The Client Wishes Only For Your Death: Terrible Advice from a Freelancing Insider

I’m sitting here, a pint sized Hoyo de Monterrey balanced on this ancient keyboard, and things are turning squirrely. There’s a solid length now between me and the days of pawing over a feed reader, each post a possible morsel of sustenance, each headline some terrible missile aimed for my guts. I don’t write about the freelancing stuff anymore because I don’t want to, it’s a small part of my day-to-day under this new administration, and I hate that game even more than I hate the technicolor grime that appears behind the toilet whenever we get too splashy in the tub. I should pop a pill or two when this gray fog comes in, the thoughts of being a freelance creative and answering to the colorless masses. A quick computerized count tells me I penned over eighty thousand words about freelancing back when this weird sideshow used to be about the stuff—a book’s worth of words—and if such a thing were ever published, I’ll be sure to stick a bar of soap in my pocket and head west. Let’s talk about this. Let’s get therapeutic, and focus on our power animal. Let me share a little of what I learned. It’s time to pretend I know what I’m talking about, as I’m listening to rap music, and I’m in a fucky mood.

I hate the freelance game, I hate it. I look down on it from the clouds now, so my dreams go, a vile, atavistic lifestyle fit for everyone else, something I’ve mastered about as well as I’ve mastered touching my brain with my thumb. There are plenty of words out there telling you things learned by freelancers out in the field, hard road knowledge and what-not, stuff aimed to help you through it all. Thoughtless nonsense, all of it, as far as my world went. It’s all a bunch of stuff aimed for the successful, leaving the rest of us waiting for the checks in the mail and a Flickr gallery full of places with wood floors—places where there are no worries, and the coffee is fancy. So, here’s my quick stack of paragraphs, my 1/30th thesis, a few things that’ve been fisted into my life back during my six or so years of freelancing. I got out though, and on purpose. Hopefully these two thousand or so words will aim the shotgun slowly away from your mouth, and back at the watermelons in your neighbor’s gazebo you’ve been trying for all morning.

I’ve danced around the super hip folks before, those internet celebrity creative types, the ones we keep reading articles about. It’s a strange incestuous cabal, a few hundred jackals who all aim their Google calendars for whatever conference is up next, giving talks and keynote addresses to themselves, a few hundred name-tags that never change. They take turns, each one getting up there with the gray sweater and the white sneakers, talking about how to control your clientele and which productivity software is the flavor of the week. Don’t listen to everything they say. The articles are a good hash of information, it’s all well enough to keep your skills sharp and help us all point the future of the web headed straight and up, but it’s barely potable. Don’t, however, fall for how they tell you things work. Now’s the part where we wonder how jaded I’ve become, if I’m just some wild and mad former JPG jockey, angry and due for his medicine. The answer is: yes, much, very. I did, however, make a semi-successful go at this stuff in the olden days. The house, the cars, and even a new pair of shoes that one time, all funded by my mercenary creative work I’d do on loan to whomever wanted to take credit for my gradients.

They’ve pulled the veil down and nailed it to the floor, tight, so we never see Oz and his microphone. Every day the blog-roll of how to be a successful freelancer piles in, buckets and buckets of wishful thinking and misguided intentions—and I’m as guilty as any. The lot of us, the 99% (to borrow that, just for now) made our money by tap dancing for nickels and thanking the local real estate agent that hired us for the privilege. We aren’t pulling only one or two big projects a year, we aren’t able to tell our clients much of anything, and we are at the mercy of whatever work we’ve pulled for the month to keep us in Netflix and pizza rolls. Stop “teaching” us how to fire a bad client, and exactly what to “demand” in order to get the best design we possibly can—we already know all of your buffoonery! You’ve heard me extoll Merlin Mann more than once (hell, there’s an article about him in my first book), but if I followed every scatterbrained and hard to follow chunk of advice he threw out there, with his impossible to follow references and inside humor, I’d be client-less and up to my beard in goddamn text editors.

You’re going to learn things the hard way. All of the articles and online resources aren’t going to help you when you’re stuck on the phone, in hour number two, trying to coerce a client out of some appalling affront to humanity. Creative work and advertising in general holds a special distinction among the way our civilization moves product forward. The work is easy, so goes the rationale, they just need someone who knows how to operate the machinery. Are you a writer? No, you’re a first draft machine, someone whom the client needs to just make everything “gel,” and spell check their misguided holiday card featuring their own children in black-face. Are you a designer? No, and to borrow my new favorite phrase, you’re a Photoshop puppet. You’re there because you know how to work the software, the client knows exactly how they want to arrange their staff over that huge mascot-driven logo. Instead of a mast-head, you’ve got what looks like their CFO molesting a pegasus. Do you work in video? No, you’re there to press record and after your fifth edit, work in, “This really cool idea,” someone’s sister had in a dream. Don’t worry, that simple “talking head” company film works better with a midi symphony and shooting stars. There’s a reason the “knowledge workers” always wear t-shirts and look strung out on Ativan.

