I almost DIDN'T write this blog post. Why? Two reasons:
1. I was afraid of what my lawyer friends would say when they saw the title to this blog post. Would they say "leave the contract-writing to lawyers!"?
2. I wasn't sure if you'd be interested in this sort of topic. I've written about blogging, branding and marketing in general -- but not something business-y like this.
As with every blog post that I write, I struggle with doubts. Is this blog post relevant? Will people hate it and then hate me? Do I know enough to write about it?
But eventhough the doubts were overwhelming -- I can't help but think about the person I used to be. I used to be a freelancer, too. And while I don't claim that THIS blog post will solve all your freelancing troubles, I hope it will help.
Anyway, enough rambling by me. Let's get down to the topic at hand: DIY-ing your own contract as a freelancer.
Do I really need a contract, even if I'm a small-time freelancer?
When people hear the word 'contract', they usually think of an official document that only professionals or the big shots bring out for big big projects. Signed with an expensive pen and then placed in a briefcase. (Preferably dark brown leather, kay.)
Well, today I want to give you another perspective on contracts and why you need them even when you're just starting out in your freelancing business.
A contract is a form of communication between two parties. You and the client.
Picture this: You have a business where you provide services. A potential client contacts you and wants to meet up to discuss 'the project', aka what you're being paid for.
So you meet up with the client at a nice cafe, and you guys talk about the details of the project. What to do, when to do it, etc etc. Then both of you go your separate ways.
Is that it?
What if someone forgets something? What if the client forgets that she has to make the 2nd payment after you've done a certain task? What if you forget something important that the client mentioned?
After a (good) client meeting, the freelancer will always be on a high. Someone likes my work and wants to pay me. Oh yeah baby. (I noe how dat feel) The client will feel excited for the project to start too. And the details of the meeting will feel so VIVID.
But after a day or two, after you've come down from the high, the details will be less fresh.
That's where the contract comes in! It's a recorded version of whatever it is you and your client have discussed and agreed on. You basically turn your words during the meeting into written form, so that both you and the client can refer to it again and again.
So back to the question just now: Do you really need a contract if you're just starting out?
YES, yes you do. And I have two reasons for saying so:
- Having a contract for every client is considered the BEST practice. Even if you're a small-timer, why not adopt this practice from the beginning so that you could start your business right? You can adjust the length of your contract to suit the size of your business/project.
- When you do as the professionals do, you'll look like a professional too. If only professionals use contracts, then hop on the lorry! When you bring out your contract, your client will get the impression that you're serious about the project and they'll feel more confident in your abilities. A clear and fair contract will help you build trust with your client.
You may ALREADY have a contract in place...
When you're liaising with your client over WhatsApp or email, you'd definitely have mentioned a few things that your client NEEDS to know. For example, Payment must be made before 10 pm or The client must provide the correct details. These need-to-know things are the terms and conditions (T&C). So in effect, you already have a contract with your client.
If it's just a simple buy-and-sell kind of transaction, there aren't that many T&Cs. But if you're a freelancer, you usually provide services that are more tailored to your client's situations. That means that your services are more complicated than just buy-and-sell.
The more complicated your services, the more T&Cs you and your client need to agree on.
I'm not saying you're doing it wrong when you use WhatsApp or email to 'come to an agreement' with your client. I'm saying, if your services are complicated, it might be EASIER to have everything, all the T&Cs in one document.
That kind of contract will be the focus of this blog post.
Things go right, but they also always go wrong.
OK, I'm a pessimist. But when I offered freelance designing services, things went wrong MORE than they went right. And it sucked big time because I was so excited for the projects!
The cause? Failure in communication.
Sure, we had client meetings. Over the phone, in-person at a nice cafe. The initial discussions were so awesome -- I even convinced myself that I'd definitely be bestfriends with my clients down the line. (Such wishful thinking.)
But down the line — it became clear to me that my clients and I were expecting DIFFERENT things from the projects.
- One client expected me to do more than what we originally agreed on.
- One client disappeared near the end of the project and wanted to resume around 2 months later. Also, no compensation.
- Another one disappeared also.
And you know what? I take responsibility for things going wrong.
As the freelancer, it was my responsibility to ponder things like...
- How do I make sure that the project runs smoothly?
- How do I make sure my client and I are always on the same page? How and what do I communicate?
- How do I perform my service in the best way possible?
- What do I need from my client?
