Contracts. Who needs them?
When Aaron and I started Mt. Freelance we naturally did some digging around the Internet to see what kind of resources and information was already out there for freelancers.
There was a fair amount of it, and almost every single article stressed the importance of having a contract in place before you start work.
I also noticed these articles usually offered the same information and advice over and over, written slightly differently.
It made me wonder how much of this expert advice was based on actual experience versus Internet research.
What makes Mt Freelance unique is we didn’t go to business school, or research our way into freelance success. We share what we’ve learned the from decades of freelancing ourselves.
So I’m going to share my experience with contracts.
I’ve never, ever drafted a contract or asked a client to sign one.
I’ve signed them, sure. If and when my clients drafts one.
(And yes, I read it, and sign it, but sometimes only after I ask for and usually get a revision when there is a clause preventing me from, say, working on a competing brand for the next 12 months.)
But if a client doesn’t mention a contract. I don’t either.
I’m not saying contracts aren’t important or that you don’t need them.
But I am going to share why I don’t initiate them and what I find to be a more effectively way to ensure my freelance jobs are successful.
I don’t make my clients sign a contract because if a client is going to try and take advantage of me, or steal my work, I don’t think a contract is going to stop them.
A contract will give me leverage if I need to hire a lawyer and bring legal action against them. But I don’t want to hire one and spend weeks or months in litigation.
So I do everything possible to ensure it never comes to that with clients.
Here’s what I do instead.
First, I try and work with clients I’ve already worked with before as much as possible.
As a freelancer having clients that hire you again and again is ideal. You spend less time looking for work and more time doing paid work.
And rather than trying to figure out how a client works, getting to know a team and trying to make a great first impression, you can just get down to work because you’ve already done all those things.
And best of all you know they aren’t going to try and take advantage of you or try to get out of paying you, because they already didn’t do that.
If you’re not getting hired by your clients again and again, especially if they could be, it’s worth looking at your work habits and behaviors and seeing if there are ways to make your clients happier.
If you’re stumped you might even reach out to past clients and ask for some honest feedback about your past performance.
Freelancers who are starting out don't have the luxury of working for past clients (unless they are leaving a full-time gig who wants to bring them back on).
In this case try and at least work with clients that can be vouched for in some way.
Knowing someone who works there is good, knowing other freelancers who have worked there and had a good experience is even better.
I also try and avoid working for clients who are inexperienced in working with creatives.
When Aaron and I hear about freelance jobs that go really bad they tend to have a few commonalities.
It’s usually a new company, with a marketing department run by someone who is fairly new to bringing people on and doesn’t really understand the creative process or what a creative freelancer brings to the table - be it an art directors, designer, strategist, photographer, director, animator or project manager.
All too often these connections are made on websites where freelancers can offer up their services and companies are coming there to avoid hiring an agency or firm in order to get work done quickly and on the cheap.
But if you’re in the Fiver, Upwork or Freelancer.com boat we have an article we’d love to share with you.
And then when I do take on a job, I go overboard on communication before I agree to the job.
I communicate with my clients about rate, schedule, deliverables and so forth extensively over email.
They may call me to talk about the job, and often ask my rate and availability. But I’ll always end the call by saying I need to quickly look at my schedule and will email them my rate.
That way it’s all in writing and it gives some time to think about how and for what I want to negotiate.
When I do write them back I try and include as much detail on my end, summarizing what we discussed, and I’ll ask as many questions follow up questions as possible before we start.
How much and when I’ll be paid is important. But equally so are final deliverables, timelines, process, rounds of feedback, roles and responsibilities on their end and so on.
Why not take the next step and put all this information into a formal contract?
I could, and I probably should.
But I don’t because it saves me some time, and for me knowing I have everything in writing is enough.
And come to think there was one time where I helped with a contract.
A few years back Aaron and I partnered to help a company with a re-brand. It was a big job, and they were new to working with marketers and creatives.
So in that instance we felt having a contract was important.
So we did create one. But technically Aaron wrote it!
I just gave it a once over and added a few things before we sent it. So my claim still stands. I think.
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