Freelance projects on the side are fun. Change of pace from your full-time gig can be breath of fresh air that you need to keep from burning out. Usually the brief for the project is pretty specific (create mobile wireframes for app Y, help us think through feature X). Most of the time, the project is run on a budget so you have a general idea of time and effort constraints. Like I said - fun.
Except when they're not.
Bad, Then Worse, Then Better
Like most designers, I began my career moonlighting on whatever cool project came along that I thought would be a good portfolio piece. I didn't have any business skills and my pitch meetings were the lamest! Along the way, I learned through trial by fire. Here's a few lessons learned:
- Always have a contract in place so you don't get stiffed.
- Get a signed copy of the scope document stating that anything above and beyond the features stated there is more time/ $$$
- Feeling sorry for a client with no budget means you're doing (at least some degree of) work for free
- YOU are the AV Club. Bring your own laptop, always. Bring adapters to hook up to any projector. Mini-Displayport to HDMI? Check. HDMI to DVI to VGA? Check. Everyone is impressed when you pull out the adapter and your slide deck fonts don't break.
- Agreeing on FINAL deadlines before actually finishing the discovery phase or having scope defined is almost ALWAYS a bad idea.
- Being a name brand with a big, shiny office doesn't mean they will be a client that pays on time. Or that you don't have to get your friend who happens to be a lawyer to harass them via snail mail just to get paid.
- The biggest clients often have the hardest time establishing who is the 'decision maker' and have conflicting project goals. Always have agreement on what success means for a project. Make everyone say it out loud.
- Pro Bono is generally a no-no. Doing work at a reduced hourly / project rate keeps non-profit organizations honest. Doing everything pro-bono translates to 'I'll get back to your email in 4 weeks. Having skin in the game (even if it isn't much) makes them act like a stakeholder.
It's not all doom and gloom, but any freelancer can tell war stories for hours about their own clients from Hades!
Being Honest About Commitment
Time, time, time. Taking on a freelance project, you need the bandwidth to produce an excellent deliverable. Looking back at the last 4 or 5 gigs that I took on, freelance projects eat at least 30% more time than hours billed. If I did 30hrs of wireframes, I was thinking about them, driving to meetings, writing emails or notes, or doing informal research that always end up not getting accounted for along the way.
One of the biggest steps when maturing as a freelancer is looking inside yourself and being able to honestly answer whether your have the time to devote to a project.
Getting a little personal here - 2016 was a crazy year and I recently became a dad. After mulling it over, I made the hard decision to not take on freelance (as much as possible) while I'm knee-deep in changing diapers. I'm working a full-time gig and put a lot of hard work in at the office. When I get home, I want to be there to see my kid before he's all grown! I'm already out of steam by the time I put him in the crib... what quality of work will I deliver if I stay up till 3am every night to hit a deadline? The final product will suffer. Putting out something 'just good enough' is a horrible habit to start.
Because of this, I've had to turn down opportunities to work with some really cool people. At first I was sad... my good friend "Fear Of Missing Out" coming to visit. Oddly enough, as I passed these gigs to those that had more time and were a good fit, it actually felt rad. I love hooking up my design friends with cool opportunities.
Holding Out for the Right One
It's not easy to say "no", but every time you choose what's right for you, it begins to get easier. If the right project comes along, who knows!