Being a freelancer is freakin’ awesome!
Whether you’re a designer, an actor, a writer, a camera operator, an accountant – the list goes on; you’re your own boss, you set your own hours, you charge own fees and you get to choose the types of projects you want to take on. All in all, it’s a pretty sweet deal!
That being said, there are some pitfalls you can be unlucky enough to run into along the way but what I hope to share with you today is some industry-neutral tips that anyone can take on board. From working as a full-time graphic designer in a creative agency to now being completely self employed, here are a few things I’ve learnt from and experienced throughout my career, thus far:
1. Be specific
Whatever kind of industry you’re in, when taking on a new project or client it’s vitally important to discuss the details of the project with your client and define a solid brief.
Talk, talk and talk some more; ensure that you know what the client is expecting and let them know how and if you can deliver it, document phone conversations and summarise in an email, tell your client what file types you need and how you need them supplying, tell them WHEN you need them supplying – whatever it is, leave absolutely no room for misunderstanding and both you and your client will be secure knowing you’re both on the same page.
2. Ask for a deposit
I have read and heard about every freelancers worst nightmare, even from friends; you liaise with your client for weeks, you develop the project, numerous emails are exchanged until you finally send over the finished project along with your invoice and suddenly they drop off the face of the earth. In short, you don’t get paid and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
I am so grateful that up until this point I have not experienced this as I have always insisted on and had been advised to take a deposit up front. There is no golden rule on how much you should ask for, different projects may allow for different payment plans and as long as you can define and confirm these different stages for payment with your client there should be no problems. As a rough guide, I generally split my payments for smaller projects into 50% deposit up front and the final 50% on completion and before any final files are handed over. Larger projects may be split 50% / 25% / 25% with the same terms and conditions.
Taking a deposit is pure and simply to safeguard yourself and your time for further down the line and if your client is 100% serious about working with you, they should have no reservations about paying to secure your time.
3. Define timescales and manage expectations
So you’ve got your deposit, you’ve clarified a brief with your client and they’ve given you a deadline that you need to work to; sometimes this can be a manageable timescale and others it’s completely irrational but you’ve taken the project on regardless. The most important thing to do at this stage is to, in line with the brief you’ve been given, define estimated dates or times that they can expect to receive something from you. “No shit, Sherlock” I hear you say on hearing this but the worst thing that a client can experience (if I was thinking of it from my own perspective) is for them to hand over their money and then hear nothing from you for a few days or a week – depending on what date you’re working to.
Much like point 1, be specific. Be clear with your client about what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it but also allow yourself a little room for manoeuvre. The last thing you need is for something to pop up last minute and you’ve already tied yourself into a corner with a 3pm turnaround. It’s all about managing your clients expectations correctly and delivering on time, or if you’re looking to impress, ahead of schedule using that built-in leeway you’ve allocated.
If you continually deliver on time and to a high standard you’re likely to gain their trust and hopefully their future business.
4. “If you’re good at something, you should never do it for free” – Heath Ledger as the Joker, Batman
Now while the Joker is one of my favourite characters of all time (talk about psychotic badass) and what he says can ultimately be applied to a freelance situation please do not misunderstand what I am trying to say. My point here is not saying “never work for free” as you will naturally come across pro-bono projects, be it for friends or an organisation that you just WANT to help with. What I’m saying is DO donate your time and skills to a good cause, a friend, a charity, an event or a movement you feel strongly about… but DO NOT under any circumstances let people take advantage of you or trick you into working for free.
What I am not a fan of is “spec” work. This kind of project is offered to freelancers to complete, or partially complete ahead of payment as a “sample” to the prospective client. With no guarantee of further work, full pay or other “prize” or “promotion”, this work is not only completely unethical but also sees freelancers severely reduce their fees to compete for work with often, very little reward.
Another one which I detest is, “It’ll look great in your portfolio” or “oh, but my friend does it for half the price”. Walk away immediately. No question. Get out of there. The client does not value you, your time, your skills or the years you have spent refining those to get to where you are today and ultimately, exposure and ‘promotion’ pieces don’t pay the bills.
Never ever undervalue yourself just because someone else charges less. Stick to your guns, know your capabilities and believe in yourself and the RIGHT clients will follow suit.
5. Keep your portfolio up to date
Another very important thing is to show people what you’re made of, show off your skills and refine the perfect portfolio for yourself that encapsulates who you are and what you do. Pick a handful of your strongest projects, no need to clutter your website or email with everything you’ve ever completed – ain’t nobody got time for that, and remember when applying for positions or new projects to tailor the application to what they’re asking for; keep it relevant.
Fresh content on your website (if you have one) is also important as it shows prospective clients you’re busy, people are investing in you and you are then re-investing in yourself to showcase their project. *COUGH* Hasn’t updated own website in over a year…. I’m working on it!
6. Push your limits
Finally, never be afraid to try something new! Experiment with a new illustration technique, work with a new piece of software, learn a new language, travel to a new destination, wear odd socks, test yourself and after a lot of failed attempts.. and forgetting how to do it.. or how you did it last time.. you’ll learn, you’ll develop and you’ll be able to broaden your offering to your new and existing clients. Winner!
Whatever happens though, no matter how many tips or tricks people give you along the way, I realise I’m not the first to share my two cents on the matter and I’m certain I won’t be the last, I personally think the most important thing you can do as a freelancer (or any career for that matter) is to love what you’re doing, have fun and remember to set time aside to invest in your own passions and interests from time to time.