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Oct 16, 2014
by James

How To Hire a Freelancer

Posted in Hiring For Small Business - How To Choose a Freelancer

The freelance movement is upon us!

In the United States alone, it is estimated that 30% of all employable people are working as freelancers.   Since they’re not on anyone’s payroll, our government calls them “unemployed.”   The truth is, they’re anything BUT unemployed.

One of the biggest challenges that people have when hiring a freelancer is knowing who to select.   Since there are hundreds of thousands of freelancers in the U.S. and many millions more concentrated in talent surplus areas across the world, buyers have more than enough candidates to choose from.    As a result, learning how to interview a freelancer is critical.

Having too many options often gives people a false sense that freelancers are the low cost answer to our prayers.    Simply select the most reasonably priced worker with the highest ratings and you’re done, right?     Wrong.

The problem is, when hiring someone through a freelance platform such as eLance or Guru, people don’t use the same vetting process that they would if they were hiring someone to work on-site in a full-time or temp role.    But why wouldn’t you?

Doesn’t make much sense does it?   And yet I hear people tell me all the time how they were duped by a freelancer or how they lost thousands of dollars in a project that never quite made it to the finish line.

In each case, I always ask how they chose the person who was doing the work and in every case, there was a negligence on the part of the person doing the hiring.   They simply didn’t invest the time necessary to properly assess the freelancer.

I argue that hiring a freelancer, no matter how big or small the project is requires a structured interview process that is equally as comprehensive as your on-site process.    Especially since your freelancer is probably in another city, state or country and you’ll need to trust them with all your heart or risk losing sleep (and a lot of money).

I developed the following guidelines for HireBar because we have been successfully leveraging freelance marketplaces for years — but it wasn’t always that way.     Adapt some of these ideas into your freelancer hiring practices and I guarantee you’ll have better results now matter how big or small your project is!

1.  Properly Scope Your Project

We talk about this all the time on the HireBar blog.   A great interviewing process starts with the hiring manager knowing exactly what he or she needs.    And that starts with a proper description of the job.

This is particularly important when hiring freelancers because they typically win or lose jobs based on how well they match up to the project brief and their profit depends on how well they price the work.   If you do a lousy job scoping the project and then you introduce project creep into the job in the middle of the work, you lose credibility with the freelancer and they grow disengaged as they pour overtime in the gig knowing that they’re losing money.

Take the time to write a very detailed brief.   I often use screen shots, mockups, screencast videos, wireframes or whatever else I think helps explain the project further.

2.   Offer to Pay Market Rate

Top quality freelancers are busy.   They are very selective about the work that they bid on.  Often times, they get a lot of repeat work so when they do have a gap in their schedule, they want to fill it with a project that is worth their while with a project owner (you) who has their act together.

I’d make a blanket statement and say that “You Get What You Pay For” but I’ve gotten some really great work done for pennies on the dollar.    I once had a mobile app built for $26 when my agency of choice was trying to charge me $30,000.

Long story short, a great hiring process lead me to select an up-and-coming developer in a disadvantaged location who was trying to build his credibility online.  Needless to say I left him a glowing review and have done higher priced business with him afterwards.

Don’t be a cheap skate…find out what a good rate is and pay it.   You’ll never regret paying fair market price for great work.

3.  Look at More Than Just the Ratings

Don’t treat hiring a freelancer the same way you would choose a restaurant on Yelp.   On Yelp, you look at how many stars it has and you read the last couple reviews, then you make your decision, right?

The problem with that strategy is that there is no “context.”  In other words, you don’t know who the person is who made the review, what their preferences are or if they caught the restaurant on a bad day.   There’s no accountability.

On a platform like eLance (my preference), they have a few nice indicators of talent pictured below.   I like to look at a few things when I’m choosing a freelancer:

–  Previous Jobs – have they done work similar to mine?  Same size, same budget, same time-frame?   How many hours have they worked?  If they had 10 jobs and only worked 15 hours, you need to question the validity of the projects.

–  Reviews – what are the reviews saying on the projects similar to yours?   Are there any common problems?   Any common accolades?  Are the negative comments made by users who had one low-ball project and didn’t know how to work with a freelancer?

– Recommendations – this is arguably one of the best indicators.  This refers to the likelihood that someone would reuse the freelancer.  Obviously you want to see a high percentage here.

