What's the hardest part of being a freelancer? Based on a few discussions I've had recently with freelancer friends who do everything from web development to SEO, the answer is almost always 'dealing with clients' -- especially in the early stages of a potential project.

There's good reason for that. Early discussions around a possible project involve key subjects, namely money and project scope. In many cases, clients, especially those who are new to hiring a freelancer, are in unfamiliar territory. And that means they're apt to say things that they often shouldn't.

Here are five statements clients make that frustrate freelancers that result from valid concerns but which can be handled more effectively.

"This should be an easy project."

Some clients do know exactly what they need, but usually when dealing with individuals or small companies, the person saying "this should be an easy project" has no idea what is involved in delivering the final product he seeks. What "this should be an easy project" often means: I'm afraid of being overcharged. By suggesting that he knows that he's not asking for much, the client believes he's encouraging lower estimates.

But when you say "this should be an easy project" and it clearly isn't, experienced freelancers are likely to walk right by because you lose credibility. Fortunately, the fear of being overcharged is easily addressed without the need to look foolish. If you don't know what you need and are afraid that a freelancer will take advantage of you, get competing estimates from several experienced freelancers. In most cases, there's no better way to learn what the going rate for your kind of project is.

"I need you to sign an NDA before I tell you more about the project."

NDAs can be very hard to enforce, especially if you're dealing with a freelancer in a jurisdiction other than yours or don't have the financial resources to sue someone. For this and other reasons, an NDA is pointless to inject into an initial conversation with a freelancer. Experienced ones won't consider signing them except in the rarest of cases.

If you can't accurately describe the skills you require and the types of tasks that you need completed without giving away information you believe is as-yet-developed secret sauce, you need to rethink your approach.

"I don't have much money for this but it could lead to future work down the road."

Clients on a budget aren't new to most freelancers, but if you have a limited budget, be honest about it and let the freelancer decide if he can live with the amount you can afford to pay. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, a freelancer will be interested in your project even if what you can pay is a little bit less than what he'd normally charge.

Refrain from trying to lead a freelancer on by saying "it could lead to future work down the road" just to make the project look sweeter. This is the business equivalent of a bad pickup line.

"I can pay you in equity or we can do a revenue share."

Pitching a revenue share or equity deal to a freelancer is a big no-no unless your discussions were predicated on such an arrangement. Usually, a pitch for payment in equity or revenue share comes when a client sees that the costs of what he wants to do exceed his financial resources.

Smart freelancers avoid these arrangements like the plague for a variety of reasons. For one, they're complex and often raise unfavorable tax implications for the freelancer. And there's the not-so-subtle fact that if you're already undercapitalized, it doesn't bode well for your success. Instead of taking this route, if you don't have quite the budget you need, consider working with a prospective freelancer what you can do within your budget. You just might find that you can do enough to get to a meaningful milestone, even if you don't immediately get to where you were hoping to go.

"I'm looking for someone who can handle X, Y and Z."

X, Y and Z are, of course, completely unrelated. While it may be nice to find a graphic designer who does ASP.net programming, is an SEO guru and can manage your 20 servers, your chances of finding a good freelancer decrease exponentially when you seek out someone who can 'do it all' because the jack of all trades is almost always a master of none.

By avoiding these statements, clients can avoid many of the headaches that often occur when dealing with freelancers. Of course, this isn't a one-way street. In a future post, I'll look at the things freelancers say that turn off clients.

Photo credit: Martin Kingsley via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 15 January, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (14)

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Great article. I'm not working in the field, but I always get a kick out of the similarily hilarious things posted at http://twitter.com/clientsfh ...

over 8 years ago

David Hamill

David Hamill, Usability Specialist at Freelance

As a freelancer, I'll happily sign an NDA once we've progressed to the stage where I know that the client is indeed looking for someone like me. It may be unenforceable but I won't be talking openly about my client's project anyway.

So signing an NDA is just a demonstration of that.

over 8 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


Signing an NDA is fine once you've progressed to the stage where things are 'serious' but I still think they're really problematic when you don't even have an idea of what the client is looking for.

Example: if somebody says he's looking for a PHP programmer to build a website but won't share any more details, that's problematic. Even for freelancers who aren't afraid of signing an NDA before they get the job, signing NDAs left and right just to find out what a project entails at the highest level is at the very least unadvisable.

over 8 years ago


Tristan Botly

Hey great article, all true and said far too often.

I have signed many NDA's in the past and each one has fallen into a draw and vey rarly has the information that followed been of interest to the world.

I think it helps make the client feel a bit more serious about the project however the best way to achieve that is to have clear documented goals / objectives / budget about the project with realistic time scales.  

Signing an NDA and then saying they want Twitter but for the Hyrdrolic Industry with a budget of 4k is not sufficient to make a freelance buy in to the project.

over 8 years ago

Fran Jeanes

Fran Jeanes, Internet Business Consultant at i-contact web design

I loved this post. I always cringe when I hear any of these things said to me, but experience has really shown that "This should be an easy project" to be the one that makes me run for the hills! :)

over 8 years ago


webdesign rosenheim

:-) Great post!  But sadly too true! It's really amazing what customers come up with. I think every freelancer can tell a story!

Thanks for this post!

over 8 years ago


Chris - freelancer

Had all of these, especially the last one, most clients don't actually realise how many elements there are to web design - and assume you can do everything, from backend coding to graphic design and SEO.  That's where outsourcing/networking with other professionals comes in!

over 8 years ago



Interesting comments about the NDA.

From my perspective an entrepreneur who asks you to sign an NDA is either about to share his secret multi-billion dollar formula that he (and his team) spent years developing or he is simply out of his depth.

Some one who has a great idea and can't express it on the back of an envelop probably isn't going to succeed anyway.

And envelops don't normally qualify as unique IP.

Which raises the question about whether you would want to work with them?

over 8 years ago


Michelle Pearl Gee

You know when you meet someone and the mood is right, the lights are low, the music is soft and there's great chemistry? Then, right when it's about to get really wonderful... the person farts. That's like having your 'client' say "I don't have much money for this but it could lead to future work down the road." Don't drop that stink bomb. It'll kill the deal every time.

over 8 years ago



Too bad they don't mention this stuff when you're in school. I've come across all but the NDA example & have fallen for them. NO MORE!!

over 8 years ago



You missed off "can you change this, and I would like it done this way now". In other word scope change or scope creep one of the worst things a client can say especially when you at the end of a project and expecting to send off that final invoice.

over 8 years ago



Actually I do grant research for a living and I can't tell you the number of times when people have said that they could pay me out of the grant money that they receive - but they just have to realize that it just doesn't work that way!

I had almost the same problems when I was designing web pages way back about 100 years ago but I recently read something that said that you should have confidence in your work and it will show in the way that you inter-act with your clients.

If my price can not be paid then the client has to go somewhere else - period!

over 8 years ago


Brett Widmann

Very interesting article and entirely true! Thanks for sharing. 

over 7 years ago

Mike Groves

Mike Groves, Online Marketing Specialist at Mike Groves | Online Marketing

One more to add to this..."I haven't really got a brief for you, but what I want is..."

In my experience (both client and agency side - and now as a freelancer) the lack of a brief will always lead to problems. A good brief isn't the guarantee of a good outcome, but it can at least ensure that freelancer and client are both aiming somewhere in the right direction.

Another classic (possibly linked to this one) is the client who says "I thought x or y was included in your price". Scope creep is a common occurence and many a client/freelancer relationship has broken down due to over a disagreement about what will be delivered and what the price does and doesn't include.


over 7 years ago

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