The Key to Freelance Success: Clients as Collaborators

Tom T bugWhen people ask me what I enjoy most about being in business for myself, the first thing that always comes to mind isn’t the personal freedom, the flexibility, or the money. I value all of these things, naturally, but what I’ve come to appreciate most over the years are the people I work with.

You see, one of the reasons I have the best job in the world is that I like my regular clients and collaborators. All of them. I enjoy relationships of mutual trust and respect with them. We value what we each bring to the table. They pay me well and on time. They’re friendly. They respect my personal time. They’re reasonable. They have great senses of humor.

These utopian relationships aren’t just a happy accident. They’re like this by design.

You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m not talking about people I work for. I haven’t worked for anyone in nearly a decade. That’s because I consider my working relationships to be partnerships and I treat them accordingly. I decided a long time ago—after several lousy employers in the corporate world and a couple of nightmare clients—that I would only work with people who are willing to do business this way. If, after one or two gigs, I find that they don’t fit this profile, I say “thanks” and move on.

Now I can already hear some of you saying “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Tom. You’ve got enough business coming in that you can afford to cherry-pick the good ones.” But hang with me for a moment.

I won’t deny that it’s easier to set boundaries like this once you’re comfortably established. We all get to do our share of work with people who set our teeth on edge, especially in the early days of our freelance careers. There are months when the rent simply has to be paid by any means necessary.

For those of you who are still in startup mode, here’s a bit of encouragement from the “other side.” There will come a day when you start to get busy. When that day comes, it will be important for you to master the skill of saying “no” to the wrong people so that you’ll have more opportunities to say “yes” to the right ones. The sooner you start developing that skill, the sooner you’ll start attracting more of the “right” kind of partners and find freelance success.

If you’ve already been around the block enough times to get regular business and you’re still working with people who make you crazy, the previous paragraph goes for you too—except you’re out of excuses for delaying the process.

I’ll be talking more about how to set healthy boundaries and expectations with clients in my presentation at this year’s Creative Freelancer Business Conference in Boston, May 14-16, 2014. It’s also a great place to find collaboration partners if you’re still searching for your “freelance tribe.” If you’re not signed up yet, you can still use the code “HDLSPEAKER” to save $50 off your ticket. Hope to see you there!

Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for designers, creative agencies and green businesses. He publishes a free writing tips newsletter each month and periodically shares more casual wisdom on the WordStream of Consciousness Blog. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at