The tip: Be a grownup.
-- Transcript --
Matt Stauffer: Hi. I'm your host Matt Stauffer, and this is episode 94 of the Five-Minute Geek Show, a weekly show about development and everything around it. It's one topic per episode—about frontend, backend, mobile, project management, design, entrepreneurship, whatever. If it's geeky, it fits. Today we're going to be talking about being a freelance web developer, freelance contractor, and what it is that I expect from you as a business owner when you're doing that. I'm also going to turn off the fan so you don't hear the noise in the background.
At Tighten we often hit spots where we have too much work, too much stuff on our plate. Sometimes we'll just say no to clients, but sometimes we'll say yes to a project or we'll just need a little bit more, and we'll turn to freelance contractors to help round it out a little bit, because what we don't want to do is, at that point, hire someone then realize that it was just a temporary kind of boost in the amount of work we're getting. Instead, we bring on freelance contractors to help us do work. These are varying from random freelance contractors we found on the internet somewhere to completely famous freelance contractors who are big names in the PHP or frontend space or whatever else it ends up being.
The weird thing is, we have had far more negative experiences than we have had positive. Far more people where I say, "What is going on? How do you not know how to manage your business? How do you not know how to be a grown-up? How do you not know how to communicate to me?" Well, what I've discovered is that the number one problem that we have had working with contractors is that they expect to come into our organization as an employee. In some ways that's my fault, because I often say, "Hey, we kind of think of you as an employee while you're here." Because we usually only have them contract basically full time, so I want to know when you're in the office, I want to know when you're out of the office. I want you to do check-ins with me. I want you to feel like you can communicate to me. I want you on our Slack channels, all that kind of stuff.
The problem is, they often think that they're employees, in that I'm the one responsible for checking in with them, or I'm the one responsible for setting the list of tasks, or I'm the one responsible for something else. The thing is, the vast majority of contractors we work with are charging anywhere between $100 and $150 bucks an hour (edit: this is not true. A more correct number would be $75 and $125). If I'm paying you far more per hour than I make, then I'm expecting you to do a whole bunch of work for me, right? I'm not expecting to pay you a whole bunch of money for you then to just sit there and wait for me to tell you what to do, or wait for me to check in on you, or babysit what you're doing. That's not acceptable. I think that ... This is not acceptable for me. Maybe that's how it works with other companies.
I think that there's a misconception for a lot of folks who are freelance contractors that the process of choosing to be a freelance contractor and charging much higher rates than you would, whatever else, is really just you ... Like we're paying for the value of having somebody to flesh out our team when we didn't have the resources to do it, and that's why the cost is extra or whatever. That's definitely true. You know, if I didn't have somebody to do that, then I would have to do the work, or I'd have to turn down work, or whatever it ends up being, so there's definitely value there. I also think that it is the value of paying someone who's supposed to be a self-sufficient work-doing resource. Self-sufficient in that they handle their own finances, and they handle their own accounting, and they handle their own timeline.
The whole concept of ... At least in the US, the difference between a W-2 employee, which is like a full time employee, and a 1099 employee is that you can't really tell the 1099 employee, like legally, ethically, or technically or whatever, you can't tell them exactly when to do it or where to work from or what stuff to do. You really could just tell them, "Here are the things I need done, and here's the timeline in which I need them done. Here are some conditions around it." Some of the conditions are, you can be like, "Well, you need to check in with me every week to show me what you're doing." Or, "I need to know that you're going to use this particular programming technique versus that, because it will affect the final outcome."
That's cool, but you can't tell them, "You know, you need to work these hours at this place using this laptop," or something like that. You can't do that. For me, I embrace that. I say, "Look, I'm not telling you that you need to do it a certain way, but I am telling you that I need a certain level of communication. I need a certain output. I need it done in a certain amount of time," and then I want you to handle it from there. Like, you're a contractor. You're 1099, which to me means I'm going to tell you what to do, and you're going to handle it.
