When should you hire a team or work with freelancers?
Hello friend, and welcome back to episode 21 of my 31 day challenge, where I am answering your questions about creating a career or a business that you love! That's right, we've made it to Episode 21! Only ten days to go, which I'm sure you're all devastated about. I haven't quite decided yet what I'm going to do is post-31 days, because I'm not gonna lie, I am loving the rhythm we've gotten into with these and hearing from some of you, taking action on some of these points, or just you reaching out and saying they're helping you just makes my day, week, year!
This is a full transcript of the podcast episode. Instead you can listen here:
So yes, let me know what you think should happen post 31 days; should I drop these down to a few times a week? Once a week? That's probably the format I'm probably going to shift to; as much as I would love to attempt to keep up this daily routine at the moment, I've got one particular project on, it's a little bit unsustainable, but who knows! Never say never! If enough of you reach out and say ‘no, Alex, we must have your voice every single day!’ then maybe I can be coerced into it…
Anyway, in today's episode, part one, we’re asking: when should you hire a team, or work with freelancers? And then part two of the question which I will get into in tomorrow's episode: how do you choose the right people to work with? They are intertwined, but they are kind of two separate topics. So, in today's episode, we're talking about when you should hire a team or work with freelancers, and tomorrow we're gonna hit on how you choose those people. How do you know when you're working with the right people?
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Okay, guys, full disclosure- I've got a cup of coffee on hand because I am feeling so tired today. Last week was such a hectic week because I batch record these podcasts as much as possible, but I can only really do maximum two or three a day because otherwise my jaw just hurts so badly!
I've also got another project that I'm in the scripting phase for at the moment which has been really intense and quite full on, so my brain had a couple of days off over the weekend and has decided to just go, ‘Oh, that's nice. Let's stay relaxed and tired anyway!’ So, full disclosure right up top, just in case I start to sound like I'm dozing off mid episode!
So let's chat about when you should hire a team versus working with freelancers. The kind of difficulty with this subject is that it's so nuanced. This is going to be so individual. So I'm going to make some blanket generalisations when I'm talking about this subject. First of all though, how do you know when you need to start working with a team versus just doing everything yourself? Like I've said in other episodes, I think it's really powerful and really useful for you to get a really good understanding of all the elements that go into making a VR experience. I'm not saying you need to be an expert on knowing camera calibration or rotoscoping in After Effects or unity programming. I'm not suggesting you need to be an expert. But what you do need to have a good enough understanding of all the elements that go into making that VR piece, whether that be a 360 photo, 360 video, a game rendered VR experience, an interactive experience...you need to have enough of an idea of that kind of project and what is
involved in delivering that project from start to finish. When you do start to hire in people and delegate more, you need to understand what language to use to talk to that person, especially if you're hiring someone in because they have a very specific specialism. For example, my brother is a Unity developer. The way I talk to him- breaking things down, discussing projects with him, understanding where he's at in a particular phase of a project- is not the same way that I would talk to a director of photography, who might be getting set up for the next shot on a 360 video. The kind of language and the way I communicate to those two kinds of people is very, very different. People that are very technical, you want to use more kind technical language with them, but not with other people who are coming on in a creative or logistical role. Understanding enough about those roles will give you an insight into being able to hold a conversation with them, because there's nothing worse...I remember when me and my older brother, who is the Unity developer, first started working on projects together. Because we come from such different training backgrounds and have such different expertises, sometimes we would be having a conversation and we thought we were talking about the same thing, but we were talking about totally different things. For example, we were talking about static shots. I was talking about putting a static 360 video into this app- this app was all about distributing 360 video content on different headsets- and when I was using the word static, what I meant is that the camera was still. But in his world, because he's a programmer, and because he was thinking about the networking behind the scenes in the app, static means something totally different to him. So we're having this conversation and we're using the same language, but we're talking about two very different things.
So have a good understanding of the elements of your productions to know when you start to bring people in. It helps you sniff out the bullshit because so many times I've worked with quite technical specialists that I've brought in, and they'll talk to me for ten minutes about something I already know, but they assume that I don't know, and you can smell the bullshit a mile away. So it's quite handy because then I can work out quite quickly whether or not I would like to work with that person or if that person is going to try and pull the wool over my eyes because they think, ‘Oh, she's the director and producer on this project, she won't know necessarily that the process of rough stitching is as simple as bringing stuff in, pushing it through the the camera makers software, and spitting it out as a render.’ Just bits and bobs like that. So, having a good overview of all the different roles will definitely help you when you start to bring people in.
