Always Do Test Projects with New Freelance Clients

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I wanted to share my experience of a test project that I did recently with a new client and how that can help you as you're growing your business.

Test projects are pretty common these days. Most clients want to see that you can do the work before they begin on a long-term contract or a retainer with you.
 

Test Projects Benefit Freelancers, Too

Sometimes as freelancers maybe we don't want to do a test project. We might think, why get paid for one or two small things when it's not the retainer or the long-term gig that you were hoping for. However, there are big benefits to doing a test project as a freelancer and using that to figure out whether we truly want to work with the client.

I love test projects. They will tell you a lot about the way a client operates, the way you get paid, what you'll be expected to do and how you'll be expected to communicate.

 

You Don’t Have to Work with Everyone

I’ve learned that, even if I'm in the midst of a test project, I don't have to work with a client.

I had a prospective client reach out to me recently and offer me a long-term position and a medium-size retainer with a really well-known name in my space of freelance writing. Of course, I was onboard to do the test project. The client, a digital marketing agency, shared some information about how they work and how they pay. I asked some questions on a phone call and we were ready to move forward. He shared that the test project would be writing just two pages for one of their clients.
 

Watch out for Red Flags

As soon as I saw the requirements for that two-page project, there were a lot of red flags. In hindsight, when I got it, I should have responded right away and said this isn't a fit, I don't like it.

First of all, he wanted a completed page sample within two business days, which may be okay for some people, but when I'm in the middle of a week, usually my entire schedule is filled for the rest of the week with client projects, client phone calls, and other things I have to get done. I don't really want to have projects where somebody has me on a clock.

Then I saw the 23-page long writing guidelines document -- and this was to write 500-word blogs, mind you. They went into so much detail.

I train people how to onboard freelancers, and in particular, how to hire content writers. I've been a project manager in a lot of positions where I've done that and I've been the one responsible for laying down the guidelines, so I've seen both sides of that. It's important to have instructions because with no instructions there's too much room for interpretation on the part of the freelancer.

But with this project, there was no creativity for me as a writer. It was essentially a dictation about what I needed to put in the header tags, exactly how many times x, y, z things needed to appear; in paragraph one, you must reference how long this company has been in business -- it was very formulaic.

Now, there are some cases where there are instructions provided to you that may take a minute get a handle on. I was brought on as an editor for one of my clients that I also write articles for. At first, the editing took me much longer because there was a ten-step checklist and I had to go and double check myself to make sure that I did it right and everything. Ultimately, I became much faster because I have that checklist memorized now and it's much easier to go through.

There's a difference between that and somebody who has so many instructions that you're essentially setting yourself up for failure.

When you put off the project because you really don’t want to work on it, that’s another sign that it may not be the right client for you.

When I opened this writing guidelines document, I saw that and I procrastinated on it. When you put off the project that they've given you because you really don't want to work on it, that’s another sign that it may not be the right client for you.

 

It’s Not Always About the Money

I waited until the day it was due to work on it. I started to go to a negative mental space of "this sucks, I'm not enjoying this.”  It didn't click for about 20 minutes into this project that "I don’t have to do this.”

1) I don't have to do the paid sample project, and

2) I don't have to work with this client long term.

That's when I realized I wasn’t going to work for this client. I don't care what the retainer is. I don't care what the opportunities are going forward. I'm practically fully booked already and this project is not enjoyable.

It is so important to realize that it's not always about the money, it's not always about the long-term opportunity. The client I'm sharing with you today is a great example because even though it would have been a decently sized project, it didn’t fit into the business model that I've already established.

I don't like being on call even if it's for 48 hours’ notice in advance. The project took me so long to complete because it was more like doing a math equation -- making sure this fits here and this fits there and did I say that enough times and did I word that properly. It really felt like plug and play and it didn't feel like writing. It just wasn’t fun.

I finished the project because I was almost done and I turned it in. But the minute that I made the decision that I was not going to work with this client regardless, a sense of freedom came over me. All the creative blocks I have been having about doing this project, procrastinating on it, feeling frustrated as I'm writing it, disappeared. Gone immediately. Because this is not my responsibility, I don't have to take this client, I don't need this client and I definitely don't want this client.

I knew as soon as I sent the email to this client, I have no intention of working for them ever again. And that's okay. I tried.

