When you work at a big company, it's easy (at least in theory) to get the people around you to do their jobs: If they don't, they won't last for long (again, at least in theory).
With a start-up, it's a completely different story. When we left our jobs at Time Inc. to start Altruette.com, we didn't have a budget for any full-time hires, so we knew we were going to have to rely heavily on talented freelancers we could bring on board for project work. We've had freelancers make models for our charms, help us with PR, work on writing projects, assist at trade shows...you name the task, we know a freelancer who can do it. We've had dozens of these relationships over the past two years, and we've learned a lot about how to find great freelancers--and how to work well with them. In fact, we've learned too much to fit into one column. So here we'll talk about how to find and hire great freelancers, and in Part II next week we'll talk about how to work productively with them.
When we started out, we were lucky to have a few former coworkers from our magazine days that helped us out. Beyond that, our go-to place for spotting freelancers in the wild was Craigslist. Pros include the fact that posting an ad is relatively cheap and the responses we received were of (surprisingly) high quality. However, every time we hired through Craigslist we needed to meet six or seven candidates in person before moving forward, since from their resumes it was hard to tell who was going to be the best fit. So it was labor-intensive, but we've had some great finds, including Mars Design, which has been our Web-design firm from the start.
More recently, however, we've started using LinkedIn for hiring. Our favorite feature is the ability to search for a person's previous work experience. If you admire the look or branding of a particular company, you can zero in on the people who used to work there. That's pretty incredible. Especially in creative fields like design, we've found that even people with day jobs are often open to consulting. We've hired both designers and prop stylists this way.
One caveat: if you're not connected to these people, you'll need to upgrade your LinkedIn account so you can contact them directly with InMail. However, they guarantee you'll get a response or else you get another "credit" to email someone else. We got responses from everyone we contacted this way--so it was well worth it.
We can't stress enough how important it is to meet in person before committing to work together. Our favorite example of this is our very first charm modelmaker. Being two thirty-something women, we tacitly assumed that we would hire a thirty-something woman to translate our ideas into charm prototypes. And the first batch of resumes were all women who were lovely, stylish ladies. Our final interview of the day was a middle aged guy we'll call P. When he walked in, we thought it would be a short meeting, especially since he didn't have a slick online portfolio for us to review beforehand. But then P pulled out an entire bracelet of charms he'd designed, cast, and finished. It was classic, and gorgeous, and exactly what we wanted. We never would have guessed it was a fit from his resume, but P went on to design our entire launch line.
So, once we're face to face with a candidate, there are several questions we now ask routinely. The first, most important question to ask a freelancer is: "Are you searching for a full-time job?" If the answer is yes, ask whether they will still be able to commit to finishing your project if they are hired elsewhere. It's not necessarily a deal-breaker for us, but having been left in the lurch twice, we now need to get a commitment, at least to a given project.
And actually, we now put pretty much everything in writing at the start. It's true that after a great brainstorming session where you really connect with a talented freelancer, sending a contract can almost feel like asking someone you're dating to sign a pre-nup. It's just so impersonal, and unpleasant, and hey, can't we just assume that this is going to work out? In a word, no. We've learned the hard way that "spend a bit of time" on the project means 40 hours to one person and 15 minutes to someone else. You learn that finishing a project "soon" means anywhere from three hours to three months. Now every time we bring a freelancer on board we spell everything out, and update the agreement as soon as the project expands or changes. Be careful to include all your expectations in this document: The one time we got into real trouble was when a freelance designer introduced us to a factory contact. We liked their work and and ended up asking them to source something else for us (not realizing that the designer considered them "her" connection and expected to be paid a fee for all dealings with them.)
Once you have it in writing, though, the fun part begins. In the next column we'll talk about how to make every freelancer feel like a part of your team.