The guide was written by Devon Campbell, a Thinkful Frontend & Python alum. Having significant experience from launching a freelancing business and understanding its challenges, he provides an invaluable perspective for clients.
If you’re a freelancer looking for your first clients, you might like our “Become A Freelancer” course.
You know where you want to end up, but you don’t know how to get there. That’s one of the reasons you’re hiring an expert. Before you start a project, you’ll need to create a project brief.
Start by clearly defining your problem. Everything else follows from this. Then, define a solution. Wireframes, detailed descriptions of the way your customers will interact with the project, maybe even some detailed mockups of how it will look. If you hire a good freelancer, they’re going to have some input. It may be that a couple of details from your original plan are a bit misguided, or it could be that the expected implementation is likely to fail. Embrace this sort of feedback. This freelancer wants to find the best solution rather than just taking your money.
Write A Project Brief
Take some time within your organization to fully define the problems you’re facing that have lead to this project.
Answer these questions: What is the problem? Why is this project being pursued right now? What are the possible solutions we have considered? What is the budget? (See "Set Your Budget" activity) When do we need it done? What are the effects of these problems on our bottom line? How much does it cost to live with these problems?
Warning: Project briefs can run the gamut from extremely vague to incredibly specific. Most of the spectrum is fine as long as you stay away from both extremes.
There are two types of freelancers: those who want to swing a hammer versus those who want to understand if the hammer is the right tool for the job. If you know exactly what you want and how you want it done, you’ll need the first type. If you don’t have a good idea how to solve the problem, you want the second type. Even if you think you know the solution, you can be pleasantly surprised by the insights of a veteran freelancer.
You can find both types from the resources provided below, although some lean more toward one than the other.
If you’re browsing job boards and notice freelancers are required to provide an hourly rate, you’re looking at hammer swingers. Freelancers who think in terms of results aren’t concerned about the time it takes since they understand that you are more interested in a result than a number of hours of effort. The way they price their services reflects these priorities. The experienced freelancer may be harder to find, but they are worth the effort.
Elance/oDesk/Freelancer.com If you’ve done any research into hiring a freelancer, you’re aware of the 800-pound gorillas of freelance marketplaces. These are great resources as you’ll find tons of freelancers from all over the world with a wide range of skills. The marketplaces are very hands-off and depend on the community to police itself by way of reviews. You’ll also notice many more overseas freelancers on these boards. Although they work at a fraction of the cost, the additional communication overhead may not be worth it.
Authentic Jobs You need to pay to post your job here, but that comes with its perks. This marketplace has fewer jobs which means yours will stand out more. Freelancers understand the jobs are less likely to fall through since those listing them had to put down money to do so. You’ll get more experienced freelancers here because they know the value of this policy.
Gun.io Like Authentic Jobs, Gun.io has relatively few project listings when compared to Elance and oDesk. It also puts a small hurdle in place for freelancers requiring them to write a sample proposal before they become approved to propose for jobs. You’ll get higher quality freelancers as a result.
TopTal TopTal puts freelancers through a series of stringent tests to evaluate their skills as a developer. Everyone you’ll find here is top-shelf talent. If you need a senior freelancer, this is a great source.
Reddit: /r/forhire The barrier to post on /r/forhire is extremely low. If you want to get a job posted quickly, this is the place for you. The freelancers here tend to want well-defined projects, but you’ll also find freelancers who can help you find solutions to your problems.
Local communities If you can find where freelancers congregate locally, this can be an excellent source of help, particularly if you have need for someone to be on location. Local freelancers can be found in meetup groups, chambers of commerce, business networking groups, and groups that provide support to entrepreneurs. Ask other business owners who they’ve used.
Start Writing Your Ad from the Freelancer’s Perspective
Try this on for size: If you’re going to write an ad for a job board like Gun.io, fight against your instinct to write a paragraph or bulleted list that tells potential applicants what you need. Instead, start the ad by telling what you will offer to the freelancer.
Look at this the way you would look at marketing any other product or service:
- What are the advantages the freelancer will enjoy by working with me that may be unique? Does it pay especially well? Do you have tons of time to complete this project?