So there’s the articles, the journals, the tutorials, and all that wonderful sludge we choke down just to keep in time with the music. For the moment, I’ll be your grizzled uncle, the unshaven one, and I’m going to pull you into the shed and teach you how to drink a beer, shove a rolled up porno magazine into your windbreaker, and pretend to not see you crying. Here are ten quick things I learned in two thousand and something-something days as a full time freelancer:

1.) Clients will never pay on time. They’ll either pay all up front or a little early, all nervous, or trying to make a show of things, or they’ll pay late. You’re going to send several emails, make several phone calls, and plan out several Manchurian Candidate-type scenarios to get your scratch. I’ve sent certified letters before and used threatening language, but the rub of the thing is that most of the payments you-the-regular-working-creative are going after, aren’t worth what it’ll cost you in legal fees. Facebook stalking and signing their email up for deplorable scat porn are all you’ve got left.

2.) Use a contract, every time. If a client balks at a contract, balk at the client, since you’ll never see your money anyway. I had a client drink himself to death once, and I had no contract. It wasn’t a lot of work, but this dumb-ass had me racked with anxiety over how many fonts he wanted to use, and a color palette that probably required bourbon to see anyway. I’m still debating going after his widow for two hundred and fifty dollars.

3.) The scope will always creep, count on it. In your contracts, the word “scope” should always be followed by “creep” and then followed by the words “You’re going to do this, I just know it, you bastard,” followed by dollar signs and a little skull you’ve drawn by hand. I used to hold no less than four meetings with a signed client before putting a single pixel onto the canvas, and without fail, logos were made bigger, headers were made smaller, and the question, “How hard would it be to do X?” had me considering suicide by police.

4.) Never deliver a single fucking thing until you’re palms are all greasy and you can pay that mortgage. You can work language about late-fees into your contracts, and final delivery dates, and all that wonderful slush about when you’re supposed to get paid, but the reality is you hold only one card: the product. Don’t send over those files or your final draft of anything, hold onto the finished product like you’ve just pulled it from a Toys R’ Us and put a gun to its ear.

5.) You know all that advice about setting your own work day? Not checking email or answering the phone after a certain hour? Bullshittery. If you want to keep those clients happy, get paid before your next birthday, and have enough money to take your wife out for McDonald’s every other month, you’ll be a slave to your cell phone, and you’ll wear whatever skimpy outfit it tells you to.

6.) One of my favorite pieces of useless financial advice is, “Be sure to have at least six months worth of bills in the bank, just in case.” Nobody has this. They never tell you how to get that money, other than, “save it,” which is about as helpful as expecting a financial windfall by sticking my big toe in the peanut butter and trying to speak Norwegian. Freelancing comes with certain advantages, surely, but you’re living paycheck to paycheck just like everyone else with an addiction to painkillers and a stash of cloth diapers.

7.) Residual income isn’t happening unless you work part time at the liquor store. Here’s a quick test to see if you can launch a fun little web application and have it make some money for you. Question #1: Do you have a large and exploitable web audience? Question #2: Has Leo Laporte given you a career? Question #3: Did that auto insurance scam work out like you’d planned? If you answered “no” to the previous questions, then get back to work, that Milwaukee’s Best isn’t shelving itself.

8.) Forget an office space away from home. Office space requires this thing called money, and that thing called money needs to be in your pockets at regular and reliable intervals, and you’re a freelancer, so that’s never. Dozens of blog articles will recommend office space as an easy step in the evolution of your freelancing business, but dozens of blog articles didn’t develop stomach problems and medical bills. You could work out of your home office and close the door if things get too “busy” in the home, or you could rent an office space and piss away a few hundred dollars that could’ve gone toward your children’s clothing or back rent. Don’t have a home office with a door? Buy a hoodie and a pair of headphones, it’s called “making due.”

9.) I’m a firm believer in the Inbox Zero philosophy, and I practice it on the daily, but I also no longer freelance to make a living. Keeping your email inbox organized and empty is easy enough, but if you think you’ll only be checking your email at scheduled intervals during the day, I’ve got a little cottage on the moon to sell you, great view, washer and dryer included. Every client is certain that they are your only focus, and many of them are legitimately busy themselves. Know that contract you sent out in the morning? The client wants his copy back, immediately, not when you’re done sipping green tea and finishing up your yoga class.

10.) Remember, the famous web-celebrity freelancers may work in a pure white room with only a table, a Macbook Pro, and a cup of coffee, but you work in the laundry room, because that’s where there was space for a folding chair. Not everyone’s freelancing lifestyle was conceived in a Steve Jobs acid trip. You’re not going to head out to lunch every day with a big group of freelancing friends, enjoy some sushi, then lazily work on a big public project that’ll wind up on Smashing Magazine when it’s complete. You’ve got business cards to make, shitty logos to try to work with, proposals to write, and job boards to slave over. This is how it’s done in the real world, and in the real world we’ve got boxed macaroni and sleep apnea.

I did the freelancing thing for several years, and surprisingly, I made it work, sort of. The task isn’t impossible, and the rewards are there for the taking if you’ve go the stomach for the ride—which I didn’t—but be ready for the hard reality of things. I tipped my hat and strolled back out through the bar doors because the game beat me, it won, over, bloodied. I was staying afloat financially, had steady(ish) work, and was filling up the old portfolio, but the stress started to melt away my insides, this never ending batch of anxiety festering away and keeping me on medications meant for retirees. Either you’re built for freelancing or you’re not, and I’m not, and it only took six anniversaries to come to that conclusion. It’s always good to trust your guts—especially when they’re trying to put you in the emergency room. Good luck out there.



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