June 9, 2009

Freelance Series: The Paperwork

Finally, the paperwork. The often times dreaded and often overlooked yet very crucial part of being in business for yourself. It is something that you will definitely come to appreciate when it saves you from losing your rear end two months into working on your own but until then it is more likely to fall into the category of I’ll get to it when I need it.

Don’t let it happen, breakdown your ground rules, your legalities and how you are going to bid each project before you ever need to write that first bid, proposal or contract. Figure out how you are going to gather (and sometimes pry) the important information from a client that will help you establish goals and develop scope for the project. Research your particular industry, find out what to watch how for, how to protect yourself and how to bid correctly.

Note: The next article in this series will cover working with your client to understand and develop goals, vision and desired results.

Then prepare to keep revising because just when you think you have it all covered a client will through you a curveball. As with everything in business you will need to constantly adapt, refine and figure out your best route when it comes to the paperwork.

This is by no means to be read as the final word in developing your own paperwork but as a guide to help the relatively new and inexperienced freelancer. It is a article written based of research and a lot of my own experience. I highly recommend research as many other sources as possible, this is an important aspect of your business and a critical one to your success. Attached to the end of this article you will find a short list of resources that should provide you with and excellent starting point.

Let’s get started.

Research & Ask Questions

One of the keys to developing a successful proposal and project for that matter is figuring out what the project is all about. As mentioned above, figure out the goals, the basic and the finer elements of the project. Find out why this project is being put together. Learn something about who you are working with.

Be Critical

My lack of the finer details in paperwork has bit me in the rear more than once. I would venture to say that I have spent countless unbilled hours doing things that where not necessarily “included in the price” but due to the fine line and my lack of detail I found myself having to suck it up. Establish your project guidelines, responsibilities and timeline in writing. Let the client know what is and what is not included in the package as well as letting them know what will constitute additional man hours. I feel like the more detail I put into the paperwork the better for both of us.

Be Realistic

Be realistic in terms of both time and money. Be honest with yourself and your client when you provide timelines for the project given the scope. When you first start it may be tricky to gage exactly how long a given task is going to take you but you more than likely have some idea and you damn sure did your research. You may feel a bit of pressure from the client to provide them a two week timeline when you know that it is going to take at least four, don’t succumb to the pressure it will save you both a lot of undue stress in the end. Be realistic and explain to them why it is necessary we take four and not two weeks to do this right.

On the flip side of that. If the project requires a rush then set your pricing accordingly. Sure it is possibly but it may mean outsourcing as well as overtime for you.

Key Points

Scope Through research and interaction with the client you should formulate what exactly the project is going to entail. What the goals are, what the client wishes to achieve etc. I’m not sure that it is necessary to be detailed down to the pixel in determining scope but I am sure that more detail provides less leeway for the project to sprout a third and fourth leg while it is in progress.

That is not to say that the project is not aloud to grow a third and fourth leg but it should be clearly defined in your paperwork that when that the third and fourth leg will require nurturing and thus more time. It will also require more vitamins and thus more money. Define additions, changes etc and how you will approach them. Always require that a client submit these type of changes in writing, make them aware of how these changes or additions affect the cost and timeline, then get approval before proceeding.

Don’t tell the client they can’t change their mind or add another section once the project is in progress but be sure to let them know that how it will affect the original contract, pricing and timeline.

Timeline & Milestones Define your timeline. Each project has a start date and and end date defined, put it down in writing. In between the start and end date should be project milestones. Dependent on the length of the project it could be 2 or 20. Set the milestones and let them know what each milestone means. This will give you the opportunity to set up review periods. It will also give you the chance to establish very clearly when deliverable a will arrive.

Review Periods Closely related and in fact a part of the topic above is the subject of review periods. I personally like to set review periods to coinside with milestones. Normally and I am sure this will depend on the number of decision makers involved in the project, I like to set review periods of three days at each milestone. One after the brunt of the wireframing and design has been completed. On midway as the majority of the strucuture is in place and one final review. It is good to note here that the number of milestones and possible review periods may increase or decrease depending on the size of the project. The review period in question for me is the second or halfway point. I have found this one to once in a while cause uneeded headaches if done to early in the development phase.

Changes and Revisions
Clearly define how changes and revisions will be handled in this project. You may allow for revisions in the initial design phase, let your client know how many. Let them know how revisions to the project will be charged. Make them aware that changes can result in an extension of the timeline. When you come to one of these changes, clearly define how it will effect the project and be sure to get approval before moving forward.

Responsibilities Discuss with your client and define responsibilities. Be sure that your client understands that delays in the delivery of certain aspects of the project such as content can in turn delay the project as a whole.

Examples of possible client responsibilities:

  1. Logo
  2. Copy
  3. Images

Client responsibilities don’t always fall into the realm of deliverables such as the few listed above. It is also their responsibility to provide feedback and use review periods appropriately to keep the project on track. As I mentioned above this is why I schedule a certain number of days into each project for review. A few days at a time seems to be more than enough when you are dealing with single business owners or a small team such as partners. As you through more decision makers into the mix you will need to account for the extra time it may take for review.

To Sign or Not to Sign
It’s a good question. For a long time I went on a their word and mine. For the most part I never ran into a huge problem with this, however I also started to see where putting it in writing and requiring a signature could be beneficial so I started requiring a sign off before proceeding with the project. I personally have found echo sign to work very well for this requirement.

A few excellent resources to get started:

There are plenty more of them out there, please feel free to add your resources below.