You’ve just decided to leave your job. Or maybe you’re moonlighting. Either way you’re out there, offering your services to the highest bidder. Congrats!
The world of consulting and freelancing is a vast, mercurial place filled with all sorts of opportunities. But there’s danger lurking about as well. When you first jump into the game, eager for that first contract, you can find yourself in trouble with difficult clients, overblown projects, time constraints and more.
Here are 10 tips to help new consultants and freelancers get a headstart:
- Set Expectations As Clearly As Possible. This is harder than it sounds. Clients are notoriously bad listeners. They want the moon, but they want to pay in loose change. Or they don’t quite know what they want but they want a super-accurate quote. Your job as a consultant or freelancer is to explain what you’re going to do and for how much and in what time frame as clearly as you possibly can. Write it down. Tell them. Repeat yourself. Write some more. Get them to sign proposals and specifications.
- Get Money Upfront. Always ask for a percentage of the contract upfront – to be paid before you start. A decent amount is 25% or 33%, but even 10% of the contract in your bank account before you do a lick of work is better than nothing. You’ll have to ask for it to get it, very few clients will hand it over.
- Make Sure Payment Terms Are Agreed On. There are two key elements when it comes to payment terms — (1) When you can invoice, and (2) When they’ll pay. Setup a payment schedule and make sure you know their payment terms. Oftentimes it’ll be Net 15 or Net 30 – which means they’ll pay an invoice in 15 or 30 days, but some companies have 45 or 60 day terms (which are not good for you!)
- Get Expenses Paid For. Try and get the client to cover your expenses. The most common would be travel costs. There may also be specialized equipment needed to do a job, or other things you need to purchase. A web designer might need to purchase some stock photography, for example. If you can’t get this stuff paid for, consider increasing your contract price to cover any expenses you foresee.
- Be Ready To Stop Work If You Don’t Get Paid. This is tough because it’s the start of a souring relationship, but you’re not a volunteer. You might consider having something in the contract/agreement that clearly stipulates work stoppages upon non-payment. Or, you leave it open-ended, at your discretion; but be mentally prepared and tough enough to tell the client, “No money, no work.”
- Get a Testimonial or Reference During the Project. You don’t have to wait for the end of the project to ask for a testimonial or reference. Hit ’em up in the middle, assuming things are going well and you’re getting positive reviews from the client. How do you get a testimonial? You ask. Sounds silly, but it’s true.
- Track Your Time. Even if the client isn’t expecting timesheets from you, track your time anyway. Do it for your own understanding of how long things take. Do it so you’ll get more accurate at pricing projects (cause you’ll probably be lousy at it for awhile.) Do it in case a client demands justification for work you’ve done.
- Don’t Ignore Client Communication. Managing and communicating actively with clients is critical to success as a consultant or freelancer. It’s not enough to do the work. They’ll want updates, status reports, etc. The more handholding you can do — without it consuming too much time and taking away from getting your work done — the better. A well-updated client is generally a happier one, even if you’re bringing them bad news, because they’ll feel on top of the situation and more in control.
- Network Within the Organization. It’s always a good idea to inculcate yourself as deeply into your client’s organization as possible. If you’re hired by a District Manager, try and get introduced to her boss or other District Managers. The more connections you have the better. For starters it can lead to more work. It can also help in situations where your primary contact disappears – maybe they quit, get transferred / promoted, etc. Lots of opportunity is lost by consultants and freelancers when they’ve only got one contact in an organization and that contact is no longer in a position to hire them.
- Document Everything. The more you track – in writing – the better protected you are in almost every imaginable circumstance. Miscommunications can be minimized and disasters can be contained by documented proof of what’s going on. As well, documentation is a valuable asset for setting clear expectations, defining goals and understanding project scope. Just write it all down.
Being a consultant or freelancer can be one of the most rewarding professional experiences. You’re an entrepreneur, growing a business. Opportunity abounds. You finally get to take your expertise and leverage it the way you want.
But it’s a learning process. Sometimes it can be a fairly steep learning curve, and you have to be prepared for that.