We just worked with a contractor that is someone we've turned to on a regular basis, and he's just this extremely mature, incredibly effective communicator. I basically kind of pitched to him the original idea of the project, told him what our budget looked like and our timeline, and he said, "Yep, I can do it. That time line. That budget." Asked me a couple of questions along the way, checked in with me probably once or twice a week on Slack, just kind of let me know what was going on, invited me into his project management tool that he uses for everything, and at the end of the project said, "I'm ready to do a delivery. Here's what I have. Here's the documentation I wrote up for your client, and then I have a couple hours left. I'll do the deploys. Everything's good to go." I hardly had to think about this project the entire time he was on it. I'm not making a lot of money off of the project, because he's a contractor. He costs a lot of money, and the amount I'm paying him is close to the amount we're charging the client, but I had to do almost nothing. That's what I'm paying him for, to do fantastic work, to manage himself, to communicate with me, and just kind of to get stuff done. To handle it, right?
I've also brought in other contractors where I'm paying them a whole bunch of money, and then I'm spending all my time on it, and it's just like, "If I'm going to do that, then I'll just do the work myself," right? If you're a freelance contractor, if you are ... Especially as a web developer, there's a whole world out there of people who are freelance contractors who are burning bridges left and right. I've talked to a lot, lot, lot of business owners who try to bring in freelance contractors and say, "Nope. Not going to do it. Never going to do this again. It was a total awful experience." Being this one guy that I'm talking about right now, being like him, he will get work from us forever. Like, forever. If somebody else is just in desperate need, I'll give them his name, but I don't want to give too many people his name because then he won't be available when I need him.
Yeah, you've got to be a good coder, but like, just being a grown-up and like managing your stuff goes so far. It's crazy that that is the case. It is crazy that that's the case. Just so you know, I'm not just picking on freelancers. I could go on a whole nother rant about employees, people who apply to our jobs, and the weeding out process of people who actually submit applications to be full time. But for right now, I just want to talk about freelancers. It's just like, what I want to know is that bringing you on the project is going to make my life easier. I'm going to do less work. I'm going to think about this less. When you need something, you're going to come to me about it. This is true for my employees as well. You're going to come to me about it, and you're going to ask me questions, and I understand.
Like there are other companies that probably do all of that for you, and for freelancers it's probably a lot easier to kind of jump into some massive corporation where you're just a cog, and they just need to add more cogs, and everything is set up for you. I get that being a freelancer for me is probably a lot harder than being a freelancer for somebody else, but I'm not alone. If you really want to set yourself apart as a freelancer, there's certain things you can do, but one would just be communicate, self-manage, basically be like ... Be a company. Like, I don't get to expect my clients to manage my time for me, or to initiate communication for me. I'm on top of that. So as a freelancer, be a company. Manage your time. Communicate well. Manage expectations accordingly. If you do that, you're going to set yourself above 98% of everybody else that's out there. The things aren't that difficult, but they really show, like, your level of attention and care, and that can go a long way.
I hope that I'm not making ... Like, if you freelanced with us before, I'm not trying to throw shade on you, whoever you are. I'm sure you were fine. Really, but I just want to pitch to potential freelancers or current freelancers that there's a different way, and if you do that different way, it sets you apart so much that it really will be to your benefit. I hope this helps.
If you have any questions about that, reach out to me on Twitter @5MinuteGeekShow. Check out other episodes at FiveMinuteGeekShow.com. Subscribe, iTunes, RSS, all that kind of stuff. If you like the show, and you're a freelance contactor, go be that 2% of amazing freelance contractors. If you like the show and you're not a freelance contractor, I don't know. Rate it, iTunes and all that kind of stuff. Thanks. Until next time, Matt Stauffer, Five-Minute Geek Show.
Son: Five-Minute Geek Show?
Matt: Yeah. When you're singing it. Can you do that?
Son: Say "Five-Minute Geek Show?"
Matt: Yeah, but sing it with that song.
Son: (Singing) “I am iron man….” Five-Minute Geek Show.
Matt Stauffer: Perfect. My man.