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Minimising the risk of sub-contracting a sole trader

May 7, 2013

2013-03-30When a client sub-contracts a research project they have to make decisions about who they want to work with and who they think will get the job done.  Imagine you could choose a university, or an agency with hundreds of staff, or a boutique firm with ten staff.  These are my competitors.  And then there’s me, a sole trader.

Well sometimes they pick me and sometimes they don’t.

And often when they don’t, they tell me it is because I’m a sole trader and that choosing a sole trader would be risky:

Real example 1:  “Slight risk of non-completion as sole trader.”

Real example 2:  “The only factor which scored lower was around contingency arrangements and project risk.  The panel had specific discussion around the small business model and in terms of the contractor being incapacitated the panel did have some concerns.”

For a client, the worry is that if something goes wrong with me there will be no-one there to pick up the pieces.  They worry that my personal life will intrude into my work and their project won’t get done.  They’ll be stuck with no outputs, and a mess to clear up.

Well they are right in the sense that things do happen and I do have to deal with them myself.  As a sole trader I can’t just call in sick, I can’t just forget about my responsibilities, I don’t have a colleague to take on my tasks.  I need to man up and rearrange my own appointments from my death bed, and the fallout of being away is all still there for me to deal with when I come back to my desk.

And I know, because I have had personal stuff that I’ve chosen to or been forced to fit around my work.  I’ve had a few days of sickness, I’ve had a few days when my computer was down.  Some of it has been unexpected, some of it has been quite awkward to rejig.  Some of it has been really really important to me personally but of no relevance to my working life.  I’ve been on holiday…  I’ve taken a degree…  My cat became sick, and required constant care for a time, then died…  I have had some time consuming and inconvenient medical issues to deal with…  I’ve received bad news…  This has all happened, and in the vast majority of cases my clients don’t know.  They generally don’t need to know.  They don’t need to know because I have excellent time management and prioritisation skills, I plan ahead for the unexpected, and I am 100% committed to presenting my clients with a professional service and delivering on my promises.

To start with, I only get involved with a project in the first place if I am as certain as I can be that I can complete the project on time.  I never over-promise.  If there is any doubt I don’t put the tender in, I don’t get involved in the conversation, or I decline the work.

When the project comes around, I make a plan which has plenty of contingency time built into it, particularly around risky areas.  Risky areas are large tasks, or times when I will need to get something from someone else, whether that is corresponding with members of the public or getting a sign off from a client.  If I find myself with a bit of unexpected time, I use it to get ahead.  Maybe I brainstorm some ideas, or start drafting a document, or set up a template or some charts for a report.  And I always give myself an internal deadline of completing tasks one day earlier than the official deadline.

This means it is really easy to accommodate short-term absence of up to a week or so, especially if I have a bit of notice.  If I’m sick, well yes I might have to rearrange things if I’ve got fixed points (meetings, appointments) but it would be very unusual for this to actually disrupt the critical path of the project.

If I was running uncomfortably close to a deadline (and I don’t recall this happening in two and a half years of self employment), I could work long hours or pull an all-nighter.  If I was sick I could take a meeting remotely and then go straight back to bed.  I’ve done that – I’ve pitched for work by Skype on a day that I was technically off sick with a dress over my PJs, and I won the work.  As a sole trader and a home worker it is relatively easy to do that sort of thing.  And you can always take the day off afterwards to recover.

Consequently, all Ruthless Research projects to date have been delivered on time.  Some have been delivered early, and many have been delivered on a tight turnaround.

I will concur that if I was run over by a bus or (god forbid) actually killed there would be a bit of a problem.

But even in that case, I have systems in place to ensure that the appropriate parties would be notified and that my immaculately maintained and backed up files would allow someone else to easily pick the project up and run with it.  I have expert colleagues who could do this on an Associate basis and I have made arrangements with my next of kin and a specific trusted Associate just in case.

Is this enough?  No.  Some people will never pick a sole trader.

Which is a shame, because I think the benefits that I can provide in terms of flexibility and expertise and seniority and price and a guaranteed personal service may well be worth the risk.

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