How should I set appropriate boundaries and working structure as a freelancer?
December 20, 2012 7:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm a freelancer. How do I handle this particular client who may be undervaluing my work and time, and overstepping some boundaries?

I'm relatively new to freelancing. I agreed to do 'marketing work' for an events organizer, at an hourly rate of $8/hr. The jobscope as I understood was to follow up with sponsors/partners to make sure they adhered to agreements and deliverables, planning and updating a schedule for marketing and logistics, and liasing with street teams.

The client keeps on 'assigning' me additional duties and expecting me to do them, all under the hourly rate of $8/hr. These include:
- researching and formulating an overall marketing strategy, writing detailed reports and plans for marketing approach etc
- coming up with a list of partners/sponsors and being expected to seek them out, initiate contact with them, negotiate and make arrangements with them
- conceptualizing, planning and implementing social media campaigns
- designing graphics etc to accompany the social media promotion
- writing press releases
- giving general marketing advice and helping to brainstorm ideas for promotion
- organizing promotional events and being present to monitor those events at times

I have been obliging, partly because it seems like he really needs help. (His events company is really just a one-man show). I have experience in events organization - I actually used to run my own non-profit organization that organized events, shows, festivals, etc. He seems to be realizing that I have experience and knowledge that he doesn't, and says that he is learning from my pitching, copywriting and ideas. I am beginning to feel like I am organizing half of the event, effectively...
He also texts me at all hours, asking for all sorts of advice, and expects quick turnaround times for the things he assigns.

I'm obviously quite terrible at setting boundaries and being professional as a freelancer. :( What should I do? I think he now expects me to keep doing whatever he 'assigns' me. Am I undervaluing my work at $8/hr, or am I expecting too much for what I do? There is no commission rate and nothing else (e.g. transport, food) is covered by him. I do work from home almost all the time though, except for some of the errands or being present at some promotional events.
Ignoring the pay issue and the client-personality issue, I do enjoy this type of work and I've mostly been very good at what I do (pitching successfully where he previously failed, improving on copy, etc). Maybe I would be a lot happier doing this if there were more reasonable turnaround expectations and less expectations for me to do anything he can't or doesn't want to do.
I originally agreed to work for him for the next few months. I think I should honor that commitment, but how do I handle the situation from now on? What should I reasonably expect from him, or he from me?

(Sorry if this has been quite long and rambling. It's probably the first time I've talked about this at length.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You need to take the bull by the horns at the beginning of each month and determine a monthly budget and monthly deliverables. Stick them, and report on them.

$8/hr seems pretty cheap for a mid-career person like yourself. Is there any reason whyyou can't find a client that will pay you say $500 a month where you work 10 hours?
posted by KokuRyu at 7:21 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

$8 an hour is minimum wage in a lot of places. I can't answer to the rest of your question, beause I'm not in that field at all, but I got paid more than that as an intern when I was in college.
posted by NoraReed at 7:27 PM on December 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

$8.00 an hour is minimum wage where I live. If you're not an employee, then your employer is getting you for much less than minimum wage because he doesn't have to pay all the extras that come with employing someone. Renegotiate your wage rate at least or find something else. The rule of thumb when I was consulting, which was a long, long time ago, was that you would double what you would be paid as an employee at least.
posted by rdr at 7:28 PM on December 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow, you are being underpaid and overworked! I'm working on a project right now that could use your expertise with social media and press releases. I'd never text you at night, or require you to drive anywhere or buy anything.

Please send me a message. I'll pay more in better work conditions.
posted by carolinaherrera at 7:35 PM on December 20, 2012 [12 favorites]

You need to find a message board/forum for people in your field. I'm an academic, not an event marketer, but I'd say that with the kind of work you describe, you should triple your hourly rate, at least. $8/hour is what you get for being friendly, punching fast food orders into the computer, and making sure that the fry grease is reasonably non-disgusting.

You, on the other hand, are writing reports and press releases, planning marketing campaigns, responding to messages outside of normal working hours, and lots of other things. That kind of work is far above minimum wage expectations, and if you're paying the self-employment tax (you are doing that, right? You want to have Social Security and Medicare when you retire), you're saving your employer a substantial amount of money, not to mention hassle in not withholding income tax.

Perhaps you're charging a rate based on your non-profit experience, but from his perspective, he's hired the goose that laid the golden eggs. If you want to keep working with him, you should renegotiate your rate, pronto.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:36 PM on December 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

I have been obliging, partly because it seems like he really needs help.

