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The complete guide to freelancing
Freelancing is the dream for a lot of people. Setting your own hours, working from the beach in the dead of winter—what’s not to love? But in order to truly enjoy these benefits, you have to first reach a certain level of success with your freelancing. Otherwise, the reality looks a lot more like working around the clock and chasing down unpaid invoices.
We built this guide to be the ultimate playbook for freelancers, covering all the key topics that keep self-employed writers, creatives, and consultants up at night.
What’s covered in this guide:
- Freelancer platforms to join
- Using your network to find jobs
- Showcasing past work to potential clients
- Finding and pitching high-value clients
- Managing multiple clients (and knowing how many to manage at once)
- Why freelancers should use proposals
- What to include in a proposal
- Tips for writing a good proposal
- Why freelancers need client contracts
- What to include in a contract and how to structure it
- When to seek legal support for your contract
- Tips for writing a contract that will protect your freelance business
Taking it to the next level:
- Read our Complete Guide to Getting Paid next to learn about invoicing clients, offering different payment methods, and dealing with clients who don’t pay on time.
- Prepare yourself for tax time: Claiming home office deductions, Top 10 small business deductions and tax expenses, and our free, downloadable Fearless Accounting Guide
- Like stories? Learn from this freelancer’s mistake and get your taxes right the first time around.
Chapter 1: Finding clients
According to a recent study from freelancer platform Upwork, nearly half of all millennials are already freelancing and that number is forecasted to grow exponentially. Within the next decade, freelancers are expected to make up the majority of the workforce in the U.S. Not to mention freelancers already contribute $1.47 trillion to the economy each year.
One of the biggest obstacles for new freelancers is finding enough client work to sustain you—after all, you have bills to pay. First-year freelancers in particular may feel like they spend more time prowling for new work than they do actually working.
While building a healthy roster of clients can be a challenge, we built this guide to make the process a little easier. You’ll learn different approaches to freelancing as well as beginner and advanced tactics to find and land clients. So, instead of spending hours prowling job boards for viable gigs, check out these strategies to help you build your freelance business one client at a time.
Getting started: Six steps to help you find your first clients
Finding your first clients can be the most difficult step to getting your business off the ground. When you first start your freelance biz, you may not have an expansive portfolio of work. Or maybe you have a few relevant work samples and just need to build your level of experience.
Regardless, you may need to make a few concessions in the early stages of your freelance business. That could include taking on pro-bono projects (AKA free work) or low-paying clients at first to get some experience and some solid work samples.
Just note: Freelancers deserve to be paid fairly. If you do choose to take on a free or low-paying project, make sure you’re getting something out of it. That could mean getting your first freelance writing byline, exposure, the chance to learn a new skill, a new work sample for your portfolio, or a nice paycheck. Regardless, be strategic when searching for and accepting your first few clients so that both you and your clients benefit from the relationship.
Step 1: Explore freelancer platforms
When you’re first building your portfolio, try using freelancer platforms to connect with potential clients.
Some general freelancer platforms (they cater to a variety of freelancers from different niches and industries) you might want to try include:
Also check out industry-specific job boards like:
- Freelance Writing Gigs
- Demand Media/Leaf Group
- Journalism Jobs
- Freelance Writer’s Den
- FreelanceWriting Morning Coffee Newsletter
Step 2: Tap your existing networks
One of the best ways to find new clients is to mine your existing networks. Tell your friends, family, colleagues, graduating cohort, and any small business owners you know that you’re looking for new clients.
You can reach out via:
- Social media networks: Spread the word to your contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
- Word of mouth: Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues in person about the kind of work you’re looking for.
- Email professional contacts: Have an old boss or coworker who might have a lead on a project? Shoot them a quick email. Let them know what products/services you’re offering and outline the kinds of projects you want to tackle. Ask them to spread the word to their contacts as well.
Step 3: Exchange work for testimonials/referrals
Consider setting up a different kind of transaction for your first (or first few) clients. Instead of clients compensating you with cash, ask for testimonials and referrals. Your first customer can write a thorough review of your product or service, which you can then use as a testimonial on LinkedIn, as a review on sites like Facebook and Yelp, and as a call-out on your website.
Reviews and testimonials (also often referred to as “social proof”) can be invaluable when it comes to landing prospective clients. For example, research shows that 70% of consumers say they look at product reviews before making a purchase, and product reviews are 12x more trusted than product descriptions from manufacturers.
Example of a Facebook Business Page and its customer reviews section.
So, when you rack up five-star reviews on your Facebook Business Page or add client blurbs to your website, you’re confirming that you’re a trustworthy freelancer who has successfully delivered projects in the past. You’ll also be able to use those projects you complete for your “freebie” clients to start compiling a work portfolio.
Create a portfolio of work
When pitching your freelance services to a client, one of the first things they’ll ask is: “Can I see some samples of your work?”
It’s a fair ask—they want to make sure you can get the job done on time and on budget. So you need to get ahead of the curve and prepare for potential clients to ask this important question.
