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How Not to Get Screwed (How to Freelance and Travel the World: Part 3)


Welcome to part 3 of How to Freelance and Travel the World!

So you’ve self-actualized. You understand what you’re getting into. You’ve priced yourself. You’ve found clients.

And you thought you did all the hard stuff.

Well, actually. The hardest part of freelancing – harder than any of that other stuff – is client management.

Client management is roughly: 1) Making sure a client is happy balanced with 2) Not getting screwed.

Like in any healthy relationship, you have to set up expectations and boundaries. Let me explain.



Don’t Get Screwed.

Look, I’ve gotten screwed. It isn’t fun. It’s important to separate out two undesirable situations:

  1. The expectations weren’t clear, so you are working too much / the client is constantly unsatisfied.
  2. The client is a total, unreasonable asshole and should be fired.

It may be some combination of both. But in any case, you can’t control the second, so focus on situation #1.

My worst client story happened very early on. It was my second month in business, and working with a friend, pitched a local company on redesigning their website. The red flags started immediately: their last designer was apparently inadequate (“too templated”) and they wanted us to put put together a proposal with a mockup of their homepage, doing a half hour pitch, then another proposal against another company. (If it’s a reputable client with a huge budget, this might make sense, but this was a simple business website.) I put in some late nights while still taking college classes and got the gig.

Then the client called to haggle me down on the price listed in the proposal, line by line. I put together wireframes, which they okayed, then moved into mockups after reviewing several websites they liked.

Then started the infuriating Skype calls where the client would express disappointment, say my work was inadequate, and make suggestions like, “Maybe we could make the navigation green and wavy, with a gradient underneath,” and want to see comps with all of their ridiculous ideas implemented. When it inevitably looked terrible, the whole process would start again.

There were a series of phone calls where they’d say that I wasn’t being proactive enough, or not technically capable enough, or whatever. I tried starting from scratch. They still weren’t happy. In the project proposal, I had written they were allowed 3 rounds of revisions for the mockups (a good practice, and something you should spec out), which I started to cite as the revisions became endless. But when I attempted to actually hold to that, they accused me of being unreasonable.

I wish, dear reader, that I fired them then. But the sad tale slogged out for a few more fruitless weeks, during which I was utterly miserable, compounded by senior spring and a failing personal relationship. I’m happy to say I’ve never had an experience quite as horrible again, but there are a few things you can do to ensure this doesn’t happen to you.

  1. Write a clear statement of work, that outlines exactly what features or pages you’ll build and what is and isn’t included. Write down how many revisions they’re allowed, and how much they will be charged if they exceed the scope. You can also have a legal contract (see tools), but honestly, for small, short projects you’ll just scare people off unnecessarily – just make expectations clear and have them sign off on it.
  2. Get money upfront. See the 3 Rules of money in the previous post. DO NOT continue working if the client is being difficult about the deposit check. I’ll do some initial work, but if they continue being difficult, stop working and chase them down.
  3. For larger projects: break up projects into stages and make sure clients sign off at each stage before proceeding to the next.
  4. Write down your workflow so they know how to work with you. (Ex. A call, then wireframes, then mockups, etc.)
  5. Recognize when a client is being unreasonable, and try to figure out what they’re angry about – sometimes they just want more attention, or better communication. If that keeps failing, cite the work agreement. If that fails, balance the likelihood of project completion with the negative effect on mental health. A job is a job, and you should do your best to make a client happy – but if it just ain’t working out, maybe it’s time to breakup and learn from the experience.


Freelancing has the odd effect of dumping piles of cash into your hands before Uncle Sam has taken his chunk. Do not be fooled.

My personal formula, imperfectly applied, is to live on 50% of your income, leaving roughly 30% for taxes and 20% for savings. But really, just spend as little as possible. De-shackle yourself from stupid crap that fills up your closet, kitchen appliances you’ll never use, and chairs that don’t get sat in. Hold off on a potential purchase until you find yourself thinking, “Man, I could really use a ___ right now.” (For me: tea kettle, microplane, mirror, black boots)

I’m not a monk. I live alone in a nice part of Boston; I buy designer makeup; I eat out frequently. But all the crap I bought in the few months after I started making real money I regret – the dress I only wore once, the jewelry sitting in a bin somewhere. I don’t regret, however, the money I’ve spent on travel and visiting friends, and am grateful that I have a job where I can take 4 day weekends or work remotely for a month.

