Starting a new freelance project can sometimes be daunting or can be a nervous experience for anyone who's never done it for—and sometimes even for those who have done it before.
That's why I've put together this list of 10 things you should know before starting a freelance project—to help those who are freelancing better prepare themselves for working with clients.
This list is crafted to help not only newcomers to the freelancing world but those who've been around the block a little and wish to increase their skill set and improve the way they manage their projects. It is also a perfect checklist for clients looking for freelancers to help them with their creative needs.
1. Know Your Creative Process
It's a good idea to know how your projects typically work—from start to finish. Having a defined process can help you not only keep projects on the right track and running smoothly, but it can also help show you gaps or holes within your process that you need to button up.
With my process, I keep a Google Doc with an outline of how each of my projects is typically run. I have a unique process for each type of project I generally run, including branding, illustration, illustration style discovery, strategy, etc.—each has its process, and I'm always working to make my process better for clients and myself.
Also, it's a good idea to have your process written down so that if a client asks what your process would be for their project, you can share it directly with them over email or use it as a script during sales calls.
If you're a client looking to work with a freelancer, studio, or an agency, you should ask them about their process. You should know how they will work with you on any given project. You shouldn't go into a partnership with someone without knowing how you will work together.
2. Know Who Your Client is & Who the Stakeholders Are
It's essential to do your research on who your client—or potential client—is, what they do, and how you could potentially help them grow their brand. That's a given, right?
A lot of creatives know that they need to research their clients but fail to do so or simply they go off of what they have learned from their correspondents. In reality, you need to dig deeper and do some thorough research on your client.
I like to do a quick google search and see if there are any articles written about the company or by the company and see what I can learn about them through those words. You can also lookup your main point of content on social media—specifically LinkedIn— and see if there is any material there as well.
Being able to discuss these things with your client will show them that you've put forth the effort to learn about them.
The same goes for clients as well. You should always research who you want to work with. For instance, if you're looking for an illustrator, make sure that you look through their work and pick out examples of what they've created that you like or would potentially like to see replicated for you and your brand.
When you have your first calls or meetings with your client, you should also remember to learn who the stakeholders are for the project—meaning who will have final approval for any of your designs or illustrations.
It's good to make sure that any stakeholders are on your future calls or that you can talk to them directly. The reason behind this is that no one can better sell your ideas or designs than you. Never let anyone else try to pitch your idea or designs.
3. Always Have A Client Fill Out a Questionnaire
This is something that I've done in the past and again started doing with all of my new clients and projects. Some clients will be open to answering questionnaires, while others ignore them or drop off altogether. I've now come to the point where I find it essential to have my clients fill out questionnaires.
Why is it important? Because I've found that you want to know as much as possible about a client before you start working with them or even jump on a call.
For instance, if a client doesn't fill out a questionnaire by ignoring it or refusing, then that is a big red flag. It shows that they may not respect your process, or they won't take the time necessary to be involved in the project when their attention is needed.
There is a lot that you can learn from even small interactions such as these.
When you're writing up a questionnaire, make sure that the questions you ask can be applied to any type of project. This way, you can stick to one questionnaire that you can use over and over again. You can find some questionnaire examples in this Hubspot article.
4. Find Out What Is Your Client's Deadline
When you start a new project, knowing when the project needs to be completed. This is something that comes in handy when you're figuring out a budget for the project and working on your work calendar—making sure not to overload yourself with work, which most creatives have done or will do in their careers.
It's essential also to figure out a general idea of how long projects usually take from start to finish. This allows you to know how much time you should request from clients to complete projects.
I try not to give a definite amount of time since all projects are created differently, and so timelines need to be as well. An illustration project—depending on scope—could take anywhere from a week to as much as six months. With branding projects, they generally take a month to three months to complete.
Something that I also try to express to my clients is that timelines are also dependent on them. Having a project finish by any deadline is dependent on whether or not clients give quick and decisive feedback. If they don't follow through on that, then the deadline will inevitably be pushed back.
Generally, clients are receptive to this and are understanding—especially larger clients who have a lot of stakeholders.
5. Know Your Client's Budget
This is always the part that creatives get excited about, the budget for their projects. Knowing your client's budget can influence a lot about a project, from the scope to whether or not you're going to take on the project—too low, and you may turn it down while a high budget may instantly cause you to take on the project.
Let me be the first to say that the budget should never be the sole deciding factor in whether or not you should take on a project. I've had many projects that had large budgets, and I've ignored the red flags that have popped up only to find out that I was dealing with what some call a "client from hell."