Once you’ve got some solid samples of your work, create a portfolio or business website to show off your projects. Most clients these days prefer digital portfolios, whether that’s a website or an up-to-date PDF that’s easy to email.
Creating your own website may sound daunting, but it’s easy to put together something by using a platform like WordPress, SquareSpace, or Shopify. For your first portfolio, it’s OK to keep it simple. Take this portfolio from Belgrade-based freelancer Marija Zaric. She’s a web designer who specializes in building simple and user-friendly sites for her clients—so it makes sense that she kept her digital portfolio simple.
Copywriter Gari Cruze also keeps it simple (but colorful) with his digital portfolio. Even though he’s a pro wordsmith, his site leads with a bevy of high-resolution images from campaigns he’s helped create. The images catch the viewer’s eye and once you click on any given image, you can read more about that specific copywriting project.
Step 4: Network online
Now that you’ve got a portfolio, it’s time to do some basic networking online.
Social networks, especially a handful of platforms, can be valuable tools to network and find work as a freelancer. Dive into freelancer and industry groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit. For example, Facebook boasts dozens of groups dedicated to freelancing (and many of them host tens of thousands of members). Search LinkedIn groups and relevant subReddits as well.
Why join these groups? Well, you can often ask hard questions about freelancing and get honest answers (like how to set your prices). Fellow freelancers will also post job listings and info about potential projects—so find your relevant groups and dive in.
Once you join your groups, take a moment to introduce yourself. Write a brief message about what services you offer, what kind of clients you need, and share a link to work samples/your online portfolio.
Just remember, it’s not just enough to introduce yourself: become an active member. Try to regularly participate in discussions. Ask questions, offer insights where possible, and weigh in on hot topics. You often get what you give out of freelancer or industry groups.
Step 5: Attend networking events and freelancer meetups
You may have started networking and collecting contacts online, but meeting people IRL is another way to meet fellow freelancers and find clients.
To connect with potential clients, try finding events for small business owners in your area. Do a quick search of upcoming public Facebook Events and Meetups in your city to check for any regularly held mixers for entrepreneurs and business owners. Come ready with a stack of business cards and an elevator pitch explaining what you do.
You can also attend freelancer events in your area—not only will you likely make a friend or two, but you can ask other freelancers about overflow work. Experienced freelancers sometimes get more work than they can handle and have to turn projects away. Chat up other folks who work in your niche (i.e. other graphic designers, copywriters, or web designers) and let them know you’re just starting out and are on the lookout for clients. They may know of a company looking to hire or need some extra help on an upcoming project.
Step 6: Follow up with new contacts to stay top of mind
You’ve made some new connections online or offline—now it’s time to follow up. Take that stack of business cards you collected from your last networking event and send their owners a request to connect on LinkedIn. Write a brief personalized note (don’t just send the default message—they may not remember you).
For the contacts who had leads on potential clients or projects, make sure you follow up promptly via email. Don’t sit on a prospective lead—jump on it while you can!
Scaling up: Five steps to find higher-value clients
You’ve hustled and landed your first few clients. The first handful may have been freebies or low-paying projects, but now you’ve got some great work samples and some positive feedback.
As a freelancer, you don’t need to stick to low-paying gigs forever. As a matter of fact, each project you accept should move you and your freelance biz forward—whether that’s in terms of pay rate, work quality, prestige of the client, exposure, or otherwise.
But how do you take the leap into finding higher-value clients? There are a few intermediate to advanced tactics we’ll share here to find—and land—incrementally better clients as you build your freelance business.
Step 1: Ask previous clients/colleagues for referrals
One of the best ways to land new clients is through existing ones. That’s right: referrals are the name of the game when it comes to landing high-quality clients.
According to a Hubstaff study, referrals were by far the most likely to convert to clients at a whopping 30%.
This has been the experience for brand designer Nela Dunato as well.
“Most of the inquiries I get come from recommendations by colleagues and previous clients,” she says. “Usually, the person will ask if they know anyone who does brand design because they need it as soon as possible, so all I need to do is to assess if we’re the right fit, and if we are, create a proposal.”
How do you land some of these coveted referral clients? Simply ask.
As we mentioned in the last section, start by tapping your existing network. Remind your colleagues and current clients know that you’re taking on more freelance work and to send any fresh projects your way.
You can even incentivize referrals by creating your own referral program. Here’s how it works: Offer current clients and colleagues a reward for sending new work your way. That reward could be a small finder’s fee (i.e.10% of the value of the project) or complimentary services from you. With this kind of referral program, your contacts are literally invested in your business’ success.
Step 2: Pitch select clients you want to work with
Have someone specific you want to work with? Pitch them an idea. While cold-calling or emailing is intimidating (we all hate doing it, don’t worry), letting a specific company or person know you’re eager to work with them can go a long way toward getting a gig.
The Muse offers some helpful tips on crafting a cold email to warm up prospective clients, including:
- Keep it short: This is not the time to be wordy. Aim for eight sentences at most.
