To be totally honest, a small portion of my business is based on a handshake (and a prayer). I sometimes get caught up in the excitement of landing a deal and forgo any form of written agreement. Maybe it’s a fear that adding steps or rocking the boat with a formal freelance contract will give the client a chance to pause and reflect on the project at hand. I suppose I worry they will scrutinize and possibly reconsider our arrangement if they’re faced with the finer details in black & white.
These insecurities are silly, of course. Whenever I kick-off an engagement without something in writing, I’m taking a HUGE risk. Don’t do as I do—do as I say: Every freelance project should have a contract.
We actually get into the importance of freelance contracts on podcast episode #4 with Tom Jepson.
Why Freelance Contracts Matter
Whenever I admit to someone I don’t always use a contract, I inevitably get the “tisk tisk” response—and for good reason! A pinky swear doesn’t hold up in court. A high-five is no guarantee of future payment. Why introduce undue risk into your growing business? You have enough to worry about!
A freelance contract protects both you and your client. Any fears of pushback or resistance are nonsense. In fact, I once had a potential client second-guess working with me because I didn’t send them a contract by default. They sensed I was a sketchy, fly by night operation. It works both ways too. If someone is reluctant to put your terms in writing, that’s a red flag for you; the service provider.
Defining the scope of work in a contract will also minimize the chances of a project going off the rails. SO common in the creative industry. This is your opportunity to clearly specify the terms of your engagement. What’s included? What’s not? How are requests outside of the SOW billed?
There is one added benefit of implementing freelance contracts in your client onboarding workflow: valuation. This may never apply to you, but should you ever try to sell your business in the future, buyers are going to be looking for contracts. Otherwise, what guarantee do they have that revenue will remain steady and projects will stay in line?
What’s in a Contract?
A freelance contract doesn’t have to be an exhaustive 40-page document. Bare minimum, it’s a signed letter of engagement between you and your client that touches on the agreed-upon rates and when payments will be due. The more detail you include in your agreement, the more protected you are and the better expectations will be managed on both sides.
For larger projects like complete website design & development, I urge you to take the time to fully express the scope of work and deliverables. Be sure to include what the hourly rate will be for any out-of-scope requests or change orders.
If the client is responsible for furnishing certain items such as text content or photos, note that as well. This will prevent the infamous “I thought that was included” email down the road.
One thing I’m especially careful about in any sort of formal agreement is the project timeline. These things can be hard to predict to begin with. If you overshot a deadline date in the contract, would it make the entire document null and void? I’m no lawyer but I wouldn’t chance it. I usually say something along the lines of, “Estimated Project Timeline: 60-90 days.” That’s solid enough to make most clients happy, yet soft enough to give you breathing room.
Now you might be thinking, “I’m not an attorney. I have no business writing contracts!” Sure, you can seek legal counsel to draft a custom, properly-worded contract template for your business and take the extra step to get it notarized each time you bring on a new project. Such measures may be overkill for a freelancer just starting out, though. That’s what everyone should do—but a signed napkin covered in coffee stains is better than nothing in writing at all.
I’ve never been to court with a client and I hope you have the same good fortune. There have been a few close calls with being ghosted before payment and I don’t want that feeling ever again. A mutually-signed (and dated) document can be a powerful motivator for both parties to hold up their end of the deal.
Where to Find Freelance Contracts
This can all be an easy breezy online process for you. There are several tools and resources out there to make building a freelance contract and collecting e-signatures as painless as possible for all involved.
As you know, I use Fiverr Workspace for all of my invoicing needs. They also have built-in proposal and contract features that I use often. Everything is in one place so I have all signed documents, invoices, and payments tied to a client record—complete paper trail every step of the way. Other alternatives you might wanna check out are DocuSign and PandaDoc.
Now you are well-informed and ready to protect your bottom line. So when the next gig comes along, let’s put some ink to paper!