Essential Habits Of An Effective Professional Freelancer

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There’s very little to stop anyone becoming a freelancer. In a highly competitive and, in most places, saturated market, you need to make sure your reputation as a freelancer is well-managed and continues to grow. It’s very possible to get a good reputation without being the best in the world, and it’s even easier to lose that reputation. In this article, we’ll explore 15 habits that are essential in helping freelancers effectively safeguard and grow their reputation, and we’ll also discuss how to make freelancing work for you. The habits are split into 3 sections:

  • Marketing
  • Business and time
  • Specific business areas

Marketing and Relationships

1. The Presentation Habit

Your website should be at the centre of your marketing strategy. It’s where people go to see who you are, what you’re about, whether you know what you’re talking about and what work you have done. It’s your silent 24/7 salesman, and it needs to be right. Fortunately, what your website needs is straightforward:

  • Well-presented work with a good description of the roles you played
  • A brief history of who you are and why you’re where you are
  • Contact details that are easily accessible
  • Content that is continually tweaked, added to, and updated

Other than that, you can go wherever you want with your own website — and so you should. Personality is key. Some great examples:

Screenshot of Elliot Jay Stocks website1
Elliot Jay Stocks carries a very clear message on his site

Screenshot of Ian Coyle website2
Ian Coyle goes for pure simplicity

Screenshot of Jason Santa Maria website3
Jason Santa Maria goes the whole hog with a new design for each post — a lot of work but he stands out from the crowd as a result

2. The Networking Habit

Logos of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter

They say that within 6 degrees of separation, everyone knows everyone. So you need to make sure that everyone within your 1st degree (i.e. people you know), know exactly what you do. It needs to be exact as well. If you’re a developer you don’t want people saying you’re a website designer, and so on. Your current network of friends, family, and associates are your free word-of-mouth marketing – so get them talking about you right now.

Once this is done, your network needs to be extended and enhanced. Register with any social networking platforms that can work for you — LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Within those places, start getting into the right circles. On LinkedIn you may join some appropriate discussion groups that are either local or skill based. On Twitter you may start tweeting and including appropriate hashtags so more people can see your tweet on that subject.

There are many ways to network and connect with people, so it’s crucial that a freelancer not be afraid to talk to people and share information and contacts. Learn the networking habit and get yourself known.

3. The Niching Habit

Dart on targetFreelancers can get into the habit of not only finding their niche, but creating niches. A niche in this case is an area in your overall field of work in which you particularly specialise. If you’ve become very good at creating websites for golf courses, for example, then that’s a great niche.

The reasons having a niche is valuable are simple: It’s easier to become an expert in a niche. It’s easier to sell to other prospects within that niche as they can see what you have done before. As an expert in that niche you can charge a premium for your depth of knowledge.

The key to this habit is to proactively build your own niches. Seek out profitable areas in which you can work and concentrate on building niches.

4. The Pricing Habit

MoneyHow you price your projects can easily be the difference between winning and not winning some work. Your pricing needs to be transparent at all times and should be agreed upon up front. Things go wrong when hidden costs appear later on. Clients like to know how much they’re paying, when they’re going to pay it, and what they’re paying for. So make it clear from the start.

Second part of the pricing habit — protect yourself. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in winning a project that you forgot some simple rules. If you have never worked with a client before, ask for a small percentage of the fee before you do any work. At this early stage, you won’t know whether they will pay! Reduce your bad debt by either only working for clients you trust or having some remuneration first.

Third part of the pricing habit — be flexible. Make sure you find a way to make the commercial deal a win-win for both parties. This could be:

  • Monthly payments (regular cash flow over the course of the project)
  • Payment when you hit certain project milestones (e.g. project performance)
  • Deposit and balance on completion (best avoided for cash flow reasons)
  • Possible exchange of services

5. The Growth Habit

It’s been claimed that it costs seven times as much in resources to acquire a new client than it does to grow an existing one. So the growth habit is about proactively looking at your clients in detail so you can discover new ways to help them.

One practical way to do this is to cross reference. Write all your services across the top of an excel sheet, then put your clients down the left hand column. Now place an X in the box where a service you have done matches a client. The boxes without X’s are potential growth opportunities and should all be explored before spending too much energy trying to acquire new clients.

