Freelance developers, or full-stack web agency? The pros and cons:
If you’ve never worked with an agency before, the initial encounter can be intimidating. After all, London-based agencies (like Purr) are trading in the world’s most competitive market: you have to be pretty good just to get into the game, let alone thrive for nine years, as Purr have successfully done. At that first meeting, you might find them awesomely slick and supremely confident, with skill sets off the chart… and, perhaps, a bit on the pricey side.
That’s why some clients – including some large ones – choose to contract with individual freelancers, the “solopreneurs” of the gig economy. There are many good ones out there. And if it works for you – go for it. But we’d suggest a little caution.
Because once an agency “cooks off” – finds its feet and settles into a proven set of processes and practices, what they called “mojo” in the 60s – it has a selling point few freelancers can offer: a team. The solid relationships, company culture, and shared experiences of an established web agency provide an infrastructure that’s ready-to-go, with account servicing and project management in place.
By contrast, stitch together a scratch team of freelancers who haven’t worked together before – and you may find yourself bogged down in the minutiae of project management as you assign tasks, chase up work, and soothe egos.
With that in mind, this month’s blog explores the case for-and-against using freelancers instead of a full-stack web agency like Purr. Let’s start with an easy one: the problem of planning.
Your average solo freelancer tends to specialise: WordPress wizard, Python pro, graphics genius and so on. A web project of any size will need several such skills. Which means that if you go the freelancer route, you’ll have to come up with a resource plan in advance, so you can piece together the right resources in the right proportions. (The last thing you want is paying a top coder a twenty-day fee when the project only needed six.)
An agency – one of the good ones, anyway – takes that resource planning risk on your behalf. With experts inhouse and others it can call on, there’s redundancy in the system; unexpected shortages can be managed by reallocating people and balancing the load across their many projects. And it does all this as part of the fee you pay – which is often fixed. Your risk of getting it wrong is mitigated. And imagine how much time you’ll save as a result. Hence our first pro/con:
PRO: With freelancers, you get to define the project plan precisely
CON: Defining the project plan precisely is seriously hard work!
Following on from the above: even with a perfect project resource plan, you’re not out of the woods. In fact, you’ve barely reached the first tree.
If you put together a great team of freelancers, make no mistake: the responsibility of ongoing project management will be yours. Even if everything goes like clockwork – every freelancer hits every deadline, every piece of work reaches the quality standard, everyone understands your brief perfectly and communication is top-notch – the person who brings it all together and checks off the milestones is still you. And it’s still a time-consuming task.
And that’s just for a perfect world scenario. The real world, of course, won’t be perfect. Every freelancer will have a slightly different interpretation of what was said in each meeting, what was meant by each brief. The more these understandings diverge, the more meetings and memos you’ll have to create to get back on track. The average agency devotes 20-30% of its resources to these issues on your behalf.
If you try to save time by asking your freelancers to deal with each other instead of with you, you’ll run into further problems. A freelancer works best when the person they’re dealing with is the person able to pay them. Ask them to communicate across silos, and they’ll ask – quite correctly – what’s in it for them? It’s a valid question; if these issues didn’t exist, there’d be no need for firms in the first place. (Corporations were only invented because they make it easier to marshal resources toward a common goal.) So here’s our second for and against:
PRO: With an agency, ongoing project management is part of the service.
CON: Agencies tend to adopt a standard project management method, although many are open to your suggestions.
One of our freelance partners defines the whole of business success as “People buy stuff they like, from people they like.” We couldn’t put it any better. The best relationships are those where both sides get along.
We’re not pretending everybody at Purr will become your lifelong friend and confidante. But we’re a pretty diverse bunch; it’s likely you’ll enjoy getting to know us, and find at least one or two you actively look forward to working with. (Although the boss can get a bit grumpy sometimes … just kidding Nick!).
Freelancers spend a lot of time alone, doing that one thing they do best. That can mean their people skills suffer. And if you feel slightly uneasy dealing with them, or find them “hard work”, it’s easy for the relationship to become adversarial and unpleasant. A web agency doesn’t have these risks, because it’s by nature social and collegiate, with quips and banter all part of the working day even in Zoom-obsessed Covid times.
Even if you’re all business, you should try to keep it fun. So treat a web agency or freelancer much as you’d treat the dating game: make sure their personalities are in tune with yours. An agency, with many people to work with, often makes a better fit for larger projects.
PRO: A great freelancer can be a great business relationship …
CON: … but agencies have more people in them to choose from.
You want to grow your business. Of course you do. And for a full-stack agency, that makes you a dream client: someone who wants their services long-term, and more and more of them each year. The agency can grow with you, adding people to its culture in accordance with the principles that made it useful to you at the start.
Here’s the thing: the services of a solo freelancer don’t scale. Which means that in time, you’ll need to hire another freelancer. Or bring those skills in house somehow. Either way, it’s a hurdle that can be hard to overcome. There’s also a “key man problem” here: what happens if your perfect freelancer gets hit by a bus?
This is why so many SMEs face years of flatness after growing to a certain size: they’ve maxed out the resources they need to draw on. Some never make it big, no matter how great their products are.
So that’s our fourth dichotomy: sweet and small, or potential for growth? The choice is yours.
PRO: A freelancer is a resource of 1.0 FTE – and never more.
CON: An agency has more people – but make sure they’re the right ones.
We’re not going to be coy here: a full-stack web agency is likely to be more expensive than a solo freelancer. We’ve got more bills to pay. Offices. Salaries. The beer trolley on Friday afternoons.
So depending on your project, by all means engage with a freelancer or two if cost control is your key priority. Just make sure you’re not being fooled by false economies.
Remember the management overhead that’ll suck your time and energy. The skills gaps if you didn’t get your resource plan spot-on. And the way your freelancer lacks a boardroom to meet in or an infrastructure to stage your development on. Scale issues again.
There’s an upside: remember that many web agencies also use freelancers to expand their capacity on specific projects. (Purr has a list of ones we know and trust.) And because they can offer those people regular work, they can often get those freelancers at discounted rates. Perhaps less costly than going to that freelancer directly. That’s our fifth caution: don’t look at costs – look at value.
PRO: With agencies, you get what you pay for.
CON: With freelancers, you get what you pay for.
Our last pro/con is probably the biggest. It concerns what philosophers call the “Ship of Theseus” problem. An ancient Greek wondered: if I sail away on a ship, and on its long voyage every last plank and nail gets replaced, is the ship that returns to port years later truly the same ship?
The answer (let’s end a 2,000-year old philosophical conundrum): yes, it is. Because the word “ship” collects together not planks and nails, but the concept of a specific vessel with an identity that persists over time.
And an agency is no different. It’s also a persistent pattern. Something you can rely on long-term, even as people move on and the industry sector evolves with new technologies and solutions. The faces may change as time goes on, but you’ll still be working with the same attitudes, the same company culture and ethos.
A freelancer, alas, is on the rocks here. He may alter his focus. Change his market offer. Or, as sometimes happens, get a full-time job. If he’s good, perhaps even with an agency like Purr. In any case, the ship has sunk.
PRO: An agency offers a predictable source of skills over time.
CON: A freelancer is a single source that can go away.
CONCLUSION: when to use which?
If you’ve got a smaller job requiring a single specific skill, by all means go to a freelancer. But if you need a diverse skill set – not just coding but design, web hosting, ongoing support and maintenance – come to a full-service web agency, like Purr. You’ll probably find the best freelancers on our list of partners anyway. Contact us here.