- How do I protect my own interests?
It’s NOT the client’s job to think about all this. They don’t go into the project thinking: What do I need to do?
So yeah, despite my initial resentment towards them (I’m only human), it was ultimately my fault because I didn’t have a contract in place. I should have known better, they literally teach me this in university. Sigh.
The contract prevents and cures
Kay, the contract — YOUR contract — is not a magic wand. When you and the client sign the contract, it doesn't literally bind both of you to the terms and conditions. No one will be struck by lightning if you breach a T&C.
BUT, like I've said before: Projects fail due to failure in communication. It’s pretty safe to assume that most people aren’t evil witches. They were just expecting different things.
What the contract does is that it PREVENTS miscommunications. Everything important is put on paper for both you and the client to read. Now it’s not gonna be a matter of Who said What.
The contract also CURES. During the project, you owe the client something (your work). The client owes you something (money or compensation).
If any of you doesn’t fulfill what is owed, you have something to fall back on: the contract! I’m gonna talk a bit about how you can enforce your DIY contract at the end of this blog post.
You won’t only be at this ~small-time freelancer~ stage forever. The more your business grows, the more you need to protect yourself.
Let's rewire how we think of contracts.
1. A contract is 90% business and only 10% legal.
The biggest misconception when it comes to contracts is that only lawyers know what to put in the contracts.
Other people: Aina, draft a contract between our company and Company X. We want to start the project in 2 weeks kthxbye.
Me: Okay... But what is the project about? What kind of terms do you want? What are the people involved supposed to do? What’s the timeline? How is the payment being made?
Since the contract is a recorded version of what was agreed between people in the project, the lawyer WOULDN’T know what to put in the contract. (Unless they were present during the discussions too!)
Even if you don't want to DIY your contract and want to hire a lawyer to create one for you, your lawyer will still be asking for your input. Your input is the MOST important part of the contract.
2. Forget the fancy legal words.
When I draft contracts at work, I use fancy legal words. But that's because I'm representing a corporation. The parties involved are companies, so the language that's expected to be used is more fancypants.
But if you're dealing with clients on a one-to-one basis, your contract should be in words that both of you understand easily. If you use fancypants language HERE, your client could feel like you're being shady.
Stick to the point. And use bullet points if you want to, it's fine.
3. A contract should be fair, it's not only for you.
Even if YOU prepare the contract and not the client, it doesn't mean that each T&C should be to your advantage only. I mean, you can make it like that, but your client wouldn't be too eager to sign on the dotted line, yaknow?
A lot of people think that having a contract means you get to cancel all the risks, but that's not how it works. There will always be risks to your business and your contract is supposed to eliminate those that can be REASONABLY eliminated.
For example, there's always a risk that you wouldn't get paid by the client. So how do you handle that?
- Reasonable: Each client must put in 20% deposit from the total fee. And pay in instalments after every stage of the project.
- Unreasonable: Each client must pay 100% in advance before the project starts.*
*Unless you're really in-demand, most clients won't agree to pay 100% upfront because then it will be a risk to them.
There's a lot of give and take here. You want to minimize risk, the client wants to minimize risk. So do expect to negotiate on some of the T&Cs because both of you need to agree on ALL the T&Cs.
4. Contract first, THEN project.
I used to think that I can figure out the contract as we go along the project. NOPE! Wrong way of doing it. (What can I say, I'm an impatient lady.)
The contract is has to be agreed upon by you and the client BEFORE the project starts. That means all the hard-thinking parts must be done before you start doing any kind of work.
Yes, you can tweak the contract along the way if you need to -- but everything should already be in place already.
What to put in your freelancer contract: the Must-Haves.
A contract can be long or short. Again, it depends on your project. If it’s a complicated and long project, it makes sense to have a longer contract so that you and client can thoroughly know what to do.
But regardless of how long or short the contract is, I’ve listed below the must-haves. These freelancer contract must-haves are important because they’re directly about your project, so do allocate some time to think them through. Even if you hire a lawyer, they'll be asking you the same things.
DISCLAIMER: The advice I’m giving in this blog post is general. Since I’m not your lawyer, I don’t know the specifics of your project. So please treat this post as a guideline rather than a specific advice for your specific situation.
Therefore, I need to mention this, please don’t hold me responsible for any issues in your contract or project.
If you want to be sure, I recommend hiring a lawyer to develop a contract (or contract template) that’s tailored for your business. It’s a great investment especially if you do a lot of freelancing. Protect yourself!
