It's tough to get ahead when you're always busy with client work.

What clients really want when they ask for your portfolio

You are working on landing a new project and your soon-to-be client has asked you for your portfolio. But you are a developer and most of your work is code.

What do you send them?

A lot of freelancers have portfolios that are basically screenshots of the sites they have worked on. Others recommend using github to showcase your skills. Can you get away with just referencing your own site?

Well.. no.

To understand why these aren't great ideas, you first need to understand why your client is asking for them.

Clients don't ask you for examples of your work so they can scrutinize your skills and assess your fit for their project. It's not even possible. If they could evaluate your skills at your craft, they sure as hell wouldn't ask for a portfolio.

They ask for examples because it is all they know how to do. They want to make sure you can do what you say you can do. They need a way to determine if you are too risky. They want something tangible to evaluate and put their mind at ease. It doesn't matter that seeing a screenshot will tell them absolutely nothing of your abilities.

What they need is a way to understand what you do in language they can understand.

They need to see case studies.

A case study is a document that walks through your project in a way clients can understand what happened.

The problem with screenshots is that they are only a representation of how the final product looks. It lacks context. It doesn't tell the story of how you solved your clients problems or what considerations and tradeoffs you made. It also hides the majority of your work and the client might not know what important questions to ask.

Sending your github profile is even worse. Here, you are showing them something they can't even begin to evaluate. At best all they can tell is that you did something. Even if you have a successful project on github, you shouldn't send your github account as a work reference. You're better off making it into a case study, too.

Finally, you don't want to just point them to your own site for the same reasons above. If it is an example of what the client wants done, then it is better off in a case study.

Why is a Case Study a better approach?

With a case study you are able to control the message. You give a guided tour of the project to explain the value you brought to the table. You can explain your decisions within the context of the constraints of the project. Your new client should be able to put themselves in the shoes of your past client and understand what you did.

This will give them a much better feeling of whether you are able to help them or not.

A good case study should do four things to be effective:

  • Discuss the problem the client faced and goals they wanted to accomplish.

    Every good story starts with a conflict and so should your case study. You want the case study to be interesting so it will be read.

    Functionally, this gives the new client a way to identify with the project at hand. That is why you need for this to be written with your clients as the audience. You need to speak in their terms, using their motivations and concerns.

  • Discuss your process for delivering the solution.

    This is where you will sell the client. Discuss what you considered when you addressed the problem. Which obvious solutions were discarded? Why? What special considerations did you take?

    You need to prove that you know what you are doing and that you can solve problems. Again, keep this targeted to your clients and not your peers. They don't need to know how to do this, just what you did.

  • Clearly explain the benefits your client received.

    This is the icing on the cake. You evaluated the problem, solved it and delivered the solution. How did it help the client? Was the result what they expected? Were they happy?

    Use evidence and exact numbers on the client's terms. Go into details. You didn't just streamline a process, you eliminated 30 hours of work per week saving the company $1200 per employee per week. You gave them more opportunities to increase revenue. You get the idea.

  • It should be skimmable.

    You should assume your client is busy and won't want to read everything. You should use images, headlines, lists, and bolding to give them a TLDR; version. They can dip into any section to get the juicy details, but they can still understand what is going on without it.

Here are two examples of solid case studies:

  1. Patrick McKenzie - Doubling SaaS Revenue

    In this case study, Patrick McKenzie describes working with Server Density to increase their revenue by adjusting their pricing.

    He explains:

    • Problem: Server Density was using a linear pricing model, even though larger customers got outstanding value.
    • Process for delivering the solution: Patrick explains the problems with this pricing model and gives a new pricing model that captures more of the customer value, increasing profits.
    • Result: Results From Testing: 100% Increase In Revenue.

    Also note this is easily skimmable so you can get the highlights without reading every word.

  2. Neil Patel -

    In this case study, Neil Patel describes working with Noah Robischon of Gawker Media to drive 5 million visitors to their properties with SEO.

    Neil clearly labels each section: The Problem, The Results, and Our Strategy.

    He also uses great design to make this case study really stand out. Since Gawker Media is a large and widely recognized brand, he highlights that fact through a testimonial with resonates with his target audience as well as positions his offering.

Your Turn

Look through your past projects and pick your best one to highlight your work in a case study. Use these tips to provide an answer to any future client that asks for work samples.

Just make sure to clear your case study with your past client before using it!

Are You Scaring Away Clients with Your High Rates?

The butterflies in your stomach are getting worse. How is that even possible? You check your inbox one more time—no reply.