How do you know when it's time to bring a team together? Well, I would say there's two main things. Number one is if the project's too big for you to take on by yourself, and number two is you've realised you like a specific aspect of production better than others, so you don't want to do the other bits anymore. I've gone through so many different cycles of that and thinking, ‘Oh, actually, I really enjoy working with actors and pulling together a project and working with the client to bring their creative vision to life, but I find editing and stitching 365 days to be really, really boring.’
So, you know, for me, it was a little bit of both: working on bigger projects where I physically couldn't handle it myself, but also acknowledging where your strengths and weaknesses are. I did work with teams very early on in my VR career, like when we did KeyLite. That was probably the first time that I've worked with a team on a project, which in itself was not the greatest idea, because I hadn't had enough experience working specifically with actors and high pressure situations. So that was a Baptism by fire! That was probably one of the reasons why it was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but it gave me clues as to needing to know more about spatial audio, needing to understand a little bit more how that works, because that will impact X, Y, and Z.
So I physically can't do all of this myself. But there's also knowing I'm not the world's best camera operator, but I really excel at working with actors, working with clients directly, setting big visions, being the leader on set, managing everyone and being the glue that holds the team together. But I'm not the world's best DLP, and I'm not the world's best editor or animator, so actually, to some extent, I want to bring in the best because I want my projects to be elevated. I want them to go to that next level. I can't do that with just me, because I've got a ceiling in so many of those areas, so those are the three key things; recognising where your strengths are; recognising the things that you actually don't want to do anymore; working on a project that is physically too big for you to work on by yourself.
Those are the three areas where you know that you do need to bring people in. Then the question becomes: if you're building a business, should you hire a team? The answer to when you should hire a team is: if your aim is to build a production company, or a company full stop, you want to build with employees. Your idea is to build the company bigger so that you've got more capacity to take on more projects, which is essentially why you would take on a team. That is quite different to someone that wants to just work on loads of different projects and be fluid to work in lots of different sectors.
I've had an in house team and I've also then realised, ‘I'm not in a place in my life right now where I’m not so set on working with this very particular kind of client, to be tied down into having a team.’ The thing is, as soon as you've got a team, you've got the responsibility of paying someone else's wages, which means you then start to come out of the creative stuff. And you'll spend the majority of your time in sales mode, which is great if your aim is to build a business- because you want to make money and do something that you love- but mainly to build a company for revenue sake, and so that's absolutely something you might want to look into. It's way more cost effective to have an in-house team than it is to work with freelancers, but what I found when I built an in-house team (I never had loads of people on staff but I had a core team at one point of five or six people) is that then I had this massive responsibility of paying these wages, so I don't have a choice to stop and reflect and think about what kind of project I want to work on, I just need money. I need to go after those bigger projects, because now working on a four figure job is not really an option, there's all these mouths to feed. Not to mention you're trying to do that whilst balancing original work to build the profile of the company, too. I realised very, very quickly that was not the one for me, and it was more stressful than anything.
It was one of the reasons why, at one point, I was toying with the idea of going more product based, and it's why I built subconscious VR with my older brother, which was an interactive 360 platform we were on an accelerator programme for. We were going to go down the route of investment, but what I realised was it wasn’t where I wanted to be. Don’t get me wrong, this is an ever changing thing for you, and me. You will go through phases of being all in on this at the moment, or wanting to go full speed into that, or wanting to work on as many projects in that sector, or with that particular technology, just running with it and taking projects in that round. And then there'll be other phases where you want to take a step back, work on less things, but have them be super important to me. I want to really love the client I'm working with, and when I assemble that team, I want that team to be the best of the best. I want to work with people that I really want to work with, and so it's a totally different mindset.
It will change. But if you do hire in a team, then be aware that the pressures to then get in projects will land on your shoulders, so you will very quickly not be able to focus on what it is that you're passionate about. You’ll be looking at how you scale, how you get more clients, how do you get more revenue? What projects do you have to take on? The flip side of that is you've got an in house team, you don't have to rely on freelancers, you don't have to rely on someone's availability, you don't have to worry about the headache if something goes wrong and you need to get someone else in to do something. When you've got a bit of downtime- if you have the luxury of being able to afford downtime with your in house team- they're there, and you can put them to work and you can work on passion projects because you're paying them to do that. So, it's a lot cheaper, to do that kind of thing.
