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Freelance Tips & Tricks

with William M. Riley

by: Evynne Doue

About a month ago I had a conversation with William M. Riley (Will), a freelance product developer in Omaha, Nebraska, to obtain his insight on being a freelancer for appsky’s new blog series titled “Freelance Tips & Tricks.”

First and foremost, charge for what you’re worth!

The conversation started by discussing one of the first “mistakes” he made as a freelancer just starting out—charging way too little for his work. He revealed that his very first hourly rate was $15/hour. His rationale in choosing this rate was, “Well, it’s double what I’m making at Burger King…” And reflecting on it now, he feels it was a very poor decision, and just not “right.” He explained further that another problem with his first project was that the client was hard to work with, and literally said the design he did “looked like a Death Certificate.” As we chuckled over the comparison, he added that while it got on his nerves, they were getting the project for cheap and it didn’t seem fair.

To sum it up, finding the right hourly rate was super important, not only in terms of the quality of work he was producing but also how it affected other areas like client communication and satisfaction.

When I asked him, “Now that you’ve been able to figure all that out, how did you come up with the rate that you charge now?” He said he hasn’t *really* figured it out yet, but typically for the kind of work that his industry is doing, and in terms of freelance work, people generally charge around $150–$300/hour. He then added his rate tends to actually fall at the lower end of that, with his hourly rate usually being $150.

“If there are any projects that I really want to do, I typically charge that $150…but if there are any projects that I really just don’t feel as passionate about, I usually throw out around $200–$300/hour.” All in all, he hasn’t figured his rate out perfectly yet and feels like no one really ever does…it’s really a constant learning experience.

Good contracts are a MUST have.

After discussing pay and hourly with Will, he quickly stressed the importance of good contracts, and how at first, he struggled to find a way to use them so that it protected not only him, but also his clients, in the best, most effective way. For example, he didn’t have enough details like late fees or timelines, it was more of a, “Hey—let’s do this thing over Facebook!” Which was how he kicked the project off, and in his own words, “It was terrible.”

Choose your clients wisely.

Now that he’s getting back into freelance after working at a number of agencies for a little over four years, Will voices that being intentional in choosing his clients is extremely important, as well as being very intentional about the work that he wants to do in not only accepting projects but also in showing his portfolio to prospects.

So—choosing clients and projects that you’re excited about is important in being able to stay motivated, do your best work, and maintain good relationships.

Keep your clients happy through consistent transparent and effective communication.

When I asked Will how he ensures effective communication with his clients, as well as if he had a process for doing that, he told me that in all of his contracts when he’s scoping out hours, he always has three slots of 30 minutes to have what he calls “catch-ups” throughout a project’s lifetime.

The first 30-minute time slot is what he calls “Exploration,” where they go over project needs, goals, expectations, and so on. The second is “Presentation,” where he goes over what the current status of the project is, and in that meeting, what he tends to do is tell a story of how he got to where he is. He shows the early, rough, “bad stuff” first, then talks about the details and decisions that he’s making while he’s “hitting the left arrow” and showing how the project has evolved and how it got to the place it is now, and finally at the end of the presentation, the client can understand both visually and conceptually how he got to the point where it is now.

Will also told me he uses Slack for communicating with clients, which can be extremely helpful because it can sometimes eliminate the need for those kinds of meetings, but it is still important to make sure that you do slot time for those sort of “digital meetings,” where you’re like, “Okay, here’s where I’m at—here’s some of the things that I’m doing, here’s some of the things that I’m not happy with, and here’s where we’re going from here.”

Being transparent and telling the story of the project’s progress is an important aspect in making sure your client is “up-to-date” and understands what’s been happening, where things are going, and what to expect in the next steps.

Lastly, the purpose of the third meeting is to do effectively what the point of that second meeting was, but for the remainder of the work. And after that, it’s hand-off, which is basically like, “Here’s the code. Here’s the design. Here’s how you use it, here’s how you don’t use…” and so on.

So—Having a streamlined process in how you communicate with clients, meet expectations, and deliver work is absolutely critical to project success and client satisfaction.

Use the different software and tools out there to your advantage!

They can help immensely with workflow, productivity, organization, and so on.

When I asked what other tools he uses aside from Slack, we started discussing a few tools out there like Sunsama and Trello, but he then showed me a notebook that was full of sticky notes with individual tasks on them (basically a mini, portable “Scrum Board” that effectively does the same thing). He explained it was really just a backlog of tasks he needs to do that eventually get moved to “Done.”

Will uses Google Calendar and other Google apps, like Google Drive. But, some other tools he uses are Harvest for time-tracking, and another tool called Wakatime, which tracks not only exactly how long he works on a project, but also how much time he spends within certain files, which is effectively how he bills, so he can just work.

He also mentioned a new tool he’s starting using called JSUI, that allows you to do front-end JavaScript projects ridiculously easy. He described it as similar to CodeKit, which is another project management tool he‘s used before.

For an editor, he uses Sublime Text and added that there are plenty of people, and plenty of reasons, to use Visual Studio Code (a very popular text editor in the industry) but he hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon because he likes how Sublime automates a lot of things that can be “boring” and repetitive.

When you’re held up due to things like waiting on content from a client, implement your best version of what you need so you can move on and keep on track within the project timeline.

