Notes from a New Freelancer: Learning to Contract

Freelancing Basics | Jul 16, 2015

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Enter the words “Should I go freelance?” into the Google search bar and you step into the self-help section of internet – this is chicken soup for the freelancer’s soul. The articles populating the search results radically vary: there are titles advising you to be brave, to quit your job and leap into the freelance market, and titles that counsel you to be prudent, to generate a financial cushion before trying your hand at independent work. The lessons of these articles may be contradictory but as you read listicle after listicle about the pros and cons of freelancing, you’ll notice an overarching theme: know yourself.

If you want to become a freelancer, the internet tells you, the most effective thing you can do to prepare is to examine all areas of your life: Are you an introvert? Are you lazy? Are you a happy person or a sad one? Are you adventurous? Messy? Creative? These questions and more importantly, the answers to them, the experts say, can save a person a considerable amount of time and money. The trouble with this advice is that most people – especially young people – learn about who they are over time, through experience.

I have been freelancing for more than six months now. Before I embarked on the freelance path, I read countless articles about the experience, trying to glean what it would be like to work for myself. While the question of who am I? remains elusive as ever, over the last few months I have learned a lot about the demands of running a freelance business.

I don’t have secrets for success (or tips to avoid failure) to share, but I do have questions about the freelance business that remain a source of concern and confusion. Some of these questions include, Do I need a separate bank account for my freelance business? What about taxes? Should I rent a co-working space? How do I hire a sub-contractor? Should I charge an hourly rate or a fixed price? The frequency with which these topics have been discussed on Reddit and LinkedIn forums dedicated to freelancing, as well as on the hundreds of freelance-themed blogs, suggests I am not alone. The goal of sharing our stories in this new section of the LF blog is both to celebrate these experiences, and to collectively find solutions to the problems that most new freelancers face.

Over the next few weeks on the LF blog, I will address the issues that have affected me most as a new freelancer. I encourage you to contribute to the discussion in the comments below.

So, in the spirit of sharing, the first question that I am asking is

Must I use a contract for this project?

“No matter how much you may like or trust a client, always use a contract.” This is what a friend of mine tells me in response to my query about contracts. I had just landed a new project with a client who was an associate of a former colleague of mine, and assumed that a personal connection might alleviate the need for a formal contract. However, some research on the topic of contracts confirmed the popularity of my friend’s view – experts overwhelmingly portray the contract as the lifeline against the uncertainties of the freelance business. Without it, you not only risk the loss of payment for your work, you jeopardize your rights to your intellectual property (IP).

If only because his view is uncommon in the sea of freelance blogs, I found Vancouver-based freelancer Matt Lambert’s opinion on the subject of contracts to be helpful. On his blog, Matt reveals that he doesn’t use contracts for clients. Rather he uses a uniform system for all projects:

50% payment up front to start a project,

50% due on completion of the project.

While a tiered payment schedule is common in the freelance world, most experts recommend that you outline these terms in a contract before starting a new project. How you want to be paid, in other words, is often its own subsection within a contract. While Matt’s system may seem simple, his blog demonstrates a wealth of experience – he has been doing this for years and clearly understands the administrative side to the business. Matt’s secret – if we can call it that – is that he is selective when it comes to choosing his clients. This is, perhaps, why he can forgo a contract: he works regularly with a group of clients who he trusts and respects.

Most new freelancers don’t have the luxury of choice – we need new clients and we need them fast. Contracts are a freelancer’s best bet against the pitfalls of unreliable and potentially exploitative clients.

If you are similar to me, you have likely spent hours online seeking out the perfect contract template. While there are a number of helpful tools and resources to be found, there is not one foolproof solution. Templates are either too formal or informal, too long or short, or too focused on a particular industry. I’ve used templates that are oversaturated with legal jargon, and then dedicated hours to simplifying the content, deleting and re-writing whole sections.

Even with the help of templates, I hold onto the fear that the contract will offend the client before the project launches, that somehow, the clauses I have included to protect my work and livelihood are unreasonable or unfair. As a new freelancer, I am still adjusting to the responsibilities that come with being my company’s boss.

I can’t say that this fear of offending a client has completely gone away after six months of freelancing. But I can say that what has helped to dampen it is working towards a contract that embodies the values of my business and incorporates aspects of my personality. You should feel good sharing your contract with clients. Arriving at this type of contract can take time. I am still perfecting mine, amending the conditions and terms with each new project.

Before you get started on your own contract, I recommend that you first read some of the excellent articles out there on the dos and don’ts of contract writing. I have a put together a brief list to point you in the right direction. The short of it from the experts? Be sure to set your rates and determine a payment schedule before starting a project, and don’t forget to include a clause for revisions and alterations. Good luck!

Advice from the experts:

Don’t Get Screwed: Freelancer Contracts & Legal Stuff You Can’t Ignore

Don’t Get Screwed: The Contract Provisions Every Creative Needs to Know

Setting Up a Bulletproof Freelance Contract

For more tips on contract writing, we suggest you visit our Tools and Resources for freelancers

About the author

Nadine Adelaar is a Toronto-based front-end developer and webmaster of livingfreelance.org.