Outsourcing work is a big commitment for small business owners, risking reputation and precious funds, but getting it right can really help you grow.
Nothing is more precious than finances in a small business, so it can be tempting for owners to try to protect the bank balance by doing everything themselves.
But outsourcing work can give you space to use your strengths more effectively, and help your business to grow. Here are some essential tips for bringing in external partners to build capacity.
Analyse your workload
Sole trader Sophie Attwood launched Impress PR, her PR consultancy six months ago. She says that outsourcing has helped her to take on new clients without worrying about overextending.
She's cautious about what tasks she farms out. She gives work such as blogging, social media management and graphic design to others while keeping the bits that only she can do, such as writing speeches and press releases. “I can project manage a much bigger campaign and yet still focus wholeheartedly on the pieces that can only come from me,” she says.
Work with people you can trust
It’s vital to choose a third party carefully, Ms Attwood says: “Outsource your work to someone whom you trust implicitly; if a deadline is missed, the fault can't lie anywhere but with you, and the ensuing damage to your start-up’s reputation could be fatal.”
Personal recommendations are a good way to find trustworthy people to work with, says freelance PR consultant, Sara Teiger.
“I don't have time to read every bit of information on someone's website, Google them, stalk them on social media and then chat on the phone,” she explains. “So if a trusted colleague says that they're good, that's enough for me.”
Be clear about your brief
Give your third party a comprehensive brief, even if it seems like a lot of work, says freelance social media manager, Emma Gunby, who runs Neon Fox Marketing:
“The best and most successful relationships that I have are with clients who take the time to brief me properly at the outset. The worst situations always arise with clients who aren't really sure what they want and are vague about their expectations. That nearly always ends in tears."
Agree on timelines
It’s important to understand that your outsourcing partner may not always prioritise your project.
“Sometimes I’m not a large client for my outsourced partner and in those cases it can be hard to make sure that we’re prioritised and work is completed on time,” says Sahar Meghani, founder of Trunkaroo, which designs educational projects for children.
This is where having an agreed process and timeline comes in handy. “Rather than working on rolling deadlines and allowing discretion
on due dates, we’ve learned the importance of putting a firm project plan in place,” says Ms Meghani.
“It’s critical that both parties are upfront about budget and time expectations, and that there’s a process for feedback and improving the terms, if necessary. It takes time, but it leads to a more professional relationship where both parties have obligations to one another.”
Get contracts in place
Before you engage a partner, it's important to protect your intellectual property, says Helen Burt, senior counsel at Ignition Law.
"Once you’ve agreed to outsource the work, consider ring-fencing who will receive information regarding your IP and/or your customer’s personal data,” she says.
Remember that you're responsible for ensuring that any personal data that you provide to your outsourcing partner is processed legally. “Keep records of all disclosed documents and password-protect and encrypt sensitive material,” says Ms Burt. “Ensure that proper contractual agreements are in place to safeguard your IP and that the outsourced third party complies with all relevant data protection laws.”
She also recommends making sure that any confidential documents and materials are returned to you or permanently destroyed if you part ways with the third party.
Pay for what you need
Hilary Frohlich, owner and chief executive of Neat PR, presumed that she couldn’t afford HR support until she discovered that she could outsource it and pay hourly on an ad-hoc basis.
Invest in your outsourcing partner… send them on courses or to events
Hayley Smith, Boxed Out PR
“People are my biggest asset and outsourcing HR support has enabled me to invest in the team in ways that I never would have thought to, which, in turn, has helped the business grow,” she says.
“Bringing in someone neutral who understands the workplace in terms of legality and fairness, such as when one of the team needs to take maternity leave, has been invaluable.”
Use technology to make it work
Hayley Smith runs Boxed Out PR and outsources work to a freelance PR assistant and other creatives, who work remotely.
For a seamless operation, Ms Smith recommends that you understand the third party’s schedule, including when they’re on the school run. “This is important, because it allows me to manage my expectations of what can be achieved and by when,” she says.
“It also allows me to plan work around them and prioritise better.”
Ms Smith uses platforms such as Trello and Slack to keep track of tasks and projects. “Shared Google Docs are indispensable and I use WhatsApp groups, both of which allow instant and efficient communication. They also help us keep track of work, schedules and to-do lists, and share documents easily.”
Know when not to outsource
Knowing when to keep work in-house is integral to successful outsourcing. Rachel Carrell, chief executive of childcare tech start-up, Koru Kids, recommends reserving external partnerships for well-defined projects.
“Keep the more amorphous, less defined things in-house because those tasks generally need fast iteration with someone sitting next to you,” she says.
Denise Rawls, founder of The Hackney Hive, a consultancy that supports entrepreneurs, recommends outsourcing tasks that aren’t business critical.
One of her clients is a cake designer that needs to stay in touch with potential customers through a newsletter. But writing this isn’t a good use of her time, so she outsourced it. “It’s a low-risk activity, but essential, because it keeps the flow of new clients coming in,”
Nurture the relationship
Once you’ve found a trusted outsourcing partner, treat them well, advises Ms Teiger: “Always pay them on receipt of their invoice, even if your clients make you wait for payment.”
Ms Smith agrees: “When outsourcing, treat the third party as you would if you were hiring them as PAYE. Invest in them – don’t be afraid to send them on courses or to events. They're there to build your business, after all.”