How to Get the Respect You Deserve as a Freelancer
The life of a freelancer is one of flexibility and freedom. You can set your own hours, choose your own clients, and be your own boss. And with all of the perks of working remotely that come from a freelance tech career—benefits like not having to miss school concerts or be chained to a desk for the same block of time every day—it’s easy to see why so many people are opening their own businesses. A 2014 study by the Freelancers’ Union found that 34 percent of the workforce was comprised of freelancers. That’s 53 million people, a number that I’d wager has only grown in the past three years.
But no job is perfect, and freelancing poses its own unique set of challenges. Freelancers face pervasive stereotypes—those preconceived notions that CEOs and potential clients might hold about contract employees—that can keep you from getting treated fairly. Here are three major myths you might have to tackle in order to convince your client that hiring freelance workers is truly worth it, and how you can nip them in the bud.
Myth #1: Freelancers are less skilled than full-time employees, and therefore deserve less money.
Freelancing is not a “Plan B”—it’s a conscious choice. And deciding to freelance reflects not a bit on the quality of our work. In fact, I’ll venture that successful freelancers are among the best at what they do, precisely because they are always in competition with other people on the market, and have to let their work speak for itself.
The idea that freelancers are a “cheaper” option for employers is complicated: Businesses looking to outsource to contract employees do so in part to save money on expenses like employment taxes, health care, pensions, and other benefits. But the flip side of that coin is that freelancers themselves often have to make up those costs—paying for health insurance themselves, saving for retirement on their own, hiring an accountant to manage their work income, and more.
How to prove you’re a badass who’s worth every penny:
- Invest time, energy, and even a little capital, in an amazing portfolio website. Your portfolio is how you sell yourself and shows that you can deliver beautiful work and measurable results. Write an About Page on your site that establishes your credibility (or hire a copywriter to create the content for you), and actively participate and promote your work on professional sites like LinkedIn and Behance.
- Charge a reasonable rate that not only pays you a decent salary but covers your costs. A good rule of thumb is to research appropriate freelance rates for your field, start at the lower end, and then raise your prices at regular intervals. When you find your first potential client who balks? You’re probably right where you should be.
- If you do have someone who tries to negotiate your rate, seriously consider how much you’re willing to bend—and don’t take less than you’re worth. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “You know, as a small business owner, I understand your concerns about costs but I’m going to have to hold firm.”
Myth #2: Freelancers are lazy and unresponsive. They’re lounging in their underwear playing video games instead of returning your emails.
As a former freelancer, all I can say to this line of thinking is I WISH. Even if you’re only freelancing part time while you work at another job or go to school, they don’t call it a “side hustle” for nothing. And if it’s your only hustle, you’re hustling for sure.
Make no mistake: Freelancing is hard work, and while your billable hours might not add up to 40 hours a week, the total time you spend on your business likely goes above and beyond. There’s invoicing and estimating projects and writing contracts and responding to emails. There’s adding new projects to your portfolio and chasing late payments and finding places to post your services. It’s no joke, and these are all prime reasons to make sure your rates are set at a place that allows you to do the important work of running a business, and be compensated fairly.
That said, when freelancers work remotely and a client can’t reach them right away, it’s understandable that they’ll get skittish. There are far too many horror stories (and Judge Judy episodes) involving service providers who take a client’s money and run. Luckily, there’s a simple solution.
How to ease a client’s fear that all freelancers are flakes: Practice clear, frequent, and professional communication, and get references from happy clients.
I assumed many habits to show my clients that they should have faith in me. I responded to every single email within 24 hours. I was cognizant of client deadlines and guaranteed that I’d meet them in the contract. If I was planning to be “out of the office” (away from my computer), I activated my autoresponder in my email. I gave clients some lead time when I knew I’d be out of town. This sort of communication—and accountability—was essential for clients to believe they could trust me. And the great thing about trust is that it leads to repeat business, glowing testimonials, and referrals to client’s networks.
Myth #3: Freelancers have to make the client happy—at all costs.
Some clients relish the old proverb about the customer always being right… and they can use that thinking to try to manipulate—and even abuse—the client-freelancer relationship. This often stems from the fact that these clients view “freelancing” as another word for “unemployed”—and they’re willing to do everything they can to take advantage of another desperate, out-of-work loser.
Yet according to the Freelancers’ Union survey: “Three times as many freelancers expect to work more hours (38 percent) as expect to work fewer (12 percent)” in the upcoming year. And 77 percent of freelancers report that “they make the same or more money than they did before they started freelancing….In fact, more than four in ten (42 perecent) said they already make more than before they started freelancing.” This does not sound like desperation to me, and it definitely doesn’t sound like the majority of freelancers are out of work.
But lack of respect was the narrative I heard most when I asked my coworkers at Skillcrush for less-than-optimal freelancing stories. Sometimes that disrespect comes in the form of clients changing the requirements of the job (“scope creep”) after the work has already begun or even been completed. Skillcrush CEO and founder Adda Birnir shared this story about one of her early clients: “We’d redone their whole website design two or three times—a total overhaul against a fixed budget. These guys were literally changing the fundamental direction in each iteration and we were doing somersaults to try and please them. At one point my business partner looked at me and asked, ‘Do you think we can ever make them happy?’ and I just said, ‘No.’”
And sometimes that disrespect comes in other forms, like late payment or poor communication.
How to avoid being steamrolled by a pushy client: Build very firm boundaries, then shout them from the mountaintops.
In run of the mill situations like late payments, problems with clients can be prevented in the first place by putting all terms in writing, and all legit clients should be comfortable signing a contract before your work begins. A typical contract outlines payment terms, scope of work, deliverables, timing, and more, and can help set clear expectations on both sides. (Not sure about writing your own contract? Try an online contract service like Bonsai.) And if problems do arise, being able to respond to silly requests with, “Well, it says in the contract…” is a fabulously non-confrontational way to wrangle clients who are trying to push the limits.
And if you just can’t agree with a client, sometimes a breakup is the only path forward. After realizing what was happening in her freelance business, Adda ended up firing the client who was taking advantage of her. “I really appreciate my business partner at the time for making us do it,” she recalls. “It was a rite of passage.”
In the end, in all client-freelancer relationships, sometimes it’s important to remember who your boss really is: yourself.