January 5th, 2023 | The Key To Success as a Solopreneur and Bootstrapper: How To Work With Subcontractors?

Updated on August 29th, 2023

How To Work With Subcontractors

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It is essential for any little bootstrapping business to get the best people for your project and keep them around. I believe that now after the corona crisis, project-based work with subcontractors will become much more common than before. Employees are not as loyal anymore as they used to be in the past; they often come aboard for one project to learn something new, and they flee right after.

So, what’s the added value for employers? Better to work with good subcontractors and find the right person for every essential task. And, I don’t hold my recipe for dealing with subcontractors a secret at all. In this article, I list my 10 golden rules working with subcontractors.

Are You Going To Bootstrap Your Company? You Need To Learn How To Work With Subcontractors.

Many people ask me why I keep on getting best subcontractors. Indeed, it is essential for any little bootstrapping business to get the best people for your project and keep them around. 

I believe that now after the corona crisis, project-based work with subcontractors will become much more common than before. Employees are not as loyal anymore; they often come aboard for one project to learn something new, and they flee right after. 

So, what’s the added value for employers? Better to work with good subcontractors and find the right person for every essential task.

And, I don’t hold my recipe for dealing with subcontractors a secret at all. My personal golden rules for working with subcontractors are as follows:

1. We Are All the Same. 

Sounds like truism, I know… Anyway, It’s a simple truth that, I believe, many employers forget. When I tell befriended entrepreneurs that they should seek to outsource certain tasks, they often shake their heads. “Naaah…” They don’t believe they can get the same service quality in the developing countries as here in Europe.

Well, I traveled a lot in my twenties and noticed that we are all quite similar around the globe. We all listen to the same music, go through the same Coursera courses, and watch the same YouTube channels

People in developing countries are very similar in terms of skills; they just didn’t have an equal start into a professional life. And, they are often more hard-working and angry for success than us.

Besides, if you wish to try someone’s services, you don’t need to give your subcontractor the most essential task that is at the core of your business model right away. You can start small and give them a little project to check their expertise, motivation, and work ethic first.

As a summary, I don’t have any prejudice working with people from other cultures. Also, remember that the world is more connected than ever. Who knows, perhaps a 20-year old student from a developing country who did his first project with you, will one day become the next superstar of international business. Your job is to help them, not to doubt them.

So, believe it or not, the proverbial Fiverr is a great source of competent contractors. Of course, you should not expect that you will vibe wit every single person you find on the platform. It is better to first submit a small project and make sure that this project is done well, before you rely on your new team member enough to give them responsible projects pivotal for your business. 

2. Try to Understand the Values of the Other Person.

In order to effectively work with someone, you don’t have to work with people who are similar to yourself. Their values don’t need to be the same as your values. You just have to be familiar with their values, and they need to know yours, so that you are predictable to each other. This is exactly what integrity means.

For instance, some of the people I work with are deeply religious. Despite I am not a believer in a traditional sense of the word, I respect the fact that they take breaks for all kinds of religious events.

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3. Choose People Who Can Laugh (Especially at Themselves).

Having that said, it doesn’t mean that you cannot have preferences toward other people. I personally have preference to work with people with sense of humor. This is a for at least two important reasons.

Firstly, if you have similar type of humor and laugh at each other’s jokes, you also probably think alike in certain aspects, no matter where you are and what your background is. 

Secondly, goofballs — especially those who can also laugh at themselves — are easy going and tend not to take critics of their work personally.

Last but not the least, life is by design monotonous, especially if you work hard, so why not make it a bit ore colorful by laughing together? Laughter is a medicine for almost anything.

4. Look At the Progress, Not The Starting Point.

And now, the big question comes up: how to choose the right subcontractor? I believe it is a mistake to only look at the quality of the first project. You can skip many gems this way.

Instead, I look at the progress: I make comments after the first mini-project and track how the second mini-project goes. Some people take criticism, grow, and become better, while others start making more mistakes or even cheating.