- Lead with the benefit: While you want to introduce yourself and your services, the most important question is to answer, “So what?” Why should this prospective client care about what you’re offering? If you don’t communicate that well, your pitch will likely end up in the Junk folder. And sometimes that means giving a potential client a piece of your work for nothing, as demonstrated in this Hubspot pitch.
- Take the conversation offline: Emailing is easy, but it’s also easy to ignore. Set up a meeting or a call, if possible. Prompt them with a call to action like “Let’s discuss your needs on a call next week.”
Don’t forget to tailor each pitch to that specific client. Why do you want to work with them? Do you religiously read their company blog? Is the company a thought leader in the industry? Did you love their last advertising campaign? Whatever it is, tailor your pitch to show you know that client rather than sending the same letter to every potential client.
Although we recommend that you personalize any pitch you send to a prospective client with your own voice and style, here’s a template to help get you started:
Hi [first name],
I hope this email finds you well! I’m reaching out because [explain how you got their contact info and how you know them: talked to a colleague, saw the company online, love the company blog, etc.].
A little about me: I’m a freelance [writer, graphic designer, etc., and link to your portfolio] and I’d love to help your company with [new designs, new content, etc.]. I know that [your product/service] will be able to help [name of the company] [insert high level benefit here].
Are you available for a quick call [time and date]?
Step 3: Position yourself as an expert in your space
Higher-value clients often want to hire the best of the best for their freelance projects. As you gain more experience, start to position yourself as an expert in your space so that more valuable clients start coming to you (rather than you constantly prowling for more clients).
There are several ways you can climb the ranks in your particular industry, including:
- Teach a course: Have in-demand skills? Teach a course at your local community college, online, or at an industry-focused school like BrainStation, General Assembly, or HackerYou.
- Create an online course: If you prefer to teach a course just once, consider compiling your knowledge on a particular subject into an online course. Publishing a course through a platform like Udemy or Coursera can help establish you as a subject matter expert and put a little extra cash in your pocket when eager learners buy your course.
- Speak at conferences: We get it—public speaking, especially in front of hundreds of people, is a terrifying prospect. But doing keynotes at industry conferences is a surefire way to position yourself as an industry leader, network with other industry leaders, and potentially find new projects.
- Pen thought leadership articles: Write thoughtful articles on challenges, trends, and hot topics in your industry. Not only do thought leadership articles position you as an expert, but it’s also great exposure for your business. And while you can write them for your own blog, you’ll get more ROI if you can get published in an industry publication, trade magazine, or business publication like Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, or Forbes. Need helping writing a thought leadership article? Check out this guide from Entrepreneur. Or, if you’re not a writer yourself, you can hire a freelance writer to ghostwrite it on your behalf.
- Get press mentions: Become a subject matter expert for the media to solidify your status as an industry thought leader. Start with signing up for Help a Reporter Out (HARO) emails. These twice-daily emails list specific requests for sources and subject matter experts for various media outlets (one typical example: The New York Post recently sought out people in business who had adopted specific behaviors—like a special diet, exercise routine, or sleep pattern—to achieve professional success. Generally, these press mentions will include your full name and sometimes a link to your website upon request.
Step 4: Start blogging
Creating unique content is another fantastic way to help clients find you. Not only can blogging on your website help increase your SEO rankings, but they can also showcase previous projects.
Jimmie Quick, co-owner at Homeschool Marketing, says this is the best channel she’s used to find new clients.
“My most successful method is content marketing,” Quick says. “So, I worked hard to dominate a certain keyword phrase in search. When people reach out, they are closer to being ready to hire me than if I had cold pitched them.”
Write unique content that targets specific keywords in your industry or niche, and write regularly. For more help on blogging SEO best practices, read Moz’s beginner’s guide.
You can also use blogs to write case studies on projects you’ve completed (especially for high-profile clients or complicated work that shows off your skills), and share thought leadership pieces and educational content that’s helpful to potential clients.
Step 5: Run ad campaigns
If you want to put some money behind your marketing efforts, then consider running a series of paid ad campaigns.
You can target potential clients using platforms like Google AdWords and Facebook ads. Just make sure you have a list of specific keywords you’re targeting as well as a solid idea of who your potential customers are before pulling the trigger on any campaigns.
Need a little help setting up your first ads? Read this step-by-step guide to setting up your first Google AdWords campaign or check out this great use case for using Facebook Leads Ads to attract freelance clients.
Managing your clients: How many is ideal?
When you’re freelancing or consulting, having multiple clients at once has its pros and cons. While juggling multiple “bosses” may sound a little intimidating, one study showed that many freelancers believe their career is more stable than a day job because they have a diversified portfolio of clients rather than a job with one employer.
But how many clients is “enough?” Is it better to service just a handful of clients or juggle as many as you can manage?
Some of this will depend on your industry and the services you offer. Freelancers often offer a multitude of services and/or products. One survey from Slash Workers said that 61% of freelancers specialize in two to three talents. And freelancers with varied skill sets can build a more diverse client roster.