It's a real trade off. On the flip side, though, working with freelancers can be really, really liberating, because you are in control of pulling together this team of people specifically to work on this one project. You can work with freelancers over and over again, but generally speaking, you're pulling them together to work on a specific project for specific goals; you're going to be working together really intensely and really intimately for a short amount of time, which can be really nice, because you get into a flow. At the end of the day though, you will go your separate ways at the end of that project, and they will work on other things because they get to work on other projects with other clients. They are doing their own thing, just like you're doing your own thing. When you come together, there's that lovely dynamic of expanding your circle, your world. For example, I really enjoy bringing in freelancers on a project because since we worked together- I don’t work with all the same freelancers all the time but sometimes I'll pull them back in or I'll get someone new- they'll know something completely different to me. The last couple of months for them has been totally different to my couple of months, so you can really learn more things from them. They could share that they’d worked on a shoot the other week and they were doing this kind of shot which was the first time they tried it, and would I be open to trying that kind of thing? They can just bring a new perspective to it because they're working on other stuff as well, whereas if you're working with the same team constantly then you can sometimes fall into the trap of not continuing to expand, to learn and to grow, because you are on that treadmill of getting work in to pay for the team, to keep the lights on, essentially.
So that's one of the reasons that I really enjoy working with freelancers. The other thing is you can hire the best person for the job. The thing that I found really difficult about having a team was because the technology changes so quickly in VR and 360, sometimes you would have someone with a particular specialism, and then for 50% of the jobs that you worked on, that was actually pretty irrelevant.
For example- in my business predominantly- we've worked on mainly 360 productions and occasionally we would need to have an app built, or there was a period of time where we did interactive content, so we needed someone who understood that. I always just work with my brother, who also runs his own app company, so although I never had him in house as his boss, for a period of time I worked with him really closely and needed him a lot. Then I’d go through months and months of not having anything to do with Unity and not needing that kind of element at all.
So when you're building a team, it's thinking through what those key roles are that you really need, and that (unfortunately) will change quite a lot as we grow in this industry. In that case, when I bring in my brother to partner on a lot of things, or hiring a freelancer, that's really nice, because you don't necessarily need them all the time, but when you do need them, you can come together, you can work on something specific, and then you can go your separate ways. The other benefit of that is you can bring the best people in when you need them. If you need a specialist in moving all drone 360 shots, that's going to be great, but you're not going to need that person in house, unless that is literally your business is 360 drone shots! In which case, very good, very specific, very niche. But it's really nice to be able to bring in a specialist and expand your network since you're working with new people all the time. Also you can bring in someone that has a speciality in that particular thing, so you don't need to train someone up in it.
The downside of freelancers is your project is sometimes in their hands. There was a period of time where I was working on probably the biggest projects that we as a company had ever worked on, and it got to a point where it was weighted a little bit too heavily in the favour of the people that I was outsourcing to. Although I was the point of contact with the client and it was my client and I was paying these people to do this job. At the same time, when things started to get stressful- the particular job I'm thinking of there was lots of lots of moving parts and it wasn't just us, we fit into a bigger project. We were the VR piece of the puzzle- I fell at some points where I was at the mercy of the people that I had brought in to do a lot of the post production on this project. When things were going wrong; when things were getting a bit sloppy; when things weren't being reviewed properly; I was being stretched too thin in lots of other areas, so I was trusting them to do that stuff but it wasn't getting done. So then that put more stuff on my plate. It made me look bad to my client because I hadn't been reviewing things properly, which was absolutely my bad. But having that kind of trust is so important. When you work with freelancers that you have that trust there. I'm one of those people who believes you have to earn trust, and I'm trying harder to give trust, to give opportunities, and if something goes wrong, I will take the hit for that.
But I would rather work with new people and work on new things and take the chance because we were all new at one point. I'm not suggesting you work with completely new people all the time, but taking the chance on someone and giving someone an opportunity, and working with new people- trusting someone first- is really important. The point I was getting to is once that trust has been broken, it's really difficult to come back from that. A downside of working with freelancers is if you work with particular freelancers all the time and they take on other projects, and all of a sudden your dates don't line up, and you can't use them. It's then an extra job for me now to go and find someone. Usually that person will be able to recommend someone, especially if they're a specialist in the audio department for example (the VR audio crew are quite a tight knit community in the UK). So if for instance my audio freelancers aren't available, they will usually have someone to recommend or like refer me to someone, which on the other hand is great. You’re tapping into those networks.
