10 Tips for Picking a Great Freelance Vendor

picking oranges

The pros and cons of freelancing are fairly well known. And freelancers have no shortage of stories about bad clients. But what about bad freelancers? Does such a thing exist? Of course it does. And there’s no worse feeling than paying someone a lot of money to do work for you only to have them screw it up or bail on you completely.

So what can a client do in a situation where the vendor screws up?

Honestly, not much. Certainly you should stop paying them, but recovering money already spent will be extremely difficult. The best option is to tell everyone you know about the bad experience and lousy vendor. Negative word of mouth (especially if you blog about it publicly) can put a real dent in a freelancer’s future, and it might spur them into action.

Hopefully, it never gets to that point, because if it does the results are never pleasant. Publicly humiliating people is unpleasant (even if it generates results), and no matter what, you’re likely to get screwed out of money and your project.

The best defense against bad freelance vendors is to pick them carefully.

When selecting vendors you have all the control. You can ask for as much information as you want. You can do as much research as you want. You hold most if not all of the cards, so it’s up to you to use them.

  1. Get referrals. The best way to find a good vendor is through a referral. If a friend or trusted colleague recommends someone to you, that’s worth a ton. Having said that, don’t take the referral at face value and leave it at that. Do your own research. The person referring a freelancer to you may have different standards. But the best place to start when looking for a freelancer is through your own network.
  2. Forget about the lowest price. Generally, you scrap the lowest bid that comes in for your project. (Often people suggest you scrap the highest bid as well, and go for something in the middle.) The lowest bidder may be a good vendor, but it’s a warning sign. You have to ask yourself, “Why are they lower than everyone else?” The answer doesn’t really matter (and it’s not worth trying to figure out), so just thank them and move on. Price is a critical component of picking a freelancer, but if it’s the most important point, you’re in big trouble already.
  3. Ask freelancers to explain their price. It doesn’t really matter how a freelancer is pricing the project, you have a right to more details. This is especially true when the project has a fixed price. The vendor will give you a number – $10,000 – but what does that really mean? Ask the vendor to break it up on a deliverable-by-deliverable basis. Or they may have another structure (work, project management, profit, etc.) … it doesn’t matter, you just want to know. Vendors often don’t like doing this because of how they estimating the price of projects (often very poorly) and it requires more effort and leads to more debate on the minutiae of the pricing, but for the client it can be very worthwhile.
  4. Get references. One of your most effective weapons against crappy freelancers is to check references. Freelancers will give you their best ones (of course), so it’s up to you to ask good questions of them to get real information. Find out how the vendor reacted under stress. Find out how effective the vendor was as a communicator. Find out if they ever blew any deadlines, and what they did about it. Don’t be shy when probing for information from references. And always ask these two questions: “Would you hire the vendor again? And, would you recommend the vendor to others?”
  5. Hunt down your own references. Nothing says you can only speak to the references a vendor gives you. Why not find others? Presumably the vendor has a portfolio; so look up those clients and reach out to them without the vendor’s knowledge. You may find some surprises.
  6. Leverage social networking. There’s a very good chance the freelancers you’re looking at are using Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking services. At minimum you should be doing a Google search and hunting around for information on them. Then dig a bit deeper and look for them on social networking sites.
  7. Test them on smaller projects. If possible, give a freelancer something small but time-sensitive to do first. It might be a small piece of the bigger project, or something else completely. Test them. It’s a small test, but it’s better than doing nothing. You want to see if they deliver the goods, on time and on budget. You want to assess their communication and operational skills. You want to build a relationship with the freelancer to see if you’ll gel.
  8. Spread payments out. There are very few reasons you should have to pay everything upfront. Break up the payments based on deliverables, with some amount upfront. The bigger the project, the more you can chunk up the payments. On smaller projects you can go 50-50 (50% due at the start, 50% due at the end), but most often I prefer 33-33-33 or 25-25-25-25. Of course that works well on fixed price projects. For hourly projects, you can pay based on milestones or at certain time intervals (i.e. every 2 weeks.) And make sure payment is due on your acceptance of delivered work not on the simple delivery of something (which may be crap!)
  9. Define the working arrangement. How you communicate and manage the project with your vendor is critical for its success. So, define those terms early on. For example, do you want to make sure the vendor is available via Skype or another online chat tool? Do you expect weekly status reports? Do you want regular face-to-face meetings? How is the vendor expected to deliver the project? Think about the mechanics of the relationship and get agreement on those details as quickly as possible.
  10. Hire multiple vendors. On bigger projects consider hiring multiple vendors. This comes with its own challenges — having them work together, integrating work from different people, etc. — but it can mitigate the risk of one vendor totally ruining your project. Try and compartmentalize the work they have to do, so it doesn’t require a lot of integration. If the vendors have to work together, try and get them in a room together and make sure communication is strong.

