On Being a Good Freelancer

Written By Philip Zaengle
Posted on

I spent the first five years of my professional career freelancing in one capacity or another. It all started by picking up the odd web design/HTML gig from local businesses. This slowly morphed into working full time for agencies all over the U.S. Eventually, that led to a transition from "freelance developer" to what is now Zaengle; a full-time full team of hard working web professionals. More on that another day :)

There are many prominent and often talked about guidelines for freelancers — meet deadlines, communicate regularly, do quality work, only send emails from a white label agency email address (barf), expect to be paid 60 days after your invoice, etc. The latter items I say a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Most of those things are fine and well, but what does it actually take to be an excellent freelancer? Here’s my list of how you reach 'preferred' status when working with agencies:

1. Write emails like you're writing to the end client

It's easy to write an email to me, or a project manager. However, that means I need to rewrite/format/edit/sanitize before I forward any communication on to the client. The gist of it is: don't make me do more work than I have to.

Example

An example of this can be seen by comparing the two messages below.

"Hi Phil, this design is lacking details. Can you find out what interactions are needed around the nav bar?"

Compared to this:

"Hi Phil,

Below are some questions that will help get interactions correct:

1. It looks like there are some interaction portions of the navigation. Are these on click or hover? If it's hover, would you like to use something like hover intent to give a better user experience?

... [more questions]"

The former is going to require a lot of back and forth between a bunch of people. The latter asks direct questions and offers helpful suggestions; do this one.

2. Check your ego; you're part of a team now

An outstanding freelancer realizes that when working with an agency, you are augmenting part of that team. That means that your decisions will affect everyone else (imagine that!). Next time you think about using that fancy new javascript library that was released 15 minutes ago, talk about it with the folks that will be maintaining the project long term.

Team work makes the dream work, or something like that I guess.

Bill Nye

(not really a Bill Nye quote)

3. Have regular working hours

I remember the sweet days of freelancing — no accountability, independence, never wearing pants, random working hours, Grand Theft Auto marathons. Of course I’m kidding (mostly), but we've worked with folks who have that sort of attitude. Sorry for calling you out. (#sorryNotSorry).

As a freelancer you do get to pick when you work, but being aware of how your work schedule affects others is essential to being part of a team, even if it's for a limited time. Make sure you have regular, overlapping time with your teammates.

4. Be Human

Robots are cute and all, but they're slightly metallic and unrelatable. Take a few extra moments each day to interact with the team you're augmenting. Share life, make a friend, tell a joke. The best way to be asked back as a freelancer (aside from doing good work and meeting deadlines) is to become a friend.

Some of these items listed above may not come naturally to you. My biggest personal struggle was learning how to write better (reusable) emails. Over time and with practice, I was able to drastically improve this area. Whichever item is hardest for you, keep at it. It’s the little things that can make you an outstanding freelancer!

  1. Bill Nye did not actually say that.