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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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Building Your Virtual Freelance Creative Team: A Five Step Guide

Back before I started writing articles for WorkflowMax, I used to run my own agency. This was an agency without an office, unless the desk in the corner of our living room my cats used as a hammock counted as an office (which I personally feel it didn’t). Despite this lack of an office, I still had a team of three writers under me, as well as other professionals (a graphic designer, and a website whiz) I could call if the need arose.

From the comfort of my cat-covered desk, I sent out assignments to my team, dealt with client requests and questions, and scouted for new work. My entire agency operated virtually, and it was brilliant.

The way we work today is vastly different than the past. The so-called “Gig Economy” has altered the way we see work and what we wish to gain from an employer. More employees than ever work in “alternative” arrangements, with flexible hours, virtual offices, teleconferences, short-term contracts, and “work-when-you-want” arrangements. In my parents’ generation, a job provided stability. Now, we crave flexibility.

As an agency owner, the gig economy can offer you numerous benefits. By unchaining yourself from the need to have a team sit down together in a physical office space, you can:

  • Choose the best creatives from across the world, without being limited by commute times.
  • Save yourself thousands every month in overheads from renting space and providing equipment.
  • Gain a physical presence in several markets by compiling a global team.
  • Grow and shrink your team in accordance to your needs at the time.
  • Collaborate with a range of experts with vastly different skills.
  • Employ a team without some of the additional administrative headaches this entails, such as payroll and PAYE.
  • Run your business from anywhere in the world, on any device, as you also aren’t tied to an office or location.

Are you convinced? Below I’ve outlined all the steps you need to follow in order to build your own virtual freelance team at your agency.

Step 1: Deciding how you want to work

Before you start hunting down potential freelancers, it’s best to have a think about what you’re looking for in your agency, and how you visualise the team working together and growing with your company. Which project management, communication, creative and collaboration tools will you use in order to deliver your finished product?

When I ran my freelance team, I would liaise with clients, assess their needs, negotiate a package and contract, and only once the deal was made would I send out assignments to my freelance agency team. I used a board in Trello where I would post assignments and the members of my team could grab the ones that appealed to them most.

This system worked for me with a small team of people all doing the same job (content writing), but it had its flaws. It was always the case that the most urgent jobs wouldn’t get picked, and I’d still have to email my team members individually to get them to pick up the less desirable subjects. I would also have to follow up individually if work was running late. Writers communicated with me openly, but not with each other.

Many agencies manage their freelance workload through WorkflowMax – it’s an excellent project management tool for managing freelancers because any member of the team can log in and see the status of each project. You can assign jobs to specific team members, see the progress of each stage of the job. It’s much easier to see when a project is approaching deadline, as well.

Whatever system you end up choosing, think about:

  • Who will be liaising with clients?
  • What times of the day are your freelancers available for meetings and discussion?
  • What level of control do you require over each level of the project?
  • What is the most efficient way of disseminating information to the whole team?
  • What programs are your freelancers already familiar with?
  • How will the finished product will be delivered to your client?

We have a great free downloadable guide to help agency owners pimp their project management. Download it today!

Step 2: Hunt down some clever freelancers

Now that you have figured out how you will work, you need to find the people you’re going to work with.

Finding freelancers is easy, but finding good freelancers – who produce quality work, on time, on budget, and are a pleasure to work with to boot – is next to impossible. It took me six months to put together the team of three I used. Be prepared to dig deep and search wide to find your dream team.

