Recently I received some questions from a student who is just starting out on their freelance web development journey. For those new to client work (and even those with experience), managing client expectations, contract terms, and payment schedules can be incredibly daunting. Here I’ve provided my tips to help you in your own freelancing.
When freelancing, how can you avoid being sued by clients?
I am not a lawyer. Ultimately, you should have one. In general, avoid negligence, and use a contract with a limited liability or indemnification clause. These clauses are required by most business insurance policies, which is also a great idea.
I pay ~$70/month for business insurance and it covers me for anything up to one million dollars. My standard contract limits my liability for any issue to one million dollars. So the worst case scenario if somebody does sue me is that my insurance premium goes up.
How can you ensure that your freelance clients will pay you?
Always use a contract. Always secure a deposit. When you’re starting out this can be difficult.
I’ve been burned enough times that I require deposits up front for all work. Always be working off of a deposit. For example, secure a $500 deposit and once you have delivered $500 worth of work, get another payment before work continues.
This can be difficult to do when you’re starting out and don’t have high demand. A lot of small business clients will expect to pay half up front and half on delivery. This is ok as long as you are ok with losing half of the project fees in the worst case scenario.
Ultimately, listen to your gut and if somebody feels untrustworthy, just don’t work with them.
You can mitigate the risk slightly by only providing the final deliverables to them upon final payment.
Even with a contract, for projects under $10,000 it is unlikely that you will ever sue somebody for lack of payment, so just try to get paid as you deliver value.
What is the best way to negotiate pricing for client projects?
If it’s something you’ve done a few dozen times, flat fee pricing works ok. Otherwise, charge hourly and make sure your client knows that includes all time spent on the project, including emails and calls.
If you need to learn something specific for a client project, generally, charge them for that learning as well. When you take on a project specifically to learn the technology stack it uses, you may want to give your client a certain number of hours of “learning time” for free – but keep track of this for your own records!
If nobody has turned you down because of price in your last 2-3 jobs, it’s time to raise your prices.
How do you balance time between multiple client projects?
Generally, I try not to. I like to have 1-2 projects at a time, 3 at most. So then this question becomes “how do I schedule multiple projects” and my answer to most clients is that they get on my schedule as soon as the deposit is paid and not sooner.
How can you defend and transfer intellectual property?
In the open source world this is a bit tricky. I use a long and explicit clause like this in my client contracts:
Copyrights will be automatically assigned as follows:
You’ll own the branding, graphic designs, code and content we create for you. We’ll give you source files and finished files and you should keep them somewhere safe as we’re not required to keep a copy. You own all elements of text, images and data you provided, unless someone else owns them. You own all documentation we create for you.
Your website will be powered by a combination of open source code licensed freely, proprietary code reused amongst our projects, and custom code created specifically for this project. All pre-existing proprietary code will be owned by us and licensed to you in perpetuity.
This comes straight out of my contract where “we” and “us” were defined earlier. Talk to a lawyer about your own contract as soon as you can afford to (this will probably cost about $1000).
Finally, avoid “work for hire” agreements or any similar language. You might see a contract like this from a client. Don’t sign it. Work for hire is a specific legal term that leaves you with no rights to the work created under the agreement. Similarly, be very wary of any contract with an assignment of invention clause.
Otherwise, NDAs and confidentiality agreements are perfectly acceptable once a client has decided to hire you. Anybody asking for an NDA before they will talk to you at all is usually not worth your time. Also be wary of non-compete clauses which may limit the types of clients you can take in the future.