A couple of years ago, I left the advertising business to develop my startup, while subsidizing my income through freelance work.
I enjoy living life as a “digital nomad” in Southeast Asia, working on a range of projects from ad campaigns for brands, to UX/UI design, to product development and programming.
My clients are amazing.
We’ve done great work together, created great products and experiences, and through it all have developed mutual respect, and even friendships, that will grow into long-term business relationships. All the same, like most life choices, freelancing has its pros and cons.
TL;DR Freelance life is all about Time v. Money.
We all get caught up in our work and personal lives; it’s very easy to forget the challenges that others face.
So, I thought I would write down 6 key points as a reminder for those who are working with freelancers. This is not about casting stones, but finding better ways of working together to reach our respective goals.
And away we go…
1. No dangling carrots. Let’s get started. Or not.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great and helpful that you ask questions. It’s critical that both client and freelancer understand each other and, more so, that they’re aligned in thinking and approach.
Nevertheless, there are limits.
While I was in Cambodia, creating an ad campaign for an alcohol brand.
Some engagements begin with weeks of back-and-forth Q&A. All with the pretext of potentially getting the gig.
The first red flag, is when a prospective client opens with, “we’ve got the budget and want to get started right away!” Yet, they spend days or weeks asking for thoughts on how to do things, advice on how to execute and deliver, and even recommendations on strategy, market analysis, and resources.
I understand your business is important to you, just as my business is important to me. When we find that common ground, we’ll do great business together.
Both client and freelancer must bear in mind that these types of “potential projects” often devolve into a pattern of work-on-spec. For a freelancer, that’s time better spent on completing active projects and developing new business.
2. Demand dialogue.
It seems like common sense that the freelancer/client relationship would be founded on clear communication. That said, I’ve realized that establishing a communication pipeline is easier said than done.
My co-worker, Astro. He’s highly skilled at chillin’ and playing ball.
First, be clear.
Don’t speak in jargon. No codified messages. Leave no room for misinterpretation.
Ensure that there is a crystal clear understanding between you and your freelancer on goals and expectations.
Second, be available.
Our ability to engage in ad hoc communications is astounding. There’s a range of options, from WhatsApp to Slack to Messenger and so many more. There’s little reason that hours or days should pass while waiting for responses to emails.
I’ll be honest, sometimes I get frustrated by the amount of time that has passed to get a response to a question that would have taken no more than a 5 or 10 minute conversation.
For a freelancer, time lost is time that could be better spent on other projects.
Create an active dialogue with your freelancer, just as you do with partners and colleagues. You’ll find that the project will go much smoother, with less communication gaps, and better work as a result.
3. Don’t low-ball.
Remember the old adage, “you get what you pay for”. Freelancers aren’t big companies, and often can’t afford to subsidize a project.
If you find a freelancer’s rate is too high, the better solution may be to find another solution.
While I was in Koh Samet, programming an app for a startup.
Sometimes a freelancer may have locked in a couple of nice gigs which will cover them for many months or more. However, many freelancers live month-to-month. Yes, it’s a life chosen, but it can be stressful. A good freelancer knows their value over cost. Meaning, when they set their rates, they strike a balance between their perceived worth and what they charge, resulting in what should be a fair rate for clients and a regular paycheck for freelancers that covers:
Personal and financial responsibilities
+ disposable income
+ enough to put away into savings
= expected quality of life
The greatest challenge for a freelancer is maintaining the balance of life, work and income.
I'm a business too.
The last couple of months have been slow for new business development, and current clients have delayed paying. Additionally, as we go into the holidays, business will be slower, so I’m accepting low-balled rates for no other reason than I have to pay the bills. As a result, I take on too much work, upending my work-life-balance.
I’m very transparent about my rates, , still I’m billing significantly less because that’s all the client is willing to pay and, like any other business, I adjust my rates to flow with the current market. The life of a freelancer has its up/downs, flood/drought, feast/famine, what have you.
Sometimes a client gets lucky if I don’t have scheduled gigs lined up.
Low-balling doesn’t benefit anybody.
Let’s say a client is trying to negotiate a low-ball rate with the expectation that a freelancer will deliver the quality of work that they’d do for clients who are willing to pay a fair rate.
Meanwhile, your freelancer is a company of one. Taking on other gigs to make ends meet, getting the job done, taking calls, managing clients, sending invoices, SOWs, documentation, contracts, new business development … well, you get the point.
The math is simple.
Imagine you’re working at two jobs of similar scope. One pays substantially more than the other. With the intention of getting paid quickly, which do you prioritize?
When a freelancer tells a client their rates, and the client low-balls them, they’re devaluing the work right from the start. So, what should the client’s expectations be?
4. Be equally agile & ruthless with time.
Freelancers’ nightmare: client disappears for days or weeks, then suddenly comes back, head-on-fire, “I need it done by tomorrow!”
UX strategy for a pharmaceutical company over dinner in Bangkok.
In cases like this, my first thought is, “if I’ve been trying to communicate with you, get you onboard with your project, yet you are unresponsive, then I will move on to any number of other projects I’m working on at the moment.”
You see, my goal is to wrap up gigs quickly, effectively, and to perfection. That means I get paid quickly and have a super-happy client that I’m happy to work with again in the future.
Freelancers must be agile & ruthless with their time if they want to achieve that work-life-balance.
5. Be fair with scope creep.
This is one of the biggest pain points a freelancer is challenged with in most, if not all, projects. Again, we so often get caught up in our own needs, that we forget about others’.
If a freelancer declines to do additional work, don’t get pissy about it. If a freelancer wants to bill for additional work, don’t get pissy about it. If a freelancer decides to do additional work at no cost, recognize and maybe say “thank you”.
Fact: 100% of the time, out-of-scope work costs someone something. I’d prefer it be the client.
When I choose to do out-of-scope work, it may be that I see an opportunity to build more business (or I like working with you).
At times, if I want to strengthen the business relationship, I will do out-of-scope work at no cost.
When I choose to do work that’s out-of-scope, those are hours I could be putting toward another gig or developing new business.
Both client and freelancer should be mindful of the scope, and work collaboratively to achieve goals in a way that makes everyone happy, or at least satisfied.
6. When all is said and done, please pay your bill. On time.
If an employer delayed paying employees, folks would not be happy. The same goes for freelancers.
Not getting an expected paycheck, when it’s expected, has a direct and negative impact on one’s life planning and livelihood. This, in turn, often results in animosity, anxiety, and tension.
Freelancers, like anyone else, can’t afford to miss an expected paycheck without undue hardship.
When the expected payment schedule goes off the rails, it has a greater impact on a freelancer’s personal life than you might know or expect.
In closing, I’ve been really lucky
to have great success in working with amazing clients — some of whom have even become good friends. Together we’ve produced work we can all be proud of and I really look forward to working with them again in the future.
Freelance life is an adventure, and my goal has always been to approach every challenge as an opportunity.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize, if a gig isn’t going anywhere, it’s time to get a better gig.
Hey, thanks for reading, I really appreciate it.
I hope this was helpful and inspires people to build strong work relationships, based on trust and mutual respect.