I first met Mike a couple years ago at a coffee shop in LA, when my husband and I sat down for a cortado with him and his wife. Mike, a former Pro BMX colleague of my husband’s, struck me as the quiet type—pensive with a propensity for listening. His remarks were measured. When he spoke, we listened. It wasn’t just what he said that intrigued me, it was the affirmation in which he said it.
Over time, our mutual affinities and beliefs sparked a series of conversations.
As a Creative Director, agency founder, and influencer, I was wading through the murky waters of freelance contracts and expectations. To put it simply: I was having a difficult time pricing my worth, creating healthy relationships, and establishing a business structure that supported me.
I reached out to Mike for help, knowing he’d built several ventures across multiple creative mediums, and he said “hold tight.” Then he sent over the book you’re about to read.
After that, my income tripled. My self-worth skyrocketed. And my clients respected my role as a creative with the same fervor that I poured into my craft.
This book became my North Star.
So, to the other creatives who look to the stars, to the writer, the graphic designer, agency owner, software builder, entrepreneur, painter, musician, storyboarder—Mike wrote this book for you.
In the pages that follow, he shows you how to respect your business with the same passion you use to create; to build boundaries that set the framework for mutually beneficial relationships; to organize your business structure for profitability; to ensure every client respects your time.
He shows you how to make your art and get your money.
As creative entrepreneurs, we don’t create to make money. We nurture our art because there is simply nothing else we’d ever do. Period. Through Mike’s storied experiences and successes, he reshapes the narrative of the Freelancer, putting us in the driver’s seat.
Instead of a 300-page manifesto on how to dominate the freelance market, he breaks down certain phenomena at the human level, addressing the psyche on both sides (client and freelancer) and presenting his information in under 80 pages of no-bullshit action items.
Through this short and entertaining lecture, I found my moral compass in the Wild West of freelance business. This book offered me perspective by answering questions like:
What do I need from my clients? What do they need from me? Where are those needs misaligned and how do I, in a professional manner, ensure they run parallel prior to diving into a project I haven’t yet been paid for?
At the end of the day, this guide isn’t just a commentary; it’s a toolkit that helps you actualize the solutions Mike presents. One that’s applicable to creatives and freelancers alike.
So, if you’re ready to reclaim agency of your craft and start making more money (and sleeping eight hours a night), then it’s time to turn the page.
— Angela Fink
Art is a gift that changes the recipient.Seth Godin
To my friends, whose work is very valuable.
illustrators, graphic designers, copy writers, web developers, software engineers, craftspeople, builders, landscape architects, furniture designers, photographers, videographers, editors, automotive detailers, ceramicists, cake artists, florists, painters, mural artists, coaches, instructors, models, influencers, hair and makeup artists, producers, directors, consultants, journalists, content creators, project managers, contract workers
…and independent creators of all kinds.
Getting results doesn’t take much time at all. It’s not getting results that takes up all the time.Dan Sullivan
A while back, after a career in fashion merchandising and alongside my freelance pursuits, I became a partner in a small product design studio. My title was Managing Director. My partners did the design work and I ran the business.
All seemed to be going well until we brought on board a client who, after a few months, stopped paying their bills and started acting weird. Communication came in a tangled web and decisions were stalled, then made, then retracted. At first, we joked about it. We accepted the difficulty.
But the relationship deteriorated—eventually, the client owed us six figures. Not only was this money several months late, the company was unwilling to put forth any plan for paying us what we were owed.
No apology, no good faith, no repayment strategy, no nothing. And yet, the client expected us to keep working.
As a relatively good-natured and non-confrontational person, I did not know how to deal with this situation. There was a lot on the line, because this was a high-revenue job for our studio, and we had already done so much of the work, so it wasn’t easy just to walk away. We were angry but we wanted our money, so we kept working and let our frustration simmer under the surface.
When I spoke to the CEO of the client company on the phone, he’d simply say, “We cannot pay, and quite frankly I’m disappointed that you are being so demanding.”
