How to Build a Reliable Network of Freelancers From Scratch

Utilizing freelancers comes with its share of advantages; they’re flexible, comparatively affordable, and oftentimes have more niche expertise than a full-time hire would have. But if you want to get the most out of your freelancers, there are a few hurdles you’ll need to overcome:

  • Niche expertise. First, you need to find people with niche expertise, with the skills to execute the work you need. These can be hard to find, in part because recruiters will be looking to pick up the best talent available, and some of the most experienced experts will already be occupied with steady work.
  • Reliability and consistency. Second, many freelancers use their work as a side project, or else freelance because they like picking and choosing which jobs they take on. Accordingly, it’s hard to find someone who’s both reliable and consistent—even at the expense of talent and skill.

The Network Solution

The solution to both these problems is to build a network of contacts you can call on to handle work; the bigger your network, the more stable it will be. Over time, you’ll retain only the most reliable workers, and you can develop a priority system wherein you contact the best people first, and only dig into the lower tiers if they reject the job. That way, you can almost guarantee you’ll have people ready and willing to work, but you can maximize the skills and aptitude of the people completing any given job.

The problem, of course, is developing that network—especially if you’re starting from scratch.

Getting Started

You’ll need to optimize your starting strategy so you can have a few freelancers on call to handle some of your responsibilities, while still working toward a bigger, more reliable network overall.

  • Choose multiple search outlets. You’ll first need to identify some stomping grounds. There are several places to look for freelancers, including platforms like Upwork, in-person networking, and generalized social media searches. It’s a good idea to choose multiple search platforms so you can diversify your pool of prospective candidates.
  • Broaden your search criteria. If you have trouble finding some initial contractors to serve your needs, consider broadening your search criteria. You may find that some candidates with less experience can make up for the gap with raw talent, or find that a distant contact is better able to serve your needs than someone local.
  • Focus on temporary jobs. To start, get your contractors moving on temporary jobs and gigs; you don’t want to extend a long-term contract before you know what kind of work they’re capable of. Send them a few trial jobs before you make an evaluation.
  • Start favoring early stars. Over time, you’ll notice some of your contractors performing better than others. Start sending them more complex and longer-term jobs to see how reliable they are, and how well they perform under increased pressure.

Expanding and Refining

Then, you’ll need to work on expanding the number of people in your network, and refining the ones already in it.

  • Establish consistency and clear expectations. One of the biggest factors for success when working with freelancers is setting clear expectations upfront. Hopefully, you’ve been doing this on a project-by-project basis. Now, it’s time to set longer-term expectations, along with consistency; for example, is your contractor of choice available for 10 hours of work per week, on a regular basis? The more consistent the stream of work is, the more committed the contractor is likely to be.
  • Ask for recommendations. If you’re missing freelancers for a few key positions, consider reaching out to the people you already know and trust in other positions. Do they have friends or contacts who could fill those roles? Do they have inbound links to their website, which is an indication of trust from others? If you trust their work, you can probably trust their recommendations.
  • Cut ties with underperformers (but never burn bridges). Over time, you’ll likely notice inconsistencies in some of your freelancers’ submissions. If you feel there’s an opportunity to gain someone more skilled and more reliable, take it—but don’t burn the bridge. You never know when you might need someone on the back burner for a project with a tight deadline.
  • Offer incentives to your best performers. Like with regular employees, one of the best ways to improve retention is to offer incentives to your best performers. If one of your freelancers has a history of exceptional performance, offer bonuses, raises, or other perks in exchange for their continued work. They’ll be inclined to stay loyal to you.

You won’t be able to cultivate a team of rock stars overnight—especially if you’re starting with zero contacts in an industry you’re not familiar with. However, if you follow these guiding principles and remain patient in your search, you’ll eventually build the round table you need to maximize your team’s productivity (and make your life easier in the process).