- What are the disadvantages of working on this project and how might I mitigate or address those? For example, maybe your organization is complex with many stakeholders in this project, but you have assigned someone internally to act as a single point-of-contact with the freelancer.
- Can I prove that I am easy to work with by providing a testimonial from a previous contractor? I’ve never seen anyone do this when posting a job, so you could seriously stand out if you did.
Complete this exercise and make it the first part of your ad. This will get your posting more attention and give you an edge over others in the marketplace. If you tweet at @thinkful, we’d be happy to give feedback.
Freelance rates are all over the place. I talked to a startup recently who has been quoted between $9,000 and $750,000 for the same project. How can you even begin to evaluate what is reasonable? This confusion is confounded by the fact that freelancers have different pricing paradigms: some price based on their effort while others anchor their pricing to a projected result from the project.
In some cases, you’ll want someone who prices on effort. If you already have a project going and need some additional help or if you don’t want to entertain any other ideas and solutions for your problem, this is the kind of freelancer you’ll need. Web developer rates in the US generally range from about $40/hour up to $300+/hour.
Freelancers who use the value-based pricing paradigm generally cost more, but they can take away some risk by showing you what has worked in the past for other clients dealing with similar problems. They’ll be eager to make suggestions about what parts of your solution won’t work or what alternate solution would work better. Pricing will be anchored to the projected value of the outcome.
You’ll receive a proposal or an estimate from freelancers bidding for your project. Estimates are often simple lists of fees, but proposals are more involved. They often include:
A restatement of the problem as the freelancer understands it
A proposed solution for the problem
Fees and timelines
Be sure you ask about any other costs associated with the project that are not on the proposal. The freelancer may require certain expenses to be covered by the client. You want to avoid the unexpected shock of something like a recurring hosting fee.
Before you go any further, you need to have a good idea of your budget for this project. Most freelancers will ask you before they quote the project. This number will inform the solution the freelancer proposes.
Set Your Budget
It’s time to make the budget. Call a meeting or several meetings. Bring in all the stakeholders and decide, before you start shopping for a freelancer, how much this project would be worth to your business. Think about the ideal outcome, how much that outcome would bring to the business, and use that number as a basis for the budget for this project. Your project brief will help you here.
To be sure you can work well together, select a specific part of the overall project and give them that first. If the project can’t be divided, maybe find another small task you need done and let them have a go at that. Some people even invent a project they don’t need done just to make sure the freelancer will work out.
Whatever you do, don’t ask your freelancer to do speculative work or complete a project for free with the promise of more work later. It’s disrespectful of the freelancer’s time. If you can’t afford to test the freelancer with a project and if the freelancer’s portfolio and references are not giving you confidence, it’s best to move on.
As mentioned previously, meeting in some capacity — be it online through Skype or Google Hangouts or in person — will help you figure out if you can work with this person. If you can’t get along, it’s better to know before you start a working relationship. A small project will help you determine if this person is the right fit for the longer-term project. When planning your test project, you can use the same guidelines provided in the "Defining Your Project" section.
Pro-tip Make sure you draw the line between needing someone on location and wanting someone on location. If you’re hiring a contractor for construction, you need someone on-site. If you’re hiring a web developer, you don’t. David Heinemeier Hannson, founder of Basecamp and creator of the popular Rails framework, says that, although it’s important to enjoy the company of co-workers in person, "[face-time is] far less important as a tool of getting things done."
Congratulations! You’ve hired a freelancer. Working with them can be jarring if you’ve worked only with employees. Instead of being the boss, you’re a client. You’re still setting the expectations for what the freelancer should accomplish, much as you would for an employee, but the logistics of working with a freelancer are slightly different.
Pro-tip If you want to micromanage, you need an employee. According to the IRS, you change the nature of the relationship if you dictate how the work is done. You may only define the outcome of the job, not how the outcome is achieved. If you want or need that level of control, you’re better off hiring an employee from the get-go.
Payment terms can vary wildly based on a number of factors. Most projects will begin with a deposit of 50% of the total. Smaller projects may require full payment up-front. Extremely large projects may require a smaller percentage for the deposit.
Other freelancers may charge for days or weeks of their time and require payment of a certain number of those to be made up-front. You’ll find nearly as many fee paradigms as you’ll find freelancers to come up with them!
