For most startups, outsourcing to contractors is only way of getting the business up and running. A founder often has the experience, knowledge and expertise to do the job himself or herself, but the critical piece missing is likely to be time.
As well as being more likely to need to use contractors, two other factors usually also are present. The first is that a successful outcome to the work is critical to launch or growth; and the second is that with a tight budget, it is more affordable to hire individual freelancers with less experience of being in business than those with more. It is this combination that makes reducing the risks of something going comparatively more important for a start-up than for an established organisation.
So what can you do to increase the likelihood that the contractor delivers the quality you expect on-time?
Be clear about what work the contractor will do.
You should give the contractor a detailed specification of work, recorded in some way, so that neither of you can argue later about what was intended.
If you are not sure exactly what work needs to be done, you might consider hiring him or her on a separate short assignment beforehand to identify your needs and put together the specification. It doesn’t need to be in writing – visual media such as storyboards, wireframes often work better for creative contracts – but it should be in a form that can act as a record.
You will need to make clear what the deliverables are, and also any methodology or process your contractor should follow.
Although being precise about what you want is a good thing, it might be the case that you want to remain flexible so that you can test and refine ideas.
For start-ups, scope creep is a common issue. One way around is to allow some leeway for you (but not the contractor) to change the scope. For example, you could agree that you can make a certain number of revisions to certain parts of the specification.
Make sure you know who is doing your work.
Your contractor could sub-contract some of the work to someone else. There are two potential problems here: what happens if the work is substandard (and who is responsible for fixing it); and how is confidentiality and protection of your intellectual property managed? You don’t want to find that the source code for key functionality of your website is owned by someone else.
The easiest thing to do is simply to insist on no sub-contractors.
Be clear about your role.
Ultimately, responsibility for the outcome remains with you. Keep in mind that you are outsourcing the work, not the management (unless the work is management of other contractors).
You can set out how you will manage working together. For example, you might insist on update meetings, periodic reviews (quality control) and approval of each stage of the work before the next is started.
Breaking down a project into shorter stages is often a good idea: payment can then be on successful completion of a stage, and you can agree to be able to terminate the contract at the end of any stage. This allows you to get out easily if the contract isn’t going as planned.
Get some agreement in writing, even if it is only “heads of terms” in an e-mail message.
Few people enjoy working with legal documents (except perhaps lawyers). Less formal agreements seem much easier to put in place. But the problem with these is that they don’t protect you in many eventualities you might not have thought about at the start. One way around is to use a template contract, which should cover all the common bases and give you a little extra protection.
An alternative to using a legal document is to write the terms of the agreement in normal language in an e-mail and ask your contractor to confirm that he or she agrees to them. That can be as contractually binding as a hard copy contract, but is less likely to make your contractor uncomfortable.
Having something written down will make you and the contractor feel like there is commitment to the job on both sides. Expectations will be clearer and progress should be faster.
You can’t guarantee that outsourced work will be performed as you want. But there are lots of things you can do in advance to give it the best chance of being successful. Most of all, this comes down to planning beforehand and agreeing “what happens if?”.