How we solved almost EVERY problem a freelancer can face

One of the most powerful lessons I’ve ever learned came from my first mentor, my half-brother Steve. I called him complaining about some clients and the crazy revisions they wanted and he said…

“You know, dude… When stuff like this happens, there’s really no one to blame. It just means you’re missing a system to deal with it.”

And he was right. We’d never outlined any sort of revision process with our clients at that point in time. We never really went over anything like that. But from that point on, every time I faced a frustration with a client, even though my first reaction was to scream their faces off… after venting, I always asked myself,

“What system is missing that will prevent this from ever happening again?” 

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As you figure out solutions to these problems, something pretty miraculous starts to happen. For one, you become more clear and confident. Problems came into your life, and you conquered those ugly little trolls.

You also become more competent. You become a seasoned vet in your trade. You have the battle scars. You have wisdom. You’re better than you were.

Finally – business grows. As you create systems for all of the problems at your current level, those systems then leverage you into the next level. And the process repeats. You get newer, shinier clients with shinier new problems. And you figure out solutions to those.

And then you grow some more and the process repeats.

Below are some of the problems we’ve faced, that I know a lot of you probably have too, and the systems we came up with.

I’m not saying our answers are right for everyone. Heck, you might disagree more than a never-nude on a French beach.

I’m just peeling back the curtain and revealing our problem-solving process to help inspire you to create your own.


You might love some of our solutions, and you’re welcome to steal them! (We probably stole some from things we read, too!) But more importantly than anything, I hope you get inspired to change the way you view client problems in the first place, so your business can experience some serious doses of awesomeness.

Alright, moving on 😉 Problem #1:

Have you ever had a client LOVE your design, approve it, then tear it to pieces the next day?

Yeah, it’s happened to us too. You end up spending countless hours on a project that should’ve been finished weeks ago. Every time the wind blows the client changes his mind, and it starts over.

By the end, you’re lucky if you’ve made minimum wage with the cost / time ratio.

After this happened more times than my sanity can handle recalling… We implemented a system. We now CLEARLY have an approval process in our contract (do you?), and we go over it very carefully with all new clients.

It basically says once they approve a design, it’s considered final. Final means we’re happy to make changes should they request them – but all changes will be quoted and billed separately. Heck, I’ll make changes all day if I’m getting paid for it.

But the thing is clients don’t want to spend more if they don’t have to. Doesn’t matter how rich or poor they are, this is something they all seem to have in common. So the fact that there’s a consequence to changing their minds has a really powerful effect:

They take the decision-making process much more seriously. And when it’s final, it’s final, and we can finish yet another project and keep on truckin’. 

Have any of your projects ever been put on hold for crazy amounts of time because the client won’t send you what you need?

Maybe it’s photographs, some kind of content, maybe they need to get approval from a higher-up, etc.

Yeah, it happened to us too. A lot.

In the past some projects have been put on hold for MONTHS.

So now, in our contract, we have a very clear consequence for this. The clause basically states that it’s in everyone’s best interest for the project to get done as quickly and efficiently as possible. If they ever hold the project up by 14 days, then X% of the total project cost is added to the final total.

After 30 days the project is cancelled and they owe for all work completed up to that point plus the penalty on top. (This of course is assuming they’re just being procrastinators and aren’t facing some sort of tragedy like having to cut their arm off after getting stuck on a mountain… If they had to do that, we give ’em a break.)

I don’t know if we’ve even had to enforce this one. The clause itself lights enough of a fire under their butts to get them moving. It’s yet another system that has made life so much easier.

Have you ever had a client cancel mid-project and you don’t get paid?

Sometimes life happens and you have to stop what you’re doing. Sometimes the relationship just doesn’t work out and both parties want to separate.

With that said, if we do work, we feel we deserve to get paid.

That’s why we crafted a very simple cancellation clause which has worked wonders. It basically states (paraphrasing):

“Should some happening of life or any reason whatsoever cause you to cancel this project once it has begun, you are completely free to do so. You will simply be billed for any work completed up to the point of cancellation, and we will send you the work we completed up to that point. Should some happening of life cause us to cancel this project, we will hand over any work completed up to the point of cancellation and refund you for any payments made on incomplete work.”

