So you’ve got a project on your hands that’s make-or-break for your company, and hiring a full-time team isn’t an option. So the next step is plumbing the murky depths of the freelance and agency world, to try and find a team which doesn’t look like they’re going to grab all your money and make a run for it, leaving behind a shoddy, half-finished project.

It’s hardly an enviable position, and it’s made worse by the fact that you’ll often contact agencies you like the look of, and find that they’re either unavailable, out of your budget range, or simply say they’re not keen to take on the project. The design industry is a funny one in that I can’t think of too many other situations where a client can find it difficult to persuade someone to take their money.

But there’s a very good reason for this–it’s not like buying a commodity like a new computer. From both sides, any successful project is going to involve a big time investment, and you’re going to be tied to each other for quite a while. You both need each other in order to make your businesses a success. At your end, you’re looking for a great agency to help you build your website, and your agency is looking for a great client who will be painless to work with, and allow them to maximise the chances of delivering a successful project.

This isn’t to say that agencies are a bunch of elitist hipsters, sitting there stroking their beards and waiting to pounce on every little weakness or character flaw they can see in each enquiry that lands in their inboxes. Sure, there are plenty of dicks in this industry, but there are also a big bunch of people who simply want to do a great job for their clients, and to work on challenging projects.

The biggest factor in a project’s success is almost always the people who are working on it. So it’s not just your technical requirements that an agency will be looking at – they’ll want to see if you’re someone they’re potentially prepared to spend months, or even years working together with. And so, just as they need to win your trust in order for you to feel comfortable about putting your reputation on the line for the project, you also need to win theirs.

So here are a few solid tips to make a great first impression, and massively smooth the process of talking to agencies about your potential project.

First of all, don’t be an enigma

Now’s not the time to be coy. If you’re emailing lots of agencies with a 1-line message saying “Hello, I have a web design project for my company, are you interested”, then stop.

Agencies want to help you–but you’ll get far better responses, and have a much better understanding of your own needs, if you put in some of the legwork beforehand. If I was looking to hire a lawyer or an accountant, I wouldn’t call them up and lead with a message like this:

“Oh hey, I’m kinda looking for someone to help me our with… uhh… this project I’ve got going on where I’m not sure about some figures. Can you help me?”

I know full well that if I did that, I’d be roundly dismissed as a client that’s already looking like a troublesome one to work with, and is a distinctly unprofessional one, at that.

Do your research

You know ‘that person who goes on dating websites and messages every sentient being with a generic message, without even bothering to read their profile? Don’t be like them.

Some agencies will be too small; others too big. You will all have different attitudes and approaches. Not every agency is going to be a good match for what you need, and that’s natural, just as it is when you meet people in real life. Sometimes, things just don’t quite click between you.

So, check out your options, do that research, and only get in touch with agencies where you feel there’s a good fit. If you’re stuck for where to look, here are some good options:

  • Make use of your network. Nothing beats a referral from someone you trust or respect. If they got along with the person they’re recommending, there’s a better chance you will, too. Fire out some tweets and ask around–don’t be shy about letting people know that you’re looking.
  • If you’re going into this completely blind, sites like Sortfolio can be a good backup.

Once you’ve found an agency you like the look of…

Get in touch, and hit them with your elevator pitch

In a few sentences, tell them what your project is about, and what you’re looking to achieve. Give them a solid overview and set some context. Unless you’re a big brand, or a hot startup this is most likely the first time they’ve ever heard of you and your product, so here’s your chance to introduce yourself strongly.

Then, make sure you follow that up with the information they need in order to understand the broad detail of your project

Agreeing to work together after a quick introduction would be like a drunken wedding in Vegas with someone you’ve only met a few hours beforehand. Maybe you’ll be lucky and things will work out, but the odds will be stacked against you.

So now’s the perfect time to put together some sort of document with a clear explanation of what you’re looking to achieve, and your key project goals. Sure, this will take some effort to put together. But in doing so, you’ll be able to communicate what you’re looking for far more clearly, and save everyone a heap of time. It’s bound to kick off some great talking points for when you both have a chat, which will follow soon after.

