A lot of people are surprised when they hear that Uplink is run by only two people - Nick and me. We do everything ourselves: talking to clients, posting jobs, screening and introducing candidates, sales, marketing, meetups, webinars, etc. Not to mention all the mundane admin tasks needed to run any company (taxes, invoices, contracts, etc.).
We do have plans to grow our team to maybe 4-5 people post-Corona, but we can handle the current workload without problems. What's our secret?
Three things: limited scope, efficient processes, and a relentless focus on automation.
But first, some background: Uplink is a community of Germany-based IT freelancers that I started back in 2016. We have 1500+ members by now and our main thing is publishing selected high-quality freelance jobs in our community and introducing matching freelancers to the client. The service is free for clients, but the freelancers pay us a 10% fee when they find a new client through us. Simple and straightforward.
Apart from the jobs postings, we have a very active Slack community, where our members discuss everything related to freelancer life in Germany, we organize webinars and meetups (face to face before Corona, currently online), and much more. The only thing we make money from are the job postings, though. Everything else is just for fun! 😄
So let's talk about the three things which are key being able to do what we do and stay sane:
1. Limited scope
When you are a small team and plan to stay small, you have to think carefully about what exactly you want to do and what you want to avoid. This involves identifying the parts of your business that would normally take up a lot of your time and effort, and figuring out how to do less of them (or don't do them at all).
Our main business is "IT recruiting". Companies in this space spend most of their time doing two things - sales and "active search". Sales means identifying potential new clients, bombarding them with phone calls and LinkedIn messages, and spending weeks and months getting them to sign your contract (a simplified view of course, but you get the picture). Active search on the other hand means identifying freelancers on LinkedIn and bombarding them with messages, so you can introduce them to your clients.
Both of these activities never seemed very appealing to us. 😁 So we replaced the active search part with building a community of freelancers first, which we can then present our projects to, and the sales part with encouraging referrals from freelancers and clients, content marketing, partnerships, and very targeted outreach to "high-potential" leads, aided by our software (see Automation below).
Essentially, we limit ourselves to do only things that "scale", i.e. don't require the same constant input in time and effort, day after day, to produce the same (or higher) output.
2. Efficient processes
Even if you limit the scope of your activities and try to focus on things that scale, there are a lot of processes that eat up time, which is unacceptable in a small team. If you are one of 50 people on a team, you can spend half a day copy-pasting text from one PDF to another, or printing, signing, and scanning contracts, but in a small team you immediately become the bottleneck and everything else grinds to a halt.
Therefore you always have to ask yourself if the thing you're doing right now is really worth spending your time on, whether it can be automated, replaced with a software tool (or, if you're a developer, a small shell script), or simply be avoided altogether. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it requires constant self-monitoring, but it is a deeply fulfilling feeling if you realize that this one thing you really hate to do can be done a different, more efficient way (and you actually have the power to decide to do it that way).
A good exercise is taking just two minutes at the of the workday and simply thinking through your day, from beginning to end - was there anything you did that took up more than a few minutes, an activity you didn't enjoy, but which has to be done on a regular basis (daily/weekly)? If so, put it aside in your mind as something you'd like to get rid of. You might not think of a way to do so immediately, but one day, while you're enjoying a warm shower or taking a spring walk, the solution will come to you.
This, of course, is the holy grail for any entrepreneur - automation! Just the thought of putting a few pieces together and enjoying a constant output without any significant input can make your heart race.
Especially in the recruiting industry, so much time is wasted on manual, error-prone activities that could be automated. It often reminds me of the five monkeys experiment - "it's the way it has always been done, so we'll keep doing it that way!"
Our main advantage is that I, being a developer, started working on our software platform on day one, and made sure that everything we do is at least half-automated.
We want to check a certain job board for relevant freelance jobs? (the "high-potential" leads I mentioned earlier) Great, let's write a web scraper that does it every day at 7am and creates a task for us to check the results. Our freelancers need to send us the invoices they issue to our clients? Great, we'll let them upload the PDFs in our Slack, they are forwarded to our API, and we'll create a task for ourselves to take care of them.
If you start thinking in steps and processes like that, it's incredible how you can divide tasks in smaller sub-tasks, automate some of them, and just handle the tricky ones yourself.
Over the years, we have built automated processes for everything we do, most notably for how new jobs are published in our community, how freelancers can apply, how they are introduced to the client, and how the clients can review their profiles and invite the candidates to an interview. This allows us to handle many clients and jobs at the same time without ever dropping the ball or feeling overwhelmed. It surely is a lot of work, but everything we do is "worth doing" (in the sense that a human can do it much better than a machine), since the rest has long been - you guessed it - automated.
There you go, these are the three things that allow us the luxury of running a small community/software business without risking a burnout. Of course, there is much more to it, and we can count ourselves lucky to have such a great and supportive community around us. But without our focus on a limited scope, efficient processes, and automation, I don't think we would be where we are today.
If you are a freelancer based in Germany, join us! It's free and fun, even if you're not looking for a job right now.