In my experience, the quality of work never stays on the same level — it either goes up and up and up, or it gets worse. And everyone makes mistakes in their first project; this is the nature of new projects. So, look at the progress, not the starting point.

By the way, also be careful with how people label themselves. My discovery is that lazy people often introduce themselves as hard working, and hard working people often whip themselves call themselves lazy. So, if you encounter someone who pitches as an extremely hard working person, beware.

5. Avoid Yes-Men.

I only work with people who know three magic expressions:

a) “Bullshit!”

They don’t just nod at my academic titles, doing whatever I say, but process information and have their own opinion. Sometimes, I have a stupid idea (even often, I can admit it to public), and it is good to have people around who can say, “You know what, maybe we should do it that way instead?”

b) “I won’t do this.”

I enjoy working with people who are not desperate and wouldn’t take just ANY project, especially if they disagree with the message or the project is against their values. Who wants to work with obedient puppets?

c) “I don’t know.”

Working with someone who can openly admit they don’t know something instead of pretending that they do, is a blessing. It’s a sign of team spirit, actually. So, I always seek for people who don’t have complexes and can openly admit if they don’t know how to do something. 

In some cultures around the world, admitting that you don’t know how to do something is seen as unprofessional. So, I often have to teach people how to say “I don’t know” as they have reservations from saying it at first.

6. Always Share The Motivation and the Purpose.

People are not sheep, who just walk from the left to the right and back without thinking. Everyone enjoys knowing that their work matters, including a subcontractor who is only around for one project. 

So, I aim to always tell people why they are doing what they are doing, what the purpose of the project is, and why it is important for this project and for the world in general — even if it is the tiniest task.

Plus, think together with your subcontractors. What they can learn and gain for the future from doing this project? Everyone builds their own career story. Your project is yet another brick in the construction they are building, so give them ideas for what they can build on top of it.

Also, give people the floor to speak up, contribute their own ideas, and be creative: test new tools and tricks. They will be more emotionally engaged in the project and surprise you with the outcomes. 

7. Laissez-faire Management Style.

Especially as a solopreneur, you need to trust people. You don’t have time to look at their hands every day — and you shouldn’t. Freelancers are self-motivated by nature; you don’t need to put an additional pressure by trying to audit their billed hours (well, unless there is a valid reason to believe that someone doesn’t do things by the book).

Of course, there is a plethora of project management software designed to measure the time subcontractors spend hands on on the project. 

However, I personally believe that these programs do more harm than good as they put time pressure on subcontractors. My belief is that you should be so good that your people would round their hour count down to show how productive they are rather than round the hour count up. 

Also, leave your subcontractors space for research, experimenting, and improvising, and the results will be much better right away. And, unless someone on board is certifiably insane, nothing bad will happen.

Just look at it this way: as a laissez-faire manager, you win twice: you free your time and you empower your subcontractors at the same time.

I also tend to be casual rather than formal — which is important to me for the same reason as sense of humor. Life is hard enough as it is; why to make it even more dry and boring by being formal with people?

8. Classic Principles of Management Do Apply.

Working with subcontractors doesn’t differ much from managing a “regular team” when you think about it. Classic management rules do apply, including the classic rules such as “focus on commenting the work not the person” or, “praise in front of others, criticize in private.”

So, if you have recurring bad experiences with subcontractors, perhaps reading classic books on management would be helpful. Although I still think that reading the classic “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie is more effective than all the management books of the world altogether.

I also believe that in order to manage someone’s work well, you need to get to know that person a little bit and find enough time for them. Your motivation for work fizzles out very quickly if your boss or client doesn’t ever have time to go through what you did in detail, right? 

I personally hold “the rule of seven:” I work with no more than seven subcontractors or partners at a time. Taking more people on board might soon lead to a severe burnout. If I need more work to be done, I simple tell my subcontractors to hire their own subcontractors.

