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Freelance Contracts: How To Prepare Your Guidelines for Success
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Andy Leverenz

January 7, 2015

Last updated November 5, 2023

Freelance Contracts: How To Prepare Your Guidelines for Success

When I started freelancing (designing for the web, apps, and more) I took what I could get. I needed to make money fast because I had just been laid off. I devised my own process of gaining clientele by using everything from referrals to working remotely with people across the world.

Some clients turned into repeat clients and others were one-hit-wonders. As more projects came in I was often taken advantage of by some clients. Quick changes, new comps, and extra effort for less compensation became the norm for me. I was still being compensated but I knew it wasn’t worth the amount of time I was using up.

Once it got to be too much for me to handle I had to throw in the towel on a few clients. I increased my rate thinking they may or may not be happy with the change. I thought to myself “If they value me enough, then money shouldn’t matter...”. After hearing back from some of my clients and not from some others I found out who “valued” my talent. Those are the clients I want to develop long-lasting relationships with and if you are in the same place you should consider doing as well.

We all need income but remember to keep the aspect of value in mind. A real company or contractor interested in getting a quality design or development work must find freelancers who they value first and foremost. After all, you get what you pay for.

In the end, you need to protect yourself from risky clients like I have had to deal with. I’m almost certain if you are reading this you know what I mean when I say, *risky clients, *. In this post, I will discuss the importance of freelance contracts and why they can pave the way for your success.

Why You Need A Contract

Short and sweet, to protect yourself and your time. Contracts help your business grow as they dictate a process you go through with each and every new client. Once you establish guidelines that both you and your client can agree to then everything after is smooth sailing. If you have been putting off creating a contract I strongly urge you to set aside some time to create one now. Doing so will benefit you in so many ways. Do it!

What to Include

A contract doesn’t need to be elaborate or even hard to read like some of those ridiculous law contracts out there. Including your terms, project information and a little about who you are pretty much sum up my own contract.

Who You Are

Besides basic contact information, be sure to start your contract off with a little bit about yourself and what you do. This is a good time to make a prospect feel all warm and fuzzy that they made the right decision heading your way for the services you provide (As they should!).

What You’ve Done

After filling them in on who you are it could benefit you to show off a little. If you have any well-known clients feel free to share them here. You could include their logos and maybe a blurb about your experience with them. Don’t worry if your clients aren’t “well-known”, you should still share a bit about who you work with.

Also, worth noting is testimonials. This can be nothing but persuasion for new clients. People-based a lot of their purchases around reviews on larger e-commerce sites. I consider reviews a type of testimonial for a product. The same idea applies to your work, your professionalism, and more. If you don’t have any testimonials then ask for some from past clients. Most people who have had a positive experience working with you will usually be happy to share their thoughts on your work and services.

The Project Scope

With each new project, you need to identify the work to be performed. For example, say I’m contracted by a new client to design and develop a website. I typically group such tasks and give an overview of what will happen in each phase. Here’s an example website project:

  • Research and Brainstorming - I start off by meeting with you(the client) virtually or in-person and gather information about the problems you face as well as the new heights you would like to reach with the new website/application. After the meeting I gather ideas, create sketches, comparisons, lists, and more until I have a path to take towards the next phase.

  • Design - After enough research is collected I begin the design phase. Here I decide on brand-able elements such as typography, color palettes, as well as global layout patterns in this stage. Once I feel like I have enough to begin working inside a browser I move to the next stage.

  • Development - With enough design elements in place, I start to piece it together with code during the development stage. This is where things come to life and interactions are defined. Careful attention is paid to user experience as well as user interface design at this stage. Once finished I deploy the code to a staging server for your review.

  • Testing and Consulting - After careful review from you, I continue to test and test again to make sure your website/application is ready for any browser not including internet explorer versions less than version 8. Upon one final review session from you, I transfer all files to your live web server. All Files are also delivered to you via FTP download.

Pretty simple huh? I like to summarize things and make it easy for anyone to understand. There’s no reason to mention what language you use to develop in or what CSS pre-compiler you use unless the client really wants to know that stuff. Most of your clients simply won’t care or won’t understand, this is why they sought out for you. Your Clients just want to know that you will do what you were hired to do and do a damn good job at it.


Providing a timeline helps establish good milestones for both you and your client. Doing this also allows you to get paid sooner if you decide to receive payments in blocks rather than all that once. I personally do a 30/30/40 split which I’ll cover in the next section.

Your timeline should be realistic. Don’t sell yourself short and underestimate how much time it will take to complete the project. If anything adds a few hours or an extra day for safety sake but don't go overboard. The more projects you have the more you will be able to better determine how long a project will take you to complete.


Sometimes you can’t do everything. This is a good thing. It’s better to be good at one thing than mediocre at many. With that in mind, you might need to hire out to help you get some tasks done within the timeline you have proposed. Note: It’s worth accounting for extra time when you add more people to the mix. Things happen and deadlines can be hectic so just allow yourself enough time.

