How and When A Freelancer Should Collaborate

Several years ago, I was one of four Freelancers who collaborated on the development and presentation of a half-day marketing and sales themed professional development conference whose target audience was in-house sales and marketing professionals who had the authority to hire Freelancers to manage special projects at their respective organizations.  Each of us would cover an aspect of sales or marketing (I agreed to present a networking workshop, another would present B2B sales training, etc.).

The conference was the brain child of an experienced and successful marketing services competitor. She invited us to participate, assured us that she had relationships with more than a few corporate clients and acquaintances, at least a few of whom we could count on to attend, and she ran the show.  Rather a lot of time was spent on planning meetings. A few hundred dollars was spent on production expenses: printing the promotional fliers, the room rental fee (we received a good discount at a fancy law firm’s conference room) and continental breakfast for the attendees.  We charged maybe $69 to attend.

We managed to draw an audience of about 30, a number that we considered respectable, but the corporate prospects failed to materialize, apparently because my marketing competitor hugely over-stated her client relationships.  The audience consisted entirely of people just like us—Freelancers who were trying to make themselves more attractive to those who control billable hours and who were hoping, no doubt, to meet a corporate marketer or two.

The whole thing was a complete waste of time and money because,  as we three along for the ride came to realize, corporate types do not feel the need to attend such programs. They are not looking to upgrade their skills at a conference hosted by a bunch of Freelancers.  They don’t even turn out for conferences hosted by their local chambers of commerce, despite the fact that most of their companies are members.  In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to meet them at all,  except perhaps in certain social situations or in board service.

Collaborating with carefully selected colleagues can open up doors to success that would ordinarily be closed and can result in good clients added to your roster and more billable hours added to your Income Statement.  However, there are questions that you would be wise to ask your prospective collaborators and also yourself, to increase the chances that the collaboration will be a win-win for all involved, including the client.

Can the collaboration achieve worthwhile goals?

Precisely, what valuable tangible and intangible assets will the collaboration produce for you? The project mentioned above was highly speculative and as a result, risky. Partnering with a colleague or two as a strategy to win the bid on a lucrative or prestigious assignment is less risky than creating yet another professional development conference.  Collaborating to chase rainbows is not what you want.  Collaborate to more effectively compete for a valuable resource, such as a project that exists and has funding.

What resources will the collaborator provide?

Collaborations are formed to bring together entities that have complementary skill sets.  A few months ago, I collaborated with an author to provide for her book content editing, serve as photo editor and perform self-publishing services that she preferred to outsource.  In exchange, I gained experience, added book editing to my CV and obtained (minimal) payment.  Collaborations should be win-win propositions and the project(s) on which you and your collaborator(s) partner should reflect Aristotle’s recommendation, that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The trust factor

Collaborators must be able to trust one another for without trust, there can be no successful partnership. This is hugely important, because your reputation and client relationships, current and future, will be on the line.  If your collaborator(s) cannot or will not hold up their end, your brand can be damaged and unfortunately, you don’t really know anyone until you’ve either lived with or worked with them.  A discussion of the interpretation and practice of work ethic and customer service will give insight into the matter.

For example, if there is a big deadline looming, are collaborators willing to work and respond to emails on weekends, holidays and after 6:00 PM? How will collaborators respond to a high-maintenance client who emails at 9:00 PM on Sunday nights when there is no apparent emergency?

What will be the ROI?

The properly conceived and managed collaboration will allow the participants to offer additional services, exceed the client’s expectations, build good client and partnership relationships and enhance the possibility of referrals.  A good client will be added to the roster of each participant and billable hours that would not otherwise have been available will appear on Income Statements. The client will receive measurable ROI as a result of the venture.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

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Love Thy Competitor

If you are the type of Freelancer/business owner who believes that a primary business goal is to annihilate and destroy your competition,  then you’re likely destined to become a less successful entrepreneur.  Research can now demonstrate the wisdom of the adage,  “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

A 2004 study conducted by James Westphal,  professor of management at University of Texas/Austin,  examined CEO friendships in 293 U.S. companies and found that regardless of the intensity of competition within a given industry,  rival CEOs who formed friendships enjoyed distinct business-related advantages over those who shunned competitors.

According to Westphal,  not only is it possible to make friends with competitors,  it’s advisable.  He explained the advantages of friendships among rivals this way:  when business owners get together,  what do we do?  Talk shop.  We compare notes,  discuss what’s new in the industry,  talk about the economy and how it’s impacting customer behavior.

In other words,  by going to trade industry conferences and meeting,  greeting and getting to know rival Freelancers,  you’ll obtain information and get exposure to perspectives that can help make you more successful.  So think about following a bit of counter-intuitive advice and realize that business is not always a zero-sum game.  A competitor’s win does not automatically mean your loss.

If getting chummy with the competition makes you feel a little queasy,  then get friendly with a competitor based in another locale.  The distance will create a boundary that could make it comfortable for the two of you to trade ideas about cheap and savvy advertising options,  how to make your clients happy,  or how to take advantage of,  or protect yourself from,  market trends.

In some instances,  you may decide to collaborate with a competitor.  It’s potentially risky,  but forging a strategic  collaboration with one of your competitors can benefit the bottom line and help both entities to thrive.  It can be a smart expansion or survival strategy for Freelancers and other small business owners who are trying to remain viable.  Maybe there is a partnership you can set up with the right semi-rival?   It’s called coopetition.

Get to know a fellow Freelancer who works in your own,  or a related,  field.  It’s preferable if each of you has discrete strengths,  with limited potential for overlap.  Meet for coffee and broach the subject of joining forces to make money.  How can you combine your strengths and approach clients with an innovative and more desirable package?  There’s nothing better than giving clients more reasons to do business with you.

Collaborations can work in a number of ways.  Just a couple of months ago,  a lady named Julie presented me with an idea where we can add-on or up-sell certain of each others’ services.  There is potentially a complementary need in a market segment that we share and Julie wondered if some selective cross-promotion would be beneficial.  Together,  we’re hoping to gain entry to clients where separately neither could get in the door.

Another form of coopetition is establishing a referral relationship with a near-rival.  Accountants and bookkeepers have done this forever,  with much success.  Their functions have similarities,  but each party knows and respects the boundaries and knows how to work together.

Nevertheless,  do not be naive.  Take precautions and clearly define boundaries and expectations.  Watch your back and work only with someone you know to be trustworthy.  Also,  do not underestimate the potential for difficulties in establishing and sustaining a coopetition arrangement.  Assumptions about appropriate customer service or corporate culture can derail your best intentions.  Careful planning and execution are crucial if coopetition is to work smoothly.  In close collaborations,  a written non-disclosure, non-compete agreement will be essential.

Finally,  remember where friendship ends and business begins.  There will be sensitive issues that are best kept to yourself,  like new business initiatives or the  “secret sauce”  of how you deliver your unique services.  Keep your antennae raised as you and a worthy competitor mull over ways to share resources or expertise and boost profits in the process.

Thanks for reading,

Kim