I would not have met really amazing clients like my copywriting client or like the client who gave me editing work on top of writing work if I hadn't tried. But those were good trial experiences. They were experiences where I could tell it's going to take me a minute to get the hang of this but it's not so difficult that I would hate doing it every single time. And there was a very distinct emotional difference from how I felt with this test project.

 

Why It's Important for Freelancers to Do Test Projects

So, doing a test project is not just for the client, it's for you as the freelancer. It is for you to figure out whether you like working with this person. It's for you to say do I really want to do this? Is this something I would want to continue to do over the long term?

It is far better to figure out when it's not right for you before you dive into taking on bigger projects with this client. And then you feel really obligated. If you're in a trial project and you submit it and the client comes back with 50 revisions on a one-page blog, that’s a sign that this isn't the project for you. That's going to have to be a judgment call over whether you complete all those revisions to get paid or whether you just let it go. But it's far better to learn this lesson on a small trial project before getting involved in a big project.

Say I had been responsible for completing ten website pages instead of two. I definitely would have stressed myself out. I wouldn't have done a good job and it would have taken me forever to do. It wouldn't have been worth it because I would have invested all my time on that client I didn't want to work with. So I'm glad I learned a lesson with two pages.

A test project is for you to give the client a trial run.

When you go into a test project, treat it as a two-way street. It's for the client to give you a trial run, it's also for you to give the client a trial run and monitor how you feel as you're doing it. How is the client communicating with you? Are they putting additional pressure on you? Are they changing instructions mid-stream and it's confusing? Are you enjoying what you're doing? (I wasn't. This project felt like drudgery.) 

How do you feel while you're communicating with the client? Even if you're in the pitching phase, how was the communication during the pitching phase? Is this person already difficult to deal with and you've got multiple red flags popping up? That's probably a sign that it's not the right fit for you.

Always ask for a trial run if you can, because you deserve to know how it's going to work with this client just as the client deserves to know whether or not it's going to work with you.

If it’s not a project you want to work on, let it go.

Do not set yourself up in a position where you're working on projects you don't like simply because you feel obligated to do it. You don't have to do that. You're not responsible for making other people happy. If it's not a project you want to work on, let it go. Let it go with grace, let it go with ease.

You don't have to take on a trial project client. You don't have to take on or keep any client. That's part of the reason so many of us are in the freelance business. We want freedom, we want flexibility, we want to be able to choose who we work with.
 

Everybody Has Stumbling Blocks

One of the reasons that I like to share these pitfalls and obstacles that I have is because it should be reassuring to you that every freelancer, even freelancers who are booked, who are six-figure freelancers, who are growing their business at a rapid pace, we all experience challenges and we all learn lessons. Often it is the same lessons we need to learn over and over again.

And for me, that was the case here. I should never have said I would do this trial project. It wasn't a fit. I knew it in my gut from the moment that I got the writing materials.

But now I'm choosing to use that as a learning lesson and to help you all. I did what I needed to do to get the project turned in. I'll never work on something like that again hopefully.

I may still need to learn that lesson a couple of times in the future. Sometimes you have to learn things over and over again for it to resonate. But everybody has stumbling blocks. It's okay. Don't stop and beat yourself about the fact that you made a mistake or you could have handled a situation differently. View it as a learning opportunity.

When something like this happens, ask yourself, what are you going to do going forward to make sure that doesn't happen again? In this case, when I get a trial project, I'm now going to be much more focused on looking for red flags that could indicate a problem before we even start working together. I'm going to cut the relationship before I promise to do even a trial project if it's bad already.
 

Don’t Get Emotionally Invested

Lastly, don't get so emotionally invested in your clients. I see this a lot, especially in other freelancing groups. People get super psyched about a client before the client is even signed. They have so much invested in this working out. They've already envisioned this client being a part of their roster or this client bringing income to the freelancer's business. They're so emotionally invested that they'll stay in bad situations or they'll waste their energy on praying and hoping that this one works out when it's clearly going nowhere, or when it might not go anywhere.
 

Recap

Use trial projects. Remember they're for you, not just the client. Figure out when it's not going to work and cut the ties early on. It will make you feel so much better about the way that you approach your business. I immediately felt relief just in the decision that I don't have to do this and I'm not going to. I hope this helps you as you're growing your business.    

 

For more freelance advice, check out my YouTube channel, Freelance Freedom.