Should freelancers work directly with clients or hire a middle man?

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Some may call it the lazy way to freelance, but I like to think of it as a way to focus your time on the projects instead of looking for them.

First off – if you’re unfamiliar with what (or who) a middleman is; it’s a person who arranges and deals between the producer (freelancer) and consumer (the actual client).

Think of your middleman client as an ultimate referral: they’re marketing your services for you, and if things go well, then that could mean a steady stream of work.

Having to give up some of the compensation is arguable, but if you can get more work with less marketing, then I’d say that’s a fair deal!

Less talk more work

One of the biggest advantages of working with a middleman client is being able to focus more on the actual work at hand.

Whoever your middleman client may be — such as a design firm or another freelancer — they bring you the work, and then manage the actual client for you. Even though you might normally view these sources as competition, this is a great opportunity for “coopertition”.

I know some of you love dealing with the client, and it definitely has its benefits, but that doesn’t mean you have to manage every single project on your plate.

Having a middleman client let’s them handle the talking (and sometimes planning), and your only worry is to produce the work.

Here’s my best personal experience with dealing with a middleman client: a design firm from Chicago inquiring about my services contacted me.

The relationship grew and it ended up bringing in a lot of new work!

The firm had some incoming website jobs that they didn’t have the time to mockup and design – so they’d handle all of the interaction with the real client, plan out the project requirements, and wireframe the website…

They’d then pass it over to me to provide a couple mockup designs, and then once the client finalized a design, I’d design up the rest of the site.

The firm would then handle the development side of the project and I’d be done.

I charged them my regular hourly rate, so I wasn’t splitting anything. I got paid for every hour of work on every project.

Obviously not every middleman client is perfect, but this is my best-case scenario.

Finding your middleman client

Somehow I was lucky enough to have been found by my middleman client, but that’s not always the case.

If you’re interested in establishing a relationship with a middleman client, then you should know where to look.

The first and most obvious place to look would be within your own network. Meet, call-up, or email people you already know, and see if they have any projects they’d like to use your services for. You can either get a referral or work with that person on a project.

For me I’ve reached out to my old technical instructor, and we’ve worked on a few projects.

Another great place to inquire would be with other design firms. Either search for those you may already know of or look for firms online that work with the kind of clients you would. Take the time to send them an email and inquire if they outsource any work.

Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to as many potentials as possible. Just don’t spam! ;)

Becoming a middleman client

Either go in full-time or instead of turning down a project, only manage and pass the workload onto someone who’s interested. Maybe even take on a project you aren’t familiar with yourself and find the right creative to produce it.

Understand your role, give it your all, and make sure your communication skills are professional and awesome.

Be ready to plan everything. Make it easy for both sides.

Know how to compensate yourself and the producer accordingly.

You might even find that you enjoy being a middleman client more than being a production worker.

Nothing is perfect

There are obviously downsides to this approach. As often times you’ll be giving up some level of creative control – you might not get paid as well as if you took on the project solo, and unless you’re very detailed in your contracts, you might be waiving the ability to fire the client without taking a hit not only monetarily, but to your reputation.

But if these are things you’re willing to work around and play with, a middleman client relationship can be a very beneficial indeed.

What’s your take?

What have your experiences been like working with middleman clients?

How about times you were a middleman client?

Let me know in the comments – as always I’d love to hear what you’ve found out there.

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About Brent Galloway

Brent Galloway is a freelance graphic designer, founder of Your Freelance Career, and author of Start Your Freelance Career. Check out his blog and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Dribbble.

Comments

  1. I’ve done something similar through design agencies. I was offered $30/hr to help out on design projects. The problem is that they were expecting me to design multiple logo concepts in ridiculously short amounts of time. Any good designer knows that good / non-generic design takes time. Anyway, I was getting paid $90 for a logo project they were making $1500 from. I’m sure the middle man works for some, but for me the environment where I have no say over the project completion date or direction is not very appealing. I can however see the benefits you mentioned Brent (saving time not having to acquire the client yourself, etc).

    • Derek,

      You make some great points, and you’re very smart to not be designing multiple logos at that price with that kind of turnaround. Like I mentioned there are some benefits to working with a middle man, but ultimately you still want to be happy doing the work.

      Thanks for sharing! :)

    • Derek,
      You definitely have to find the right middleman. I find many think that freelancers all mass produce cookie cutter creations they can afford to charge $5.00 a piece for (no joke, I saw an advertisement for $5 logos! *cringe and squawk*)
      Stick to your guns. Don’t take less than you’re worth, EVER.

  2. Travis Smith says:

    My wife was my middle woman. I didn’t have patient with ongoing communications and too many last minute changes.

  3. Travis Smith says:

    My wife was my middle woman. I didn’t have patience with ongoing communications and too many last minute changes.

