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The Question of Outsourcing?

Outsourcing has been on my mind a lot: I’ve had to turn down a couple of projects lately that I just didn’t have time to do. I keep thinking that if I could have outsourced at least part of those projects, I could have gotten them done — and gotten the paychecks that went along with them.

The idea of outsourcing is pretty attractive on the surface. If you work with another freelancer in your field — perhaps one with a little less experience — you can take on at least a few more projects than you might manage to otherwise. If you work with freelancers in other fields, you can take on bigger projects: a web designer, for instance, might take on the whole development of a website (including the content) and subcontract the writing to a freelancer who specializes in web copy.

As long as you’re the freelancer who went out looking for the project and arranged to bring in other freelancers, you get paid. Even if you only get a small slice of the pie on a project where someone else does the lion’s share of the work, you still get paid.

The Downsides of Subcontracting and Outsourcing

No matter what you call handing off some work to another freelancer, it has its downsides. The biggest one is that you can’t assume that another person will interpret project specs the same way you do: it’s easy to imagine a project turning into a game of telephone as your client tells you what he wants and you interpret it, and then turn around and tell your subcontractor what you think the client wants and she — in turn — interprets it. This can translate into a situation where you have to fix the work that you subcontracted, which can be a major problem if you’re on a tight schedule.

I asked around and found that this sort of timing question was a big concern for freelancers. Katharine O’Moore-Klopf says, “In 14 years of freelancing, I have never subcontracted. If I did, I’d have to review the subcontractor’s work; I don’t have time for that.”

Another big issue is the question of responsibility: if your name is on a project (whether or not you outsourced the work), it needs to meet your high quality standards. Even small problems can wind up affecting your reputation as a freelancer. And when it doesn’t…well, let’s just hope that you didn’t subcontract to someone who is a close friend.

But There Are Upsides…

As freelancers, we’re contractors ourselves. Every day, our clients choose to outsource designing, writing and other work to us. They choose us by looking for work that meets their needs, as well as reliability and reputation. We can do the same, with equal success. Foo Conner says that while he wanted to keep his projects entirely under his control in the past, his time constraints led him to look to other freelancers — and he was able to put together an overall better product as a result. At least part of his success is due to the way he finds subcontractors: “…it’s through word of mouth. I go for reliability, specifically making deadlines.”

Of course, there are arrangements that may not have an exact label that can be equally helpful. For instance, I have an unofficial agreement with a freelance videographer I know: whenever one of her projects requires a script to be written, she gives her clients my name. And whenever I’m working on content for a project that will need video, I make sure the project winds up on her desk. I wouldn’t call our arrangement subcontracting, but I think we get all of the upsides of that sort of agreement.

How Do You Answer the Question of Outsourcing?

There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer to whether or not you should outsource or subcontract. Sure, there can be financial benefits, but if it doesn’t fit with your normal workflow, such an arrangement could wind up costing you time and money. If you’ve already experimented with outsourcing — or made up your mind it isn’t for you — I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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