Payment never came. Explanations never came. Even getting so much as an excuse out of them was like pulling teeth.
As the project went on I had many more uncomfortable conversations with the company’s executives. The tension on our conference calls was so awkward it was almost funny. Almost. I strategized different ways to tactfully say, “Until you get caught up on payment, we’ll need to discontinue the work.” It never came out right. I lost sleep. I called our lawyer.
With a couple of swift and mysterious actions, our lawyer made the payment appear. Hocus pocus.
Then we fired the client.
After all that psychological and financial stress, I audited myself. What message had we sent to this client that made them think it was OK to walk all over us? What could we have done to prevent such a stressful eight months, and more importantly, how could we become a studio with a well-earned reputation for delivering amazing work and receiving timely payment?
Turns out, we could do a lot.
It became clear to me that this wasn’t a unique situation with a demon client—this was a common occurrence (although handled uncommonly poorly by me) that most every creative professional has been through.
I wanted to fix it. For everyone. Why not? I had already lived through the worst case scenario, and had learned something valuable.
This feeling took me back to my days as a pro BMX rider, when I’d be up against a 20-stair handrail, cameras running. Scared and trembling, after a few false starts, I’d give it a first try. Miss the rail, straddle it instead. Straight to my crotch at high speed. Then my shoulder would hit the fifth stair and I’d somersault down the remaining fifteen.
Any BMXer or skateboarder or other such “action sports athlete” will tell you that the feeling of lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of 20 stairs is not the worst feeling in the world. The worst feeling in the world is not having tried. Trying and failing miserably is actually a relief. “OK. That was the thing I was afraid of. Now it’s done. Next try has to be better, because it can’t get worse.” After the first fail, you are more determined. Almost encouraged. It can’t get worse than the first try.
So after my monumental failure with that early client, I decided that I was going to get really, really good at this thing, that I would learn these “business management” skills that seem to be the bane of every creative professional’s existence.
Plus, I had just watched six seasons of Ray Donovan and was very much romanticizing a potential new life as a fixer.
I read books about negotiation and communication. I drilled my lawyer with questions. I asked other successful studios and freelancers about their experiences. I learned correct procedures and put them into practice. I overcame my fear of direct conversations. I got comfortable being uncomfortable. I began creating bulletproof proposals, scopes, and contracts. And most importantly, I developed trusting relationships, eliminating 90% of the miscommunication and awkwardness I had previously thought inevitable.
I studied how to appeal to the good and navigate the bad in each client, so that we could mitigate the bad stuff and spend more of our time on the good stuff.
We restored peace in the studio, and my creative partners returned to being creative. Our rates went up. We began earning a reputation among our peers for getting paid in full and on time.
I was so energized by this turnaround that I began helping other design studios and freelancers who were encountering the same problems I had struggled with. It went well beyond getting paid on schedule—these problems were about creatives not understanding the game, or the value of their work, or the amount of leverage they had. What do you do when your day rate is $500 but should be $1,200? What do you do when you really want the job but are afraid that your price quote will scare away the client? When the client pummels you with requests for extra work that was not agreed upon? When the client wants an endless number of revisions? Or asks you to start work before the contract is signed? Or asks you to cut your quote in half to meet their budget? And then misses the payment deadline anyway?
How can someone prevent all of these problems from occurring in the first place, and how does anyone make a proper living as a freelancer?
My messy experience taught me that the answer boils down to behavior. Talent is great, intelligence is helpful, but behavior is king. No matter what kind of freelancing work you do—design, photography, editing, writing—there are universal principles for creatives trying to make money from their art, and I will detail them for you in this book.
Diving into helping others, I learned that many, many creative people are underpaid, paid late, or otherwise taken advantage of. Sometimes clients really are out to get more for less, but more often, clients want to do what’s right but aren’t given good guidance from the freelancer. Creative freelancers who have the right mindset and learn to control the process will see that these events are not so inevitable as they seem.
This is not going to be about fighting against The Man, or demanding your worth because you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore. It’s about calmly taking control. Learning the rules so you can break them. Understanding the game so you can adjust your approach and let success happen.
