How To Bid Out A Project (Part 2)

Continuing yesterday’s post on tips for pricing your freelance services….

7. Talk about money at the very beginning. You may be tempted to put off talking about money, perhaps with hopes that the client will eventually bring it up or that you can just figure out a price when the project is over. This is a huge mistake, and very unprofessional. The sooner you can negotiate a price, the better. The worst thing you can do is keep a client guessing about what the project will cost them. Discussing the price up front will help you to appear more confident and professional, it will keep you from potentially wasting valuable time on a dead-end project, and it will help you weed out clients who have tiny budgets or who simply want to take advantage of you.

Under no circumstances should you begin doing work without having first negotiated a price.

8. Remove yourself from the discussion. Since their work is so personal, you will often hear artists use terms like “I will illustrate…” or “my sketches will be…” or “It will take me X hours to do….”. The problem with using “I”, “me” and “my” is that it subtly takes the focus off the project and puts it on you. A more professional way of speaking is to talk about “the illustration…” or “the project”. For instance, instead of saying “It will cost X dollars for me to illustrate this”, say, “The illustration will cost X dollars.” Don’t say “I worked X hours on the project”, say “The project took X hours to complete”.

It may sound like a small distinction but psychologically it makes a big difference. Ultimately the client is not really paying for your time and effort, they are buying a product. The project may be very personal to you because you are pouring so much of yourself into it, but often clients don’t really understand the process of creating art and the amount of work involved, and frankly they don’t really care. They just want a great piece of art delivered on-time. When justifying your rates, you will have more success (and sound more professional) if you focus the client’s attention away from you personally and onto the value of the artwork itself.

An added benefit to this approach is that it helps take some of the pressure off of you as an artist. By separating yourself from your work, you can stay more objective and not take critiques and revisions so personally.

9. Use a formal estimate/contract. I’m surprised at how many artists don’t put the terms of a project in writing. Maybe they fear offending the client or scaring them away, but the reality is a legitimate client usually won’t mind at all. Having a formal contract makes you look professional and gives you credibility. It also protects both you and the client by spelling out the terms, so that there is no misunderstanding or confusion about what is expected.

An excellent resource is a book called Business and Legal Forms for Illustrators by Tad Crawford. Crawford is a lawyer who specializes in the arts, and his book is full of customizable, fill-in-the-blank contracts in both hard copy and digital forms (the book ships with a CD inside the back cover). I opened his “Estimate” form in Microsoft Word, cut-and-pasted the text under my letterhead, made a few small tweaks, and now I use it as a template for all my contracts.

The terms of each contract can be negotiated and adjusted depending on the project and the needs of the client, but the important thing is that you have it all in writing. A good contract can also help you weed out the bad clients who want to take advantage of you (and believe me, they are out there). If a client balks at the idea of signing a contract. you are better off not working with him.

For every project I open the contract template I created in Word, fill in the blanks, save it as a PDF, and then email it to the client. In the email I usually write something like this:

Thanks for considering me for the XXXXXXX project. Attached is an estimate based on what we’ve discussed so far. Please read it over and let me know if you have any questions. Otherwise, if everything is agreeable simply print, sign, and return it to me (you can either scan-and-email or fax it to me at XXX-XXX-XXXX). Then I’ll sign a copy and return it to you, and it will become our official contract.

10. Don’t lift a finger until you have a signed contract and/or a deposit. Despite the best intentions, projects can go sour for a number of unexpected reasons. A client’s budget may get cut, a committee may change their mind, an art director may move on to work for another company…all sorts of things can keep a project from crossing the finish line. Having a signed contract not only ensures that the client has serious intentions of moving forward, but it protects you in the event that something unexpected happens.

To give yourself even more security, especially on a large project, state in your contract that you require a non-refundable deposit before you can begin work. By agreeing to take on a large project you will likely have to turn down other projects that come up in the mean time. (In the last month I’ve turned down several smaller projects because I am already committed to two large ones.) If the plug suddenly gets pulled on the big project, you will at least have some compensation to make up for those other projects you could have done instead.

In my contract I typically ask for 30% up front, 30% upon completion of sketches, and the remaining 40% upon completion of the project. This is especially helpful on larger projects which may take weeks or even months to complete. A deposit and payment schedule will ensure that you can keep paying your bills while working on that big project that seems to drag out forever.

A client may tell you that it will take their accounting department several weeks to cut you a deposit check. While it is true that it often takes a while for a check to work its way through the red tape of a corporation, money can be fast-tracked. Hold firm and politely state that a much as you are looking forward to the project, unfortunately you simply can’t begin work until you have a deposit check in-hand. If the client is serious about hiring you, you may be surprised at how quickly the FedEx man can deliver a check to your front door.

There you have it. Ten tips to give you more confidence when bidding out a project. Happy freelancing!