Why I’ll Never Start Another Freelance Project Without an Agreement

Scenario 1: You just started freelancing and you’re thrilled to have gotten the attention of a new client. You’re concerned about adding any unnecessary tension to this new, delicate relationship with a formal agreement.

Scenario 2: You’re approached by a loyal client with a rush job and there’s no time to draw up the usual multi-page contract.

Scenario 3: The work is just a short term or quick one-time task.

Whatever the reason, you’ve started work without a written agreement. Sometimes it works out ok, but not always.

In my early years freelancing, I was guilty of falling into every one of those scenarios. As a result, I’ve been stiffed by clients, experienced scope creep like you couldn’t imagine, spent months on a “rush job”, and on occasion, completely lost track of half-completed projects. Its safe to say, my early years were quite the learning experience.

When just starting out or freelancing on top of a full-time job, it’s so easy to justify getting a little (dare I say) lazy on paperwork so you can spend more time completing your actual freelance work. But take my advice, a little paperwork goes a long way.

Having a written agreement not only protects you if something goes wrong, it helps things from going sideways in the first place by clarifying expectations and preventing misunderstandings.

Putting together a contract can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. While it would be great to be able to hire an attorney to draft or review every contract, that’s not a reasonable, timely, or affordable option for most people. The good news is that even a basic agreement that you write yourself is better than having no written agreement at all, provided that it’s clear, unambiguous, and covers the essentials of your business arrangement.

Get an agreement in writing in these 3 simple steps:

1. Take thorough notes on each client meeting to create a scope of work that outlines expectations, deliverables, and deadlines.

Err on the side of being more descriptive when possible. For example, if you’re a freelance writer, a scope of work that reads “500 word article due in two weeks” is less helpful than one like “An 800 word count article written for an audience of SMBs about holiday product marketing tips. Due within 15 business days of the signing of this agreement.”

2. Whip up a quick proposal for the project (on Moonlighting or outside of Moonlighting). Seriously, it’ll take you less than 2 minutes to create and send to clients on and outside of Moonlighting.

This proposal should include your scope of work and nail down everything related to money. If this is a larger project, this includes fee-related details beyond just the total project cost. Consider these questions:

  • Do you expect to receive a portion of your fees up front
  • Will you be paid at delivery, according to set milestones, or for your time?
  • If the client cancels the project after you’ve started, will there be a “kill fee” or some other compensation for you?
  • Will there be a late fee if your client doesn’t pay on time?
  • Will you be reimbursed for expenses?

If payment provisions apply to this project based on these questions, be sure to add them to the proposal in the notes section. An example of how this could read would be:

Client will pay Designer a fixed fee of $1,500. Of that fee, $250 is due upon accepting this proposal. At the completion of the project, Designer will invoice Client for the balance, with payment due within 10 days of the invoice date. Any payment not received by its due date will accrue interest at 1.5% per month. Designer will be solely responsible for her own expenses. If Client cancels the project after Designer has begun work, Designer is immediately entitled to a “kill fee” of $250, less any fees already paid to Designer.

3. Send this proposal in an email and request your client accept the proposal and notes.

It’s not uncommon for clients to simply sign these proposals and send them back, with the proposal itself becoming the contract. With Moonlighting’s proposals, your client can simply accept the proposal online, so no waiting for the signed proposal to come back in the mail.

Take away the guesswork, reclaim the power in your relationship, don’t accept lowering your fees, and don’t be afraid to communicate issues of scope and deliverables before they even start to creep. And, if you do get in a disagreement with your client, don’t panic — while people’s memories might get foggy if a dispute arises, there’s nothing clearer than the written word.

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