OK, now that the disclaimer is out of the way — let’s get cracking!
1. Roles & responsibilities
This part covers the things you and your client are supposed to do for the project. All the things.
Eventhough the roles and responsibilities are obvious and make you go, umm duh?, never assume you and your client have some sort of telepathy and you know exactly what each other are saying. (It rarely happens that way)
So yes — this is the first thing you should start with. Defining the things you and your client will do/are responsible for.
What I like to do is to have two columns side-by-side. One is for your responsibilities and the other is for the client’s responsibilities. It helps to compare them like this because you can see if the client has to do something in response to you and vice versa. Like this:
|Your responsibilities||Client's responsibilities|
|Provide questionnaire to determine client's ideal kitchen before project starts||Answer questionnaire and email to designer before project starts|
|Provide 3 kitchen design options to client for consideration||Choose 1 design option and give feedback|
For example, you have to provide 3 design options for the kitchen to the client. In response to that, the client has to choose 1 design out of the 3 options.
This helps the client be aware of his/her responsibilities throughout the duration of your service. You need their participation and cooperation, rather than just ‘get the payment and do the job’.
Should you include every single task that you have to do for the project? In my opinion, yes. No task is too small to be included. The reasons are two-fold:
- It gives the client an accurate picture of exactly what you’re doing. No more remarks like, “Well, I could have done this myself!”.
- It helps you provide an accurate Project Timeline, which is another point that we’ll be talking about after this.
2. Scope and limitations
The next important thing to include in your contract is the scope and limitations of the project. Basically, what IS and IS NOT covered in your service to the client?
In my experience, this is the part where freelancers and clients often fight over.
Freelancer: Umm no, that’s not included in the package.
Client: What do you mean not included? I’m paying you to do it!
As much as there are clients who purposely ask for things they know aren’t included (they like to try their luck), it’s your job as the freelancer to set limitations.
OK, let’s use the previous example. (In fact, we’ll just use the example for the rest of the blog post okay)
You’re a freelance interior designer and you only design kitchens. You need to define the scope and limitations of your interior design service.
SCOPE - things that are included:
- One home kitchen (dry or wet) If both, the fee is different.
- Includes designing, researching layouts, researching products and styling products.
LIMITATIONS - things that aren’t included:
- Does not include cleaning/ decluttering BEFORE and AFTER the project.
- Does not include DIY-ing existing furniture.
At this point, you may feel like you’re being too negative. Oh, I don’t do that. No, I don’t do this. It feels like you’re always saying NO to the client and isn’t that bad customer service?
Setting limitations is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s healthy for the project and your relationship with the client.
- Both of you know upfront what the client is paying you for. No unpleasant surprises down the line.
- You get to focus on what you’re really awesome at: your service! If you’re an interior designer, you can’t be sidetracked by cleaning.
3. Project timeline
Ah, we’ve come to another part of the project where there is often so much misunderstanding.
(BTW, I’m sorry if I sound jaded and negative. I’m just speaking out of experience at my work and business — the timeline is always a hot topic.)
To a client, the project should start as quickly as possible and finish, like, yesterday.
Sometimes, you can’t blame then. They’re just very very excited for the results. (Which is very encouraging!)
But on other times, their impatience comes from....
- Not knowing exactly what you do as the freelancer.
- Not knowing how much time certain tasks take.
So it’s also your job as the freelancer to inform them these things and set REALISTIC expectations.
The first important thing to address is the project DURATION.
Unless your arrangement with the client is on an ongoing basis, you need to have a definite duration for how long the project is going to take.
For example, for your interior design service, you’ve estimated that it would take 2 weeks at the very most.
For you: This is good because you know how many clients you can book for every month. (4 weeks / 2 weeks = 2 clients)
For the client: This is considerate because the client can make the necessary arrangements. For example, the client won’t be able to cook in her kitchen for 2 weeks, so she can order takeout in advance / not buy so many groceries.
The next important thing is stating the time allocated for each task. Your client needs to know how long you'll take to do each task listed in the 'Roles and Responsibilities' section.
You may feel like this is unnecessary because you’ve already told the client the duration of this project. Like, what else do I need to tell?
But like I’ve mentioned before, the client wants everything to be done yesterday. Or better yet, before the last dinosaur on Earth hatched out of its egg. (Random hyperbole)
This is because the freelancer hasn’t informed them how long things actually take.