Picking a great vendor is definitely a challenge.

You may not be able to follow all of the steps above. What happens if you can’t find a referral, for example?

Do your homework. Research potential vendors and freelancers as much as you can. Demand whatever you want from them, because it’s your money and project on the line. The sooner you weed out lousy vendors, the better. And, by going through a rigorous selection process you give yourself the best chance of success. Freelancers may grumble and groan at the amount of effort needed to close the deal, but if it’s a good fit and they really want the work, they’ll do what’s needed to make sure you’re comfortable with them.

November 19, 2007 Posted in Business by

  • http://www.audiomecca.com/download-music/ Download Music

    This is a great post. I am a free lance vendor as part of my free lance business model. I source material for my clients for a pre determined fee. It is nice to look at your advise from the other side of the fence and very educative. Thanks.

  • http://www.audiomecca.com/download-music/ Download Music

    This is a great post. I am a free lance vendor as part of my free lance business model. I source material for my clients for a pre determined fee. It is nice to look at your advise from the other side of the fence and very educative. Thanks.

  • http://www.usimprints.com Tim

    In my opinion, the most valuable suggestion here is to “spread payments out.” And I'm saying this as a freelancer. Not only does this give the client peace-of-mind, but it gives you, the freelancer, the option to walk away from a project, should you feel they have unrealistic expectations, keep making changes to the project, etc…

  • http://www.usimprints.com Tim

    In my opinion, the most valuable suggestion here is to “spread payments out.” And I’m saying this as a freelancer. Not only does this give the client peace-of-mind, but it gives you, the freelancer, the option to walk away from a project, should you feel they have unrealistic expectations, keep making changes to the project, etc…

  • http://www.advicenetwork.com/contest Advice Network Writing contest

    I spent a huge sum of money with a web development vendor who wasn't paying his staff, so they kept quiting (shocking) and nothing ever got done. I did check his references, but I did not look for my own references, that would have been a good idea!

    I also now have something else to look out for. This guy was a “smooth talker.” Next time a meet a vendor like him, I'm running away.

  • http://www.advicenetwork.com/contest Advice Network Writing contest

    I spent a huge sum of money with a web development vendor who wasn’t paying his staff, so they kept quiting (shocking) and nothing ever got done. I did check his references, but I did not look for my own references, that would have been a good idea!

    I also now have something else to look out for. This guy was a “smooth talker.” Next time a meet a vendor like him, I’m running away.

  • http://www.coderights.com Michael Rice

    Thanks for posting this. Well done. Having beein on both sides of the contract, I've always had the most luck with the payments based on specific milestones.

    The only thing I would add to all this is, make sure it's in all in writing, and make sure the writing is as clear as possible. That's easy enough to do when you're getting it all sorted out, but you have to be disciplined to keep to all together when the changes come — inevitably, schedules slip, allowances get made, changes come, etc.

  • http://www.coderights.com Michael Rice

    Thanks for posting this. Well done. Having beein on both sides of the contract, I’ve always had the most luck with the payments based on specific milestones.

    The only thing I would add to all this is, make sure it’s in all in writing, and make sure the writing is as clear as possible. That’s easy enough to do when you’re getting it all sorted out, but you have to be disciplined to keep to all together when the changes come — inevitably, schedules slip, allowances get made, changes come, etc.

  • http://blog.shaneandpeter.com shane

    The question that I find is how to know over time if they can walk their talk. We have been through two dozen contractors this year (testing and trying) and kept less than a dozen.

    Things we learned.

    1) Chemistry is way way way more important than we ever imagines. The contractor can be brilliant but if they rub everyone wrong, problems always ensue.

    2) Pair people with the right project. We had one contractor who was brilliant, and built the greatest code castles on earth. But when we asked him to build us a nice loft apartment, we ended up with a loft apartment with a moat and flying buttresses.

    3) We expect our contractors to learn on their own time and dollar. We now put that dialog in our first conversation with every contractor who is working hourly, and repeat it often.

    4) What do they consider success? My goal is to make our clients look good. But that takes a team effort. Understanding when to push (and being willing to) and when to relax is important. If I don't get that feeling from a contractor, I wont work with them.

