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How to Hire a Freelancer

How to Hire a Freelancer

In the spirit of our Open Source Ethos blog post, I wanted to create a post that hopefully will do some people some good. That is, how to (safely) hire a freelancer.

Now, you may be wondering, why is a design and development company telling me how to replace them? First off, we’re not. That is, if all you need is a freelancer, our intake process would spot this pretty fast, and we would try to refer you accordingly. Secondly, this is something we know how to do, so why not tell others how to do it? It is a skill, after all, one that is pretty valuable, if applied correctly. At the very least, I hope to help people not hire a bad freelancer. Those situations, like any bad fit, can be a nightmare. And, if I can help one person avoid this, then this post was a success.

Freelancing is exploding, which makes a lot of sense. With dwindling job security, coupled with the dystopian nightmare commuting in big cities can be (not to mention having to spend several hours a week in meetings of debatable value), many “knowledge workers” are turning to freelancing as a way to generate income for themselves.

So, you may ask, how do I know if I just need a freelancer or if I need more (like, for example, a responsive design and development agency like us)? I think about it like this. We are like an Army, a (good) freelancer is like a big gun. Sometimes, all you need is a big gun to get the job done. Other times, if not more often, you need a full army to accomplish your goals. More specifically, if all you need is technical/design help (you are more than comfortable with every other aspect of the project), then a freelancer can be a great choice. If you need someone to take on an entire project, though, usually the professional services firm angle is the best way to go.

So now you have decided all you need is the big gun. You have run tons of design/development projects and know how to get the most from them, and you have all of the other pieces of the project accounted for (design, development, usability, UX/CX, hosting, testing, etc.). All you really need is that one last missing piece to make your project golden. If that is the case, here is what I always do to up my odds that the freelancer I choose will be a good (if not great) one. Of course, it is impossible to eliminate all risk, but over my experience, following these steps will greatly increase your odds of success.

Fish Where the Fish Are

Looking for top-notch talent? Well, then the first thing you should ask yourself is where these types hang out. There are NO shortage of places to post your needs/project, and it does take a bit of experience to find the sites that are frequented by the types of people you are looking for. Most of these sites fall into two groups, more traditional job boards and project boards. Examples of the former are Stack Overflow, Smashing Jobs, Authentic Jobs, etc. Examples of the latter include Elance,, etc.

From my experience, I usually have MUCH better luck on the traditional job boards. When I have posted projects to, for example, about 80%-90% of the replies came from offshore companies. Now, I have nothing against offshore workers, or companies, but for me, it is just not what I am looking for. But for whatever you are looking for, make sure you know the type of person you are after. Then, you can figure out where that type of person is likely to hang out and post there.

Look for Real Examples of Work

This one can be tough, especially if online proof of real work isn’t possible, but it is still something to keep in mind. I have seen more than one portfolio filled to the brim with fake sites. These do serve a purpose, in that they do show design/development skill. However, they leave off the most important facet of any freelancer, being able to finish a real job, for a real client, for something used by real people. That is, if their work is just their own creation, it has never been validated, never been tested by real-world situations. Plus, there is just something deceptive about having fake sites in your portfolio. Or to put it another way, do you want to trust someone to get work done for you that tried to trick you? Probably not.

But how do you actually verify the sites are real? It is not too hard. Mostly, just look through the site and see if it all works. Look for any place-setting text still on the site (e.g. Lorem Ipsum…), as well as other clues that it might not be real. Look at it from the perspective of a client. If this was YOUR project, would it be good enough for you to put out into the world? If not, then it might very well be fake.

Ask Relevant Questions

Interviewing a freelancer is a little different than interviewing an employee. That is, I will never have to share and office with this person, I just want them to get a job done. As such, most of the questions I ask are situational. I present them with a scenario and ask what they would do about it. Or, I ask them about the specifics behind their work. I ask them to tell me about something hard they did, or a project that turned out really well. I want to hear them talk about their work and their skills from a situational perspective. This way, I can see how advanced they are (or aren’t). Lastly, I also ask about their process. Nothing proprietary, just how they approach what they do. In my experience, this had been one of the most telling questions I can ask. Highly-skilled professionals will always have a process, and the better they can describe theirs, the more likely they really know what they are doing.

Check References, ALWAYS

It is amazing to me how many people skip this step. I don’t know if it is shyness, laziness, or a wanton disregard for any sort of caution. Whatever it is, if you do nothing else, check references. And, when you do, ask focused questions. Don’t just send an email saying “I want to hire Joe X, what do you think?” Ask pointed questions. Are reliability and attention to detail critical for your project? If so, ask about these exact qualities. Give these references a context to reply to you with. Let them help you learn what you want. Sure, Joe X may be a swell guy, but at the end of the day, you need Joe to be a fantastic, reliable designer. And often, the only way to ensure you get what you want is to ask others whom Joe has worked for if he fits that mold.

With regard to references, there is one other thing I always keep an eye out for. That is, the “buddy reference”. If I sense that the reference is a good friend with the applicant, I almost totally disregard their reference. Why? Because, obviously they are heavily-biased. This does not mean they are wrong, it just means I cannot explicitly trust them. I am sure Joe’s mom holds him in high regard. What I am also sure of is that her opinion holds little relevance. For a reference to be useful, it needs to be me plus a year or two. That is, if Joe is awesome, a year or two from now I will be happy to sing his praises, and do so from a very professional point of view.

Don’t Forget to Look Inside Too

To round out this post, don’t forget about one option people often overlook. That is, if you already have had great freelancers work for you, ask them for their referrals. More often than not, high-caliber people hang out together. And, you can use these associations to find people of similar ilk. Of course, you still need to check references, and ask good questions, but by looking for associates of high-quality people you already know, you will up the odds that you have found someone similar.

To sum up, like any hiring, finding a quality freelancer will (largely) ride on your prep work, detail, and follow-through. And although these steps are not everything you could do to find a great freelancer, following them will significantly up your odds you will end up with exactly that.

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