From both angles–as a freelancer and someone who needs a freelancer–it’s critical that the working relationship is a good match for both parties. Too often employers have professional needs that fall out of scope of a particular freelancer’s offerings, but they tray to talk them into fulfilling these needs just the same. Likewise, too often freelancers agree to take on projects that fall out of scope of their niche business making for an uncomfortable mix. This is a recipe for disaster. Decide up-front as an employer, what your expectations are from a freelancer. As a freelancer, decide up-front what your menu of professional offerings are so that it’s easy for you to say no when asked to go out-of-bounds of your niche.
Other potential pitfalls include making sure personalities, work ethic, communication styles and dedication to common goals match. These don’t need to match in a way that mirror the other but in a way that compliments the other. To this end, here are seven tips to help both employers and freelancers decide if there’s a mutually beneficial match before signing that binding contract, committing you together.
- Discuss specific needs and expectations. As an employer, have a list of the types of services you would like the freelancer to undertake and what types of outcomes you expect. Be clear about these expectations. Also, be open to negotiate on certain services and tasks that the freelancer may not be willing or able to undertake. Understand that you may find a great match from a freelancer who can fulfill a percentage of the needs you’ve outlined and you may either contract elsewhere or agree for the freelancer to subcontract for the additional services required. As a freelancer, be clear, firm and consistent about the menu of services you can provide. Be realistic about your skills, experience and time available, and consider having a network of other specialists you can refer or subcontract with to potentially fulfill other needs a client may have that you don’t offer.
- Date before marriage. Try a single project or a small batch of multiple projects prior to committing to a long-term working contract. Think of it like dating before marriage. Employers and freelancers need an opportunity to work together on projects to see if their styles and offering match well. When you begin working on projects, examine aspects of the partnership that will impact future projects if you both decide to move forward in a working relationship. In particular, observe matching or complimentary values such as punctuality and adhering to deadlines, frequency and styles of communication, creativity, problem-solving, innovation, leadership and project management systems, etc. While most people value all of these, many will value some more than others. For instance, perhaps an employer values a freelancer’s leadership and innovation and can deal with flexed internal deadlines once in a while as another employer demands strict adherence to deadlines but is less concerned with creativity. Likewise a freelancer may require a specific communication style and frequency and is less concerned with an employer’s project management system. A trial project will help the employer and freelancer examine if this professional relationship is a good fit and makes parting ways on good terms if things don’t work out well much easier.
- The contract. Write it, discuss it in detail, sign it and stick to it. Determine what money is needed upfront with projects to seal the deal. Often freelancers will require up to 50% down, especially at the beginning of a professional relationship. This is important for the freelancer to cover some operating costs while working on projects and to help ensure that the employer/freelancer commitment is firm on a project. It is less likely that an employer will pull the plug on a project if there’s already money invested in it. Also, freelancers tend to be more responsive to employers who have already invested financially in their work. This is especially true at the beginning of the employer/freelancer relationship. Include in the contract items such as ownership of intellectual property and copyrights, confidentiality expectations, deadlines both internal and external, specific pieces of the project that need to be completed to make the whole, what fatal flaws can break the contract from the perspective of the employer and the freelancer. If anything has been promised free of cost or is required free of cost, include it here.
- Experience and Inexperience. Check references, portfolios, ask pointed questions to determine experience and knowledge–from both the freelancer and the employer. Employers need to know the credibility and experience of the freelancers they hire, and freelancers need to know the same from employers. It’s perfectly great to work with start-up employers and freelancers who are cutting their teeth. Just know that this is what you’re doing, and do so with the intention of supporting that start-up. Anticipate that some minor mistakes may be made at the start, but know that you can help one another grow together. If you’re working with a start-up from either end of the spectrum, expect that the services will cost a little less. Discounts should be involved to compensate for inevitable missed internal deadlines and struggles with communication, etc. If the mistakes are too frequent or troublesome to overlook, from either the employer or the freelancer, the aforementioned trial project is a good way to check this out and perhaps decide to part ways easily afterwards. If after the trial period the employer who has enjoyed the benefits of discounted quality work wishes to move forward with the start-up freelancer, that employer should expect the rates to raise up to industry standards–if not immediately then in the very near future.
- Payment. Both parties need to be specific about terms of payment. Timeframes. Whether this will be based on a retainer, fee for projects, hourly rate, etc., this needs to be pre-determined and honored. Discuss payment for meetings and consultations, phone calls and other forms of communication on project(s) and travel/mileage and other potential expenses such as copying, printing, etc. If terms need to change due to unforseen circumstances, this needs to be communicated immediately, preferably with options that will be beneficial to the party that is NOT changing the terms.
- Conflicts of Interest. Discuss and have in the contract anything that would be considered a conflict of interest for both parties. As an employer, you will want to ensure that your freelancer will not utilize any proprietary information you provide to them with your potential competitors. This may include having the freelancer agree to not work with your competitors while under contract with you. As a freelancer, you may need to make it clear to your employer(s) what types of projects you will not be able to undertake due to potential conflicts of interest. This may include developing marketing plans for similar businesses in similar markets simultaneously. Open, honest communication and signed conflict of interest clauses are very helpful to avoid this common pitfall
- Parting Ways. Do everything possible to part ways on positive terms. This does not mean avoiding direct communication when things go wrong or communicating any dissatisfaction. What it does mean is to ensure that one is not slandering the other publicly and that communication never turns abusive, harmful or threatening. Do not threaten lawsuits or demand refunds unless the infraction is so significant that these circumstances are unavoidable. Understand that most things go bad due to miscommunication and misunderstandings or even uncontrollable events. This knowledge should bring at least a small sense of compassion that might lend to at least civil and polite communication and the amiacable dissolution of a professional relationship. At all times, remember, your reputation is always on the line each time to speak ill of another.