If you’re an agency looking to scale your company, or a company looking to outsource some specialized work, finding high quality web developers, designers, and content creators for contract work is no easy task. Generally, the search involves sorting through tons of unqualified submissions, and placing bets on candidates, while remaining unsure of their ability to execute the project to your standards.
While the only guaranteed way to know a contractor’s worth is to actually work with them, there are a few measures you can take when evaluating and engaging with a contractor that will set you up for a better chance at success. Consider these nine tips for hiring a contractor in the web development, design, and content creation space.
1. Tap into your network for referrals
Seems like an obvious piece of advice, but the importance of this cannot be stressed enough. Often times, the most qualified candidates are one or two connections removed, and a simple post on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter could yield amazing results.
Try these three methods for getting in network referrals:
- Post on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Tag people who you know work in the industry. (See sample post above)
- Ask employees and contractors who you work with on a consistent basis.
- Email your larger network of contractors or connections, who you know have niche expertise in the space.
If you have the resources, offer an incentive for contractor and employee referrals; a small cash bonus or a gift card. If someone makes a great referral, or is consistently making referrals to you, make sure to follow up with a small gift, or thank you card.
2. Consider job posting and portfolio sites
There are lots of great job sites out there, but it can sometimes be difficult to find one that specifically attracts good candidates for the role you are trying to fill, and for contract-based projects or positions. Here is a short list of job sites to consider:
- For Designers and Developers: Angel List, Upwork, Krop
- For Developers: Stackoverflow, GitHub
- For Designers: Dribbble, Behance
When you post, look up some of your competitors’ job postings, and get a feel for what they list as job descriptions and qualifications. Ultimately, decide on what is right for you, and make sure to use your company voice (a good example of this is with dev shop Oozou). Here is an great example of a job post from creative agency Glass & Marker:
Motion Graphics Designer (contract to hire)
We are looking for someone with an excellent eye for design and strong motion/animation skills. You should have the ability to quickly generate, execute, and revise motion design, at all stages of the process: from initial concept, through final animation.
We are a very collaborative team, often working on projects that require maximum cooperation and dedication from team members to hit deadlines and maintain a high level of quality. Please be willing to work hard, work well with others, and be able to come into and work out of our Oakland office on a regular basis (depending on the project.)
This position has the potential to eventually become contract-to-hire for the right contractor, if so desired.
Additional Preferred Qualifications:
What to send:A brief cover letter and a link to a reel or portfolio of your motion graphics work. Please provide detailed descriptions of your role and specific contributions to collaborative projects on your portfolio or reel, if they're not already included or self-explanatory.
Posting on many of these platforms isn’t without cost, so it’s best to invest small amounts in platforms first, to see what gives you good return on candidates.
3. Review their portfolio carefully
For contractors in the web development, design, and content creation space, the most important thing is their work. Do work history and education count for something? Sure. But there are plenty of amazing designers, developers, and digital artists who never graduated college, and are making amazing work with only a few years experience. The best measure of a contractor’s worth is their portfolio, and that should be the focus of your evaluation.
Take a look at their websites, apps, videos, GIFs, photos, etc., and rely on your gut reaction to narrow the field, from many to a few. Usually, just by looking at their website, you can get a feel for whether this person is the real deal, or not.
Review at least three projects. If they haven’t done three projects yet, they might be too green. Ask yourself these questions about their work and style:
- Does their style and level of work fit the end client’s brand?
- Does their quality and style mesh well with the work you produce as an agency/company?
- Is their quality and style consistent across their body of work?
It should be a red flag if their portfolio has both good and bad work, or vastly different styles; this would suggest that they are a collaborator, and not the actual creator. Make sure to ask them what they did specifically on each project, especially the pieces that look really great. If there were other collaborators on their projects, make sure you have a good understanding of what their role entailed.
You might also like: How to Create a Compelling Web Design Portfolio.
4. Interview in person or over video conference
Interviews are an essential step in evaluating a contractor candidate. They allow you to get a sense of your candidate’s personality, analytical abilities, and communication skills. In person interviews are generally prefered, but free video conferencing tools like Google Hangouts and Skype work if the candidate is unavailable to come in, or working remotely.
The questions you ask will be heavily dependent on the role, but you should try to answer these questions for yourself.
- Did this person actually create the work in their portfolio?
- Do they hold themselves accountable to deadlines and budget?
- Will they be good at communicating with team members?
- Are they open to receiving constructive feedback and following direction?
- What are their rates?
When conducting an interview, either record your video conferencing session, or take brief notes while you’re chatting, so you can remember your thoughts from that moment. For a more quantitative approach, compare contractor candidates across similar criteria in a spreadsheet, and develop a ranking system for best qualifications. For example:
5. Use a short trial period as a test
The true way to know if working with a contractor will spell success is to simply work with them. That said, it’s advisable to start out with something small to test whether the relationship is going to work.