I will refrain from giving further tax or financial advice here, but read up on the basics. (Here’s one basic thing know: you’ll fill out a w-9 form for clients, who will then send you a 1099 form before tax time with how much they’ve paid you that year.) Build up an emergency fund with 3-6 months of living expenses. (I’d recommend six.) Track your expenses with Mint.com (also a good way to track your variable income!). You can also tag business expenses in there. I use Harvest for invoicing, tracking who’s paid me, and also time tracking. You can do the same thing with Google Docs and spreadsheets, but I like that it saves me time.

Finally, it’s ok if you have no idea what the fuck you’re doing. Everyone begins at this point. We all start off not having walked before. At some point, we get scared that we’re about to do something new. Imagine a little kid complaining, “I’ve never walked before! I tried once and I fell! Fuck this walking stuff, I’ll be in my stroller.” It’d be ridiculous. Try to view your fear in this way

Realize that even the most successful people still have moments of fear and self-doubt. Try it: ask someone you look up to if they still get scared. I promise you, unless they’re a total sociopath or liar, they will say yes.

Your fear is not a sign of your inadequacy. It’s part of being human. It will always be there, no matter how much money you make or title you have. Being scared is healthy – it’s to prevent you from doing stupid things like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Just don’t let it prevent you from the good.

Why Freelancing is like Polyamorous Dating (How to Freelance: Part 2)


Yesterday, we covered steps 1-4 of how to freelance. Today, we’re getting to a post dedicated to Step 5: Clients. Seriously, go read part 1 first if you haven’t yet. I’ll probably combine these into a single blog post at some point, but yeah, go read that first.


CLIENTS: Like Dating, But Easier (since there’s contracts) Client management is like a polyamorous dating relationship: sure, you can have several partners, but you still gotta pick them well.

Would you enter into a 6 month relationship with any person off the street who offered? I sincerely hope not. You’d want to know the person was sane. Pleasant to be around. Able to support themselves. Emotionally stable. Communicative. All good things to have.

Clients are real, live people. They are not robots that write you checks. (If they were robots, they would probably pay you a lot faster.) They come with their own quirks, expectations, and personalities. Some are incredible people that you want to be best friends with. Some have unrealistic expectations and turn to verbal abuse when they’re not happy. So, pick well.

But what should you look for? The baseline:


The Perfect Client…

  1. Knows what they want.
  2. Has money to pay you.
  3. Isn’t a dick.

In order to have a happy working relationship, you need at least 2 of the 3.

I can deal with someone who doesn’t know what they want, as long as they can pay me and are a nice person. I can do work for a bit less, as long the project is straightforward and the client is nice. And I can work with a more difficult personality, as long as they know what they want and can pay.

So before we even get into how to find a client, remember that this is a service business. You are dealing with people, not products. Yes, you have to be competent, but making a client happy, fairly or unfairly, is the real gauge of success here.

1) Knows what they want.

Do they say things like, “We fired the last designer because they just couldn’t get it exactly how we wanted it”? Do they make you write 20 million proposals and string you along? Do they constantly ask for more free work and ideas before getting started? Do they actually know what “minimum viable product” means?

2) Has money to pay you.

Do they preface everything with, “I have a budget of $200”? When you tell them your hourly, do they try to buy a half hour? Do they promise to pay you later? Is the check always “in the mail”? Do they hassle you endlessly on tiny details, trying to get you to go down in price? Do they try to pitch unpaid work as being “good for the exposure and your portfolio”? (Sorry, that only works in media.) Are they about to go out of business? Did their last developer/designer quit for unknown reasons (probably because they never paid them)?

3) Not a dick.

Well, I hope you can figure this one out for yourself. But a few specific things: do they respect your professional opinion? Are they condescending? For designers: are they constantly complaining that it needs something “extra” without being able to voice what that is? (They’re allowed to do this once or twice, but if it’s constant, good luck.)

So, here’s my advice: have a phone call or Skype chat. See if what they say raises the red flags above. If they do, proceed with caution or don’t proceed at all.

If you’re thinking of embarking on a large, long-term project with a client, test the waters first. Make sure they pay a deposit. Try working on a smaller piece of the project together (that they agree to pay for), to get a sense of their working style.

It’s a relationship. You want to build a good one.


Clients can literally be anyone. I’m currently making a website for an author that I met 2 years ago at a random party. Another is a referral from a college friend. Another is a referral from an old client. I work 2 days a week at an agency, which an existing client put me in touch with.

I started off in college. I started telling friends I was a web designer, and would attend startup events and introduce myself as a freelance designer. That’s how I got my first few projects, which then spawned referrals, etc. It wasn’t extraordinarily systematic, but it worked. It helps state what you confidently, as a statement: “I am a freelance designer.” Do not say, “I wish I were a freelance designer.” Or, “I’m trying to be a freelance designer.” You are. Be.