It’s written a bit shmancier in the agreement, but you get the gist 😉

Actually, just earlier this year we were working with a client who seemed amazing at the start, but turned out to be a horror show. When she wrote us asking to cancel, citing the cancellation clause from the agreement, we praised the gods and danced around the room.

She was all paid up except for some development work, so we sent her a bill which she promptly paid and we all moved on with our lives. This is a perfect example of how systems make life easier once you do the hard part of facing the problems in the first place.

The cool thing is, from creating these systems, the whole world opens up.

You now know what it takes to really grow and sustain a business – and you can apply that to anything. You can consult clients on similar problems they face.

You can start entirely NEW businesses and grow them with confidence. But here’s the thing:

The problem a lot of freelancers & agencies face is that instead of looking at their own businesses, they just write the clients off as “crazy” and put all of the blame onto them. Heck, we used to do it too until we received this very same advice.

But if you can look inward, and realize you’re just missing a system to deal with that problem, the sky is seriously the limit. Problem-clients suddenly lose any power they have over you, because your business truly is in your hands.

Sooo the question is, are there any problems in your work that you could use solutions for? Do you have any awesome solutions already crafted?

Share! I’d love hear your thoughts in the comments.

Till next time!

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  1. Great advice David. Hopefully some reading it will be saved the ‘learning experiences’ that I am pretty sure almost every one of us had starting out. I couldn’t agree more that having the systems in place usually make what could have been a horrible experience a smooth, professional one on those rare occasions when it is just not working out as you or the client had hoped.

  2. Wow this is so helpful. I come across most of these issues but haven’t had anything too bad to date. I don’t ask for a deposit, but I’m a textile designer so do a lot smaller jobs than website designs I believe. I don’t have a contract, but I will now be getting one v soon!

  3. These are great tips that I’m definitely going to be implementing. Thanks, I was wondering what you classify as a client approval though. Do they have to just say yes to a concept in an email or do you have a system where they have to click a ‘approve’ button or something similar?

    1. I wish we had a big, shiny approval button 🙂 But no, we simply very clearly ask them in email to sign off: first, on the direction / angle, second, on the actual design.

      Something like this at the end of an email usually does the trick:

      “Also, just wanted to confirm again that you approve the design so we can move on to the development phase!”

      (Usually approval happens over the phone, so the follow-up email gets it in writing)

      Does that answer your question?


  4. This post was super helpful. I just redesigned my site (literally a week ago) and company to be more professional focused since I’m jumping into the Freelance pool and less like just a portfolio. I need to re-write my freelance contract because of some similar issues listed above that I ran into while testing the Freelance pool. This will be a great guide for me. Your site has excellent business advice; thank you 🙂

  5. Systems are good. Thank you all all for sharing your ideas and processes.

    Should this be helpful to anyone, I list my payment terms as the following:
    • 50% of design fee prior to commencing project. Invoice will be supplied upon approval of this estimate. (My estimates serve as contracts)
    • RS Identity Design may periodically bill for out-of pocket expenses and work in progress towards the final amount due.
    • Remainder, plus out-of-pocket expenses, will be billed upon completion.

    So if the project drags out, I can bill for work-to-date and OOP expenses.

    I may tailor the above on some cases, as projects vary, as well as include termination clauses.

    I include this for logo designs:
    Client will be granted full ownership and usage rights upon full payment. Fee is for the development, client ownership and unlimited usage of one chosen logo
    concept only. Unchosen design concepts remain the property of RS Identity Design.

    In my opinion, I think it’s inappropriate to bill an additional fee or “penalty” if a project extends beyond the expected or reasonable amount of time. Just invoice for work-to-date.

    And yes, all revisions, project scope changes and resulting fee adjustments must be in writing. If it’s verbal, send an en email recapping and have the client approve it in writing. I also suggest both backing-up the email correspondence and saving a text version of each to a folder inside that project’s main folder. Sometimes they have to be pulled out to “refresh” a client’s memory, and sometimes our own!

  6. Great post! I’ve encountered some of these issues already, The idea of creating a new system is very helpful!

  7. I have had all of these problems before and that really motivated me to put the relevant clauses in my contract to protect myself next time.