If your freelancer charges a fixed project price, you’ll often pay the remainder at the end of the project. If it’s a long-term project that takes place over a few months, you may have payments at specific milestones. Your developer may divide the project into parts and require a payment after each part is completed, or they may simply divide the total estimated timeframe for the project and require regular payments until the end.
You should hear something from your freelancer at least weekly while work is being done on the project. Here’s why: communicating is extremely difficult. As the client, you will do the best you can to convey at the beginning exactly what you want to your freelancer. Some of it won’t come out the way you envisioned it.
Sometimes, this will be because you didn’t explain it properly. Sometimes, it will be a simple mistake on the part of your freelancer. Other times, something between the two. Every time, it will be easier to fix if your freelancer is talking to you and showing you their work at shorter intervals. Work often builds upon previous work. What happens when the last three months of work was built on something that wasn’t quite what you wanted? It’s more expensive for your freelancer to keep in touch all the time, but it’s cheaper than revising months of work at every check-in.
Every freelancer might have a different preference for communication. I deliver my clients a weekly video that shows off my progress and explains my decisions. I also share access to my project management software (Asana) with the client so they can see as I’m completing tasks. I use email and the phone, although I prefer the other methods.
Be sure to ask how your freelancer intends to keep in touch and how often you should hear from them before you sign the contract. Make sure this works well with your style. Maybe you want to be extremely hands-off and don’t mind seeing only the finished project at the end.
Contracts can be scary. They are often distinct documents, but they may sometimes be incorporated into the freelancer’s proposal. My contract is based on the Contract Killer which is a sample contract for freelancers. Read through this to get an idea of what you might see in a contract. It’s written in plain language, so it’s easy to see what the freelancer is trying to do here.
A freelancer wants to accomplish a few basic things with a contract.
Establish what the freelancer will build for the client
Establish what materials the client may be asked to provide to the freelancer
Tell the client what they will own at the end of the transaction
Set the amount of money to change hands and when it will do so
Look for the project scope or a statement of work in the freelance contract. This should detail exactly what work the freelancer will complete. In some hourly paid arrangements, this may not be applicable. You may instead assign the freelancer tasks and pay for the number of hours devoted to them. For fixed-price projects, this is essential.
The freelancer may note in the contract what they expect you to provide. Make sure you understand this and are willing to cooperate. If the freelancer doesn’t get needed resources, the project may get jeopardized.
Pay careful attention to what you are actually getting, particularly if you are buying designs or any kind of software (web development, mobile apps, etc.) Are you buying a license to use the end product or the product itself? Weigh this against what you actually need. Most clients are inclined to demand the entire product in every case even when a license is all they need and is much cheaper. If you want to own the result in full, expect to pay more for it.
Pro-Tip If you haven’t already, form a relationship with a lawyer. Once you have a contract from a freelancer, it would be a good idea to have a lawyer take a look at it just to be sure you understand its full implications.
If you’re not sure where to look for a lawyer, talk to other people who run businesses or check with local entities who support businesses and entrepreneurs like the local Chamber of Commerce.
The invoice should tell you exactly how much you owe and when it’s due. It might also suggest specific payment methods. Most digital workers email invoices out now. This means you’ll get them quickly and it will be easier to pay, but they’re also subject to the pitfalls of email in general like false-positive identification as spam. Be aware of that if you haven’t gotten an invoice you expected to receive.
Here’s a sample invoice generated from Freshbooks, my preferred invoicing solution. Each freelancer will have their own solution in place for invoicing. Some who don’t need accounting built-in use a more light-weight solution like Invoiceable.
Email invoices usually have a link that allows immediate credit card payments. Online payment gateways like PayPal and Stripe are common because of their convenience to both freelancer and client. Most freelancers also accept checks.
Sometimes, freelancers might charge penalties for late payments or offer a discount for early payment. It’s great practice to pay on-time or communicate when you can’t pay by the deadline. You’d be surprised how far this simple gesture can go.
Next, it’s important to understand all the responsibilities you’ll have as you’re working with freelancers.
Just because you’re paying the bills doesn’t mean your responsibility ends there. Especially if you’ve chosen a freelancer who communicates frequently (which is probably best), you’ll need to provide a few things to ensure the project keeps moving properly.
