Rules for freelancers


I’ve been freelancing for a while now, over two years. And although I used to freelance in the late 90’s, this is by far my most serious and sustained go at it, and my most successful. (Of course, success is a relative and variable term). And in the past couple of years, I have developed a set of rules for myself that help me make the most of the experience. Every freelancer will have their own set of rules, but these are the ones that have worked out the best for me.

1. Get over your ego.
People have various reasons for doing the job they do. For me, it is really all about the relationships and learning. That is useful to keep in mind when a client requests something in a project that I am at odds with. I usually will state my opinion on the matter, and more often than not the client will agree and we will proceed on that basis. But sometimes they want what they want outside of my professional considerations, and it is after all their site, not mine. They are the ones that need to be happy with it at the end of the day, not me. I really don’t have a big ego about my design work, and I think that serves me well. If I am particularly pleased with a website when it is complete, I will put it in my portfolio. And if not, I won’t. If the client is happy at the end, I am happy.

2. Write clear proposals with exclusions and payment terms
This may seem like a no brainer, but it isn’t, and it has taken me a while to massage the terms of my quotes to be clear and workable. I always try to lay out in the clearest way possible what the scope of the work to be done will be, what the payment schedule will be, and what is excluded. A clear proposal helps the client understand what they are paying for and what they are not paying for. Some of these things are less of a concern if one is working hourly, but if one is working for a set project fee then it is essential. Although rare, there have been occasions when I had to remind the client of exactly what we agreed to, and it is helpful to have it in writing.

3. Figure out how much you can afford to lose and never have more than that outstanding with a client
A few years ago, I had to sue ex-business partners of mine over a site they stole from me and a substantial sum of money. It was a 2 year, extremely costly (lawyers fees) endeavor that was truly not worth it. I swore then that I would never get into a situation again where there was too much owed to me to lose. Accordingly, I have a dollar amount that is the most I will allow a client to owe me. This is the amount I am willing to walk away from. I hear all the time from people that are owed tons of money from clients and I wonder how they let themselves get into that situation. When I reach that amount (or before) I will bill my client. If they do not pay me, there will be no more work, and I will walk away. I will not take them to court or hire a lawyer for this purpose, it is poison to the soul. This amount may vary over time, but it is always the amount I am willing to lose, to walk away from.

4. Refuse to do work if a client is late with an invoice (at least until it is paid)
Related to number 3 above. I never understand why people will continue to do work for a client that has not paid. No pay, no work.

5. Be willing to walk away from work
This is a tough one, especially in a bad economy or down period. But it is important. I have turned down projects where I didn’t feel the relationship would be mutually beneficial, even when I wasn’t sure where the rent was coming from.

6. Don’t sell yourself short
Somewhat related to number 5, I set hourly billing for myself on a number of factors. While I may be willing to work for less if the project affords me some education in a new area or gives me a particularly interesting creative challenge and freedom, generally I try to maintain some rigidity in my pricing. Potential clients whose only goal is to spend the least possible on their website are not going to be a good fit.

7. Don’t oversell yourself
In a similar vein, try to be honest with clients about what you know and what you will need to learn on the job. If there is something that you truly don’t think you will be able to accomplish, pass on it and be honest with the client before you are in too deep. Over the past two years as my skill and speed have increased, I have become pretty accurate about how much time things will take and feel confident in my ability to learn most new things, but there are occasions where I have to say up front, “I don’t know”.

8. Don’t talk smack about other clients
This should be obvious, but no client wants to hear about problems you had with previous clients. Tell it to your therapist or partner if you must, or suck it up and be quiet.

I of course have a few other rules that govern my work habits and product, but the above are the ones I am most public about, and the ones that govern my relationships with clients. I strive to be consistent in their application, but I am of course only human and sometimes things don’t go according to plan. That said, I am pretty happy so far with the experience. Who knows where it all will lead, and honestly, does it matter? The doing is more important than end of doing, if you ask me.