One survey shows that the average number of clients that freelancers juggle is 14.
Maintaining more clients: The advantages
If you’re working with a dozen or more clients (like in the study above), you’ll likely do less work for each. Assignments may be one-off or occasional projects.
But keeping a lengthy roster of clients has its benefits, including:
- Financial security. More work means more income.
- Less risk. With many clients on your roster, your business isn’t at risk if you happen to lose one.
- A better portfolio. You build a robust portfolio of work faster than with fewer clients.
- More experience. Freelancers can gain more experience in their industry more quickly.
- Upgrading skills and pay. More clients give freelancers the chance to level up their skills and their pay rate at a faster pace.
- More testimonials and referrals. With more clients, you can build a bigger repository of social proof, including testimonials and potential referrals.
Maintaining more clients: The disadvantages
Although there are a wealth of benefits, managing a large number of clients also has a few drawbacks.
- Spreading yourself too thin: With many clients, it’s easy to take on too much work. This can lead to overworking yourself and burnout. With fewer clients, it’s often easier to stay organized and find work-life balance.
- More admin work: Each client you take on requires a certain amount of administrative work. From creating project proposals to drafting up contracts to sending regular invoicing, the paperwork needed to manage a lengthy list of clients can bury a freelancer. Again, this can be managed if freelancers stay organized and automate some of these processes.
- Turning off clients: When you’re managing a large number of clients, you aren’t able to give each one your undivided attention at all times. It’s easy to start treating clients as a number, which can be a major turnoff for some.
Ultimately, you’ll know how much work you can handle. There’s no “right” answer to the question of the ideal number of clients — it’s simply a matter of what’s right for you and your business.
Moving forward with finding freelance clients
In the first year, finding enough work to build your freelance business will be one of your biggest challenges. But as your experience level increases, finding and booking clients will get easier. And if you employ some of the tactics we’ve outlined here, you can work to keep a steady stream of clients to further hone your skills, build a portfolio, and scale your business.
In our next section, we’ll tackle the topic of how to build proposals that will help you land high-value projects that boost your business.
Chapter 2: Building client proposals
Now that you’ve learned how to find those often-evasive clients, it’s time to learn how to land them. One of the tactics freelancers often use to convince potential clients to give them a chance is to send a project proposal. This is a comprehensive document that outlines the details of the project, exactly how you’ll complete the necessary work, and for how much.
In this section, you’ll learn the ins and outs of creating a freelance proposal—from the benefits of using proposals to specific strategies to help you outline your first proposal. We’ll guide you through the process step-by-step so you can increase the likelihood of landing those higher-value clients and grow your freelance business in the process.
Why freelancers should use proposals
Proposals boast a variety of benefits. At this point in your relationship, you know a bit about the prospective client and their project. Proposals are a high-impact way to put all your knowledge down on paper. It’s a document both you and your client can refer back to as your working relationship progresses, and it clarifies questions and potential issues before they arise.
But what exactly makes proposals such an effective way of winning over new clients? How can they help freelancers not only get clients to sign on the dotted line, but also get higher-value clients?
In your proposal, you’ll outline the goals of the project. This is where you get the chance to shine—demonstrate your knowledge of the potential client and their needs. What is this project meant to achieve? What are the success metrics? And what are the business goals tied to completing this project?
Demonstrating that you understand the “why” behind a project is also an effective way to set yourself apart from competitors. With an estimated 57.3 million freelancers in the U.S. alone, differentiation is key to being competitive and landing those high-value projects.
Establishing the project’s objectives early on also gets you and your client on the same page—which sets you both up for success as you move forward.
Marie Poullin, co-founder of digital strategy firm Oki Doki Digital, starts her client conversations with a phone consultation to discuss their project. After the call, she uses one of her three proposal templates to further clarify her clients needs as well as how she works:
“It’s kind of like a productized service, but the proposal makes it feel more special (and custom to them),” she says. “[The proposal] also has more detail about our philosophies, how we work, and what the process includes.”
Creates an overview of the project
When you’re compiling your proposal, you’ll include a summary of the project. Creating this kind of summary is an exercise in itself – it forces you to sit down and take stock of the project as a whole. You have to consider the potential challenges and how you’ll tackle the project from start to finish.
The overview can serve as a basic project roadmap. You establish your role, what problems you’ll solve for your client, and who else you’ll be working with to meet your goals. Depending on the scope of the project, freelancers may work with multiple people in an organization for different deliverables. For example, a freelance writer may work with a designer to create the layout for a whitepaper, a photographer to capture relevant images, and an editor who gives the whole piece a final polish.
The overview also allows you to break larger projects up into smaller components or sprints, and establish timelines and firm deliverables. Both you and your client and continually refer back to this roadmap throughout the course of the project to ensure you both have what you need to complete the project on time and on budget.
