Freelancers in the workplace are nothing new. Businesses have consistently relied on them under a variety of circumstances: to handle the overflow in a company's workload, to step in when key members of an organization take time off for vacation or maternity leave, or to provide a fresh perspective on a project. The game changer in this working relationship is technology. Today, thanks to the digital revolution, freelancers can specialize in many more services than a generation ago, and businesses can literally search the world for the best resources for their needs.
Still, even though the Internet has broadened the field for both sides, a measure of due diligence and open communication is recommended to forge a stable working relationship. We called on three experts from different realms of the freelance world to share their perspectives on working with outside service providers.
Get more done with a virtual assistant
A virtual assistant (VA) is generally someone who provides creative, technical, or administrative services from a remote, or offsite, location. Besides handling traditional chores such as transcribing and coordinating meeting schedules, today's VAs can give more hands-on support. For example, a VA can go through and prioritize your email before you wake up in the morning. They can write your blog posts, look after your Twitter and Facebook accounts, even update your website regularly.
"They can do everything but bring your coffee," says Tawnya Sutherland, founder of VAnetworking, a social network for virtual assistants that she launched in 2003. "Once you work with them, you can outsource different things to clear up your schedule, so you can do things you love to do—whether it's marketing your product or producing more product, or whatever it is."
Evaluating a VA is no different than hiring a permanent, onsite employee, Sutherland says. Small businesses should check out the potential candidates’ websites, ask for references, and, of course, interview them—either over the phone or through webcam technology, such as Skype. Small business owners can also go through a network like Sutherland’s that lets them post requests on a job board.
A common mistake among small business owners is not maintaining clear, regular communications with their VAs. "If you're hiring them for five hours a month, you don't need a once a week meeting," Sutherland says. "But if you've got a fulltime VA, you need to be in contact with them, whether it's through texting, Skype, or a project management system."
The amount of contact is "a personal preference" that is hammered out between the VA and the client, according to Sutherland, depending on factors such as personality types, the number of work hours reserved, and the scope of the projects themselves. For example, hiring a VA to design a new website will likely require more contact than transcribing a recording.
Fees for virtual assistants are across the board, depending on their experience, type of services offered, and length of term. For example, you might be able to negotiate a discount rate for a VA who is on a monthly retainer. Other VAs offer package deals, such as writing a certain number of blog posts, editing and posting them, finding pictures for them, and handling comments—all for a fixed price.
"You're getting a full hour's work," Sutherland says. "If they get up to go to the washroom, they're not charging you for that time. What takes a secretary two to three hours to do with all the interruptions, a VA can do in an hour."
Distinguish your company with a graphic designer
Freelancers who provide creative services—such as copywriting or design—have always been prominent
in business, advertising, and marketing circles. Small businesses can find hidden benefits in working with them, such as getting an objective perspective on an inhouse project.
"It's good to have a fresh outlook," says Carrie Scherpelz, freelance graphic designer and sole proprietor of Design that gets results, based in Madison, Wisconsin. "[Creative freelancers] can help your business stand out and communicate well."
With a strong background in direct response, it's no surprise that Scherpelz is big on results when it comes to small businesses evaluating the work of freelance designers. For example, asking the designer how an ad performed or the number of responses that a brochure generated can help determine if they're right for your company.
Scherpelz collaborates closely with clients, especially new ones, to get a sense of what they want in a design. She'll give them samples to see what they like and what works for them, and then use those as a starting point before tackling an assignment.
"I don't believe in a big, glitzy presentation of three ideas that the client chooses from. Instead, I believe in rough sketches back and forth [to find] what they like. Then, I'll combine them in our second round into something. That way, it goes faster and you get a result that everyone's happy with."
For example, she recently submitted a wide range of logo roughs to a client, who told her by email that he didn't like any of them. Instead of replying by email, Scherpelz called the client and talked through the designs over the phone. During the call, the client realized that there was a logo that was close to what he wanted. Scherpelz added one word to the design and the client was satisfied. "It was kind of a mutual problem-solving exercise," she says. "It turned out there was even one in the first round of roughs that was very acceptable. But you have to get on the phone and say, 'What are you looking for? What are the specific things?' It can't just be through email."
Build your business with a bookkeeper
Like other outside service providers, freelance bookkeepers bring a fresh set of eyes that can help a business prosper beyond merely recordkeeping.
"As a business owner, you have so much going on in your head that it's really hard to see certain things in your financial setup that a freelancer can," says Susan Osborne, founder of SheBuildsABusiness, an online resource for solopreneurs.
She found that one of her small business clients was paying $50 a month for website hosting. Osborne created a new website for her and moved her to an $8-a-month hosting service. For another client who manufactures a diaper bag product, Osborne identified ways to increase her revenues and trim unnecessary costs. For example, she was able to cut her client's monthly cell phone bill from $200 to $160 by finding a plan with fewer bells and whistles.
"Like most small business owners, [my client was] so busy that she didn't have the time to look closely and think about these things," Osborne says. "But as the freelance bookkeeper, I do have the time. That's my job."
Whether your freelancer takes such an active role in your financial operations or not, it's imperative that you stay involved and refrain from turning over too much control. For example, business owners should still sign all checks and have the sole authority of moving money around from one account to another.
Osborne says that the accounting software can be handled in different ways. In most cases, the small business will supply the software—QuickBooks, she says, seems to be the preferred bookkeeping/accounting program—to the freelancer. In other cases, such as when the freelancer wants files stored in a cloud-based environment—which usually costs about $35 to $50 a month—some bookkeepers will work that into their fee and then handle paying for it themselves.
Many bookkeepers charge hourly rates ranging from $25 to $70. Freelancers who regularly handle a company's books can charge between $250 and $500 a month, according to Osborne. Business owners who want guidance beyond standard bookkeeping typically seek out a financial adviser or CPA, she says.
"Look at this relationship as a partnership or collaboration with another professional," Osborne says. "I approach it as how I can help them run their business better."
Where to find freelance help
In addition to the resources cited above, small business owners can also check out these sources of freelance help:
Elance: Businesses can post job requests for free, but they're charged a commission of between 6.75 percent and 8.75 percent of the project fee, payable upon approval of the work. Mostly for creative services and IT-related jobs.
Guru: Markets itself as providing technical, creative, and business specialists. Freelancers are charged both membership and transaction fees to be matched to the right business project.
Freelancer: Bills itself as the largest outsourcing marketplace in the world with over 6 million service providers where freelancers bid on assignments.
oDesk: Lets you post jobs, in either a public or private forum, and interview freelancers for free, but charges a 10 percent commission on the fee for assigned projects.