You haven't finished any real work all day and it's already noon. You have been checking your inbox too often for that to happen. Five minutes haven't passed between you clicking the refresh button... just one more time.

You are busy waiting on that new prospect. Are they going to say "Yes" to the project or not?

Things started out pretty well. They usually do. You talked about what they needed done. It was effortless. You asked question after question, focusing in on the details of the project, and each email received a prompt response. Then it happened...

They asked "How much do you charge?".

Now this email was tough to write. You took your time because you didn't want to turn them away. Uncertainty crept in and you were no longer confident with your rate.

Is it too high? How much do other people like me charge? Will it be too expensive for them?

You finally settled on a response. You typed out your rate–no turning back, now–and hit Send.

No response.

As quick as they were to respond before, that's all gone now.

You have scared them away and they are gone for good.

Is your rate too high?

When this happens, it is easy to give in to your insecurity and think your rate was too high. Don't do that, it will be a big mistake.

Never assume your rate is too high unless your client tells you that directly. Even then, your rate isn't too high. The problem is positioning.

Positioning your rate means you give the client the right thing to compare it against.

It is a good idea to position the cost of the project against the value of the project—the benefits they will receive from it. When they see that the value is much higher than the cost, your price looks like a bargain.

Value isn't the only thing you can position against. You can also position yourself. Think about ways you are a good fit to do the project.

  • Are you highly experienced in completing projects like this one?
  • Have you done projects just like this one in the past, with references or case studies to back it up?
  • Have you worked with other clients that would be relevent to this one?
  • What extras do you include that competitors don't?

What makes you special? Come up with a list of things that make you special for this project and use them to position yourself.

It has to be obvious that you are a great value to your client. You can't keep it a secret.

A common mistake is to not position your rate against anything. At all.

This is a mistake because your rate will still be positioned, but you won't have any control over it.

If your client isn't used to hiring people like you to work on projects for them, they are going to compare your rate against things they buy now. Your $100/hr rate doesn't look very good compared to a $30/hr employee, does it?

You and I both know this is nonsense and not a fair comparison, but your client won't know that. You have to make sure this comparison doesn't happen.

Think back to your email you sent in response to "How much do you charge?". Did you do any positioning?

Do not follow up with a lower rate.

If you are already insecure about the rate you charge, it is easy to think that your rate is the problem. It follows that lowering your rate will fix the problem. Then it is easy to be tempted to send an email with a reduced rate.

This is another terrible idea.

When you send an unrequested rate reduction,

  • It makes you look unprofessional. Good luck getting respect from your client now.
  • It makes you look desperate. Are you having trouble getting work?
  • It weakens your negotiating position. Your will think they can walk all over you.
  • It only works with toxic clients. Good clients don't need you to lower your rates.

What else can you do to get a response?

Communicating well is very difficult.

It's even more difficult because we aren't used to talking to clients. Almost all of us were at least one step removed from them before we became freelancers.

Luckily it is just a skill and can be improved.

Here are 4 tips to make sure your communication is effective:

  1. Give them enough time to respond. Don't allow yourself to become anxious and send too many unanswered emails or voicemails while you are waiting. Give your client room to breathe. We have all seen the movies where the guy calls the girl 20 times in a row and she is creeped out. This isn't just for dating.

  2. Follow up as many times as needed. On the other hand, you don't want to just send one email and never talk to the client again. A good rule of thumb is to follow up until you hear a definite yes or no. Use a reminder service to keep track and follow up again if you haven't received an answer. Be brief and remind your client what you need from them. Make sure you add more value with each follow up attempt.

    Hi, Alice

    Today I saw X and it made me think of <project>. I think we could use this to <add value to project>. I am happy to discuss this with you. Are you available this afternoon at 4pm or tomorrow at 11am?

    Thanks, Jason

    This is simple and effective.

  3. Use more than one form of communication. Many freelancers like to stick to email, but this really isn't a good idea. You get a better connection to a potential client by using voice. In fact, I always use initial email conversations to setup a phone call to discuss the project. It is efficient and gives you a great chance to get to know your client better as well as their needs.

  4. Make sure your client knows exactly what you need from them. Everytime you send a message to your client, it needs to tell them exactly what you need them to do or tell them they don't need to do anything at all.

    By email: A lot of people end emails with "Let me know if I can help" or "Let me know if you have any questions". These aren't very useful. Your client is going to ask you questions regardless of this line in your email. They will be ignored.