You’re going to need to pull together the full details of your project at some point, so it’s better to do it sooner, and go into things well-prepared, than it is to leave it till the last minute. Send this over with your initial message, or at least have it ready to go as soon as you get a response from the agency, ideally as a Google Doc that they can comment on directly, or a PDF.

Speaking of which — use the right tools

Ours is an industry that’s mercifully unburdened by corporate IT departments and mandatory Windows XP and Internet Explorer usage. We’re building things online, and presumably, you’re getting in touch because you want us to build something with you.

So when a client sends us a massive attachment as a .txt file, that’s not a fantastic first impression. Tools like Google Docs allow you to easily share and structure a hefty document, and invite others to view and comment on it. That makes you a much more appealing client to work with, and means you’ll get better feedback on your brief, and more engagement from the agency’s side of the table.

But don’t send a 200 page specification and expect them to read it cover-to-cover right away

I’ve seen some people go to the other extreme, which rarely a good idea. Sending over your entire operations manual right off the bat, and expecting the agency to invest 5 hours reading and processing it before they get onto a call with you, is a bit discourteous.

It’s not a case of being lazy on their part–if they receive 10 enquiries a day, and spent 5 hours reading, understanding and responding to each of them, they’d need a pretty huge ‘sales department’ to make that a possibility. There are certainly some agencies who do take this approach. They also charge their clients handsomely for the privilege.

Think of all that supporting information as being a bit like an appendix to a research essay or book–it’s definitely going to be useful at some point, but right now, it just distracts from the important facts that the reader needs to be able to grab, and weakens their ability to clearly understand the rest of your brief.

Summarise, paraphrase, and reference that information elsewhere if you need to, sending it along later on when it’s actually needed. I’d say an initial project brief should really only be about 3 pages in length. If it’s any more than 5, you almost certainly need to chop it down further.

Equally, don’t send a 'Request for Proposal' (RFP) unless the agency indicates that they like them

It might sound harsh, but I’d say that an agency which routinely responds in full to RFPs is either desperate for work, or is billing with an extremely high profit margin on the projects it does actually win, to compensate for time spent on losing bids. I’ve written about similar things before with spec work, which I’d say is quite closely related. We don’t do spec work at Hanno, and our position is more-or-less the same if we’re asked to respond to a RFP that has been sent out to lots of agencies.

You might find an agency via this route who’s willing to work with you, but I’m definitely noticing a trend amongst smaller agencies to not respond to RFPs, because they’d rather work with clients who are passionate about working together, and have sought them out specifically.

Set out the ‘bare minimum’ you could launch your project with

You inevitably have big ambitions for your project. But to really help push the conversation forward, don’t underestimate the value of cutting your full list of requirements and desired features down to a ‘must-have core’–you’ll hear some teams refer to this as a minimum viable product or a MVP (a phrase borrowed from Eric Reiss’ excellent book The Lean Startup, and it’s a great rule to keep in mind. If you absolutely had to launch with a reduced feature set, which things on your list could you simply not live without? It’s almost always better to launch sooner, and grow and evolve from there, than it is to spend months and months building features which might never sees the light of day.

Getting this MVP feature list together will really help you to get as much value as possible from any discussions you have with agencies. It’s a set of information which can help them to give you much better advice.

While we’re at it, don’t demand that they sign an NDA before you send them any information

It’s pretty common practice for VCs to turn down requests which come bundled with a nice, onerous NDA. As Paul Graham says:

"A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA."

And the same applies when it comes to design agencies. Using that same example of an agency getting 10 enquiries a day, that adds up to a lot of ideas and potential projects being discussed. If they’re signing an NDA for each of them, not only does that take a lot of time to sort out, but it means they’d be tripping over NDAs all over the place.

What you’re doing is highly unlikely to be completely and utterly unique–and even if it was, everybody knows that the value lies in the execution, not that great idea that I had 10 years ago, which would have made me a billionaire if only I’d gone ahead and done something about it.

