My wife and I started freelancing as a side hustle under The Pages Media to help pay off student loans and also because, well, we really liked doing something different than what our educational backgrounds were. We picked up a lot of skills over the years from being on staff at churches and running teams of volunteers in the media and technology ministries. Eventually this led to helping some other small local businesses who were contacts through friends with their website and social media presence. And even though we enjoyed the work a lot there was a problem. It was hard to talk to local small businesses about spending money on their digital presence. And $500 websites is not a reasonable way to make money with a side hustle, let alone a full-time job.
So what changed? Well, I kept expanding my skills in website development and found I really enjoyed working with Shopify. My wife got a great job with a local school district where she gets summers off - no more figuring out childcare for the summer and school breaks! And in my experience so far, folks have been way more open to working with an independent freelancer than an agency. But why is that? I had conversations with another agency owner about this not too long ago and I have some thoughts.
Side note: Obviously, I'm pretty biased here in that I am a freelancer. This article is about my own personal experiences and insights.
It's Easier to Work with an Individual
Agencies are great. They can often offer a suite of tools and make your contact one agency as a whole, rather than having to contract out several different freelancers. The problem with this approach? It often covers more ground than the client is able to focus on at a time. There is a benefit to hiring individual freelancers/specialists to accomplish specific projects. And once you've found a good freelancer to work with, they often know other good freelancers or at least staying connected is easier than having to work through processes at an agency.
Agencies often meet this need for more individual one-on-one with an account manager, but you're still going to want to talk to a developer or the SEO specialist at a certain point. So now you're working with a bunch of people covering a vast number of topics, all while you're still trying to manage your own business. This can make it hard to make sure that all the deliverables are actually being met.
I was really surprised to find that one of the big positives that a freelancer offers is flexibility over agencies. Most agencies, that consist of at least several individuals, often have specific processes in place to ensure that their workflow is a well-oiled machine. This is really great from the perspective of helping make progress towards your business goals. The problem with this method is that it may not work best for you as the client.
Working with a freelancer provides flexibility in how the project goes. One of the first things I often ask folks is whether or not they have a project management tool. If they do, I can either integrate with that or I will utilize my own tools to make sure I am staying on track. Most freelancers, though not all, will operate in a similar fashion. The flexibility of the freelancer allows for them to mold to your business processes to achieve your goals - rather than forcing you in to their own system.
This might be cheating in that flexibility is part of this, but freelancers are often more cost-effective than an agency. With the agency route, you're getting a lot of tools but possibly tools available and at the ready that you may just not need. An individual freelancer is not trying to pay rent for a building or worry about making other folks' payroll. It's just them. You'll still need to pay someone a fair wage for their skill, but the costs are much more specific to the actual skill and work to be completed rather than helping support other administrative costs that agencies have to build into their project budgets.
Now Some of the Not So Great Stuff
Being that I'm rather biased as a freelancer, it's only fair to talk about some of the negative things about working with a freelancer. There is inherit risk in any business venture or relationship, and I did try to discuss the potential negatives in each of my positive points, but I have also heard some horror stories about people working with freelancers.
They May Actually Not Be Able to Do the Job
It's true that in some instances, the freelancer may be a good talker but not actually have the technical know-how to do the job. You may find yourself out-of-luck if you've paid someone to do the job and then they ghost you. An agency might be easier to track down and/or even possibly pursue legal action at the extreme rather than an individual freelancer.
They Are Not Always People People
Some folks who have a pretty technical background are not the best at communication. The benefit often with going the route of an agency and having an account manager is that you might have someone on hand that can "translate" some of the technical know-how for you.
They May Not be Trustworthy
It stinks to live in the kind of world that we do, but there are plenty of folks out there who are willing to take advantage of others. Worse than not knowing how to do the job and just talking a big game, are folks who are actively scamming others. They may just take the deposit or whatever payment you agreed to upfront and run.
Go with What Works for You
There really is no one answer to what is best for you. Agencies and freelancers are different tools to be used for different business goals and different teams. Regardless of what you end up choosing, just know there are lots of good options out there. And if you find what works for you, keep doing it!