Business and Time

This section is less screenshot, more serious business.

6. The time management habit

Screenshot of Google Calendar

Lacking good habits in time management could cause you to over-committing yourself at certain times, which could lead to:

  • Missing a deadline and disappointing a client
  • Producing sloppy or inaccurate work
  • Causing yourself stress because of the pressure to get everything done

The solution to this is an effective planning mechanism. Estimate how long the work will take you, then add a buffer to your estimation. This will ensure that, if it does take longer, it won’t eat into other projects. A 50% buffer works well. That may sound like a lot, but if you go over by 25% and then there are additional client emendations, you’ll need it. Once you have the total time allocation, add it to your diary. Now, here’s the crucial part: Do not move it, shrink it, or change it in any way. If you have to do something urgent that will interfere with that scheduled work, make sure the time is reallocated elsewhere.

A simple calendar application like Google calendar4 or Outlook can help you plan your time as a freelancer. If you struggle with where all that time goes and want to get serious about making improvements in time management, something like Rescue Time5 can really help.

7. The Flexibility Habit

Flexible keyboardBeing flexible, responsive, and effective at what you do will allow you to handle unexpected situations, such as when a client contacts you with urgent needs and expects you to help. Having set aside time in advance for such urgent situations will ensure that you earn a reputation as a flexible worker.

What happens if nothing comes up to fill that pre-allocated time? Well you might finish that other project early and can add something special. What happens if the whole day is taken up by urgent project? No problem, you had already planned this might happen, so you won’t let anyone down.

Of course you’re not going to be able to foresee everything, but a certain level of flexibility will allow you to please your clients and be relatively free of stress because of time constraints.

8. The Honesty Habit

Agencies will not use you again if you let a client down, and your chance of repeat work is slim to none. In the same way, you should not over commit your time, but stay within your capabilities. We all need to stretch ourselves on new projects and learn new techniques and practices — that’s not what this is about. This is about promising to do a task in a specified time when, in actuality, you don’t have any idea whether it’s feasible or not. Above all else, people appreciate honesty. You’re better off being honest about whether you can handle a project rather than taking the risk of letting them down.

So how can you grow your skills and help your clients? By being honest and asking some good questions:

  • “I don’t think this project is right for me. I don’t have much experience in [insert technology here]“
  • “I can really help you with the [insert service here] part of this project, but I know another freelancer who can help with it. Would you be happy if I managed the project for you but outsourced this other work?”
  • “I’ll need more information before I know how long this project will take. Would you mind if I spent a couple of hours doing some research so I can give you an accurate timescale?”

9. The Over-Delivery Habit

Do not deliver your projects early. Sound strange? It’s not. If you deliver early, there’s a possibility the client will think you overcharged, and may expect part of his payment to be returned. They might also expect future work to be completed ahead of schedule, which may set a bad precedent.

Instead, use the extra time to focus on whizz-bang elements — those extra bits of polish and creativity that will gain you the reputation you deserve and let you grow. For a designer this might mean spending time adding nice touches to your graphics; for a developer, it could mean more time to implement a cool piece of JavaScript to replace the plain functionality you originally settled for. The “over-deliver” will earn you a solid reputation, whereas finishing early could get you into trouble.

10. The Business Advice Habit

Although as a freelancer you’re skilled at what you do, don’t assume you’ll be able to do your accounts and bookkeeping, fill in tax returns, produce an invoice or write a proposal all by yourself.

Seek regular advice from respected professionals to help you with these aspects of running your business. This might include speaking with people who run their own operations and understand the ins and outs better than you do. Learn as much as possible from their experiences and mistakes.

Specific Business Areas

What’s out there to help you run your business and what areas do you need to focus on? In this section, we’ll discuss some applications that have earned reputations for helping freelancers do their jobs and be more professional.

11. The Email Habit

Email is toxic. As a freelancer you can easily become what’s commonly known as a busy fool. You might spend a significant part of your day just sending and receiving email without ever getting any work done. Instead, be in the habit of controlling email, and not letting it control you.

