Lessons from setting a digital agency of senior, remote, freelance professionals

I have been working in digital, SEO specifically, for a long time. And for the most part, that was in agencies. Some big, some small, some amazing, some…less so. Though I noticed throughout my agency career, and having friends moving through agencies as so often happens in digital; that generally, traditional agency models all have the same kind of problems.

I am not going to write about these problems here as I have done extensively in the past and it’s a whole separate topic. I am going to talk about what I’ve learnt in the past 18 months of running freelance, remote teams. And it’s a lot. So strap in!

Firstly, I’d just like to note I use the word ‘freelancers’ in this article. I first toyed with ‘independent professionals’ as I thought it sounded more executive, but ultimately it chipped away at my soul with a tiny little jargon hammer every time I said it.

I sometimes use ‘consultants’ if I am feeling fancy or remoters when I am talking primarily about working in various locations. Though for the purpose of this I say freelancers to mean ‘the subcontractors and remoters I work with’. Just to clear up the semantics first.

For context, I started Manyminds at the tail end of 2015 and sent my first ever invoice on the 25th January 2016 (that date will forever remain implanted on my mind, and has seemingly relegated my parent’s anniversary. Apparently 45 years of marriage is kind of a big deal).

At that point I had one client (which was a global airline, I thought I’d jump right in at the deep end), and a team of six incredibly talented freelancers working on the account.

To date, we have eleven clients and now a team of around forty incredibly talented freelances working on the accounts. We have grown quickly, which presents its own separate set of challenges; not least my exponentially increased reliance on caffeine and, in particularly dark and stressful times, Taylor Swift.

So what have I learnt from having a loose idea that ‘I think experienced freelancers collaborating could be good’ to actually having actualised that in to a somehow formed and functioning business?

I have broken these out in to a few areas to make it a little more digestible and to give some context in to groups of areas I am naturally fairly good at and things I am naturally completely shocking at.

Things I am naturally fairly good at

  • Knowing what I am shocking at
  • Finding the right people
  • Building a team and a culture
  • Creating effective communication

Things I am naturally completely shocking at (anecdotally perhaps the most crucial elements for successfully setting up freelance teams)

  • Developing processes and organisation

1. Finding the right people

Firstly, Manyminds exists and has grown almost exclusively because of the people I have around me. We have continued to win clients through referrals simply because our work is very good (I am biased, of course, but it is) and that is simply because the freelancers within our network are very good; without their level of skills and expertise I’d just be weeping under my desk listening to Taylor Swift again.

However, identifying those people who you can trust, rely on, and will deliver good work is the first challenge of a business built on freelance resource. The first lesson I learnt, which was a painful one, was that you are going to spend more money than you want to on freelance resource when you begin. There is an unavoidable element of trial and error.

You will start working with a freelancer who is brilliant, you perhaps know some people or get recommendations. Though at other times, you won’t. The first few months of business I was having to pay for work three or four times and actively operating at a loss and getting myself in to personal debt. Ah, memories.

Though, after about four months in, that never happened again because I became adept at identifying good freelancers quickly. It’s my new, very lame, superpower. Here’s some rules for finding the best freelance resource:

  1. I would only ever recommend using freelancers who are ‘career’ freelancers, in other words, those who are full-time freelancers and have consciously chosen this as a career. There’s probably some excellent people who are freelance on the side, and do some work in the evenings and weekends in-between their full-time jobs but I can guarantee you they won’t be as reliable, deadlines are more likely to be missed and quality control will be less. This seems obvious, someone who is freelance as a career had much more invested in making sure the work is perfect, and delivered on time.
  2. What makes a very good freelancer is their ability to adapt quickly to different projects, manage their own time and be clear and direct. These skills are developed over time. I have found that consistently, if you want a good freelancer, you want to find those people with a lot of experience.
  3. Be prepared to pay (see above). If you’re using freelance resource, don’t skimp. It is considerably more expensive than hiring if they operate full time, though ultimately, there’s less risk and you get people with years and years of experience.

2. Building a team and a culture

So you have your awesome, if not cripplingly expensive, brilliant team. Now, how do you get them to work together? They’re likely a group of strangers who have never met, working from different office spaces across the world, with different skillsets, motivations and responsibilities.

I thought this would be the hardest element of developing Manyminds, but that hasn’t been the case at all. A lot of this rests on finding the right people, but also the beautiful thing about developing an agency of independents is, we want to work together.

Not having people living together in an office style environment, with no scrabbling for promotion or infighting for recognition completely usurps internal politics altogether. It’s been the happiest accident of my life to date; just really smart people wanting to go great shit together. Who knew!

