Working Successfully with Contractors

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As our agency has grown over the years, we’ve often had more work than our small agency could manage. And as a small agency, there are several types of creative professionals we don’t have on our staff full-time at all, such as photographers, copywriters, and mobile application developers. There are several times a month we have to make a decision – turn down a potential project because of lack of resources, or take on the project and utilize contractors.

At first, the thought of “outsourcing” our work was scary. I remember asking Dave Hecker for advice several years ago, long before he penned Outsourcing Web Projects: 6 Steps to a Smarter Business. He had some great advice, and his ebook is still my defacto guide book for dealing with contractors and outsourcing.

Below are some tips and advice we’ve discovered over the years of dealing with all types of contractors.

Screen Candidates

When we look for a contractor or firm to outsource a project, or part of a project, we screen candidates thoroughly. If we’re hiring a photographer for a commercial photoshoot, we want to see other commercial photoshoots they have done and talk with one or two other clients they’ve worked with. If they are a PHP programmer, I want to review some of their code. Don’t just take their word for it, because contractors—and web professionals in general—often over-promise thinking they can “wing it.”

Communication is Key

I can’t stress this enough – over communicate with contractors and freelancers. It’s much better to give them too much information and touch base too often than to just assume they are on the same page. It takes time to write a project brief, specifications, and other documents, and it takes a lot of time to continuously touch base with contractors. But the alternative is getting a deliverable late, or getting a deliverable that doesn’t meet the requirements and has to be redone. It always takes less time to over-communicate than to under-communicate in the long run.

Set the Right Expectations

If you have a deadline that can not be missed, stress that going into the project. Be very clear about what deliverables are due by the deadline, and at what level (beta, or fully tested and ready to launch?). And, be clear about what the consequences will be for missing a deadline.

Remember to consider client changes going into the project. If there is even a possibility of client changes – even if the requirements are met – make sure the contractor is available to make the changes. It’s frustrating to get a deliverable from a contractor, send it to the client and get some small changes, only to realize the contractor is busy on another project and not responding.

Get it in Writing

This may sound like a broken record, but get everything in writing. Get a signed contract. We also ask freelancers to sign nondisclosure and noncompete agreements regarding the specific clients they are working with.

It’s good to have contractors and freelancers sign a contractor agreement that includes an NDA and noncompete clause, and then draw up a contract for each individual project. Reference any specifications or requirements documents in the contract.

Getting a signed contract isn’t just about protecting you in case you need to go to court. It’s also about clearly setting expectations with contractors or freelancers. By reading and signing their name on the dotted line, they are saying – in writing – that they understand the scope of the project, the deadlines, and the deliverables. Its a negotiating tool in case things don’t go according to plan.

What Have You Learned

Do you routinely outsource projects or work with contractors? What are some tips or advice you’ve learned? Let us know in the comments below.

Pen on the contract papers image via Shutterstock

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  • Conn Tractor

    It’s all about YOU- you want contractors to be able to jump backat any time- at a moments notice.
    You want a non compete- for as long as possible. Dont let your contractor work at any jobs even similar to yours- that way they’ll always be available.
    NDA- hell yes! You cant trust em- contractors. Draw up a contract for EVERYTHING!

    Keep em hungry unable to work anywhere – but for YOU.
    Oh, wait, that would make them – employees! Can have that!
    Doh!

    • Matthew P

      I think you’re reading between the lines too much here, nobody said the contracts have to be oppressive or unfair. A non-compete clause can be something as simple as preventing a contractor from actively soliciting the end client during a project (client hijacking), and an NDA can be used to prevent someone from disclosing internal information on a project like finances, or inside information before a product release – These are things that shouldn’t be done in the first place but are still legal, so as a contractor myself I have no problem agreeing to terms like this, It’s all down to what the specific terms of the contract are and whether they are reasonable.

      Nothing’s ever set in stone either – Nobody is being forced to sign anything. You’re always free to negotiate or propose new terms, provide an additional contract of your own to protect yourself, or to refuse to sign. It’s the same as budgets, deadlines, or any other requirement set by a client, it’s simply a request that your free to decline.

    • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

      @Conn, I have to agree with Michael in that you’re reading a little too much into my article. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I mentioned a noncompete agreement, I meant an agreement that the contractor would not do work for the actual clients they were working for with us. And regarding signing a nondisclosure agreement – those are pretty standard in working with any decent sized company. We are required to have NDA’s signed for all employees – including contractors – that work with several of our larger clients. They are routinely sending us confidential information about upcoming promotions and products that are confidential and need to cover themselves legally.

      As Michael mentioned, independent contractors and freelancers can absolutely choose not to sign a noncompete or nondisclosure agreement… they are free to work with whichever companies they choose. Just as we are free to choose not to work with them if they don’t sign.

  • http://www.stauffer.com Jacob Pitassi

    Our company has a very similar problem at times, where the work load is just to much for the resources available. I could not agree more with the communication section above. I have found running Agile projects with contractors and having daily scrums really helps with that.
    My suggestion is when you find a contractor that is good and you can trust, hold on to them, keep them at the top of your list and get them work whenever you can. There is no point going on a contractor search, once you found a few that you like.

  • Tony

    Regarding the contractors thinking they can “wing it” – I normally set them a small exam before hiring them. This exam is crafted by me to ensure that they not only understand the technologies involved but it also checks that their attention to detail, as the questions are set in such a way that not reading them correctly (or fully) will lead them to making the wrong answer.

    The ONE time I didn’t do this, and hired a web-designer because of the say-so of the company’s Creative Director on the strength of the designer’s obvious design talent, we discovered later that although he said he was fluent in HTML, he couldn’t write even the most basic code.

  • http://www.mezoradesign.com G.Andrasi

    I’m just starting up my business and contracting with studios/agencies is a good opportunity to get experienced. In my opinion the contract is not just about to protect the studio or agency is about to protect you as a contractor as well. Of course trouble comes to play if you don’t read the contract just sign it and you think that’s all. A contract is negotiable for both party so if you don’t agree with something you both can talk about it and it will result a long term work relationship for both. I don’t really understand why people afraid of to sign a contract, I personally like it cos it’ll tell you what you can do or what you can’t and don’t need to ask stupid questions.

  • http://www.resolutecreative.com Tim Peters

    Do you have any examples of NDA and contracts you use?

  • http://www.50degreesmarketing.co.uk Nigel Day

    I’ve used contractors (or ‘Associates’) for the Design and some coding of our sites from pretty early on.

    I guess I’ve been lucky but I’ve no horror stories to tell. Most have come through Marketplace/99 designs and I built up a relationship after they’d delivered a successful project.

    Two key things I’ve always borne in mind: Don’t try a new person for a really key project and always treat them as you’d like to be treated. The majority are decent people trying to make the same living you are. Treat them well and they’ll do the same for you.