To do this you need to:

  • Turn off all the little reminders, message counts, and other indicators that may catch your eye
  • Configure your email client to run a “send and receive” at longer intervals, maybe as little as once per hour
  • Set aside blocks of time in the day to deal with all email, then switch it off; if something is urgent, people will use the phone
  • Use the ‘touch it once’ philosophy; fully read and deal with every email you open, instead of half-reading some and coming back to them later

12. The Project Management Habit

Some clients will want you to fit in with their processes, while others will not enforce this. You need to have very clear processes for how you start working with a client and start a new project. What questions do you ask a new client? Where do you store the information they tell you? How do you keep track of how close the deadline is? Where do you store all the files they send you?

Email is not sufficient for this! Things will get lost, forgotten or overlooked. You might prefer cardboard folders or ring binders or whatever works for you — but use something and stick to your own system. There are applications like Basecamp6 and activeCollab7 that can help with this.

Screenshot of Basecamp8
Basecamp is used by many to manage their projects at low cost

Screenshot of ActiveCollab9
activeCollab is a source code editable alternative to Basecamp

13. The Research & Development Habit

Sounds like a big company thing to do but R&D is essential to a good freelance operation. You need to be ahead of the curve or at the very least on it to be servicing your clients most effectively. Be in the habit of investing time for research and development. Expand your current skills and learn new ones.

Never designed a billboard before? That’s development.

Don’t know which email marketing system might help your clients? That’s research.
(Campaign Monitor10 and MailChimp11 are good options).

Set aside time every week to do R&D. Build up a list of blogs that feed you new thinking and new ideas. Listen to informative podcasts (Boagworld12 is a good one).

14. The Sales and CRM Habit

How can you allocate your time and resources and figure out whether or not you need to be hunting for new work or concentrating on servicing current clients? You should know at any given time what your work pipeline looks like, how likely is it all to materialize, and at roughly what value.

There are various applications out there to help, such as Salesforce13, SugarCRM (open source edition)14, as well as 37signals’ popular Highrise15.

Screenshot of Highrise16
Highrise is used by many to manage their sales and leads at low cost

15. The Accounts Habit

Making sure you have any easy way to produce, send, and track invoices is essential, as is getting into the habit of running your accounts professionally, because such habits will ensure regular cash flow. Applications like Blinksale17, Freshbooks18 or Simply Invoices19 can help formalise the accounts side of your business and give a good professional feel to how you operate. Clients will need invoices for their accounts — make sure they’re not hand written or unbranded.

Screenshot of Blinksale20
Blinksale can help you create, send, and track professional invoices

Further Resources

  • Freelance UK21
    Host of articles to help freelancers.
  • BestWebGallery22
    Inspiration for those times of creative block.
  • Elance23
    A place to get freelance work – referral work is better though!

About the author

Rob Smith is the digital director of Blueleaf24 – helping clients with their digital needs from their website to email marketing to analytics. He also writes in his own blog on digital media and ecommerce25

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Rob Smith is the strategy director at Blueleaf, an award winning digital agency near Chester that specialises in creating superb sites for top brands such as Red Bull, Laura Ashley and Co-operative Energy.

  1. 1

    wow rob, thanks for that article! thats exactly what im lookin for, sure it will help =) thx

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  2. 2

    very important!

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  3. 3

    Carl - Web Courses Bangkok

    December 21, 2009 9:20 am

    A nice post and it is always good to have habbits that benefit your career.

    I would also add that staying up to date is also a good habit, make sure you know what is going on in the industry and if there are any new nifty tools to make your job easier. For example Dropbox has made our life so much easier with a way of centralising all our content.

    Thanks again SM

    C

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  4. 5

    Nice post! THUMBS UP!

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  5. 6

    Certainly one of the better articles on freelancing. Thanks!

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  6. 8

    This is a very thorough post for freelancers. Thank you for the suggestions for applications for time management, invoicing and more. I’m in the process of looking for a workable system for my business.

    I found point #9 – the over delivery habit – very interesting. I often try to do this, particularly with new clients, but you make a good argument against it.

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  7. 9

    I think #9 is a really important that I hadn’t really heard an argument for before. Thanks for including it. It was like a little light bulb going off.

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  8. 10

    This is absolutely wonderful, a very thoughtful and helpful post for freelancers. Especially the “not delivering early” a lot of freelancers learn that the hard way!