As a “side-freelancer” myself, I told Will: “For me, any time the timeline gets pushed back is usually because clients are slow at responding or take forever to do what I need to happen in order to move forward and do my work effectively…Is there a way that you handle that? Or does that just happen all the time?”

His response was, “I think it just happens all the time.” But, he’s been lucky enough to actually not have that happen yet with any of his clients. He then added, “But I know it’s going to happen and from what I’ve learned from other freelancers is the best thing that you can do is actually just throw your best version of that content in there. You might not be billing for it but it’s easy to throw in content from their previous site, or even use placeholder text if there aren’t any past references.”

After this, Will said something that really resonated with me:

“As a freelancer, I am an expert. And if I’m not an expert on your business too, and I’m not able to communicate what you do, especially to people who want to use it, then that’s a problem and I’m not doing my job effectively.”

“Bottom line,” he said, “I should be able to make it human,” and that’s what’s most important—that the product is intuitive, relatable, and easy to use.

However, if you do want to make that part of your billable, he says to just go ahead and slot time for writing content if you know that they’re going to take a lot of time in getting things to you. But—if you’re working with a really big client who should be capable of providing that content, he recommends not moving on until they provide it to you.

So—Use your best judgment, and any outside resources you have access to, to avoid getting held up on waiting for clients.

It’s okay to ask for more money and/or more time for a project.

I then asked Will, “What was one thing that you wish someone would’ve told you when you first started doing freelance?”

His response was, “When you’re getting started, you are timid, especially when it comes to money. It is okay to experiment and ask for more, especially in somewhere like America. It’s important to play the capitalist game and it’s stressful and annoying, but it’s also very important to do so.”

He then added, “Freelance is way more interesting than working in-house at any company because you’re responsible for yourself. And at any company for me, in my mind, the way it works is: I’m responsible for not only myself, but also the rest of my team, and even the company at large.” Whether it’s the company’s reputation, the perception of the quality of the work, etc., in these kinds of situations, he’s found he is unable to take time to relax or take time for himself, which is really important to be able to do.

Will then told me that him choosing to do freelance, “Has been a really important professional move because at my $150 number, if I charge 666 billable hours (which is such a cool number), I can make $100,000 in a year and currently, I am well on that track for that.”

So—it’s important to not be afraid to ask for more money and it’s okay to do so because it’s also important to make sure that you are able to take time for yourself and not get caught up in the work and the stress, and actually do things like take vacations.

Avoid burnout by making time for the things that make you happy, energize you, or are passionate about.

When I asked Will how he avoids burnout he first told me he has side projects that are really fun to him. “I’m fortunate in the way my brain is wired, because code is my art. So it’s also a way of relieving stress for me.”

The side projects that he is really, really fascinated in and passionate about getting done, like Stellar, the design system he’s been working on, are a ton of fun, and it’s how he avoids burnout.

Aside from that, he hangs out with his cat (Tom Petty) and his new puppy (June), has fun cooking, cleans while dancing to loud music, listens to comedy podcasts, and then, of course, being able to go out and be social/have fun with friends.

Find a supportive network and use it to grow.

I first started this part of our conversation by asking Will what he thinks about the freelance community in Omaha. His first response was that he thinks the freelance community in Omaha has the opportunity to be tighter. He thinks that it’s not quite tight enough, but knows that there are plenty of supported freelancers out there.

He told me he feels we need something like a freelance Slack channel, because, “Midwest Design Chat and Midwest Dev Chat are pretty good, but there’s no Freelancers of Omaha Slack channel,” which has the potential to be something that’s both interesting and helpful. Will believes those kinds of spaces could really help freelance be elevated, he just hasn’t really thought more about what that could look like, but he wants to do something about it.

So—Having a supportive network is just as critical to your success as a freelancer as gaining and maintaining clients and producing great work.

Use your network to help you with any new problems and challenges you might come across.

I then asked Will, “In situations where you’re faced with a problem, and you’re not sure how to solve it, who do you reach out to?”

He told me he has a really tight network in the Epicurrence channel—he went to Epicurrence, a conference-like gathering run by Dan Petty (a designer who’s done some awesome work) where you spend the week learning from a bunch of different people (like people who are working on things like AR, VR, design systems, and so much more)—earlier this year, and he told me that group of people has helped him a few times already, and “it’s crazy how amazing it is and how tight the community is.”

When I asked him to tell me a little more about Epicurrence for people who aren’t familiar with it, he added: “The cool thing about the event was that it wasn’t [just] a bunch of individual contributors or people who were just pushing pixels, it was also project managers, people managers, and other individuals who understood what it was like being too invested in a project, people who listened and had a lot of insight on how to handle some of the common challenges we face as creatives.”

He ended with telling me his experience at Epicurrence is exactly what motivated, and convinced him to say “F*ck it. I’m gonna do freelance.”

Will had some amazing insight to share and I’m so appreciative he took the time to meet with me to have a real conversation and share his wisdom.

I hope people who are considering doing freelance, new to freelancing, or a freelancer themselves, found this helpful and enjoyable. Keep your eyes peeled for more insight from different kinds of creative freelancers, like videography, animation, design & illustration, and so on. Thanks for reading!

Will’s ADORABLE new puppy June ?

Evynne Doue is appsky’s Head of Marketing & Design

She acts as appsky’s Brand Manager, creates content for & manages all of appsky’s social media, handles marketing efforts, and is part of the executive team. She has degrees in both graphic design & web design and has been with appsky since May 2017.

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