You are misunderstanding the difference between "work" and a "favor." It is acceptable to "fire" a client if he doesn't fit into your overall career strategy. I will do consulting work regarding computer science issues. If someone wants 2 hours of consulting work and then 20 hours of sweeping the floor, I'll say, "thanks but no thanks," even if the client really appears to need help with cleaning his office. The flipside is if I offer to provide rather inexpensive services, and the client wants something much more complicated and advanced, the rate is different, even if the client seems to really, really need help with this more difficult work.

It sounds like you need some mentoring regarding being a freelancer so that you can better understand what the market rate for your work is and how to draw up a contract before starting a relationship with a client.
posted by deanc at 7:41 PM on December 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

$8/hr is undervalued, yes. That would be a reasonable, if low, rate of pay for basic data entry and paperwork processing (depending somewhat on your location.) Anything requiring you to have knowledge, experience, or creativity is worth much, much more than that - I'd be charging $25/hr minimum, if I was feeling nice and/or the business was a nonprofit. I would also bill a half hour for every text, and set a time-and-a-half rate for evenings after 8pm and weekends. (Or I'd just set available hours and ignore him outside of them, depending on my schedule and budget.)

In order to get a handle on the situation, you need to tell him flat-out that the job has increased in scope beyond the original agreement and you either need to renegotiate or drop all of the extra tasks outside the original ones. (You'd be underpaid for the original ones, too, frankly, but it's a little late for that.) I'm assuming you don't have any sort of written agreement? Because now would be the time to draw one up.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:42 PM on December 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

He's undervaluing your work because you're undervaluing your time. One of the key things I've learned from years of freelancing: the lower your rate, the crappier the client will treat you. The inverse is not always true but at least in the inverse you get paid enough to ignore it.
posted by jamaro at 7:52 PM on December 20, 2012 [12 favorites]

I originally agreed to work for him for the next few months.

Establish an end-date ASAP - an actual end-date, not 'in a few months'.

Next client, charge 3x as much. Establish what kind of freelancer you are - if you make yourself available at all hours, you'll be contacted at all hours. If you are immediately available for everything, the expectation will be that you need no heads up on projects. This might work for you, it might not. You need to work out your priorities.

And bill for everything.

And clients will always bitch about how much you cost - if they want you enough, they'll pay for it (in between the whinging) - you, meanwhile, have bills to pay and you're a professional (don't forget that).
posted by heyjude at 8:12 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

At a mid-size nonprofit, what you're describing would start at $30K for a fairly junior person. Undervalued, um, oh holy hell yes.
posted by desuetude at 8:21 PM on December 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Tell him that the scope of your job has changed, and thus if he wants to keep you, he will have to give you a raise. You did sign a contract that included the expected scope of your responsibilities, right? If not, rectify that now. You are under no obligation to continue working under poor conditions just "to keep your word", by the way. That's just letting him take advantage of you.

I used to get paid $8 an hour when I was a kid to do things like clean the kitchen for my mom (this was 15 years ago), and hey, I hadn't even graduated high school yet.... so I'm not sure how you could have gotten the idea that you are asking too much for doing professional level work that requires actual expertise.... but wow your client is getting the deal of a lifetime!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:34 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your rate is too low. I don't know your market, but a freelancer should be paid an hourly rate that is much higher than an employee would make as you have to pay for your healthcare, training, sick days, office supplies, etc and you have no chance to collect unemployment. For example as a business owner I pay $60 for copywriting, $80 for book keeping, and $80-110 for IT work. My rate is above those, and my after hours / weekend / holiday rate doubles itself.

As for how to set boundaries: a written contract. Writing my contract was the most important thing I did as a freelancer. It is difficult to write a contract as a freelancer paid hourly (I also am one) as the norm is project based work (deliver x in y time for z dollars) and templates for hourly work contracts do not seem to exist. I've read the Nolo book, looked online, etc. If you would like to see my contract you can mail me and I can send you a link and you can steal what you want to make a contract for yourself (this is not legal advice and I am not your lawyer).

I suggest the books Design is a Job by Mike Monterio, Consulting for Dummies and Small Business for Dummies.

Put in a resignation with this client with 2 weeks notice and say you would like to continue working with them at your new rate with a contract to be signed. They might go for it. If not you free up your time to find a client who will. When you quote something like $40 or $60 an hour to your next prospective client and they don't even blink you'll wonder why you spent time making $8 an hour.
posted by ridogi at 8:38 PM on December 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, this is a helpful read.
posted by ridogi at 8:46 PM on December 20, 2012

When a client asks you to handle additional responsibilities, don't just add it to the list. Say "Let's get together and discuss your additional needs, and I'll get you an estimate on this aspect of the project." Then type up a proposal and have them sign it.
posted by Ostara at 8:51 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

What everyone else said. If you need even more of a push, watch Fuck you Pay Me, also by Mike Monterio.
posted by grapesaresour at 8:58 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

$8/hour? There is no way you can charge that amount as a freelancer, tripling your rate would be the absolute minimum. If you charge like a professional, people will treat you like a professional. If you offer your services for nothing (and $8/hr as a self employed person means you are probably making less than nothing) you will be somebody's gopher that they walk all over. Fire this client immediately and start quoting people at least $50 an hour, what you are doing is worth money (shit, I almost hired someone to help me with some of the same duties and I didn't blink when they said $75/hour!).

