Ops: What, and how, do you outsource?

Tips on which parts of your operation you may outsource, and some considerations around doing so – from the 2017 series of Threads meetups

Discussion host: Peter Cain, growth and change consultant at Anamosys


With contract staff, you are benefiting from their transferable skills. However, once they’ve completed their contract and moved on, you can rarely get them back again. Mitigate for this and capture the subtle knowledge that can otherwise be lost.

With outsourcing partners, you are more likely to be able to tap back into the individuals involved and access their knowledge later down the line.

What to keep in house

Startups must consider what they’re really good at in order to concentrate on this and extract maximum value. Consider what is core and/or critical to your business; you may like to keep these in house, to remain fleet-of-foot. What’s core may not be fixed, may differ for each operation, and may become a commodity service as things evolve.

Any decision to outsource must be evidence-based. Don’t make it in the zeitgeist.

You can’t outsource responsibility. Chucking things over the fence and dealing with ramifications later will likely see your operation tanking if you have to divert attention and resources to remedy things.

Choosing an outsourcing partner

Size, attitude and culture of a potential outsourcing partner often proves important.  Trust is key. Asymmetric relationships often prove unhealthy. Compatibility of goals and timelines helps foster positive relations.

Think about the medium term; how best you can adapt and scale the arrangement. Startups are under pressure to make a positive initial splash but this shouldn’t become diffused or hamper your ability to grow.

Consider the nature of your requirement. If it’s lumpy or unpredictable, there’s a good chance outsourcing may make sense. If it’s a full time function, it may be best to keep it in house.

Managing your outsourcing partner

Aim to retain ownership of requirements and specifications. You may benefit from external input from the outsourcing partner to define them, but you should own the spec and what it means for the operation. 

Bear in mind the merit of getting an outsourcing partner involved when learning a new concept or domain, as this can be a fertile way of learning. Weigh up the knowledge that you won’t be amassing when you outsource. Consider placing a staff member at the outsourcing partner to boost knowledge transfer; make staff training part of the delivery agreement and process.

Handling the IP generated by outsourcing

Have IP ownership clearly documented upfront in your contracts, so that it’s clear who owns what from the start, and who will own anything that is created. Consider whether your partner is looking to bring, or to build, their own IP.

Consider when and how ownership of IP is transferred back to you. It can be a fine line between know-how and IP. It isn’t difficult to get proper documentation in place.

Investors will seek comprehensive due diligence on your IP. They will want to establish where it originated; e.g. any patents, contributions from staff, contractors or outsourcing partners. They will request to see the contracts involved.

Watch that open source or reusable software components usage doesn’t contravene licence agreements. Audit and keep an inventory.

A clear understanding of IP ownership will foster good relationships with your outsourcing partner. You want to avoid sudden surprises. It’s beneficial to show that you do understand and respect the outsource partner’s expertise.

Deliverables from outsourced work

Consider how you wrap a piece of work that’s being delivered by an outsourcer. The scope should be defined, with limitations identified. Implement mitigation measures. Avoid vagueness.

Ideally, the work package should be portable so you aren’t over-reliant. Consider the merit of building into the spec some components which use common or generic technology. Build in measures, controls and  penalties and have alternatives readily available. 

In addition to any hidden charges, watch out for hidden costs of managing your outsourcing partner.

You’re more likely to be critical of external supplier than of the same output from an in-house function.

Published by Andrew Gifford

Co-organiser of Threads South West. Founder/MD and people person at techfolk. Interested in the people aspects of running a progressive business.

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