    5) COMMUNICATION!!!!!!!! Way to often I called a contractor to get some final details wrapped up only to find out they went on vacation and never let me know. Or that today is their wife's birthday and they are in trouble because they are working all night on one of our project. Neither of those are issues that need to happen. All it takes is the habit of sharing schedules. Make sure the contractor is good at this (ask the references).

    ….

    got to get back to work.

    Nice post Ben.

  • http://blog.shaneandpeter.com shane

    The question that I find is how to know over time if they can walk their talk. We have been through two dozen contractors this year (testing and trying) and kept less than a dozen.

    Things we learned.

    1) Chemistry is way way way more important than we ever imagines. The contractor can be brilliant but if they rub everyone wrong, problems always ensue.

    2) Pair people with the right project. We had one contractor who was brilliant, and built the greatest code castles on earth. But when we asked him to build us a nice loft apartment, we ended up with a loft apartment with a moat and flying buttresses.

    3) We expect our contractors to learn on their own time and dollar. We now put that dialog in our first conversation with every contractor who is working hourly, and repeat it often.

    4) What do they consider success? My goal is to make our clients look good. But that takes a team effort. Understanding when to push (and being willing to) and when to relax is important. If I don’t get that feeling from a contractor, I wont work with them.

    5) COMMUNICATION!!!!!!!! Way to often I called a contractor to get some final details wrapped up only to find out they went on vacation and never let me know. Or that today is their wife’s birthday and they are in trouble because they are working all night on one of our project. Neither of those are issues that need to happen. All it takes is the habit of sharing schedules. Make sure the contractor is good at this (ask the references).

    ….

    got to get back to work.

    Nice post Ben.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Ben Yoskovitz

    Thank you for all the comments so far – you guys are extending the conversation nicely.

    @Michael: I agree as well with respect to writing everything down. I didn't include a point about having a rigid contract though, because it really won't matter if a vendor is going to screw you over. Having the project itself documented will help communication though.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Ben Yoskovitz

    Thank you for all the comments so far – you guys are extending the conversation nicely.

    @Michael: I agree as well with respect to writing everything down. I didn’t include a point about having a rigid contract though, because it really won’t matter if a vendor is going to screw you over. Having the project itself documented will help communication though.

  • http://www.jcme.ca/jcmefreelancwriting James Chartrand – JCM Enterpri

    I agree with the milestone payments. That one helps protect everyone. Here are two more tips:

    Ask to see progress on the project if that is possible. Then provide clear, concise feedback early on in the game. Freelancers aren't mind readers. What they create may be sheer genius, but if you don't like it, you need to tell them that in a polite, constructive way. Tell them what you don't like, what you do, and what you'd like to see. Give freelancers feedback to work with at all times.

    Provide clear starting guidelines. If you want XYZ with some A and B tossed in, tell the freelancer that. Try to be as specific with your needs and ideas as possible. Telling a freelancer you want a “pretty” website or a “great” article doesn't give them clear guidelines to work with to produce what you want to see.

  • http://www.jcme.ca/jcmefreelancwriting James Chartrand – JCM Enterprises

    I agree with the milestone payments. That one helps protect everyone. Here are two more tips:

    Ask to see progress on the project if that is possible. Then provide clear, concise feedback early on in the game. Freelancers aren’t mind readers. What they create may be sheer genius, but if you don’t like it, you need to tell them that in a polite, constructive way. Tell them what you don’t like, what you do, and what you’d like to see. Give freelancers feedback to work with at all times.

    Provide clear starting guidelines. If you want XYZ with some A and B tossed in, tell the freelancer that. Try to be as specific with your needs and ideas as possible. Telling a freelancer you want a “pretty” website or a “great” article doesn’t give them clear guidelines to work with to produce what you want to see.

  • Commenter

    Thats for the tips, I know I’ve been taken several times already.

  • Commenter

    Thats for the tips, I know I've been taken several times already.

  • http://www.traveladriatic.net/southern-dalmatia/dubrovnik Apartments Dubrovnik

    hey first a fall i thank you for giving me the tips. . And i got very useful to read that tips and all. . I hope i can do my works better than before. .

  • http://www.traveladriatic.net/southern-dalmatia/dubrovnik Apartments Dubrovnik

    hey first a fall i thank you for giving me the tips. . And i got very useful to read that tips and all. . I hope i can do my works better than before. .

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  • Bruno Ramos

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Ben Yoskovitz
I'm VP Product at Codified (makers of VarageSale).

I'm also a Founding Partner at Year One Labs, an early stage accelerator in Montreal. Previously I founded Standout Jobs (and sold it).

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