  1. Most freelancers agree that freelancing is lonely. The stereotypes about working from home are true. About three months in to working from home alone, I got in to a very dangerous habit of solo afternoon karaoke. Let me repeat that. Solo. Afternoon. Karaoke. Just to hear something and break the monotony of solitude.  I hadn’t quite adjusted at that point and I felt very isolated and very overwhelmed, though I did also get very good at Midnight Train To Georgia so, silver linings. Bring teams together in fun, new exciting environments as often as possible. It is always worth the investment of hiring a cool meeting space and taking your remote teams out for dinner and drinks.
  2. Provide freelancers with benefits. Again, something freelancers often miss are the perks of employee benefits and systems like Perkbox allow you to give recognition inexpensively.
  3. Go out of your way whenever possible to help and to thank people. Make it a conscious effort. Whoever said that you have to be ruthless in business was an asshat, an incorrect asshat. There will be times when you need your freelancers to be flexible and to go out of their way for you, so replicate that. Be kind, patient, honest, humble and give room (both in terms of your own margins and timeframes) for people to make mistakes. I guarantee the nicer you are in your day to day life, the more you get back. Karma or something like that.
  4. Sick days. Sick days are awful when you’re a freelancer because they don’t exist. This hadn’t really occurred to me until about two months in I got an awful flu but I still had to work, because there was no one else, the buck stopped at me. Try to establish a framework where a freelancer can be sick and you have resource to step in and everything doesn’t fall apart.
  5. Pay early. I sometimes drop the ball on this, but I try to pay as early as possible. This builds trust, shows recognition and positively surprises people.

3. Creating effective communication

It seems obvious that the success of a remote business relies almost entirely on effective communication.

  1. Make room for informal, inane chat. The Manyminds Slack is 20% talking to clients on an adhoc basis, 20% discussing projects as a team and 60% silly memes. It’s this informal, silly, conversation that builds the team dynamic. Create separate spaces for that so it doesn’t distract from work, but is facilitated. I know a lot of business owners who get stressed about their team ‘wasting time’ on IM, this may be a more legitimate concern when you work together; though for remote teams, having the ability to do this is crucial. And may well prevent a serious bout of potentially fatal solo afternoon karaoke.
  2. Schedule regular check in meetings. Having an allotted time when all the teams talk keeps things systemised and moving.
  3. Have an established process for conferences and meetings. This is something we are still ironing out, after Hangouts, Skype, Slack, Appearin we’ve tried multiple different ways to systemise our communication. I think we’ve finally found solace in Zoom. Make it clear in the beginning what channels your teams should be talking through to remove as many barriers as possible to face to face (or camera to camera) communication.

4. Developing Process

For me, this has been a steep learning curve. Particularly when you are servicing multiple clients, it’s hard to take time out to develop something that doesn’t seem immediately necessary. Here’s some things I’ve started doing to take the sting out of something I am not naturally adept at. (I also hired someone to do it for me so, you know, there’s always that too).

  1. BRIEF ENCOUNTERS (sorry). Even the best people in the world will deliver bad work with a bad brief. My Project Manager once described me as “horrible” at briefing. Feels strong, but, OK, I can accept criticism. Even when I try to take what’s in my head and distil it in to a clear, detailed, informative document I am very good for the first few sentences then devolve in to me repeatedly typing something like ‘do the thing, the thing I want, do it, do the thingy thing thing please. Two things by this day. Thank you for the things I envisage. GOODBYE!’. However, I have discovered a cheat (a hack, if you will). Video briefing. Now I use Zoom (again, I have found solace in Zoom) to record myself discussing a project. This means I generally give a lot more detail than when writing, can be rewatched so is clearer than a call and I can send to my Project Manager to distil if necessary. Recording a quick briefing video takes significantly less time than typing one out.
  2. Process maps. I have recently started doing this from a nudge from Koozai’s Ben Norman and have found it hugely helpful for a team of freelancers. Having multiple scenarios for what someone does in a situation has reduced my time spent answering questions. One of our specific problems was ownership of client contact. I generally manage a lot of the client relationships, though can’t always be readily available or know the right answers, so there was a little confusion and hesitation around who was accountable for that. A distinct process map solved for this quickly.
  3. Shared folders in the cloud (we use GDrive). This is so blindingly obvious but in all the mayhem of the business set up, we didn’t get all of our documentation available and organised until relatively recently. When people are working remotely, it’s essential to have everything organised and readily available, particularly for anyone new to the team. A lot of documentation ends up just saved on a freelancers desktops, there needs to be a process to prevent this.
  4. Shadow staff. A crucial expense. The risk of remote teams is ensuring that should they no longer be able to work on a project, there’s not a huge gap in resource. Ensure to acknowledge even if a project only requires single resource, you really need to be paying for two freelancers on any given project to mitigate for this. Again, don’t scrimp.

And finally!

  1. Task management. Everything needs to be documented, itemised and assigned to different people with full visibility across the teams. That’s important. We use Asana, which integrates with Instagantt beautifully for reports. Well…I say “we use Asana”, I am the worst on the team for being consistent with it and really annoys my Project Manager.
  2. Don’t annoy your Project Manager

By Kirsty Hulse

Kirsty HulseKirsty Hulse is the founder and MD of Manyminds Digital, the digital marketing agency made entirely of expert, independent resource.

With a decade’s experience, she has defined search strategies for some of the world’s leading brands. Her current focus is on creative, cost effective content campaigns that earn links and drive conversion.

You can follow Kirsty in twitter, LinkedIn and her site.

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