Full-time freelancing: 10 more things in 360 days

~ 24 April 2006 ~

Back in December when I authored the first “10 things learned” article, two events were celebrated: 1) Suzanne’s birthday and 2) 6 months of full-time freelancing.

This time around, three events warrant mention: 1) Hudson’s first birthday, 2) my birthday (the big 3-0 no less!), and 3) 12 months of full-time freelancing. All within the first week of May.

Yet again, somehow it — “it” being full-time freelancing — has worked out. Not without plenty of ups and downs, of course: Passing up the chance to work at Apple, getting blasted with nasty email from grammarati, an appearance on stage with Craig Newmark, and so on. I’ve found myself in extremely good company the last 6 months, and I’ve enjoyed the ride immensely.

But every rose has its thorn, right? Some of the best lessons offered in life seemingly come only following failure. I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert at offering freelancing advice, but I hope a few things I’ve learned will assist you in setting up or optimizing your own shop.

1. Speed is paramount. I can’t stress this enough. I hate, HATE to sacrifice quality for speed. Those of you familiar with my work know of the level of detail I put in my designs. But truth of the matter is it’s simply good business to be efficient more often than not. We live, work, and sleep in a global economy that moves at lightening speed. I repeat something I said a couple years back: There’s a point at which quality becomes too costly — find that point with every project. If additional quality is both too expensive and unnoticeable by the client and its audience, it’s time to move on to other things.

2. Late fees a happy contract maketh. Oops. I missed the boat on this one. I got stuck with a few past due balances owed to me by clients — a couple 60+ days late and even one 90+ days late. Now, aside from the fact that billing is cyclical to begin with, i.e. revenue earned in one month is typically based on work from the previous month, having outstanding balances for two even three months at a time can be detrimental to one’s income. Guess what happens next? You start to be late on your own bills — phone, utilities, etc — and you then incur late fees of your own. See where I’m going with this? Long story short: Be sure your contract includes stipulations for late fees as 1) a catalyst for encouraging faster payment and 2) a way to recoup losses.

3. Escape the trap of endless email. I’m still trying to escape this mother of a trap. Sending and replying to email easily consumes over an hour of every morning. Client mail comes first. After that, I attempt to respond to nearly every note I receive from readers and colleagues. I’d hate to see that change, but perhaps there may come a time in the near future when necessity forces me to do otherwise. And while I still haven’t found the optimal escape route, Keith Robinson’s “A Guide to Email Triage” is at least a start.

4. If there isn’t time to do it right now, you can bet on even less time to do it later. Think you’ll have time later to get around to something that could otherwise be done now? Think again. Bite the bullet, knock it out now, and avoid accumulating that inevitable, overwhelming stack of pending work.

5. Be slow to burn bridges. Some orchids take years to produce their first bloom. I’ve heard six years, even fifteen. Consider taking just as long to burn any bridges with clients, key contacts, and just plain old friends in general. In my one-year tenure as a full-time freelancer, I’ve already burned a couple bridges I wish I wouldn’t have. Never underestimate the value of a working relationship, even if things go sour. Yes, it’s wise to know when to exit an ailing relationship — in love, in business, in friendship. But wiser is he that knows how to exit. Find a way out peaceably.

6. Staying focused is a luxury few freelancers enjoy. Did I just write that? I did. Think about it: You’re on your own. You’re the boss. If you lack the necessary self-control to stay on task, life as a freelancer may not be your cup of tea. I struggle much like anyone else, so it’s a continual battle to keep waywardness in check. Refresh the RSS feeds only once per day. Use IM sparingly. Multi-task less (yes, less). “Great souls have wills; feeble ones have only wishes” suggests one Chinese proverb. Stay on task, or you’ll be left wishing you had.

