On Friday I’ll be participating in a panel at the IABC Southern Region Conference in Houston about entrepreneurial communicators. It’s titled “Flying Solo and Standing Out From the Flock.” I’ve been asked to talk about how Eloquor does dynamic staffing with sub-contractors.

First, I have to differ with the session title: I have never been solo. Eloquor isn’t just me and I never planned on it to be just me. This is why I didn’t name the firm with my own name. Related to this is the fact that I have never felt isolated as an independent business owner. I’m so deeply connected and networked that I sometimes wish for a day with no meetings or interruptions.

Second, there are things that I am not an expert at. I’ve tried a couple of times to branch into expertise I just don’t have at a client’s request. I usually get kicked in the butt for it. So, I stick to three important commitments:

  1. We only do work in service to the internal stakeholder. If it falls outside of that, I pass it on to someone else – no finder’s fee, no “how can I get some billable time out of it or get a cut.” Media relations for example – don’t do it.
  2. If it meets the first commitment but is focused on an area in which I feel less confident, I bring in help. Labor communication for example – I’m not the expert. I may simply hire someone to work in the background or be my sounding board.
  3. Quality and service to the client are important enough to bring in people to help so I’m not stretched so thin I can’t deliver. Five active clients at one time is about all I can muster on my own without help. Plus, I don’t want to be onsite, dedicated to just one client at a time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my husband works in the business too. He’s a Certified Usability Analyst, a research engineer and an MBA. So, he has expertise I don’t have. He’s a core part of my team. Obviously, this also adds a different dynamic – most people tell me they could never work with their spouse. We actually work together really, really well.

Third, when it comes to using sub-contractors I live by a few guidelines:

  • Always have a contract that specifically spells out the relationship, terms, rates, insurance requirements, etc.
  • Carry a liability policy that covers sub-contractors.
  • Be prepared to pay your sub-contractors whether the client pays on time or not. This is a tough one, but we pay our subs on 30-day terms and some of our clients pay us on 60-day terms. Some clients are just slow to pay.
  • If a sub-contractor isn’t working out, cut them loose. Your business reputation cannot afford sub-contractors who don’t reflect your brand. Not to mention that life is just too short.
  • Work with your sub-contractors to identify potential new streams of work and to market your firm. It may mean more work for them.
  • Learn new stuff from your sub-contractors. They know things you don’t.
  • Teach your sub-contractors your ways. They’ll be even more fun to work with next time.
  • Be loyal to the great ones, but don’t feel beholden.

The last one is the toughest for me. When I find someone I really love working with, it’s downright painful to have to tell them I don’t have work right now. Will they be available when I need them again? How can I keep them engaged? It’s always a balancing act against our need to keep billable time for ourselves too.

Sub-contractors may be highly experienced, skilled and seasoned professionals, or entry level administrative people. Either way, they allow you to deliver a broader value proposition, which is why I don’t go it alone.