My 6 Requirements to Subcontract

At least once a week I get a lead that turns out to be a project manager assembling a team of subcontractors for a project they’re bidding, or have been hired to do.

My lead has the client and needs people with specific expertise and they have heard that I’m the guy to talk to about the membership or ecommerce portion.

This adds a tricky component to any relationship. Now I’m not just dealing with the client, but I’m dealing with the company that’s building the team.

As I’ve dealt with these relationships, here are the 6 things that I’ve found I need to require to make them work.

1. I require direct access to the client.

In way too many situations the company hiring the team wants to control every interaction, which means everything you want to communicate to the client must go through the project manager who relays it to the client.

This strategy practically guarantees you will have misunderstandings, since by the time your message reaches the client it has gone through 6 separate iterations.

  1. What you thought you said.
  2. What you actually said.
  3. What the project manager heard.
  4. What the project manager thought they said to the client.
  5. What the project manager actually said to the client.
  6. What the client heard.

That cycle gets repeated if/when the client responds back to you. That’s 12 opportunities for a misunderstanding. When communication is going solely through the project manager you’re likely to run into something like this: The client said something was required, but the project manager figured it was just a ‘give in’ so they didn’t put it on your list and you didn’t figure it was in the scope.

That’s a recipe for an unhappy client, an unhappy project manager, and an unhappy YOU — as you discuss what to do about what the client now perceives as a total botch-up. Something that was important to the client never got relayed to you, and now it’s not in the project.

2. I require at least one call with you (the person putting the team together) before I join the team.

With a ‘team’ in the middle you’ve now actually got 2 clients, which means 2 times the client vetting. For that reason, I put the company building the team through my client vetting process.

Are they the type of organization I want to work with? Are the other members of the team people I can communicate with, who have the same general ideas about how things should work on the web?

Typically this is involves 2 calls — the first with the person putting the team together then one with the whole team.

Both calls have to pass my client vetting process to move on to my next requirement.

3. I require at least one call with the end client before I join the team.

Now we’re on the real client vetting. This is where I talk to the end client and decide if they are the type of person or organization I want to work with. I’m quite happy to have the project manager join the call (and really any call with the client) but I need to talk to the actual decision makers in the process, which may not be the person tasked with managing the website build.

I want to talk to the people in charge of approving the spending on the project. If I can’t talk to them then the call doesn’t happen and I don’t join the team.

I have this decision maker requirement for all projects.

4. I will ask about profits/revenues and require the questions to be answered.

During this call I will be asking my regular client vetting questions which involve ROI, and revenue and profits, so the company putting the team together needs to know ahead of time I’m going to ask. Some companies don’t like this question.

I don’t work with people that aren’t willing to discuss those numbers out in the open. Without that knowledge I can’t help determine if the project even has a positive ROI for their business.

5. If I’m billing you then the payment doesn’t wait on the end client paying you.

I wrote about your cash flow not being my problem a while ago.

It comes down to this:  My payment terms apply to the client I’m invoicing. If it’s the company putting together the team, I don’t wait for their client to pay them before I get paid.

I expect the person or company I’m invoicing to keep their cash flow set up properly to cover their project expenses. If they set 30-day payment terms with the end client that just means they didn’t plan their project properly, which should not affect my payment.

6. If this is an RFP…I don’t do RFP’s.

Finally, if the project I’m asked to bid on is an RFP, just count me out. The only time I do RFPs is when I’m paid to help write them. Because in that case, I’m the preferred contractor and we’re writing the RFP to match my skills so that another company can’t really meet the requirements.

When someone is putting together a team to bid on an RFP I’m just not interested, even if they feel they’re the preferred contractor. I have no way of verifying the contention that they’re the preferred contractor, so to me it’s just another RFP, which I consider a waste of my time.

Charge less?

Some of you are going to have heard that you can ‘charge less’ if you’re part of a sub-contracted team because the client is handed to you. That’s a load of baloney.

I never buy that argument, because as you can see, the process above takes a lot of time. But it’s necessary to make sure the project has a high likelihood of success. So while someone may be bringing me the opportunity to bid on a project they’re not cutting out any of my client vetting time.

In reality, they’re actually increasing it, because in these instances I will go through 2 client vetting processes before I can even provide the team lead a cost estimate on the project.

So what do I say?

So when I get the email asking if I’m up for being part of a team, what do I say? I send them the 6 requirements above as my response.

If they feel that those requirements are something they can work with then we move on to my initial client email with the prospective company so they know the types of questions I’m going to ask.

Only after I have those questions answered do I move on to a call with the company putting the team together. Only after that passes do I talk to the rest of the team, then the end client.

How do you deal with subcontracting roles?

photo credit: brianneudorff cc

2 thoughts on “My 6 Requirements to Subcontract

  1. Hi Curtis:

    A good portion of my work comes from subcontracting. Usually, these are through established working relationships, I haven’t had people approach me to be part of a one-time assembly of super-friends, though I know this happens in certain cases.

    My process for taking sub-contracting roles is nowhere near as intense as yours. Perhaps it’s because I don’t internally believe that I have enough “stroke” to justify asking for direct access to every client. I see how this could benefit everyone. But certain companies are very territorial about owning all aspects of the client relationship. Some night say this limits their ability to attract talent, and even limits the ways they might look at problems.

    Other times, there are more layers than this to the projects I am on. I might be the fourth layer down. Trying to get direct access to the clients in situations like these is both impractical and overstepping my bounds. These situations are OK with me, but I probably could do a better job at knowing what value everyone else in the chain is supplying and receiving.

    When I am subcontracting for studios run by one or two people, things are usually buttery smooth. When they are working with local businesses, I have direct access to the client in almost every case. The one thing I try to be very careful about is not to make the agencies that I am contracting to feel nervous about their relationship with the client. Your methodology takes practice. You have to believe it internally before asking others to go along with it, since they must believe in it too.

    Subcontracting for larger teams becomes difficult, and not so buttery smooth. The more moving parts there are, the harder it is for everyone to be on the same page. Permanent team members may feel like their spot is threatened, or the team may perceive you as a disposable outsider. I try to avoid these types of jobs, as they are often characterized by being out of the communication loop that others are privy to.

    I am giving a big “Hell Yeah” to not waiting to be paid and saying no to RFPs unless you know someone on the inside. RFPs are not at all conducive to value conversations, the decision makers usually just want a bid, so they can tick a checkbox. These are not the clients I am looking for.

    The best people to work for are those that respect you, and pay your invoices right away or within a day. I’m far less stressed working with prompt payers. Maybe it’s a (not so subtle) respect thing that I pick up from them. I’ve found that agencies that pull the Net14 or Net30 crap usually want the benefits of having an employee, without having the expenses of an employee. Interestingly, my own experiences with these shops also had a high correlation with poor communication (between us). I also never feel the same type of respect vibe that I get from prompt payers.

    There’s a lot to think about in this article. It’s easy to put this methodology in place when you deal with your own clients, it takes practice to pull this off when working with several other people and layers of project management.

    1. This method/practice may be why I don’t subcontract for larger agencies almost at all. I think 99% of the time they do really just want someone they can treat as an employee without the expenses.

      Which is not my problem.

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