Creating a summary of the project also demonstrates your knowledge of the kind of work you’ll be doing (like designing a new website for your client or writing a 25-page whitepaper on a technical topic). Detailing your knowledge and how you’ll tackle the project can be one more factor that persuades that potential client to choose you over other freelancers vying for the project.
Anticipate challenges and client questions
Putting together a proposal also gives you the chance to identify any issues you might encounter throughout the project. You’ve got that skeletal project roadmap in hand, so you can flag any challenges with your client ahead of time.
Not only does this prevent bigger problems for both you and your client down the road, but flagging issues and clarifying timelines with everyone can curb bottlenecks—which can help keep the project on track.
A proposal can help anticipate common client questions as well. From queries about big-picture strategies to prospective timelines to payment details, you can answer many of these questions in the form of a proposal before a client even asks. Anticipating—and answering—these kinds of questions for a client only further instills confidence in your ability to get the job done.
Establishes payment details
Let’s face it — no one likes any surprises when it comes to paying a bill. The same goes for clients when paying their freelancers. Fortunately, proposals help tackle the sticky topic of payments before it becomes an issue.
In your proposal, you’ll include a cost estimate for the work you’ll provide on the selected project. The cost estimate will include when and how your client will render payments, so there won’t be any surprises for either of you as the project progresses.
Annie Blackwell, a freelance bookkeeper and owner of Blackwell Bookkeeping, underscores that proposals establish her knowledge and authority—which makes it easier for them to establish trust..
“[Clients] know the plan and that makes them feel more comfortable when paying me a large sum (I get paid in advance). It’s also a way of establishing my authority. I’m not just like ‘Oh yeah, I can do your bookkeeping, whatever that means.’ Instead, I’m like, this is exactly what I do, how it helps you, here are all the parts to it, here are things you didn’t even know you needed help with, etc.”
Five tips to help you write your first freelance proposal
If you’ve never written a freelance proposal before, the task may feel a little daunting. But following these steps can help you get through your first proposal and set you up for success when creating future proposals.
1. Do your research
Before dumping your thoughts into a doc, do your due diligence to organize those thoughts. Do some research on the project, your client, and the industry. Read through the client’s website and marketing materials to understand their value proposition to their customers. Peruse trade publications to get a sense of the industry your client is in. And communicate with your client to get a deeper understanding of their needs.
Blackwell incorporates a round of in-depth phone conversations into her process prior to creating a project proposal.
“Proposals happen for me after an initial short call, a second much longer call, and then once I’m positive I want to work with them, I do an extensive analysis of their books. At which point, I make a very specific proposal for the work to be done,” she said.
Nelo Dunato, a freelance artist and designer, uses a similar process to research her clients and their needs.
“I send proposals (4-5 pages long) after a detailed questionnaire and an in-person or an online video meeting,” she explains. “By this point, I’m already aware of whether they can afford my rates and if the project is interesting to me.”
Blackwell also raises another important strategy: tailoring your pitch to your client. Avoid writing generic, impersonal copy. Be specific about how you’ll tackle the work the client needs and other insights into how you’ll get the job done. If your pitch sounds like it’s lifted straight from a template, it’s likely destined for the trash.
2. Start out strong
The average adult’s attention span is dwindling. Research shows that our attention shifts every eight seconds—and your potential clients are no exception. That means you need to make a strong first impression early on in your proposal to capture and maintain your client’s attention.
How do you accomplish that? Start out strong. That means leading with a strong statement, shake things up with a big proposed change, or delve into a shift in strategy. Avoid generic and blasé introductions like “Hi, my name is Jane Doe, and I want to work on your company’s Social Media Strategy.”
Instead, demonstrate right away that you’ve put some time and thought into how you’ll solve the client’s problem. If you’re a freelance social media pro, consider creating a skeletal strategy and write an eye-catching email subject line like, “My 10 Tactics to Better Social Customer Support.” If you’re a web designer vying for a major website project, sketch out a quick wireframe and lead with it.
This is your chance to stand out from the stack of other freelancers competing for the same gig – so wow them. Be deliberate in showcasing your strengths and how they’re applicable for tackling this project.
3. Keep it brief
While you should tailor your proposal and include all the relevant info, don’t go overboard. Clients don’t have time to thumb through a 40-page document explaining why you’re a good fit for a particular project.
That’s why it’s crucial for freelancers to keep proposals both compelling and concise. Think of a proposal as an elevator pitch for a project — it should be punchy and informative. Try to keep proposals no more than a couple of pages in length so that it’s easier to keep your client’s attention while also demonstrating how you’re an asset for their project.
4. Use a digestible format
Just as you should aim to keep your proposal brief, you also need to make it easily digestible. The structure is just as important as the content—especially when it comes to keeping clients engaged with what they’re reading. Even a two-page proposal can make a client’s eyes glaze over if they’re staring at a wall of text.
