The Freelance Warrior: What you need for your Startup Battles

A couple of months ago, we at Flexing It asked about forty startups this question in a survey “When you worked with a freelancer, what advantage did s/he bring to your company”?

image credit: asuka111

image credit: asuka111

What emerged as the most important advantage? Take a guess. Let’s give you some options:

  1. Cost Efficiency
  2. Relatively no-frills or overheads
  3. Domain Expertise

“Domain Expertise” (Did you get that right? Great!) That was the highest rated advantage. Over 80% of respondents said the expertise of a freelancer was more important over the no-frills nature of the engagement (2nd place with close to 70%) and certainly more compelling than the cost factor (an advantage for only half the respondents).

So what’s the deal with domain expertise? Why do startups value it so much?

The Value of Expertise in Meeting Your Challenges

It’s obvious that every business needs to perform a core set of activities as part of its very existence. It also needs to do them well. So how do startups, with all their constraints, build the capacity to deal with these activities?

In our survey, we also asked startups what their biggest business challenges were. 60% of them said “hiring the right team”. Compared to other kinds of businesses, a startup, by virtue of its youth, size, and funds, has far less access to skills and required domain expertise. Most startups have a bunch of co-founders who, between them, tick off several necessary skills, typically in business management, technology/design, and sales & marketing. Domain expertise is not only vital in creating valuable products, services, and ideas for the firm, it is also critical in validating the business at the beginning.

35% of the startups felt getting the product developed and into the market was a key challenge. One of our survey respondents was Rashmi Vittal Kudva, the founder of Little Green Kids, a website that offers organic clothing for children. A vital part of her business is the design of her clothing collection, which is done by freelancers in Europe. For Rashmi, finding the right kind of expert was critical. This was more than just a short-term creative design project, but fundamental to the success of the venture.

Other important challenges start-ups often face are: obtaining product feedback and validating the product/service, figuring out the operations, and finding customers. Like any other business, a startup has to execute on operations, understand its market, build a brand, collect and react to customer feedback.  It is unlikely that between them, founders and early employees would be able to effectively cover all of these. So what about the expertise you can’t find in-house? A startup, like any other business, has to acquire this expertise or perish. That too at reasonable costs, time-wise and money-wise. This acquisition usually happens by the startup learning to do it in-house, by hiring people (full-time or part-time), or by working with a vendor.

Since it’s almost impossible to grow in-house skills overnight (not to mention the opportunity cost of the training period), a lot of startups tend to look outside, to find the right skills and experts.

Keep Calm and Bring on the Freelance Expert

Many startups plug in into the independent expert network. Why is this often their first choice? Freelancers bring in their domain expertise without too much baggage, resulting in cost savings that are beneficial to everyone. They can be plugged into an ecosystem without too much trouble and with no additional training. Experienced freelancers are used to working in startup-like environments (with not so well-defined requirements, co-creating solutions with others, and working with irregular time schedules). They also bring the added advantage of their professional network which could be immense.

If you thought freelancing was only when you wanted a website created or a logo designed or an app to be developed, think again. Today, freelancing options have moved up the value chain. Professionals help companies, especially startups, deeply understand consumers, build marketing plans, and help with sales. A technology-driven company could hire a consultant who brings the abilities to create, manage, and execute its technology roadmap. For a healthcare services startup, finding an analytics jock who can analyse their data to improve product offerings for different segments. For an e-commerce site, it could be doing inventory management and procurement. An education-based startup can find an e-learning expert to help validate its methodology and tools in the market. While these are not easy skills to hire at short notice, they are even harder to cultivate in-house.

Unlike with full-time employees, these freelancers can be leveraged only when there is real need of their services, resulting in efficiency and cost savings. Most startups evolve, some more rapidly than others, and domain skills may need to be revised or even junked. Working with independent professionals makes this uncertainty easier to manage.

What is driving this change? One is the increase in the number of highly-skilled professionals opting for greater independence in the way they work. These are strategy and management consultants, niche domain experts in areas such as diverse as energy to education, marketing and finance professionals, technology architects and more. These are people who bring deep knowledge to a business, without having to be accommodated in a traditional management hierarchy.

Another important driver behind this trend is the ability to find such professionals via online sources and networks. Recruiting and collaboration have been disrupted in the last decade, and with freelancers being able to provide evidence of their work, it has become easier to identify, evaluate, and trust the potential value of an expert freelancer.

Such highly skilled freelancers are doing several things for startups. Some serve as an extended employee base, being called on to help a startup with its business or technology strategy. Some are helping startups with their HR activities, such as recruitment and payroll. It is now common to see freelancers even in line functions such as sales and marketing, ranging all the way from helping a startup set up a salesforce to actually selling on behalf of the business. Two of the survey respondents, Money-Wizards and SecureNow have used independent workers for sales, business development, and customer acquisition.

Engaging the right freelancer

So how does a startup go about finding and working with the right freelancer for domain skills? Here are five things to keep in mind:

  1. Clarity: What is that you need from your freelance partner and why? Being clear about these points will not only help looking for a person, but also gives your chosen freelancer the right context. So instead of job objectives such as “help take our business to the next level”, prefer statements such as “help increase brand activation by 50%” or “help recruit 20 new freshers from top colleges in the next FY”.
  2. Portfolio and References: Ask to see past work by a freelancer. This is easiest in areas such as design and technology. Ask for testimonials and references. Trust your network’s recommendations where available.
  3. Communication: Once skills are established, look for the ability to communicate in the freelancer. This is not just in terms of writing or speaking well, but in terms of being able to elicit requirements (critical in a fuzzy startup + freelance engagement), and in setting and meeting expectations. In turn, the freelancer must push for the startup to provide well-articulated outlines and instructions wherever possible.
  4. Managing Time: A common complaint in the freelancer-startup relationship is that deadlines were not adhered to or expectations were not met. Pick a simple system to track tasks, ask for regular checkpoints to assess and communicate progress, and use shared tools such as Google Docs to easily capture all of this.
  5. Plan and Organise: Though this seems almost contrary to the inherent let’s-wing-it instinct of both startup and freelancer, it’s highly advisable to plan ahead as much as possible. This allows both parties to figure out the best use of their respective times and alert each other about potential red flags. Startups who told us they had good experiences with freelancers, had figured out their own light-weight practices around tasks, oversight, and milestones.

Get started!

The word ‘freelancer’ originally meant a medieval warrior (who brought his own lance!) who wasn’t attached to any banner and was ready to offer his services to a fighting force. The modern-day freelancer is not just someone who can build a WordPress site for your army, but can lead the battle for your startup on various fronts, provided you pick the right warrior and the right battle.

Agree or disagree? Tell us: our survey for startups is here:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PB7Q6FR

About the Author

J. Ramanand is an ex-computer science researcher, quiz-maker, and writer based in Pune. He also regularly blogs for Flexing It which is a curated marketplace for short-term, flexible skills in India.