Choose a small project, or section off a part of a greater project, that will require less than one week of work. Protect yourself, your timeline, and your client by having a backup plan, and make sure an employee shadows them in case their work is subpar. This way, you can hedge your risk, while trying out new talent.
6. Write a fair but strong contract
The goal of a contract should be to never have to use it. The best way to ensure this happens is to write a strong contract so everyone's clear on the exact terms of the agreement, and to be fair to all parties and reduce the chance of hard feelings. Moreover, you’re ideally grooming your contractors for repeat business or full time employment, so treat them well.
In terms of writing a strong contract, the renowned law firm Orrick has a great library with templates. For example, the ‘Consulting Agreement’ at Orrick Start-Up Forms: Employment and Consultant is a very strong contract. If you sign up for the free HR platform Zenefits, you can access the Orrick contracts and others, and have them organized all in one system.
Here are the important things you want to make sure to stipulate in any contract, statement of work, or master service agreement:
- Make sure you own all the IP and that the contractor cannot repurpose any of it.
- Allow the contractor to display the work for marketing purposes (i.e. their portfolio), as long as they also credit your firm (that’s fair).
- Make sure you clearly specify all deliverables in an statement of work.
- If you can, put down a timeline for deadlines and mini project deadlines for deliverables.
- Make sure to include a number of revision periods.
- Agree upon overage charges in advance.
- In case of termination, make sure everything is clearly defined in terms of partial compensation.
It can be easy to loosen up with certain clients and employees, to the point where you might feel like you don’t need a contract. That is a misguided notion. Always have a contract in place. It’s in everyone’s best interest.
You might also like: 8 Quick Tips for a Bulletproof Freelance Contract.
7. Pay them on the same terms that your client pays you
There is always a question of pay structure. Fixed rate or hourly? Hourly or daily? Or monthly? Do I reimburse them for stuff? All of these questions are pretty easy to answer; mirror the payment terms in your client agreement.
If the terms for the contractor and the client are the same, everything should move in lockstep if there are changes. That way there are no issues, like selling a project on fixed rate, but losing your profit margin when your scope creeps and your designer is on hourly. Use the same terms (not to be confused with the same rate!) for deposit percentage, installments, reimbursements, overages, and payment timeline (i.e. payment in no later than 30 days) in your contract. If you are fixed rate, make sure your contractor is fixed rate, if you are by the day/hour etc. make sure they’re on the same terms.
One more thing; pay them faster if you have the cash-flow. Even if the client and you have NET30 terms, if you can pay them on NET15, do it. This will curry favor with contractors, and they will be more willing to work with you, and on more preferable terms.
8. Have them record their time
If you’re a company working with contractors, the most important data you can gain from them is time spent on various projects and activities. This gives insight into where you are winning and losing on profit margin, and how you can better plan for human resources in the future. There are a myriad of time-tracking applications out there, one of the best ones is Harvest.
If your contractors are working on hourly or daily rates, it’s pretty straightforward to ask them to use time-tracking software. If it’s on a fixed rate, ask if they are okay with tracking their time for data purposes only. Not all contractors, or employees, are excited about logging their time and activities. It is important not to judge them based on their total hours worked, and not to start micromanaging their time. Let them know that data is the most important thing, and that the main purpose of the software is to gain insight into project efficiency and resources.
You might also like: 6 of the Best Time Tracking Apps for Designers, Developers, and Agencies.
9. Convert your contractors to employees at the right time
Depending on your business model, as your company grows, your goal should be to convert your consistent and top performing contractors into full time employees. Contractors often charge a premium on smaller engagement, and discount their rates as the length or volume of engagement increases.
With this in mind, the contractor who charges $200/hour could effectively bill something like $417,600/year. Unlikely, but possible. Let’s say they half their rate with your company for consistent work, at $208,800/year. If you could retain them full time on a $120,000 salary, you could probably save a lot of budget.
Try this process to see if converting a contractor makes sense:
- Calculate their annual rate based on their current contractor day rate or hourly rate. If they are on fixed projects, refer to work documented with time tracking software.
- Determine what you would need to offer them salary wise, and add that plus any employee taxes and benefits.
- Calculate your margins from switching the contractor to a full-time employee.
- Look at your historical sales data and sales pipeline, and determine if there is enough assignable project work for them during the next two quarters.
If you are unsure about the numbers, try ramping into this with successively longer contracts to hedge your risk. Evolve from project-based, to weekly, to monthly, to quarterly contracts. Then make the hire when it is undoubtedly clear from a pipeline and cash-flow perspective that it makes sense.
Strong hires, strong business
It’s generally best to find new talent from trusted referrals. Make sure you know that the contractor did the work presented in their portfolio, and hedge your risk with a trial period. Treat contractors fairly when dictating contract and payment terms. Have them record their time, and use that data to make full time hiring decisions.