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I was exposed recently to the workings of a relationship between a large, mature startup and an agency they hired to complete a new product. The company, wanting desperately to get the product shipped (and satisfy investors), decided that an outside design resource would turn it around faster than to produce it internally. Sadly, by leveraging their brand recognition and the exclusive opportunity, they turned a project that should have been a partnership into a dangled gift. Disappointing as that situation was, I've worked with enough startups and product companies to know this behavior is far from rare. 

Process is part of the product

The roots of this approach tap a misguided perception about independent designers. Product companies expect them to act, not as a business (which they are), but as a gun-for-hire employee. And not only an employee, but an experienced team member that should grasp their corporate dynamics and deftly navigate their idiosyncrasies. Those are some dangerous waters to launch a ship and still expect a true course.

For these professionals, process is as important to the quality of the outcome as technical ability.

I can understand the confusion. For an employee, it’s an entirely reasonable expectation. The investment is as much in culture adoption as talent acquisition. But this is a short term engagement with someone who’s invested countless hours in their process. Let's remember, you are hiring professional talent. For these professionals, process is as important to the quality of the outcome as technical ability. Or, at the very least, you cannot separate the two. How about a different approach?

A few ways to get the best results

Limit progress checks

Again, you didn’t hire an employee. Looking over their shoulder isn't part of the deal. More often than not, contractors are juggling multiple projects. Arbitrary progress checks cause distraction and designers are unable to focus quality time on any one project, including yours. Work with them to establish when and how presentations, calls, and updates will be made.

Use one point of contact

Projects quickly get out of hand when communication starts flowing from multiple stakeholders who obviously aren't talking to each other. If the designer doesn’t have to spend hours and precious attention filtering the noise, they can focus on solving the real problem.

Adopt their tools

If the agency uses a conference call number, dial it up. Learn to love their project management platform. If Dropbox is where the designer manages files, don't put everything in Google Drive. Tools are an integral part of the designer’s end product. placing the outcome at risk.

Pay on their schedule

Here's where I see companies act the most unprofessional. Few in professional services would accept the terms designers are routinely offered. Nevertheless, 30, 60, or even 90 days, often with no deposit, is somehow acceptable. Do you think that shows the designer they are respected as a professional? Disrespect takes a blunt sledgehammer to the foundation of great work. Pay early and pay often should be your code.

So let’s shift the understanding. You are hiring a business, not an employee. You get the most out of the relationship when you allow the business to serve your needs in the way they work best.