    What's worse is that it makes you feel like you are saying something, that they will respond to this line. Figure out exactly what you want the client to do in response to your email. Do you want them to setup a time to meet with you? Do you want them to answer a question you had? Accept a proposal? Make sure it is explicit at the end of the email what they need to do.

    By Phone: Here is a tip that made phone calls work much better for me. I now take notes on every call I am on. At the end of the phone call, I send a follow up email.

    This email contains three things: a thank you for taking the call, a summary of what we discussed on the call, and a list of action items for everyone on the call.

    The value-add is tremendous for you and your client. There's no longer a need to remember what was discussed, because it is summarized in a searchable location. What's more it gives you a jumping off point to follow up on the action items from the email.

What if you already sent the email?

If you already sent an ineffective email, don't worry! You can always course correct with your follow ups.

If following up still doesn't yield results, there's always the magic email. It effectively uses psychological loss aversion to get a response.

An ounce of prevention

Like many things, the concepts above work best if you use them proactively. Don't wait until you are trying to fix a mistake.

So the next time you are communicating with your clients, make sure you follow these tips:

  • Position your price relative to the value of the project.
  • Position yourself as an unfair advantage to the project.
    • Your skills and experience
    • Clients you have worked with
    • Extras you provide on your projects
  • Make sure your client knows exactly what you need from them. Ideally minimize the number of decisions they need to make.
  • Use more than one form of communication with your client.
  • Give them enough time to respond.
  • Follow up as many times as necessary.

What Do You Do When a Client Misses a Deadline?

There is a special place in my heart for projects where the client has missed a deadline for delivering a crucial requirement to me for the project to be completed. (And a special place for clients who routinely miss them, but that's a story for another day.)

I am sure you have experienced this before. You discussed a project with a client, and set the date the client needs it, but you only agreed if the client provided you with everything you need by date X. This meant they owed you images, files, designs, text for the page, or whatever, by date X.

Then date X comes and goes and you still haven't received what you needed. The project is no longer on track to be finished by the deadline.

What follows is usually the client calls, with their hair on fire, asking

OMG!! I still need the project delivered on time, can you help me? I am so sorry I didn't get the information you needed. This, that, and the other happened so I couldn't. I still need to hit the deadline!!

Now what do you do? You basically have 3 options.

  1. Don't hit the deadline. You both agreed you needed everything from the client by date X. Client didn't give you everything by date X. The deadline is no longer achievable.
  2. Do it for them anyway, because you are nice. Yuck. Do this enough and your client will have no respect for you or your time.
  3. Do it for them anyway, but charge them extra. This is called Rush Charges.

The project is no longer on track, and to make the deadline you have to do extraordinary things.

  • You might have to work late to get everything done.
  • You might have to bump other clients' work to do this instead.

Both of these scenarios are not included in the regular price. The regular price is for normal work in your normal hours.

Since the work required is no longer normal, extra pay is required. I am even nice about it. I will tell my clients about rush charges up front in a situation like this.

I also make it clear that I will not guarantee hitting the deadline if they miss theirs. If you need a week after they deliver images to you and they deliver them the day before, or god forbid, the day of the deadline, no amount of Rush Charges will help you.

How much should Rush Charges be?

I price Rush Charges based on how much effort is required to complete the project. If I just need to bump another client and they are not in a rush, then the rush charges might be 1.5X my normal rate.

If I need to pull an all nighter, then you better be my favorite client. 2X+ normal rate.

There is a point though where all the money in the world won't really make up for the hassle and effort required. I either try to push back the deadline, refuse to do it, or ask for a dizzying amount of money.

How can you prevent this entirely?

The easiest way to prevent this is to remind your client. Before the deadline. You will probably want to remind them several times.

If they still miss the deadline, then send them a notice of how much the rush charges are going up each day past the deadline. Warn them that after a point you will no longer be able to do it for any cost.

The Benefits of Project Based Pricing for You and Your Client

Recently I was speaking with a fellow freelancer about project-based pricing.

He had been using the project price as a "cap". In other words, the price was used as the maximum price the client would have to pay, but he would charge less if the project ended up below the estimate.

I made the same mistake when I was first starting out, among others:

  1. I was scared of charging too much

    I didn't just start out with a price that I thought wasn't enough, though. I basically allowed optimism to take over and price in such a way that a lot of things would have to go very well for a project to be profitable.

  2. I charged clients less if I didn't hit the estimated project cost

  3. I answered emails and phone calls around the clock

  4. I fixed bugs perpetually for free

  5. I only included development time in my estimates and not all the other tasks required to complete a project

  6. I thought all projects were equally suited to fixed-price bids, because "that's the way things are done".

The big reason these are mistakes is that I didn't realize that project-based pricing was a tool. I didn't understand the value of fixed price projects for my clients. I didn't know there was a choice.