    I’m at the end of a project with a client now and I just need him to pay the final invoice. Unfortunately he is ignoring my emails now. And I know for a fact that he is opening my emails. Any advice on how to deal with this?

    1. Question… Have you handed over the files? (AKA do you have any leverage in this situation?)

      If so, this is how we once handled this exact situation. First, we called and emailed the client every day for like 2 weeks. (No joke, lol. We were determined.)

      When that didn’t work, we decided to figure out a different approach. Because we didn’t have the strongest contract at that point, we didn’t want to threaten to take them to court because they had more resources and lawyers who would surely poke holes in our contract.

      So, we took a different route.

      We sent an email that said, “You have a payment which is overdue 3 weeks as of [date]. If we do not receive payment by tomorrow at 5pm EST, we will consider this project cancelled and you will NOT receive any of the work we have completed up to this point.”

      The down payment on that project was $3,000 so they had to decide if they wanted to pay the other $3k and get the files, or watch $3k go down the drain.

      We got the payment the next morning 😉

      So long story short: If you have NOT handed over any work, you could use a tactic like the one above.

      If you HAVE handed over your work – you could be in a tough spot. But you could send an email alerting them that because they did not complete their payment, they have no right to use your work, and it is in fact your copyrighted work.

      If they try to use it in any fashion, you will sue them for copyright infringement, etc.

      But if you threaten something like that, you have to be wiling to go through with it. Otherwise, it might just be an expensive lesson and you’ll just have to let it go 🙁

      Sorry for the novel here lol, guess I had a good bit to say.

      Really good question! If you have any others don’t be shy 🙂

      1. Thanks so much for your help, David! My situation is a bit complicated – I’ve handed over some work, but not everything. Really thought I could trust him. I haven’t been persistent enough so I think I need to get on his back. I really appreciate your advice!

        1. Hi Carmia,

          I had a similar problem before. What I found helped was to get a friend (a strong person!) to call on my behalf eg. “I’m chasing up outstanding funds for Carmia. Your account is X days overdue, please can you let me know when we can expect payment?”. By being separate, she could speak strongly, and I didn’t strain my relationship with the client. Also, by clients being familiar to us, they could become more lax, whereas having to explain to a stranger why they haven’t paid helps to make them feel more awkward (and hopefully pay!).

          Our small studio has grown since then and now we have an admin lady who chases outstanding payments… she does what David explained… she hounds them!! Every day, with emails and phone calls. Since then, we’ve had no non-payers, so that route does work! Good luck!

          1. Louise,

            Love it! It’s great to have an outsider who can play the “bad guy” collector while not impacting your business relationship.

            Awesome – I’m going to keep that in mind.


          2. I love that idea, Louise. It would be awesome to have someone do the type of stuff that I find difficult.

            Thanks for your help!

  8. This is great advice.

    I have a clause in my contract giving me the right to cancel (at cost to the client) if they don’t provide decisions/content, but I definitely prefer your suggestion of adding a fee for excessive delays. It gives everyone the best chance possible of keeping the project alive, but also gives the client a hefty nudge if they’re being slack!

  9. Those are real problems which a freelancer faces. The most common problem in freelancing is that the clients select the design one day and the other they want some changes in that. It should not be done finally till when the client does not approve it at the last minute.

  10. Oh my! I laughed while reading this. It felt refreshing to have someone address three of my most frustrating challenges in freelancing. I knew there was a way to fix them, just hadn’t had the opportunity to brainstorm a way to get that happening.

    It often feels like my clients are very inconsiderate with providing me needed content, but if I’m a day or 2 late, I know that wouldn’t be kosher. However…I think they probably don’t even realize the way their project affects my other projects. I can’t take it personally…and like you pointed out…there is a system to fix that! I’m currently STILL working on a website that I had created a timeline for with a projected deadline of the end of March. The only reason is it took them WAY longer than expected to get the content together, and they have other things of higher priority to them.

    I think I’ve realized 2 things. 1) Include these awesome pieces in my contract 2) Communicate the fact verbally that it is a commitment for a client to provide me with information and it will take them time. Because it doesn’t seem to help anyone pretending that the content is going to rain down on us from above.

