Freelancing 101: Watch for Commitment Flags Early On

This post is the second in a 4-week series that will focus on advice, tips and tricks from long-time freelancer, Andy Haynes. Andy shares some of his biggest mistakes made during his first year freelancing to help first-time freelancers navigate their first year with success.

Early in my freelance career, a tough experience with a potential new client taught me how to avoid doing free work.

It started with a call from Jill, a woman I had previously worked with and who had taken a new role at a start-up IT firm. She asked if I’d be willing to do some business planning consulting for the young company. They’d never done any planning before and it seemed like an ideal time for me to flex my consulting muscle. I was excited despite the fact that the CEO was too busy hustling sales to meet or talk with me. In absence of his approval, Jill suggested we get started and I agreed to start the work.

Over the next couple of weeks I conducted interviews with different department heads, talking about vision and markets and possible strategies. I still hadn’t met the CEO, but everyone I dealt with felt the urgency to put strategies in place to focus their efforts.

I created a draft of the business plan and sent it to Jill.  And that’s where things started to unravel.

Jill was happy with the plan, but when she shared it with the CEO for feedback, I began to see I’d made a big mistake. A mistake that was realized when we got not response to the draft plan—AT ALL. I should have seen the red flag right from the get go—without the CEO’s buy-in I was vulnerable. He was the one who controlled the budget.

A week passed, then two. The CEO was travelling. Then vacationing. Doing everything but responding to the plan I’d spent weeks developing.

Everyone became frustrated, and a little embarrassed.

By that point I was starting to realize how things were going to end up, but I’d spent a lot of time on the draft and didn’t want my effort to go for nothing. I eventually sent in an invoice.

It never got paid.

What I learned

It cost me time and income, but that experience taught me some very important lessons about how to judge a potential client’s seriousness, and when to say no to an opportunity.

It taught me to ensure I have commitment from my clients for the work I am prepared to offer. I ensure that the person that controls the purse strings is also involved even when they won’t be my point of contact. Going forward without their support is a recipe for disaster. If they aren’t willing to sign-off on the work up front, it’s better to say no and walk away than to and start work, only to later find out you were doing it for nothing.

The purse strings are often the key to whole thing. If a company doesn’t have a plan, that’s a business opportunity for me. If they don’t have a budget, then that’s a problem.

That’s not to say that I won’t sometimes do work for free to win the client. I will often offer to help my clients get organized and support them to a place where my services are needed. This ultimately helps them identify their needs, their budget and builds a relationship with me. More often than not this leads to me being hired. It also lets me gauge if they’re disinterested. If their response to the upfront discussions is lukewarm and they balk at committing funds to the project, I know it’s best to walk away

The way forward

While I had lost my time and efforts, I learned a valuable lesson, and have since become determined to focus on clients who are ready to commit.

A few months ago I received a call about a similar opportunity. I explored the company’s situation and outlined what it would take to create the business strategy they needed. Again, the CEO wasn’t around and he controlled the budget. This time I said, no.

It wasn’t an easy call, and the next month was a bit of a cash-flow struggle, but I knew I’d made the right decision. A few weeks later I got an email from that same CEO apologizing. His execs had convinced him they needed help and recognized that what I had proposed was the best way forward.

I’ve never looked back. Not all situations resolve themselves as well as that last example, but even if they don’t, walking away is the best choice for you and your own bottom line.

More great ideas to grow your business

See the first post in this freelancing series on the importance of of becoming a sticky vendor.

Learn the best advice I ever got about how to write winning proposals.

Explore email marketing for freelancers: 9 steps to drive revenue.

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.