn, so you could offer a helping hand whilst they find the right person.

Have confidence in yourself and your offering (know why someone would want to speak to you), but don’t forget that we’re all people trying to do our own jobs and that if they’re not interested then you shouldn’t push it too far – that’s a great way to start getting negative recommendations!

How can I protect myself against an agency who refuses to pay because their client is ‘not ready’ to pay?

Asked by Jez D

I’ve been in this position twice, and both times have been a really crappy situation for everyone involved. The first time, my client was an agency and unfortunately I wasn’t aware until too late that they were having financial issues, so when I went to chase my invoice they literally didn’t have any money to pay until the client did. Sadly this doesn’t only happen with agencies – I had to write off a speaking fee that I was owed for a conference that didn’t meet its targets and decided to not pay any of the speakers after all, wrapping up the company quietly in the background. Realistically with situations like this the only option is to go to court, but if it turns out that there’s no money left then you may have to go through bankruptcy claims processes. Outside of financial trouble, many companies will prioritise keeping money in the bank or waiting for more to come in before they have to send any out, so make sure you’re both clear on the expectations in advance – it’s much easier to have these conversations up-front and to refer back rather than to start having them later on.

The cold facts are that this is why contracts are important – they should be something that both parties are happy with, and set out the parameters for the working relationship, including payment. In some instances it may be that it makes more sense to tie everyone getting paid in together, but in many subcontracting relationships the supplier would expect paying regardless of their client’s relationship with their client. Jez’s situation sounds like the latter. Hopefully there’s a contract in place to say this, and this is what you should fall back on, first with a friendly reminder (mistakes happen!), but involving legal advisors if absolutely necessary. In my experience my only regret was that I wished the parties had been more up front in both instances that they were in trouble, because we could have looked at a different arrangement, I could have decided whether I was happy to help out as part of my good causes that I take on, or I could have decided not to get involved.