Cafe Witness

Monday, July 09, 2007

5 Tips for Freelancers

As someone who's been earning a living (or so they say) from freelance video, audio and writing work over the past 2 years, I thought I'd share 5 freelancing tips for new or existing freelancers, with one caveat: most of my lessons have been learned by NOT DOING what I know I SHOULD do.

Thus, please allow my failures to pave the way for your success -- and my own.

1. Insist on Half Payment in Advance

Freelancing means never having enough money in the bank. It also means you're frequently working for people who DO have money in the bank, and who realize it's in their best interests to keep that money there as long as possible.

Because a traditional billing cycle means you won't receive the full amount due for your work until a month after the job has been approved -- or later -- it's best to insist that the client pay half the total fee for the job up front. This provides you with much-needed operating cash, so you don't starve to death while waiting for an impossible-to-reach senior VP to sign off on your work for the next month.

(You can also offer a discount on the total price if the pay the ENTIRE sum up front, but this has one undesired effect -- it makes the ENTIRE job feel like a distraction because you've already cashed the check and are mentally prepared for searching out NEW work, not finishing an "old" job.)

2. Charge What You're Worth, Not What the Market Will Bear

It's not your fault if you live in a small market, and you may have to price according to the market norms in your field. But, by and large, if you feel you deliver quality work on time, you're worth AT LEAST the market average -- and often more.

This is not a license to price gouge. This is merely a much-needed reminder that people who work for themselves need not price themselves into the poorhouse simply because they feel awkward, guilty or shameful for charging someone what they actually feel (or know) they're worth. Good work is hard to find. Allow your pricing to reflect your confidence that you can deliver above and beyond the norm -- if you can.

3. Deliver Early and Extra

This presupposes two things: that you know what the deadline is (there should always be a deadline), and you know what the minimum expectations of the job are. Then, do everything in your power to deliver maximum quality ahead of schedule.

Sometimes this means providing multiple "looks" on a design, or editing something multiple ways, or throwing in an extra webpage that you know should be there, even if the client didn't think she could afford it. And, yes, sometimes this means pulling an all-nighter (or two). But the dividends your reputation will reap are worth it.

Realistically, you won't be able to accomplish this for every client, especially if you're working multiple jobs that are pushing your resources to the limit. But if you can achieve one of the two (either early or extra) on every job, you're doing two things: you're providing more than the client expected, and you're giving them a reason to not only work with you again, but to recommend you to their friends as well.

4. If You're Working, You're Losing Money

Freelance isn't about getting one or two clients whose checks will pay the bills next month. Freelance is about getting 10 or 20 clients whose checks will put your kids through college. Thus, if you're working on an assignment, you're losing money -- because you're not getting NEW work.

There are only two times when you can pat yourself on the back as a freelancer: when you sign a new contract and when you cash a new check. Everything in-between -- the communication, the work, the finished product -- is all simply part of the job. These are all things you should (nay, must) do well, but they must also be done as quickly as possible.

Because once that advance check has been deposited, the only thing that matters is getting the next check to pay next month's rent. What stands between you and that check is the work -- so plow through it, because you have phone calls to make, emails to send and new clients to meet.

5. MANY Clients or GOOD Clients, but Never Few Clients

How you build a client base is determined by your desired lifestyle.

If you have many clients, you'll always have some work to do. Most likely, you'll have LOTS of small, low-paying jobs that churn up much of your available time.

The upside? You're forever guaranteed a steady trickle of payments, which should enable you to reliably budget your income while you build your base.

The downside? You're forever angling for the next job... and then the next...

If you have a smaller number of GOOD clients, you'll be able to work on high-paying, high-profile jobs -- with higher expectations and less room to exceed them.

The upside? Your paychecks will be bigger, as will your profile, enabling you to garner work with other, larger clients.

The downside? Your paychecks may be few and far between, since your client base will be smaller -- but, when those checks DO arrive, they'll turn your days from famine to feast.

As you can see, what DOESN'T work in this equation is having a few small clients who provide intermittent work and inconsistent payments. Because the nature of freelance means you must forever have one eye on the next job, the next check and the next bill to be paid, you must protect yourself behind either a thick wall of steady work or a high wall of choice assignments. Anything less and the payments won't arrive fast enough to fill in the gaps.

These are five of my own observations after two years of freelancing. Do you have anything to add?

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  • These are basically the same rules (most) law firms that work on contingency fees have to remember as well- need enough paying work in the pipeline; take a retainer (like a down payment) and make sure you deliver work on time, or before; keep clients updated on progress and ask questions as they arise. be aware you might have to front some expenses, but make sure you bill and collect on it in a timely manner as well.
    If you do periodic billing, keep on top of it; make sure you abide by the "money talks and BS walks" rule of business, and be honest about everything.

