How freelancers can borrow the best of big business practices

6 min read
Justin Hein

You’ll be hardpressed to find an independent freelancer or small business that doesn’t express some level of disdain for big business practices, especially politics.

I’ve experienced both the corporate and startup world. After my first failed company, I was encouraged by a few smart people to try working for a big firm. I begrudgingly obliged – partly because of their advice and partly because my credit cards were screaming for me to do so.

Whether you previously worked for a corporation or you’ve been a freelancer from the start, here’s the best of what I learned from big companies that will actually improve the operations or profits of your business — even if it’s a business of one.

1. Accept that politics are a reality.

Big companies are known (and disliked) for their politics. However, one non-obvious lesson for freelancers and contractors is that all companies greater than one person have politics.

All companies greater than one person have politics.

You might not have ever worked for a corporation before. But the companies you serve as clients are big companies.

The majority of staff are so far removed from the actual selling of the product or service that they spend most of their day delivering a miniscule fraction of the value created, and spend a great deal of their time managing the politics of the office.

What’s more, most don’t even realize they’re spending majority of their efforts navigating office politics.

Half the battle is realizing that office politics are inevitable.

This will help you to think of ways to harness this natural human dynamic.

Business Practice Roles
Source: Pinterest

2. Understand the roles people play.

Archetypes are very defined in big business. You’ll note who’s the hard worker, the party planner, the high energy person, the gossiper and the fast riser (who steps on heads to get there). These roles overlap much more at small companies.

As a freelancer, you might be saying to yourself, “Well that’s why I work solo.” But this concept of politics still applies. You work closely with the teams that hire you and as such, still need to play “the game.”

If you can identify the style of your client or point of contact (or the various members of the team you’re working with), you can act accordingly, regardless of other outside factors. Build a playbook on how to operate with them; find out what kind of updates they need on a regular basis for their boss or how much advanced notice they’ll need for approval on the latest aspect of the project.

Learn to play “the game” their way and you’ll position yourself as a valuable resource and asset who is ready to help them get to their end goal.

Meeting with an Alpha-type personality who wants to climb the ladder? Cover yourself. Understand they want to get all the credit, but do little of the work. Make sure you engage them to move the goals of the project forward, set very clear measures of success with them, and let them socialize it to others.

Having an email exchange at the beginning of a project with a gossiper? Understand that they care more about the personal matters than the work being done. You can use this to your advantage. Meet in person for coffee, share non-damaging information to gain an ally, and then leverage your relationship to move the project faster.

Interacting with an organizer? Ask them to organize something for you. Leverage their natural gift to your advantage.

On the surface, these tactics might feel inauthentic or slightly nefarious. I argue that they are the opposite. You’re adapting your leadership or working style to the people around you. This is what great leaders do; adapt to others, not make people adapt to them.

Use people's natural predispositions and a framework to identify them will help you (and them) accomplish your goals. To your contact, you’ll be more than just a developer or consultant — you’ll be their valuable resource and asset, ready to help them.

3. Set expectations religiously.

Most negative incidents or interactions between teams in a big business are caused by unaligned parties or unclear expectations. The same holds true when you’re a freelancer working with a client.

When setting expectations with clients, here’s an easy framework to follow:

  1. Discuss what you expect to be accomplished.
  2. Follow up with an email outlining the expectations within 24 hours of your conversation.
  3. Check in one week before the deadline: “Hey, do you need help with X as per my previous email?”
  4. At the conclusion of the project, ask for feedback on what went great or areas for improvement.
Business Practices Memo
Source: Pinterest

Think your freelance gig will evolve into your own small shop? Bookmark this one, and thank me later.

4. Elevate your email etiquette.

Probably the greatest difference in working for a big company versus a small one is the vast difference in taking care of the little things. This is where big companies excel. While you may be comfortable communicating via short, instant blurbs on Slack or other messaging apps, your clients most likely still communicate the (new) old-fashioned way — emails. If you’re a little rusty on your email etiquette, here’s a quick refresher:

  • The subject of an email should never be longer than a tweet.
  • On emails where action is required, include people in the TO field who are expected to reply. CC those who need to know, like your client contact’s boss, as an FYI. Don’t expect someone in the CC field to reply.
  • Always include an agenda when preparing for any kind of meeting or discussion.
  • Keep up a regular cadence of consistent messaging, but don’t send too many.
  • Include only one or two digestible points.
  • Don’t make it overly long (aim for less than two minutes of reading). If it’s longer than that, you’re not being clear in your thoughts.
  • Firmly stating the “why” of the message, not just the “what.”

Best business practices for growth

Big companies are big companies for a reason: They’re doing something right. As a freelancer, your best bet is to play “the game” and do your best work for your client, adapting to their big-company business practices and policies. Accept them, learn from them, and use them to your advantage to grow your freelance business.