7. Send a signed W-9 with the contract or first invoice. Want that deposit or up-front payment faster? Consider including a signed W-9 when you fax the signed contract or first invoice and you may be one step closer. Some clients require them, others don’t. But I’ve found that some of my client contacts forget about this until it comes to time to cut the first check. But by then, your contract/invoice has been sent to Accounting, and it’s a bit of a run-around at that point.

8. Trust your gut. No really. If something doesn’t feel right — the pushy prospective client, the shady list of deliverables, the questionable revenue model, etc. — it probably isn’t. I’ve turned down a fair share of projects based solely on the fact that something didn’t feel right at the outset. Fact of the matter is you’ll inevitably be faced with unknown variables in any decision, no matter how well you do your homework. So don’t bite if you can’t see the hook.

9. Don’t under-promise, over-deliver. Instead, promise consistency, deliver consistency. We’ve all heard the cliched phrase too many times before. “Under-promise, over-deliver!” That’s a noble ideal many aspire to, while failing to prepare for the costs incurred by over-delivering. Further, it’s easy to exceed expectations the first time with a client, but extremely difficult subsequent times. Instead, analyze the deliverables as best you can, set reasonable expectations, word the contract accordingly, and then go give it your best. Clients will typically come to you for one or two specific reasons — they’ve been told you’ve got a great turn-around time, or they know you as someone who always puts out quality, and so on. So promise quality and deliver quality. Or promise speed and deliver speed. Whatever you excel in, be consistent at it.

10. Don’t Mess with Taxes. I originally had a few thoughts to offer on this matter. But Doug Bowman’s “Reserving Enough for Uncle Sam” seems to say it all better than I could. In summary, set up a separate interest-bearing account strictly for taxes, and then deposit a percentage of revenue immediately upon receiving any payment. Your percentage will vary, but 30% is probably a safe place to start.

And that’s all she wrote. This is probably the last time I’ll author thoughts on the subject, as there are plenty of other resources offering even better advice than mine. Hopefully my 2c helps you earn your 2c a little more wisely.



Veer Veer: Visual Elements for Creatives.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.

1   Chris ~ 24 April 2006 at 11:15 AM


2   Wible ~ 24 April 2006 at 12:04 PM

Great advice… shame you won’t be writing more - I’d love to have a Yoda to look up to as I consider making the leap over the next year or two. I’ve got a game plan which involves building experience professionally first - but I need advice on the running your own business end of things. And you’re certainly an inspiration!

3   reese ~ 24 April 2006 at 12:08 PM

Keith’s email triage is similar to a system I input after reading “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. If an email response takes 2 minutes or less, I try to do it right away. It takes some mental weight off me.

Re: trust your gut. Thanks for reiterating this important advice. It can save people a lot of stress and headaches.

I enjoy reading your insights on being a freelancer—although there are other resources out there, your thoughts are always interesting and approachable.I hope you’ll keep sharing them.

4   Eoghan McCabe ~ 24 April 2006 at 12:33 PM


5   Sharaf ~ 24 April 2006 at 12:58 PM

It would be great if you could post some tips on maintenance and updates phase of your projects. Do you setup a maintenance plan for customers who are not techie? Do you just setup a CMS from the beginning?

A lot of times, we complete a site for a client, and then the maintenance discussion comes up.

Maintenance is not the most exciting thing in the world…

How do you deal with this phase of web development? What type of payment structure do you recommend for updates?


6   Caleb ~ 24 April 2006 at 12:59 PM

THanks for another good post on freelancing. I’m leaving my job at the end of the summer to persue my photography and web design business. I’m looking forward to it.

7   Cameron Moll ~ 24 April 2006 at 01:30 PM

Sharaf - That question probably warrants its own article, indeed. But as for a quick tip I can offer here, maintenance discussions should happen BEFORE development begins, not after the site is done. I make sure I know from the outset what my involvement will (or will not) be long-term. Easiest way to do this is to include such a question in your questionnaire, “Do you intend to keep the content updated? If so, how?” or similar.