You can find clients online as well, but the lowest hanging fruit will be personal connections. Avoid sites like Elance or 99designs. You’re competing against people willing to work for peanuts. In the case of 99designs, you’re doing work on spec (not guaranteed payment). That violates Rule #1 of the 3 Rules for money. Skip the headache, unless you just want to practice. For developer jobs, I asked my freelance developer/startup founder friend Ian for advice:

i got initial gigs because i’d been building my own product so i had something cool out in the world to point to. i think this is the single best way to get clients. have something that you – not you and a giant team of people, you – conceived of and built. when people see it (provided it looks good and works) they’ll want to hire you.

at the beginning of every month someone will make a  SEEKING FREELANCER / SEEKING WORK post on hacker news. look for these and add a brief comment with your background and skill set. if you write clearly and concisely and hit the buzz words people will seek you out. I get anywhere from 3 to 10 leads from each of these. most are gigs i don’t end up taking, but the ones i have taken have been great clients. i would avoid any general freelancing sites (like elance) because the clients there will be pretty low quality. you work at a pretty high visibility startup so you shouldn’t have a problem. other than using hacker news, let some people in your tech network know that you’re available. people are constantly being asked “know any good developers?” – so, you can become an answer to that question.

So let’s recap:

  1. Let your friends, family, coworkers, and random people you run into know what you do for a living.
  2. State what you do confidently. It’s extremely helpful to have something online you can point to. (You don’t even need a portfolio at this point, honestly. I didn’t have one for 3 months when I started, during which I signed up 5 clients.)
  3. Do some self-promotion in online communities, only when relevant. Make sure your work is visible online, and don’t be shy about putting it out in front of others. Link to your portfolio or projects on social networks, including Facebook and Twitter.

It doesn’t sound so hard. And really, it isn’t – things like client management and pricing were bigger sources of angst than finding clients. Finally, here’s my final insight: good-bad

A boring project with a good client beats an interesting project with a bad client. A bad client – one who refuses to pay you, insults you, haggles you on price endlessly, and doesn’t respect your professional opinion – makes your job not worth doing. A bad client fails to meet at least 2 of the “perfect client” attributes. Don’t take these jobs, no matter how cool they sound. You will be miserable, and worse, you might not even get paid.

Next up: Step 6, Don’t Get Screwed.

How to Freelance and Travel the World: Part 1

Several friends have asked me for advice on freelancing. Since I’ve been at this for two years (!), I thought it’d be fun and helpful to write up a blog post.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from psychology class? I thought it was strangely appropriate to use it as inspiration for this post – except inverted. Because you gotta self-actualize first. Let’s start there.

I even made some graphics to go along with this post!



Actualization #1:

Whether you’re looking to do this full-time, or just make some money on the side, the most important step is defining what you want out of freelancing.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to travel, so I had two requirements: no full-time gigs, and I had to be able to work remotely. I said no to everything that didn’t fit that requirement (including job offers). One of my friends freelances to bootstrap his startup, so he limits his freelance work to 15 hours a week, working remotely.

Work backwards. Start at the end, then figure out how you’re going to get there. Start off with what you happy and successful means to you, no matter how mundane and obvious it sounds. Once you have that in hand, use that to filter for clients and make your constraints clear to them (“I can spend up to 15 hours a week on this project”).

Great. You’re already 20 steps ahead!

Actualization #2:

Clients don’t pay you for a website. They’re paying you to build something that will generate leads, market their product, or sell a service. It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty of what you offer, but clients rarely care about technical intricacies – they care more that you deliver a product that achieves their goals.

In fact, if you’re worried about not being a “rockstar” developer/designer, here’s a dirty little secret: it doesn’t matter. Clients care equally, if not more, that you’re pleasant to work with, trustworthy, and deliver things when you say you will. Competence will get you very far.


When I talk to people about freelancing, their first concern is finding business. If you’re a designer and/or developer, particularly one living in a startup hub, the world is your oyster. Freelancing isn’t scary because you have to find clients, but because you have to chart your own path.

There aren’t performance reviews, bonuses, or promotions. There are no ladders to climb, and no benchmarks except your own. If your goal is to make $3k/month working 5 days a month, and you hit it – congratulations, you’ve been successful. Figuring out what’s next is up to you.

