Be a Freelance Rock Star

No matter what it is you do—design, act, write or make music—learning the business of freelancing can be hard.

Business skills aren’t usually taught in school. Even if you’re lucky enough to land a class with a helpful teacher,  the teacher isn’t there when a client calls demanding (another) revision and I’ve yet to see a “textbook example” in real life.

Education by experience is part of being a freelancer. But that doesn’t mean you personally have to have every experience known to man in order to learn valuable lessons.

This week I take a submission to the Freelancers Union tumblr and help figure out what went wrong, what the freelancer might have done to correct the problem as it was developing and tell you how to recognize when something similar is happening to you.

By thecomeupshow via

By the way, no matter how long you’ve been a freelancer or how smart you are, bad things can happen in business. Such is life. When revisiting these postings, I have the benefit of hindsight and emotional detachment, two things the freelancer in question did not have. This is not meant to trash talk what someone did, but to use real life examples to help others avoid similar fates.

That said, let’s do this thing:

For one of my first freelance works, I designed a logo for a sport clothing line. As I wasn’t working on any other project, I thought it would take me less than a month, so I put the price. BAD! The client answered my emails after like, 20 days, and this happened every time (everything I sent were jpegs with really low resolution so she couldn’t use them in the meantime). It took me over 3 months to finish the work, and another one to finally get (under)paid.

The last week she said, “Is it possible to have it for tomorrow, or the day after? Cause I’ve got to take it to the printer ASAP.” She is a family friend, so I tried not to get pissed at her, but I told her that, because the work took so long, and I’ve sent her over 10 different proposals, I was going to request a higher payment. She agreed, but I had to email her twice to “remind her” she had to pay me.

Now, she uses my designs and THE GUY WHO PRINTS THE CLOTHES made several sub-brands using my logo, modifying it, and using the font (which I had personalized specifically for this work).

At this point, I guess she owes me over a $1,000, which I will never be able to claim.

“Lesson Learned,” 16 October 2012

Set Expectations

Let’s start at the beginning, which is where this post ends: Have. A. Contract.

Who gets what, when, and for how much are all things that can be settled in a contract. And the great thing about contracts is that they happen before you do the work. Before you invest time and energy into a project. Be-fore.

By WEBN-TV via
Ani DiFranco *

But what if you don’t have a contract just laying around ready for use? Or you can’t afford a good (and reasonably priced) lawyer?

There are still resources out there that you can and should use.

Don’t avoid having a contract because you don’t have a perfect contract. (Given the number of contracts I’ve encountered, I highly doubt “perfect” exists anyway.)

Use or the Freelancers Union to put together a basic contract. If it doesn’t have clauses in there that are important to you (how many revisions they get, how much you’re willing to travel, what rights they get to what you create and when) write them in. Don’t try to speak in lawyer-talk; just plainly and directly say what you want.

Another option is to put together a basic contract then find a lawyer and explain you’d like to be able to use what you’ve written whenever you have a new job. Can they look it over and tell you what you should consider changing or be aware of? It’ll cost less than having the attorney start from scratch.

Make Price Their Concern

The other thing I see this freelancer doing, which is unfortunately common, is pricing the service based exclusively on what she thinks the work will cost her. She (or he) says that she didn’t expect the job to take a long time so she priced the job accordingly.

By poptech via
Zoe Keating *

The problem with pricing jobs this way is that it guarantees you, not the client, will be paying for your work. “But Katie,” you’re saying, “the client is still going to give me money! Whatever do you mean?”

If you price work based on the cost to you, you have incentive to keep the cost low, but your client doesn’t. If deadlines are missed or revisions desired, the client knows that his price will remain the same, so it doesn’t cost him anything to ask for more.

Price should relate to value, both yours and their’s. Instead of starting with the value of the work to you (in time, money, or otherwise), start with what the value of the work is to them.

Be sure to explain what things are included in the price (two rounds of revisions) and what isn’t (travel, presentations, a puppy, etc.).

That way when they ask for something that isn’t included you can point to the original conversation about price and say, “As you know, that’s not included in the price we agreed to. I can do it, but it will cost….”

Don’t Be Taken Advantage Of

Even if you do have a contract, and you’ve tried to price your work according to how your client perceives value, your client can still take advantage of you by demanding too much.

How do you differentiate between run-of-the-mill client demands and a client taking advantage of you?

  • Are they changing the rules mid-stride? “I know we said we’d do XYZ if this happened, but that doesn’t work for me. I need you to….”
  • Are they not communicating and then demanding a quick turn around? If they are, it’s OK to say “no.”  They’ve hired you to do a job, not to turn on a dime. There is a difference and it’s one worth paying attention to.
  • Are they not paying on time but accepting your work? Don’t  let them do that. Ask for a deposit up front and identify milestones for additional payments. If you hit a milestone and they don’t pay, you don’t move on to the next piece of work.

If you ever feel like the client is asking for more than you bargained for, it’s in your best interest to bring it up.

It doesn’t have to be a confrontational or whiny conversation. Just be honest and direct, “What you’re asking for is different from what we’d originally agreed to. I understand why you need it, but I can’t provide it based on the terms we agreed to. I can do it if….”

By laviddichterman via
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Freelancing is hard and takes lots of practice! Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go exactly as planed on a job. Instead use the experience to learn how to do better next time. Good luck!

Ani DiFranco, Zoe Keating and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are all rock stars who are also freelancers. They make art on their own terms. They’re all fabulous and if any of them are new to you, check them out.

Categories: Dealing with People

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