How to outsource: A decision-making guide for entrepreneurs

Outsourcing has both pros and cons: find out how to make the right choices for your business.

8 minutes read


Should I outsource or not? All business leaders are likely to ask themselves this question at some point. Outsourcing can take many forms and has both pros and cons. One thing is certain: if you decide to move forward with outsourcing, you need expert knowledge on how to go about it.

Lucie Le François, Senior Business Advisor, BDC Advisory Services, demystifies outsourcing in five questions. Follow the guide!

1. What is outsourcing?

Outsourcing is when a company decides to subcontract part of its operations (e.g., producing a good, completing a manufacturing step or providing a service, such as transportation or payroll processing) to a third party.

Outsourcing often brings to mind moving production to countries like China and Mexico. “But you can also outsource a single stage of production, like painting, to a local partner,” says Lucie Le François. “Another example is, rather than investing in their site and expanding upon reaching maximum capacity, some companies outsource their storage needs.”

Rather than investing in their site and expanding upon reaching maximum capacity, some companies outsource their storage needs.

2. What are the advantages of outsourcing?

Outsourcing is prevalent in one form or another because it offers several advantages when resources are limited.

Cost reduction

Companies often choose to outsource part of their operations to reduce costs. For example, a part can be produced by a supplier at a more affordable cost than if the company invested to manufacture it in-house. It can also clean up their balance sheet by eliminating assets and stabilizing cash flow.

“It’s often a question of volume,” says Le François. “If the volume is too low, it’ll be more advantageous to outsource this operation, even if it means bringing it back later, when the volume greater. Whether or not outsourcing is appropriate should always be re-evaluated as the company grows.”

Without hard numbers, it’s difficult to determine whether there’s a real benefit to outsourcing.

To determine whether subcontracting is advantageous, you need to know your operating costs. “Without hard numbers, it’s difficult to determine whether there’s a real benefit to outsourcing,” she adds.

Access to expertise

Many companies also choose to outsource because it gives them access to expertise or cutting-edge technology that they do not have or that they do have but in limited capacity.

“For example, if a company can’t afford to purchase a very advanced technology, it can still benefit from it by choosing a specialized supplier who uses it,” explains Le François. “With this specialized expertise, we can produce a better-quality product at a lower cost.”

Strategic use of resources

Outsourcing also allows companies to add resources during peak periods or even reserve them for high-value-added tasks. To do this, you need to think about your company’s core mission and whether it is relevant to continue certain operations.

“This is the case not only for physical resources, but also for human resources,” adds Le François. “For example, outsourcing can help during labour shortages. You have to ask yourself if you’re using your workforce as strategically as possible at a time when it’s so difficult to recruit and retain workers. In this case, outsourcing is a way to help meet one-time or seasonal needs, without the company having to hire employees, with the annual salary and benefits that come with that.”

Quick market adjustment

Companies may also decide to outsource when the market is moving quickly and they do not have the time to familiarize themselves with a new field in the short term. A good example is the immense popularity of e-commerce and the sudden volume of orders to be processed. Many entrepreneurs have decided to outsource order processing and shipping because they did not have the knowledge or the human and physical resources to do it themselves. They still wanted to pursue these business opportunities, however.

“There is a cost associated with market responsiveness,” says Le François. “That is why it can be advantageous to do business with a specialized supplier that can offer a product or service more quickly.”

The main advantages of outsourcing

  • Cost reduction
  • Access to expertise
  • Strategic use of resources
  • Quick market adjustment

The main disadvantages of outsourcing

  • Risk of dependency
  • Loss of expertise
  • Sharing insider information

3. What are the disadvantages of outsourcing?

Outsourcing is not always the answer, however, and it is important to be aware of the associated risks.

Risk of dependency

Transferring production or a stage of production to a supplier can create a form of dependency on the supplier. “You also can’t spread yourself too thin by dividing the work among different subcontractors because that could dilute the benefits like economies of scale and make management more complicated,” warns Le François.

