So, you’re inspired. You want to start doing some freelance work. You are ready to create, and you’ve found a client who wants you to create for them. Now what? Today I am giving you my best freelance tips, drawn from lots of good (and one bad) experiences.
I have gotten a lot of questions about freelancing over the years and I had a lot of questions when I started freelancing. A lot of them had to do with the process and pricing. How do you know what to charge? How can you be sure you and your client are on the same page with your creative direction? How do you make sure you get paid?
When I first started doing freelance work, it was out of necessity. I wasn’t making enough at my full-time job to buy myself groceries, so freelance projects and waitressing were the answer. This is a tough situation because you don’t have the luxury of turning jobs down, or atleast you think you don’t. Then, freelance was my full-time – I was an independent contractor, with regular hours through one company and life was good. Eventually I would like to be a full-time freelancer again, but for now I am enjoying the ease of having a full-time job that takes care of my benefits etc. I tell you all of this because I want you to know that I have worked through a lot of work/life combinations and have picked up some good practices along the way that I am going to share with you. Hopefully you can side step some of the less glamorous experiences 🙂
Click through to read my freelance horror story and get tips on best practices when you are getting in the freelance game
First, A Story
My first freelance client was a big learning experience. As I am sure you have guessed by now, it did not go particularly well. I wasn’t happy, my client wasn’t happy and the project left a bad taste in my mouth. One major benefit of the project was that it thickened my skin early on and helped me to understand what areas I needed to focus on to become a successful freelancer.
The project was an invitation suite featuring customized typography, small spot illustrations and a detachable postcard RSVP. I met with the client over dinner. I had requested they bring samples of things they liked and some items from their wedding. Not much was shared as far as inspiration goes (this should have been a red flag.) I charged $500 and asked for half up-front. I priced things out very low because I didn’t know how long it would take me, and hadn’t established an hourly rate at that point to work from, I also gave this price before I knew the full extent of the project. *facepalm* Keep in mind that standard invitation designs cost upward of $1,000 before printing costs are worked in.
I started by providing three different design options, and next I took the design that was selected and built out the rest of the invitation suite. We went through a few rounds of revisions and things were ready for print. When we had discussed pricing, I said that I would print the invites at home free of charge to help the client keep their costs down. The bride came to pick up her invitations for assembly and things seemed to be good. I left a couple of days later for a vacation that I had let my client know about earlier in the process, saying that I wouldn’t be available because I would be in Mexico and would have limited internet access.
Mid-vacation I started receiving angry emails. I was accused of changing the sizes of everything, nothing looked as good as they had wanted, everything was terrible, I was a fucking failure and should get a different job. I was devastated. It didn’t help that I was still reeling from a personal loss and already questioning a lot of things about life, but I was seriously ready to walk away from being a designer. Because I was in Mexico at the time, I had limited access to resources to help find a printer or do any design changes which aggravated the situation even further.
When I returned from my trip, I re-sized all of the designs and set the files up for a printer the client had decided to work with. They printed and cut all of the invites and delivered them to the client. I tried a couple of times to get final payment, explaining that the price had been set based on design time not printing etc… and had no luck. I held out for a couple of weeks and then washed my hands of the entire situation.
Here’s what my main mistakes were:
- We had no written agreements other than emails, which were archived and difficult to search through
- I didn’t create a detailed list of what should be expected, meaning I had no footing when I was accused of delivering something different than was expected
- I never double checked that the client was printing things out at actual size during reviews
- I didn’t push the client to provide examples of what was wanted, I took their word that they liked what they had seen of my work and they trusted me
- I didn’t space out the production time of printing and cutting the cards, which led to them not being as good as they should have been (realistically, I needed about two weeks to do this.)
I was never paid for my time and was essentially told to fuck off and that I was terrible. I had a few more interactions with the printer and over time heard a bit more about their dealings with the client which hadn’t gone much better. I finally understood what I had been warned of by professors and co-workers. When someone doesn’t know what they want, they are much more likely to be unsatisfied with the final product. Also, when you have no clear outline agreed upon by both yourself and your client, communication lines can be crossed about your deliverable and expectations. This was really my only bad freelance experience over the years. I am sure there will be others (because statistics and stuff) but this experience helped me to create a process that helps both me and my clients build a successful relationship.
