Why it’s dangerous to hire the wrong freelancer

Even before the arrival of COVID19, the bottom had fallen out of the freelancer market in Malaysia. Once upon a time, freelancing was seen as the best of both worlds, work to your own routine, don’t have to answer to a dictatorial boss while only taking clients you wanted. Sadly life is rarely so simple and many freelancers have suffered.

A frustrated freelancer described the business to me like this:

Freelance graphic designers get friends asking them to do wedding invites for RM500, 3 days before the wedding. Even though the freelancer knew his friend was getting married, he didn’t ask for the business in case he was rejected. The friend getting married didn’t ask earlier because he’s disorganised or assumed his friend would do it. Plus he’s a guy and leaves everything to the last minute.

The freelancer is happy to get the job but 2 weeks earlier he’d won a RM5,000 job and had been paid RM1,000 but hadn’t started work on it because, well he’s a freelancer and works to his own schedule but the deadline is a week away and he was intending to work 3 days straight to catch up but now he’s got the wedding job so focusses on that because it’s for a friend and he can’t let a friend down and it’s a wedding, so he can’t push the deadline back!

As a result, the RM5,000 job gets put aside but he is too shy to tell the client. As the deadline approaches the client starts calling more and more often. Because he doesn’t know how to speak to clients, apologise and explain a new timeline, he ignores the client’s calls till he’s finished the wedding job which he does. His friend is really happy and pays RM250 and promises the balance later, blaming the wedding costs etc for the delay.

It’s his wedding and he’s a friend so the freelancer has to say no problem. Then he calls the RM5,000 client who ignores his calls because he’s got fed up and has taken the RM5,000 job and given it to someone else. Now desperate he starts looking for work but can’t find any.

He can’t chase the wedding guy because they are friends and it’s too embarrassing to ask friends to pay their debts. Besides, what if he tells other people in the kampung? He’ll never get another wedding job.

Meanwhile the RM5,000 client has found a freelancer willing to do the RM5,000 job for RM3,000 so even after writing off the RM1,000 deposit he paid to the first freelancer, he’s actually saving RM1,000 which should make his boss happy and his boss is more happy when money is saved than when value is created.

However, the freelancer who is doing the RM5,000 job for RM3,000 doesn’t put much effort into the job because he’s only getting 3k and it’s a lot of work and should really cost RM5,000 plus he didn’t get anything in advance because the client is pissed off with the first freelancer but why should he be punished?

I forgot to mention the original freelancer who did the wedding job used the RM1,000 deposit he got for the RM5,000 job for a downpayment on a 50 inch TV from Harvey Norman and desperately needs to make the next payment or suffer the humiliation of his neighbours seeing the TV taken away a month after it was delivered.

So he goes out and gets a RM5,000 job by offering to do it for RM1,000 with 50% up front so he can pay the next instalment on the TV. But after paying off the TV he’s got nothing left and TNB cuts off the power to his house so he can’t work. The client is calling him so he turns off his phone and goes back to his parents.

Meanwhile, all the companies that thought using a freelancer would save them money have seen deadlines and opportunities missed, brand equity reduced, reputation tarnished and large amounts of hair pulled from heads.

Across town in Damansara, a mother of three who markets herself as a social media guru because she’s got 10,000 questionable followers on IG and gets free products for promoting unknown skin care brands, suddenly realises that there’s more to social media than sharing 12 second videos of cats saving babies from falling off motorbikes in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho or ducks doing handstands. But she charged RM1,000 to develop a social media strategy for a government company with impossible to achieve follower targets because organic takes forever and she doesn’t have any budget to promote the posts which is probably a good thing for the rest of us because it’s less crap content clogging up our feeds!

So if you are thinking of becoming a freelancer or hiring one over a consultancy or an agency because they are cheap, think again. Think past cost and think about value. Cheap can often cost far more than moderately expensive. There are some good freelancers out there. But you need to find them. Not all of them are created equal and it can be very dangerous if you choose the wrong one…