Find Someone Smarter than Yourself

Matthew Cook
Nov 14, 2016 · 4 min read

Turning freelancing into a business is really difficult. Not everyone is equipped for it, but if you can make it work, your prospects are looking up.

It’s a journey: building your own employment out of thin air; serially creating profitable work to be done. When you create work, you also need to find a way to accomplish it — potentially, finding people like yourself with skills which you can integrate. It feels funny stepping up to lead a team of your peers. Imposter syndrome, inferiority complex, superiority complex, and the fear of simply being a bad manager are all very real. On top of dealing with your own strengths and weaknesses, it’s really difficult to find and hire people — let alone excellent people. But that’s what you need to do to jump from an individual to a small business: Find and pay people who are smarter than you to do great work.

To grow any type of business, you need to attract clients. Somehow we seem to forget this also means you need to attract talent, which puts you in the awkward position of drafting teams from a pool of people who are just like you. Even harder, potentially selecting people who do work you have no expertise on. Pulling together teams like this means stepping up to make decisions that don’t have clear answers. You have to come up with a vision for the work to do, how it should be done, what level of quality you want, who best fits your team, how to get your team to understand what you think they should understand, and how you want the story of the project to play out. In short, you have to lead. As an individual who’s used to simply accomplishing the work at hand, it’s really difficult to qualify, select, and manage a team of others who are just like you.

Getting the right person for a role in a project doesn’t mean simply grabbing a friend or messaging people with great Dribbble shots. Talent isn’t just mechanical skill, it’s having something valuable to say concerning the work to be done. Look for people who want the opportunity to express a unique successful solution to the challenge at hand. Don’t just find a warm body. Portfolios are really good at demonstrating project outcome, but really bad at showing you the road taken to get there. Make sure the people you work with have effected meaningful change through their contribution to projects in the past — look for someone who can tell the story of not only what they did, but also why it was successful. Again, finding the right co-creators isn’t just about identifying someone talented. You need the right talent in the right role. After that, you need to create and cultivate a working relationship.

Working relationships are often equal-but-unequal. Collaborating as peers is great, but someone has to lead. Your team should complete you — at least, while you’re still building teams around yourself. At the same time, how you lead should free your team to do their best work. Your presence and contribution to a project should set the bar for interactions within your team, and between your team and your client. Having teammates who are smarter than you can lead to an upward pressure on the quality of all your work together if you create a team culture that spotlights each individual’s need and contribution. Utilizing smart teammates means doing things like directing on the needs of a client but relying on your team to help pick the correct solution and exact output. You convince the client to trust you and your team to solve specific problems, not to manage your creation of specific deliverables. Getting your client to trust you and your team takes concerted effort. A good way to grade yourself on how well you’re doing at gaining trust is to look at your past contracts. How much did your client agree to rely on you? How concerned were they about hours, numbers of deliverables, or their ability to approve your work? Taking a look back, it can be pretty clear whether you’re garnering a lot of trust. Look for differences like this:

“Trust Me” Contract Term: Create a new online shopping experience.

“Manage Me” Contract Term: Create wireframes, 8 static page designs, and 8 front end templates for existing e-commerce requirements.

This isn’t a fail-proof test, but it indicates whether you’re actually gaining trust when money is on the table.

Regardless of whether you’re freeing your team up by getting clients to trust you, managing people who are better than you is hard. It’s also critical to cultivating a successful team which delivers value greater than you could create alone.

You have to create an approach to these smart individuals that attracts them — including having your own best-at qualities. If you can’t demonstrate what you’re best at on the project, why should someone else join the team and add to the bandwagon of mediocrity? Look to champion your team as a whole, but also each member individually. Your smart teammates’ talent combinations will tend to be unique. Communicative engineers and thick-skinned, precise design leads are highly sought after because those skills greatly increase project success rates. As pairings, they’re rare. Be rare, as the team lead, but be the first person to champion your teammates. Push your team to earn your trust (just like you earn your clients’), then sell your team’s unique vision which you may not even fully understand.

You can build a team and complete a project around average talent. That’s a valid approach to business and there’s good value to be created by churning out projects that aren’t on the bleeding edge. No matter the talent level you can attract, your team’s ability to execute at a standard of excellence compared to other people whom your client could have hired for the same cost is key. The talent you can gather directly correlates with the value you can create for a client, and the opportunity to grow your business is highly dependent on whether that value is competitive for your price. Don’t just hire smart, find teammates who are smarter than you.

Thanks to Matthew Smith

Matthew Cook

Written by

Independent Producer and Director, Partner at @atlaslocal. Product-guy-partner at @reallygoodemail. I write about the business of design.

Matthew Cook

Written by

Independent Producer and Director, Partner at @atlaslocal. Product-guy-partner at @reallygoodemail. I write about the business of design.

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