To keep things scannable for clients, format your proposal using the following to break up text (and give their eyes a rest):
- Headlines and subheadlines
- Bulleted and numbered lists
- Images, graphs, wireframes, and other visuals
5. Go digital
That’s right — nix that paper proposal, if at all possible. Paper proposals not only kill too many trees, but they can also lengthen the approval process. If you’ve ever waited for a signature on a printed document, you’ll understand how much this slows down administrative tasks.
Instead, opt for a digital version of your proposal. Digitizing the proposal and approval process can shorten turnaround times, saving you time and money. Send it to your client as a PDF or Word document. Then, once your proposal is approved, you can get a digital signature from your client using a tool like HelloSign or DocuSign.
The six sections to include in your proposal
1. Project details
This is the basic project info that establishes who you are and who your client is for easy reference.
Make sure you include the following in this section:
- Your name and/or the name of your company’s name
- Your contact information (including phone number, email, website, etc.)
- Your client’s name and contact info
- The title of the project
- Summary of the project, including the client’s ask and the work you’ll provide as a freelancer. The project summary should be brief, but still demonstrate your knowledge of both the client’s needs and your understanding of the workload.
While most of this information is perfunctory, don’t neglect it—it’s still needed to differentiate your pitch from other freelancers’.
Every project will have a unique set of objectives. First, the project will be tied directly to specific business goals for your client. For example, a new company website can help with SEO, usability, and web traffic. A fresh whitepaper can educate an audience and serve as a lead generator.
Secondly, the project will have its own objectives—like staying within a certain budget or creating certain assets or deliverables.
Whatever the project, you’ll need to outline the correlating goals. While many freelancers can likely rattle off this second set of goals (deadlines, deliverables, etc.), go above and beyond and tie the project back to your client’s business goals. Not only does this demonstrate your big-picture view of the client’s needs, but it makes it simpler for you to illustrate how your skills can have a direct, positive impact on their business
3. Relevant samples and social proof
Here’s where you address the pink elephant in the room: Why should this client hire you?
Include a brief section where you answer that question. Introduce who you are and what you do. Discuss relevant projects or experiences you’ve completed in the past. Is this project a website redesign for a major hospital? If you’ve completed a massive website overhaul or worked with clients in the healthcare sector previously, then mention it and show your work.
As with any employer, a client will likely want to check your references. And studies show that customer testimonials are 89% effective when it comes to influencing purchase decisions. So, make their job a little easier—include testimonials or a few references from past clients in your proposal.
4. Cost estimate and payment provisions
As we previously mentioned, no one likes unanticipated costs sneaking up on them. That’s why your proposal should include a comprehensive cost estimate for the project.
Here, you can include your relevant rate (hourly, monthly, per project) and any necessary cost breakdowns. Detail exactly what your cost estimate includes. For example, if you’re scoping out a whitepaper writing project for $3,000, be specific about what that sticker price covers—like how many rounds of revisions are included, whether you’re targeting specific keywords for SEO, if you’ll complete the keyword research yourself, and so on.
For other types of projects, like interior design, it’s difficult to nail down an exact price per project until you have a comprehensive consultation with your client. In this scenario, it makes sense to include your typical hourly rate and compile a rough guess on your supplies. For this and other relevant projects, here’s where you’ll also attach a budget for any additional materials like tools, supplies, or other things you’d need to complete the project.
Remember, this is also a cost estimate. As much as you try to plan for it, sometimes the scope of work or cost of materials changes while the project is already underway. If there’s a chance that the cost is subject to change, include a note stating that this is the case. That way, no one is hit with a serious case of sticker shock down the line.
After outlining your cost estimate for the project, tackle additional details about payment. Highlight specifics like:
- Deposits and upfront payments (i.e. some freelancers require a 50% deposit upfront for larger projects with the rest to be paid upon completion)
- Timelines for payments
- How clients will pay you (cash, check, bank transfers, etc.)
5. Timeline and project outline
Here’s where you get into the nitty-gritty on how you’ll tackle this project. No need to get overly granular, but be transparent. This is a chance to show your potential client how you’ll solve their problem and what process you’ll use to do so.
Outline the deliverables for the lifecycle of the project and explain how you’ll deliver them. Sketch out a rough timeline for how long it’ll take you to turn around the work.
6. Next steps
Once you’ve wowed your potential client with your work samples and timeline, here’s where you hit them with your follow through: outline how they can move forward with you. How does a potential client proverbially sign on the dotted line?
Outline how they can move forward with you and when you can get started. Oftentimes, a client will accept the proposal and you’ll get their signature after hashing out any final details. Then you or the client can prepare an official contract for the project
Moving forward with your first proposal
Writing your first proposal may be challenging, but following these few guidelines can help set you up for success. Once you’ve written and polished off your first proposal, you can move forward with pitching for bigger projects to steadily. grow your freelance business.
Chapter 3: Creating contracts
Almost half of us are now freelancers in some capacity. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, about 68 million people in the U.S. are engaged in independent work. That’s impressive, particularly considering the working-age population is 251 million people.
