How to be a savvy freelancer

You’ll know, as a creative, that many of us aren’t agency or in-house, we work freelance – and freelancing requires us to be savvy businesspeople.

Here are my top tips for staying in the know – and knowing what gives you staying power.

Know your bottom line
Naturally, this is about finance: knowing how much you need to earn to make a living, and setting appropriate rates to achieve that.

However, it’s also about knowing your bottom line in the way you operate.

Over time you will have a number of clients coming to you, and you’ll develop your offer. It’s essential to know what you are – and are not – prepared to accept in a business relationship.

Here are some examples of challenging situations that freelancers encounter.

The client:

  • wants work for free
  • offers derisory rates
  • keeps moving the project goalposts
  • suffers from mission creep
  • delivers the project late against the agreed date
  • doesn’t deliver at all
  • issues contracts with unreasonable terms
  • pressures suppliers to agree to unreasonable terms
  • attempts to retroactively impose terms on a contract
  • doesn’t stick to the contract

And here’s some more:

  • goes AWOL after commissioning, or during the project
  • expects suppliers to drop everything with zero notice for their project
  • expects antisocial working hours as standard
  • refuses to pay a higher rate for urgent jobs/antisocial working hours
  • demands 24/7 availability and communication
  • disputes quality of work to evade payment
  • threatens legal action to bully suppliers and/or evade payment
  • is disrespectful, rude or abusive
  • always pays late
  • doesn’t pay at all.

It may well be that working the odd weekend or evening to meet an important deadline, or accepting a slightly lower rate at first could lead to a more beneficial (and lucrative) situation in future. Every situation and client are individual and have to be judged on their own merits: only you can make that judgement call.

But consistently giving way to unreasonable requests (and behaviour) can lead to expectation, and puts you in a vulnerable position. You become locked into a negative cycle because ‘Well, you’ve done that for us before and it wasn’t a problem. Why are you asking for this now?’

Be decisive
The savvy freelancer deals with these situations by knowing when to negotiate, and when to close the door on a client relationship or deal. It’s about not wasting time.

Know when to negotiate

The time you spend dealing with a client who is never going to respect you is time you could be using to find clients who will. And there is absolutely no place for disrespect, bullying or abuse in a client–supplier relationship.

Some clients will come to the table with an offer which tests your mettle. It’s their MO: they will try to get you for a low fee (or even free) if they can. But if you go back and state your rate – which signals your professionalism – you’d be surprised just how accommodating the discussion can become.

Learn to say no
‘No’ is a difficult word. It’s challenging – but as a freelancer, you can use it to your advantage. ‘No’ can be incredibly empowering: it sets boundaries, and lets both parties know exactly where they stand.

Learning to say ‘no’ can be tough, particularly when you’re starting out. You may feel like you have to say ‘yes’ to every request that comes along: you need the business and to build up a client portfolio.

However, past a certain point you will have a clearer idea of whether a client’s requests are fair and something you’re prepared to go with. This helps you because it consolidates your sense of self-worth.

The good thing is that ‘no’ doesn’t have to mean ‘never’. It just means ‘no’ in that given situation – that is, unless you really are firing the client. Savvy freelancers know that achieving a win-win situation is the best outcome for everyone, so this is simply about negotiating to find what that outcome might be.

Be collegiate
The best freelancers network – and by networking, I don’t necessarily mean scouting for business or asking for referrals. This is as much about offering support and guidance to others when you can, as it is about taking it.

Freelancers often work solo, so being a part of something bigger – whether that’s a professional society, business or artistic collective, networking groups, mastermind group or even voluntary service – all help you to connect with others and give something back.

You get what you give

The one thing you learn pretty quick when you go freelance is that you get what you give. Reach out to others, and they’ll help. Give something back, and you’ll find others are equally happy to help and support you too.

You also get a reputation for being a nice person to deal with. And who wouldn’t want to do business with someone nice?

Nurture good clients
I started out this article by talking about the kinds of clients who can be difficult to manage. The great news is that there are also really lovely clients out there who’ll recognise your professionalism and artistry, pay you a respectful fee and refer you to others.

These kinds of client are the gold standard, and it’s really important to look after them. Stay in contact, even if you haven’t worked for them for a little while. Offer support if that’s what they need, and be prepared to go the extra mile for them from time to time. Ask them for testimonials and do what you can to keep the relationship positive and happy.

A happy client is a good client, and this is what you’re aiming for every time you begin a new business relationship.

Be flexible
Throughout your freelance career you’ll be working with a mix of clients, all with different needs and personalities. The mark of a truly savvy freelancer is knowing how to negotiate your way through challenging situations with grace, successfully caring for yourself in the process.

Service doesn’t have to mean servitude. So be savvy and enjoy your freelance life – because when it works, there’s really no better place to be!


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