When Clients and Freelancers Collide


I just recently read this article posted by  on Launch A Startup. It was really a veiled sells pitch for Launch A Startup’s services. (Not that I’m demonizing Soriano. The article was well written.) In a nutshell, it craps all over competitors oDesk and eLance. It describes a world where lazy clients look for good-enough freelancers on the cheap. In turn, uninspired freelancers low-ball for jobs and provide both crummy job proposals and uninspiring work. Both sides pray nothing goes awry and are never truly satisfied with the end result. Sounds like a train wreck, huh? (In fact don’t just take my word for it, read the article.)  But Jay is also describing the possibilities of offline freelancing. I’ve been there and done that. I’ve seen the movie several times. So have many green-horns just cutting their teeth as freelancers in the graphic arts world. It happens.

There are many books that provide some guidance for beginners, as well as colleges and universities that provided career guidance to budding graduates. Not everyone takes advantage of them. Regardless, starting a new freelancing career isn’t easy. Just planning out how you’ll conduct your new business can feel overwhelming. How much should you charge for a certain job? Fishing for clients can seem hopeless. How do you effectively market yourself? Then there’s how you’re perceived by perspective clients. The more you think about it, the scarier it gets. Should I form a business entity? That’s why I like websites like oDesk and eLance. It helps take the guesswork out of getting started and attracting work.

A contractor and client butting-heads As of writing, my latest run as a freelancer has been done using oDesk’s services exclusively. Yeah, I’ve run into more than my share of flakes. Over all, I’ve had a good run on oDesk. The clients I’ve actually worked with have been great. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with people from all over the English-speaking world. (I want to note that oDesk does allow clients and contractors from non-English speaking countries. But the site is geared towards Americans. Given the fact that the website is in English, it also attracts folks from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) 

In the distant past, I’ve worked as an hourly “professional” in a small-time graphic design firm here in San Antonio. My experiences as an hourly graphic designer are often reflected in my current run as a freelancer on oDesk. I run into the same situations and have the same worries from job-to-job. Allow me to walk you through the many issues one can experience:


The Client Side of the Fence

Unless he/she/it is extremely organized (or has previous experience in your field of expertise) and has taken the time to consider exactly “what” they need, want, or desire, many clients unfortunately only have a vague idea as to what they’re requesting of the freelancer. So he/she will post an extremely vague job description, with as little detail as possible. I’ve even seen job postings that come off as if he/she were stoned while posting it. Thankfully, that hasn’t been the norm, but I avoid those as a matter of policy.

A lot of clients only have a vague idea of what they want. He/she hasn’t clearly visualize the end result they’re looking for. That can mean writing at job descriptions that don’t tell the contractor much. They’re suppose to just “figure it out.” We contractors have to ask our clients questions in order to nail down exactly what they need.  Some clients don’t seem to appreciate the fact that we take the time to ask questions. Not that the client is being awful, stupid, or disrespectful. He/she’s is just doing a disservice to themselves. Everybody is “busy”, but to me it makes no sense to just dump the entire burden and responsibility on the freelancer.

On freelancing sites, there are plenty of clients that are soon-to-be-millionars who are using sites like oDesk and eLance to find foreign talent for dirt-cheap. They are often subscribers to some guru’s “get rich quick” website, and are using strategies to make lots of money with google ads, ebooks, etc. These people are purposefully targeting freelancers in “developing nations” such as Pakistan, India, and the Philippines, where an US Dollar has a lot more value. There are horror stories online about contractors going this route. But ultimately the value that the client believes he/she will receive will outweigh any potential hazards.

This is a nice transition to the reckless client that’s been “burned” by freelancers. I use the term “reckless” because 9 out of 10 times, this type of contractor has set himself up for failure right from the start. Similar to the client that’s looking for cheap foreign help, the burned client is seeking a “good-deal” with large amount of value. When jobs blow up in their faces enough times, a chip begins to build on their shoulder. Every contractor is now suspect. You can see the sediment in their job postings like a bright neon sign screaming “DANGER!” in big red letters. Yeah, they resent using freelance sites to get certain jobs done,  but they feel as if they have no choice.


The Freelancer Side of the Fence

Outside of Facebook and LinkedIn, freelancers seem to be few and far between off-line. (I haven’t met very many freelancers off-line since college.) I’ve done my share of trolling around and consuming other freelancer’s comments, complaints, etc. I’ll try my best to speculate. If any freelancers are anything like me, they are very self-conscious, especially of their work. He/she constantly compares their work to others, and always conclude that their work is sub-pare to everyone else. Having the nerve to actually sell yourself and your work to other people brings fears of major screw-ups, becoming overwhelm, and/or looking like a fraud.

The oDesks and eLances of the world seem to provide boundless opportunities, but with a nice, cozy shield to defend yourself from having to talk with or face actual people. Much like your Facebook friends. Yet a spiral of fear still grips the young freelancer. What do I charge? Will I ever get a job? Will the job I get work out?