8   David ~ 24 April 2006 at 01:44 PM

Regarding number two: you should ask for an advance payment. I usually take 50% of the projected costs up front. Make no exceptions to this rule either. The clients will accept it, and trust me, it won’t bother them. I’ve never seen a client of mine even raise an eyebrow over this. They just say “yes, of course” when I tell them that, and after that, we move on to the next topic. Just be sure to tell them _before_ you hand in a quote in written form (but you should also mention it clearly there).

9   Nathan ~ 24 April 2006 at 02:02 PM

great post…I am going to start implementing number 7 right away.

10   Nathan Pitman ~ 24 April 2006 at 04:20 PM

Some great words of advice, Thanks. :)

11   Erwin Heiser ~ 24 April 2006 at 05:19 PM

Considering the move to go solo myself. Good advice, thanks!

12   Richard Medek ~ 24 April 2006 at 05:31 PM

Fantastic advice, thanks Cameron. Good points on #1 and #9; I think a lot of people (myself included) assume that “the pros” never sacrifice quality for speed, when the truth seems to be that they do, only they know the right ways to do it. It’s a lesson I wish I learned earlier; nowadays the old “triangle” technique helps more than ever (you know, you get two out of three—time, quality, or cost).

Does anyone care to elaborate on the W-9 bit? I’ve haven’t run into that yet and I’m wondering if the IRS is going to wonder why.

13   Amit ~ 24 April 2006 at 05:40 PM

What are some of the other resources some of you guys/gals find informative and useful? I love these types of discussions. It’s nice to know each persons’ take and tips on freelancing.

14   Adam ~ 24 April 2006 at 11:22 PM

Very nice roundup, I will be taking your advice. Keep up the great work, and do continue to share what you have learned.

There are many out there like you that have taken the leap.

15   gina ~ 24 April 2006 at 11:39 PM


16   Allan Reyes ~ 25 April 2006 at 12:17 AM

Thanks for the sound and realistic advice.

17   Lukas Grumet ~ 25 April 2006 at 02:58 AM

This is gold my friend! Very helpful points, and maybe they will be some sort of guide for me in near future :)

18   Pete Freitag ~ 25 April 2006 at 07:36 AM

Thanks, I’m just a few months into freelance myself, and these types of articles are helpful.

19   P.J. Onori ~ 25 April 2006 at 11:22 AM

Great advice on an important subject.

I cringe at the speed tip but it is unfortunately very true. Most clients are not nor do they want to be visual connoisseurs. Sadly, it is a truth we have to accept and work with.

20   Sarah ~ 25 April 2006 at 02:35 PM

I love it! I love your website and portfolio, and I love that you have a link to your blog. I’m a design student, and currently writing a paper on the ideal design portfolio. I’d like to use yours as an example. :)

21   Sarah ~ 25 April 2006 at 02:37 PM

Oh yeah, and I think your personal identity is very clever.

22   mathias ~ 25 April 2006 at 06:09 PM

hi, great thing.. my advice from been freelance really the whole life..

1. take 50% of your estimated total in advance!
don’t do anything without a payment at first. (overe here it’s the only proven sign that a customer really intened to work with you)

2. Don’t trust your guts!
you might trust when you are in a bad mood. always trust the money-flow! This is why you are communicating and thats why you are working more than 10 hours! go with the flow.. and this is where your bank - account goes. (belive it or not.. I knew people I apriciated alot who where asholes.. just trust the money! and let them pay first!)

enough .. rock’ it! and god bless you and your family!

23   sweetney ~ 25 April 2006 at 06:40 PM

Above and beyond being about freelancing, I think much of what you’ve written here can be applied to LIFE (well, at the very least work-life) across-the-board. Nicely done.

24   Michael Locke ~ 25 April 2006 at 06:56 PM

Great advice, CM. Most of the things you mentioned have been said in one form or another in many of the articles and books I’ve read over the years… but it’s something about hearing it from someone that’s actually doing it. And with 4 kids!

