I’m going to tell you something I wish someone told me when I first started freelancing: clients will take advantage of you if you let them. These clients are everywhere. They’re demanding, controlling, and they expect special treatment because they’ve paid you money to do whatever they want. Sometimes they’re stylishly dressed, smile a lot and seem to be pretty cool people. They may even be a friend, a relative, the owner of a really cute independent business or a PR executive on behalf of a huge corporation. The point is: your time is money and you have to stop letting people use you because you didn’t establish boundaries, expectations and the value of your work. Ultimately, if you’re working with a bad client, the client isn’t the one to blame; it’s you.

Don’t get me wrong, some clients are genuinely horrible (even if you ask the right questions). They don’t pay, they’re unresponsive, rude or legitimately insane. But bad clients can usually be avoided if you ask the right questions prior to signing a contract or agreeing to work with them. It took me a very long time to realize this, but I decided I don’t have to desperately say yes to every illustration project that comes my way because a client is willing to pay me.

Often times, money fogs the reality of what a job entails, not including the time it takes to understand what exactly the client wants and how long it will take to do it. Remember, there are plenty of things to consider; it’s a long and lengthy process that involves calculating the steps from idea conception to the final product.

When I first started illustrating for clients, I saw the project in one lump fee. I guessed. Responded quickly. Made up numbers “that sounded right.” I didn’t have a contract and it wasn’t a smart way to work because I had no protocol to factor in all the details of the transaction taking place, including brainstorming, client meetings, email correspondence, edits and deadlines. I was vague, clueless and scared to ask for what I deserved because I didn’t know how to calculate my value. I didn’t feel comfortable asserting myself to protect myself in the long run. Ultimately, I wasted a lot of energy and let the client walk all over me because I didn’t know any better. I felt angry, betrayed and mostly silly about this.

Early on in my career, I also made the mistake of offering my services to friends and family at a special rate, the kind of rate that cuts your fee in half because you feel bad and want to help your friend out. Ultimately, you’re left working for way less than you usually do, taking time away from another client that could be paying you full price for your services. I’ve done this so much in the past; I was too busy helping out my pals for low-budget events to remember what my worth is. Please, for the love of god, stop doing this. Protect your skill and don’t let friends abuse their power because they know you or don’t have the money to pay you. Tell them you’re not taking on any new projects right now. Make up an excuse and reclaim the power to say NO. Because even though they’re your friend and want to help them, you deserve to be paid for your work.

I’ve been burned a lot in the past. I let people take advantage of me because I didn’t have a protocol in place to protect me. I completed spec work for free, I under-charged, I asked the wrong questions and I said yes too quickly. I acted impulsively before properly comprehending the task ahead of me. Foolishly, I let the client lead the way because I thought that’s how this was all supposed to work. Wrong! Stop thinking like this! This is a transaction and they’re paying for a service. That means you have just as much power as they do to assert your boundaries, rules and expectations before you lift a finger. Give them information and don’t be shy about it – tell them how you work and what you require from them. It’s a two-way street.

Think about the big picture. Start asking the questions that matter:

  • Who is the client? Corporate? Agency? Independent?
  • What is my hourly rate?
  • How much time will this take (including brainstorming, work, edits, and email correspondence)?
  • When does the client need this by?
  • Where and how will the final product be used?
  • Is it a rushed job?
  • How many rounds of feedback are included in my fee?
  • How do I want to receive payment? Installments? At the end of the project?

As freelancers out there in the wild, we have to protect ourselves because nobody else is watching out for us. It wasn’t until I started saying, “HELL NO!” to clients that I built my confidence up. I’m not embarrassed or shy to ask questions or throw a contract in their face because I’m offering a service and the last thing I want is to get burned again. If a client doesn’t want to pay the amount for my service, good riddance! I’m better off without them. It takes a very long time to learn how to protect your work because you’re the only person who can keep it safe. Treat your special skill like a little precious poodle and be as explicit as possible when telling people what they’re getting from you. This is a financial arrangement and you deserve to get as much out of it as the client does.

Nobody will tell you what your value is – only you. Shoot high. Know your worth. And give yourself an appropriate amount of time before you sign a contract with a new client. Your time equals money and there’s more than one way to protect yourself to ensure you’re paid every last dollar for the time you put you into something. Just remember that the good clients will respect you more if you put boundaries in place. Now tell the bad clients to get lost!