For example, your client for your interior design service may feel like:
Why can’t she just come over to my house after signing the contract and start on my kitchen? 2 weeks is too long! This should just take, like, a weekend to finish.
But in actuality, you need at least 2 days to research kitchen styles properly, 1 day to come up with design drafts, and so on and so forth.
When you let them know how much time certain tasks take, they’ll appreciate the creative process so much more. And as a result, they’ll appreciate what they're going to get from you so much more.
The last thing to do under this part is setting up a Project Timeline. The Project Timeline is a a start-to-finish look at what’s going to happen in the project.
Starting from Day 1, you combine the responsibilities (yours and the client’s) with the days allocated for each ‘task’. I have two ways you can visualize this timeline:
1) USING A TABLE
|Day 1||Go over the questionnaire for ideal kitchen together to finalize the vision|
|Day 2 - 3||Develop 3 design options for the kitchen by researching and outlining layout|
|Day 4||Present 3 design options to the client for consideration and request client to make final choice|
|Day 5||Send client a 3D look of the kitchen based on design chosen, for approval|
...and continue this till the end of your project!
2) USING A FLOWCHART
Any option you choose, make sure the Project Timeline can be easily understood by the client!
4. Payment methods
Freelancers need money. Freelancers need to get paid. But you’d be surprised at how reluctant most freelancers can be to include this in their discussions with the client.
This is what your contract can do for you: Ensure you get paid by the client.
It does this by....
- Informing the client WHEN you should be paid.
- Informing the client HOW you should be paid.
Let’s take a look at it one-by-one.
You can inform the client WHEN you should be paid by creating a PAYMENT SCHEDULE. A Payment Schedule is a timetable for payment. Here's what it looks like:
|Upon signing of the contract||10% of the total Fee = RM100.00|
|Upon sending of the 3D image of the kitchen||20% of the total Fee = RM200.00|
|Upon confirmation of order with kitchen cabinet/furniture supplier||50% of total Fee = RM500.00|
|Upon confirmation that work is completed||20% of total Fee = RM200.00|
(Yes, this is what I use even at work)
The first thing to do for your payment schedule is to decide how often you get paid...
- Payment in lump sum or instalments?
- Upfront or at the end of project?
- Deposit or no deposit?
- How many instalments?
Look at your own needs as a freelancer and decide the frequency of payments accordingly.
The most prudent practice is always to take a deposit at the start of the project, especially if your project duration is long. It’ll let you know how interested the client is in the project and lets you have some extra cash to buy your supplies. Also, if by the end of the project the client disappears, at least you’ve gotten some payment. Better than nothing.
So, assuming you’re taking a deposit and want your client to pay by instalments, it’s time to figure out what events in the Payment Schedule will trigger payments.
OK, let’s go over that again. Events in the Payment Schedule will trigger payments.
For example, when I send my client the 3D image of the kitchen based on the design they had chosen, the client will pay me 20% of the total fee. The trigger here is the “send 3D image”.
Both you and the client must be totally onboard with this. Payment is a sensitive issue so there’s no room for miscommunication.
Soooo... That’s why the next step is really important: The trigger events in your Payment Schedule must match the Project Timeline.
Meaning, if the event is not one of the tasks in the Project Timeline, then it has NO business being on the Payment Schedule. Cuz if it’s not in the Project Timeline, the client will be confused about when they’re expected to make payment.
Like — if the client didn’t know that you’d be sending her a first draft, she wouldn’t have set aside money for payment. Right?
So go through your Project Timeline and make sure it links to your Payment Schedule.
The second thing to do is to decide HOW you want to get paid.
Trust me when I say that you can’t take this for granted. What do you accept as payment?
- Attention / credits / publicity / exposure?
- Love and affection?
Even if you’re doing the project for FREE, or even if you’re doing it on a barter basis — SPELL IT OUT.
I took this part for granted, TWICE. Both times, I did the work in exchange for exposure. You know how it goes, do work for someone famous, get mentioned on social media, gain some followers. Simple, right?
Both times, I made the mistake of NOT requesting/specifying the kind of exposure that I’d like. I just assumed that the other person would know what to do and all will be well.
What I should have spelled out were these things:
- The social media platform(s) that I wanted exposure on
- The description (or even photos) I wanted to be mentioned with
- How many times I’d be mentioned
- When I’d be mentioned (specific dates!)