You have a right to your labor, but not to the fruits of your labor.Krishna
Making art and commanding high prices for your art are two different things. This book assumes that you’ve already confirmed your identity as an artist. In doing so, you’ve surrendered to Krishna’s statement.
You make art, period. New sentence. You receive money. That’s an art in itself, which we will explore here.
In this book when we refer to art, we are talking about anything that you produce because you feel a divine need to produce it. Building software, writing words, painting colors, taking photos, art direction, fashion designing, landscaping, manscaping, roasting coffee (or “turning hot water brown” as coffee guru Tyler Wells reverently refers to his craft). Whatever.
We are all creative. It’s part of our identity as humans. Some suppress their creativity in exchange for a steady paycheck doing a mechanical job. Some produce creativity in a confined scope as someone else’s employee. Some squeeze their creativity in on weekends.
Still others, and this includes you, create simply because they must.
You were born to do it. It comes through you, not from you. This, not money, is the reason you do what you do. Money is a byproduct. As such, money must be commanded in a way that does not diminish your ability to create, but also does not foster resentment.
You must emotionally detach your money from your art. This way, you let art come through you and money come to you.
The biggest threat to your art is the conflict that rises from negatively associating it with money.
If you sell the things you create in exchange for sums of money, and those sums are not substantial and appropriate, your art could suffer. Resentment will build, whether from inaction (telling yourself that’s just how it is), or improper action (bulldozing clients with your resentment, or passive aggressively muttering about how nobody respects your worth).
Once you’ve decided that selling your art will be your exclusive income, you should make peace with the fact that art, although still art, is your job. Its value to others is not reduced because you enjoy making it, or because making it came naturally to you.
There is no shame in creating because you need to express yourself, and working because you need to pay bills. Those things could remain separate forever. But if you have chosen to combine these two things, this book is for you.
If you have any remaining guilt associated with accepting the maximum possible amount of money in exchange for your art, I recommend that you shed it right now.
From this point forward I’ll assume that all of us intend to live indoors, eat good food, and stack money for the future.
Now, for a moment, set aside your own opinion of your work. What do your clients and peers say about you?
Do you deliver on time? Do you deliver early? Do you provide a value in excess of the price you charge? Are you a pleasure to speak with?
If you’re a photographer, what environment do you create on set?
If you’re a designer, how organized is your calendar of deliverables?
If you’re a creative director, how do you package your services?
Are you impeccable with your word?
If an independent party surveyed all of your previous clients about you, would you post the results on Instagram or Twitter or LinkedIn?
If you’re good at the thing you do, you are 20% of the way to making proper money as a freelancer. By the end of this book, you’ll be well on your way to answering these questions with confidence—and any guilt you associate with collecting money will soon be behind you.
Freedom is the top of luxury. When I went back to couture [at Chanel], I went back with the idea of freedom. You cannot buy me, but you can rent me! I’m a hired gun but I know how to handle guns. It’s the only thing I want!Karl Lagerfeld
I once managed 28 people at a medium-sized company. They were mostly creatives. About a third of them were freelancers. Most of those freelancers (except for the highest performers, ironically) were constantly asking me when they could become full-time employees. Why? They wanted “benefits.”
I broke it down for them. The “benefits” of becoming an official employee of the company?
Having a portion of your health insurance paid.
Permission to participate in a 401(k) program which, statistically, less than half of millennials will do.
Other benefits include: relinquishing the freedom to do other work and make more money, reducing your income streams down to one (you know, for “security”), losing control of your own time, and maybe (in some companies) being thrust into the game of corporate politics where vying for a promotion can become more important than being effective at your job.
As a freelancer, you value your ability to set your own pricing and hours, diversify your income streams, make more money, create your own schedule, and save profits on top of what you pay yourself.
I informed my freelancers that to make them an employee would cost the company about 150% of their compensation.
In other words, if your salary is $80K, it costs me $120K to have you as an employee (because of payroll tax, assorted red tape, and semi-antiquated expenses such as large offices).
