Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Potentially bogus freelancing advice

For nearly 20 years, I have been freelancing: selling my skills as a free agent. I do very little freelancing these days, but I still regularly give advice to students and colleagues. Is it wise? I let you be the judge: here are my favorite bits of wisdom. There are bad and good clients.

In retail, the more clients you have, the better. The economics of freelancing are different. That is because you are selling finite resources (your time and your energy) and every transaction depletes your resources.

A bad client might waste your talents and skills in a dead-end project. A bad client might use 80% of your energy and contribute less than 20% of your income. A bad client might drop you in favour of a cheaper alternative without thinking twice. A bad client might feel abusive, put you in a bad mood. (Being in a bad mood is bad for business on the long run.) A client might take your business in the wrong direction.

As a freelancer, it is entirely reasonable to turn down work. It is often the strategic thing to do, even if you have nothing else lined up. Think about an actor offered the leading role in a major movie that is bound to be a failure. Ultimately, the great thing about being a freelancer is the freedom to turn down work. It is not only good business, but it is also what sets you apart from employees.

Everything is negotiable.

When I started freelancing, some clients would put forward rules or policies. These rules were invariably convenient to my clients.

For example, it is common to have bounds on how much consultants can charge. A few times over the years, even recently, a client told me that I could not charge over $50 an hour, as a rule. Whatever the rule or the policy, it is always a matter of negotiation. Do not worry, clients will make “exceptions” if you are worth it.

Intellectual property is another important point… when freelancing, you should not sign away your rights lightly. For example, if you are doing a programming job, consider that giving the client the copyright of your work might prevent you from reusing the same code in other projects. A much more reasonable default stance is to license your work to the client.

In all cases, remember that there are bad and good clients. If a client refuses to negotiate in good faith, he may not be a good client to you.

Do not watch your clock.

Because it is a widespread practice, clients almost always want you to charge by the hour. Often, they want to know ahead of time how many hours you will charge.

Charging by the hour is more of a metaphore. In practice, you should charge by the value provided. That is, suppose that you can solve a problem in 5 minutes but that 99.9% of world experts would take 5 days… then it makes no sense to charge 5 minutes. Similarly, if a client wants you to do some work that most people can do in a few minutes but that will take you days,
you should not charge the client a lot.

A more reasonable approach is to charge flat fees or the equivalent. A flat fee could include a service such as “being available at a moment’s notice”. If it reassures the client, you can translate the flat fee into a fixed number of hours and an hourly rate.

Whatever you are charging, you should not worry about the time you spend on projects too much. Your main worry should be to provide something valuable to your clients.