I did quite a few years of freelancing before going back into full-time employment in November 2013, and last year I started doing freelancing again. I feel like I’ve learned some things and received lots of good advice over the years.
A chat the other day prompted me to think about this in more detail, and write down a bunch of things: things I wish I’d known earlier in my freelancing career; things I don’t want to forget as I carry on now; things that are mostly kinda true for me. Some over-arching themes:
- seeing if you and the client are a good fit for each other;
- handling money - it’s often awkward to talk about;
- doing things in short cycles - (like getting feedback and invoicing) early and often.
Here's a bit of a braindump of all the things that bubbled up in my brain. These work for me; maybe they'll work for you.
You’re the expert but, especially at first, you need to explain yourself and justify your decisions / advice. Back things up with stats and principles. It must be clear how the thing you’re suggesting helps.
If you’re doing consulting work, deep collaboration is essential. Your focus will probably be more on facilitation than on just telling them what to do.
Be wary of clients that come to you with a solution they want you to implement. Where you can offer the most value is helping to find the right solution. Help them to clearly state the problem, not the solution they’ve arrived at.
Clients (and their bosses) tend to like deliverables. Make sure that what you give them is useful and usable, not just a deliverable for deliverables sake. Make it clear that the deliverables are mostly a communication tool, and a reminder / record of the thinking that was done.
Look for the simplest solution. That solution might be having some hard discussions and making some hard decisions, rather than making / building a new thing.
Get feedback early and often. Don’t wait more than a week before putting your work in progress (the completed bits of it) in front of the client.
Work and workflow
Play the long game. Be generous with your advice. Focus more on getting good results than on getting more hours. Your efficiency will be appreciated, and you might be asked back for more help.
Let a piece of work go if it’s not the right fit for you. It’ll just become a bit of work you don’t enjoy otherwise. Have a network of people who operate in a similar kind of space that you can refer the client too that they will be a good fit for.
Your happiness and health are more important than anything else. Avoid bad clients and long hours as they will drive you crazy and make you sick.
Don’t take on too much work at a time. If you really want a piece of work, talk about deferring it until you have capacity to do it. Gently probe as to why a thing is so urgent, what the hard deadline for it is: things can often wait a few weeks. Rather do the thing properly in a few weeks time than rush it right now.
If you work from home, set office hours and stick to them. The work will still be there in the morning. Don’t forget to get out of the house a bit: see people for coffee and lunch.
Always use a contract; no exceptions. It doesn’t have to be fancy and full of legalese. Pursuing lost money, even with a contract, is likely to be more trouble than it’s worth. However, a contract shows that both you and client are serious, and a contract combined with regular invoicing means you’re unlikely to go down the rabbit hole of doing a large amount of work that you end up not getting paid for. If a client refuses to sign a contract (yours or theirs), avoid them.
Use the flexible hours to do stuff. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon can be good times to do admin stuff, but take some time to do fun things too.
Plan for holidays and time off. Build it in to your hourly rate. You shouldn’t feel like you’re losing money when you’re not working.
Never negotiate on price, only on scope. The work is a continuum: the more hours you can spend on a thing (which means the more the client can spend), the better you can make it. Figure out in advance what the minimum commitment you’d be comfortable with is (to do a good job) for a particular project, and stick to it.
Be wary of clients who argue about price a lot. Either they’re more concerned about price than quality, or they can’t really afford you. Either way, it seems like it’s not the right fit for either side.
Invoice early and often, and (usually) start with a deposit. This helps you avoid doing lots of works without getting paid. It demonstrates that both sides are serious about the work and are treating it as a professional service that you’re supplying. More invoices mean smaller amounts, which can be easier to swallow, especially on big projects. Each invoice should be a blocker on starting the next bit of work.
Ask for a budget up front so that you can see if you’re a good fit, and to see what you can offer them. To show that you’re not just trying to get as much money as possible from them, be open about your rates and what you expect the budget might be. It’s okay to give a wide range, but give an indication of what the ends of the ranges cover. If a client refuses to give a budget or even a ballpark, it probably means they want it as cheap as possible.
Make sure that it’s clear that quotes are estimates. Quote an hourly rate, not a fixed amount. You can cap the number of hours, but it must be clear that scope is capped too.
Set your rate a bit higher. You’ll end up getting less work, but it’ll be higher quality work, and more enjoyable.