How To Build A Business Using The Contractor Model

By Anshey Bhatia • October 21, 2013

When I started Verbal+Visual in January of 2009, the economy was in a major downturn and hiring full-time employees without funding seemed like a herculean task.  What followed suit was a series of choices that created the way V+V is run today, which is primarily on a contractor model.  Utilizing that model, we’ve grown the business into a team of anywhere between 10 and 20 highly skilled and specialized team members at any given time (currently 15 total team members), and developed systems that can scale the business and be used by any entrepreneurs in a similar position.  Here’s how I built up the team here at V+V using the contractor model:

Own The Model

In the beginning, when it was just me, I was hesitant to say “we”, because a lot of the time I was doing everything myself: ownership of the company, managing clients, design, development, etc.  But shortly after starting the company, I needed help, and fast.  While I was earning a salary for myself, I couldn’t afford to hire anyone full-time, so I decided to implement the practice of hiring contractors on a project by project basis.  This is not different from how many businesses in the agency world get started, however I decided to own the model and be transparent with all current and potential clients about it.  I had to sell potential clients on our relatively new way of finding and using contractors, and in doing so I had to learn new ways to sell.  I started doing things like calling our contractors “specialists” instead of contractors, I made sure that everyone knew where they were coming from (all in the US, mainly from New York City’s tri-state area), and I let them know that each specialist had been qualified internally before being assigned to their project.  I established a level of trust with clients that was deserved based on our systems for managing specialists.

Create Systems

Our systems initially were quite simple.  A Google Spreadsheet / form collects data and keeps it organized in a spreadsheet, which we can then filter through with filters and searches.  Specialists are given ratings internally, and notes are kept on a project by project basis.  This allows us to see which specialists are the best for which projects.  They’re only given one of three overall ratings:  NYA (Not Yet Assigned, meaning they haven’t been placed on an actual project yet), Good and Great.  Specialists who don’t start off a project well on their first project are quickly cut loose and replaced, and in addition they are then deleted from our system, unable to re-join.  First timers (NYA’ers) are also only allowed to work on what we deem a small project to begin.  This allows us to maintain a high level of standards through and through with minimal risk.  Our best specialists receive a high number of projects annually, and those that get through our standards course but don’t do well get ousted very quickly.  It’s that old mantra: hire slow, fire fast.

In addition, we are in the midst of developing a web app to manage specialists and projects, to be able to more easily search through our database, find the appropriate specialist(s) for any particular project, receive formal bids, and then assign them accordingly quickly and easily.  Everything will be highly automated, increasing our efficiency in choosing specialists for a project (which sometimes takes a while), and allowing us to concentrate even more on creating world class web platforms.

Test The Specialists

This was mentioned above, but I want to go into more detail on it.  We place a heavy emphasis on testing our specialists in order to make sure that our quality level remains extremely high, and that our specialists are willing to work within the constraints of our systems.  For example, let’s say we find a new designer whom we want to test out.  This person seems to be great at mobile site design, but given our internal rules, we need to test him/her out on a mobile site design before allowing him/her into our system.  We have setup several 2-4 hour projects for all scenarios / types of specialists within our service offerings, which we can quickly and easily assign based on a given skill set of a potential specialist.  We assign the “mobile design” test to the potential specialist, and see what he/she can do.  If we feel the skill sets are at a high level for our standards, then we allow that specialist into our system as an NYA’er.  As mentioned above, following inclusion into our system, we then place them onto what we deem a small project to begin, and then can assign them a Good or Great (or delete them if they aren’t good).  All in all, we put people through the ringer a bit, as the people that are willing to go through a little pain will reap the long term gain of a lot of work from us.

Focus on People Skills in Addition To Technical Skills

A big hardship we ran into early was getting talented people who were awful at communication, managing timelines and budget, and just not knowing how to work professionally.  We’ve combated those early issues with our internal ratings system, which allows us to value those precious people skills which we desire.  We’d much rather have a team member at a good skill level and great communication / work ethic skill level than someone who is great technically but never responds to our emails or hates working with people.  That’s part of the deal in working with us, you’re treated as a part of our team and we want you to communicate with us internally.  We crave specialists suggestions, input, and value, as we believe that only in a collaborative environment can you achieve the best results.  Which leads me to my next point:

Treat Specialists As A Part Of Your Team

For me personally, one of my biggest goals with the company was to have a strong core team that I could lean on to work with.  In the traditional sense, besides myself and our Project Manager Caroline, that hasn’t happened.  However, in the “new way of working” sense, it has happened in spades.  We’ve got specialists whom we’ve been working with for years now, and we trust them inherently as part of our team.  Even though they aren’t always on project with us, we invite them to our events, celebrate birthdays and make sure to treat them with respect in the working environment.  This is important professionally, of course, but more importantly it feels good to treat everyone as part of the team as a person.  You get out what you put in, and I try to put in as much into our specialists as they put into our company and clients.

When You Hire Full Time, Hire Management First

A lot of books I’ve read have said the opposite (E-Myth, for example), but I’ve always felt strongly about having a core leadership team internally given our model.  Our first full time employee is Caroline, our Project Manager.  Since we have systems setup in place to manage our specialists, Caroline was able to come in and utilize those systems fresh out of college, cutting down her learning curve on the job.  She was then able to concentrate on learning the skills needed to manage clients, come up with strategic plans, and develop the peripheral technical skills and knowledge that has proven invaluable in working with our clients and specialists.  Our next hires will be a Chief Strategist, a Technical Director and a Creative Director, in order to manage our technical and creative specialists going forward.  Our core team will then be considered complete, but we’ll most certainly continue to utilize our specialists as needed.

In Closing

For me, as the company grew from just me, to myself and a few specialists, and now to our current team (myself, Caroline, and currently 13 specialists on staff), I’ve kept the system in place because I was able to build a solid, scalable infrastructure.  I’ve made sure to treat people how I’d want to be treated, and cultivated a few meaningful relationships with tens of trusted specialists rather than hundreds of specialists who we use on our whims.  We’ve reaped the rewards as a company, as we have an infrastructure that works and a team that gets the desired results in a consistent, repeatable fashion.

If you’re a contractor reading this, please feel free to join our specialist network here:

Anshey Bhatia

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