Freelancing Fundamentals: How to Take a Project from Cradle to Grave

Every project has a life cycle filled with a series of steps and moving parts that have the power to make or break it. From sourcing your potential leads to using tactics that turn those leads into repeat customers, each step has specific value to your business. These are the fundamentals of freelancing that you need to lock down.

As a freelancer, you learn on the job. You’re a company of one. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and even easier to overlook things simply for lack of awareness or knowledge.

Even if you’ve been at it for a while, there are always things you can learn to improve your processes and expand your knowledge. Just like anything else, right?

With that in mind, I want to talk about ten freelancing fundamentals that make up a well-executed project …

A web services project: from start to finish

If you de-construct at a typical web services project, you can identify where things get started, the various steps along the way, and where things end (i.e. a successful project launch). How well you execute each of those steps determines whether you’re another dime-a-dozen freelance web developer or professional consultant.

I’ll start by defining each of these components and later in the post, we’ll dig into each one.

1. Lead Generation

It all starts with lead generation. You can’t have a project unless you have a client and you can’t have a client until you’ve found one.

Lead generation is the process of finding the people who need your smarts or your goods (or both!). Everyone’s sales funnel looks a little different, but lead generation is basically about moving folks through that funnel. To keep your pipeline full and avoid seasons of “feast or famine”, lead generation should always be on your radar.

Referrals, handing out content freebies, and displaying expertise in a specific niche are all common ways to drum up leads as a freelancer.

2. CRM

Contact relationship management (CRM) is necessary to the health of your business. It’s basically a constantly evolving library of all the contact between you, your clients, and anyone else involved (outside vendors like virtual assistants, for instance) over the life of your freelancer-client relationship.

You’re not gonna try to keep track of all that in your brain, are you?

Of course not. That’s why the term CRM is also applied to tools that make it easier to house, manage, and track all of this information. Good CRM practice will keep the client feeling taken care of and you confident that important customer-related details are safely at hand.

3. Client Onboarding

Onboarding is just the act of situating a new client. It’s the initial client meetings, discussion, and documentation that define the freelancer-client relationship.

I can’t overstate the value of having a solid onboarding process. Its primary function is to make sure that everyone involved — client and freelancer alike — has a clear view of what to expect from one another. This part of the process, when handled right, sets the tone for a successful project.

4. Discovery

It’s easy to confuse the discovery phase of a project with project scoping because they’re kissing cousins. But there is a distinction.

Discovery is like the forward scout for project scoping. It pretty much asks two basic questions:

  1. What’s the client looking to achieve?
  2. What pile of resources (like time, money, assets, or technology) is needed to help them achieve it?

A lot of the time, the discovery process will help your client hone in on ideas they were kinda muddy about before you started discussing their aims. It gives you an opportunity to help clients figure out what they actually want. It might even reveal that you and a client aren’t especially well-suited for one another … which is a good thing, I promise!

5. Project Scoping

Project scoping is that bit of the project seated snugly between discovery and the client proposal. Discovery reveals the needs of and requirements for a project. Project scoping details the actual work that needs doing.

This is the part where expectations for the project are set: A project scope outlines the delivery timeline and the work that will be provided. You can think of it as the roadmap to your completed project.

A scope document helps you accurately set pricing and is pretty much the foundation for your proposal.

6. Proposals & Pricing

A proposal comes at the end of the sales cycle and functions to state the issue at hand and how you’ll resolve the issue. It communicates what work you intend to do for your client on the upcoming project, and how many dollars they’ll have to trade for that work.

It’s not unusual to do away with formality and use a deposit along with a “handshake” proposal to get the ball rolling when dealing with smaller jobs or return clients.

7. Contracts & Invoicing

Two of your best freelancing friends are contracts and invoices.

The word contract sounds a little official and scary if you’re not accustomed to hearing it often. At its foundation, though, a contract is a very positive thing.

Look at it like this: a contract, or project agreement, puts two promises in writing:

  1. there’s the promise of service from you to your client
  2. there’s a promise of payment from your client to you

Signing a contract starts your business relationship off on good footing because there are clear terms that make everyone on both sides of the table feel protected.

Nothing scary about that, right?

For some people, invoicing sounds every bit as scary as creating and entering into a contract. If you’re new to the practice it’s hard to ask someone for money, even though you earned it fair and square.

Billing is probably one of the least-popular tasks freelancers face, but it definitely gets easier over time.

And invoices are one of the most powerful business tools to have because they aren’t just simple dollar-gatherers. Your invoices contain key information about the consistency of your client relationships and which of your services are most in demand.

8. Project Management Strategies

Project management is just a fancy term for Getting Stuff Done in an organized, efficient way. It’s the act of initiating a project, planning and executing that project, and shipping the final project on time and within budget.