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  9. 11

    This was a very helpful article. Thank you for taking the time and covering each point thoroughly.

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  10. 12

    Excellent and very well-written article. It is an article that every freelancer should read. I really like the advice that you gave, and how you broke it down into different sections for easy referencing and reading.

    Thank you for writing this article. I know for a fact that a lot of research must have been done in preparing this.

    I would like to add “The Backup Habit.” All designers and developers should be backing up online and offline files. If something bad happened, like a harddrive failure or a website hack, you could lose all the valuable information that you have collected and worked hard for all these years. :)

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    • 13

      Agreed. There a re a lot of good backup solutions online these days that incrementally backup your machine – can be hard the first time though I would imagine. Being a mac user I use time machine and an external hard drive stored out of the office.

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  11. 14

    Thank you! Thank you! I definitely needed some guidance and reminders on being a freelancer – I cant wait to really read this when I get home. Keep up the quality advice posts.

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  12. 15

    I don’t agree with not delivering early, I’ve gotten a lot of happy clients and new clients by being known for early development. While I never promise this, I always promise a week or earlier deadline, and I’ve never had a client complain about getting his product early, or expect a refund. They know they’ve gotten what they paid for when they receive something well ahead of schedule.

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    • 16

      Actually, I think I agree with you on this point Amber. Thanks for bringing this up.

      I myself have actually gotten a lot of positive feedback from completing a project a little bit early. While I do see the concerns that Rob brings up, I think that is rare and most clients wouldn’t really do that. But I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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      • 17

        I think it really depends on the client and their personality. I only deliver early to clients I feel comfortable with and have a good relationship. The other problem with delivering early is that the client will expect that on future projects – be careful.

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    • 18

      Amber, you seem very good at what you do or everything you do. Not all of us are good at everything. One might be good at PHP or HTML & CSS other might be good at graphics but when you are not so good at JavaScript you might find that you spend lots of times to make things right and that includes cross-browsing. At the end I think web developers often lost lots of times to earn experiences. Until you are on the stage of starting your career as a freelance developer, dealing with clients it’s often a pain and wast of time… I’m glad that you had those clients who loves your work and appreciates what you do. Keep up the good work Amb!

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    • 19

      Hi Amber,

      That’s excellent I’m glad your clients are happy. If you can keep up constant early delivery, then this will work very well for you and clients will remain happy. I just know in the past when I have always been early before, and then all I do is deliver on time for the next project, the client was disappointed because they were *expecting* it to be early again. It’s that expectation that I think can be dangerous.

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  13. 21

    This article is a very helpful set of reminders and resources for becoming a great freelancer. Along with Basecamp, I also use Wiggio for project management. It’s free and has most of the same features as Basecamp. I recommend to anyone who wants a more inexpensive option.

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  14. 22

    This is probably one of the best post in this time of my life right now where my freelance reputation is in the gutter and I need to pull it out of that. Anyone have any good tips on doing that? Thank you for this article. This is my temporary Christmas present from Smashing Magazine until my book finally decides to show up.

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  15. 23

    16. Read Smashing Magazine, but don’t read it more than twice a day it’s VERY addicting!

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  16. 24

    Excellent article.. possibly the best one that I’ve read about freelancing! :)

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  17. 25

    17. Read a chapter of the smashing book a day ;)
    Great article, thanks!

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  18. 27

    Yet another quality article. Your writing acted as a reminder for me to ensure I have everything in check before I launch my freelancing business!

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  19. 28

    I really enjoyed this article. Definitely some things I’ll have to keep up on in the new year.

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  20. 29

    Well said. Also love the comment adding the Backup Habit. In addition to helping myself, I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve kept happy by maintaining extra copies of files/videos/content they were sent but lost. Also totally agree email can suck the life out of your day. But I find my younger (e.g. under 30) clients will Never call my cell in an emergency, they will simply email. If I check emails every 3 hours, I can totally miss an emergency. Not often, but it does happen. Suggestions?

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    • 30

      I’d recommend finding a way to automate triaging incoming email. While you would check the regular or default twice a day, those triaged as “urgent” popup on your screen (or are sent to your Blackberry). The triaging can designate an email as urgent by [1] who is sending the email, [2] a special recipient email address reserved for urgent issues, or [3] a special word put in the subject line to denote an urgent issue.

