For many service-based business owners, the work you do for your clients is one piece of a larger puzzle. Your client might come to you for brand design, but they may also need a business strategy, copywriting, a social media manager, and a virtual assistant. It may also be the case that they need some of these services before you’re able to do your job properly (Read: Which comes first, copy or design?)
Traditionally, these are the things an agency or large marketing organization provides under its menu of services. For example, for years, I was not a copywriter, I was technically a “Digital Marketing Manager”, code-switching between analytics, creative direction, strategy, copywriting, and navigating office politics.
The joy of being an online business owner is you get to focus on one specific area of expertise and ignore everything else. The irony is, you may still end up partnering with others to fill in the knowledge or skills gaps you don’t have so your clients can go from A-Z quickly.
(And, I would still argue, quicker than a traditional agency.)
A collaborative partnership can be structured in many different ways, but there are general positives and negatives to consider before deciding if creating a partnership network is right for you.
The PROs of working in a collaborative creative partnership:
- Freedom: You can still say yes to the work you want and no to the work you don’t.
- You get access to more potential leads between your two businesses’ marketing activities.
- You can book more work by accessing a lead-generation pipeline outside of your own network.
- You gain access to a sounding board you don’t have when you’re a solopreneur.
- You can gain creative energy from others’ feedback and insight.
- You can create a “safe space” to talk through sticking points and gain a new perspective on your work.
- You have the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
- You’re not left wondering “Whatever happened to that client?” once your piece of the project is finished.
The CONs of working in a collaborative creative partnership:
- Finding a schedule that works for everyone can be tricky.
- Client communication and keeping everyone in the loop takes effort.
- You don’t have standard operating procedures (SOPs) everyone abides by.
- Quality control isn’t in your…control.
- Opinions can differ mid-way through a project and there isn’t a built-in mediator.
- You don’t have a project manager to make sure everyone stays on track and on time.
- If the client isn’t happy with your partner’s work, your reputation suffers as well.
Process or tools, which comes first?
When it comes to partnering with other creative businesses, they say “Teamwork makes the dream work” but I say, “Don’t overcomplicate things.”
In my personal opinion (based on experience) when you’re testing out a collaborative partnership you don’t need:
- Collaborative tools and software (in the beginning)
- Referral fees or bonuses
- This is up to you, but not necessary in the beginning. Focus on the joint process first.
- A joint proposal
- Keep things separate until you’re ready to put your stamp on a repeatable, recyclable proposal. Yes, your client will have to sign separate agreements and pay multiple invoices, but I’ve been on both the sending and receiving end and it’s not that big a deal.
We’re sold on this idea that you have to look a certain way in order to be taken seriously as a business owner, but at the end of the day, your clients aren’t paying that much attention to how slick your software is or how shiny your proposal design looks. What clients truly appreciate is good communication and stellar work.
Here are 10 things you need to figure out before partnering up with another creative business:
- What is the ‘Order of Operations’?
- Who’s work comes first?
- Does one person’s work inform the other or can they function separately?
- Separate proposals or joint?
- If joint, who will handle transferring money to the other person?
- How will payment plans and transaction fees be handled?
- Who is contracted under whom?
- For tax purposes, who will receive the 1099 form, if in the U.S.?
- How will communication be handled?
- Email, Slack, Zoom, Loom…
- Who are the primary points of contact for the client?
- Will everyone be CCd or included on a need-to-know basis?
- Are there any workflows or project management/collaboration tools you’re already using that can be used without a whole makeover?
- Where will client assets and deliverables be stored?
- Shared Google folder, Dropbox, CRM portal…
- Who will handle the onboarding process and materials?
- Do you send them separately or jointly?
- Is the content of any of your questionnaires duplicative?
- How are kickoff meetings, check-ins and other meetings handled?
- Does everyone need to be in attendance for all meetings?
- How will offboarding be handled?
- Who will handle the final deliverables?
- Who will send the final invoice?
- How will testimonial requests be handled?
- Will you have a post-mortem meeting to discuss which parts of the process or project worked and which need a better solution? (Yes, yes you will. 😉 )
- How will you handle referral communications or future client check-ins? (Like a six-month check-in or follow-up to see if the client needs more work done.)
The biggest mistakes I made when starting creative partnerships.
When I first started partnering up with brand and website designers I made two big mistakes. The first is that we spent way too long trying to create systems and workflows for processes that needed to be tested out first. There’s no reason to jump into a complex project management tool, for example, if you can keep track of timelines and deliverables using a spreadsheet or super basic Trello board. Once you and your partner have worked together a few times and worked out the kinks, you can assess whether using a more formal software is worth the money and time necessary to learn the ins and outs of the product and set everything up. (Also, who will pay for said product subscription? Will you split the cost? Take it on and use it for your solo projects as well?)
The second mistake I made was not being confident in my offers and pricing. Honestly, I still struggle with this one because, while I am not the most expensive option in the market (a seasoned copywriter can and should charge between $5K-$10K for web copy), I am certainly not the budget option. I ended up slashing my prices and restructuring my deliverables over and over again because I got spooked knowing our prospects would be looking at a bigger ticket price because—duh—they were getting double, sometimes triple the amount of work delivered. Finding that line between flexibility and knowing your worth is an uphill battle, but at least I recognize it when I have my doubts I remind myself of a quote a previous client, Amy Geach of The Connection, told me:
“You’re building a business, not a hobby. 👏👏
3 Keys to forming successful creative partnerships.
Don’t nickel and dime each other or your clients.
I can’t tell you how damaging this is to both client and working relationships. Everyone should be paid fairly for their work (I’m not talking about scope creep, that’s a separate issue), but if every conversation results in someone owing someone money, guards go up. Tracking everything tit for tat can get incredibly complex. (Example: You wrote the proposal, but they generated the lead. You sent the client a coffee gift card but you’re using software your partner pays for.) Where you draw the line is up to you-–I don’t charge someone for less than an hour’s worth of post-launch copy edits, but I do communicate with the client if what they’re asking for will need to be charged next time. That’s my style and I’m sure there are gurus and business coaches out there who disagree with me. C’est la vie.
Respect everyone’s time.
Including your clients! Your performance affects your partner’s reputation, not just yours. If you promised deliverables by a certain date, you better deliver or be extremely good at communicating how the delay will benefit the client in the end. (Mama, of two littles here, and sick days happen. My clients know that giving me an extra day to care for my family’s health will result in better copy because I will have a fresh, less stressed mind.)
When you enter into a creative partnership, there’s going to be some give and take. Prepare yourself to make adjustments to how you would do things and be receptive to why your partner thinks it’s best to try something new. The good news is, a creative partnership isn’t a marriage. If your two styles don’t work well together in the end, you don’t have to continue working together. You can work with multiple partners at once—you’re not committed or bound to one person. The whole point of a creative partnership is to combine services in order to help your client, but not at the expense of your peace. So try it out, be flexible, but feel free to bow out of future projects if need be.
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