Why other freelancers aren’t always competitors: how we’re crushing it together

It can be easy to get caught up in thinking that, as a freelancer, your most dangerous competition is other freelancers.

But the truth is: we’ve found a pretty incredible way to take what could be our biggest risk and turn it into our biggest opportunity.

Our company, Designers Up North, isn’t your typical Design company. In fact, the term ‘design company’ describes it loosely, we often struggle to put a label on it.  The closest we probably have come is design collaboration, but that’s just internal semantics, to the client we’re just like every other design company.

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In actual fact, we’re a group of freelancers that work together under the same banner.  We’re not officially or legally tied to one another in any way, but go about our projects as a single entity, drawing from our differing experience to create some great end results.

Today, we’d like to share our story with you in hopes that you can start seeing competition as opportunity and using fellow freelancers as a way to level-up your business.

Logistically speaking…

Most of us are based in the North West of England.  Myself, Steve and Chris are all based in Manchester, Steve comes from Liverpool but Matt now lives in Cornwall.  Matt and I tend to do the lion’s share of projects and we bring in Steve and Chris when their specific skills are needed.

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The beauty of modern life is that technology enables us all to be in the same room at the same time when we need to be but we always ensure we regularly meet up and have some beers, a bit of down time and remember what keeps us together, friendship.

We all know each other’s’ way of working, so that when someone disappears for 24 hours to fulfil a part of the job, we all know exactly what will be brought back so we carry on knowing it will dovetail.

We work well with each other and it’s all done on a Gentleman’s Agreement. It sounds strange to many people, but it works for us and ensures a loyalty and transparency that makes us stronger as a team.

We can all go and do our own projects, we can all work individually and much like any ‘supergroup’ we all come back together to work on projects because we WANT to, not because we HAVE to.

Key Takeaway: Trust is the glue here, if you’re going to work together by arrangement like us, or more formally even, you have to find people who are on the same wavelength.

Communication

This is another area where people scratch their heads when we talk about it.  

We don’t use a system to manage our work, per se.  We’ve tried various collaboration services, such as Asana, but just couldn’t get on with it.  We’re both pretty good at spinning the plates and will constantly be asking each other what’s going on, very rarely does something slip through the net.  We’re all using Macs so between Messages and FaceTime we’re in contact constantly throughout the day.

Key Takeaway: If you’re looking to work in a similar way, you just need to find your own groove, and don’t be tempted to over complicate it.  Tools can be helpful if used in the right way, but if they stifle your creativity or productivity, you’re better off finding another way.  

Project management

When it comes to making a project successful both internally and with the client, the key is tight project management.

We don’t do anything particularly special to achieve this – we simply assign one person to manage the job, and they will deal with all aspects, from invoicing to asset management and client communication.  

Generally this will be with the person who’s primary skills are required for the job.  In the case of multi-faceted projects, the lead contact will manage the others throughout the group to bring everything together as and when needed.

We also get asked a lot how we deal with differences in opinion, but we keep things relatively simple really.  Firstly, what underpins everything is our friendship. This allows us to be blunt with each other because we all know it’s for the right reasons.

Secondly, because we all have different skill sets, we will go with the opinion of the person with the expertise.  For example, if it’s how to best tackle a technical issue, Matt will generally have the best ideas and we’ll run with them.  Similarly, as the lead designer, I’ll generally be the one with the suggestions that get taken forward for a design inquiry.

Key Takeaway: Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team will enable you to handle every situation to the best of your capacity and give you every chance of success.

What about the money?

All income goes into the main business account.  From there, the money will be distributed accordingly as they come in.  More often than not, the amounts are agreed before a project even starts, so everyone knows where they stand.  It’s nice and transparent and everyone is on board with it. From all outgoing payments the company will retain a small cut, which is then used for business expenses  such as our own marketing efforts, etc.

Key Takeaway: Money is nearly always the most emotional subject when it comes to business.  Therefore, it’s vital to make sure everyone knows the process up front.

Better Together

If you take anything from this article, this has to it.  The main reason this works is because the quality of work and the efficiency of the business are far higher when we work together than if we’re working on our own.

Another huge advantage which benefits us individually is we’ve all become a little more rounded.  We’re all freelancers in our own right, so having a bank of close friends all doing the same thing allows us to share core business ideas; we’ve all become better ‘businessmen’ and creatives because of it.

Key Takeaway: This set up works best if you have slightly varying skill sets.  If your capabilities are too similar you might find yourself being overly critical of each other’s work.

Rinse and repeat?

I think we’ve been incredibly lucky the way things have turned out.  For this to work in the way that we do it, you have to have it built on a solid friendship.  

When we first talked about taking this seriously, Matt was still in a full-time job and working on projects in his spare time.  Once we’d been doing it for 6 months we knew that this was something we definitely wanted to push forward and Matt left his job to work on it full time.

Although from the outside when we describe the way we work it can look unorganised, it’s really not.  We don’t have formal processes for a lot of things because they’re simply not needed for us. However, you have to do what works best for you.

Key Takeaway: The great thing about being a freelancer is that you can trial a few projects with other freelancers to see if a collaboration might work.  You don’t have to go all in, and if it doesn’t work out, you might just learn a few things from the other person anyway.

What are your thoughts? Please share with me in the comments.

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About Jim Adams

Designers Up North is a creative collaboration of freelancers each bringing their own skill set to the team.  Jim is the lead designer specialising in print and branding. Matt runs the Southern side of things via Designers Down South and works mainly in web design and development.

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