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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.


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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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