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The Beginner’s Guide to Freelance

Oh my, is that your blossoming career I see?

I can’t be unique in wishing this kind of skill was taught in schools and universities. If there’s an educator reading this, I hope you make some magic happen, but in the mean time I’ll be here to share what I’ve learned on the job as a freelance designer. This article is for total beginners and is based off worries from my first freelance contract. It was a doozy designing an app from scratch while I was learning the latest techniques in university, but I’m glad I took the plunge. I learned a ton on the go, and even got a little spot in Buzzfeed for it (Team Bliss). Now I freelance regularly outside of my day job, and I’m currently working as solo designer on an app to gamify the act of learning Mandarin.

Let’s start with a scenario: a friend of a friend has found out you can help them in their business venture and wants to hire you. You’ve never freelanced before, but this is your chance to take your first professional step into your career. In that first meeting, your lead is likely going to ask for a ballpark number of how much you’ll charge. If you can avoid a set number and schedule a formal appointment with them, more power to you, but if you can’t…

I. How do you calculate a price for what you do?

This is always tricky. Try to come up with an hourly rate for yourself and what you’ll be doing. If you’re just starting or still a student, try anywhere from $15–25 an hour, then guess how many hours it would take for you to finish the task to calculate a total project fee. If your client is fine with hourly billing, great! Nonetheless, most of the time you’ll be asked for a project fee. This is the hard part and you don’t want to undersell yourself so…

II. How do you write a proposal?

Get started on this early in the negotiation game. If you’ve already thought of how much work you’ll need to do it’ll help you negotiate a fair price for yourself. There are great services out there like Proposify, but even a good old MS Word template will do the job nicely. Whichever solution you choose, try to have these categories answered (not necessarily in this order):

  • Your credibility
  • Project summary
  • Phases of completion
  • Schedule for the duration of the project
  • Cost breakdown
  • Invoice schedule

If you want to go a little bit further, you can also add some background on your client to show you did research them and will understand their company or idea. You want your proposal to tell the whole story because this can double as a contract or provide most of your contract’s structure. I treat it as an official reference document, and parts of my contract stipulate referring to the proposal for more detailed information. If your proposal flies and you’ve got someone wanting to work with you, gather that excitement and save it for later because you still have work to do. The next step:

III. How do you draft a contract?

A contract is defined as: a written or spoken agreement, especially one concerning employment, sales, or tenancy, that is intended to be enforceable by law. Yours will be a written agreement since the spoken ones don’t have a very good track record. My first freelance contract was to design an app named Bliss, and my contract was literally only 2 pages long. I was in university at the time and agreed to a fixed hourly rate for any and all work I would do for the app. I ended up designing all of the user interface, designing the ux, logo, and branding for the app in a span of 7 months and made some pretty good money for a student (although juggling that and 2 other jobs plus school was probably one of my dumbest ideas ever, but we’ll go over time management later).

I use Docracy for my contract needs now. Seriously, you can use a document vetted by AIGA for free and customize it for your needs. The safest bet would be to have an attorney take a look at your contract, but if you’re just starting out I can see why that’s daunting and perhaps not even financially possible. For a beginning freelancer, Docracy will be one of your best friends. You can edit the document and show your client changes made until you agree, and then either print it or have it electronically signed. A lot of these contracts have been screened by lawyers, so if anything goes wrong these should be a solid safety net for you.

Another detail you want to be mindful of is any tax form your client may ask. Most likely you will sign a 1099, and your client should provide it. Again, a lawyer or an accountant’s direction would lead you best on how to handle this specifically to your business.

If you have the time, find an accountant near you that you can hire for a one-time consultation on how to get your freelance gig going the right way. Don’t be afraid to ask your personal circle if they know somebody who can help you with this, a friend referral is usually much better than finding someone cold turkey. However, if you’re short on time and are pressed to close the deal, take extra care in your invoices and keep copies of all documents you use to conduct business. You can see an accountant during or after the project and get things sorted out before tax season rolls in. All this preparation should help you keep your freelance endeavor running smoothly, but there’s always a chance things can go wrong…

IV. So what do you do if things go wrong?

This year I cancelled a contract and broke an old friendship. It had to happen, I was being taken advantage of and my client only wanted to pay a fraction for the work I completed. I got angry because it was a friend too, and I know I got too emotional over it. I did end it via email and stated I was exiting the contract, and since none of the work done has been paid for it is therefore illegal for the client to use it in any way.

If you know things are going south, what’s a good exit plan? Make sure your contract stipulates you can leave with partial pay at your discretion. When a contract is signed, your client needs to uphold their end of the bargain as well, so don’t be afraid to bring up the issue if you notice things are veering off the proposal, it will only help you to stick as close to the proposed plan as possible.

One common issue is getting paid. After proposal fees are agreed on, create a pay schedule and share it with your client before you both sign on the dotted line. If it’s a small contract, try half up front and half at the end. If it’s a longer contract, break the cost down into smaller invoices at a set schedule (i.e. two times a month) and detail work you’ve completed so far in every invoice you send.

Don’t be too rigid, projects fluctuate and change and a degree of flexibility is a good thing. Here’s a great article by Peter Hilton on what you can do if a client isn’t paying; one strong point from him is to be mindful of your own power. If a client isn’t paying, let them know the work is being done but withhold delivering until you are paid. Except for that one client I mentioned earlier, stating contractually and in my invoices that all payment needs to be received within 21 days has so far worked for me.

There’s the heavy stuff, and there sure is a lot more we could talk about on the subject, but we do need a moment to look at your personal health.

V. Managing yourself

Last but not least, you are your own boss when you are freelancing, which means you have to hold yourself accountable for everything you agree to do. There’s no one-size-fits-all system that’ll work for everybody, but it’s definitely a common problem to succumb to disorganization. If you don’t give yourself a syllabus kind of structure, you can easily overwhelm yourself with everything you agreed to deliver and end up tarnishing your rep as a professional.

There’s plenty of productivity help out there, but the key is your own will power to follow through. Whether it’s a handwritten planner, online calendars and apps, or emails from a fake account you made up to pretend you have a boss telling you to do things, you’ll need to have a conversation with yourself over why you’re pursuing this and why you’re going to stick to it.

I hope this helps someone get started, thanks for reading! Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @Zarbars if you have questions or pearls of wisdom to share. Good luck!

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