I suppose I’ve been a freelance creative entrepreneur for 20 years now, at least off and on. During that time I’ve done a number of contracts as an actor, singer or dancer. In the last few years I’ve taken on freelance work teaching singing and writing contracts related to my other professional life as a journalist. It’s particularly in this last capacity, as a writer, that I’ve had more interaction with negotiating contracts for writing clients for whom I was writing corporate marketing materials – blogs, websites, newsletters, ebooks, that sort of thing.
One of the dangers I’ve become aware of is that as freelance creatives we tend to be both hungry for work and very trusting of other people.
This can be a dangerous combination.
When job offers come our way, or even more so when we have sought them out, we need to stop to look beyond the potential earnings and ask some questions about the client. Namely, is this someone that I want to do business with?
Working with a client is not unlike dating someone. You wouldn’t go out on a date with just anyone and yet as freelance creatives we are often so eager for a paid job that we’ll take on anything that crosses our path. I know I have. You get blinded by the bills which need paying and don’t ask some of the basic fundamental questions.
So much of what we deal with is neither black nor white. Creative work sits among the panoply of grays (or technicolour brights) which exist between the two polarities. This means though that it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain when the job is completed to satisfaction. One of the first questions to consider is
Who approves the work?
You need to get very clear understanding as to who is going to sign off your work. Is it the person you are dealing with or their boss?
Or does a whole committee have to approve it?
Committee approval is dangerous as it is very difficult to reach consensus. Committees can reach agreement about budget expenditures. It’s harder for them to agree on website copy.
Or art for the lobby.
Or a band for their corporate event.
It’s always best to get just one person as the point of authority.
They can get opinions from within their organisation but you want to just have to please one person, otherwise you will tear you hair out.
Once you know who that person is, ask yourself
Do I like them?
We sometimes have to do business with people we don’t like, but it’s good to acknowledge this to yourself in advance. You can at least enter into the agreement with your eyes open. You can also make sure to get everything in writing.
The opposite is also true. Sometimes we really hit it off with the people we engage in business with. The danger here is that you neglect getting things in writing, or properly discussing the parameters of the job, since you figure you get along with them so well that things will always be good.
I was once engaged by a friend to work for the company he was working for. We had a very nice monthly retainer agreement going where I had a steady monthly amount I was billing in exchange for producing a set amount of work. He was easy to get along with and liked my work. As he was a friend, we had an email outlining terms, but no formal contract. This went on for about a year until I was getting quite used to the steady money/work.
Then my friend got fired.
Guess what. The company didn’t recognise our agreement. As I had never bothered to get a proper contract, after all he was a friend, I had nothing to stand on. My income dropped by over half from one month to the next. Right as I was buying a flat. The timing was terrible and I was really unprepared.
So get it in writing.
Agree on what you are delivering, when and what you will be paid. Agree on when you will be paid and how payment will be handled. Will you invoice them? Will it all be payed at once or will the invoice be split up into chunks?
Where ever possible, try to get some (or all) of the money up front. Once you’ve done the work, you are are in a terrible position to negotiate.
I was engaged to write a piece on short notice, an interview for a press release. It was coming into the holidays and they wanted to release it in the New Year with a bang. I had worked with this company previously and so I got cracking on it right away doing preliminary research, coming up with interview questions etc.
The person I was to interview wasn’t available.
A month later he still wasn’t available.
Five months later, he still isn’t available and the company is refusing to pay me for the time I put into the job as it’s never been finished (not my fault). But never the less, I am left out of pocket for time. But ultimately I am to blame for it. I should have clarified all of the terms up front. And got a deposit before I got to work on the project.
See I knew that the person engaging me wasn’t someone I saw eye to eye with. I should have anticipated there might be problems and got a deposit. But because I am creative, trusting and eager to please (a dangerous combination) I dove right in and got to work.
So always stop. Take a breath. And ask yourself if this is a customer you want to get into bed with?
If you think there might be trouble, get it in writing and get some money up front.
If you think it will be clear sailing, get it in writing and get some money up front.
And if it doesn’t feel right to you, maybe you are better to walk away.
If they are hammering away at your rates, if they are refusing to pay a deposit, if they are disagreeing with your terms of business, it might just be better to walk away and spend your time doing marketing to find clients that are right for you.
Clients and jobs that aren’t right for you will end up costing you time and money in the long run. They’ll be the jobs that drag on forever and are nothing but hassles.
Clients and jobs that are right for you generally are a joy to work on and you will get through them quicker.
The longer you’re in business, hopefully you will learn to trust your gut more. I’m trying to do so.
But in the meantime get it in writing and get a deposit. Or walk away.
In the long run, you’ll be happier and richer as a result.