When we started Paper Leaf, we were effectively two freelancers. We took on appropriate projects for our size, skill, and experience level; we also took on projects we probably shouldn’t have. For example, I probably shouldn’t have been hired to tackle the entire design system for an international company’s flagship suite of multi-million dollar software back in like 2011.
Now that Paper Leaf has grown into a 20+ person firm, though, we’re firmly on the “agency” side of the “freelancer to agency” spectrum.
During that transformation, we’ve learned a lot about what projects an organization should hire a freelancer for, and what projects they should hire an agency for. Let’s be real: nobody – client or service provider – wants to be in a bad-fit project or relationship.
We can avoid that and help answer your question: should I hire a freelancer or an agency for my next web or application project?
I’m a fan of analogies. When it comes to sorting out whether you should hire a freelancer or an agency for your upcoming web or app project, here’s the most straightforward analogy I can think of to help illustrate the point.
If you’re building a house, you probably don’t want a single contractor to tackle it. Sure, they will be cheaper. But they would need to be an expert in an unreasonable amount of areas: permitting, architecture, design, carpentry, drywall, landscaping, electrical, plumbing, and so forth. They’re going to be great in some areas, and subpar at others. Plus, what happens if they bail halfway through the project? Your entire workforce, and project knowledge, is gone.
If you’re building a house, you need a team of experts – a construction firm. They can complete all areas of the work appropriately and, sometimes, in concert for a quicker finish. There are redundancies in place if someone walks as well.
Conversely, let’s say your house is built – but you need to replace the siding, or the electrical, or the roofing. In this instance, you can (and should) hire a singular contractor to do that work. It’s an appropriate job for one person. If you were to hire a construction firm? It’d probably be a lot more expensive due to the overheads and additional processes that come along with hiring a larger company. In fact, the job might be too small for them to bother with at all.
The same principle in the above analogy applies to your digital project: aim for appropriate alignment between the provider and the skills, scope, and risk management required for your project.
There are some great upsides to hiring freelancers, and some downsides too – just like anything else. The biggest pro is this: the cost to you will be lower than hiring a good development firm, which means a potential larger ROI if your project gets executed properly and is successful. That shouldn’t be discounted.
The cons of hiring a freelancer can include:
In comparison, there are a collection of pros and cons when it comes to hiring an agency for your project.
Some of the pros can include:
The big con when it comes to hiring an agency over a freelancer is simple: it will be more expensive. Sometimes, that means an order of magnitude more expensive.
If we’re being real, the cost differential between a freelancer and an agency can sometimes trump any and all pros. If that’s the case, make the right choice and pick the freelancer. Conversely, with the right project fit, cost won’t matter that much because the realistic return on the work far outweighs the costs for the agency to do it properly.
Your choice needs to match up with the maturity of your organization, your digital product’s impact and scope, and the risks involved.
Pros, cons, and analogies are all great – but what it all boils down to is the question: when should I choose a freelancer, and when should I choose an agency?
Choose a freelancer if:
Specific project types that I would personally hire a freelancer for include:
And on the flip side, choose a firm if:
I would personally choose an agency for projects like:
Of course, the list of good project fits for both agencies and freelancers are much longer. Further, the choice between one or the other is influenced by the organization doing the hiring.
Take it from a firm who started effectively as two freelancers: there are pros and cons to hiring a freelancer and to hiring an agency. The single most important takeaway is this: your choice needs to match up with the maturity of your organization, your digital product’s impact and scope, and the risks involved.