It can be a little bit dicey, so it really depends on the project. It really depends where you are in your life and in your career. And it depends on what you want to do long term, if you want to build a company or not. I would suggest hiring freelancers first to get a sense of what it's like to work with a team, but then move on to an in-house team, which will be more cost effective and allow you to train people to do things the way that you like to do them.
Freelancers allow you to scale very big very quickly, and then scale back down, that’s one of my favourite things. When I've worked on massive projects, it's exciting for me to go from working with three people on a regular basis to all of a sudden having thirty people on payroll for two to three months. That's quite exciting, I like the challenge of that, but it can also be a little bit of a headache to try and keep up with (not to mention the admin side of things where you've got thirty people's invoices and thirty contracts to deal with). Not only that, it's not just who you work well with but who works together as a team. Sometimes you can fall into the trap of hiring freelancers that have worked together before, because you want to create that kind of team vibe, but personally I'm really trying to put an emphasis on working with new people, giving new people opportunities, making sure I'm inclusive and having way more diversity in the projects and the teams that I'm working with. It won't always be the case that people have worked together before. But make sure that that dynamic is right. You can tell instantly whether they’re your kind of person, you can tell by the way that someone talks sometimes whether or not they're full of shit or they're actually going to get the job done. Usually the people that big themselves up or try to overcompensate usually, they're the people that you shouldn't be working with because they're trying to overcompensate for the fact they aren’t experienced or wouldn't necessarily play well with people. Someone can be the best at their job in the world, but if they're a complete asshole, they're not coming on my crew. Sometimes you don't know they’re an arsehole, but once you work with them, you can be like, ‘Oh, actually, yeah, you ain't my people.’
So that is one of the realities of working with freelancers, it's a constant. It's a constant navigating of the tides, and there are lots of things to it, but the freedom that comes with that- the fact you can take on the projects you love and bring in people to help bring it to life and then at the end of it, you go your separate ways- means there's no pressure on you to have to rush to find another job.
To feed those mouths, they’re just all the things that come with the freedom of not having to look for work. Then you can decide, actually, I want to wait, I want to take on a smaller project this month so that I can work on all of the facets. This might be something relevant to you guys actually: the projects I'm working on aren't actually 360 anymore, they're either volumetric or game based projects (which I've been really resistant to before because in my heart I'm a filmmaker, a diehard filmmaker), but it's been really nice because I don't have the pressure of having built a 360 company, and paying all these people to do 360, and wanting to work on these game interactive projects.
It's nice to be able to actually dip a toe into that pool. I'll find freelancers and a team to build around that particular project, because I might hate it, but I'll give it a go! Then if I don't like it, I can always dip out and try something else, and that is the beauty of working with freelancers.
So I hope that helps. Hopefully there was some insight in there to help you, and I hope I didn’t sound like I was shitting all over getting an in house team, but also shitting on the freelancer!
To be fair, there's just pros and cons for both. I would recommend- if you have the patience and you're not in a rush to build either way in terms of your career- then maybe try both, because I've tried both. It was very clear to me very quickly which one I preferred. Going down the route of freelancers, especially where I am right now in my life; knowing that I want that flexibility; not wanting that responsibility of people to pay for all the time; knowing that it’s such a relief to know where I'm at. That's how I'm going to work, and maybe in five years time that will change, maybe I'll be really into the idea of having a team and an office and building and scaling, maybe that's the one, but not right now! So much of it is trial and error. Test the waters.
In tomorrow's episode we're gonna dive into how you find the right people to work with. How do you go about finding someone to work with? We'll dive into that tomorrow.
I hope this was helpful. Reach out to me and give me better feedback, let me know what you thought. If you've got any follow up questions, you can DM me or comment on Instagram and Twitter, @alexmakesVR. If you've got a longer email you want to send firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to sign up for the newsletter that goes out daily, you can sign up at alexmakesvr.com
Thank you so much for sticking with me! I'm going to finish the rest of this coffee. Have a great rest of your day, wherever you're listening in the world, and I'll speak to you tomorrow.
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