To subcontract or not to subcontract, that is the question

Hand drawing network

Are you one to work alone or create networks to share projects?

I’ve been wrestling lately with a question that all self-employed people face at some point: to subcontract or not to subcontract. Is it better to retain the business you have, or should you farm some of it out? It’s a question that touches on issues of control, management, income, philosophy and lifestyle.

As your little business grows, you soon realize there only so many hours in a day. All of a sudden, you’re juggling multiple projects with overlapping deadlines. Do you call in reinforcements, or do you buckle down and get the job done? I think it depends on your personality, your reasons for going into business in the first place, and how comfortable you are collaborating and sharing work.

In the public relations field, it is very common for solo practitioners to subcontract work, especially if the scope of the project extends beyond their area of expertise. For example, I am not a graphic designer or a web developer, but I have contracted these services for my clients.

The conventional wisdom about subcontracting is that it is generally a good thing. It’s how you get through busy periods, satisfy clients who need specialized skills or grow your business.

Pick up any book on management, and you will find a chapter on the importance of delegating work. It frees you up to be more strategic and to spend time on projects that add value to your firm.

Mike Michalowicz, author of “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur,” says it well: “As an entrepreneur, it is your job to identify what you are great at and do those few things to your fullest. Surround yourself with people who are strong where you are not. Great companies are built on the foundation of exploiting a few strengths, not on trying to be masters of everything.”

I tend to agree, but deciding to subcontract is not always a black or white decision. As Michalowicz says, you need to recognize where your talents lie—what makes your services valuable and unique. Those are your crown jewels and ought not to be outsourced. On the other hand, trying to do everything yourself is a recipe for burnout—and mediocrity. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and ask, “Am I really the only one who can do this?” Often you can find someone who is better than you to do the job.

There is also the issue of control. Many sole proprietors are happy working by themselves. They enjoy the one-on-one relationships with their clients and the freedom to set their own schedule and call their own shots. Subcontracting their clients’ projects to someone else may not appeal to them. They don’t want to lose control of the process and may view the extra time required to manage subcontractors as a burden.

Setting business goals and reviewing them periodically can help you decide when subcontracting is appropriate. While subcontracting can free you up to develop more business, that may not be your goal. Perhaps you prefer to stay small, nimble and singularly focused. If that’s the case, you may only want to subcontract occasionally or simply reduce your client load if things get hectic.

Remember, there is a reason why you decided to go into business for yourself. Don’t lose sight of it when things get busy.

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