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3 things you need to know before you start a freelance project

Improve your project experience before it even starts.

Mat Vogels
January 5, 2016

We’ve all been there. Working on a project you undercharged for, that’s now 3 weeks overdue, for a client who’s demanding more than you originally agreed to.

Unfortunately, it’s 100% your fault.


Sorry, but it’s true. Because you can avoid projects like that by asking the right questions early on — or better yet, before the project starts.

Paul Jarvis breaks the process down into 3 steps:

  1. Setting expectations with your client
  2. Discussing these expectations
  3. Contractually agreeing on them (so they don’t come back to bite you)

Now, sometimes projects like this are simply unavoidable, even with strong contracts and guidelines in place.

But by following the steps outlined below, you can eliminate the vast majority of them before they hurt you.

1. What are the project deliverables?

Before you even consider taking on a project, you need to know what it’s all about. Is it a website? A logo? An entire marketing strategy? You need to ask your client what they want.

I like to to list out each deliverable we discuss in an extremely straightforward manner, like so:

Deliverables for this project:


  • 1 mobile-friendly/responsive page with 4 to 6 sections of content
  • 1 signup form that will add submitted emails to MailChimp
  • 1 content editor

MailChimp account

  • 1 MailChimp account
  • 1 campaign
  • 1 list
  • Integrate with website to add new submissions to the list

Be as detailed as you possibly can with this list. Why? Because when the client asks you to “add a popup modal to allow users to subscribe to my newsletter,” you can respond, “This wasn’t included in the original proposal (see attached proposal with details). But I am happy to discuss adding this as an additional piece of the project.”

Be 100% certain that both you and your client fully understand and agree to the project’s scope before you move on to any of the details below.

2. What’s the timeline?

It’s incredibly easy for projects to creep beyond their original deadlines. My rule of thumb here is to simply double the time you think it’ll take to complete something (on your end), and set hard deadlines for your client throughout the process as well.

For example, when I’m building a website, I’ll give my clients deadlines for providing feedback. So I’ll set myself a deadline for finishing a first draft of the site, then give my client 48 hours to let me know what they think.

In my contracts (which may be more aggressive than most), I define penalties for missed deadlines, usually double my daily rate for each day the client delays the process.

This works both ways — I subtract the same amount when I miss a deadline too.

But to make this all work, you need to set a strict calendar, and agree on the due dates for each stage of the project.

3. What’s the budget?

This is where you really need to stand your ground. I know: easier said than done. So many freelancers undervalue their work, but fully understanding the monetary scope of the project is one of the most important details to square away — if not the most important.

At this point, you should know both:

  1. The scope of work (what you’ll build)
  2. The timeline that it’s getting done in

That’s all you need to put together a proper proposal for the client.

Now, you can ask your client, “What’s your budget?” But this is often just a waste of everyone’s time. Clients will typically suggest a lower number, presenting you with the difficult task of convincing them to spend more.

Instead, know exactly what you want to charge for a project of this size, and throw out an amount you feel comfortable with. And don’t budge. This value should be more than a number you pull out of a hat — it’s the actual value of the product you’re offering.

You don’t go into a movie theatre and say, “Hmmm. I don’t like that amount. I’m going to pay half that.” They’d ask you to leave. If your clients try it, you should do the same.

After all, you’re only as valuable as you say you are. If you waver on that value, you’re also wavering on your belief in yourself.

5. Zestful

Zestful helps companies book fun, unique, and local group activities available through their platform. You might expect a site like theirs to scream FUN! Well they don’t disappoint. Their upbeat vibe supports their mission to help teams socialize outside the office without the usual headache that comes with event planning.

6. Petal

Petal is a younger company, but they stand out because design pervades the focus and direction of their marketing. Even their product (a new, no-fees credit card) features a stunning and unique design. Their website follows suit — it’s a breath of fresh air — with beautiful colors, generous whitespace, and clear, concise copy.

‍Petal’s website supports their mission of providing easy credit access by making credit feel simple, approachable, and maybe a bit fun too.

7. BankMobile

BankMobile’s website makes banking look hip and modern, as hard as that might sound. With bold colors, clearly presented information and a consistent feel throughout the site, we especially appreciate the unique horizontal scrolling section they use to walk through the UI on their mobile app.

8. Bonsai

Freelancers are constantly on the lookout for new tools and products to make managing their business easier — Bonsai focuses on checking as many of those boxes as possible with tools that range from invoicing and payments to proposals and contracts. With so many features in their platform, their marketing site needs to effectively explain and differentiate how their products can help freelancers. A dedicated page for each one does just that.

‍Bonsai provides detailed product overviews with dedicated landing pages for all of their major features.

Bonsai gets bonus points for creating an impressive resource hub for freelancers. They share survey data about rates, best tools for freelancers, and the top places to find new work.

‍Bonus points for great, useful content for their freelance audience.

9. AltSchool

As an education partner, AltSchool has an important story and mission that underpins their work. Their website does a great job sharing their story with photography, copy, and a consistently communicated mission: to enable all children to reach their potential.

AltSchool uses photography and to bring their mission as educators to the fore.‍copy

Ready to build a business site of your own but not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered. Check out our full business site rebuild course on Webflow University.

Did we miss any standouts? Let us know in the comments!

Mat Vogels

Mat is a web creator and evangelist at Webflow. Follow me at @matvogels.

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