This means that you, assuming you are great at what you do and everyone knows it, can set your price 50% higher than the market standard salary, because paying you more is still cheaper than hiring a true employee in your place, and your boss has the added benefit of zero commitment (as do you).
And that’s just the minimum. If you’re better, faster, and more pleasant than the full-time employee equivalent, companies are likely to pay you even more, and gladly.
As a company man, was it a bit strange for me to be this honest with my employees and freelancers? Maybe. But it’s a rough world and life takes money and earning money takes savvy. I believed that the company could benefit from having some savvy professionals working there. It did.
Fast forward to now, I spend my days placing exemplary talent into leadership roles at top fashion, lifestyle, and CPG brands, both full-time and freelance. That is to say, I absolutely believe that working for a company or working to leverage your freelance work into full-time employment are legitimate, valid paths. I also believe that most of the attitudes and behavior advocated in this book can be helpful for non-freelancers. The employee of the future is an entrepreneur within a company framework—someone who is flexible, understands what they’re bringing to the table, and values personal relationships. Someone who can work independently, manage up, and provide a value that is exponentially higher than the cost of employing them. Some of the best creative leaders have a background in freelance.
In other words, what you learn here will prepare you for most anything and allow you to keep your options open.
Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained.Joan Didion
With all of that said, as a freelancer, putting a price on your work can be difficult. Every freelancer has an anecdote about a friend of a friend who bills premium rates, and gets paid every time. Why does she get her asking price, and you don’t? Be careful not to brush off that person’s success as luck or good marketing. In part, it may be those things, and that’s OK. But there’s probably a story there. What is she doing differently? What is the client seeing when they look at her?
Most likely the client sees results, delivered on time, by someone who articulates and carries herself well, backed by a good reputation.
And there’s probably even more to the story than that. In my experience, the cheapest clients are also the highest-maintenance clients. When they see how willing you are to bend over backward for their endless requests for out-of-scope favors, they will pile them on. Why wouldn’t they? It’s their job to get the most for the least. On the flip side, great clients with healthy budgets tend to understand quality and pay accordingly without too much fuss.
Successful freelancers not only know this, but back it up with action. This is risky. You have to know your value and believe in it enough to quote a respectable price, and be ready to walk away if the client can’t afford you. How you walk away is important. Be friendly and cool and express interest in staying in touch.
When you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them.Jim Kwik
If you want to make proper money as a freelancer, it’s important to not avert your gaze and say “Uuuuhhhhhh” when someone asks you how much you charge.
Professionals know how to field this question: with a calm smile, they say, “Sure, tell me more about what you need and I’ll get you a quote by noon tomorrow.”
To do this, professional creatives need a fast, bulletproof method for calculating a quote. There are two ways to create that method:
The next thing to determine is the retail value of the work you are going to deliver. You can do this by Googling, knowing your industry, talking regularly with your peers, reflecting on your past experience, understanding your client’s financial goals, and consulting with mentors.
Graphic designers have the Pricing and Ethical Guidelines to reference; your industry might offer something similar. As you gather data on other peoples’ rates and salaries, keep in mind that some people may not be paid fairly, so some data may be more noise than signal.
Part of the beauty of freelance work is that you get to decide what’s fair. On the flip side, the market will keep you honest. If a client is asking you to create a logo, for example, chances are they’ve asked others to quote the same job, and their reaction to your quote will give you an indication of whether it’s over or under the market. This is just another data point of course, not an absolute truth, but after a few failed attempts at charging $10K for a branding job, you might learn that charging $7K is actually more lucrative for you, because at this price you’ll actually be working.
Your quote needs to be somewhere between your cost basis and the retail value of the work. That difference is your profit margin, which is the money that stays in your business savings account until you either need it for an emergency or it’s time to pay yourself a bonus, whichever comes first.
Play with margins, shooting for 50%, in your Excel model until you settle on a quote that matches the retail value of the work. Make it precise, and not too round in number.
When you put out your first quote, it is not unlikely that the client will come back to you with a startled tone and a story about budget constraints. Don’t be mad. This is part of the dance, and now it’s your turn.
You will respond with a smile and an, “OK, well let’s revisit the scope and see what we can adjust.” Your tone is unfazed and cool, because you know that there are only two outcomes, and both are good.
You may ask, why don’t I just keep it simple and bill all my clients on an hourly basis? It seems fair and easy. It’s not wrong to do that—you can incrementally raise the value of your time as you grow and improve.
However, in practice, most freelancers are not well served by billing at a simple hourly rate.
First, you are an artist, and it is highly unlikely that every single hour of your work requires the same skill and effort—or delivers the same value. For example, you might be helping a client with a new strategy for a product that could transform the company, while also doing some copy editing for the website. Billing a fixed hourly rate makes it difficult to vary your pricing based on the importance (retail value to the customer) of the work.
Second, you can’t price jobs in a way that accounts for all of your own internal costs, which are not static day to day.
There are a few reasons why a freelancer like you would consider discounting your work for a client:
You need money. You’re desperate. But like the wise Sheriff in Super Troopers says, “Desperation is a stinky cologne.” If you cave in easily when it comes to your value, you are only learning to agree to what you’re offered, rather than learning what might be possible. And with the stink of desperation on you, you’ll be offered even less. Keep cool and you could walk away with more than you’re willing to accept.
You want this client longer term. You believe this client could be a great long-term partner for you, and you want to start off by making them happy. However, what they’re willing to pay you on your first job is highly indicative of what they’re willing to pay you on every job, ever.
You want to build a portfolio. You’re just starting out, and you want to take on as much work as possible to build up your portfolio and get referrals. If this is the case, it’s a legitimate choice. But make sure you revisit the above calculations each year and give yourself a regular raise.
We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.Robert Brault
Freelancers find themselves in lots of difficult situations. A client isn’t giving you enough time, your payment is arriving late, you don’t have any leverage to get your money, you’re being coerced into providing more services than you signed up for.
The vast majority of these situations can be prevented by creating an impeccable proposal.
A properly written proposal should be about two pages long. Enough detail to provide clarity and protect you from misunderstanding, but not so long that it’s intimidating. Done well, your proposal can eliminate the majority of nightmare outcomes. Your client will hesitate before asking for extra revisions in the middle of the engagement not just because your proposal outlined how many revisions are included in the price, but also because the proposal will professionally convey the fact that your time and services are in demand and valuable. This is good for them to know. They want to know it. It gives them comfort.
As part of your proposal, list the touch points—that is, the moments over the course of the project where you (and/or your team) will engage in a planned conversation with the client (and/or their team). The purpose of these touch points might be to hand off the deliverables, ask questions, or give a general update on the progress. Over-communication is key, because, as James Altucher says, “Most people are 8-year olds.”
This is not an insult to anyone, it’s the reality of dealing with busy, stressed, insecure, distracted human beings, some of whom don’t care a lot about their jobs. You might be dealing with one person, or more likely, a team of people who don’t talk to each other. They are never listening as closely as you think they are, so you need to repeat yourself.
This might sound annoying. Get over that, and quickly. Just master it. It’s not hard, and it will reward you exponentially. Get in touch with the client over the course of the project, rather than waiting for them to get in touch with you. Even if there’s nothing to report, just say a quick “hi” and remind them what you’re bringing to the next touchpoint.
Break down the phases of work. Even the simplest job can be broken into smaller pieces that are easy for your client to understand and easy for you to deliver.
The objective of breaking the job into phases is to give your client a quick inside look at what goes into this stuff. Let’s say a client asks you to create a logo for her business. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say this client’s business is small, and she’s a bit less experienced when it comes to working with creatives. We’ll call her Tanya.
When Tanya first contacted you, she had a certain idea in her head. You asked her what she was interested in seeing, and she says that she wants something clean and modern but also retro and classic and also a little edgy. When you ask her to show you references (existing logos that she’s attracted to) she says, “It’s in my head. I’ll know it when I see it.”
