There are few things more fulfilling for new business owners than signing that first client and having the chance to do what they love under the structure of their own business and brand. Freelancing is an exciting venture, and in today's market, it's big business. A 2016 study by Upwork showed that there are 55 million freelancers in the U.S., making up 35 percent of the American work force.
If you're thinking of joining the consulting club, let me be the first to congratulate you. You're in for one of the most rewarding experiences of your professional life, but only if you do the work to ensure that you protect yourself. Ignore this important step and you'll set yourself up for a lot of unnecessary stress and possible burnout.
Here are five tried and tested ways to avoid some of the more common mistakes made by new consultants.
1. Mistake: Not setting the right tone.
Because most freelancers are usually so excited to have their first one or two clients, it's not uncommon for them to fall into the trap of doing a little extra (read: free) work here and there. They will eagerly respond to messages and emails immediately and take calls when they really should have been scheduled. They think they're being generous and accommodating (and they are), but the clients see this as setting a tone for the rest of the contract. This tends to backfire as clients become accustomed to having responses in real time, all of the time. Before you know it, confusion ensues. The consultant is overwhelmed and both parties are frustrated and resentful.
Protect yourself: Put your guidelines in writing -- and stick by them.
Have a very clear discussion laying out your professional boundaries and ask your client to do the same. Come to an understanding about working hours and response times and agree on how you will schedule calls, meetings, and Skype sessions. Once you are in agreement, put all of this information into your contract (see below) and have both parties sign it. If you are going on vacation or going to be unavailable on certain days, let your clients know as far ahead of time as possible. Ask them to do the same.
2. Mistake: Being afraid to put a contract in place.
I recently asked 15 consultants if they offered their clients contracts and was surprised to find that only three had one in place. The most common reason for not offering up a formal agreement? Consultants were worried that doing so would cost them a gig. The best way to move past this costly concern is to understand that quality contracts are put into place to protect both parties, not for one to strong-arm the other. This is done by making responsibilities and timelines clear, securing payments and fees, and putting a formal agreement in place if the relationship does not work out.
Protect yourself: Make it legal.
For most professionals, a contract is a basic step in the process of doing good business. Put bluntly, anyone who is unwilling to put his signature where his mouth is isn't someone you want to be in business with. In fact, several business owners I spoke with claimed they would steer clear of a consultant who didn't offer one, out of fear that that consultant would be unprofessional or untrustworthy. Paying a few hundred dollars to have a lawyer look over your verbiage (to ensure that you have covered everything properly and are fully protected) is a worthwhile investment.
3. Mistake: Not holding clients accountable.
Whether it is allowing clients to hand in deliverables late, jumping through hoops to complete tasks by unreasonable deadlines, or working with an unpaid invoice, many freelancers help create a culture of chaos by not drawing a line in the sand when clients behave badly.
Protect yourself: Create consequences.
Though revisions and delays are inevitable on most large-scale projects, there needs to be a clear understanding as to who is doing what and when it is due. I personally like to use a task-management system to manage to-do lists and follow-up with a weekly email outlining what is being worked on and what is outstanding. It is also important to remember that accountability goes beyond checking items off a list. If a client schedules a call and goes MIA, doesn't pay an invoice on time, or crosses a line, you need to have a system in place to deal with it. Charging the client for a percentage or the full amount of time you set aside for the call is not inappropriate and stopping all work until an invoice is paid is acceptable. Just be clear to have these guidelines laid out in the contract beforehand. Once they are in place, it is up to you to abide by them.
4. Mistake: Allowing them to treat you like their employee.
One of the biggest struggles freelancers face is forgetting that they are in a professional partnership with their clients. You are doing work for them, not working for them. The distinction is an important one.
Protect yourself: Remember that boundaries are a good thing.
As a consultant, you are not privy to the benefits of a full-time employee, nor are you involved in the day-to-day running of the business. You have been contracted to do a specific job because of your talent, not to get caught up in office politics or drama or to feel anxiety about the mood or shifting decisions of your client every day. Additionally, when on-site, you are not there to "jump in and be a team player" on tasks that are not outlined in your contract.
5. Mistake: Getting too friendly with clients.
We all want to work in a friendly environment, but getting too familiar with a client will inevitably blur the line between the personal and professional relationships. This can make objective decision-making and clear communication difficult in the long-run.
Protect yourself: Keep a professional distance.
No one is saying not to open up a little bit or that you need to turn down every cocktail invitation, but it is important to know what to share and when to leave. This is where that age-old advice still rings true: Do not open up about or do anything you'd be embarrassed to have in print. Simple.