      Time management “best practices” emphasize checking email only once or twice a day. You owe it to yourself and to your productivity not to allow the constant interruptions. By following this rule, you “train” your senders not to expect real-time responses through email. (Similar concept to #9 above.) As long as you provide them a way to contact you when there is an urgent problem and they are well-informed that you do not read regular email in real-time, then you have been reasonable to your client and to yourself.

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      • 31

        I agree Randy.

        If people want to get serious about time management I recommend a combination of Stephen Covey’s time management matrix (http://www.orgcoach.net/timematrix.html) and Getting things done by Paul Allen. I also use ‘Things’ as a task manager across my laptop and iPhone.

        PS I am no longer a freelancer – but lots of these practices still apply to me, freelance or not. I have the virtue of having been both sides of the fence!

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  21. 32

    Really great group of resources and tips! I completely agree with Design Informer– backing up is very important! I keep files stored online, on my desktop, and on a back-up hard drive. I speak from experience– I once had to rewrite a script because my laptop crashed. Luckily, I didn’t lose any more than that, but I never take my chances!

    Also, #2, 5, and 14 all kind of hint at the importance of maintaining relationships with past clients. If you keep up communication with them, they’ll think of you the next time they have a large-scale job or if a friend/business partner asks for a referral.

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    • 33

      Your comment is helpful itself! Thanks. I like the idea of having two backups. I mean if it’s only online, it is never secure.

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  22. 34

    I love botan rice candy! you can eat the inner wrapper! and it comes with a sticker or tattoo!

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  23. 35

    Really Very USEFUL :)
    Thanks SM!

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  24. 36

    Great List and an effective presentation. This will help lots of people!

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  25. 37

    An effective presentation always help to stay ahead of others. Thanks for posting this helpful article.

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  26. 39

    Christopher Anderton

    December 22, 2009 12:18 am

    However. The “Hello, i’m a designer, rockstar coder…” style is getting somewhat annoying. Get a copywriter. ;)

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  27. 40

    Great post, I thought No#9 was a great point. Great tip and will certainly be using it in the near future.

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  28. 41

    Great points and fundamentals! Helps me revisit some areas that were in need of improvement and a boost. Thanks.

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  29. 42

    Great article! You have some great advice here, particularly the part about “The Business Advice Habit.” We’re strong believers in business owners and freelancers establishing a “BrainTrust” of a set of people they trust, so that they can ping them on business decisions, thoughts, concerns etc and get the outside perspective.

    Traditionally this is done over e-mail, but we’ve built a product that helps you do it online. Do check it out and let us know what your thoughts are: http://AskMyBrainTrust.com/c/b.

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  30. 43

    Great article, good tips… thanks :)

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  31. 44

    Thanks! Thats what im looking for :)

    Nice work!

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  32. 45

    wow!….that was a niece piece of advice…..

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  33. 46

    thx, very usefull

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  34. 47

    cool article thanks – looking forward to using this in the new year.

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  35. 48

    El poder de lo simple

    December 23, 2009 12:51 am

    Gran post y de gran ayuda, muchas gracias

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  36. 49

    Where do you store the information they tell you? How do you keep track of how close the deadline is? Where do you store all the files they send you?

    Email is not sufficient for this

    uh. Why.

    What. Why is it not sufficent? Execpt for pushing basecamp on us you give us no justification to use it beyond “Email is bad”

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    • 50

      Hi Josh,

      I don’t think email’s a great solution because messages are generally quite filled with other stuff – the surrounding text around the piece of information you want. Emails can be talking about multiple projects and can be addressed to several people asking several things. There’s too much other ‘stuff’ in them for them to be a useful information storage tool. Don’t get me wrong – I store all my project based email as well, I just don’t use it for project management. Dates need to be put in a place where they are useful, can generate reminders, and help you plan – email doesn’t help with this. There’s no tasks etc etc – there’s so much missing from email.

      Here’s the big thing for a decent project management tool though – collaboration. My clients can’t see my email nor can other members of my team. Put that information in a shared collaborative area where the information is useful and things become so much easier.

