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.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.
Authentic Boredom is the platitudinous web home of Cameron Moll, freelance new media designer, author, and speaker. More…
Full-time and freelance job opportunities. Post a job...
A selection of fine reading, available for a limited time only:
- Jobs home page reorg
- Coming soon: Mobile Web Design, the book
- Dyson ad: Text as more than just words
- Setting sail for Europe
- Review: Sumo Omni bean bag chair
- Dashboard widget for Authentic Jobs
- Limited-time offer: $99 listings
- Nine skills that separate good and great designers
- Fire sale
- Introducing AuthenticJobs.com
CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standard Solutions A solid round-up of indispensable CSS design techniques by Andy Budd, Simon Collison, and Cameron Moll.
Mobile Web Design A guide to publishing web content beyond the desktop. Tips, methodology, and resources. Now available.
Letterpress Posters The unassuming beauty of a freshly letterpressed print.
That Wicked Worn Look. Techniques for that worn, aged, distressed look.
Mister Retro Machine Wash Filters Turn the dial to “Instaworn” with these filters.
Blinksale Dive in and enjoy shamelessly easy invoicing from Firewheel Design.
Basecamp My preferred web app for internal and client project collaboration.
HOW Conference Austin, June 24–27. Pentagram, Adobe, P&G, et al.
Web Design World Seattle, July 20–22. Practical sessions on web design.
Stimulate Salt Lake City, September 2009. Entrepreneurship and design conference.