Then Tanya imagines that you’ll take two hours to churn out 30 various logo options for her to critique, and then you’ll have an ongoing conversation for an undefined number of days while you produce limitless revisions until she sees something she likes, and then she’ll pay you, maybe.
Generally speaking (and this will vary according to the specific services you offer) it’s best not to present an a la carte menu of options with price tags on each service. If you do, the client will pick and choose in the way that leaves you with the least possible amount of money, and holes in the final outcome. For example, imagine you’re a pattern maker. A client wants to pay you to create and submit patterns, but not approve fit samples. Now you’ve got a final product entering the world, potentially with your name on it, that someone else has likely screwed up.
If you can work on a project basis, do that, and, divide the project into phases, with a cost for each phase:
50% for phase 1
30% for phase 2
Often omitted from a proposal, to the detriment of everyone involved, is the scope of work, or SOW.
Sometimes the SOW is present, but lacking. Your SOW should be broken into two sections:
Scope In is the list of services that the client is asking for.
Scope Out is the list of services that you are capable of, but the client is not currently asking for.
The very end of the proposal is a short list of the fees we haven’t addressed yet.
The likelihood of a client causing this project to go overtime is high, and you do not want to eat that cost. That’s why you have a day rate in your back pocket—the amount of money you require for a full day of dedicated overtime work. (If the work takes the majority of a day, you’ll charge your day rate. If it takes less, you might bill a half day.)
It should read something like: “Any services not outlined in this proposal or required after [end date here] may be commissioned from [your name here] at the rate of [day rate here] per day.”
One last thing that often gets overlooked: name your client contact at the bottom of the proposal. This is the person to whom you report. You don’t take direction from anyone other than this person (like the late fees thing, be reasonably flexible in the spirit of partnership), especially if it’s conflicting direction. Tanya doesn’t get to take off on a 2-week vacation, leaving Brendan in charge, then return from vacation and override everything Brendan said so you can do two extra weeks of free work because of their miscommunication.
Design trumps willpower.B.J. Fogg, Stanford psychologist
For smaller, lower-risk jobs, include a section at the end of your proposal that says, “If this proposal is executed, it becomes the agreement,” with a dotted line for both parties to sign. Keep in mind that it may not hold up in court, so this solution is for smaller jobs with known clients, and it is only a viable option if your proposal is impeccable, with a very clear scope of work.
Whichever option you choose, don’t start working until the agreement is signed.
caution If this is a bigger job (meaning that failing to collect the full fee would jeopardize your business), then you need a full contract, and you need legal counsel.
Quote the Job
Start with covering your own costs.
Add a margin based on the industry standard retail value of the work.
Write the Proposal
Name of contact
Create an agreement with your client around timing of payment.
Create a Contract
That which hinders your task, is your task.Sanford Meisner
Your workspace should be a peaceful place. How that looks is something you can define on your own, based on what makes you feel calm, what type of art you create, and what your needs are. Your workspace doesn’t need to look like mine, but don’t fool yourself into thinking a chaotic environment is working well for you. I’ve never met anyone who functioned well in a messy workspace. On the contrary, most people are anxious and have trouble focusing. Do not miss the connection between mental and spatial chaos. As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art, “The Professional eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind.”
Whether you have an office, or a home office, or four square feet of your own in an apartment with six roommates, I urge you to optimize your little slice of real estate. Space is a luxury, however much of it you have. Being in it should feel great.
Order, for the creative professional’s physical space, can be achieved in three steps:
Scale down. The main reason that organizing is so daunting is that there’s so much to organize. Easy fix: get rid of most of your shit. Throw it away, give it away, or sell it. Easy guidelines that have helped me: if you haven’t used it in six months, get rid of it. If you’re not sure whether you need it, get rid of it. If you haven’t thought about it since the last time you saw it, get rid of it, and if it has sentimental value but isn’t beautiful or useful, take a nice picture of it and then get rid of it. Amos Tversky said it best: “Unless you are kicking yourself once a month for throwing something away, you’re not throwing enough away.”
