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The biggest freelance mistakes... and how to avoid them

The biggest freelance mistakes

These tips from Matt Schiffman will teach you how to stay independent and avoid some common mistakes related to freelancing.

The cube-farm mentality of workmanship is slowly coming to an end. A new era of productivity in the information age is encouraging impermanent collaboration between skilled professionals and businesses. Your ability to spot this professional trend and being on the bleeding edge of your trade is why you became a freelancer - or you got laid off and didn't really have a choice.

Either way, controlling your professional destiny is now part of what defines your career. You have a chance to carve out a great niche in your industry and be at the top of your game. However, a few untimely slip-ups could cause you to lose the latitude, independence and professional freedom you've become accustomed to. Some not-so-obvious blunders could land you right back in the nine-to-five daily grind or, even worse, with no gig at all.

In this article I'm going to share with you some of my most glaring freelancing mistakes so you can avoid making them. Now on to it…

Proper legal representation

Having a lawyer on retainer is crazy-important and I was crazy to go without one for seven years. I wrote my own SOWs (Scopes of Work) and signed MSAs (Master Service Agreements) without consulting an attorney. It was not until I had my first contract dispute with an enterprise-class client that I learned this lesson the hard way.

A legal retainer is like having insurance. When things are going great, it's not something you think about needing. But when a job goes south you'll be kicking yourself when you go scrambling for counsel.

You don't dictate the way your client does business and they shouldn't tell you how to run yours

Your client most likely has legal representation and you should have it as well. If a potential client tells you otherwise, they're trying to take advantage of you. If your client feels uncomfortable with you involving an attorney with business decisions or negotiations, walk away form the opportunity. You don't dictate the way your client does business and they shouldn't tell you how to run yours.

Once you agree to an onerous request such as that, you've shown your underbelly and the client will most likely roll over you for the duration of the job. If your client does not have an attorney protecting their interests, don't use that as an opportunity to skimp on legal necessities. Continually keep your lawyer in the loop, regardless of what legal resources your client has.

Once you establish a relationship with an attorney you're comfortable with, be sure to loop them in when you form new business relationships. Have them review documentation before you attach your signature and check in with them every so often to keep on their radar. Keep in mind that it just takes one nasty adverse legal event to squash your freelancing career.

Affirming your client's ideas

On one of my past jobs I was contracted as a PM/IA to work on a prototype application for an advertising agency. The manuscript of the program I was developing was based on the services and capabilities of a large US investment bank and was pretty dry stuff. The agency's concept for the project was primarily based on an idea suggested by the their client, the investment bank. Based on the content, I knew it would prove extremely difficult to execute the idea effectively but I didn't speak up. I just obliged and happily walked the agency (and by proxy, their client) down a path I knew was treacherous - all in the name of staying positive and being a team player.

I was scared of offending the people I was working with. I was scared of the implications of saying the concept would be harder to execute than we all collectively realised. Eventually the job stalled and, as far as I know, the application I was hired to work on was scuttled. I was hired as a consultant, an outsider with a different perspective. I let group affirmation seize the project and failed my client when I didn't stand up for what I believed was right.

If you hesitate to assert your expertise on a job or feign knowledge, you're doing them a disservice

Constantly affirming a client's needs, regardless if their requests are appropriate or even possible, will most likely end in tragedy.

Remember, you are the consultant. The client hired you because they don't have the in-house talent to effectively execute whatever you're helping them out with. If you hesitate to assert your expertise on a job, or worse feign knowledge, you're doing them a great disservice.

If you don't instantly know the answer to a concern, it's not a good idea to immediately say "yes", "sure" or "no problem" as a first response and then figure you'll work it out later. Simply tell the client something like: "I'm not sure if that's possible, let me check and I'll get back to you as soon as I have the answer". You'll save yourself loads of anxiety and preserve your reputation in the process.

Diversity in your skills and client base

For four years I consolidated most of my attention on one client to provide Flash development services. The money was great and they constantly kept me busy. As HTML5, CSS3, jQuery and other client-side JavaScript libraries gained in popularity, Flash took a serious nosedive as a preferred rich development platform. Soon, not only was my client moving away from Flash but the industry was as well. This lack of diversity put me in a position where my industry exposure was confined to one business sector and specialty. Because of that encapsulated environment my skills atrophied. Eventually my client no longer needed my Flash development talents and the volume of work significantly dropped off.

It's very easy to get wrapped up in a strong business relationship with your client. You're providing them a service that they probably don't have much expertise in and it feels good to be the one who gets the job done. Don't let that blind you to the fact that this is just a business relationship - nothing more, nothing less.

Even if you're tightly integrated into your client's business keep them at an arm's length

Even if you're tightly integrated into your client's business keep them at an arm's length and make sure you're able to execute for at least one more client within the same billing cycle - preferably in a different business sector.

If your relationship with your client strengthens over time and you find a significant amount of your resources being devoted to them, figure out ways to grow your business around their needs. Use sub-contractors, try to revise your MSA when appropriate and negotiate a rate increase - all great stuff for your lawyer to do. Your client will respect your business savvy and you'll preserve a great relationship.

Also, keep your skills sharp and never stop learning. The technology industry is in a constant state of flux so stay on top of the latest emerging tools.

Work-life balance

For many years receiving a call at the end of the day to have a fire put out by start of business the next morning was a situation I considered normal and even embraced. The client services business, to me, was an exercise in which I aimed to extract billable hours from whomever I could work for regardless of my bandwidth capabilities.

Little did I realise how much damage I was doing to my marriage. In the name of 'professional responsibilities' I secluded myself in a veil of deliverables from which I could never escape. I became addicted to my work. To this day I still have that compulsion but I temper it with what matters the most - my wife and son. The freelancing lifestyle I so treasured became just as confining and consuming as the most unmannerly of on-site corporate taskmasters and arcane protocols so many of us yearn to escape.

If we neglect the ones we love, our accomplishments feel empty

Freelancing is liberating, empowering and provides a sense of business accomplishment at a personal level that can rarely be achieved as an employee. As freelancers, we are primarily accountable to ourselves. Our successes and failures are our own and can never be taken away from us. However, if we neglect the ones we love - our support system - our accomplishments feel empty and we'll eventually have no one close to share our professional glory with.

We all have some type of support system - family, circle of friends, professional colleagues. It's when we compromise those relationships at the expense of our business needs that all we accomplish becomes irrelevant.

Don't take on more work than you can handle. As a discipline, I don't take on more than three or four projects at a time. By keeping your workload manageable you'll be able to maintain your standards of quality and won't alienate those close to you in the process. You'll also have more time to enjoy the finer things in life. I'm pretty sure in your old age you won't wish you worked more.

As I finish this tome on independent effort, it is Labor Day weekend in the United States. On this holiday, celebrating the spirit of the American worker, I awoke to the first morning in which my son did not sleep in a crib. This achievement was an event that I happily embraced without the distraction of where my business was going.

Words: Matt Schiffman

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