Feedback on progress
Content to fill the site (unless that’s part of the service you’re paying for)
As a client, if you consistently fail to fulfill your responsibilities, your reputation will suffer. Some freelance marketplaces provide feedback forums where freelancers will document your transgressions. If you’re working locally, you’ll be surprised how fast word about bad clients can travel.
Feedback doesn’t need to be elaborate. A simple, "stay the course," is far better than nothing at all. Don’t discount the value of push-back from your freelancer, though. They want to use their expertise to help make your project more valuable.
A good freelancer will try to guide your feedback. Before you give feedback, make sure you understand the scope of the feedback you’re being asked for. It’s hard to ignore any part of what you’re receiving from your freelancer, but, at the same time, if you get a photo of a drawing on a dry erase board, it’s probably not especially useful to comment that you wish it were another color besides white.
Your freelancer shouldn’t be finishing everything before you see any of it. That means you’re going to be seeing lots of bits the freelancer probably hasn’t even considered yet. Save your feedback on those until after they’ve been considered. You may find your concerns have already been addressed by the time that piece is complete.
Focus Your Feedback Here’s an easy way to do this. First, write out all your feedback. Then, look at the feedback request from the freelancer to see what feedback is needed right now. Take any feedback you have that isn’t about one of those areas and set it aside. You may still need to give that feedback later. Deliver the remaining feedback to the freelancer.
Revisit these saved feedback items each time you’re asked for feedback to see if any of it applies on this pass. Once you get to the final pass, air any grievances that weren’t addressed in the interim.
If your freelancer wasn’t clear on which parts they need feedback for, just ask.
If you’re building a web site, it’s going to need text, images, videos, and other assets. Unless you’re paying the freelancer to come up with the content too, you’ll need to be sure they get it when they need it. A website isn’t just a bucket you pour content into. The content will inform what your freelancer is going to build. You let this responsibility go at your own peril. The end result will suffer for it, and so will your freelancer!
Package Your Branding
One of the most common pieces of content you’ll have freelancers requesting is your branding assets. This includes names, logos, and slogans that set your business apart from others. You might have several different permutations of your logo for different contexts or maybe you have brands within the overall brand that each have their own assets. If you’re really serious, you may want to develop branding guidelines that tell exactly how your assets should be used.
Pull all of this together now before you need it to make things move a little quicker when the time comes that you do need it.
I’ve mentioned payment at almost every turn throughout this guide, but it bears repeating here as it is probably the most important responsibility. If the freelancer can’t get paid, they can’t keep doing what they love. If they can’t get paid predictably and on-time, it can cause all sorts of problems with their business. Quality freelancers will not work with you if you can’t pay on-time leaving you with fewer options next time you want to bring in outside help on a project.
Armed with the how to hire, how to work with, and what your responsibilities are to your freelancer, you’re as prepared as you’ll ever be to hire one. You still don’t know everything, but, truth is, none of us do. Working with people is as varied and unpredictable as anything you’re ever likely to do. Even if you’ve been freelancing or hiring freelancers for years, you’re still running up against new challenges that keep you on your toes.
You’ll have to try it for yourself to learn the rest. Your experiences will be unique and will shape the wisdom you take away from the bargaining table and into the next freelancer you hire. You’re now better off than you were before reading this, but the rest is up to you!
Here’s a collection of tools and samples that I’ve found valuable during my freelancing experience. If you’d like to recommend another, just tweet @thinkful.
Breaking the Time Barrier book- If you want to get some insight into how value-based pricing works from the freelancers perspective, this is a great jumping off point.
Contract Killer sample contract- As mentioned in the guide, this is the contract template I use. It uses plain language and gives you an idea what you might expect from a web design/development contract.
Outsource Expert: Find Great Freelancers for your Projects course- This Udemy course gives you a process for hiring freelancers for projects. It’s heavily focused on the effort-based pricing paradigm but has some great tips nonetheless.
Independent contractor tax info- You will need to issue a tax form to contractors you paid over $600 in a single year. The IRS has the forms and more detailed info.
Example job ad- This ad does a great job of thinking about what the freelancer wants first. They still tell you what they want, but they put the perks right up front.