Here are some tips for sourcing freelancers:

  • Ask friends, family and business colleagues if they know of anyone who might be interested in freelance work.
  • If you know someone who is a good creative, but already employed with another agency or company, don’t be afraid to approach them about some creative work on the side. Many people are happy for additional freelance work in order to bolster their income to pay down their mortgage or save for a holiday.
  • Place adverts on creative industry websites, blogs, and newsletters. Make sure you ads are targeting the right people (ie. if you’re looking for a content writer, you probably don’t want to advertise in a literary writing association newsletter) and that you’re being specific about your requirements. Many blogs – such as Problogger – include job boards where freelance jobs are listed.
  • If you’re looking for content writers, search out articles on sites like Medium, Forbes, and Business Insider that inspire you, and approach the writers via the links in their bio to ask if they’d be interested in your work.
  • Ditto for designers – search cool projects on sites like Behance and contact their creators about potential freelance work.
  • Ask other creative agency owners who they use and recommend.
  • Go to a local talent agency (such as The Pond here in New Zealand) and get them to hook you up with a talented freelancer.
  • Put out a call on your agency website or blog.

Once you’ve sourced someone you think might be a good fit, I would put them to work on one small project, using the new system you’ve crafted in Step 1. Using this project as a kind of “sample” to figure out if you’re happy working with them and the quality of the work they present to the client. If you’re satisfied, you can continue to offer additional work.

It should go without saying that you’re building a long-term business relationship with these freelancers, so treat them with dignity and respect. Because they aren’t employees, freelancers are often exposed to dodgy business practices and clients who try to take advantage of them. Exercise your human decency, and they will do the same.

(Don’t ask freelancers to perform trial projects for no pay. This insults their time and tells them you don’t value their skills.)

Step 3: Set up your infrastructure

Next, organise a shared calendar, so that your freelancers can add available time slots or planned holidays. This can help you see what hours you have available each week for work coming in.

Also, ensure your freelancer has all the paperwork they need, including a copy of their contract. What processes do you have in place for onboarding clients? Make sure the freelancers also has access to these files so they can understand the client’s needs. This is especially important if the freelancer doesn’t have contact with the client.

If your freelance team is new to this type of work (for example, one member of my team was used to sourcing her own jobs and not working for an agency), I would offer your team some advice on managing their workloads and successful freelancing. We’ve got a great article on the WorkflowMax blog on Tips for freelancers to maximise your remote working experience.

Step 4: Test and tweak

Now that your team is established and the work is rolling in, you’ll have time to test and refine your process. After a couple of weeks, reflect on what has and hasn’t worked. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is working really well so far?
  • What aspects of your process need improvement?
  • Does every member of the team understand what they need to do, and when?
  • Are you communicating in the most effective way?
  • Do members of your team need more support in certain areas?
  • At what stage of the process is work getting bottlenecked?
  • Is there a need to create operating manuals in order to standardise techniques and/or presentation?

Get the members of your freelance agency team to feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to ask them for ideas on how to improve – they will often know of tools and techniques you don’t!

Step 5: Selling your freelance team

Now that you’ve put together this amazing team, and tweaked and fine-tuned your process, your agency is running like clockwork. That means it’s time to flaunt your talented crew to the world.

How do you sell the merits of your freelance team to your clients?

  • Add profiles for each of your team members to your website. You can have a bit of fun with each person’s profile, to keep it light and creative.
  • Add a testimonial to each of you team member’s LinkedIn accounts, to help them build their personal brands.
  • Encourage your team to submit guest blogs to popular creative websites, and submit their work to competitions and awards. As they build their personal brands, your company builds its brand as well.
  • Present your agency as just that – a team of expert creative thinkers. Most clients will place a higher value on your work knowing they have a whole creative team behind them.
  • Use a value pricing strategy – I prefer to price based on certain packages, rather than in an hourly rate. This ensures your agency continues to have enough funds to grow and thrive.
  • Invest in your team. Make sure they have the tools and training they need to do the best possible job.
  • Encourage team members to promote the agency in their own town/city, by attending events, networking, and speaking at conferences. Print up business cards for them and treat them like employees.
  • Ask your team for their input. They might have some great new ideas you can use.

Operating a virtual agency staffed by freelancers can open up a huge array of options. You’ll be able to run a location independent business that can expand and shrink to fit the market’s needs, and you can work with the top people in your industry, no matter where they live. It’s truly a great time to be in the agency business.

How are you managing your freelance team? What areas could you improve?