freelancing lessons: watch scope creep like a hawk

Freelancing Lessons Learned After Eight Months

Last September I decided to take the leap into freelance web development full time. I’ve learned several valuable lessons since then, and I’m sure I will learn more. There have been high points, low points, laid back times, and incredibly stressful times. My wife and I are having a baby May 27 June 1 and I’ll be taking the month of June off, so I thought now would be a good time to take a look back and reflect for a few minutes. Continue reading for a glimpse into some of my reflective thoughts and freelancing lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson 1: Do Not Underbid Projects. Seriously.

Personally, and this is one of my strengths/weaknesses, I tend to be a bit of a people pleaser. That trait added into the bidding process can turn into bad news for everyone. The people pleasing side of me wants to give the client the best possible deal. The good hearted part of me WANTS the client to get a screaming good deal. Of course, then there’s the business man side of me which doesn’t choose to show up until the budget is 99% depleted and 50% of the work remains. By that time it’s too late.

Choose to get that business side out early! Take time to bid out projects, even if it’s 2 or 3 hours. That’s time well spent if it ends up ensuring you deliver the project on or under budget. Scope out every single little detail of the project. Add a “Project Scope Includes” section as well as a “Project Scope Does Not Include” section. If you will need to purchase specific plugins for site development don’t forget to factor those into your bid. Track your time for everything, even small personal projects, and refer to that data later when putting bids together. Once scope is established keep tabs on scope creep like a hawk. If you’re no good at telling the client “no” when they request features outside of scope either get good at it fast or consider hiring a project manager to help out.

I recently significantly underbid a project. Lucky for me it was a small site so I didn’t have to work for free very long. Larger sites can get ugly fast. I recently saw a situation where a developer essentially ended up working for free for a couple months because he underbid the project. I don’t have to tell you how much being in that situation sucks.

Lesson 2: Subcontracting Out Work

When I hit the freelance market I hit it hard. Emails were sent out to all of my contacts. Craigslist ads were responded to. And I got a very decent response. At first I didn’t think I was taking on too much but it turned out that I did. I enlisted some extra development help which initially excited me. “All of my problems are solved!” I thought, “I don’t even have to worry about the dev side of this project anymore! It’s all Photoshop design land and roses for me from here on out!”


While it was true that a good chunk of work was taken off of my plate, there were many other factors I hadn’t considered. The developer I subcontracted to was only available nights and weekends, which I knew full well before having him help with the project. What I didn’t take into consideration is that that meant I needed to be working, or at the very least available, nights and weekends. Totally my fault. Mental exhaustion began setting in, not because the project was going terribly (it actually went quite well overall) but because of the number of hours I had to be thinking about work. Which is a wonderful transition into freelancing lesson 3…

Lesson 3: Be Extremely Careful How Much Work You Accept

You’ve no doubt heard it before. A friend asks how things are going and you respond with “Busy!” They quickly shoot back “Well, that’s good! Sure beats the alternative.” Yes, there’s a lot of truth to that. However, taking on too much is a wide open path straight down to the fiery inferno we all know as burn out.

A few days ago my wife and I were talking about website work and she piped up and said “If there’s one thing I know about web development it’s that nothing ever launches on time!” Of course, that’s a generalization and not always the case, but launch dates do get pushed often. Even if the launch date is hit there is often post launch work that needs to be done.

I know, I know, I need to get to the point. I mention all of this because it’s very helpful to factor all of this extra time into how you schedule projects and when you plan to take on new work. There’s a fine line between enjoying having a ton of work and feeling totally burnt because you just want one weekend off oh please God but the projects just keep going and going.

Lesson 4: A Fair Rate is A Fair Rate

Eight months in the freelance market has been more than enough time to get a clear picture of what the going rate is for web design and development. I tend to charge slightly on the lower end of what I could be charging because I find that eases a bit of pressure off. That could just be my own mental thing. My point is that what you charge is totally your call and personal preference.

If you’re 110% sure the rate you decide upon is fair, stick with it. If a client balks at the rate when you tell them, there’s a very high chance that you don’t want to spend time working for them anyway. In my experience I enjoy working with teams/clients the most that see the value in what I provide and are willing to pay a fair price for that service. Treehouse has a great blog post up about calculating rates here.

Conclusion: Freelancing Lessons

I know for a fact there are more things I’ve learned since diving into the freelance world. Some (read: most) have been learned the hard way. Perhaps in another 8 months I’ll add a part 2 to this post. Most of all, listen to your intuition. In retrospect I could have learned a lot of these things the easy way if I had paused for a few minutes to really think about my gut feeling in certain situations. Now get back to work!