– Repeat Clients – having repeats is a great sign.  Clicking on the “client” link takes you to all the previous projects.   Look at these closely.  It’s an indicator of the expertise of the freelancer.

–  Earnings – earnings aren’t everything but, in general, you want to see a high number.   It means that the freelancer has made a good living on the platform and they’re livelihood probably depends on delivering great work.

eLance Ratings

4.  Consider Time Zones

This is a minor consideration for some, but a major one for others.    If you need to work with your freelancer in real time then you want to select someone who is within 1 – 2  hours of your time zone.   If it doesn’t matter, then the world is literally your oyster.   I’ve hired some great people who live half way around the world.  I actually love doing this because I can send some instructions across the web at 6pm and when I wake up the next morning the work is done.   That’s just a great feeling!

5.   Ask for Sample Work

Freelancers don’t always put all of their work on display for the world to see.   Often times they just put a few examples out there that might be a couple years old.   Every time you consider someone for a project, you should ask them to provide you with an example of some work that is as close as possible to your project.    If they can’t produce anything that is recent, chances are that they might not be the best fit.

6.   Ask for 3 References <6 Months Old

Even though you can see reviews and ratings, it doesn’t negate the need for you to contact some references.   If you’re project is of significant scale, you’ll want to ask your potential freelancers if you can talk to some of the project owners who left them good feedback and some that have left so-so feedback.  The wonderful thing about freelancer platforms is that you can mention their past projects by name and ask to speak to specific people about specific projects.

Any freelancer who won’t grant you this access should be approached with caution, although you also want to respect the privacy issues associated with private projects.

7.   Do a Live Video Interview

One of the great things about freelance platforms is that they have a lot of built-in tools that enable you to quickly engage prospective freelancers with a quick video chat.   As a final check, I highly recommend that you connect with your freelancer “live” to make a personal connection as it always makes the communication stronger which makes the project go much smoother. This is actually one of the steps we advise in any interview process to weed out unqualified candidates.

Here are some sample interview questions you could use:

–  Tell me about a freelance project that didn’t go well.   What were the issues and how did you work through them?

–  How many other projects are you working on right now?   How long will you have to devote to this project?    What challenges do you anticipate running into with this project?

–  What are some of your initial ideas about this project?  How would you approach it?

8.   Tighten Up Your SLAs & Checkins

When working with your freelancer on finalizing the details of the project, make sure you outline some “Service Level Agreements” or SLAs that you both can agree to.   SLAs include things such as response times, how many edits allowed, project budget, meeting times and milestone checkins.     Setting the ground rules is an important precursor to managing a project tightly and getting great results.

9.   Make them Sign Something If Necessary

If you have something proprietary to protect or you just feel more comfortable if your project is safe from malicious intent, you can always have your chosen freelancer sign an NDA or similar document. Doing this can be an added layer of protection in the event someone gets out of line.

End of the day, if you’re working with highly sensitive data, you might want reconsider hiring someone who is essentially a stranger.   I happen to think that most freelancers in the world are good people but you need to cover all your bases if you have concerns.

10.   Manage The Project

I can’t stress this enough.   So often, people hire a freelancer and think that their job is done.  Whether it’s a Virtual Assistant, a Designer, a Developer or a Content Writer…you have to manage your project per the terms of your SLA or you may find yourself in a sticky situation.

Spend ample time onboarding your freelancer and arming them with all the information they need to be successful.    Also, don’t be an absentee project manager.     Your feedback to the freelancer is critical to moving the project forward.   If you find that you’re not getting your point across in email, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone.    Schedule regular check points and be clear with your requests — avoiding changes to the scope as much as possible.


While all of these suggestions might sound like overkill, the more freelancers you hire, the easier it gets.   You can create systems, templates and spreadsheets to manage some of the comparison shopping.    And often times, if you have a high volume of repeat projects, you might only have to do this a couple times before you find the freelancer of your dreams.     Once that happens, you will enjoy numerous efficiencies, including getting into a rhythm and communication groove with your freelancer that helps you get great work done in half the time.

I’m a big believer in the freelancer economy and a huge advocate of  “paying it forward” when it comes to hiring.   Spending a little time on the front end of your hiring process will save you time, money and aggravation on the back end!

HireBar - Blog Author Profile - James Colino

5 thoughts on “How To Hire a Freelancer”

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