Willpower is garbage. It is for amateurs. It’s for people still conflicted about what they want to do.Darren Hardy
Every force of evil in the world is conspiring against you delivering this project on time. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. It will not be a thing that you expect. It will be a thing that is easy to blame on someone else. Don’t fool yourself.
If you’re the best photographer in Los Angeles and you deliver your projects three days late, what are you?
Not the best photographer in Los Angeles.
Whenever I’ve made an important commitment, I set two reminders: one on the day it’s due, and another one three days in advance. Why do I do that? Isn’t it simple to remember that X work needs to be done by X date? Yes it’s simple, but simple ain’t easy, and besides:
Never waste good brain space on something that your phone can easily do for you.
Alerts aren’t just for deliverables; you can use them for payments as well. Remember, most people are 8-year-olds. We don’t prepare for the things we don’t enjoy doing. If we don’t enjoy going to the dentist, then we are less likely to be on time.
Your client’s accounts payable department doesn’t enjoy paying you on time. As such, they most certainly do not have a pink sticky note on their monitor that reads “IMPORTANT NOTE TO SELF: pay Johnny Freelance on February 1st!” And that’s perfectly fine, because you’re going to send the invoice two weeks in advance, followed up by a friendly courtesy notice three days before it’s due.
Watch out for intellect, because it knows so much it knows nothing.Anne Sexton
It’s easy to organize a single project, but what about working on four client projects at the same time? It’s tempting to always be on the hunt for the latest project management app, but unless you’re an agency with 10+ employees, you can skip those. The best tool is one that you’ll actually use—a very, very basic spreadsheet could do the trick. If you’re like me, you want a zoomed-out overview that keeps you on top of the big picture. Something like this.
Looks pretty rudimentary, huh? It is. I’ll share a secret with you—for a freelance operation, complex tools and systems are mostly BS.
I’m currently operating an executive recruiting business with six open projects, editing this book and outlining the next one, planning two product drops, and making a business plan for next year. How do I stay on top of it all? Mostly, I use the apps that came with my phone. Calendar, Reminders, Mail, iChat. I wrote this book in Evernote and then I saved it in Dropbox.
He who hesitates is lost.adapted from the play Cato, 1712
I once read an account of how Michael Phelps wins so many races. When he wakes up on race day, he does the same things he does every other day.
He eats, does his workout, sits in the sauna listening to a specific playlist on his headphones. He comes out to the pool, does his warmup laps, puts his headphones back on, same playlist.
At some point near the end of this day-long routine, he dives into the pool and wins a swimming race.
The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.David Allen
At some point in your freelance career, you’re going to ask yourself this question: should I start a business?
When it comes to what people call your business and how the IRS will treat it, you have a few options. If you don’t have any partners, you’ll likely be choosing between an S Corporation, an LLC, or a sole proprietorship. A sole proprietorship is just you asking your clients to write checks to you personally (or your parents’ bank account). This is sometimes also called a DBA, meaning you’re an individual Doing Business As some registered business name.*
The factors to consider when choosing how to proceed: your tax burden, your liability, and your overall professionalism. I’m not a tax professional, but I have a brilliant one on retainer, and she helped me write this next part.
We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.Iris Murdoch
Once your entity is formed, you can take that paperwork to your bank of choice and open a business account. Put your new account number, routing number, SWIFT code, and bank branch address on your invoices. Now your clients can send electronic payments.
One hack I discovered years ago via Ramit Sethi’s book is that many banks will allow you to open multiple savings accounts, nickname them, and link them together. As a person, this helps you save for different goals—car, wedding, vacation, house. As a freelancer, this helps you organize your income, most importantly by setting aside for taxes.
Here’s how I do it:
The line separating good and evil runs … right through every human heart.Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Let’s address the fallacy of the Bad Client. Many creative people believe that there are good clients and bad clients, and all you have to do is avoid the bad ones, and the good ones will just be totally cool to you without you having to require it.