Dealing with real clients seems scary at first. What if this person’s a flake, unreasonable, or leaves me out in the cold without every paying for what I’ve done? Having to endure a possibly difficult client does not spawn warm-fuzzies. Yeah, you’ll live, but we all have to realize that potentially difficult people are apart of life.

This very much meshes with my experiences meeting with clients for the old graphic design firm I worked for. Adjectives the clients use like “big”, “short”, and “lots” rarely have the same meaning as to what is assumed by the freelancer. In my case, I had to learn to ask questions that helped me determine what the client meant by “colorful”. As stupid as this sounds, time is still money. If I or my boss misinterpreted a client’s request, that meant making lots of corrections or worse yet, doing the whole job over. This wasted time could had been better spent on laying out other jobs.

Websites like oDesk and eLance are great places to find work without the hassle and expense of starting and promoting a business. But a lot of clients are only willing to pay a pittens.  You’ll see ridiculous payments as low as $5 to $10 USD. Few of them are for anything simple. It seems like a race to the bottom. You can’t make a living off B.S. like that! Or do you have to?


Tips to Make Life Smoother

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, I want you to know that I have good news. All of the issues that I’ve brought up can be addressed to your benefit. That’s right, I have solutions that you can apply today. Plus, I’m not even going to sell you an ebook or pricey course.


Tips for Clients

  • If you “know” what you want, but can’t even describe what you want, don’t assume that your contractor’s going to be lucky enough to make you something awesome. Take the time to consider the goals for your project, and what it will look like. Does it need to have a certain style? What colors will it use? Will it be similar to your other promotional material? What other details does your freelancer need to know? If necessary, use Google’s image search to find examples of what you want. (Keep in mind these examples will be your contractor’s references which will be used to aid in putting together the project. I don’t need to lecture you about copyright infringement.) This is your project. Take some time out of your day to plan it out.
  • If you’re not sure if a certain aspect of a job can be accomplished or how it can be done, ask your freelancer. He/she should know or know how to figure it out.
  • Personally speaking, I hate postings that go something like, “don’t half-@$$ it…” You have every right to be cynical and angry. But if I sense a potentially hostile client, I’m going to assume you’ll take all your frustrations out on me. I don’t freelance to be somebody’s whipping-boy. (I had to put up with that shit as a fail real estate wholesaler.) That means I’ll blow your ass off no matter how much money’s on the table. The moral to this story is to be professional. Be an adult and keep your issues off-line. Not everyone is out to rip you off. Freelance websites have specific policies that purposely protect clients and their money. You’re in less danger of loosing money than the freelancer.
  • If you choose to go on the cheap and hire third-world help without having to live through one of those “horror-stories” of jobs going to pot, learn the best tactics with dealing with those contractors. There are plenty of books, articles, and courses that will be of benefit to you. Every country’s different, and I’m pretty sure that there are little cultural differences, if you pick up on, that will go a long way towards make the job go smoothly.


Tips for Freelancers

  • Never assume you know exactly what the client wants. Always ask questions. For example, “What do you mean by big?” The more questions you ask, the more likely you’ll nail down exactly what the client is looking for.
  • Paraphrasing self-help guru Steve Chandler, people are more likely to respect someone with a strong (I didn’t say high) price than a contractor that offers a low-ball price. In a retail example, think of a purse from Wal-Mart and a purse from Armani Exchange. Wal-Mart’s purse will be far cheaper every time, but which purse will you assume has more value? Freelancing doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom. Jobs priced at $5 to $20 USD aren’t targeting you. Don’t jump on them just because you need the money. The price you charge needs to make sense to you. If you’re charge by the hour, charge what you think you’re worth. Don’t charge what you think will get you the job.
  • Apply or accept jobs that make sense to you. Better yet, accept jobs you know you can accomplish and bring value to. Your reputation’s on the line.
  • If you have to “court” a client, most likely you won’t win that job. In my experience, the jobs that turn into actual work take very little time to get going. Whenever I’ve had to waste time “courting” a client, I’ve never gotten accepted for the job. Don’t waste your time.
  • Actively avoid hostile clients. You don’t need the stress. If a client turns hostile on you for seemingly no reason, maintain your professionalism while looking for an emergency exit. I’m not asking you as a freelancer to turn into a flake, but don’t waste any more time or energy than you have to.
  • A strong description reflects a great client. I love clients that know exactly what they want. These are the people who are the easiest to work with, and will have no issues answering your questions. A great client is your partner in a job. Potential clients that post descriptions that are either vague or look like they were drunk while posting, will more than likely be more difficult to work with. These will be people who will dump the entire responsibility on your shoulders and get upset when the you don’t produce what they want. Always look for good descriptions.


Only You Can Decide

In the end, your experiences using freelance websites are determined by you. You either set yourself up for success or for failure. Don’t be afraid to take the time necessary to set yourself up for success. I know I haven’t covered every situation you may run into, but as either a client looking to work with great contractors or a contractor seeking great clients to work for, what’s covered in this posting is a good start towards a smarter, smoother experience. Now go out there and make some damn money!


Side Note:

If you wish to contract Chris Hilbig’s graphic services, you may be able to hire him through oDesk’s website. View his profile here.



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