Although the number of people participating in the gig economy continues to increase, not all of these freelancers are protecting themselves with contracts. Research from the Freelancers Union showed that only 28% of freelancers they surveyed were using contracts in their business.
We get it. Creating a client contract isn’t an exciting way to whittle away your spare time. After all, you likely didn’t start freelancing to spend your time doing dull administrative tasks like writing contracts.
While these kinds of legal docs can be tedious, they can also protect your business. Not only do they help you define the specifics of freelance projects, they also outline important details like payment deadlines and who owns what you create for a client.
So, whether you need a contract for your upcoming work projects or for your own subcontractors or vendors, here’s how to get started with a tailored contract to meet yours and your business’ needs.
What is a contract?
Generally, a contract is a legally binding agreement that outlines the terms of a purchase or exchange. Whether that’s the price and purchase details of a car you’re buying or project specifics for a client, contracts ensure all parties are on the same page (quite literally) and agree to the same terms. For example, everyone has to agree on the purchase price of a car, the condition it’s in when you purchase it, and payment timelines. A contract compiles all these integral details into a single document and both you and the seller can refer back to it if you have any questions about the transaction details in the future.
Why freelancers need a contract
Yes, contracts tend to be dull documents full of hard-to-understand legalese. But contracts can save freelancers and small business owners time and a lot of money.
“A contract is a two-way street,” said Ethan Clarke, Vice President of the Canadian Freelance Union, in an interview with Format magazine. “It’s a balance of protecting your own rights, while giving the client the flexibility to get what they need… Far too many freelancers who are starting out err on the side of giving the client everything. But if you want to survive, you have to protect your rights.”
Some of the benefits of having a freelance contract include:
- Curbs confusion: When you write a tailored contract for a client or a vendor, you put all the deliverables and timelines down on paper. Everyone is clear on their expectations, which can prevent confusion down the line as you begin work on the project.
- Professionalism: Having a contract ready to go for clients and vendors lets them know you’re a serious business owner. Ready-made business documents, like contracts, help establish your competency and professionalism in the early stages of these relationships. Or as Djanka Gajdel, a Toronto-based artist representative and member of the board at the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators, told Format magazine: “A contract is a great way to establish yourself as a professional and educate the client, so they feel they’re getting value and you feel you’re being properly remunerated.”
- Payment details are set in stone: A contract establishes all the details around payment for your work. You’ll generally have a section outlining payment timelines, deposit amounts, and even acceptable payment methods. When your clients have to sign on the dotted line saying they know when and how much to pay you, they’re much more likely to follow through.
- Prevents future legal issues: If you get stiffed by a deadbeat client or make an error in your work, a comprehensive contract can help protect you from liability or prove your case if you need to take a non-paying client to court.
Typically, an attorney will write up many of the aforementioned details in a contract. But we get it—lawyers are pricey and many freelancers can’t afford a hefty bill for a simple work contract.
But don’t worry—we aren’t lawyers, but we’ll walk you through the process of creating your own contract template without giving you a case of sticker shock
What sections freelancers should include in their client contract
While freelance contracts will vary slightly depending on your industry and your business’ specific needs, there are some common sections almost all contracts should include.
The first section of your contract states both parties included in the contract (that means you and your client or vendor). You’ll establish both your identities and a brief description of the work you’ll be doing for your client.
Jane Doe (also known as “Contractor”) will provide XYZ Plumbing Co. (also known as “Client”) with graphic design services, including a new logo and image assets, which are detailed in the Terms and Conditions below.
Keep your intro statement concise—clear and simple copy is the ideal for this section. You don’t need more than a couple of sentences to establish the details.
Terms and conditions
Terms and conditions are where you help curb any confusion between you and your client. You’ll lay out the specifics of your relationship as well as timelines for your tasks.
As you see in the sample above, this section clarifies the overarching expectations between you and your client or vendor. You’ll set your pay rate, timelines, as well as the deliverables and deadlines for your client.
We recommend stating the payment details front and center in this section. Explicitly state your accepted payment methods (like PayPal and credit cards in the example above), payment deadlines, and any deposit amounts you require. This can curb clients trying to pay you a lower rate once you’ve completed the project or stiffing you altogether.
The deliverables section of your terms and conditions should be detailed enough to avoid confusion while still being concise. A good example of a well-defined deliverable for this section is:
The Contractor will create:
- One whitepaper per month, at least 5,000 words in length, on a topic brainstormed and agreed upon by the Contractor and Client at the beginning of each month. This includes original copy, research on the chosen topic, and interviewing 1-2 subject matter experts for quotes to include within the copy.
This section is fairly straightforward, whether you’re creating this contract for a client or a vendor. Here, you’ll establish all the details around payment, including how and when.
For clients, you can address when they can expect an invoice from you, the expect turnaround on payments (i.e. payment due upon receipt of invoice, Net30), and whether you’ll be paid prior to starting work or after the project’s completion.