    By Blogger wsh1266, at 1:07 PM  

  • Excellent advice! :D

    By Blogger Bill Cammack, at 1:19 PM  

  • Absolutely brilliant advice. Thank you.

    By Blogger Chris Brogan, at 3:00 PM  

  • Wise words for your fellow freelance/contract folks (me included)! Thanks,

    By Blogger Rick Mahn, at 3:16 PM  

  • There is an additional one... When you work a lot for one client (in amongst others) who tries to steal you back to the employee life on the basis of 'security', keep the faith in freelancing and realise that you work in your own security zone, and risk hidden like that is still a risk. Better to have it all out in the open and take control of it yourself.

    By Anonymous Ian Nock, at 4:47 PM  

  • Thanks for all the comments / compliments.

    And yes, Ian, you're right: you must have faith that you'll succeed as a freelancer. But, in order to have that faith, you need to prove to yourself that you're capable of getting the job done. If you don't believe in your abilities, you'll never feel confident enough to NOT work for someone else's secure paycheck.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 5:15 PM  

  • You have no idea how many questions you've answered that had been bouncing in my head for along time...

    By Blogger sirpsychosexy, at 6:07 PM  

  • Man, much as I hate to admit it, you're so completely right. And looking at it those 5 ways will be uber helpful as kicks in the pants go. Thanks!

    By Anonymous Laura Athavale Fitton, at 12:06 AM  

  • One of the things that I feel really needs to be addressed here is:

    Be honest and realistic with yourself about what you're worth.

    I see this especially in dealing with people in new media wanting sponsorships or who are interested in creating spots for their potential sponsors (etc). Oftentimes because they have a little internet celebrity they've gotten caught up in the very insulated vlogger community notion that causes them to believe they can charge rates that are higher than some working professional directors I know.

    But the problem is they have no actual professional production experience outside of their vlog. So, charge what you think you're worth, but be realistic about what you're worth. Don't get too caught up in your own hype.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:19 AM  

  • Matthew: You're very right. I wouldn't advise charging according to some perceived notion of "internet celebrity" or anything else speculative -- merely charge what you realistically believe you're worth, but don't sell yourself short just because you're not a "name" in your field.

    The bottom line is: you may be able to fool a prospective client or two into overpaying (if you're overcharging), but that approach won't work for long. Quality work tells the tale -- and negative word of mouth after you overprice (and underdeliver) won't help you.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 8:36 AM  

  • The key to raising your fees is to make them want YOU, specifically, not someone who can ______, generically. Ask LOTS of questions. Show them how you will fix their pain. Make it obvious that a "lower cost" solution will cost them more in lower quality/lost opportunity/mediocre work, etc. To *some* extent you can buck "what the market will bear" by building a market of one -- you.

    Tie all fees to the VALUE of the project. If the end result was not worth a lot of money to them in some way, they would not be doing it. So sometimes charge a lot less (and do less) for the projects not strategic to them, and much more for the ones that are. This is in their favor, because "rate" pricing (hour, day, etc.) is actually counter to their interests (if you wanted, you could just use up more hours and charge them more.)

    Read Alan Weiss on value-based fees for more on all of the above...

    By Anonymous Laura Athavale Fitton, at 12:24 PM  

  • Justin,

    Well put. As someone who hires freelancers, and looks to hire people within the vlogging community, I just wanted to make sure that people maintain a realistic notion of who they are. When I was a freelancer, staying grounded was key to knowing when i could start realistically charing more and taking on larger projects.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:20 PM  

  • please note with bigger/serious projects rentacoder staff are INCREDIBLY STUPID PROFESSIONAL LIARS
    they lie even with their slogan
    the DUMMIES in rentacoder staff are proficient to blame someone else for their mistakes in attempts to hide their stupidity
    PERFECT evidences at

    It is fair to warn everyone about the pitfalls with rentacoder

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:57 AM  

  • About the latest "comment".
    The insulter Kamen Kaburov (aka "kamen123") has been banned from RentACoder
    Main reason: "He insulted other parties numerous times".
    "kamen 123" spoil perfect site in revenge.

    By Blogger, at 10:46 AM  

  • Great stuff! I've been doing the "pay half upfront" thing for some time now, but I *still* end up with clients setting dates for me to travel to Paris, not getting the first payment done, and then cancelling a few weeks later with a perfectly valid excuse. I'm finding it hard to enforce -- because the truth is that when a client suggests a date, if I don't have any conflict, I will hold it for them. It's particularly a problem with 1-day gigs or speaking engagements (and I get a lot of those). Extra advice on that issue?

    By Anonymous Stephanie Booth (Going Solo), at 1:07 PM  

  • Stephanie: Good question. I've followed up with a separate post here.


    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 12:45 PM  

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