When a client comes to me looking for illustrations or branding work, if they don't have a high enough budget for a project, I'll work with my clients to find a way to work within their budget. This can be done by limiting the scope or removing items that they initially were looking for.
In some circumstances, clients do not have a budget in mind, or they don't know how much services like yours should cost. In these situations, you must be the one to tell the client how much their budget needs to be.
If you're not new to freelancing, you should have an idea of how much to charge for your services, depending on the scope of the project. If, on the other hand, you're new to it, then you will have a bit more trouble coming up with a price point.
Side Note: If you don't know how to come up with a valid price or price range, you can take an hourly rate—let's say $75/hr for a beginner. Then you figure out how long you think the project will take to complete—for an easy example, we'll say 20 hours to complete, and we'll add a little extra just in case so 25 hours total. So we then multiply $75 by 25, and we have $1,875— but I like to round up a little bit, so we'll say $2,000. If you'd like, you can also give that as the low part of the spectrum and say it will cost between $2,000 - $3,000 to provide yourself with a bit more cushion.
6. Know Your Client's Previous Experiences
This is often overlooked by freelancers and studios alike is that sometimes your clients have had past experience dealing with creatives just like yourselves. It's crucial to find out what those experiences are.
A positive experience will lead to confidence and a yearning to repeat the success of their first projects. However, a negative experience will result in skepticism and mistrust. This will sometimes be a red flag, in my opinion, because it may taint your potential relationship with the client. They may compare you—sometimes at every step—to their previous freelancer or studio. For me, at least, this can be a bit annoying or unnerving to be compared to someone else.
What you must watch out for overall—a BIG red flag—is when you have a client who's had "nothing" but bad experiences. Usually, this will mean that it's not necessarily the people they've worked with, but the problem lies with them. So be on the lookout for that.
If your client has never worked with any creatives, then it's your opportunity to set the stage for them and give them an amazing creative experience. This will set you up for both referrals and more projects with this specific client.
Try not to ever leave a sour taste in someone's mouth with your creative process. You'd be amazed at what doors could open for you.
7. Find the Right Way of Communicating With Your Client
Not all clients like to communicate in the same ways. Some clients prefer to meet in person vs. video calls. Others prefer to be in communication as much as possible and want you to be on a Slack channel.
In Peter F Drucker's article for Harvard Business Review, "Managing Oneself," he talks about how we must learn how those around us learn and communicate. Even though this was written years ago, it still is essential today.
It's crucial to find out—directly or indirectly—how a client prefers to communicate and how they prefer to be presented with information.
We usually understand the idea of communication, especially in this day and age, but we don't focus on how we present information to others. Now, what do I mean by this? We provide information in a range of different ways. Sometimes it can be in a simple email, during a call or meeting with the client, or in a video recording where you talk through your entire thought process. It can even get more profound than that.
Once you've figured out the best way of sharing information with your client, you'll find that your interactions, your understanding, and more will get better.
For example, one client of mine preferred for me to send detailed emails along with my work outlining my thoughts and why I made individual decisions for the illustrations I was creating for him. We first began by sharing everything via InVision with a little bit of context followed up by a video call. Quickly we found things weren't working that our communication was off, and we had a discussion to figure out what was the best way to communicate. This allowed us to find a solution, and we were able to knock things out much faster and efficiently.
8. Figure Out & Set Your Client's Expectations
We do not mind readers. We need to find out—especially early on—what our clients expect of us. What are they hoping the result will be? What deliverables? How are they planning the project to progress?
As creative professionals, we should already have this somewhat figured out or at least help our clients set their expectations of how the project will progress. Many times you might find yourself with clients who have never gone through a design exercise or don't understand the difference between animation and illustration—in fact, just this week, as I'm writing this, I had one client refer to illustration as animation.
You may also be wondering how and when we should be setting these expectations. The answer is before we even get started on a project.
When you first talk to your client about their needs or the problem that they're coming to you to solve. You should be setting expectations from how you will be communicating with them and sharing progress with what they can expect after the project.
This goes back to your process—except this time, we're not talking about the creative process—instead, we're talking about your business and sales process. It's good to document this process and to have checklists of everything that you go through with a client in your first call as well as what you do after the creative process of the project is complete.
In the beginning, you should share with them how much your services cost—whether its hourly, project-based, if you offer retainers, etc. You should set the expectations for them of not only your role but theirs as well—what you're going to need from them, how soon you need feedback, how you communicate and deal with information, etc. Finally, you should make sure they know what comes at the end of the projects—payment schedules, the release of assets, promoting on social media, end-of-project review, etc.
