Freelancing is a tricky business. First, you have to establish what services you’ll be offering, and how much you plan to charge. Then you need to market yourself and make contacts, perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the trade. And then, after you finally get a client, you need to hash out a contract with clear terms so that you both understand what to expect from one another.
When I was contacted by my very first freelance client, I was delighted. We met, discussed the work, and then I asked if they wanted a contract. That was my first mistake. I never should have asked, I should have told them that one was necessary. Instead, they said no, they didn’t want a contract, and being strapped for cash and overwhelmed at venturing out onto my own for the first time, I acquiesced.
It was a disaster. Everything went smoothly at first, but after a few days the client checked in to see what the cost was at. I happily sent along a number, and immediately received a request to provide a list of every activity I had performed during every hour that I had charged for. Well, since we didn’t have a contract, we had never discussed it being my responsibility to do so. I certainly hadn’t cheated, I timed myself precisely. But I didn’t have a record of what I had done at each hour of the day for the previous week.
So, I wrote back and said, unfortunately, that since the work was mostly done, and that it was not something we had discussed, that it was quite impossible for me to oblige. I received a curt reply and a request to meet for payment the following weekend. I showed up, with the work I had done, and while the client was signing my check in a very full coffee shop, they loudly reprimanded me for my nerve and unprofessionalism.
Where some people would have wanted to cry, I just wanted to turn the table over. I had done the work, and I had done it well. I had charged a minimal fee because it was my first client, and they had declined a contract. They had never said, “Oh, and please keep a record of the time you spend on this to give me at the end of the project”. People were looking at us, and every word that passed through the client’s lips was like venom to me.
That experience taught me my very first freelancing lesson: contracts are a must, no matter how small the project, no matter how well you know the client, no matter how simple the terms are, you must have a signed agreement to protect both yourself and your work.
My first contracts were probably quite pitiable. I didn’t know how to make one or what to include. I never knew what I could and couldn’t put in writing, and I wasn’t sure what I could demand of my clients without scaring them away. But after improving them through the years with a variety of clients, there are a few key things that I always make sure to include no matter what they’re for.
To best protect yourself and your client, consider having clearly terms about:
- Who will retain ownership of the work, and if you, the creator, may use the work in a portfolio or otherwise take credit for the work.
- What exactly is included in the cost. For example, if you are charging a fee, does it include written and verbal communication, or just the actual work itself?
- How much notice must you each provide to the other if one of you wishes to end the contract? This is important as it can help to give you time to replace the client and make up the income. I usually go with 30 days.
- When invoices will be provided and when they need to be paid. I usually bill on the last day of the month and expect payment within two weeks. If you wish to charge a penalty for late payments, outline that in writing as well.
Of course, depending on the work, the client, and the freelancer, there are a number of other things you should include, but the most important advice that I can give is to have clear communication from the beginning.
As the contractor, you need to maintain control. Remember, you aren’t an employee, you are a strong, capable businessperson who is only interested in legitimate, paying, and solid contracts.
Before singing anything, talk to the client about every possible aspect of the relationship you may have together. Ask them about their expectations and requirements. If everything goes smoothly, do a draft of the contract and send it along for their review. This will help you to both understand what the outcome should be at the end of the term.
There’s no magic spell that will ensure a problem-free contract. There are always bumps, or sometimes even earthquakes, but by protecting yourself from the beginning you can help to ensure that you don’t get yelled at in a coffee shop by an ungrateful client while you try to keep yourself from morphing into a much less intimidating version of The Hulk.
What’s your best nightmare client story? Have you ever wished you had a better contract? Do you use contracts?