My Favorite Freelance Faux Pas

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| August 20, 2014

Image via Simon Zoric

Back in June, I wrote about 5 mistakes to avoid as a freelance designer. The post covered topics like not having a contract, undercharging for services, and poor communication with clients. These are common mistakes, and if you ask any industry veteran for advice, they’ll likely cite a few of those faux pas.

Today, I want to talk about freelance faux pas on a more personal level. With a solid contract in place, I now encounter fewer unexpected “surprises.” But in my first two years as a freelance web designer, I made a lot of mistakes. Some mistakes, like undercharging for services, I amended over time. Before agreeing to a new project, I’d adjust my rates, edit my contract, and ask lots of questions to ensure I was a good fit for the job.

Other mistakes really caught me off guard. These were moments when I said to myself, “I didn’t see this one coming, but now that it’s happened, it won’t ever happen again.” I hope you can appreciate, and perhaps learn something from, some of my favorite freelance faux pas.

How much are you willing to lose?

I once found myself in a situation where a client had seemingly…disappeared. From the beginning, communication with the client had been spotty, but my emails and phone calls were now going unanswered for weeks at a time.

I was waiting on a payment for the project, and I was getting anxious. I asked the advice of a freelancer friend, and I told him how much the invoice was for.

“Are you comfortable losing that amount of money?” he asked.

I said no.

“Then how much are you willing to lose?”

If a client suddenly disappears, or refuses to pay, are you willing to lose $100? $500? $1,000? My friend proposed invoicing in smaller numbers. You’re working for yourself, so you have the power to decide how you divide up big sums.

It was some of the best advice I’d received since I started freelancing. I now invoice in smaller amounts, and if 30 days have passed and I’m still waiting, I halt the project until I’ve received payment for services rendered.

Remember, it’s never okay to not receive payment if you’ve completed the work described in your contract. But if you have to play the waiting game, it’s better to hold off on buying a new pair of shoes than making a mortgage payment.

uh oh catEveryone makes mistakes. It’s important to take ownership and learn from the experience.

Working for friends, for free

Building a website or designing a logo for a friend may seem like a great way to get your business off the ground. You both get the benefit of working with someone you trust, they get a cheap (or free) design, and you get a great portfolio piece. Nothing could possibly go wrong…right?

When I first started out, one of my design mentors said, “Don’t do business with friends.”

It seemed like a curmudgeonly bit of advice, and at the time, it just didn’t make sense. If a friend needed a website, and I needed a portfolio piece, wasn’t that a perfect exchange? So, in my first year as a freelance designer, I agreed to build a free website for a friend’s fledgling business. We didn’t have a contract, because, Who needs a contract when you’re working for free?

My friend and I both had the best intentions. She wanted a great website for her business, and I wanted a great website for my portfolio. But as the weeks stretched on, the scope of the project kept getting bigger, and bigger, and…

Though we didn’t have a contract, I’d been savvy enough to draft up site wireframes and Photoshop mockups. My friend picked a design she liked, and I moved forward with the work.

At first, when I translated the design into a functional website, she was happy with the results. But as we closed in on a launch date, my friend realized that the site wasn’t robust enough to suit her needs. What about an e-commerce page? A page for booking classes online? I was devoting a lot of hours to finishing the site, and it was beginning to detract from my other paid work.

I finally had to say to my friend, “I’ve done all the work I’m comfortable doing for free. I’m happy to keep working on the site, but I need to get paid for the work.”

At that point, we launched the site as it was (which she wasn’t entirely happy with) and I considered it a lesson learned. But the story doesn’t end there! A few weeks later, as I was preparing to screenshot the site for my portfolio, I received a devastating email from my friend:

“I don’t know what happened, but I deleted the entire site. Can you fix it?”

I checked the domain and, sure enough, the site was wrecked. Fortunately, I had an older backup on my computer. Unfortunately, restoring the site would mean more unpaid work. Before I had a chance to respond, I received a followup message.

“Actually, don’t worry about it. I’m going to buy a template and do it myself. Thanks for all your help!”

In the end, the site never made it into my portfolio. Now, if I work with friends, I’m a bit of a stickler about contracts. I also make sure there’s some type of tangible exchange involved—even if it’s just a nice lunch together, or a gift certificate to my favorite café.

tightropeWorking with friends requires a delicate balance. Proceed with caution.

Going through the wrong communication channels

This last story is a great example of three rookie mistakes: undercharging, a hazy contract, and poor communication.

I was about halfway through one of my first big projects, a website redesign for a medium-sized non-profit. It was a great opportunity, and I felt lucky to be working with this organization. Because I was a new designer, I’d also grossly undercharged for my services (mistake number one).

Looking back, I’d quoted a price for the project that was, by industry standards, shockingly cheap. The hiring committee probably thought, If this person does a good job, that’s great! If this person does a bad job, we’ll just build from what she started and find someone better.

As it so happened, I was doing a great job! They liked my work, and were so impressed with my skills that they kept requesting new features for the site. The new features were adding many more hours to the project, but I’d quoted a flat price for the complete site. Our contract didn’t clearly state which features were included—like a certain number of site pages—and which were “extras” that came with an additional cost—like online order forms, membership plugins, and event registration (mistake number two).

I was feeling disappointed that the organization hadn’t offered me more money. I didn’t want to have to ask for it, darn it! I wanted it to fall from the sky.

The project supervisor had been brusque in our communications, and I assumed (wrongfully so) that if I approached him asking to renegotiate our contract, my plea would fall flat. So, I did what I thought was the smart thing to do: I emailed the president of the organization.

My plea for better treatment ultimately got me more money, but in the interim, it caused a heap of trouble. The president (who wasn’t on the website committee) was downright confused and the project supervisor (who ultimately read the email) was deeply offended.

The project supervisor told me, in firm but appropriate language, that I’d really messed up. Rather than research the proper communication channels, I went directly to “the top”—or at least, I went to the person I thought was on top. I learned from the project supervisor that if I had first talked with him, and I wasn’t happy with our discussion, there was a multi-person committee responsible for handling this type of communication. By going through the wrong communication channels, I learned the hard way that my actions were both unprofessional and just plain sloppy.

Now, if I’m working on a website for a company or organization, I ask at the beginning of the project who’s “second in charge.” It’s a great question, and it can come from a good place. There’s nothing wrong with asking a project manager, “If ever have trouble reaching you, or if I have a concern I’d like to address, who should I contact?”

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