When you let them know all of this at the start, you cannot only share all the pertinent information that they are probably wondering, but you're also showing them that you are a professional and that they should work with you—especially if they are not 100% on board yet.
9. Preparing A Statement of Work & Other Paperwork
Before I started using an MSA—Master Services Agreement—I would send every client a proposal before sending a contract. I found that by doing this, I had a drop-off rate of close to 50%—I did the math on this. So I started using MSAs and SoWs—Statements of Work—with the majority of my client interactions.
Now before I go any further, let me just say that I'm not a lawyer, and you should always make sure that you have one write up all of your contracts and MSAs. I'm currently using a contract and MSA that was prepared by a third-party and plan on updating mine this year.
The reason I use an MSA over a regular contract is that it's considered—to my understanding—an overarching contract that allows me and my clients to continue work with multiple projects under one document. The only thing that we have to create each time is an SoW and have the client sign it for approval to move forward.
A lot of different freelancers, studios, and agencies do things differently when it comes to contracts and other documents. I prefer to do it this way because having an MSA with a client is almost like a promise that they will come back for more work.
With the SoWs, I would suggest that you create a template document that you can easily change for each client. Within that template, you'll want to include a few specific pages.
The first being the title page, which lists the client's name and the project title—i.e., Blue Cyclops Design Co., Creative South Merch T-shirts.
The page that follows should be where you spend your most amount of time—this will be the page that you change 100% every time. You will want to take your time with this write-up. The reason why we do this is not for the person we've been talking to but for any stakeholders who may not have been on the calls hearing our plans or process.
After the write-up page, we have the breakdown. On this page, you'll break down the cost of the project and each of the specific line items that you agreed to with your client—such as the number of illustrations, revisions, final deliverables, etc. I also use this page to share the "estimated" kickoff date and the "estimated" completion date—the reason for the estimated part is because things can always change based on time of the initial invoice payment or from multiple rounds of changes from the client.
And the final page is where you summaries everything, and you give them a chance to follow up with you with any questions or changes that they may have. You can also remind them that if it all looks good, then they can sign the SoW and get the ball rolling, and the project started.
Some other documents you might consider putting together for your clients may include a more lengthy proposal deck—a template—that you customize per client but contains things like testimonials from previous clients, work samples, etc. This is usually a good idea for studios and agencies over those just looking to freelance. I'm even considering putting together a proposal deck myself for larger clients and projects.
You can also create documents on your process that include things like how you like to receive feedback or communications from clients or even a document on expectations from both you and them.
I've found though that its best to go simple than to overdo it with the number of documents you share with your clients.
10. Know How to Kickoff Your Project
This is sometimes overlooked by some creatives and studios, the kickoff for a new project. When I was first working as a freelancer, I rarely had kickoff calls or meetings—unless a client requested it. At the time, I would just start a project based on our first call or emails and be off to the races. You can probably guess how those projects probably went—I'll give you a hint...not well!
No matter what, you should always have some sort of kickoff with your client before the start of a project. By doing so, you allow both yourself and the client to go over any unanswered questions, review notes or questionnaires, etc.
It also allows you to meet anyone else who will be involved that you didn't know would be before—such as the design team, project managers, or even stakeholders.
Before you have a kickoff call with your client—the day before at least—you should review everything you have including your questionnaire, notes from your initial call, emails and even stalk anyone who's going to be on the call on LinkedIn so you can get an idea of who's who.
This will help you familiarize yourself with everything and everyone before you jump on this important call, and it will allow you also to write down any questions or bits of information you may want to ask during the call.
Sometimes I even like to write an outline of what we should discuss or go over on the call. This makes sure that there is a plan for what needs to be addressed.
As I mentioned in another blog post, if a client doesn't want to have a kickoff call or doesn't want to get on any calls—both audio or video—that's a big red flag in my book. If they aren't willing to take the time to discuss things or review them, then most likely they aren't going to be receptive to what you expect from them.
How to Use These Tips
The best way to use these tips is to slowly implement them into your process or change them to fit your needs. I don't fully use each of these, but I work towards doing it. It's kind of like that old saying, "do as I say not as I do."
I wrote this blog post for myself in addition to you who are reading it. You can think of this as my own documented process for what I plan to do moving forward with my projects—taking what I currently do and making the process better, finding pain points that I can tackle early on in my client engagements. It's for both of our betterment.
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