This, of course, is false.
You’re probably super good at being creative. Great. That’s a start, but it won’t ensure that you’re treated fairly or compensated according to your talent.
Top four reasons you should do what it takes to absolutely delight every client you work with:
It’s the right thing to do and it makes life more enjoyable.
They’ll hire you again. It’s more efficient to gain repeat clients than to go find new clients. Both are good of course, but in some professions, six really great clients could be all you need from now until you retire. Do the math on how wonderful your business could look if every client you have now would happily hire you three times per year, in perpetuity.
They’ll refer you to other clients. Those clients could also become repeat clients. Now we’re talking about compound growth.
A person is constituted in language. As such, when a person’s word is less than whole and complete, they are diminished as a person.Michael Jensen
important Not being able to fire a deadbeat client, and thus being locked into a toxic relationship for money reasons, defeats the whole purpose of freelancing.
Many, if not most, of your client frustrations might stem from the fact that you can’t leave the clients you have, because you don’t have any new ones coming in.
The best time to fire a client is when you have another one. This was a realization I had with the client at the beginning of the book. Why was there so much stress involved with this one client who wouldn’t pay us? Why were we even working for such a client anyway? We were forced to. Because at that time, we had nothing else going on.
Be as you wish to seem.Socrates
I once coached a very talented Italian furniture designer. We’ll call her Chianti. Her portfolio is full of work for Zaha Hadid and other beautiful designs for prestigious clients.
If you or I would have glanced at Chianti’s portfolio or met her in person, we would have seen a successful, stylish, talented professional who would undoubtedly command high rates for her work. Large, high-revenue clients look at her work and see it in the same way.
The trouble was, Chianti had a different image of herself. When a client approached her, she assumed they were just looking for the cheapest option, so she became that option. When I encouraged her to aim higher, she said she was afraid to lose the job by being too expensive.
Here’s the thing though: she is expensive.
It’s not enough to be nice in life. You’ve got to have nerve.Georgia O’Keeffe
Freelance success is as much about how you deal with people as it is any artistic talent you possess.
You’ve built an exceptional business and you want people to know about it. You want to command larger amounts of money, you want to diffuse conflict, you want to calm people, you want them to trust you. Not all clients (or potential clients) are going to be easy to talk to. But you can win them over anyway, with thoughtfulness, as well as your voice and your body language.
I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.William Blake
The purpose of this book has been to nudge you into a transition from talented creative to successful freelancer. Your confidence and finesse now match the level of your creative skills. You are cash flow positive and you’re not afraid of the future.
This is a nice place to be. Where you go next is completely up to you. The “be your own boss” spectrum is a big one: it ranges from one person cranking out goods and services to, well, Jeff Bezos I guess. Choosing where you’d like to sit on that spectrum (and changing your mind as often as you’d like) is a right that you’ve granted yourself.
Back in 2018, Jeff Staple interviewed the designer and musician Hiroshi Fujiwara about his life and career. In that interview Hiroshi revealed some fascinating stuff. One example: Hiroshi is actually unaware of his net worth. He wants to create, collaborate, and collect the design objects he’s passionate about, and that’s it. If he’s, say, attending an auction and ready to place a $175K bid on a rare timepiece, he calls his business manager and asks if he can afford it. He gets a yes or no answer and proceeds accordingly.
Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.Jim Rohn
I suspect that I haven’t told you anything new in these chapters. If you’re anything like the former me, you were intuitively aware that a certain amount of professionalism, process knowledge, and awareness of human nature are vital to making money as a freelancer.
For me, the surprise was not that these things were necessary; it was that they can be learned. They’re not inherent skills that one must be born with. I certainly wasn’t.
Now that you know this, what are you capable of?
Art has its own rules. And one of them is that you must pay more attention to it than anything else in the world, if you don’t, and you are an artist, it punishes you.Nina Simone
The Psychology of Money, by Morgan Housel
Illuminate, by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez
Verbal Judo, George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins