Agency or Freelancer? Make the Right Choice for Your Next Digital Project

Business Outcomes

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?

The Simplest Analogy

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.

Pros & Cons of Hiring a Freelancer

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:

  1. Single point of failure risk. Also known as the “hit by the bus” risk, or if you want to be less morbid and more positive, the “won the lottery” risk. What risk is there to your project if only one person knows everything about it — and then that person disappears?
  2. Flight risk. Similar to the above, but what happens if the freelancer decides to stop freelancing – by taking a job with a firm, or changing careers? I can’t count the number of times my phone has rung with a stressed-out client in this scenario, hoping we can salvage their project. (One time the “flight risk” was quite literal – the developer quit the industry to become a pilot.)
  3. In-too-deep risk. We’ve been called on many a time to salvage a single-developer project that had started small, ballooned, and turned into a scenario where the freelancer was in way over their head in a large project.
  4. It’s hard to find a great full-stack freelancer. Digital work often requires skills in back-end development, front-end development, UX/UI design, QA/UA testing, and sometimes even content and microcopy. Can you find someone who can execute to your standards in all those areas?
  5. It doesn’t take much for freelancers to get overbooked. Take it from a former freelancer: freelancers have to do every job in their business, and can get easily overwhelmed / booked up.

Pros & Cons of Hiring a Firm or Agency

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:

  1. Shared knowledge. Meaning multiple people (designers, project managers, developers, etc.) hold context on all parts of your project, so there is no single point-of-failure risk.
  2. Multiple specialists. A reputable firm will have the right mix of experts on their team – people who are specialists in UX/UI, infrastructure, back and front-end development, user testing, content and more. If your project requires high-end execution in these areas, you’re more likely to find that from a firm than a single individual.
  3. More mature end-to-end processes & standards. Because the nature of a digital agency involves multiple people working with clients and on projects at the same time, often you can expect more mature processes and standards from a firm compared to a freelancer. This is a pro for appropriately sized projects, but can sometimes be a con (meaning, it can be overkill) for small projects.
  4. Better project management. Again, this isn’t necessarily a hard-and-fast rule (I’ve seen many firms with terrible project management), but if you hire a quality agency, you will reap the benefits of good project management. Given what can happen to large projects with poor project management, this can have big upside. Freelancers are more often focused on managing tasks, not necessarily all the moving parts of a multi-disciplinary project.

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.

What Projects Are Good for a Freelancer vs. an Agency?

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?

Hire a Freelancer for These Projects

Choose a freelancer if:

  • You have a small budget
  • It is specialized / smaller work (e.g. back-end dev, front-end dev, but not both)
  • There isn’t a huge risk with having a single knowledge holder
  • You’ll be alright if they disappear, or get booked up for a while
  • It’s the only real way to get ROI
  • You have strong digital-specific PM skills

Specific project types that I would personally hire a freelancer for include:

  • A small marketing site for a new, unproven business
  • Feature development to supplement an existing technical team that is too booked up (e.g. integrate a CRM, extend API)
  • Ongoing tweaks or patches to an existing site or application
  • A small minimum viable product to test an idea in the marketplace

Hire an Agency for These Projects

And on the flip side, choose a firm if:

  • The risk that comes along with having a single knowledge holder for your project is too high
  • Your project requires multiple skills and thus multiple specialists
  • You can afford it – the prospective return warrants the higher cost
  • Your project is full-stack or above a certain size (e.g. don’t hire a freelancer to build your entire software as a service).

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.

Should I Hire an Agency or a Freelancer?

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.

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