Budget Options

In my time as a freelancer, I have learned that any client likes options. Offer more than one rate for each project you propose. This could include things like a hosting package as a separate fee or a monthly maintenance package. You simply offer the extra service for an added fee or offer the original quote.

Whether you charge hourly or per project you need to state what exactly your client will be contributing towards. With a service such as design or development you need not worry about tax or logistics but rather the time-to-value ratio. Estimate the hours you think you will truly spend on a project and don’t be too greedy with your estimation. I prefer to charge per project as opposed to hourly but I do base my project rate around an hourly figure. I typically just give my clients a figure I think the project will cost which I get by multiplying my hourly rate by how long the new project might take. Pretty simple.


Say your hourly rate is $50/hr and you think the upcoming website I described in the example project scope earlier will take roughly 100 hours to complete. Do some simple math and come up with $5,000 for the final project budget. From there you can offer services like hosting, consulting, or maintenance for an added monthly fee (a great way to make passive income). If your client is looking for long term work then offer them a fair hourly rate.

Restrictions, Guidelines, and Terms

Here you need to document your guidelines for things like:

  • Maximum Revisions - Do not let your client make unlimited revisions. I repeat, do not do it! Kindly remind your client that they have a maximum of 1-3 rounds of revisions. After that amount, they will be charged extra. Any more than 3 rounds is just a result of a client not knowing what is it they want.
  • Stock Photography Purchases - You can offer to purchase stock photography but need to state that you will tack this on to the final bill for your client.
  • Consultation - Sometimes your clients just need a professional opinion. You can offer your services for an hourly rate or flat rate depending on the situation. I choose hourly because one recommendation usually leads to more.
  • Hosting - If you already host your own website you can host your client's websites. It’s quite easy to set up depending on your host. Do some research and offer a rate that allows you to make some profit as well as pay the extra hosting fees.
  • Rush Orders - In the design/development industry everyone is always in a hurry. Be ready to perform under extreme conditions. When doing so offer a surcharge or expedited rate to your clients for doing so. They will understand the surcharge so don’t be afraid to present it to them.
  • Copywriting - Some clients just can’t generate good content. You have probably blogged at some time in your career as a designer or developer. You can offer your services for a fee. Hourly or per word is the norm here.
  • SEO Optimization - SEO is big. People want to get clicks, views, and ratings. Their website needs to be optimized for good SEO. This can sometimes be a quick fix but requires constant attention in most cases. Offer your services for an added fee if you know the SEO ropes well enough.

The Dotted Line

Don’t forget to have the client sign the dotted line. Without their signature, you have no deal. A contract is useless until signed by both parties. This ultimately protects you if the law becomes an issue.

In this final section, I list payment breakdowns as well as signature fields, dates, and both parties' contact information again. Before I mentioned having a 30/30/40 split. I prefer to be paid in installments and most of my clients like that option as well. To kick off the project 30% is due. Then once I complete the design stage then another 30% is due. Once the project wraps up the final 40% is due. After payment, all assets and files are transferred to the client.

When a project is complete I advise you to keep in touch with your clients. Staying in contact could mean future work or referrals. This is also a great time to ask for testimonials.

Red Flags

Some clients can be flaky. Use your best judgment to filter out the bad and stick with the good. Some red flags to help you reconsider if your client is serious or not:

  • Raising your rate over a long period of time causes issues of working together anymore
  • Unresponsive to your attempts at contact via e-mail, phone, etc...
  • They send you a sketch or PSD or something terrible made in Microsoft paint with “their big idea”.
  • They want ample amounts of revisions
  • Super late on payments
  • They don’t have the final copy before going to development. This causes so much back and forth that it makes you want to throw your computer.
  • They try and talk you down in price on just about any project you quote them
  • They send you a site design or print design they want to mock exactly
  • They can’t make up their damn mind
  • Refuse to sign your contract!

Plenty of reasons right? There’s plenty more that you have probably experienced but this gives you the general idea why contact is so important. Save yourself from headaches like these to benefit your work and your time.

Don’t Settle

I was always told never to settle and I don’t think anyone got anywhere by doing so. The worst you could do is fail and by doing that you learn. Once you learn from your mistakes you get better at what you do. Reputation is key and is what keeps you from making too many mistakes. A great way to not settle is documenting your mistakes in the form of a contract to prevent any client from getting any big ideas. You will likely need to modify contracts to fit each and every client’s needs but for the most part, you can create a draft that applies to most parties.

Contracts protect you and your client. You outline the project scope, timeline, and budget to benefit each party and make the experience of working together as painless as possible. In the end, the goal is to offer your services to your client in a professional setting that could potentially lead to repeat work or referrals for new clients. Protect yourself and draft your contract now before it’s too late!

Do you have a contract you send your clients? What do you include in your contract that I didn’t already cover?

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