For the longest time, my response to people who suggested subcontracting freelance work went something like this:
“You mean, like, hand my client work off to other people?! I could never! My clients are hiring me to complete their projects. I could never relinquish control and bring other writers into my business. That would never work for me.”
…I could keep going, but that’s probably enough to give you the idea that I was resistant (read: totally against) the concept of delegating my work to other writers.
But then something flipped. I found myself writing yet another email to turn down a client I was really interested in working with simply because I didn’t have the time or brainpower to take them on.
“There has to be a better way,” I thought to myself as I drafted an email response that recommended a few other freelancers. “I want to be the one to work with this client but I don’t want to drop any of my existing projects to make that happen. Have I reached the ceiling on my freelance business? Is this just the way things are now? Is there no more growth ahead?”
All of the well-meaning advice I had heard (cough, tuned out) about subcontracting freelance work came swooshing back into my brain—and at that moment, I knew that if my intention was to grow my business, I’d need to bring some other people in.
That’s exactly what I did. It hasn’t always been the smoothest process. As you’d expect, there have been a few hiccups and learning curves galore. Not to mention, handing over work to other people can still be nerve-wracking even after doing it for a while.
In an effort to ease your own anxiety and save you from the same trial and error, I’m answering all of the common questions I get about how I subcontract work to other freelancers—without losing money, feeling sketchy, or any of the other pitfalls I’m sure are ping-ponging around your brain right now.
To state it super simply, subcontracting means that you outsource your work to other freelancers. Rather than doing it all yourself, you bring in other people to help.
That could mean something different to everyone. For example, a freelancer might use subcontractors to offer services that they don’t have the expertise to offer on their own—like a freelance social media manager might use a graphic design subcontractor to complete custom graphics. Or, a freelancer might use a subcontractor (like a virtual assistant) to handle some of the administrative aspects of running their business.
In my case, I subcontract other writers to help me produce content. I’ll assign them an article and they’ll complete a first draft that I then edit, approve, and submit to my client. I’m still the only one interacting directly with my clients but I use subcontractors as behind-the-scenes help so I’m not doing all of the heavy lifting of content projects on my own.
As I mentioned above, I was wary of using subcontractors for quite some time. That hesitancy means I dipped my toe into the waters before diving in headfirst.
I started by bringing in two writers that I already knew and trusted. Rather than having them actually write full articles for clients, they did outlines. They’d receive a topic from me, complete a ton of research, and pull together an initial article skeleton that I could work off of as I did the full draft myself. Basically, they were laying the groundwork for me.
After doing things that way for several months, I started to build more confidence in the process and even more trust in my subcontractors. At that point, I decided to test out having one of them write a full draft. What she turned in was beyond solid and I thought, “Okay, I think I could actually start to delegate full articles…”
When you’ve worked so hard to build your business and your reputation, delegating work to anyone is enough to make your mouth dry and your palms sweaty. It’s crucial to find trustworthy, reliable, and qualified people—but that’s where (understandably) so many people get stuck.
I’ve never actually posted to a job board or anything like that. Instead, every single one of the subcontractors I regularly work with has come through one of the following outlets:
Fair warning: Tweets with freelance opportunities usually take on a life of their own. After posting the above thread, the Google Form where people could apply ended up receiving upwards of 700 responses. 😳 In those cases, personal recommendations from people I know and trust help me separate the wheat from the chaff as I filter through the overwhelming number of applications.
When I first started working with subcontractors, I didn’t really have a refined system in place. I’d usually send an assignment their way and then cross my fingers that it would turn out okay.
That worked great when the subcontractor did a quality job with the article. But if they didn’t? I found myself in a bind to redo the work that I was already paying somebody else for. Groan.
That’s why I added a few steps to my typical hiring/evaluation process to ensure that a subcontractor seems like a good fit before they ever touch any actual work for my clients. Here’s what the standard process looks like:
I have a standard form that interested subcontractors need to fill out. It’s not overly cumbersome (I’m not here to waste anyone’s time!) but does ask some questions about things like:
I don’t expect super lengthy responses to those questions, but they do help give me a general idea of whether or not someone is a good fit for the work I typically have.
When I come across someone I want to move forward with, I’ll reach out via email to offer them the opportunity to complete a paid test assignment. Currently, I pay around $250 USD for a 1,000-word test assignment, which is a little lower than the typical article rate I pay subcontractors for “normal” assignments.
I usually do this test assignment process in batches and reach out to a handful of potential writers at a time (rather than just one) so I can easily compare the work they submit.
For the test assignment, I’ll pick an actual upcoming assignment I have from a real client of mine. I’ll share the name of the client, some background information and resources, a style guide, desired word count, keyword research, deadline, and whatever other materials the writer would need to complete a high-quality blog post.
Here’s the important thing to note: I assign these “test writers” an article that I’m already planning on writing myself. I let them know that the article won’t actually be published or submitted anywhere other than my inbox.