    1. LOL if only content had that ability… Gives a whole new meaning to an “Acts of God” clause.

      In other news – right on! Looks like you just made yourself an awesome system for handling that mess 😉

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  11. Since we’re on the subject of a client dragging out the process, I’d like to ask anyone out there how they handle the client if you haven’t placed a provision in the proposal about prolonging the completion of the project. Currently I have three clients that haven made their 50% deposit on their projects, but they have completely stalled since then. One started in October 2013 and the other two back in December 2013. We could have produced several websites for the same company in that time frame. Does anyone have some suggestions on how to “motivate” the client to wrap this up? Any recommendations would be extremely appreciated.


    1. Hey Mike,

      Do you have a cancellation clause in your agreement? If you’ve done 50% of the work, and you specified that if the project is cancelled you refund for incomplete work, then you should be Even Steven.

      If you don’t have anything like this in place… then I think you’re just in a crappy situation you just have to wait out. But I’d IMMEDIATELLYYYY put a system in place so this never happens again with future clients 😉

      Consider these 3 peeps your teachers sent by the universe to hammer into you this very lesson 😉

    2. Hi Mike,

      We had the same issue once before we put that provision in place, and what I did is write the client that the project has been delayed for X months, so we would need the second payment from them to keep going basically. Even though it was not in the contract at the time, it got them moving, and the project finished, and they even submitted the payment.

      I think it’s within reason to say something like that, especially if projects have been delayed for that long!

    3. Actually I think my partner is going to chime in here and tell you how we got a client to pay who was delaying the project like crazy BEFORE we implemented this contract clause. So try what she says – but unfortunately there are no legal grounds to enforce it.

  12. Oooh, two other things:

    I handle endless revisions by allotting an amount of revisions for the project (usually 3, but in some cases more or less). After that, it’s at my hourly rate.

    Once the design is approved and we begin to use it, all changes of heart are new projects.

    Second thing: I always require approval in writing. It only took once to have started on a project via instruction over the phone and then have a client say “I never said that” to change my ways.

    1. April that’s a great idea! How do you get the approval in writing? Do you just ask them to respond to your requests via email? Or do you have a different process? I’d like to start implementing this.

    2. Haha, too funny. We had the same thing happen, and now require final approval in writing too 😉

  13. Beautiful advice. Here’s one problem I had and how I solved it with a “system:”

    New client agrees to a website…woo hoo! Over the course of the next month (December), I got 23 phone calls despite a week-long Christmas break vacation when she didn’t call because she knew I was off.


    So I implemented with her (and several other ongoing clients that are a bit more hands-on) a weekly phone meeting (at my hourly rate or worked into the cost of the project, of course) to discuss the latest developments in the project. This eliminated an insane amount of frustration for both of us, it helps my busier clients find time to talk with me sans interruptions, and it greatly reduced the amount of interruptions I get during my design time.

    Secondly, I am very up-front about my policy of not answering the phone during my design process. This way, clients know to set up phone calls with me at a time we’ll both be free so I’m focused and have their project details in front of me.

    Most clients really appreciate that their project(s) are getting my full and undivided attention. I’ve not had a complaint yet.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. That is friggin’ awesome. Boundaries around when / how clients can have phone time with us is something we are seriously lacking. Thanks for the tips 🙂

  14. This is a great post and I am sure many, if not most, who have ever done any freelancing can relate to each of the situations you touch on. I appreciate the good advice on how you approached each and will definitely incorporate them it into my work with clients.

  15. I have a quotation system that is detailed enough to explain about changes, but was just thinking this week, on the back of sitting around waiting for clients, that I need to implement a invoice after 30 days of no feedback / info.

    Good prompt –
    always nice to know when you’re on the same wavelength as your peers.

    1. I have the “client wandered off” clause, too – after 4 weeks, the project is considered inactive and is billed for work completed. This really does keep the client focused, but I like the extra clause on raising the price if the client drags the process out.


  16. I find it interesting that the ‘systems’ in this article all revolve around ensuring you have a sufficient contract and communicate this to your clients.

    If anybody is in any doubt about the importance if a contract when freelancing; this article shows exactly why it’s a good idea.

    1. Yes, indeed.

      But I think even more important is the process we took to get there. What shows up in the contract is the end-result of some serious pondering time around how we can get these problems out of our lives… forever. And ever. 🙂

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