And how different it is from a full-time job
But in the process, I understood what it means to be a “freelancer” and to have “a client.” Till this point, I worked in product organizations as a designer and client work isn’t exactly the same. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.
Maintain boundaries on when you are “available”
In a salaried job, it’s clear when you are available. It’s when you get to work and when you leave. During work hours, it’s common to block “busy” slots on your calendar for work time. I do this pretty often to get a few hours of uninterrupted focus and so that people can schedule around it. I batch meetings into the morning or evening.
With freelancing, these lines get blurred. It’s easy for a client to ask for a “quick call,” and feels even easier to just agree. Because, what counts as work time vs. personal time anyway? But you may end up constantly speaking, irrespective of how useful the conversation is. At one point, I was getting 2–3 calls in the day from said client, and it got tiring and disorganized.
It’s important to set some boundaries around when you can get on a call. I suggest having a regular cadence on predetermined days and times.
Structure your calls, like in the workplace
On my calls, I noticed the client constantly jumped from one idea to another. The call took an hour and we discussed 10 ideas with no conclusive decisions. I didn’t know what was a priority, and was so confused.
Notice the pattern, and ask for agenda for the meeting. This can help both of you prioritize items ahead of time. It also helps you stay on track and meet deadlines.
Don’t be shy to demand this structure. We do it at the workplace, so why not enforce some method in the freelance space as well? For me, it got a lot easier to track my work and send design revisions when we structured things. It also made the agenda for successive calls a lot easier.
Share your best practices
When a client in India learns that I was a lead product designer at Zomato, they are so curious about how we do things. A lot of clients are pretty small and want to scale in the best way possible. They want to emulate the success of a $1 billion startup like Zomato.
And why not? I use my Zomato experience to build on my credibility. I try to guide the client in thinking more like a designer. I explain how we follow a design process at a successful startup and I tell them the kind of discussions, data, design thinking strategies that I use.
This gets the client on board with my way of doing things pretty quickly. I can share my experiences to explain why a certain approach may or may not work. It helps to give the pros and cons of choosing a design based on how scalable it will be. I try and do my best to give a bit of tech advice also (i.e. when to use a WebView or make something back-end driven).
But give without expectations…
As a freelancer, I didn’t get to witness many moving parts within the organization. I wasn’t in the same location (this was a remote assignment), and I mostly interacted with the CEO and his lead product manager. They were the interface between the developers and I.
This is quite a different reality from being in a full-time role in HQ. In a full-time role, you get access to developers, you can converse freely with PMs, designers, and the CEO. You can get business insights and data if it helps build your case. The nature of work is a lot more collaborative and holistic.
So while there’s a lot of advice to give, I realized that my advice to the client was certainly biased. It is only natural they don’t use all of it. Occasionally, I asked why they took a different approach. It helped me understand their constraints too (like budget, time to market, size of tech team).
Get your logistics in place (cos no one else will!)
Within the first 1–2 conversations with the client, we discussed the hourly rate for my work. It’s important to have the payment discussion upfront. While it felt a little forced, it helped to discuss this at the start of the project because it helped get rid of any uneasy feelings I had about taking this on. Also it can get awkward if I bring this topic in much later and compensation expectations don’t match up.
With freelance work, the onus is on you to track hours. Keep a spreadsheet going and record number of hours and their purpose. It’ll help you and the client maintain transparency over time. If there are certain weeks where you put in an overload of hours, you can bring it up in your weekly calls. Maybe that specific feature took a few iterations to get right. Your client will appreciate the effort! Maybe there was a lot of back-and-forth to figure out the edge cases. The client will be aware that his inefficiency is costing him!
Just remember, no one is looking out for your career except you.