Lastly, it is extremely important to stay accountable for your actions. If you are wrong, you need to admit it. Business developers often wrongly assume that if they admit to their mistakes, they will lose authority. Nothing is further from the truth! Using the magic phrase “I’m sorry! You were right!” will only make you more relatable and likeable. So, do not abstain from showing emotions and admitting that you are not perfect.

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9. Stick to the Right People.

If you have a good subcontractor, don’t let them go. If you feel poor and believe that they leave you because of a better pay elsewhere, you might be wrong. Most people leave their projects because they don’t feel like they do something important enough, or don’t feel appreciated enough.

So, even little gestures matter. If you have a spare 100 bucks, pour it into your people. If you have a spare ten minutes during the day, ask them how they are doing. 

And when it comes to incentives, they work best when people do not expect them. For instance, everyone expects a little bonus at Christmas. So, your 100 dollars would not be as effective when donated right before Christmas Eve as compared to a random day in February. I wrote more about misconceptions related to motivating employees (and subcontractors) in my article “How to (de)Motivate an Employee?

Also, listen to people and their needs. For instance, if someone needs a break that means they need a break. Namely, if a subcontractor reports that they are overworked or close to burnout, you cannot do anything about it other than listening. 

Pushing won’t help — the best you can do is show some understanding, patiently wait, and then welcome them back or otherwise, you will lose that person for good.

10. Pay People!

One phenomenon that I notoriously see, especially in the startup world, is the tendency not to pay subcontractors. For instance, embark people onto “trial projects” and let them hope that they will get the full project once they complete certain amount of consulting hours or write a piece of code. And then change the business concept, pivot, or fail to get funded… and disappear.

The good practice is to create a tiny project first and pay for it. If you cannot imagine a future collaboration after that one project, it is fine; you can go separate ways. But at least, you won’t get the label of a person who does not pay. 

Also remember that a subcontractor always needs to have the feeling that it pays off to be creative. If they have their own ideas for the project and share the results with you, you might not like the concept and recommend against it in the future, but still, pay for the work.

People should get the startle effect while working with you because they get paid more than expected, never less. Especially if your payment comes late for some reason, make sure to add some extra tip to the bill to compensate for it. You will soon experience that good karma comes back and instead of losing subcontractors on the way, you will get more and more good people on board.

Also, try to alleviate stress related to freelancing whenever possible. If you have the intention to work with someone for a long time, just tell them that and you will see that their motivation to do the project instantly increases.

11. “Friends of the Cartel.”

Lastly, people who work with you need to now that — no matter where you get and how successful you are — you will remember about them and they can always come to you for help. I have a good memory for who helped me in the past, even if it happened during undergraduate studies almost 20 years ago.

So, your subcontractors need to know that working with you pays off in one way or another — even if you are not able to compete with other businesses regarding any per hour, you are helpful in many other ways. Once they complete any project for you, they should become “friends of the cartel.” For good.

This, in principle, includes recommending your subcontractors to other potential clients. I often see a territorial attitude, especially in the startup world. The approach is: “If I recommend my subcontractor to somebody else and they get a client who pays better, I will lose my subcontractor, right?” 

No. If you find other clients for your subcontractors, they will stick to you even tighter. Just trust the process and the power of human bonds and gratitude.

Conclusions: Is It Hard To Work With Subcontractors?

Frankly speaking, I don’t think so. If you show any understanding toward people, you will be perfectly fine working with subcontractors. 

The belief that subcontractors have no team spirit and don’t care about projects is not true. Everyone wants to do something meaningful, regardless if they receive a salary or not, or where in the world they live. We are all the same after all.

Good luck with your business! 

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2023, January 5th). The Key To Success as a Solopreneur and Bootstrapper: How To Work With Subcontractors? Retrieved from: https://nataliabielczyk.com/how-to-work-with-subcontractors/

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