The Heist Model: Not hiring anybody

We’re seeing this more and more among the edgiest of shops. The Netherlands has already had a massive shift towards freelancers (ZZP’ers). It is only natural that they would band together regularly to accomplish company level work but without the ties and inertia normally associated with employment.

Anil’s last point in “Upgrades” triggered me to write this, because this is the way we’ve (i.e. Hubbub or Monster Swell) been working together for a while now (and yes Spry Fox is great!) and trying to figure out what the best way moving forward is.

Trying to recruit people seems to me to be a fool’s game. I always feel a bit sorry if I see good people posting jobs or people posting good jobs, because I know how hard those are to fill. At this stage in my life, I wouldn’t work for a company unless they were ridiculously special and made me an extremely good offer. If I look around I don’t know anybody with skills looking for a job.

In short: I wouldn’t want to work with anybody who would work for me.

This isn’t to say that people who work at companies don’t have skills, but those that do are highly sought after and usually have no trouble shaping their own career paths without help from online job postings or head hunters. Of course there are exceptions and if you are serious about hiring and growing a company that way, you would do well take a look at Netflix’s playbook.

Really Networked

The way we have to do it both practically from an overhead, financial risk and skill mix point of view as from a conceptual stance where project demands and excellence drives organizational structure is a kind of networked agency. But as Spry Fox explains, this is a newfound model compared to the old networked agency. Which used to be mostly agency cores supplemented by more than occasional freelancers.

The way to work with the best of the best: usually fluid usually creative partnerships, open for repeats, trust and transfer of agency. People need to be rewarded both financially but also with work that is worthwhile. Trust means accepting the edges of your collaborators as a tradeof for their ability and trusting that what they do will be the best to all your ability

To be able to do this, some basic structures need to be in place both physically, infrastructurally but also conceptually. Aligning cognitive wave lengths with a suitable group of people and keeping hold of freelancers with meaningful availability is hard enough as it is.

What seem to me to be important ingredients for building these structures are:

  • A strong thematic focus so that everybody participating knows what it is you are doing and why you are doing it. A repeatable but also scalable back story.
  • Buy-in. Ensure that everybody has enough skin in the game for it not to be a 9-to-5 commitment. The success of the project is shared success. They are partners not employees or outsourcing shops.

There are tons of issues which I’m going to leave out for now. I don’t have the time or the ability right now to write the end-all on this subject and we’re inventing most of this as we go along anyway. Your experiences and questions would be helpful.

Update: after a late night conversation, we dubbed this the Heist model of collaborating.

Update: James Governor points to a Business Week article on the same trend “Entrepreneurs: Struggling to Recruit Software Engineers” (without much of a solution though).

12 thoughts on “The Heist Model: Not hiring anybody”

  1. I really believe in networked agencies and lots of creative people around me choose the freelance alternative over good old fashioned employment. The online – social – network thrives a huge new potential of new forms of collaboration. But people tend to be risk aversive. Maybe this new form of networked labour is only for the happy few working in the creative industry. We’ll see.

  2. @Sjors: Nice idea and way to sell a business book, but that is explicitly not the point. The structures they propose look generic which is ok, but not what I’m after.

  3. While I definitely agree that this is a superior way to operate, I also just failed to land a huge client last week based upon their perception that Bubble Foundry was too small compared to the competition. Unfortunately that may be the last remaining restriction from the truly networked agency model from taking off.

  4. @Peter: There’s a number of things you can do to change that perception, most of them quite easy some of them a bit more involved.

  5. Yes, interesting stuff.

    One challenge that might need some additional thinking is this.

    You need or *be* a credible curator of talent for companies to start with. To become a genuine option for a company to start working with the group, it needs to trust at least one of the groups individuals, then automatically this person becomes the one that is most responsible, bringing the whole thing out of balance. To solve this you can think about working under a different name, but then its almost a small boutique again in which 2 to 5 partners are working and sharing the risks and profits together. Nothing new about that.

    To be the credible curator for talent that is trusted by the companies is the biggest challenge, which I think has a lot to do with just doing a lot of great work with them. Then over time, if they like working with you it naturally extends to something you’re describing, but then you are the credible curator.

    Need to think about it more…

  6. I love this approach and believe virtual, cloud, agencies are the way forward. I find two aspects which challenge the uptake: one, established client perspectives (as Peter hints: they still love to see a nice shiny office with lots of people behind workstations) and also legal recognition for this state. Creating Ersatz / Heist based teams steers into unclear grounds on copyright and ownership (responsibility issues). But cloud agencies are proliferating – and the bricks n’mortar agencies are running scared… (well, ok, I wish)

  7. @Brant: Thanks!

    Shiny office with lots of people: can be arranged (and we are in fact doing so right now).

    Copyright and ownership: if you’re building a product with the team you should either incorporate quickly (difficult in the Netherlands) or start off with clearly signed letters of intent for your future incorporation. This is probably the kind of thing you need to be burned by once before you do it properly.

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