You should definitely make sure there’s a solid confidentiality clause in place before you start doing any actual work together, but trying to tie everyone’s hands at this point, unless you’re either a bank, or a huge, huge brand, is not a great way to start things off.

But do tell them your budget

The goal of starting this kind of conversation with an agency is to understand whether they’re able to work with you. Budget pays a big part in that. Even if a project is entirely doable from a technical angle, if your budget is only enough to cover 20% of the work that the agency knows it will take in order to build it, then you’re not well matched.

But if the financial parameters are communicated nice and clearly, that also means that the agency can help you figure out the best way to invest that budget. Remember that list of ‘MVP features’ I mentioned earlier? That’s where this comes in, too. If it looks like a project is running at 2x the amount you’ve budgeted, that might mean you’re incompatible. But if we realise that 3 of the features you’ve requested, which were on your original list, but not on the MVP list, are disproportionately expensive relative to the value they deliver, then that’s an easy way to chop off a chunk of the project scope without damaging the project impact, and potentially make it a doable project.

Agencies are in the client services industry–they’re not charities. Their business model is pretty much always based on figuring out how much it costs them to operate, and then charging out their services for more than this amount, in order to make a profit. So as a general rule, the best way to reduce a budget is to reduce the amount of time you’re asking them to spend, and to figure out ways to make things as efficient as possible at your end.

So, be prepared to put time into the process

If you treat a project as though it can be completely outsourced, with a few quick emails being sent, the the final, flawless deliverables, being received from the agency shortly afterwards, you’re likely to be disappointed.

The more you put into the project, the better the results will be. You almost certainly know your business better than any third-party. This doesn’t mean you should micromanage every design decision. It does, however, mean you should do your best to pre-empt an agency’s needs, and be prepared to work hard to deliver strong support and content to them.

That should start at the outset, with smooth, responsive communication after your initial message, in order to make it as easy as possible for your relationship to get off the ground.

Plan ahead

Nothing is more of a damning indictment of your project management skills than getting in touch with an agency and setting out a ridiculously short notice deadline, especially if the reason for the lack of notice is because of poor organisation at your end. A smart agency will protect their team, and while they might love to help you if they’re in a position to, they won’t allow you to pile pressure on that team due to bad organisation.

A decent agency will likely have a healthy pipeline of work booked in. They won’t be able to take on your project with a day’s notice. You’re immediately in a far weaker position, and might be inclined to make a rushed decision about who to work with, that could backfire on you later on.

Be willing to talk in person, early

A quick call gives everyone involved the chance to get a feel for who they’re talking to, and helps avoid painfully slow text communication. At Hanno, we almost always insist on a video call with any potential client, and would strongly recommend the same to both other agencies, and also to clients.

It really helps you to make better decisions about whether to work together, and is the perfect opportunity to discuss the project in more detail having read through the initial document that the client has sent over, and for you to explain any tricky bits in more detail.

If you have deal-breakers, get them out there early, too

There’s just no point in wasting your time discussing the project in detail if you have an absolutely critical requirement at your end, which you suspect might lead to an incompatibility. If you think this might be the case, make sure you get it out in the open quickly, so you can all save time. A couple of examples might be:

  • “We pay all invoices at net-60”
  • “We want someone to work on-site for the duration of the project”

And finally, don’t be afraid to show your personality

The people at the other end of the email you send are just as real as you are. IF we’re going to be working together, we want to know what you’ll be like to work with. There’s a distinction between being professional, and being boring. There’s no need to treat your initial dialogue as an interrogation or a legal battlefield. Relax, get to know each other, and don’t hide your personality.

Hopefully these tips will give you a little bit of insight into how to find a better agency to partner up with, and how to make their lives easier too. There’s no doubt that if you find the right team to match up with, and put the right input into building that relationship, it can be a massively rewarding partnership.

Good luck!

Photo by: brunogirin