  4. I love this approach. I graduated last year, so now that I’m designing on my own, I’m always looking for ways to get back in touch with my friends and collaborate. Reconnecting with your fellow student connections is one of the best ways to start, and I’d maybe recommend first trying a small, just-for-fun project to see how well you work together.

    • Alexis,

      Collaborating with friends on a small, just-for-fun project is a great idea! I do this too from time to time.

      Thanks for taking the time to share! :)

      P.s. I love your illustration work!

  5. I’m not so sure I agree with this article. If you are just starting out, yes, using a “middle man” (i.e., Representing Agency) might work out okay. However, in my opinion, they have tanked the business of being a designer. At best, you get exposed to many different clients. At worst, however, your hourly rate has been cut anywhere from a third to over half of what you normally could charge, because the agency takes the other half. Fine, that’s the cost of doing business sometimes, but I’ve found that it’s now difficult to get work on my own (this was never the case until about seven or eight years ago) because the majority of larger organizations use “search firms” to staff them temporarily. This has created a market, almost overnight, for agencies whose only talent is pimping out the services of some very talented individuals. Do the pluses outweigh the minuses? I used to think they did, when I was desperate for work. Now, I’m not so sure, since you are no longer the client of the search agency (the company that hired them is), and you certainly aren’t relied on by the company. So, you’re kind of in this no man’s land, fending for yourself. When in doubt, the agency will side with the client, even if the client is wrong and may dispute the number of hours (just for examples) you’ve worked, or the quality of your work, or a litany of other things if they so choose. The best of the agencies will pay you anyway and not question your skills or judgement, but there are far more who don’t give two hoots about the artist/talent. The situation just does NOT benefit the artist, unless the artist is just starting out, or just moved to a new location (as I did a year ago, and was grateful to be put to work). In the long run, however, this situation has only hurt those who wish to make a career in graphic design or related fields.

    • Tim,

      You make a lot of great points and I don’t disagree with anything you say here.

      I really think that it’s important we never undersell yourself. If I’m ever given the opportunity to work with a middle man client, I make sure that I’m still being compensated my regular hourly rate.

      I never take the job unless I feel that it’s a good decision.

      My suggestion would be to never solely rely on middle man clients. It’s always good to work with your own, so you don’t end up in this “no man’s land” like you mentioned.

      Most importantly, try to build a relationship with your middle man client. I only try to work with people I already know (technical instructor) or small design companies that just need the extra help. Those are the kind of middle man clients that you should be shooting for (from my best experiences).

      Thanks for taking the time to share, Tim!

  6. Working with middle men is both good and not-so-good.

    The good: consistent gigs when you’re on an agency’s books.

    The bad: you don’t have direct communication with clients. This is a pain when you need info from the client NOW so you can move forward with project. You get in touch with the agency, the agency contacts the client… time moves on. You’re closer to your deadline and are stressed.

    Also of course, the agency charges big for your services. Then pays small. :-)

  7. I have worked with both the client direct and middlemen, in my experience I have found there is very little difference in terms of which one makes deadlines more reasonable. What does make it more reasonable is someone who believes in your process as long as they’re on board with you then you can manage to get the time you need you just have to talk reasonably with them. “If you want your design to come out to your high expectations with effective results, we need [X] amount of time. However, if you truly want the whole shebang in very little time you will end up with rubbish that is not worth the money you put into it. If you’re still OK with that, that is entirely your choice.”

    As for money, I charge my middlemen clients exactly what I charge my direct clients. It’s a respectable rate that will occasionally get some snorts. That is when I explain that I completely understand and take no offense to them wanting to hire someone 1/3 my rate but oftentimes their projects will go overbudget because they have to hire me to fix what the less expensive designer didn’t nail. I’m not out to soak people, I will flat out tell potential clients they don’t need me if they’re project doesn’t require it. But, I will not devalue myself either. If you don’t stand up for how much your worth, no one else is going to do it for you.

    FYI, there are also some states where middlemen can’t make money off of you, (design firms, not placement agencies). New Jersey, for instance, does not allow a design firm to apply an additional fee for freelancers so your rate is passed on directly to the end-client without any financial gain to the middle guy for your part in the project.

    • Cindy,

      I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said!

      I too charge my middle man clients exactly what I charge my direct clients.

      Don’t be afraid or ashamed to tell the client what you charge for your services. You have to be confident in yourself! And yes like Cindy said, you will occasionally get some “snorts”, but if they truly want your services then they’ll compensate accordingly.

      If the client disagrees with your rate – let them go. You want to work with people who respect you and your professional services.

      Thanks for taking the time to share, Cindy! :)

  8. Nitai Das says:

    Freelancing is good enough in our city, only remains recovery…that’s really herd in life…Thankyou sir. Regards

  9. I would strongly recommend that the person doing the prospecting should be well informed about your business and how you run it, that includes the legal issues in the contract. They would also need to have an interest in your work or experience doing it. No one can represent your own company better than yourself. Proper training and if you do decide to hire, write up a short term contract with the person, so that you test them out. A lot can be said when you interview your to be middleman, look for body language, communication skills, etc.. If the person has a baby, you would not want them to phone from home calling potential clients, a crying baby in the background would not help at all. This is just an example.