But a business leader can act accordingly by being aware of the risk of dependency. “Companies need to be properly protected by the agreement they sign with their supplier,” she adds.

Loss of expertise

Outsourcing an operation to a supplier also results in a loss of expertise within the company.

“The team that used to do the outsourced task is reassigned to other operations,” explains Le François. “The team can obviously resume that operation later and regain their expertise, but there is always a readjustment period.”

Sharing insider information

For outsourcing to work well, you must share insider information with your supplier. For example, details of new products will be in the hands of this partner company’s employees.

It is therefore important to take the time to choose a trusted supplier. If required, include confidentiality clauses in the agreement you sign with them.

4. How to outsource?

After a preliminary analysis, if you decide that outsourcing would be beneficial, the next step is to define the exact work to be outsourced and how this will be done. There are several things to look for to ensure that the process goes well.

Choosing a supplier based on a needs analysis

The choice of supplier should be based on several criteria, not just the best price offered.

  • Does the supplier have sufficient experience in your industry?
  • Is the supplier able to meet your expectations in terms of quality, turnaround times, reliability and technology?
  • Does the supplier have the flexibility to adapt to your changing needs?
  • Does the company have the necessary skilled labour to do the job properly?
  • Are the company’s ethical and environmental practices aligned with yours?
  • Will the company be able to integrate well into the supply chain?

“You have to solicit bids, and it’s recommended that you prepare specifications to make the selection easier,” explains Le François. “You need to have your list of priority needs in hand and decide, for example, where you’re willing to pay a little more for a higher level of quality. You have to look at the solution as a whole.”

Including performance indicators in the agreement

It is perfectly normal to have several expectations regarding the work carried out by your subcontractor, and you must make sure to include them in the agreement signed by both parties.

“For example, you can include objectives for quality, production capacity, stock levels, delivery times; it all needs to be there,” Le François states. “It’s reassuring for both companies to have clear objectives and measures because it avoids misunderstandings.”

Partnership: real teamwork

You need to ensure that key stakeholders will invest the necessary information-sharing and collaborative efforts to make outsourcing a success. To make things easier, why not consider joint training between your and your supplier’s employees?

“This makes it possible to establish a work methodology,” Le François explains. “It’s also good to have your employees connect with your supplier’s employees. Some companies even end up considering their suppliers’ workers as part of their own team, and this certainly yields good results because this dynamic fosters continuous improvement.”

Start small and test the waters

Before giving a large amount of work to a subcontractor, it’s better to start with a pilot test and then prepare a transition plan.

“Giving a small amount of work to a subcontractor gives everyone the chance to adjust, and once everything is going well, you can increase quantities,” says Le François.

The golden rule: do not transfer your inefficiency

Companies will generally outsource the part of their operations that is not particularly productive. That is no reason to transfer this inefficiency to a partner, however.

“For example, if the pallets you send to your subcontractor are labelled incorrectly and they have to spend an hour sorting them, you’ll pay more for the service,” explains Le François. “Bear in mind that you will be billed for this lost time and make sure to work to reduce waste.”

5. How does technology facilitate outsourcing?

While managing outsourcing used to be complicated because information was processed manually, technology has greatly simplified and accelerated exchanges. “For example, if there is a change to a drawing for a part, the updates can be shared among the different teams, commented on and corrected in real time,” Le François explains.

Management systems also provide a wealth of information for monitoring production in real time. It is also possible to access order status and stock levels. “This increases efficiency, and it can be reassuring to have access to this information,” she adds.

It is also recommended that you be transparent with your subcontractor, for example by giving them a solid overview of the work ahead. “If a large volume of work is expected, the supplier will be able to prepare, invest accordingly and consequently be better able to meet needs,” says Le François. “The more information you share with your subcontractor, the easier you make life and the more likely you are to avoid mistakes and delays. Everybody wins.”

In conclusion, outsourcing is not a magic fix-all, but it can be an interesting option depending on the context and your company’s specific objectives.