In reality, project-based pricing is a tool. It has benefits and tradeoffs for both the client and for you. Once you understand all of this, you can decide whether a project-based price is a good fit for the project at hand.

Benefits to the client

Here are some good reasons to use project pricing to provide value to your clients:

  • The client will know what the costs of the project are up front.

    It is very helpful to know the full cost of a project before deciding to commence. After seeing the total price, your client will be able to verify if the value of the project is in line with the price. This can also provide a great opportunity to reduce scope if your estimate is higher than expected.

  • The client knows what will be delivered on completion.

    The price isn't the only thing that is great to know up front. It is also good for planning to know which features will be included, which problems will be solved, and how completely they will be solved. This is important because they may also need to coordinate other work with your project, including: employee training, creating workarounds for unaddressed issues, and preparing their customers for the new project, coordinating marketing around the new project, etc.

    It's very difficult to make plans if you don't know what you are planning for.

  • The client will have a pretty good idea of how long the project will take to complete.

    This is also very important when coordinating other activities with your project and preparing to use it.

  • The client will have less administration costs related to the project.

    When using other pricing models, your client might feel the need to "check up" on what you did and how much each item costs. They may even review your hours for everything.

    With project-based pricing, the client will mostly care about whether or not you delivered what was agreed upon. The price has already been negotiated and established and isn't a concern at the end of the project.

Risks to the client

You might consider project-based pricing virtually risk-free for the client, but that's not the case at all. The financial cost is mostly risk-free, but there is more to consider for a project.

  • It's not easy to make changes to a project under a fixed-price.

    This is one of the most important considerations for fixed-price projects.

    If a project is not very well defined or if the client isn't clear about what they want done, there will be problems. You have been warned. With a fixed-price, every change will change the price.

    You can basically handle this three ways: the price is renegotiated for the changes, the changes are declined or postponed (clients don't usually like to hear "no"), or you can do the changes for free.

    Clearly, if there are a lot of changes, you can easily spend as much time on renegotiations as you are spending on the actual project. This can lead to frustration or failure in extreme cases.

    This is what causes a lot of freelancers to recommend against this type of pricing.

  • The client pays extra to cover your risks of estimating the project.

    There's always a risk of underestimating a project and it happens to everyone from time to time. As you become more experienced you will get a good feel for how often this happens to you and increase your estimate accordingly.

    This increased cost to cover your risk will be paid by your clients. Thus, the better you become at estimating your projects, the more your clients will pay extra on their projects. Some clients will already have this figured out and won't want to pay for the risk.

    This is especially true if the project isn't well defined at the start. If you decide to take on the risk of a poorly defined project, the estimate will need to be extremely high to cover all the possibilities for change.

Benefits to you

Now that you have a better understanding of the benefits and trade-offs to the client, how can project-based pricing be good for you?

  • You can charge what you're worth.

    Many clients, despite their best intentions, will have strong reactions to seeing rates that are higher than they anticipate. This is especially true when bidding hourly or when they can see your hourly rate.

    Their focus can become what your actual rate is compared to what they thought you should cost, rather than the value of the project.

    Project-based pricing can provide a way to hide the details of your actual hourly rate. This also allows them to make the comparison of the total project cost against what they think the project is worth, rather than the cost of any individual hour of your time.

  • You can earn higher rates if you are faster than typical peers.

    This is really just a special case of the previous point, but deserves a special mention. Project pricing can help hide how many hours you spend completing a project. This is great if you're twice as fast (or more) as your peers.

    Since hours won't be mentioned on your estimate, the client will likely think you spend more time than you actually do. Your perceived rate will be more in line with their beliefs rather than your actual rate. All you have to do is let them continue to think that way.

    Most clients will have no objection to your total cost for a project, but will very likely balk if your rates are proportional to your speed.

  • You should have a good idea of the project scope up front.

    In the same way this benefits the client for project coordination and budgeting purposes, it also helps you when planning the project. You should basically know everything you need to do so you can accurately plan your work.

    When the scope is unknown, you will need to spend more time working on the project up front to make sure it is finished in a reasonable amount of time. This means you cannot work on other projects or improving your own business as easily.

    You also might not have a good idea of when the project will be completed. This will affect future projects since their begin dates will be unknown.

  • You might have access to a larger pool of potential clients.

