Contract Work - Lessons Learned

I thought I would write a post of a different nature today, but still relevant to the tech world. I do a lot of contract jobs myself and really enjoy it. It's nice to keep jumping from project to project, and not having to go to an office or keep regular hours, etc. I really enjoy it. I have learned a lot in the past few years of doing it (both from experience and from help given to me from others, and the internet) so I thought I'd share some of that knowledge/experience today.

So here's my own personal "lesson's learned" that hopefully will help you if you find yourself doing contract work:

Should I take the job?

Ok, so this is the first step. Assuming you were given sufficient information about what they want, then you should really think about what you're capable of doing and whether or not you should take this job. Personally, my rule is, if I know it's possible, I'll say yes, even if I don't yet know how to do it. That's because the internet is such a great help, it would be rare to run into an issue that you can't figure out with some help. So if your clients are asking for something that you don't yet know how to program, but you know you can do it on the platform then go for it. How else are you going to learn?

Use this rule with some limitation, however. If you're really lacking the expertise or foundation in something, then unless you have tons of time to complete the project, then I wouldn't say yes. For example, I haven't personally done any 3d/openGL programming yet so I wouldn't say yes to a project that extensively uses it.

OK, so I want the job, but how much do I charge?

This part can be tricky. There is no set formula really, but I have some tips for pricing that will hopefully give you a better idea on how to confidently ask your price and have them accept. Here are some personal guidelines
  1. How much time do you have to complete the project? If it's shorter than average, then charge more. You can even make a subtle note about this (or not so subtle if they still don't get it.) If it seems too short of a time (i.e. near impossible to complete), be sure to say that. It looks bad to promise a time that you can't keep--and it makes it less likely for them to return to you for work.

  2. Your Hourly rate: How long have you been working in that language? Do you have existing projects to back you up? Or previous contacts that can vouch for your work? Are there very few people with your particular skill set? All of these things will lend themselves to setting an hourly rate. I'd also try out a quick google search of what your line of work is, to see what the industry standard is at that point in time.

    I wouldn't price too low, because you want to make your time worth it. You also want them to feel like they're paying for quality work (assuming you can deliver it :) ). Finally, think about your client. If it's a small business, then don't price it too high if you want the job. If it's an enterprise (like a Fortune company), then don't be afraid to price higher. They have the budget for it.

  3. Fixed price: If they want a fixed price project, then you need to think about how many hours it will take you to complete it and multiply it by the hourly rate you set for yourself. Then, honestly, I would add 10-20% on top of that. Why? Because nothing ever works exactly how you want it to. There are lots of times that something "trivial" is way harder than it should be, or something that "should work" doesn't for hours and it eats away at your hourly rate. I can't count the number of times I encountered a logical bug that took away an entire's day work because debuggers don't help in those cases. By adding that padding in, it's still OK to have those days where you don't get as much done as you want.

    And another useful tip: Depending on your client, and the scope, you most likely want to set that you both sign off on a specification sheet before doing any work, and that any changes will result in a re-evaulation of the price. This is to help protect you from being handed a huge new addition to the project half-way in, without any extra payment.

  4. Scope of project: Finally, is it a huge project? Is it really small/fast? This affects how much your client will be willing to pay. If it sounds big, they will be willing to pay more for it. If it seems really small, then you won't be able to get away with a large asking price (as easily).

Ok, I priced it, now what?

So now that you have the price, you want to make sure it feels justified to your client. I never set a price before I can really think about everything. For example, if you're still in your introduction phase, and they want a price, don't give one! Just comment that you will send them a proposal sheet with all the features outlined, and a price for everything. You don't want to shout out a low number and then deliver something that is way higher. You also don't want to shock them with a big number before they feel like they are getting a great product.

Make up a proposal document in a word editor. Personally, I leave the price till the very end. Why? Because by the time they reach the end, you've already discussed all the great features you plan to implement, and how it's the best product they'll ever use, etc etc...so your price comes off as a steal! If you hit them up front with a price, they will read through the document with a negative bias. Think about those commercials on TV. They always go on about their product, then at the end, ask "What would you pay for something like this? $100? $50? How about $20!!". This is not by accident.

Scenario: I finished the job way earlier than expected

You have two options then. You can either polish the hell out of the application, and even throw in a few bonus features (assuming they are in-line with the customer's needs) or you can sit and wait on it until you near your deadline.

Why don't you want to turn it in too early? Because you should treat that extra time as a surplus. If you said it is going to take you 3 weeks, and it took you only 1, you have a surplus of 2 weeks. I personally don't want to let them know that I can do a 3 week project in 1 week. Why not? Because that may not always be the case! I may later have a 3 week project that takes all 3 weeks, but if I set a precedent of delivering super early, then the pressure is on for that longer project. It also makes it harder to quote longer times if you keep delivering too early.

Feel free to deliver early, but again, don't do it too early. They may also wonder why they paid you for 3 weeks of work if you're done in 1. They may further wonder if the product sucks, or what is wrong with it, if it's done so early, etc.

I would just polish the application. Everyone loves polish in their applications. The smallest details are what make an application go from "functional" to "fantastic". And since you are still delivering on time, then they are still going to be very happy with you.

Scenario: It's taking way too long to finish this, and the deadline is nearing/here!

So this is not a fun scenario to be in, but it'll happen. Sometimes the scope of the project gets out of hand. The best policy here is OPENNESS/HONESTY. Tell them that the project is taking longer than expected, and give a reasonable time for when you think you'll have it done. I typically explain it in a way that makes it sound like it isn't something that I did wrong, but it's just something about the nature of the project.

This really goes for any scenario, to be honest. Just continue to stay open and communicative about your progress. This doesn't mean that you should email them every five minutes (unless they want you to), but it does mean that maybe every few days or once a week, give them an update on where you're at, and what's next. They'll be happy to know they are paying for progress, and it'll make it easier to ask for an extension when something goes wrong, because they know that you've been working on it all along.

Final tips and thoughts:

In general, contract work is really fun and rewarding. It's nice to learn new things all the time, as mandated by the project ,and to challenge yourself to do things you may not have done before. The key is to build a great relationship with your clients for future work, and for recommendations. I am always very honest with them and I never promise something I can't deliver. Again, under promise, over deliver!

I hope this has proved helpful!

Cheers,
samerpaul

Print | posted on Friday, June 4, 2010 1:38 PM

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# re: Contract Work - Lessons Learned

left by Syed at 6/10/2010 9:53 AM Gravatar
Thank you for the valuable advice. What are your recommendations on landing contract work for starters?

# re: Contract Work - Lessons Learned

left by samer paul at 6/10/2010 12:28 PM Gravatar
@ Syed: Thanks! re: your question, are you asking more about getting clients, or are you talking about making sure you get awarded the project when making a bid?

# re: Contract Work - Lessons Learned

left by Syed Rashid at 6/11/2010 1:30 PM Gravatar
How do I make sure I get the project when I bid for it on elance or freelancer. I find the project budgeted total cost is below the turnkey cost most of the time. Should I keep the cost low just to get the business? How low $$ should I go?

Thanks
Syed
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