You need to be self-motivated and self-directed. That includes your social life. There isn’t the easy camaraderie and built-in social life of an office environment, and you’ll be working alone a lot. Plus, People Just Won’t Understand What the Hell You’re Doing. They’ll ask you, what’s next? a lot. Acquaintances won’t give you the respectful nod at cocktail parties that comes with names like “McKinsey” or “Google”. (Personally, I never enjoyed being judged by the institutions I was affiliated with.) If you’re the kind of person who craves social affirmation, this isn’t the right gig for you. You’ll get respect, too — it’ll just be a different kind, and from different people. And you’ll hear a lot of, “I wish I could do that,” to which you’ll reply, “You probably can.”

And it’ll be awesome. But sometimes clients will try to stiff you, or things will go pear-shaped. But things would go wrong in a traditional job, too – and besides, gotta fail forward.


Remember that time you waited an hour in line for a free Benny and Jerry’s ice cream cone? Yeah. Time to reevaluate.

As a freelancer, time – not money – is your most valuable resource. Let me elaborate.

MONEY: A salaried employee gets the same paycheck, regardless of how much they’ve actually done. If they take afternoon naps, they’re still getting paid. On the flip side, if they have to stay late and finish up a report, they’re not getting paid more.

As a freelancer, you won’t get paid if you aren’t working. But if you line up work and get it done efficiently, you can make multiples of what you would make in a salaried position.

TIME: Employees can’t just decide they’re going to work really hard for 2 months, take a month off, then come back. If they need Friday off to go to a best friend’s wedding, they need to ask permission first.

As a freelancer, you don’t need to ask anyone for permission. In fact, if you set your business up to serve your needs, you will only take on clients that respect your constraints (whether that be working remotely, responsiveness, or length of contract). Moreover, you can work really hard for 2 months then take a month off – if that’s what you want to do.

All of this has completely changed my view of the relationship between time and money. Waiting an hour in line for a free ice cream cone… a really dumb idea.


There’s a popular venn diagram in the service business that looks like this:


Here’s the trick to freelancing: forget about cheap. Don’t promise cheap. Cheap is a trap. It gets you cost-sensitive clients who view your work as a commodity. Price acts as a signal and a filter: I am worth this rate, and I will only work with people who are serious and respect my time. As demands on your time grow, your rate should go up accordingly.

Here are the other rules to freelancing:


Don’t work for free.*

Get money upfront.

Don’t compete on price.

(If you work for free, do it without strings attached, because you want to. Don’t do “I’ll do this for free now because they said they’ll have money in the future”. I have not heard of this working.)

Developers charge around $50-200 (most that I know run $100-150) per hour. Several I’ve talked to have day rates of $800-1000. I know fewer designers, but somewhere in the $30-100 range seems about standard. Start off with what feels comfortable, and experiment with raising your rates as you gain experience and build your portfolio.

Read Part 2: Why Freelancing is like Polyamorous Dating here.

How to Make Apple Pie For the First Time

When I do something for the first time, I usually do a bit of research to make sure I’m doing it right. My first foray in pie-making – hell, baking in general – was great because I realized that baking isn’t some scary, landmine-ridden challenge. Somehow, people build it up to be a lot more intimidating than it actually is.

Making a pie is fairly involved (a lot of letting things chill in the fridge), but if you follow a few basic tricks and rules of thumb, the end product ends up totally agreeable. The most important is to keep the butter and/or shortening cold, and to not overwork the dough. This is to preserve those little lumps of fat streaked throughout, which will melt in the oven and result in that coveted tender/flaky pie crust.

I left California earlier this week, and am cooking in my friend’s mom’s kitchen out in the ‘burbs of Buffalo, NY. It is a somewhat improbable place to go on my year off, but has done wonders for skills cooking American classics (my friend Nick is wary of Asian dishes) and maintaining my San Francisco time difference. I just took a pie out of the oven at 2:30am and am blogging this at 3:15 am.

I had dinner at Nick’s friend’s house tonight. She served us a lovely California Cabernet and beef bourguignon over egg white noodles with freshly baked popovers. Her mother was a whippersnapper of an 81 year old who still ran her own business and gave many tips on baking the perfect pie.

I used a vodka pie crust recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, using a pastry cutter rather than a food processor. (Check out their new blog, America’s Test Kitchen Feed!) I precooked the filling (recipe) based on the pie expert’s advice, since the apples were a bit tart, but wished I had cooked them a few minutes less. I threw in brown sugar and extra cinnamon, just because. The filling ended up very soft while the crust browned too fast on top and remained a tad undercooked.

Still, I’m pretty proud of the finished product. The kitchen smells delicious, my friend Jason gave it his programmer’s grunt of approval from behind his setup of monitors, and it’s not bad for Pie Numero Uno.

How to Be Your Own Tiger Mother

I never saw myself as a Harvard type. “You have a duty to go to art school,” my high school art teacher told me sophomore year, holding my pen and watercolor sketches in one hand. It was delivered with the same weight as “thou shalt not kill.”

