Be a Top Freelancer: Don’t Disappear

What makes a freelancer successful? Setting rates? Getting leads? Productivity?

These are all worth studying, but I’d like to share a secret that has been the single-biggest factor in growing my freelancing business. It’s so fundamental it seems silly to have to talk about it:

Don’t drop off the face of the Earth.

A year ago, I sat down with a prospective client. The conversation went something like this:

Client: I used to have a programmer guy who was great. He worked for $35/hour, and things were going fine until one day a project needed a revision and he stopped responding.

Me: Like you couldn’t reach him by phone?

Client: Yeah, complete silence. He dropped off the face of the Earth. I never heard from him again and I had to scramble to finish the project.

Sound familiar? This happens all the time. Most clients have had freelancers bail at some point. Abandoned projects come in a variety of flavors:

  • A developer lost interest in the details of a big project as it dragged on.
  • A designer-turned-self-taught-developer took on a huge, complex project and tried to bludgeon several WordPress plugins together as a solution.
  • An otherwise good developer took on 8 (no exaggeration) projects at once and couldn’t keep up.
  • After receiving payment, a remote developer vanished.
  • A cut-rate developer went out of business without giving clients a way to transfer their projects elsewhere.

Though the causes were many, the result was the same: The developer stopped emailing or answering the phone, and the project was left in limbo. Clients were left wounded in time and money.

Don’t be that developer

You can use this to your advantage. Just do the work to completion and you will be transported instantly to the top half of freelancer developers. An added bonus: You will probably be catapulted to “hero status” for your clients, which is an awesome way to get referrals.

Practical advice for finishing projects

Why do so many freelancers disappear? A few theories:

  1. They don’t charge enough to stick a project out
  2. They have too many projects going on
  3. They are freelancing for fun with no long-term goals
  4. The second half of a project is many times harder than the first

Tip #1: Charge more

[Channelling Patrick McKenzie]

Charge more. If you think it’ll take 5 hours, estimate 10. If finish under budget, you’re a hero!

If you charge more (solving problem #1), you can solve problem #2 at the same time: Higher price tags → less crappy projects → you’ll be less swamped, focusing on quality projects.

Tip #2: If you priced it wrong, tell your client

If you bid a project too low, communicate that to your client as soon as you have a grasp of the magnitude. Present the problem and some potential solutions. Some options:

  1. If it’s a small oversight, suck it up and do it with joy
  2. Ask for more money
  3. Present alternatives that fit within the budget
  4. Exit the project by telling your client the truth

Any of these 4 options is better than slogging on (unhappily & unpaid) or bailing on the project. You’ll be surprised how clients react to your honesty. It’s likely no freelancer has ever given them this choice.

Tip #3: Don’t take on projects you have no idea how to do

Billed time is not education time. Education is important – including learning new languages, frameworks and development concepts – but you need to learn on the side until you’re comfortable.

This isn’t to be confused with the incremental learning that happens with every project. You’ll always be doing things you haven’t done before (otherwise, you’d have their project prepackaged and ready for delivery). I’m just suggesting that you work as efficiently as possible for your clients. If you’re thinking “gee, I’ve always wanted to try out Angular”, first build something for yourself – before you try it on clients.

Tangent: If you’re an inexperienced developer, carefully consider what you say you can do. Be honest with yourself and your client if you’re unsure about something. There are ethical implications – maybe you tried, failed and learned (great for you!), but your client has lost 6 months and $X0,000 on your botched attempt (not so great).

Tip #4: Don’t go surfing on project deadlines

This actually happens. A client once told me they called their developer on the day the project was supposed to be delivered, only to learn he was happily “chilling at the beach”.

Don’t just disappear

It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics of running a business or being a programmer. But sometimes, it’s the simple, old-fashioned things that humans have always struggled with – showing up, working hard, being reliable – that can advance your career. For me, it has been the single largest factor in growing my business, and it was completely by accident.

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4 comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    I agree with this statement There are ethical implications – maybe you tried, failed and learned (great for you!), but your client has lost 6 months and $X0,000 on your botched attempt (not so great). to a degree. You need to make sure the client is well aware of your capabilities. Don’t lie, however, I believe you should charge for anything you spend your time doing because of the client. Anything you wouldn’t have been doing otherwise.

  2. Radhika says:

    Oh man–I just began freelancing a few months ago. I received enormous success so I took on too many clients and charged too little out of each of them, and I eventually got sick (it wasn’t burnout, but I’d like to think it was) and disappeared entirely.

    I rebooted the business a month ago and I’m charging on a commission-based system now (so I can not work if I need to, just sending a quick email saying what’s up) and am now allowing myself 20% of the clients I was aiming for last time.

    Once I get back in the groove, this version will ironically be more profitable without the stress and burnout.

    Sometimes, you just have to learn from experience.

    • Andy Adams says:

      I’ve nearly burned myself out a couple of times. If my clients weren’t flexible, I’d have been in trouble. I was honest with them, asked for more time/money, and we came to an agreement.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anton says:

    Personally, I don’t think we are hard enough on this unprofessional behaviour – collectively, at the national level, (assumed) billions are lost every year in productivity due to this sort of behaviour from repeat offenders.

    The emphasis is often placed on the buyer (in posts like this) and many, many freelancers take full advantage of this – only to compromise projects and waste the buyers time/money.

    Repeat offenders; both freelancers and clients that disappear or flake out on a contract should be on a ‘name and shame’ register and can earn their way off it by delivering on-time.

    I’ve been hiring freelancers for over 10 years and I mean hundreds (no exaggeration) of them and the issues are the same regardless of the job:

    1. Take on job and sign contract after interview and briefing etc. but quietly always taking on other projects and seeking ever higher rates ($) and in doing so neglecting contracts they have signed and committed to.

    2. Doing the parts they like/can do and then disappear just shy of delivery.

    3. Many are HOPELESS and working to feedback. They need feedback to grow and for the project to be delivered to spec, but get ‘sensitive’ (though they will never admit it) when you come back with any feedback whatsoever.

    The prevailing attitude when things go south is ‘oh well, that’s the freelance industry’ and the buyer has to wear it. No way!

    This industry is PRIMED for disruption! Freelancers that behave in this way should be called out and made well known for doing it.

    Some of our projects could have been completed 10x over if it wasn’t for flaky freelancers that suffer from a constant ‘change of heart’ or ‘chasing other work’ syndrome!

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