The first lesson I learned as a freelancer was to have a contract in place. It took me a while to learn this, and also learn how to draft a decent freelancing contract - one that makes the client happy knowing they are dealing with a professional, and one that protects me as the freelancer.
Below are seven tips (as well as a few bonuses) I’ve gathered over the years that have helped me create better contracts.
(And please note, I am not a lawyer, so if needed, seek out the guidance of a legal professional).
1. Be Specific
When you are creating your contract, be as specific as possible.
Elements may seem obvious to you, or you may think that they are mutually understood, but that is where conflicts occur.
When I am writing up my contracts, I include exactly what I will be creating for the client. I also try to outline specific deliverables. For instance, instead of saying, “I’ll create a website design for you,” I specify, “I will deliver a website mockup of your homepage, blog page, and content page, delivered in both Photoshop and PNG files.”
Also, when doing design or development work, I always specify how many free revisions are included. In general, I include 1-3 free revisions, depending on the size of the project. I then specify either a standard rate for additional revisions or state that additional revisions will be a separate project with a separate contract.
2. Define Your Scope Of Work
This goes hand in hand with number 1, but it’s important to include a clause that will prevent scope creep.
Scope creep is essentially when a client asks you to do additional work that seems small, and you do it for free. But then they start asking for more and more.
"Scope creep is a nasty little bugger who seems innocent at first but grows into a monster fast. Imagine a client who pays on time and appreciates your work. It’s the perfect client, right? Eventually the Scope Creep will start saying things like, "Hey, we were going through the work and realized that this will be even more awesome if XYZ was added to it. Can you include that too?" You say, "Sure, it won’t take long, I’ll just quickly add that in." And that’s how it begins.”
No one likes scope creep.
To prevent it, make sure you define your scope of work (that’s why it’s important to be as specific as possible when describing what you will do).
Beyond that, I will also define what is NOT included. When I do development work, I will include a clause saying that the contract does not include such things as content creation, graphic design, hosting, etc.
I will also include a separate scope creep clause that specifies any items that are not defined in this contract can be done, but will have to be created under as a separate project with its contract.
Scope creep is a nasty little bugger who seems innocent at first but grows into a monster fast. @samarowais
3. Make Your Rates/Prices Clear
I create a separate section in all my contracts that outlines how my rates and prices work for the particular project.
If there are multiple stages, I will define prices for each stage.
I will also clearly define what the total cost of the project will be.
Now, when I do define my rates, depending on the type of project, I will either do a flat project fee, do an hourly rate, or do a combo of the two.
Doing a combo of the two is my favorite. It works as a range.
"Project Red won’t take less than X hours and no more than Y.’ The X is for your security – you’ll get paid for these hours even if you finish early. The Y is for your client’s security. He won’t have to pay for more than Y no matter how long it takes for you to finish the job.”
Whatever you do decide to charge though, make it obvious to the client what they will be paying at the end of the job.
4. Create A Payment Schedule and Define How You Get Paid
Once a client agrees to pay you, they need to know how and when to pay you.
I used to use a 50% upon contract signing, 50% upon project delivery.
I’ve since moved to a 25% up front, 75% when project is completed, whether or not client launches it (since I’ve finished the project on time and should be paid).
I’ve heard of other payment schedules where different payments are made in stages throughout a project.
Find what works best for you.
Then include in your contract how you want your client to pay you. Will you send an invoice through PayPal? Will you send an invoice and take credit card payments? Or will you take checks?
5. Specify Deadlines
No one likes a project that carries on forever. Not the freelancer or the client.
So it’s important to specify what is due when.
As the freelancer, you should specify when the client can expect certain milestones. In my contracts, I like to specify how many weeks it will take for a first draft to be ready, approximately how many weeks revisions will take, and how long it will take to make the project live.
Now, deadlines aren’t only for you as the freelancer. Imagine you finish building a site but are waiting on the client for content. You could be waiting for a long time. You move on to a new project, and then the client sends you the content and wants it up the next day. But you are busy working on the next project.
Stressful, and awkward situation.
Instead, specify deadlines for your client. Let them know when you need certain elements from them, such as content, or hosting credentials. And have a clause that specifies what will happen if you don’t receive them in time. I usually specify that the project will be delayed. Some freelancers will continue with the project even if they haven’t received the content. Some will even launch a website with placeholder images.
As with all elements here, just be sure the client knows what happens if the miss a deadline.
6. What Happens If The Project Is Canceled
This has happened a few times to me.
I’ll be working on a project, get half way through and the client decides they want to go with a different platform.
I’ve also heard of designers who will create a logo, and then the client decides they don’t want the logo anymore and fires the designer.
No matter the cause of prematurely ending a project, you want to specify what will happen in case this does happen.
Most of the time, I specify that I will be paid 50% of the project fee.
If I am invoicing in stages, I will specify that payment must be made up to and including the current stage.
7. Keep It Simple
We’ve all seen those long contracts when purchasing a car. No one wants to read them. And in fact, most people are scared of them.
Don’t try to write a long contract with a lot of legal mumbo jumbo. (If you do want some basic legalize, check out the Contract Killer in the Bonus section below)
Instead, think of your contract as a simple agreement between you and your client. It doesn’t need to be complex. It can be written in plain English.
I look at contracts not as a way for me to go to court with me client if things go wrong, but instead as a way for us to write down what we’ve agreed to.
Bonus: Resources To Help Write Better Contracts
1. Contract Killer
This simple text document is a great starting point: https://gist.github.com/malarkey/4031110
Bidsketch helps you write templated contracts so you can quickly create new contracts without having to rewrite them each time. It also tracks contracts and allows your clients to electronically sign them.
Two other contract tools I plan to try out and have heard good things about:
If you are interested in learning more about freelancing contracts, I recommend these two articles: