Project management for freelancers

Client work is a 2-way street

By Brennan Dunn

Does this sound familiar?

  1. You get a new client. They’re excited. You’re excited.
  2. You send over a list of the stuff you need from them. This ranges from the simple (website logins and such), to the complex – like “About Page” copy or general stuff that only they can give you.
  3. You want to get to work… but you can’t. You’re stuck.
  4. You keep emailing/phoning the client. Radio silence.
  5. And then… “Are we still on track?”

It’s super frustrating to work with a client who thinks the extent of their involvement in a project is them agreeing to hire you and paying your deposit.

Whether it’s failure to get you what you need, ignoring your update emails, or just generally having their head in the sand, it can really suck when you’re the one on the hook for delivering on time – and your client has gone MIA.

Communication is everything

Back in my agency days, we’d occasionally end up with projects that just… bombed.

These were never technical failures. But they were always communication failures.

Either we made assumptions about what the client needed and expected from us, or the client made assumptions about where we were in the project or what we needed.

The fix for all this was to get really serious about how we kicked off new projects.

Timelines were contingent on deliverables.

And the “success” of the project was composed of two things: our clients providing the inputs necessary, and our team delivering on the outputs our clients’ expected.

This meant that no project was successful unless it was a team effort.

And for this to be more than just feel-good project kickoff speak, we built this into our terms and our contract:

Expecting a certain output (a deliverable) by a particular date? Only doable if you 1) provide the inputs on time and 2) work with us to ensure our outputs align with your expectations.

Everyone’s too optimistic

Whenever you start a new thing – including a new project with a new client – it’s easy to thing everything will just… work.

You’ll get what you need when you need it.

There won’t be any hiccups along the way.

And your clients will love what you produce with zero pushback or revisions needed.


But rarely does it ever work out that way. Stuff happens. Clients go get distracted with all the other things they’re working on (remember: most of your clients are probably running/managing an entire business and your project is just one of many projects they’re juggling!)

The best, and really only, way to fix this is to make working with less of a “Done-For-You” offering, and instead something that’s “Done-With-You.”

Let’s look at what that means…


Many clients, especially those new to working with freelancers like you, have a hard time differentiating hiring you with something mundane like buying toilet paper.

That wasn’t an insult. Hear me out 😀

Companies are in the business of buying things. This includes inventory, fleets of vehicles, flight tickets, conference booths, and the sort of stuff you do – design, web development, writing, etc.

Whether it’s professional courtesy (“she knows what she’s doing…”) or just being used to pay money → get something, it’s pretty natural for clients – the people buying from us – to trust that we know what we’re doing, that we will make it clear what the next steps always are, and that we do the “work” (fulfilment) and they, the client, is there to receive it.

It’s so important that you make it clear immediately to all new clients that this isn’t how you do things.

Rather, there are two core contributors to their project:

You (and your team, if you have one):

You have the technical expertise and experience, and your job is to take business requirements and turn them into technical solutions.

If you regularly design websites and you’re being hired to design a new website for a client, your contribution is:

  1. To know the best practices around web design and development (since you do this often / keep up with industry blogs, podcasts, etc.)
  2. Have the technical knowhow to actually design and deliver a new website
  3. Be a custodian of the client’s budget and timeline, and alert them early and regularly about any deviations

The client:

They have the subject matter expertise. They know their business. They control what they sell. What it costs. They have an intimate understanding of their customers and why they buy from them.

Their contribution is to:

  1. Provide you with the business requirements that you can then translate into technical solutions
  2. Show up at meetings and get back to you as quickly as possible, since – as custodian of their budget & timeline – there’s the risk that you’re “building in the wrong direction”, or creating the wrong kind of website, which greatly affects their timeline, and their budget if they’re paying you for your time (and your profit margins if they’re not!)

Don’t assume they know any of this!

Remember, most clients are used to paying money and getting some product in return.

The dynamics of working with someone like you means that they need to first collaboratively architect and build the product, and then have it delivered to them.

The single biggest contributor to project failure that I’ve seen is when we, the freelancers and agencies of the world, just assume that these roles are somehow inherently understood.

You need to properly onboard new clients.

You need to let them know how they need to be involved as the project unfolds.

You need to make it clear that unless both of you are on the same page, you won’t be able to work together.

You need to highlight that your job is to get them to where they need to get to as quickly as possible. But you’re not following a well established trail – this is a new route, with new detours and obstacles. While you’re in the driver’s seat, they’re the navigator. And if the navigator isn’t helping, then you’re likely to be late or get lost.

Think about how you can get started upgrading how you onboard your clients to make it clear what your respective roles are.

Project Pack is a great place to start. Included are Getting Started templates and other professionally designed documents that you can leverage when onboarding new clients.

Project Pack: Every template and deliverable you need for your freelance projects.