Being a freelancer can greatly increase our awareness and how we value time. When we become aware of our time, we have a greater perception of how we utilize the time given to us. This in turn creates skills for negotiation in project briefs or scope expansion in the middle of a project.
The biggest asset I've gained during my time as a freelancer is learning how to say no, without actually telling the client the condemned two-letter word. This, of course, is not something instantly achieved, but the lessons learned come exponentially, especially when dealing with difficult clients.
The secondary skill which we learn is project estimation. When the money is fixed or the project is dragging on, we quickly start to learn how to estimate projects. Being able to under-promise and over-deliver will not only ensure projects are completed on time but also create stronger client relationships.
Even if running a business isn't at the top of the priority list, taking on a few side jobs will still prove beneficial. It may even create more empathy with the product managers we deal with at our regular day job.
I highly suggest everyone try being a freelancer for a year, even on a part-time basis. The experience gained is irreplaceable will still bring direct valuable lessons that a corporate world may not offer. This goes for all job sectors, not limited to the design field.
Tales of the past
First let me tell you a true story, one that changed my entire perspective on how I take on projects and work with the management team.
I first started freelancing in my college days and I was fortunate to land some interesting jobs – one of my favourites was designing gift cards for various independent music labels. Many other jobs were odd-jobs off the gigs section of craigslist, one-off projects or quick mockups.
These jobs of course weren't enough to live off of, so I decided to reach out to some people in my very limited network, to see if I can land a larger contract.
Sure enough, after a few months of searching, I landed my first large contract. This contract was with a law firm. They were looking to redesign their website, change to a new content management system, namely WordPress and many other features.
Halfway into the contract, design changes were proposed, new features were requested, and many page templates were needing to be updated. Almost all of them were out of the scope of the original agreement. Being my first larger client, I pushed through to the end.
By the end of the project, I was exhausted and felt freelancing wasn't worth it – since my project was a fixed price, by the end my hours to pay ended up being a total of $1.72 per hour.
Maybe other factors came into play, for example settling for a price too low, failing to account for changes or not asking the right questions. This all comes with experience, and the rest of this article will help set you up for success and veer away from similar situations.
The major lesson I learned was setting expectations – no, it was setting limitations. Before a contract even starts, we as the contractor need to set the boundaries and process of the project.
The first I've learned is to make sure everything is on the table upfront and before the cost is negotiated. I recently wrote an article on this very topic. The primary takeaway is to not, and I repeat, do not ever accept a price before the details are laid out on the table.
Ask for their budget, understand their project scope, and let them know if the scope is too large for the budget. Let them know what can reasonably be descoped or modified to help fit the budget. Work with the client and help them achieve their goals while still maintaining a balanced workload.
These lessons may apply to the corporate world too. Although employees will keep receiving their salary, the lesson learned for corporations is reducing burnout. When a project is dragging on with no end in sight – employees energy depletes, they also lose confidence in the management team due to the constant changes in scope and vision.
Employees lose confidence in the management team due to the constant changes in scope and vision
Stakeholders may not realize they are creating a burden, and as long as we continue accepting scope and criteria changes, the requests will keep on coming. Setting limits, knowing personal working speeds and being able to say no to unreasonable requests can greatly reduce the chances of burnout.
We don't want to be blunt and say no, instead we need to reason with our stakeholders and those we work with to build a relationship that builds empathy and strong relationships for everyone. We are all humans, we all are working to succeed and we all want to achieve the same goals. How we reach those goals and drive the product forward will decide if those goals are achieved as a team or in a way that drives people to escape at the first opportunity.
We still need to be flexible when bringing in scope, but we must remain vigilant. Don't create or accept scope just because we are told to do so. We need to ask questions and understand why the scope is being added this late into the project and discuss why it cannot be in a later release; if the scope is absolutely necessary to add and the rest of the team agrees, timelines need to change.
Adding scope means added work which in turn means added time. It doesn't make sense to add time to a deadline that doesn't change, unfortunately, we don't have time machines and we certainly don't sit in a time loop.
Communication is key and creating an environment that everyone understands the decisions made will help keep everyone aligned towards the same goal.
To all the managers and stakeholders, this activity of building trust shouldn't be left to your team to strive for empathy and understanding. A stellar manager will be one who takes the first step and ensures that the team is on the same page and understands the value of the tasks, scope and deadlines that are given.
A sign of a good manager is one who leads the team, not one who commands
Burnout is a real thing and when managers don't have an understanding or hold empathy for the team, burnout is inevitable. Finding great team members is difficult and time-consuming, it's in everybody's best interest to keep the team happy and proud of the projects they work on.
The trail ahead
Interestingly enough, the difference between junior level staff and senior staff are those that understand a similar process. Juniors will often take on work and feel intimidated by questioning what the higher-ups are assigning.
As senior designers, questioning and understanding the reason behind features being requested and scope change is not only a way to ensure alignment with the goal – but also converse with business to have input.
As a freelancer, we may also be reluctant at first to question decisions being handed down to us, but when it comes to minimizing our value over time spent, we quickly start asking the right questions, and this sort of mentality will bring on the appearance of seniority even if our experience is limited. In this way, if we want to accelerate our career, the lessons learned from freelancing may aid in our journey.
If you are looking to get into freelance or are only looking for better ways to manage stakeholders, I highly recommend the following book by William Ury, "The power of a positive No":