You da man. I’ve got a 6 month old boy on the way and your progress is very inspiring. I’ll make tha leap one day :)

Good stuff.

…you passed up a job at Apple? (reading now)


25   Bassam ~ 25 April 2006 at 07:06 PM

Great advice! I’m about to start my first freelance project in a week or so, and am going to be meeting with the customer to negotioate tomorrow.
I’ll be taking your advice with me.

Keep up the great work!

26   Michelle ~ 26 April 2006 at 12:30 AM

Followed the trail here from Lifehacker - and want to thank you for these excellent points.

I’m attempting to get my own freelancing / home-created-goods business off the ground by the end of the year, effectively becoming my own employer. I’m gathering as much knowledge and advice as I can, and this has been immensely helpful.

27   Adam Khan ~ 26 April 2006 at 03:52 AM

I’ve complained that the comments on this site can be sycophantic, but there’s a reason: Mr Moll is A-grade. Not just a designer but a writer as well. There’s nothing in this posting I don’t know, but it’s good to see it written so well, which lends it moral authority. To paraphrase someting Oscar Wilde must have said, style is substance.

28   Cameron Moll ~ 26 April 2006 at 06:51 AM

Too kind, Adam.

29   Brian ~ 26 April 2006 at 08:02 AM

Excellent advice! I’m just starting out as a web designer, and this post gave me a lot to think about (esp. no.s 2, 5, and 7).

I sure hope that this is not the last we hear on the subject from you.

30   S.R. Prozak ~ 26 April 2006 at 09:17 AM

The global economy has almost made quality obsolete. What an exciting future as drones in a wasteland awaits us!

31   Irreverent Freelancer ~ 26 April 2006 at 03:33 PM

Great advice, even for a veteran freelancer like me. I’m especially partial to trusting your gut!

32   Glen ~ 26 April 2006 at 03:44 PM

S.R. Prozak

You know nothing about globalism.

Global economies open new markets, which leads to ever increasing specialization.

I suggest you read On Brand by Wally Olins

That said, this blog offers much insight. Thank you.

33   Cameron Moll ~ 26 April 2006 at 06:00 PM

Glen - Forgive me for being frank, but having dealt with clients in Cali, NY, London, Australia, Norway, Belgium, and Canada in the past year alone, I think I know a thing or two about globalism. Specialization is one issue. Executing on designs, replying to requests for work, understanding the nuances of culture — all within a global economy — are entirely different issues.

34   Corby Simpson ~ 27 April 2006 at 01:25 PM

I love your first point about time/cost. I think the best way I’ve heard it described is the 80/20 rule… 80% of the work can be done in 20% of the time. The last 20% takes 80% of the time… All about balance, and budget of course… =)

35   Miko W. ~ 27 April 2006 at 08:19 PM

So true. Motivation is key.

Similar to Keith’s email tips, I organize my mailboxes like so:

36   Maria Stultz ~ 28 April 2006 at 10:45 AM

Well, here I am thinking I know it all, and I found two new tips between this post and your previous one (i.e. sending the W9, and not replying to email out of business hours).

Self discipline… so important.
I think I’m excellent at it, except for this last month. I got back from SXSW extremely hyper, full of ideas for personal projects, so I’ve been working on a few - not without a nagging feeling of guilt.

But that’s the beauty of freelancing. If you can afford it, you can always allocate some time to your own projects.

37   Adam S ~ 01 May 2006 at 08:36 PM

I’m printing this one out and putting it on the wall. And then I’m printing out the older one as well. Thanks for sharing!

38   Steve ~ 03 May 2006 at 06:26 AM

Thanks for the tips, Cameron; I’ve been feelancing for precisely 10 days now!! And I know what you mean on every one of your points!

The e-mail thing gets me every time - I see the email notification (bouncing icon on a mac) and can’t avoid looking at it :(

Better get focussed and get some more done ….. bills to pay!


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