OK so you’ve got this whole “give half of your work away for free” thing down and are thriving as an individual freelancer. Now, how do you grow your operation in order to allow for more success as a business, or more work in general? What does it look like once you have actual fixed costs? How can you further grow your bandwidth in order to take on more clients and therefore allow for more revenue and impact with the work you are doing? Is this a model that allows for fast growth? Or is it meant to be a bit more gradual then a typical business? Those are topics we will explore in this section.
G1: Is this model scalable?
The short answer: yes. This is a model that verynice has leveraged for over five years, and it is a model that has allowed us, as a business, to double in both revenue and staff size each year. That said, at this time, this is not a model that is fully opitimized for the kinds of scale that a $10MM organization can sustain. This is a model that is designed to thrive in businesses that are run by sole proprietors, general partners, or small teams of 10-15 people.
As verynice grows, we will likely add an addendum to this book, or an additional section of sorts that sheds some light on best practices for a massive corporation to leverage a 50% pro-bono business model, but in the meantime that is not a knowledge base/understanding we can claim to have.
G2: How can we profitably run a business if we’re using paid clients’ money to pay for pro-bono work. How does it all balance out?
A common misunderstanding around this business model is that money made from paid client work is actually being used to subsidize the pro-bono work. This idea is built on the assumption that the pro-bono work executed under this model is accruing overhead for the business, but that is not the case. Instead, the model calls for a unique staffing model in which the majority of the staff is remote freelancers/contractors that act as volunteers for the unpaid/pro-bono engagements. As a result, there are no hard costs beyond your own time in order to get the pro-bono work done and, therefore, your volunteer efforts are not a drain on your resources and are not a hindrance to your company’s potential for scale.
G3: What are reliable methods for increasing my bandwidth?
The most reliable means of increasing bandwidth is to begin outsourcing a selection of your work and/or specific tasks that you yourself are having a hard time finding the opportunity to get to yourself OR that you realize you are not the best person for the job. No matter what your specific industry is, there is always a clear set of tasks that fall under the category of “production” along with another clear set of tasks that fall under the category of “management.” As the head of an organization or business that is giving over half of its work away for free, using the double half methodology, you should see yourself focusing as much of your effort as possible on management as opposed to production. This will allow you to scale your efforts dramatically and as a result, take on far more work as a business.
G4: What does an average week look like, managing something like this?
As an entrepreneur or a founder or a partner that is tasked with launching and/or scaling a business with a 50% pro-bono business model, a large chunk of your day will be allocated towards marketing and self-promotion in order to attract clients and talent. On any given month, I will personally make an appearance through a speaking role in an average of 2-3 conferences. Not only do these appearances give the company exposure and spread our mission of pro-bono services, it also allows us to attract new volunteers and contractors (if talking to a group of designers), as well as non-profits (if talking at a social sector-oriented venue), and even paid clientele (if the gig is at a startup conference or corporate summit). When we are not spending time at physical events, we are also pushing hard through our social media outlets and various media channels to get the word out about what we are currently working on in order to maintain our public presence as much as possible.
Aside from consistent self-promotion, another big part of the day is management. With a model that requires a heavy load of networked collaboration, you will absolutely find yourself in Google hangouts or Skype calls quite frequently.
G5: Should I just be outsourcing this work and walk away?
A common misunderstanding amongst business owners that are new to outsourcing is the idea that you can simply delegate the work and walk away from the project. This is very far from the truth. In fact, if you do take on a perspective on management like this, you will indeed face some serious drama with your clients. See Section I5 of this toolkit to learn more about the risks of outsourcing.
Under the double half methodology, outsourcing should not be seen as a means to an end, but instead as a way to better disseminate your vision for a given project or client engagement. While the work itself may not be crafted by your own hands, the overall strategic and/or creative direction that the work is built upon is indeed created by you. Outsourcing is difficult in the beginning, as it requires a unique ability to explain your concept and vision for a project well to someone else, but the fact that that is necessary alone will make you a better leader.
When you are working with a volunteer contractor on a pro-bono project, you should always put their time before your own, and you should always be prepared to take over their work should something arise. In lieu of this, you need to always be in full control of each of your projects in order to fully understand the status and needs of each pro-bono engagement to allow you to make quick decisions and have a deep effect on every component of the project.
G6: Am I going to have to work twice the amount of hours with twice the amount of work?
At the highest level possible, the concept of the double half methodology as a business strategy is to double your workload. In theory, if you double your workload, you should be twice as busy and therefore you should be working twice the amount of hours that you would be if you were at a more typical workload. Lucky for you, however, this is not the case.
When the double half methodology was first conceived, the concept of “double the work” was the scariest component of the business model that makes giving over half of our work away for free possible. In the early years of verynice, we literally had to skip sleep to get all of the work done. However, in more recent years, the model has been iterated upon to address the issue of long hours for those of us that would like to get some sleep. This model calls for a unique staffing method in which the business owner is able to pull from a pool of resources that is available to him via contractor hours and/or the recruiting of volunteers to assist in the production of a given project.
Managing 20 projects takes about half the time that producing 20 projects takes. As a result, this model calls for the head of the business and any “permanent staffers” to take a more managerial role as opposed to the role of a producer. For example, at the time of writing, verynice has roughly 30 projects. I am personally managing about 15 of those, and my partner, Bora Shin, is currently managing the remaining 15. The reason we are both able to leave the office by 6pm is the fact that we have 1-2 volunteers and/or contractors that are on board for each of those 30 projects that can take direction from us as managers and then produce under the umbrella and brand of verynice.
