How to Thrive as a Freelancer

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Over the last three years I’ve carved out a niche for myself as a content writer and UX designer for big tech. I’ve worked with some big names, had some great clients and am very grateful for these experiences. I have never experienced “feast or famine” and have multiple streams of revenue which have enabled me to work 100% remotely, while living and traveling across the US. I see a lot of freelancers struggling, and while I could write a whole book on freelancing (and to be sure, there are many great ones on the market), I wanted to share some salient points on how get started and choose great clients to work with.

Your business is going to live or die by the type of clients you get. So I think this is a really good starting off point for people who are looking to get into freelancing, or are experiencing challenges in their freelancing business.

Choose your clients wisely

Finding the right client is like going out on a date. Some are going to look great on the outside and be full of hot air, others might not be that sexy, but are going to be solid and dependable and finally, some may appear like they’re selling TVs that fell off the back of a truck. Which one do you want to date?

Do you want to work with startups or multinationals? Do you want to work on quick one-off projects or large ongoing projects? Do you have the sense this company will pay you and on time? Do you like the person you will be working with on a day to day basis?

I reject more clients than I take on. That’s because many businesses do not fit within the parameters I’ve defined. Instead of being completely focused on making a buck, my focus remains on finding quality clients, who are my target market, that want to pursue a certain size project. And I have full confidence they’re going to pay me. Most of all, I like the person I’ll be working with on a day to day basis and believe we’ll work well together.

I have encountered plenty of prospective nightmare clients, but I weed them out early on. My clients are awesome and that’s because I take the time to get a practical and intuitive sense for what they’d be like to work with.

In sum, define your dream client and ideal project before getting out into the marketplace. This is what 80% of freelancers fail to do and it really does make a huge difference.

Clearly define the project scope before starting work

When I’m doing an initial client consult, I want to get really clear project parameters from the client. Why? Because we need to define the scope of the project and what is expected of the freelancer before we begin. That way, if anything else comes up during the project, we can agree that it’s out of scope and an incremental cost.

I know a number of freelancers who are so excited to get any work at all that they’ll jump on board without fully understanding what the client wants! And that is a recipe for disaster. Not only will the client be upset that you’re suddenly not meeting their expectations, you will likely not be working with them again, nor get a referral out of them.

It is your job to lead the conversation and scope of work in this direction of clearly defining expectations. Do not be afraid to ask for clearly defined parameters, if the client seems a bit wishy washy.
Which leads me to…

Be careful of clients who want you to define what they need 

This can be a positive or negative, depending on the type of freelancing you do, but proceed cautiously. I’ve heard from a lot of companies (primarily startups) that know they “need marketing”, but don’t know what they need nor do they have any strategy in place. So they try to hire a freelance writer, because the founder has it in his head that a few blog posts constitute marketing. They don’t know what the blog posts should be about, because they haven’t done any market research, nor do they have a plan in place for promotion. But could you just write some stuff for us and turn the company around?

No, I cannot. I am actually going to back away slowly.

I believe this is a ploy (perhaps an unconscious one) to get the freelancer to do a ton of research for free. Often these companies will not pay you to do the market research, but just want you to “write something viral” instead. It absolutely puts the cart before the horse, and guarantees they will be dissatisfied with the results.

Aside from the lack of clarity and focus in this situation, people that do not understand the niche you freelance in, do not value it. And if clients don’t value what you do, they will not pay you well for it.

Let me say that again: If they don’t understand what you do, they will not pay you well for it.

So who would want to take on this type of nefarious “figure out our marketing” gig? This type of opportunity is golden for a contract VP of Marketing who is looking for an opportunity to spend a year with a company setting up its marketing infrastructure, but is very dangerous for a freelancer that works in a specific marketing niche (creative, writer, designer, SEO, advertising, etc) who may be seen as the freelance “savior”.

Strategy is a paid activity

I’m all for building relationships, and I usually spend roughly 30 minutes with a prospective client on the phone to assess fit, project scope and share my achievements. I may throw out a couple ideas on the call but strategy is a paid activity. Any follow-up calls to run through strategy need to be conducted after signing a contract.

Again, I think some companies will see how much they can get out of you. Or maybe they just haven’t been taught how to work with a freelancer. But it’s your job to model behavior of how you want to be treated and what they can and cannot get for free. I do not give away strategy or build strategy docs for clients who haven’t paid for them. And I recommend you avoid falling into the trap of doing a bunch of free work in hopes the client will pick you for the job. Don’t forget, this is a two-way street and nothing stinks quite like desperation.

No work without a contract

There are about 10 million freelance contract templates online, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Google is your friend here.

You want to make sure your contract gets signed by the client. You want to have a kill fee if the project gets scrapped, payment terms, rounds of revisions listed, the scope of work clearly defined.

But whatever you do, do not work without a contract. Way back when I was getting started with freelancing, a fellow freelancer referred me out to a client. I went to meet him, spend an hour talking to him and thought we might be doing business together. A couple days later he asked me if I could start the following week. At the time, I didn’t have many clients, so that worked for me. There was just one teensy, tiny problem: we never discussed money, scope or contract. Like many startups (hate to rag on you guys, but this is the truth) he just wanted to get a lot of stuff done and omgcanwestartRIGHTNOW?

I wanted the work, but I was wary. I emailed him and said we needed to discuss terms. Instead of replying, he sent me an 8-hour meeting invite for our first day together. After a couple days of prodding, and no response, but this day-long meeting looming on my agenda the following day, I wrote him to let him know that I would not be able to accept the work, and wished him the best.

Then I called the freelancer who referred me to this guy. And that’s when I learned that he had a reputation for not paying out freelancers. Why another freelancer would refer me to this jerk, I don’t know, but I felt like I dodged a bullet. I probably didn’t handle the situation as well as I could’ve and to be sure, you will make tons of missteps along the way. But it remained a powerful lesson in never starting work without a contract.

In Conclusion

What I’ve been trying to say all along is this: you’re worth it. You’re an experienced professional who is worth being paid well and does not have to deal with flaky and nightmare clients. You deserve to be paid on time and you deserve to work on projects that inspire you. Set the bar for yourself, work with integrity and watch how your clients meet you right where you are.

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