Project management strategies are the individual steps taken from the project’s inception to its completion and includes things like setting project expectations, defining milestones, and avoiding “scope creep.”

9. Project Management Tactics

Don’t confuse strategies with tactics.

Think of project management strategy as the approach to a project over its entire arc. Think of project management tactics as the in-the-moment decisions, delegations, and applications of technology and resources to a project.

10. Ongoing Client Services

In the freelance world, OCS typically consists of rolling services performed for an established client on a fixed-fee or retainer basis. Those services could be something as simple as scheduling automated tweets or something as involved as content planning and execution.

Taking care of a client on an ongoing basis typically means you’ll either be selling a block of time (retainer-based billing) or a set of services (package rates) to them.

It’s also not unusual for a freelancer to use a mix of these two methods.

Every project calls for its own process

While I want to equip you with knowledge of all the basics of a well-thought-out project flow and its components, I also want to acknowledge that one of the reasons you started freelancing was so that you could put your own spin on things. Some of the stuff outlined above may be of no use to you (yet).

All of the things listed will need your personal vision to be effective. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to manage your business, but there are easier ways to do it. Trust me, these are all lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

FYI: My focus is gonna be on freelancers for a minute.

I want to give you a complete picture of what it takes to walk a project from start to finish, so over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about the above topics. I’m also digging into them on the OfficeHours podcast.

I’ve lined up a seriously cool roster of expert guests for this season: They’re successful freelancers, thought leaders in the digital space, and people who’ve done a little of everything from freelance to enterprise.

They have a lot of smart, insightful things to say and I’m excited to share those conversations with you. If you want to go on and dive in, here are the episodes that are already live:

Episode 144: Future-Proof Your Business with Lead Generation & Specialization

Brett Cohen, CEO and co-founder of WordPress-based digital agency emagine, joined me to kick off the season. Brett brought his insights on the virtues of being self-taught, emagine’s system for spotting (then further nurturing) leads, and how to future-proof your business for the “feast or famine” cycle that all freelancers face down sometime in their careers.

Episode 145: Growing Your Business through Contact Relationship Management

Remember that epic moment when Wile E. Coyote finally caught the Roadrunner? Landing new business is kinda like that: You’ve got a client! Now, what do you do with them? Heather Steele, CMO of digital marketing and branding agency Blue Steele, took the time to talk to me about contact relationship management (CRM) and how it applies to freelancers and digital agencies. From launching a project to establishing a retainer agreement, it’s key to track the information about and interactions between all the players in and around your business so that you can maximize it.

Episode 146: Onboarding Clients for Success

Erin Flynn is a web design business consultant who does a lot of great stuff online, specifically for freelancers. She’s a really savvy, self-proclaimed onboarding dork, and we had fun batting the subject around. Erin and I covered things like precisely when the onboarding process starts, how to use it to filter out a bad client fit, structuring an onboarding packet to streamline things, and the value of client empathy and education.

Episode 148: The Discovery Process: There’s Method to the Madness

Jordon Rupp is an independent web contractor who excels at translating client requests into development specs and translating “dev talk” into something clients can understand. So much of the discovery process is simply listening to a client, asking questions, and gaining the deepest understanding possible of their needs. In this episode, Jordon walks us through his discovery process.

Episode 149: Project Scoping, Going Wide, Going Deep

Troy Dean is the creator of WP Elevation, a company that helps WordPress consultants run their business better. In this episode, Troy shares his “Go Wide, Go Deep” technique to discover client needs during project scoping.

Episode 150: Proposals: Do you even need them?

Justin Sainton, the founder of Zao, is a little unorthodox when it comes to using proposals in business. In this episode, we discuss the foundations of solid client relationships that form the basis for successful projects whether there’s a formal proposal involved or not.

Episode 151: Contracts that CYA

I always have smart people on the podcast, but this episode is a stand-out interview with CEO Karim Marruchi and lawyer Rian Kinney. We discuss the ins-and-outs of contracts, what they should include (and not include!), what the appropriate level of formality should be, and considerations for digital documents and signatures. This episode is packed with gems every freelance service provider needs to hear.

Episode 152: Project Management Strategies

How much you enjoy working on a particular project and how smoothly it goes hinges on the quality of your project management skills. In this episode, long-time agency owner Diane Kinney provides a high-level overview of project management strategies you can use to set your projects up for success.

Episode 153: Project Management Tactics

This episode is a continuation of the previous episode with Diane Kinney. Previously we talked about strategies for project management, and in this episode, we dive into the details of specific tactics you can use in your business.

Episode 154: Ongoing Client Services

Wrapping up our series of taking a project from cradle to grave, this episode discusses how you can continue a profitable relationship with a client even after a project is complete. Join me with Pat Ramsey, Director of Technology at Crowd Favorite, as he shares from his vast experience managing client maintenance agreeements, a.k.a. ongoing client services.

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