Since 2007 I have been designing and developing websites. During my time in the industry, I am sure that I have frustrated a client from time to time. I've not been perfect. I've missed deadlines, misunderstood client requests, and forgotten my fair share of things. On the flip side, I too have been frustrated by my clients in the past. This is, of course, natural and expected. Perfection is unattainable, so instead I strive for excellence. I put a lot of effort into both my work and my clients' businesses. Forging such a deep connection with my clients leaves me empathetic to their struggles, and it pains me to hear their nightmare stories of freelancers from hell. As I state on my homepage, 8 out of 10 people that contact me have had prior bad experiences with freelancers. In this article, I will attempt to help guide you in choosing a freelancer less likely to burn you.
10 Tips to Avoid Nightmare Freelancers
You may not be able to avoid all bad situations with freelance web designers, developers, or writers, but these tips will help guide you in ensuring that you make an educated decision. Follow these ten tips, then check out some expectations I've laid out at the end of this article.
Tip #1: Ensure They are Incorporated
Time and time again, I hear stories of freelancers failing to run a proper and orderly business. The key word here is business, as many freelancers are not incorporated in any way. It's not hard to obtain a LLC or other type of official incorporation, and not doing so is a hallmark of a potentially sticky situation. You can easily verify incorporation via many official State websites. Here in Florida, the website would be SunBiz.org. You should not only ask if they are incorporated, but ensure you know the name of their official business. Otherwise, you may not be able to find the business during your verification attempts.
Tip #2: Make Sure They Pass the Sniff Test
My second tip relies on your intuition. Does something seem funky? My recommendation is to use your best judgment and make a determination on their trustworthiness. If some of their answers seem dodgy, they alter or change prior statements often, or act like they can do everything under the sun plus more, then it may be best to move on. If they're a web designer, does their own website look up to par? If they're a content writer, do their emails seem professional? Are they willing to meet you in person, if applicable? I always suggest to my clients that we meet in person if possible — it really helps to build trust and get to know someone who you may be entering into a high value project with. Above all, be smart. If a freelancer is faltering in the beginning, once you're locked into a contract chances are they'll falter even more.
Tip #3: Take Time to Understand Billing Procedures
A very important tip I have is to ensure that you take time to understand their billing procedures. At the very beginning, an estimate may not yet be available. However, it would behoove you to inquire about their billing structure. However, it is very important that you understand industry standards before asking the question. For instance, in the web design and development industry it can be standard to charge as much as 50% at the start of a project, even for projects which are tens of thousands of dollars. Often, this initial fee is wholly or partially non-refundable. Every industry is different, and often taking on a new project requires a freelancer or smaller business to turn away or significantly postpone clients who come after you. With this said, it's important that you request their billing structure and options, and that payments are tied to concrete milestones.
After you've made the decision to work with a particular freelancer, be sure to review the contract carefully and ask questions. Here's a bonus tip: if there is no contract, then you should request one or move on. No reputable freelancer would ever engage in a project without a contract in place.
Tip #4: Pay Attention to Response Times
The number one complaint I hear from my clients about past freelancers is their failure to reply to emails in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, this is highly common. You shouldn't expect for a freelancer, or even a small team, to always pick up the phone or respond to emails within minutes. However, there should be timely responses. I've had clients in the past who have requested guaranteed response times during projects. I appreciate the proactive nature of these types of requests and gladly incorporate such a stipulation in my contracts, within reason. You may want to consider requesting such a commitment.
Tip #5: Avoid the "Yes Man"
Freelancers aren't magicians. While it's entirely possible, and common, for a freelancer to be fully capable of performing all of the tasks which you request, be sure to compare how they market themselves (their offered services, for instance) with their answers to your requests. If you ask a freelancer if they are capable of doing something which they've never listed as a capability before, then be sure to be extra cautious. However, do realize that with some professions (such as programming), projects vary greatly and it may not be possible to find someone who has done exactly what you need to have done before. I've been asked if I have designed a website for a hotel in a specific city before — I had not, and the client was hesitant to move forward. That request was a bit unreasonable, as my previous work resolutely demonstrated my capabilities were above and beyond what was required for the project. Moral of the story is this: ask questions in order to build your internal confidence that a freelancer can do what you need to have done, don't be unreasonable, and ensure they aren't just telling you want you want to hear.