- All my social media accounts that I should be tagged with
Because I didn’t spell out all these things, the end result was that my work was undercompensated.
It’s such a sucky feeling you know. I know I should be grateful for the opportunities to work with those people and not ‘demand’ the exposure, but I wasn’t doing those projects for fun. I wasn’t busting my ass for fun. I provided value. And exposure > More clients.
So don’t be like me. Negotiate for what you want in return for your services, and then put it in writing.
Remember, a good client will want to be fair. They’ll want to provide value to you in exchange for your service. So if your potential client refuses to discuss this part or brushes you off, you know it’s a red flag.
OK, let's recap a bit...
You can put any T&C in your DIY contract, but the FOUR contract must-haves above are the ones that MUST be in your contract.
- Roles & responsibilities - what you & your client are supposed to do.
- Scope & limitations - what IS & ISN'T covered by your services.
- Project timeline - the deadlines for your project.
- Payment method - how & when you're gonna get paid.
If you have other T&Cs that are more specific to your industry/services -- please put 'em in! Create new 'headings' if you have to.
How to start DIY-ing your freelancer contract
Now that you already know roughly what a contract is for and what you have to put in them, it's time to start DIY-ing your own. This part is straightforward!
Firstly, I recommend that you brainstorm and jot down everything that you can about your project. Don't limit yourself to only the four contract must-haves.
- If you have a 'standard' process for your services that won't be changed from client to client: jot down every step that you usually take for your previous clients.
- If this is your first time as a freelancer or if your contract is more personalized: refer to standard practices in your industry or your meeting notes with your client.
Secondly, separate what you've brainstormed into headings.
- For T&C that fit under the four contract must-haves: Put them under 'Roles & Responsibilities', 'Scope & Limitations', 'Project Timeline' and 'Payment Methods' respectively.
- For T&C that don't fit: See if you could group them into bigger categories. Those categories will be your new headings. For example, if you provide maintenance and support, you could have a heading called 'Maintenance & Support'.
Thirdly, decide what format you want your contract to be in.
- WhatsApp: Not recommended. Too casual and has limited space/formatting.
- Email: Recommended for contracts that are 'standard', where there's not much personalization. Your client can just reply that they agree to the T&Cs and you're done!
- Google Doc: Recommended for most situations, including 'standard' contracts.
The reason why I highly recommend Google Doc is because your client can view, edit and comment on the contract before it gets finalized! You just need to send a link to the contract to the client for them to check out.
I've prepared a sample of the contract for you in Google Doc to use if you want. Feel free to copy it into your own Google Doc and personalize according to your project!
Fourthly, the contract has to be agreed upon by you and the client.
Notice that I haven't said anything about 'signing' the contract yet? Just like when you buy things online, your actual signature isn't actually required for the contract to take effect.
When you happily click on those ‘Pay Now’ buttons, you’re basically showing that you agree to the T&Cs through your actions.
That's why it's enough if you can have your client reply to your email I agree to the Terms & Conditions in your email below. Or any kind of wording that shows they agree to the contract.
BUT -- if it's not inconvenient for you to print out your contract and sign it with your client, DO IT! Not only is it the best practice, you can also go through the contract one more time with your client. This builds trust.
Can you enforce your DIY contract in court?
The answer depends on a lot of factors, but generally, your DIY contract can be the basis for you to bring your claim against your client in court. Specifically, the small claims court.
Under this small claims court, you can sue your client (or any other party) if your claim is LESS than RM5,000. So for example, if the client was supposed to pay you RM4,900, but failed to do so, your case will be heard by the small claims court. For a more lengthy explanation on the process, check out Syahredzan Johan's article.
You won't be allowed to hire a lawyer to represent you (which means no legal fees), but don't worry -- the judge will guide you on what to do.
Please note that I said you can definitely sue, but WINNING your case isn't 100% guaranteed, even if you have a contract (DIY or not). It all depends on the facts in your situation.
Is that it? Can I start using the DIY contract now in my freelancing business?
Yes, you can!
Like I’ve said before, a contract is 90% business and 10% legal. As long as you have a clear picture of what you’re doing as the freelancer and what you want out of your project, your contract will follow naturally.
Just like marketing and bookkeeping parts of your business, the legal-ish part of your business needs to be taken care of too.
What’s the most important T&C that you want to incorporate in YOUR DIY contract?