We’re talking with WordPress freelancers in a series about improving your business and client process.
“WordPress freelancers need to leverage project managers!” -D’nelle Dowis
The conversation covers time tracking, hourly rates, documentation and the importance of project management.
What are the most important systems and processes for a freelancer to have in place?
Since I have a sort of dual persona as a business owner and as a freelancer, my perspective on this is possibly different from someone who is 100% freelance. For me, time tracking, invoice management and a personalized networking strategy are the top three most important areas to have locked down.
There are a ton of ways to approach those, but ultimately I think you have to find something that works for you, embrace sticking with it for a significant chunk of time and plan to reevaluate consistently.
For instance, my current approach to time tracking has worked really well for more than three years, and it’s about as simple as you can get. I use a Google Sheet to track billable and non-billable time. Each fiscal year is a new sheet and each billing period is a new tab.
I’ve reevaluated this approach twice before and come away satisfied that it’s the smartest approach for me personally. However, I’m in the process of again looking at the efficiency of it right now, and I’m finding that my personal needs, my cash flow and my typical client have all changed to the point that I need to move to something new. That’s basically how it goes: I ask myself mid-year, “Is this working efficiently enough, yes or no?” If the answer is no, I take action before the end of the year. (For what it’s worth, I’m considering Harvest, Tyme or OfficeTime. I’m not sure yet which is the best option, because I’m also going through this process with invoicing and the two areas are often very intertwined. But I’ll make a move by the end of the third quarter.)
Outside of that reevaluation, I stop myself when I question efficiency. There are always new products and services coming out that could potentially make my life easier, but if I get distracted by considering every new thing, I get zero billable work done!
The same goes for my networking. I’ve found what works for me, but I know that in 18 months, I’m going to change things up. It makes it easy to say no to new things and really focus on what matters to me.
What are some lessons about working with clients that you’ve had to learn the hard way?
More than any other job title, project manager is the best way to describe my professional orientation, and it has been in project management where I’ve learned the hardest lessons that, once I learned them, made the biggest change in the way that I work. I focus weekly on setting client expectations early and following up often, stating my hourly rate confidently but knowing when it can fluctuate, and getting every, every, everything in writing.
Being afraid to tell a client or a prospect what a project is going to take (either because you’re sensitive to their budget or because you’re afraid of what that will reveal about your strengths or weaknesses) only leads to misery. I spend at least an hour on every new project making sure that I’ve both understood the client’s needs and correctly estimated the time it will take to satisfy them. When I offer up a flat rate, the price is an estimate of my time and an additional 35% for the unexpected. I’ve gotten eerily good at estimating time, but that is only because I did such a bad job of it early on and did so much work for free as a result!
Early on, settling on an hourly rate was difficult for me. Coming from a salaried job, I felt that my hourly rate was simply a reflection of the value of my time. For freelancing, it’s so much more. It has to take into account things that are sort of invisible in the salaried world—insurance, office space, supplies, equipment, professional development and non-billable work. It was only through experience that I gained confidence in stating my hourly rate and being comfortable with it scaring some people. I’ve only ever had positive things come from raising my rates, and that proof has helped me to stick to my guns.
The other thing that has been hard to learn has been keeping excellent documentation. The trouble with it is that when things go well, the documentation never again sees the light of day—so there’s no positive reinforcement. It’s only when there’s a problem and I can whip out meticulous records that I get that positive reinforcement—that feeling of relief and security in the face of being questioned. Luckily, I naturally keep detailed records, but some days it can still feel exhaustive (I have to write a meeting wrap-up again? I need to create a 10-page contract again?). It’s not that it’s a hard lesson to learn so much as it’s hard to stay committed to that lesson.
It took me years to start treating my own work the way I treat the work of others, to give my time and talents the same respect that I have for freelancers who work for my company. I’m still not perfect, but I’m finally in a place where I am confident in my own value and my own methodology. It makes it a lot easier to bring in a new client!
What do WordPress freelancers need to be doing differently today?
Like I said before, I’m a project manager before anything else, so this may sound very self-serving: WordPress freelancers (and agencies!) need to leverage project managers! I could have used a string of exclamation points there, I’m so passionate about it.
The biggest problem with new site builds and ongoing site ownership is entropy. Things fall apart. Tasks get lost. And in freelancing, you’re in a position where there is so little institutional memory that you can often find yourself lost. For instance, I have a client—a very successful company in the healthcare industry—that has more than 10 WordPress sites built on multiple themes, hosted in multiple places and configured in several different ways… but no one at the company really knows any of this. When they need something done on a site, there are multiple decision makers and stakeholders who act to get it done. The company uses multiple freelancers, and none of us know what the others have done or are actively doing. I’ve started advising my clients to act as their own project managers, to keep a central record of how things started, why certain decisions were made, what’s changed since those decisions and what their ultimate goals are.
As a WordPress freelancer, this can be pretty daunting. If you’re more inclined toward building things, being a developer or a designer, then it’s hard to think about how your decisions are affecting the bigger picture. It’s not necessarily the WordPress freelancer’s responsibility to think of these things, but it often ends up being our problem. It costs our clients money when we have to spend time figuring out what someone before us did instead of just jumping into executing a solution, and it’s hard to explain that time to a client. This can often lead to losing out on regular/return clients, because the freelancer can often just be a symptom of a larger problem. New projects are so exciting—Let’s build something new/shiny/pretty/cool!—that it’s easy to ignore the bigger picture. Bringing in a project manager as a partner, even if it’s just for a pre-build consult or post-build evaluation, can make a freelancer’s work easier and their reputation better.