Freelance Partnerships: Opportunity or Oxymoron?

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Sooner or later, it happens to every freelancer. Maybe you’re out at a bar with some of your fellow freelancers, having a good time laughing at your worst client stories. Maybe you’ve just watched Lethal Weapon too many times on TNT’s afternoon schedule (darn cable!).

Either way, the idea hits you: “What if I partnered with other freelancers? Heck, Monica and Chandler and I all do different things, and have different clients… so if we joined forces, we could each triple our business!”

Pretty soon, you’ve got grand visions in your head, and you’re humming the theme to Les Mis as you daydream about marching side by side with your fellow freelancers as you win new gig after new gig…

The problem is, if you and your buddies take to the streets without planning first, you’re liable to find your band of brothers turning into angry lynch mob.

Forget the "Free-Agent Fraternity"

If you’re a freelancer, you’re usually a freelancer for good reasons. Maybe you like the independence. Perhaps you enjoy the flexibility. Or maybe you like your life to be stable, consistent, and dull (just kidding! That last point was just to make sure that you were still paying attention). The point is, you didn’t enjoy working for someone else, and you probably didn’t enjoy having someone else work for you.

I for one can’t tell you how many times I’ve grumbled bitterly about my spendthrift, un-productive, physically unattractive former employees. Working for other people is a pain, and managing other people can be even worse.

Partnering with another freelancer is a lot more like working in a corporate environment than some idealized vision of free-agent fraternity. It can be effective, profitable, and even enjoyable, but you have to face the reality that your team of lone wolves is going to have to develop a pack structure. Here’s how you can successfully accomplish this difficult task.

Figuring Out The Client

Paradoxically, the first step in developing a partnership with a fellow freelancer is to figure out the client. Clients fall into two basic categories: either they want a general contractor to carry out a project, or they’re a do-it-yourselfer who prefers to pick and manage a group of subcontractors.

Managing A DIY Client

If the client is into DIY, partnering with fellow freelancers is pretty straightforward. You and your partner simply recommend each other for complementary tasks. For example, if you’re a designer, you could partner with a copywriter, recommend your partner to your clients, and vice versa.

Partnering still isn’t easy, however, and you should carefully structure your partnership up front. For example, you have to work out any referral fees in advance. Be sure to get them in writing, so that if something goes wrong, you don’t lose a client, a friend, and a lawsuit! Each partner also needs to carefully consider her political capital with her clients: “Can I count on this partner to delight my client and increase his loyalty to my business, or am I risking my client relationship?”

If at all possible, you should pro-actively manage the relationship between your partner and your client. While you don’t need to be in the loop on every negotiation or decision, you should be ready to act as a translator or interpreter in case of misunderstanding. You already understand each side’s language, and it behooves you to leverage that understanding for everyone’s benefit.

Acting as the General Contractor

If the client is looking for a general contractor, the relationship is more complicated, and tends to resemble a traditional corporate environment. If you’re the general contractor, it’s your job to own the client relationship for you and your partner, and to own the partner relationship for you and your client. This is true whether or not you and your partner actually sign separate contracts with the client.

Your client is paying you so that she doesn’t have to worry about managing your partner(s). That means that she doesn’t want to hear about the problems you’re having or the internal negotiations that need to occur. It’s your job to handle any problems that arise, without bringing them to your client. The credit, the blame, and the buck stop with you.

Bottom line, while you and your partner may be peers, you’re the boss, and you need to be willing (and able) to fire your partner if the need arises.

Acting As The Subcontractor

If you’re acting as the subcontractor, it’s your job to deliver — and deliver in a consistent fashion. Respect your partner’s relationship with the client by keeping her in the loop on all the major developments. While you should certainly seek face time with the client (after all, in the future both you and your partner want to able to work with the client independently), do so openly, with your partner’s cooperation.

Structure Your Freedom!

Ultimately, both you and your freelance partners share the same goals: to grow your client base and work with someone you like and respect. However, if you rely on these shared goals to guide your relationship without introducing any formal structure, you’re likely to achieve neither. Planning out your freelance partnerships may seem too much like returning to the bad old corporate world, but it’s the best way to ensure that you and your partner can work together and stay successful freelancers.

Chris YehChris Yeh
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Chris Yeh is a partner at Porthos Consulting, a sales and marketing consultancy that focuses on delivering measurable gains in lead generation and revenues. Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.

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