  10. When I read the headline I thought, “Why would I do that??” After reading on I realized I’ve actually been working with middleman clients for years! I currently work with two. One is a small agency (very steady work) and the other an IT business for whom I design CMS templates (not as steady but faithful).
    It’s worked out very well. I always have steady work and I still work directly with many clients as well.
    I really enjoy these posts. I get tons of good information and even ideas to improve my freelancing. Keep ‘em coming.

    H

    • Heather,

      Thanks for sharing your positive experience! It seems you have a nice work relationship with your middle man clients. That’s very important to have.

      Thanks again for reading and sharing! :)

  11. Hi,
    I used to design/code & handle all client aspects; now I tend to middleman; handle getting the work in & looking after the clients and the projects etc.

    I’ve worked with the same group of freelance designers/developers and I’ve brought in a lot of work for them over the years. They get paid by the hour; I don’t. I really try to look after my freelancers as, ultimately, they are part of my team.

    Joel

    This has advantages for me in that my business is bigger than me; the output of my company is beyond what I can simply do. E.g. I was on holiday last week but work was still happening on client’s projects – I could relax :)

  12. Sorry, pressed submit too early – you can delete this comment but can I subscribe to updates please?

  13. Greg Parker says:

    Great post Brent. I’m a developer looking for ways to get clients. Thanks for the info.

  14. Thanks Brent! Some useful advice there.
    It definitely comes down to fostering the right relationships, and finding middle men you can trust. I’ve recently done work through a recruiter and doing so worked out quite well – so that is another possible middle man worth reaching out to (if you can find a good one!)

  15. I don’t see design firm and agency work as “middlemen” — THEY are your client, and they are the ones paying the bills. It doesn’t matter to me if my work is passed on to the “end client”. I have to please MY client. If my client has to please their client, that relationship should be transparent to me — the feedback, changes, tastes etc. must be successfully addressed: my labors are no different because it is repeated from the source instead of directly from the source.

    This philosophy must be maintained in billing as well: the design firm or agency is my client, and they are responsible for paying my invoices in a timely manner. I don’t care if their client doesn’t pay their bills. I don’t have a relationship with their client. Firms or agencies who won’t pay me until they have been paid get charged interest, which is a non-negotiable aspect of my contract.

    And, I don’t really mind the firm or agency marking up my work — as long as I get a competitive rate. Freelance agencies are a different story: often, as was pointed out above, freelance agencies offer a tragically low rate.

  16. I would prefer to work with the clients directly because I usually charge a fixed price (so that the project stays within their budget and there won’t be any complaints) and with a middleman you may get the telephone game effect, where some information gets lost and you might not get a full understanding of what the client is really after. That may lead to more revisions, frustration, waste of time and money and the client might not be fully satisfied with the results.

    I have had situations where I agreed on a design concept with one person and he liked and approved the final design but several days later he got back to me, asking for something completely different, with different requirements, because his boss had something else in mind. I would have preferred to talk to the boss directly and that would have saved them time and money (after all, they have to pay the middleman as well).

    Different words may mean different things to people, especially when dealing with people from all over the world. If a client knows what he wants, then I shouldn’t have to deal with a middleman who could easily misinterpret the client’s wishes and make things more difficult for all of us.

  17. Great points! I like this post. This is so informative and has a lot to learn. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Julie Contreras says:

    I’ve been working as a freelancer for several agencies for about 8 years, and I love it. I’m the person they hire to bring in extra creative concepts, so I spend most of my time doing all the fun parts–logos, brochure concepts, packaging comps. I don’t have to deal with printing, meetings, or with the client most of the time. These companies that hire me are mostly small, so the extra creative that I can provide them (and make them look good) and my years of experience (=consistency) is worth my hourly rate to them.

    A few downsides to being the subcontractor: not having the opportunity to talk with the client to help them make better design choices, working in a creative vacuum by myself, and the biggest of all: being the sub-sub contractor on very large jobs means that your actual client may not know who you are and you won’t be allowed to put the beautiful work you created for them on your site. This has happened to me several times. As a warning to other subcontractors: citing your contractor’s copyright may not be enough; check with the person who hired you before putting that subcontracted work on your site!

  19. A good middleman/woman is worth their weight in gold. An average one can draw out a project as you wait for information to be passed around. An awful one makes you hate life…well, at least that project.

    It’s important to find the right one!

  20. My friend is a writer who has clients that need newsletters and advertisements. He writes the copy, I create the design and he’s the one who works directly with the client. He tells them how much it will cost for him to write and then asks me how much it will cost for me to design and then lets them know. So far, every client he has pitched to has accepted the price. My advice: find a writer! I don’t know why more people don’t do this, it must be a well-kept secret.

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