G7: What are the benefits of remote collaboration?
Aside from allowing for more bandwidth, the use of remote collaborators in your business can offer a lot of inspiration and diverse thought leadership to help uniquely position your business amongst the competition.
This competitive advantage comes from a collaboration across cultures and disciplines which offers insight and inspiration that can’t be found when working alone in a closed off room or cubicle. Only upon sharing control over your work and the final output of your vision will you be surprised by the outcome of a project.
G8: How do I ensure that I do quality work?
The market is filled with shitty products. Left and right we will find products that are not meant to last long, or products that are just inferior to their competition. We know that the bulk pack of crackers that we picked up at COSTCO is not nearly as great as the six pack of organic crackers at Whole Foods, but we buy it anyway thanks to the affordability of the item. The product business is the only business in which quantity and/or affordability outweighs the quality more often than not.
In the service business, quality is key. While some consultants are less talented or experienced than others, no one will purposefully hire a crappy designer or lawyer. They always want the best work possible. While the double half methodology is very much about quantity, no service-oriented business can possibly survive by producing poor work. Ensuring that you are doing the best you can on every single project that gets thrown on your plate is central to your success.
For more specifics on the importance of quality assurance in a business that gives over half of its work away for free, please reference section I.
G9: How do I find pro-bono volunteers?
verynice started as a side project in which I would volunteer the new skills I was acquiring in design school on the nights and weekends. For the first entire year of verynice, I did not promote the company or talk about it much publicly. After a year of developing my portfolio, I finally created a free website for the company using Cargo Collective, a publishing platform for creative professionals. The moment the site went up, it got a little bit of traction in the creative community and, as a result, we got on a blog here and there. After we got our first feature online, something crazy happened: I got an email. The email was from someone I had never met before who happened to be on the complete opposite side of the country. She was a graphic designer who was working as a full-time designer and strategist at an accomplished firm out of DC. The subject of her mail read “Connecting about verynice,” and the body expressed her interest in collaborating on a volunteer basis with the studio in order to help us in our efforts to provide free design services to non-profit organizations. This email completely took me by surprise as I had never even once contemplated the idea of opening up our studio to the help of other professionals. The result of this very first relationship between me and a volunteer of greatly influenced our business model and ever since we have always welcomed the generous support and offerings of those within and just outside of our personal network as a business.
In honor of that first email coming as a big surprise, we have kept a strategy for acquiring volunteers that is quite laissez-faire in that we actually never solicit the need for volunteers. We find that the solicitation of aid for a cause, as we see with strategies such as canvassing, is successful in finding support, but is also incredibly unsuccessful in finding authentic support. Very often when a volunteer is confronted by someone who needs help, they can quickly feel uncomfortable. This pressure that is forced upon a potential volunteer can often result in participation that is actually not authentic. A lack of authenticity behind the motivation of a volunteer will greatly affect their performance in an engagement and will almost never result in an end product that is satisfactory, let alone exceptional. This is precisely why verynice does not solicit volunteers and instead keeps our door open for others to let themselves in. That is right: 100% of verynice’s volunteer base has approached us entirely on their own, purely because they want to take part in our vision.
Now, I know what you are thinking: “hey, great tips Matt… So now I’ll just sit around in my apartment and wait for people to get in touch, right? Awesome.” Yeah, OK so at first this advice may not be the most actionable, but here is the thing: there actually are ways to attract the right types of volunteers while simultaneously avoiding solicitation all together.
1. Visit universities and/or college campuses. A great majority of verynice’s volunteers come from school visits that myself, or a member of the verynice team will make in order to simply share our work or give a guest lecture on a relevant topic. Students are always looking for opportunities to practice what they are learning in the real world, and are consistently confronted with unpaid internship opportunities. What better way to spend your time then to actually donate it for a good cause?
2. Join professional associations. Aside from speaking at schools, professional associations can also be a good place to meet potential volunteers. While the majority of verynice’s volunteers are students, the close runner up is early-mid career professionals that are looking for a new outlet for their sanity.
3. Social media. Social media marketing is a big part of what we do to indirectly attract new clients, but it is also a great way to meet potential volunteers. Talk loudly about your mission and vision, share your work and ideas, and you’ll be surprised by who it gets in front of.
G10: Should I hire people to get the model working?
Absolutely not. At verynice, we did not make our first hire until the business was roughly 4 years old. Instead of hiring permanent staff members, hire temporary contractors to help you get work done as it comes in. This is key to alleviating the up-front investment required to get your service-oriented business off the ground.
If you are fortunate enough to have attracted funding from an investor and are about to launch a business with the clear strategy of hiring employees up-front in order to scale fast, invest in an extensive management team and continue to outsource production work to key contractors and freelancers.
While the level of comfort in regards to bringing on a full-time staff member on to your team is different for every business owner, I personally tend to be quite careful and conservative. As a company, verynice only began to accrue fixed costs such as an office space or part-time staff after having brought twice the amount of revenue needed to cover the specific costs over three consecutive months.
G11: How do we get employees to champion their own causes or pro-bono projects?
Everyone has a cause that they are emotionally invested in. As your business begins to grow, and you begin to acquire a staff of individuals that are all in on your business and vision to use your talents and expertise for the greater good, welcome an open conversation around the causes that matter to each of your team members. After learning what is at the heart and soul of each of your team members’ values, seek out causes and projects that align with those values and delegate accordingly. Doing so will help your team maintain a strong sense of personal fulfillment in their day to day operations.