Set Your Rate
I can tell you now, my rates are very different than they were two years ago. The more experience you have the more your time is worth. Custom work is valuable, plain and simple. Your experience is even more valuable. It is what makes you able to anticipate potential issues the client may not know about and help them avoid them. You will absolutely run into situations where someone will balk at the price and try to talk you down. Remember they are doing business/their job and want the best deal they can get. Use your discretion, if you want to negotiate because you really want the project then go for it, but don’t be afraid to say ‘No’ either. You are good at what you do and that is why clients are seeking you out – Do what you are comfortable with. Here are some things to keep in mind as you determine your rate:
- Assess why you are freelancing
- Is freelance work your only source of income?
- Always consider your expenses
- If it’s not, would you like it to be?
- Are you trying to grow your personal portfolio to get a different job?
- Are you taking a project purely because you love it, money being an added benefit?
- Is freelance work your only source of income?
- Are you working on a project that you have professional experience with?
- Example 1: Someone has come to you asking for a branding suite. Your full-time job is for a design firm that specializes in branding and you have a lot of experience in building brands that hold up across digital and print with a strong personality. You are highly qualified for this project.
- Example 2: A small company has asked you to handle their social media channels. You have messed around with social media a bit, and have had success on your own, but have no professional experience within the field. You are qualified to take the position, but it is a learning experience for you and you should take that into account when determining your rates.
- Determine your absolute minimum rate
- Be ready for someone to walk away from your price.
- Not everyone has the budget for custom work. That’s why sites like the $5 logo exist. Likely outcome, the client will work toward having the proper budget and use a cheaper option to hold them over. Once they have what they need they will come back.
- Some companies don’t NEED custom work, and it takes seeing the price tag for them to learn that. In the same way that every blogger doesn’t need to go to a developer for their own custom blog, not every business needs custom design work.
I think the best route is a flat rate project fee. It helps you set limitations and it means that your client knows exactly what to expect. With a flat fee, you will provide an explanation of what their fee is going toward in your Statement of Work. It is still important to know your rate because that is how you are going to determine your project rate. I will talk more about the rate after I explain how to create a Statement of Work.
Define Your Process
This step will help you set your project fee. Break down your project in to steps. If it’s a design project, do you need to go through concept development? Will you need to show the client sketches before you move on to the computer? If you are writing copy for a company, do you need to do competitive analysis to help them develop their tone? If you are a blogger collaborating with a brand, do you need to hire anyone else to help make your vision come to life? Try to get as specific as you can when you define these steps.
Once you have broken down the steps for your project, estimate the hours you think each step will take. If this is your first project, I recommend adding a few hours to each step estimate. If you have a few similar projects under your belt, think about how long they took and if you would have liked to take more time in one area or another. Now take your total hours and multiply by your hourly rate and to get your project fee!
Document Your Process
Now you are going to take everything that you used to find your project fee and document it for the client. Your Statement of Work is incredibly important to the future of your relationship with your client. It will detail the different steps in the design process, what the different deliverables will be and when your different delivery dates are. I like to include the number of revision rounds that are included in the flat fee and at which point I start charging hourly. You can also include any legal information about the project (things like usage rights.) This document gives the client a very clear picture of what to expect in working with you and gives you a roadmap of how to manage your project moving forward.
Paperwork is not exciting. Generally, as a creative, you just want to be left alone to make things. I get it. That said, documents like a Statement of Work help you as much as they help your clients. These are what you turn to if you ever run into a problem or have a disagreement about any of your terms. When you take on freelance work you are acting as client liaison, project manager, art director and designer. Paperwork makes keeping a positive relationship with your client while looking out for your own best interests easier. Plus, sometimes you need some accountability and this holds you to that.
Take on projects and partnerships that you are truly interested in and it will make the process worth it! Once you have gone through the process a few times, you will find your own path. It’s hard to walk away from money, but long term it is really important for you to care about the projects you are taking. In the beginning I was taking so many projects and barely benefiting financially. Once I started taking on less projects, I was able to hone in on the types of projects I really enjoyed, I was able to take on larger projects which had bigger budgets and were far more beneficial for my portfolio AND I was enjoying what I was doing.