My Tips for Freelancing

A friend wrote this question, and I just felt like it was good blog-fodder…

When dealing with clients, whats the best way to set time restrictions for yourself so you can have a social life or be able to hangout with your kids? Are stating you have a hardstop later in the day the wrong way to go about it? What if something comes up? I’m conflicted going from a 9-5 office gig to working for multiple clients from home.

Dude. I have so many opinions on this.

Freelance Clients aren’t Corporate Clients

Freelance clients come in every variety – so be forewarned. Even the most stable-sounding client could turn in to a nightmare headcase if you’re not paying attention.

For starters, I’d suggest you pick clients who share your value system. If you believe that a work day should start and stop at certain times, make that part of your client onboarding process. Ask them when they expect deliverables from you – morning, afternoon, evenings, weekends?

Secondly, make sure your clients understand your circumstances (to a degree). If you set aside 4-8pm each evening as “playing with the kids time” make sure your client understands that ahead of time.

Also, especially in this economy – cashflow is king. If a client is asking for payment terms or flexibility in paying for services, either decline them or make them one of your “when I’ve got the time” clients. You should have 2 classes of clients: Those who are paying the full run rate – so you better get running! … and those paying the “jog” rate – where you just have to get to the end eventually, no sprinting required.

Just remember – there’s a reason why your client will consider you rather than a corporate alternative. What would inspire your confidence if you were in their shoes? What would you be willing to accept? Typically, they want a freelancer because they can get more for less, and often (in creative industries) a much more dynamic set of ideas. But just realize part of that proposition is that they expect to be able to demand your time under certain circumstances. Just be clear up front what you think is fair.

Stick To Your Expertise

As a freelancer, you’ll frequently get asked to do things that are outside of your comfort zone and area of expertise. While the money sounds, you have to realize that in freelancing, you’re literally trading hours for dollars. If you’re a coder and your client asks you for a design; find a designer. Don’t take on the work yourself. You’ll end up buried in doing things you’re not most efficient at – and that’s typically when the time-suck happens.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push your personal envelope. One of the most enjoyable things about freelancing is the range of activities and projects you might be working on. Take on the “flyer” project, but don’t expect to bill for learning curve. There are too many good freelancers in ever niche & channel that if your client pays full rate for something you’re just learning how to do – he or she will be ticked off, you’ll deliver sub-par work (because the client will expect it at the pace as if you know what you’re doing), and you won’t get the return business.

Write Good Deals

As a freelancer the nice part (in theory) is that you get to pick your clients almost as much as your clients get to choose you. Pick good clients who you like to communicate with, who share your values, and who can pay their bills. On top of that – write good deals. Create win-win outcomes.

For instance, if you think a project will take 25 hours on the low side and 40 hours on the high side, write the deal for 40 hours, and add overrun wiggle room as well. Explain that your objective is to come in under that – but there are variables involved that might not be clear on the outset.

Additionally, include a revision clause in your deals. Don’t be a total grinch about it, but if your client gets interim input – that’s where you’ll suffer. Deliver quality drafts early and get as much input on day 1 as you can. Every minute of work that you put in for an end product that your client does not walk away with will feel to them like a waste of time and money (even though it’s obviously not).

I’ve had a couple clients where I specifically said: The project will take 100 hours, but let’s start with 10 hours for a prototype. At that point, we’ll be able to tell if we’ve got another 50 hours to go or another 90.

Milestones are crucial – but beware attaching payment terms to them! Client turnaround will typically be the most frustrating part of the experience. Often you can’t penalize a client with cash (though that’d be nice) but it’s not unheard of to say: “If you turn around your input within 2 business days we’ll be on track. If you delay, I’m going to have to focus on other projects, and we’ll probably lose a week on the back-end.” Let them realize the longer they delay in helping you help them, the more pain it causes all around.

On top of all that, I think good paperwork up front makes for good deals. Whether it’s an email that is agreed upon or a formal contract – get the salient details in writing so if the project goes completely off the rails you can point to the thing they signed or agreed to. Sometimes, that’s enough to get them to calm down – and buy you the time to make things right.

The Nine to Five

The best part about being a freelancer is that you don’t have to work the 9 to 5. The worst part about being a freelancer is that your hours will probably be more like 8-10 – and not in the good way.

Ideally, let your client know the boundaries that you want to establish on the outset. Lots of clients seek out freelancers that have their values. Most people who hire freelancers are preoccupied with their day-to-day business, so expect that frequently you won’t get feedback from them until late in the evening or first thing the next day.

With that in mind, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to let clients know what hours are ok and what hours are out of bounds. But you’ve got to cover more than 40 hours in a work week (especially starting out) – so figure out where they’re going to come from.

Personally, anyone who’s worked with me knows mornings are out of bounds, but from 9am until 11pm you can probably get a hold of me. Ideally, I’ve tried to deliver work to clients right after I’ve taken a break. If you wrap something, send it to the client, and then go out with friends or play with family: That is guaranteed to be the one time the client turns around within 10 minutes with 4 pages of revisions.

Ultimately, freelancing means sacrificing some aspects of “social life” for the opportunity to pick your battles. If you’re effective and efficient, there’s no reason you can’t make a good living. The flip-side of the unpredictability of freelance work is that when the going gets good you can set your own rules, charge higher prices, and work the hours you want. But that requires building great client relationships, staying focused, and taking the early low-paying high-stress gigs just to get your bearings. You won’t really know what a “great” client is until you’ve taken on a few bad ones.

Good luck!

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