    There are a lot of businesses that require project bids and estimates to be able to do work for them. These businesses are typically mid-sized to large businesses and can be very profitable for you.

Risks to you

Project based pricing is not without risks to you, and they can be deadly. They typically result in you working for free.

Ignore them at your peril:

  • It is easy to underestimate the effort

    This is the single greatest risk to project-based pricing. If you underestimate the effort involved, then you are going to be working extra for free.

    The difficulty in estimating your project will increase with more unknowns what the client wants or how you are going to accomplish them.

    It is also easy to make assumptions without even realizing it. Those assumptions are also unknowns, they just don't feel like it at the time.

    Some types of tasks are inherently difficult to estimate. For example it is extremely difficult to estimate the amount of time needed to integrate work with another team.

    For many types of projects or types of work within a project, it may not be worth the risk.

  • You can overprice projects and lose the job.

    To counter the risk of making an estimate, it is normal to increase the estimate for the project. this is called "padding" the estimate. This can cause you to lose the job if your estimate is out of the range of the client's budget.

    It's even worse if you sense it and talk yourself into lowering the price. Then it turns out you did underestimate it and you are working for free.

  • If the scope changes, you can do extra work for free.

    Resisting scope changes requires tremendous discipline. It is too easy to just say "yes" to little requests and many freelancers fall into this trap. Before they know it, scope creep has claimed another victim. (Note: There are ways of handling scope creep)

  • The client may require tools or processes you didn't anticipate.

    Some clients will have special tools or processes within their company and require you to use them too. If you are unfamiliar with these you can spend a lot of time getting up to speed.

    If this is a surprise and you didn't include the extra time, you are now working for free.

  • You may have left out necessary tasks when you estimated.

    Beginners are especially prone to fall into this trap. They will focus only on their core skill (writing, design, development, etc) and neglect to include project management, meetings and discussions, administration costs, testing, research, deployment, etc. These costs can add up quickly and soon you find yourself working for free again.

So like any tool, there are pros and cons for not just you but for your client, too. It is your job as a professional to understand these tradeoffs and how they will apply to any given project. This will help you ensure happiness for you and your client after completing a successful project.

For your next project, weigh the risks and benefits of project-based pricing and decide if it is a good fit for you and the project. Maybe you won't be working for free next time :)

Whose Deadline is it Anyway... Are Those Long Hours Necessary?

I was recently listening to an interview with Kai Davis about building his consultancy and some of the problems he overcame. One of the things he mentioned really stuck out to me and is something that I want to reiterate.

He said that when he started out he had tremendous amounts of stress and was wearing himself out by working 12 hour days to make impossible deadlines. He'd land a new client project and would need to turn it around in 3 days. This made things very difficult!

What he realized, though, was that he was the one setting the deadlines. The clients rarely needed things turned around that quickly, so he decided to do an experiment and started telling clients that projects would be completed in 3 weeks instead of 3 days. To his surprise, none of his clients had a problem with a longer timeframe for a deadline.

Thanks, Kai, for the great insight.

The role fear plays in a freelancing business

A lot of freelancers have this problem. I know I did.

We are initially afraid to push back on a client deadline. Or in Kai's case, we have an unfounded idea that the client will expect, or even require, a short deadline.

We do this out of fear. Deep down, we don't have enough confidence in our abilities or in what we are charging. So we work extra hours to have that fast turnaround, even though it is murder on us to do it.

That's not all fear does to us, either. We have other ways of "making up" for our lack of skills or high rates by offering other "perks":

  • we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of quick turnarounds, and work the extra hours to make it happen
  • we let scope creep run rampant by not saying NO to client requests
  • we base what we charge on what we made in our previous jobs, rather than the value we provide
  • we cut our rates and squeeze any profits out of a project before it starts
  • we continue with abusive clients because we are afraid no one else will hire us

We do this even though there's evidence to the contrary: we are skilled and we are worth the rates we charge (and more). It's irrational. It is fear.

This is ludicrous.

Not only that, but it is unsustainable. If you go on like this for too long, you will always be tired and worn out, you won't feel valuable or appreciated by your clients, and you will start hating your life as a freelancer.

Breaking the cycle

Kai was able to break out of the cycle, making his life better in the process, by recognizing the source of his stress. Himself. Once he did that, the solution was obvious.

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. What are some ways that you are making things harder than they need to be?
  2. What reasons do you give yourself to keep doing things the way you are now?

Are those reasons logical or are you afraid to try to fix your problems? Fear can be overcome once you realize that's all it is.