As a freelancer you set the boundaries. Do not let clients get away with anything, bill for every second and spell out your boundaries. Otherwise you will be taking midnight calls for $8/hour on complicated projects with no notice. Is that the kind of business you want to run?
posted by bradbane at 9:14 PM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

$8.00 per hour is ridiculous. Honor your commitment to this client, move on and never, ever work for a rate that low again.
posted by davebush at 9:26 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

He is asking you to do a ton of work because you are offering him amazing value. $8/hr is real cheap to begin with, but on top of that he doesn't have to give you benefits, pay payroll taxes, there are no long term obligations or minimum hours, no supplies, no time-and-a-half overtime, no responsibility at all on his end.

You need to send him an email in the next week telling him that you have picked up offers from some other clients, and so your rate is increasing to $30/hour on Feb 1st. Take this opportunity to throw in other stuff you should have too, like travel compensation (IRS standard mileage rate is 55.5 cents/mile), minimum hours, etc. If he balks, negotiate your price down, but no lower than $25/hour. Feel free to point out that replacing you would require multiple people, likely employees with significant non-salary costs.
posted by Garm at 10:44 PM on December 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I originally agreed to work for him for the next few months. I think I should honor that commitment

If his business went belly-up would you expect him to pay you for the next few months because of that same commitment? Would you turn down a job paying $100/hour because of that commitment? Once you have sorted out your boundaries, as the above excellent advice sets out, you may find going from "walk all over me" to "i am inflexible" a bit jarring and unnatural. You can approach your client and tell him you have been offered a more lucrative opportunity doing similar work but wanted to give him a chance to match their compensation for a written contract doing all the work you are doing now within the parameters you are comfortable with. Role play with a good friend how you think this conversation will go until you feel comfortable. If he balks you can use your time to find sustainable gigs or organise your own events to network into your next job. You should also be looking for mentors to teach you how to handle the tricky, diplomatic side of freelancing.
posted by saucysault at 10:51 PM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, your rate is far too low. In addition to the excellent advice offered here by others, I've also learned that some clients aren't worth keeping even when they're paying an excellent wage. It has been a hard lesson for me to feel comfortable with, but I've willingly ended my contract with clients who have no boundaries more than once. I'm getting better at spotting them before I accept work from them, but I've had to get burned a couple of times to recognize the signs. In my opinion, though, it's worth learning.
posted by summerstorm at 11:03 PM on December 20, 2012

There is a lot of good advice here. I hope you are listening. Merlin Mann wrote a great article about this: A Sandwich, A Wallet, and Elizabeth Taylor's Cousin. It's just a brief parable, but there is also a list of recommended reading there at the end. Right now, you are the guy in that story.
posted by seasparrow at 11:19 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you doing this for experience? Because your compensation rate is criminal, and I can NOT understand this otherwise.

-Ignore all texts after 6pm. Get back to him in the morning.

Can you assign his texts a silent tone? Do that. If not, advise him that you can't receive texts from him after 6pm, and it is better for him to put it in an email.

- Alternatively, get a cheap pay-as-you go phone (bill him for it, and the mileage he puts on it) and tell him he is free to text you at will and as things come up, but you will only read those texts and deal with them during the hours of 8am to 6pm.

- Re-negotiate your compensation as per the added work/responsibilities.

These two items go in the same email.

"Dear X,

I like working on your event and I am keen to see it through to completion.

I appreciate that I've been a great help to you, but the responsibilities delegated to me the past few weeks are beyond our original agreement. I'm sure you understand. (Go ahead and list the extras) Additionally, I get that you might need to text me ideas and requests as they come up, but this often happens when I am off the clock. I have two solutions to propose.

My compensation must increase to reflect the added responsibilities. $Y per hour is fair. Additionally, I think it is wise to by a cheap pay-as-you- go phone to use for texting with you. This way, you can text me off hours without worry you are disturbing me. The phone is yours to use for your next project. Alternatively, you may limit your text messages to me so it is only between the hours of 8am to 6pm. Since I know you can't predict when tasks or ideas might come up that need to be relayed to me, I suggest the extra cell phone. If this does not work for you, perhaps emailing after hours is the solution? I don't want to stymie our communications, rather, we require a solution that works for both of us.

