So You Think You Can Freelance? Part 4: Q&A

In Part 1, we discussed the mindset. In Part 2, we explored the ground work, and in Part 3 we talked money.

Now let’s get down to specifics. Here are some questions I received from others taking the plunge. Both new and experienced freelancers (and their clients) should find good info in here. So let’s dig in …

Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod, Flickr Creative Commons

Wishy-Washy About Payment

Q: A client approached me about a project, but ducked my questions about payment. What should I do?

A: It’s okay to gather details about the project without talking numbers. Certainly don’t let that stage drag on, and never confirm your participation or sign anything until that is a part of the discussion. Work, by definition, pays. This is your livelihood. Good clients will understand and respect that.

To Outline or Not to Outline

Q: What do you think about putting together a rough outline for a potential client for free, as a show of good faith?

A: This is a good idea when you’re starting out. It proves your skills and builds client trust. However, be willing to accept the worst-case scenario: that you won’t get paid for it. It’s an investment (or let’s be honest, a gamble), but it’s often worth it. Also, clearly indicate that your free work stops here. If they like what they see, they’ll have to pay for more. I scratch your back, you pay mine.

The Waiting Game

Q: I pinged an interested potential client with an example of the work I can do, and I haven’t heard back from them. It’s been days. Should I be worried?

A: I’m not surprised. It often takes clients longer to respond than you would expect, especially if you’ve never worked with them before. Think back to your office days. Remember all the red tape and sign offs for a project … on top of the myriad of other unrelated responsibilities you had to juggle? Sometimes it will take weeks (or even months) for people to get back to you. Don’t take it personally, but don’t put all your eggs in a possibly nonexistent basket either.

Payment Upfront

Q: I’ve been approached about a project that’s not expected to generate future revenue. I gave them a well-fleshed-out example to review, and they’ve decided to move forward with my work. Should I ask for money up front?

A: Yes and no. Clients usually balk at paying for work until they see results. However, since you already gave them a well-fleshed-out example, you could ask for 1/3 now, 1/3 when you deliver the draft, and 1/3 after the edits they require are complete.

Also, make sure you clearly indicate the number of edit rounds in your contract; otherwise, edits can go on indefinitely. I usually include two and say additional work will incur my hourly rate of X plus X for a quick turnaround (less than two business days). I’ll get into that more below …

I Gave Too Much

Q: I provided a rough outline for a project, but now I worry it was too complete, and there’s not much work left to be done. How should I adjust for this in what I charge?

A: You’ve discovered a risk of the business, but it’s also a good lesson to learn. The good news is, with new clients, more tends to be more. In other words, you give them more than they expect, and if it’s good, they’ll want more …. and more. (Just make sure they don’t keep paying you less and less.)

Greedy vs. Fair

Q: My gut feeling is that charging an hourly rate would be shortchanging myself, given the importance of my client’s project and their budget.  But I don’t want to get too greedy and chase them away either.  Where is the line is between well paid and overpaid?

A: I have five years under my belt, and this remains a tricky line: invisible, debatable, specific to each client, and moving all the time.

Rather than focusing on the confusion of all that (especially when you’re just trying to get your footing), focus on your hourly rate. Even if you’re charging on a project basis, think about how many hours it will likely take you. Then make sure your hourly rate is inflated enough to take into consideration e-mails back and forth; rounds of edits; time taken from other projects you need to do; paying for your own insurance, rent, and equipment; travel time to meet with them; etc.

For a larger project like this, I would think in terms of how many days it will take, including kickoff meetings, contract writing, the work itself, review rounds, invoicing, etc.. Multiply your hourly rate times the number of hours you expect to work in a day times the number of days you expect to work on the project. Then round up to a nice even total and take off 10-15% as a project rate discount. That will give you a good figure to start with.

Unrealistic Expectations

Q: A client wants me to do some back-story work on new intellectual property that could spin off to other platforms and products.  They won’t tell me anything about the IP itself until they receive my signed NDA, so I have no idea how complex it will be. They want this work done in the next two or three weeks, which sounds like an enormous task. Even if I scale the work to a two-week timeframe, what does one charge for an assignment like that?

A: Your gut is right. That sound like a big undertaking in that amount of time. If you take the project, build in a hefty short-turnaround bonus for yourself because you’ll likely be working late nights and weekends, not to mention not getting anything else done for yourself or other clients. For instance, I usually charge clients about 12% extra for a turnaround of less than two business days.

Also consider whether or not it’s even doable. You don’t want to sign up for something that’s impossible to deliver, only to have them end up trying to stiff you, break contract, or gossip to other potential clients that you couldn’t deliver—even if it’s their fault for erroneously setting those expectations.

What About My Own Projects?

Q: I have a couple of quick, one-off projects on the horizon that have the potential to interfere with certain other personal projects that are approaching crucial milestones.  I don’t want to miss out on a short-term cash grab (I still have a mortgage after all), but I don’t want to put the projects I’m most passionate about on hold either. What should I do?

A: I’ve struggled with this as well, but here’s the truth: Less than 1/3 of discussed projects ever come to fruition, whether due to budget, scope, time, etc. Ninety percent of the time, you need to make the gamble and sign up for more than you think you can handle because it all won’t pan out. As a fellow freelancer once advised me, “Never turn down work for work you don’t technically have yet.”

As for the personal projects, unless you’re independently wealthy, you may have to put those on hold until you cash the check for the paying project. Alternatively, you could work early mornings, evenings, or weekends on your own endeavors, if their deadlines are that critical. You could also set aside a half or full working day per week for your personal endeavors, as long as your client is okay with that and it’s clearly detailed in your mutually agreed contract.

Did this series help? I certainly hope so. It can all be so confusing at first, but at its essence, freelancing is a constant assessment of risks versus reward. And in my humble opinion, there’s a lot more reward. Best of luck to you, and please continue to send me your questions! I’ll do my best to answer them.

Part 1: Mindset
Part 2: Ground Work
Part 3: Money

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