In a previous article, I talked about all the things a freelancer should know and do when starting their own business. Working on your own isn’t always a piece of cake and when you are drowning under too much work (or despair, if you don’t find any), it’s easy to lose focus. So here’s a list of 10 very important things you shouldn’t forget as a freelancer:
1. Income is never guaranteed
Income is never, ever guaranteed as a freelancer. Unlike your typical 9-5 job, you will not receive a pay check every fortnight. It can be very stressful when you are just starting and that’s why you should always have savings. Being your own boss means you should dedicate time every week to look for new potential clients and contact them. As a freelancer, you are responsible for your own success but also your demise if you decide not to raise a finger. So avoid this trap and work hard, look hard and don’t assume money will just materialize in your bank account.
2. You’re a professional, not a charitable organization
Many starting designers are tricked into working for free by clients that say it will “be good for their portfolio” and that it’s “a golden opportunity”. Working for free for strangers is NOT a golden opportunity for you. It’s a good way for those so-called professionals to hire cheap labour. If you think your portfolio needs polishing and you don’t want to charge for your first projects, then help a friend or family member; they will most likely appreciate your work and will not enslave you for weeks, making demands and treating you as a servant. You are, after all, a professional not a charitable organization. You’ve got bills to pay, at least one mouth to feed and you cannot afford to work for free all the time, especially for companies that have a lot of money but disrespect your field of work by offering you no compensation for your time. Act like a professional and charge like a professional.
3. Keep your receipts
Taxes are annoying, especially since every year the government expects you to reimburse a percentage from what you’ve earned. But don’t despair just yet; there is a brighter side to taxes. If you keep the receipts of your business meetings, the electronic equipment you bought, the marketing agents and/or lawyers you hired and all the other business-related items or services you purchased within the last 12 months, they might be eligible for exemption. That means you will pay less taxes at the end of the year. Sweet, isn’t it? Freelancing has its advantages! All you need to do is to stash your receipts in a safe place until that time of the year comes, speak to your lawyer about it and voilà.
4. Underselling makes you look bad
How would you feel is a hairdresser offered you a haircut for $5? How about a car salesman trying to sell you the latest BMW for $5000? I don’t know about you, but I’d be very worried. What’s the catch? Where’s the flaw? If someone you don’t know charges so little, it must be because they have no experience or that they’re going to sell you something crappy. This logic applies to you as well. Unless you decide to work for free from the beginning (which I don’t advise, unless you have a good reason), lowering your prices will make you look like a fool. As funny as it sounds, people feels that paying more is a security blanket against bad quality. That said, this is not a green card to overprice your services. Just be fair to yourself, to the client and don’t ever go under a certain limit. That limit should be equal to this: Hourly rate × Minimum hours you’ll spend on the work. Hit higher than the result of this equation and you’ll never undersell.
5. You have the right to say NO
Being a freelancer means you have the right to say no. So make use of it. Sometimes clients will have insane requests, unrealistic demands or timelines. Tell them no, and explain them why. You are the professional and you know what is possible and what isn’t. Refusing clients is also sometimes a better alternative to working for people you know will make your life a living hell for weeks. Stand firm when you must and you will save yourself a few headaches.
6. If you are nice, people will come back to you
Customer service is extremely important, especially when you are freelancing. Unlike your 9-5 job, good work alone does not necessarily ensure you instantaneous success. Word of mouth is one of your greatest allies (it is for us) and failing to provide a good service to your clients will make them less likely to come back and use your services, let alone recommend you to their colleagues and friends. By customer service, I mean being polite, respectful, making follow-ups and including your client in the design process. Treat them as you would like to be treated. When your next client admits you were a recommendation from a previous customer, your chest (or head) will swell up with pride and you’ll get this soft fuzzy feeling in the pit of your stomach. Who wouldn’t want that?
7. They don’t like it and it’s not personal
Sometimes, clients won’t like what you do. The words “I don’t like it” are known to provoke several negative reactions in freelancers all over the world but always remember that it’s not personal. It’s your work, this specific sample, draft or idea they don’t like, not you. Before getting angry or hurt, consider this: Did you respect all the client’s wishes? Did you spend a lot of time on it? Did the client know what type of work you produce before hiring you? If you answered no to any of those questions, you might want to schedule a small discussion/meeting with your client, just to put you both back on the right track. If you answered yes to all of them, well, hell, sometimes clients just don’t know what they want, and sometimes they have horrible taste. There’s not much you can do about it except explaining your choices, start over and try to meet their expectations the second time. If nothing does it, it’s time to say “no” and hop on the next project.
8. Speak up and they will listen
Be confident and people will look up to you. If you think you have some awesome knowledge to share, don’t be scared. Write it, speak it and there will be people coming to listen to or read what you have to say. If you are a freelancer in the first place, it’s usually because you have something to offer. Don’t keep it all to yourself for fear of rejection.
9. Make them sign a contract, always
Starting a new project? Make them sign a contract, no exception allowed (alright, maybe for some family members or very, very close friends, but anyone else is a no-no). Freelancing sometimes means having to fight for your money. You WILL fall someday on a cheap client who will refuse to pay you your due for your hard work. And that’s when your contract will come in handy because you will have thoughtfully written on it that they owe you for the time you spent working on the project, whether they use it or not.
Let me tell you a little anecdote about contracts… One of our first work as a team (Emilio and I, from Veodesign) was for a man claiming to be a nanotechnology engineer. He hired us to produce several websites for conferences he and his pals were having all over the world. He claimed to have branches in all the continents but during the 3 weeks we worked with him, I think I saw him once with someone else in his office. Looking back, we both realize it was extremely fishy but back then, we were young and naive. So we worked for him and didn’t make him sign a contract. You know how the story goes… When we asked for our payment, the man refused to pay us and said he never hired us and that we, somehow, were supposed to work for free. We had to go to the Labour Standard offices and to court to get our money. What saved me was my weekly schedule that kept track of all my accumulated hours. What saved Emilio was the exchange of emails he had with the thief, proving that he indeed worked for the man. It took me over 3 months to get my money back and over a year for Emilio to get his.
Avoid all this and make them sign a contract. This is coming from someone who had to sue her first client.
10. Teamwork is a viable option
You’re a freelancer and a single person. You cannot possibly know everything. You might specialize in design, programming, writing or marketing and, although you might have to juggle with all these tasks in your projects sometimes, you are not an expert in all of those fields. When you are facing a project that is overwhelming, outsourcing or teamwork is always a viable option. You may have to share profits but you’ll work much faster, avoid headaches, sleepless nights and get very satisfying results. And who knows if a partnership cannot spring from a successful project? I’m not scared to say I work in partnership with an awesome programmer and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks to his great web developing skills, I can concentrate on what I love: art and design. I also work quite often with a great local marketing agent. Embracing teamwork is one of the best decisions I’ve taken as an entrepreneur.
Let these tips become your daily mantra and you will see that you will avoid many traps on the road to success.
You think I forgot something super important? Please share it with us by leaving a comment!