Why? It removes a lot of pressure from the process when I’m able to review the article without needing to turn it around and give it to my real client. Plus, it gives me a bit of a baseline, as I’m able to see how their end result compares to what I complete myself.
I typically give writers a week or so to complete a test draft of around 1,000ish words. After they submit their test articles, I’ll take some time to review them, run them through a plagiarism checker (that’s super important!), and make a decision about which writer(s) I want to move forward with.
At that point, I’ll send over my standard contract, a W-9 form (or a W8-BEN if they aren’t in the U.S.), and access to a Trello board where I manage all subcontracted assignments. I’ll also ask them to invoice me for the test assignment so I can pay them for that right away.
As with any sort of relationship, when you’re subcontracting freelance work, clarity is key. I make it a priority to be super explicit and honest from the get-go in an effort to set my subcontractors, my clients, and myself up for success.
That starts with the evaluation and hiring process. I try my best to be upfront from the start about the type of work I do, what clients I work with, and even how much a “typical” assignment pays. That allows writers to weed themselves out before they spend any time on an application or test assignment.
I also can’t overstate the importance of a simple yet thorough contract. Every single subcontractor I work with needs to sign my standard contract. It’s nothing overly complex—it’s under two pages. Some of the things it covers include:
That’s not a comprehensive outline of the contract I use, but it hits the high points.
When it comes to ensuring subcontractors understand my expectations for the actual client work, systems and processes have been key for equipping them with everything they need. That includes:
Let’s talk money. It gets a little more complex with subcontracting freelance work, as I want to be as fair as possible to the subcontractor—but I also don’t want that to mean charging my clients astronomical rates.
This is an area where I’m still doing a lot of learning and evolving, and I’m hoping to better standardize my rates and be able to pay subcontractors more moving forward.
As of right now, subcontractors typically earn $300-$400 USD for a 1,000-1,500-word SEO blog post requiring light to moderate online research (no interviews with subject matter experts are required—I’d do those if they’re needed). Rates can vary a little from that based on the client or complexity of the assignment, but that’s what I consider my “base.”
Whenever I post a call for more subcontractors, I’m upfront about the fact that this work is generally a better fit for newer to mid-level writers. I love super established and experienced writers, but I usually don’t have the wiggle room to pay their higher rates.
The tax side of subcontracting freelance work isn’t as daunting as you probably think it is. All of my subcontractors are independent contractors and not employees. Here’s how my process works (with the caveat that I’m not an accountant or tax professional):
That’s it! See? It’s surprisingly straightforward.
From the hiring process to the actual production of work, there are quite a few tools I lean on to keep things running smoothly:
Most of the time, yes, I do. However, I want to be clear about this: I do so more as a professional courtesy than out of a sense of obligation.
My clients hire me as an independent contractor. That means I have control over when, where, and how the work is performed—including who I hire to get it done.
I’ve had several conversations with my small business attorney about this and she’s confirmed that I don’t need to get explicit approval or permission from my clients to work with subcontractors. Furthermore, they can’t restrict my ability to work with subcontractors, as that’s essentially one business telling another business how to operate.
(Side note: With that in mind, watch for that in client contracts! I’ve seen client contracts try to prohibit me from working with subcontractors and I never let that fly.)
There’s admittedly some gray area here. For example, if you’re freelance on-air talent, clients will understandably be surprised (and probably disappointed) if they thought they were hiring you and suddenly someone completely different shows up on camera. But, in my case, I’m well within my right to collaborate with subcontractors without looping my clients in.
Even so, I’m generally upfront about the fact that I work with subcontractors as it just makes my life easier—especially if clients might see someone else popping into a Google Doc from time to time.
How do I present this to them without scaring them off? I usually keep it positive with something like this:
“I work directly with all of my clients—meaning I’ll be the only one you interact with. However, I also collaborate with a trusted and vetted team of subcontractors to produce and edit content (since there’s only so much I can do as one person).
Rest assured that every single piece is still shaped, edited, and approved directly by me before it ever leaves my inbox. But, working with subcontractors gives me more time and mental energy to better serve you.”
I feel fortunate that I haven’t had any major blunders. However, there have been a few bumps in the road here and there, such as:
This is a question I totally understand asking. I’ve never worked as a subcontractor for other writers before. And honestly? I didn’t even really know it was a thing until people started suggesting it to me.
On my side, working with subcontractors allows me to grow my business. I’m working with more clients. I’m earning more money. I’m doing “less work” (although to be fair, there’s actually still a lot of work involved even when you’re subcontracting). At any rate, it’s obvious what I’m getting out of this arrangement.
But what about the subcontractors? Why would they want to work under another writer?
It’s not for everybody, but I like to think that the subcontractors I work with benefit in a number of different ways:
That depends. Despite my resistance in the beginning, subcontracting freelance work has been a great boost for my own business. However, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody.
In general, I think you need at least some of the following to be “ready” to start subcontracting out some of your freelance work:
Still not sure? You can always give it a try by subcontracting out one low-pressure assignment and seeing how it goes for you. Take it from me: Sometimes jumping right in is the best way to learn.