12 Important Questions to Ask as a Freelance Subcontractor

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12 Freelance Subcontractor Questions

Do you wish you had more freelance gigs? One way to get more work in your pipeline is by collaborating with other freelancers and creative agencies that might hire you when they’re overloaded.

Networking to grow your rolodex of freelance contacts can help you line up subcontracting assignments.

I’ve had several gigs that involved subcontracting — I’ve been a subcontracting writer for an agency that had a Fortune 500 client, I’ve split big projects with other freelance writers, and I’ve served as project contractor and paid subcontracting writers I hired. So I’ve seen this setup from all sides.

Subcontracting work out allows you to take on bigger projects than you could otherwise tackle alone. For instance, I had a large government-agency writing project I once split with a writer because the tight deadline wouldn’t allow a single writer to complete all the needed research and interviews.

If I hadn’t been able to find another qualified writer in my local market to share one recent freelance project, I would have had to pass on an assignment that netted me over $6,000. Hopefully that little example whets your appetite for the earning potential you can unlock by collaborating with other freelancers.

Now that I have your attention, let me say not all subcontracting arrangements are created equal. You will fare better if you ask some key questions before you sign on, either to be a subcontractor or to subcontract some of your own work out to other freelancers.

1. Same type of freelancer or different type?

There are two approaches to finding possible subcontracting partners. One is to find freelancers who do your same type of work — say, freelance writing if you’re a freelance writer. The other is to find freelancers in complementary niches — a Web designer or photographer if you’re a writer, for instance.

I’d advocate building up your knowledge of freelancers both in your own specialty and in others, as they both offer opportunity. Another writer might send me a client project they don’t have time to complete on their own, while a designer might rope me in on a project that needs writing.

2. Have I seen their portfolio?

It’s easy to get excited when you meet another freelancer at a networking event and you hit it off. But don’t hitch your wagon to their star before you review their work.

Remember, this is someone you’ll be recommending and possibly working with on projects. Is their portfolio stellar? Do you feel comfortable talking them up to your clients? You should be enthusiastic about their product for this relationship to work well. Likewise, you should sense equal enthusiasm from the other freelancer about your work.

3. What is their niche?

When you look for possible collaborators for subcontracting, you want as close a fit to your own freelance comfort zone as possible. For instance, I’m a business writer, and I’ve taken the time to get to know many of the other successful business writers in my town. That’s allowed me to build goodwill by referring gigs to them I don’t want, laying the groundwork for them to return the favor or bring me in with them if they get a big project.

If you meet a designer and their specialty is annual reports, but you only write articles, there likely isn’t going to be any synergy you can create together. There won’t be a project that suits you both. So choose carefully and network with freelancers who have a similar clientele to your own.

4. Do I like them personally?

No matter how impressive another freelancer’s portfolio is, if you find them a pompous jerk, a goof-off, or a control freak, you’re probably better off passing on the chance to collaborate with them.

Spend a little time with them — take a Skype call, meet for lunch — so that you get a sense of their personality and whether they’d be pleasant to report to as a subcontractor (or to oversee as a boss).

5. Do I trust them?

If you are going to hire or be hired by another freelancer, you should feel confident that they are reliable. You don’t want to sub out work to someone who will be late or turn in sloppy work. By the same token, if you are recommending another freelancer, it will hit your reputation if they don’t work out.

6. How will we structure this relationship?

There are two basic options here:

  • One of you will be the contractor on the project and pay the other as a subcontractor.
  • You will both be paid directly and separately by the client.

The latter is more of a referral than true subcontracting. There are advantages and disadvantages to both setups, though.

If you’re paid directly by a client you have little direct contact with, it may be difficult to find the right person or expedite your payment.

On the other hand, if you are being paid by a contractor instead of directly by the end client, it will almost always take longer for that check to come. In general, the contractor will wait to get paid, and then send your payment. Also, having a major corporation on the hook for paying you is less of a risk than a smaller agency or a single freelancer.

7. Is the pay rate appropriate?

When you’re hired as a subcontractor, the pay offered is often less than you might have made if you worked directly for the client. However, another freelancer may have handed you this gig on a plate — you didn’t have to do any marketing, so that’s a time-saver for you.

Also, many sub gigs are nice-sized, so the volume of work may partly make up for that lower rate. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons to decide if you’re willing to work for the rate offered.

8. How valuable is this client?

Sometimes, a subcontracting gig gives you access to a high-caliber client you had no previous connection to, and couldn’t have landed yourself. If an agency gives you access to one of the biggest corporations in your town, it may well be worth earning a little less for the opportunity to put a high-quality sample in your portfolio. That is, if you’re allowed to use it as a sample. Speaking of which…

9. Can I claim credit?

Often, subcontracting won’t give you a byline or other obvious credit for your work. You may even be asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), swearing you will keep secret the fact that you worked on the project. Either the end client or the contractor may want to present your work as their own.

An NDA requirement is another important factor to consider in subcontractor pay. If you can never use the work as a sample in your portfolio, the pay should be higher.

10. Will I be able to talk to the client?

Here’s the rub of many subcontracting situations — some agencies and freelancers won’t want you getting all cozy with their client. They’ll want all communication to funnel through them. They talk to the client, then they tell you what to do. You ask your contractor your questions, they ask the client and pass the answers back to you.

If you think this sounds like a nightmare game of telephone where you’ll never be clear on what precisely the client wants because you’re hearing everything secondhand, it often turns out just that way. So make sure you understand how communication will flow, and that you’re comfortable with how you’ll get answers to your questions.

11. Will I keep a cut?

Traditionally, the contractor who found the client and is subcontracting out work will keep a project-management fee. This “cut” can vary greatly. Ad agencies may mark up your freelance work by 50%-100%. Other freelancers probably won’t take quite that much off the top.

If you are serving as the contractor, know that there will be some additional hassle factor to managing other freelancers. They may be slow, require direction, or need a lot of hand-holding. You should be compensated for that additional time spent, so be sure to build the fee into your bid.

12. What are the tax consequences?

If you are hired as a subcontractor, your tax situation will be similar to that of any other freelance gig — fill out an independent contractor’s tax form and the payor will send you a tax-reporting form at the appropriate time if required by your local laws.

However, if you serve as the contractor, you take on some tax responsibility you may not have had before. The full payment for the project will count as your gross income, and then you will claim the cost of paying your subs as an expense.

If you pay state or federal taxes based on gross income rather than net, this is a factor to consider, as serving as contractor will raise your gross income.

Have you worked as a subcontractor? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience.


  1. I’ve done it all! Been a subcontractor for agencies, studios and other freelancers. I also hire my own on a per project basis as needed. I’m actually starting to subcontract again after a couple year hiatus and am very nervous about my rate now compared to what I used to promote. I have a lot more experience, but I think the real value is that they can hand me a project and I can take the reigns even communicating with their clients if they prefer. There is less worry for the contractor, more reliability, professionalism and faster turn-around times.

    Wish me luck! And, thanks for the article. I only wish there were more resources like there are today when I first started out. Everything has been personal trial and error up until this point.

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