Tip #6: Read the Contract!
For heaven's take, read the contract before you sign. Understand the scope of work and if you feel details are sparse, don't be afraid to ask for more details to be added to the contract. The contract should represent exactly what you're going to get, and you should expect nothing more. Be weary of contracts which are too succinct, and ensure common contractual stipulations are present. Ensure that both the freelancer's information and your information is correct on the contract, and verify all of the freelancer's stated contact and organizational information. The contract should be reasonable overall, as you should be. If you see anything odd or feel as if the contract isn't up to par, spend the money and take it to your attorney for review.
Tip #7: Review Their Work and Testimonials
A big tip is to make sure you review the freelancer's portfolio, and ask for additional items which they may be barred from publicly listing. I've worked with some large companies before that have barred me from listing their work on my website, but allowed me to convey other details on a one-on-one basis. Ask for items such as these. Review testimonials and perform a Google search on their name and company. Do the due diligence now and you won't regret it later. I would even recommend having your attorney perform due diligence if you feel as if something may be shaky.
Tip #8: Determine Their Capacity
Another common complaint about freelancers is what I call “the slide,” which is when a project starts out great but over time the communication and quality of work starts to slip. This can be due to a number of reasons, but the most likely reason is because the freelancer is overstretched. My tip is to question a freelancer about their availability and what steps they take to mitigate and respond to work overload. In my case, I work hard to plan out projects with a proper amount of leeway, but I have also assembled a team of designers and developers who I can bring into a project if things start to slow down. With this setup, my capacity is essentially a non-issue. I suggest looking for solid, sensible answers to questions about a freelancer’s availability.
Tip #9: Understand The Hazards
When you choose to work with a freelancer, you’re often paying a rate which is lower than a large agency charges. There are many other benefits to working with a freelancer or a small, agile team. You often get a far more personal touch, typically avoid getting nickel and dimmed, and usually have the opportunity to work more closely with the creative aspects of a project. However, there certainly are some hazards which you should attempt to mitigate. If you hire a freelancer and they get hit by a car, there may be no one else to step in and finish the project — or deliver to you work thus far. Also, if the freelancer does not have associates he or she can turn to in emergencies, such as a death in the family or hospitalization, the project may come to a screeching halt. These two aforementioned examples may be rare, but other potential issues are not so rare. What happens if the freelancer takes on a 9-5 job? Goes out of business? Gets sued?
The bad news is that you won’t be able to prevent some issues, but the good news is that most devastating issues are rare. It all comes down a determination of risk, as so much business is. Be reasonable, and expect reasonable answers and behavior from your chosen freelancer. If something feels off, then it may be off; use your best judgment.
Tip #10: If Possible, Start With a Smaller Project
While this tip won’t be applicable to some, it’s nevertheless a great tip. If at all possible, I suggest starting off a freelancer with a smaller (1-2 week) project instead of jumping into a large project right off the bat. This way, you’ll be able to analyze a real-world project. This method isn’t foolproof as a freelancer may decline to take on a smaller, less-profitable project in lieu of another client’s project. Not only that, but a smaller project just won’t present the intricacies of a larger project and therefore may not include complexities which can expose bad freelancers. However, it’s a solid step in the right direction and one that I generally recommend.
Properly Align Your Expectations
In order for a successful project to take place it's important that you, as a client, have proper expectations. In my next article, I will attempt to inform you on what to expect from a great freelancer and clue you in on what may be some surprising tidbits. However, not to leave you high and dry here, I want to point out a few things to be aware of.
First and foremost, you should be aware that some freelancers are highly sought after and can be quite picky in the projects that they take on. If you bring a template to a freelancer who primarily designs original websites, then you may be out of luck — or, at the least, will miss out on many of the benefits such a freelancer provides.
Secondly, I would advise you to ask how they work best and what to expect from them in terms of their process, workflow, and communication habits. Simply asking can give you some great insight.
Lastly, before I update this article with the link to an upcoming article about expectations, it’s important to know you’ll need to do some work as well. As an example, you may need to write content or set aside time to discuss the proper amount (and type) of content on the website. A web designer and developer can do a lot, but some things are certainly best left in your hands.