Thank you blah blah blah.



Be super respectful. Give him a chance to consider and counter your proposal or suggest alternatives.

The job as changed considerably since you agreed to take on the role. It's OK and NECESSARY for you to note this and negotiate a better deal.

PS. I would not go below $20 per hour + expenses. Period.
posted by jbenben at 12:03 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unless you are picking fruit, you cannot charge $8 an hour as a freelancer. You need, urgently, to research and understand the economics of freelance billing.

More immediately, you need to draw a line between task sets for this guy. So something like:

"We originally agreed a limited hourly rate for a limited administrative jobscope: follow up with sponsors/partners to make sure they adhered to agreements and deliverables, planning and updating a schedule for marketing and logistics, and liaising with street teams.

"The breadth of the work has evolved to exceed that and now includes areas of my professional sales and marketing expertise which I bill at $24 an hour. While I want to be of use and am happy to provide this additional support, I would like to redevelop our agreement going forward in the new year to either pull back the scope or agree new billing and hours for this additional area of work."

Were I you, my goal would be to agree something like Y hours a week at $8 to cover the original admin tasks, and an additional Z hours a week at $24 an hour to cover the new stuff.

On top of that, just because he sends you a text at 8 PM doesn't mean you have to reply at 8 PM.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:48 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

As well as the things suggested, I would add that, in future, you would be wise to add a clause to your contracts specifying new (increased) rates if the scope of the project changes significantly from what was agreed upon at the start.

This is useful not only because it somewhat compensates you for the stress and annoyance, but also because there being extra money attached can head off the client's adding more work than what was agreed upon.
posted by frimble at 2:54 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Part of the problem might be your experience with a nonprofit. I also work for a nonprofit (as a volunteer, but my work is very extensive) and this gets you used to working essentially without pay - it's not a good practice for the real business world. The fact that he really needs the help would be material if you were just being charitable, but this isn't nonprofit work, this is profit work!

In order to help combat your thoughts like "well, he really needs the help" or "I agreed I'd work a few more months" - i.e. to help you enforce boundaries - note to yourself how successful he has been in showing you his own expectations and thereby compelling you to meet them. He has clearly conveyed to you that he expects X, Y, and Z from you (including a fast turnaround time on 'extra' assignments) - you need to be able to do that with him as well.

Also, while re-reviewing your question I noted that you implied you are incurring work-related expenses that he is not covering (transport, etc). Remember to include these details in your new contract.

Don't beat up on yourself too much about not having all this worked out from the start. I know for myself and probably many of the above folks we learned this stuff the hard way too. Being 'too nice' is not such a bad thing. And making yourself invaluable to the client and then raising your rates is usually a winning strategy because it can convince people to pay a rate they wouldn't have initially agreed to now that they have realized your value.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:05 AM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is a term for this: Scope Creep (google search)

Check out the search results and start clicking. The situation you described is unfortunately all too common. Another concept as a relatively new freelancer you need to get comfortable with is Fire Your Client (another google search). Recognizing a state of Diminishing Returns is also a biggie.

The point is that you are getting the shaft. Employers (not all of them) who use freelancers are notorious for expanding the playing fields and moving the goal posts. As a freelancer, much of what you do has a finite and quantifiable limit that you need to be able to articulate when Scope Creep appears. Otherwise, this will continue until it becomes so untenable, you either quit or maybe even get fired yourself.

This does not mean you should just walk away tomorrow. However, if you are feeling slighted by the person that is contracting you, start developing a plan to move on. When you feel that you can afford to lose the job, you will also be in a far better position to negotiate terms and compensation with your current client.
posted by lampshade at 4:16 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

You aren't freelancing. You're a minimum-wage employee without benefits. You need to put the brakes on things asap, or this job will snowball into a never-ending full-time $8/hour. You can make better pay working fast food.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:18 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

> At a mid-size nonprofit, what you're describing would start at $30K for a fairly junior person. Undervalued, um, oh holy hell yes.

And to expand on my earlier comment...that would equal $15/hour plus full benefits and all transportation and all business expenses covered. So yes, you need to at least triple your fees.
posted by desuetude at 10:19 AM on December 21, 2012

I am having a hard time understanding why someone who ostensibly used to "run" a non-profit "that organized events, shows, festivals, etc." would even think that charging $8/hr was a reasonable rate for a "freelancer" and doesn't understand how to charge the client for expenses.

Another possible suggestion would be for you to get a job at an events-planning company (a real one, not a community organization/non-profit) and work there for at least a few years which would help you learn more about the business and managing costs and drawing up contracts before you strike out on your own as a "freelancer."
posted by deanc at 12:36 PM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

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