      It’s just my opinion Josh, hope it helps.

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  37. 51

    Really good post Rob. This could be applied to all advertising professionals, not just freelancers. I really like your point about over delivering on deadlines. Sprucing elements up can really go a long way with clients.

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  38. 52

    Interesting post with unfortunately one big omission. Time tracking! Rescuetime might be funny and intriguing to use, but it is useless if you are serious about tracking the amount of time you spent on a project.

    I use Harvest and their Vista/Win7 desktop widget to make sure I track all the time I spend on projects. The web interface gives me a perfect view of time spent vs projected time and this is an incredible help in making sure I don’t undercharge.

    The great thing about Harvest is that it also enables you to create invoices based on the recorded project time, or automatic recurring invoices if you also offer services like web-hosting or maintenance contracts.

    There are probably good time tracking alternatives out there, but I only have experience with Harvest. It might be an idea to write a post on Smashing, comparing time tracking/project management services as I think this is an essential tool for every serious freelancer!

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    • 53

      Time tracking is a good thing to include I agree. ActiveCollab and Basecamp do include time reporting as in what you did with the time – but to actually track the time you need something different – I know most people just use a piece of paper if they’re working on multiple projects at once. I’ve never used Harvest.

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  39. 54

    Great information! These exact same topics have been running through my head about how to make 2010 an even better year than ’09 was! This information applies to so many different fields besides just those of us that do freelance work. Thanks, Rob!

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  40. 55

    Thanks for the great article Rob. I’d like to add two things I consider important:

    1. The Presentation Habit:
    A good presentation should also include a clear summary of what you can do for a client. This should also communicate the benefit you bring them.

    11. The Email Habit:
    I even turned of automatic email checking completely. That way I only have a look into my mails if I really have the time.

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    • 56

      Presentation I do agree. Email is a strange one. To get great work done, you need to remove interruption. However it also needs to be said to be an excellent professional you need to be highly responsive. It’s not uncommon for me to reply to an email quickly just to say I will be looking at it in 2 days time for instance. This gives the client closure as I have said I have received, understood and will be back to them in 2 days – saves them hanging on. But it’s still an interruption. It’s just a question of balance and a question of your role. In my role these days – I spend much more time project managing, presenting and brainstorming with clients rather than actual designing/developing and so email is my primary tool, as a freelancer, the job is much harder as there are so many hats!

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  41. 57

    I wish I had come across this article earlier in my freelance career. Very useful information.

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  42. 58

    Regarding the “Business Habit”, I agree. Let the professionals such as the accountants and bookkeepers do their job, while we concentrate on our own. They are well worth the pain and suffering they saved us. As for invoicing, I prefer doing my own simply because I need to produce quotes/invoices at the moment, and these days, online invoicing tools are easy enough to use.

    I personally like using Billing Boss from Sage Software because it’s free and I can create an invoice within a minute. It supports multi-currency, taxes, and discounts. Once I create a quote, I can easily convert it into an invoice and set up recurring invoicing for certain clients. Invoices look professional, and I can brand it with my logo.

    Full Disclosure: This author has been compensated by Sage. I am their Social Media Consultant but I was using their product well before they contracted me. They found me when I sent them an email giving suggestions about Billing Boss!

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  43. 59

    We’re a limited company and have been using Freeagent for the last 2 years. It really is a fantastic solution to small business accounts for soletraders and limited companies. Today we filed our VAT return in 5 minutes, by uploading our bank statements we can track monthly profit and loss to ensure we’re getting the most out of the business. Freeagent also calculates our corporation tax and self assessment tax return.

    The support is fantastic and they are constantly developing the application making improvements from user feedback.

    freeagentcentral.com/?referrer=34s01t4m

    Highly recommended!

    Steve

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  44. 60

    This is really an awesome article! I get lots of nice reviews from you. Question though, have you tried using Time Doctor which is basically similar to Rescue Time? I heard it’s also quite helpful as a time tracking application since a friend has already used it in their company. I hope you can try to look at it. Thanks for the post!

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  45. 61

    Yes, to make improvements in time management, something like Rescue Time can really help. I also know a similar one-TABB. Try these tools and insist.

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