For vendors, you’ll outline how much you’re investing, how much product you’re purchasing and when. Or, if you’re subcontracting a project, establish the budget and the payment cycle (you may want to pay your subcontractor for their work every 30 or 60 days, for example).
Here’s where you further define the project you’ll be completing for your client. While you provided an overview of the deliverables in the previous section, here, you’ll establish the full scope of the bigger project.
Some details to include in this section, if relevant to your client and needs, are:
- List all stakeholders: Highlight all the people involved in the project and their responsibilities. This is particularly helpful for complex projects with multiple people working on them at once.
- Target audience: Who will this project will ultimately serve? Who is your client’s customer in this scenario? Is the project a marketing campaign meant to capture the attention of new clients? Or maybe it’s an email drip campaign to reactivate old customers? Regardless of the project, you need to understand who you’re talking to when completing work for your client. So, work with your client to define the target audience or persona—figure out who exactly has the problem you’re trying to solve and you can better understand how to solve it with the project you’re completing.
- Timelines and all deliverables: Outline the timeline of the entire project (i.e. six months), any deadlines, and any deliverables not specified in the previous section. Also include delivery details like how you’ll get the final product to your client.
- Goals and success metrics: Ensure you have a strong grasp of what you want to achieve with this project. How will this project or assignment move your business forward? What problem is the project meant to solve? And what are the key performance indicators (think clicks, downloads, impressions, page views, etc.)?
Yes, this kind of detail might seem like killing a fly with a hammer. However, one of the frustrating issues freelancers often contend with is scope creep—when a client requests changes and tweaks to the project as you work, resulting in you doing a lot of work for free.
To avoid losing time and money, avoid scope creep with a comprehensive project outline.
Even though you and your client may thoroughly outline your work project, sometimes the client’s needs or the direction of the project changes. That’s why you’ll need to include a change request section in your contract.
For example, if you’re a writer creating content for a whitepaper, you may include two rounds of revisions in your cost estimate. But what if your client needs you to rewrite an entire section after they’ve burned through those two revision rounds?
Here, you’ll establish a process for submitting any changes to the project’s scope. If you plan to charge for that rewrite, clarify in this section that you’ll require a new contract and separate cost estimate for further changes.
When creating a product or fulfilling a service for a client, you’ll need to specify who owns the work once it’s complete. According to U.S. copyright law, unless you release the work to your client via a copyright section in your contract, the work belongs to you even if you’re paid for the project.
So, to clarify the rights to use the work moving forward, you’ll need to write a statement outlining copyright ownership in this section.
To gain a deeper understanding of copyright law and how it impacts your freelance business, check out Forbes’ guide to U.S. copyright or the Government of Canada’s guide to intellectual property and copyright.
To protect yourself, it’s also wise to include a section addressing any potential liability issues. While the need for this is rare, adding this section can prevent any liability if your work has errors or causes a loss for your client.
For example, if you’re a bookkeeper, a wrong digit can affect a client’s tax liabilities.
Of all the sections in a freelance contract, this one is the most complicated and is most likely to require a little legal assistance. To ensure you avoid liability, you can consult with an attorney to make sure the language in your contract is up for the job.
You can send a draft of your contract to a qualified lawyer. Or, for a low-cost or free option, try consulting with:
- Find pro bono (free) advice through services like AccessProBono or the Community Legal Assistance Society
- Consult your local legal clinic (usually free or low-cost) from your city or municipal government
- Find your local Legal Aid branch for a legal clinic near you
- Check with your nearest law school to see if local law students offers free or low-cost legal clinics
Termination and signatures
In case you or your client/vendor want to end the relationship before your contract expires, write out a termination section. In the sample above, the freelancer requires 15 days written notice to terminate the contract.
Termination details are important for a couple of reasons. For one, you have an emergency ejection button in case you’re working with a nightmare client. You’ll also want some advanced notice if your client or vendor no longer wants to work with you so that you can plan appropriately, and a termination clause provides that.
Last, but certainly not least, is the signature section. This is where you and your client or vendor both sign on the dotted line. Ensure both parties print their names, add their signature, and put the date they signed the document for your records.
Additional contract resources for freelancers
If you need a little extra help creating your contract or want some assistance tailoring it for your specific industry, here are some additional resources to lean on:
- Terms and Conditions for Design Contracts: Premade clauses to include in your contract if you’re a freelance designer.
- Work for Hire Agreement: A handy form to help you keep your copyright when you outsource work to freelancers.
- A basic freelance contract template from Hello Bonsai
- CPAIC forms and templates, including a model release, product agreement, and other helpful forms for freelance photographers
- In-depth breakdown of copyright law for U.S.-based freelancers
- Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) contracts and negotiation page for specific contract clauses for freelance writers in Canada
- American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers list of resources, including business and legal forms
Getting started with contracts
While writing your first contract as a freelancer may sound like a daunting task, following the aforementioned steps can walk you through the process.
Once you’ve created a solid template to work from, you’ll also be able to adapt it for all your clients and vendors moving forward—which can save you time while protecting you and your business.