The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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Never one to be jaded by the ubiquitous list post format, I spotted an opportunity on the Freelance Friends group to launch another unbridled attack on time-wasters who lie in ambush for unsuspecting, well-intentioned freelancers.

Mercifully, you only need scuttling a handful of times to hone a bullshit radar capable of detecting new UFAs* when they drift into your airspace. So, to train your very own bullshit radar, here are seven signs to watch out for, that tell you your client-in-waiting is a total fucking nightmare.

It contains precious advice from over ten years’ freelancing as a copywriter and event photographer in Leeds, and some solid shaftings by the piss-whackers.

1. They tell you how long the job will take or cost

A job lands on your desk from a new client, it’s a bit vague but no matter, you think. All that will come later, after the usual digging around. But what the client isn’t ambiguous about is exactly how long it’ll take you to do it, and how much it’ll cost.

“Two and a half hours, tops” they say, “I’ve got £75.00.”

While it’s very kind of them to do your job for you, only you are allowed to have a wild stab at guesstimating your personal productivity. Quoting isn’t an exact science, covering all sorts of factors like how busy you are, your experience, the nature of the task and how much of an arsehole the client is being. How dare they tell you. Good clients ask.

Estimates are rarely accurate anyway – that’s why they’re called estimates. Sometimes clients forget that, that’s the point at which you should remind them that no one can predict the future, and that includes people pestering honest freelancers with spurious enquiries.

On yer bike sunshine.

2. They haggle up-front

If estimates are by definition wild guesswork and fluid, squabbling over their arbitrary value is equivalent to two pigeons fighting over a theoretical chip.

Haggling in this context is an unproductive race to the bottom, and an exercise that should be avoided. If it happens, count yourself lucky for having had early warning. This person doesn’t trust anyone, and clearly has only a tenuous grasp of value, let alone reality.

Thanks, but no thanks.

3. They usually promise lots more work if you do this one for a good price

Ah, the magical, yet ever elusive ‘dream job’ that one day will materialise from this unholy shower of shite. But only ever after you’ve fingered your way through countless measly nuggets that drop from the throne.

Ignore promises like these from untrusted clients. Instead, judge every individual job on its merits and assume it will be the last. You do every job at a fair price and to a high-standard anyway, so their fraternising is irrelevant.

Besides, good, long-standing relationships with clients tend to begin with substantially-sized jobs, then steady, smaller projects then follow – not the other way round.

Go fuck yourself Pinnochio.

4. They meddle and reluctantly defer to your expertise

Tricky one this, because you’ve already committed yourself to do the work. Luckily though, this sort of behaviour tends to manifest early on when all the planning, analysis and design happens, and it serves as a useful canary in the coal mine.

Usually it begins with a barrage of emails, often with contradictory advice. Then the calls begin, interrupting you so you lose your focus. You realise this is a problem when your client suddenly becomes a writer, graphic designer or coder – and hands back revisions sullied by their grubby little hands.

Perhaps the client’s been hurt before and they find it hard to trust new people. But you aren’t the agony aunt in Heat. This is your livelihood.

Try to get to the bottom of what’s really bothering them, if they’re open – it could solve the problem and be the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship. Otherwise, it’s not worth the aggro. They’ll never be happy with anything. You know the type.

Ditch ’em.

5. They plough on without meeting first and quickly bombard you with excess info

It’s easy to get swept along with this one, especially if you’re just starting out and need the work. Most briefs are urgent, people are just like that – badly organised and reactive. But the distinction here is subtle. They assume the job is a done deal without giving you time to process the brief, and confirming it’s OK with you first.

You’ll know this is happening because they act like you’ve been in business for years – and not complete strangers who’ve never met in person. They saturate your inbox with forwarded emails, whims, documents and samples of things they’ve seen. All this is generally useful in due course, if you ask for it, but it’s the combination of urgency and jumping the gun without ever sitting down to agree the basics.

And it’s those basics, like terms and conditions of work, that really matter later when you find yourself chasing your tail later, because nothing was ever agreed.

Tell ’em to stick it.

6. They stress about IPO/copyright

There’s nothing wrong with protecting yourself and being clear about who owns what, but in the first conversation? This is serious. It’s like going on a first date where their kids come along for the grand signing of a prenuptial agreement. At least wait until you’ve tongued a bit first.

This isn’t about non-disclosure agreements when you work for a big brand – that’s normal. I’m talking about the profound paranoia that happens when someone’s been ripped off in the past. On one photography job, my client wouldn’t let me leave until I’d handed over my memory cards. Lucky escape, but it’s that sort of mentality you should be wary of.

Good business demands trust, and building walls at the beginning just gets in the way of meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships.


7. They go very quiet, then demand everything happens urgently, then go quiet again

This kind of client is really rather fun, actually. Their projects can drag on and on for months, without ever even beginning properly. It’s fun to watch from the sidelines, so long as you’re not being asked to do anything. The trick is to not get strung along into pointless meetings that are half-pitch, half-solution-building, and become entrenched in their bizarre penchant for procrastination and indecisiveness.

I’ve got a client like this who I’ve never actually done any work for. It’s been dragging on, a meeting will appear here, then a cancellation there. Months later, a frantic phone call, then nothing. That said, if they’re paying attention to your questions, and giving considered responses when they do reply, maybe it’s worth hanging in there – especially if the work might be interesting.

Otherwise if this keeps happening…

Get rid.

* = utter fucking arsehole

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