The shock from his comment warmed me. I went home that day and started researching art schools: FIT, Parsons, Pratt, RISD. What bothered me was their breezy academic requirements. After all, I’d been getting straight A’s since elementary school – would they even care?

I was really trying to ask: am I too smart to be an artist?


Then, I saw my future as a dichotomy. Either I’d end up fingerpainting in a rented cardboard box, or weeping myself to sleep as a doctor-banker-lawyer. Even worse, this mental prison was entirely self-imposed.

I’m a first generation immigrant, but my parents are not the Amy Chua type. I told my father recently that I was foregoing full-time employment in favor of traveling for a year. He was cool with it. Similarly, when I agonized over the stray A-, my mother told me I was being too hard on myself. Their endless support and forgiveness is, in many cases, unwarranted.

External judgement came instead from a classmate. I find it hilarious that TV shows show jocks and cheerleaders as the tormentors. A ditzy cheerleader would never lean over and comment to a classmate that my Physics midterm grade “wasn’t very good,” or that my hard-won 85 on a brutal AP Chemistry test was unacceptable. The worst were the arguments in front of mutual friends, where I had to fend for myself. High school breeds peculiar bullies: so perfect they seem self-manifested.


My parents never issued a curfew. This was because I rarely left my room. Sometimes I wondered if I was mildly autistic during my teen years. Social interactions were confusing and infrequent; while other people trolled the local mall on Friday nights, I would design websites, write novels, or update my Livejournal.

Being totally clueless had its advantages. I was free to whatever I wanted, after all, no one cared. Somehow, I ended up writing articles for the local paper. I had never conducted an interview before, but it was in journalism that I lost my fear of cold calling strangers with no idea what to say.

It was an exciting but lonely endeavor. I liked talking to drug dealers, doctors, and marginalized teens. I was writing a piece about local teens using drugs when an English teacher pressured me to not make the school look bad. I continued reporting in college, where prominent academics berated me, a movie star flirted with me, and the House of Blues kicked me out after a tense conversation.

It can be isolating to believe that no one cares, but I found it be my most useful piece of rhetoric. It’s how I conquered my fear of talking to strangers, of entering a beauty pageant, of a million social failures. No one cares. Your real friends get over it. When I become too deeply engrained in something that I lose that naivete, I’ll make some major change to bring it back.

I love the stories and experiences I’ve collected as a result. The ex-con in a New Haven bus stop who opined on racism in jail. Walden Pond in the dark. Eating dinner with locals in Pudong, and the stew of beef bones that made my stomach churn later.


Still considering art school, I went on a college tour junior year of high school. The Harvard student guide was a tall, spindly blond named Ben. As we walked through Memorial Hall’s yawning corridor – where I’d arrive late to Ec10 three years later – he complained that high schoolers were now on Facebook. Of course, I resolved to friend him. I listened to the admissions spiel, feeling chills course through my body. Maybe it was the steady drumbeat of sunshine outside, the stained glasses casting fractal rainbows, or the creme-de-la-creme culture. Suddenly, I had something to aspire to.

My family and I were staying at friend’s house in the suburbs. I drank cup after cup of tea at dinner and couldn’t fall asleep. My SAT scores raced through my brain. My search had narrowed from a universe of college picks – from South University Tampa to Stanford –  to the tunnel vision of just one.

For better or worse, when I want something, I pursue it with the ferocity and grace of a high-speed bulldozer.

My unvarnished ambition is not a particularly feminine trait, which I was reminded of when I heard through the grapevine that an acquaintance remarked, “I hear she gets what she wants.”

I was upset. “Would he say that if I were a guy?” I asked my friend, not sure what it meant.


I ended up getting into Harvard. It was December 15th, a data I had circled, then tore out in my calendar to represent a nuclear bomb crater. It was just in time, since my soul had already been tractored from reading too many posts on the College Confidential forum by neurotic overachieving applicants. After a week of joy, I promptly fell into a tailspin, decided I wanted to go to Brown instead, and passed through senior spring like a hospice patient. The bully delivered a quickly forgotten speech at graduation; I fidgeted with my robe and felt no nostalgia.

I ran into the art teacher again before I graduated. We chatted about college, and he said something offhand about remembering I was a decent artist.

Remembering his near-religious conviction two years prior – and how it’d nearly ended changed the course of my life – the remark felt like a blade revealing nothing in a balloon but stale air.


A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said something really interesting. “I realized,” he said over Thai food, “that it’s not about picking the most creative field. It’s about being the most creative one in your field.”

Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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