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Navigating Freelance Work

Salary / Work Conditions
Career Path

7 July, 2021

Sarper Horata
Sarper Horata

Product & Project Management Author at Pluralsight

Sarper Horata, Product & Project Management Author at Pluralsight, recalls his freelancing days and shares some tips on how to navigate the troubled waters of freelance work.


There were times in my career when I was choosing freelance work over full-time employment. Different people may have different reasons, but I am grateful for the experience. However, I got to learn both sides of the fence since I am hiring many freelancers today. I am keen to share some advice I acquired throughout my freelancing days.

Actions taken

Research Potential Clients

I would do thorough research of a client -- whether it is a large company or a small startup -- and see if I can find additional information on their freelancing work. Those could be testimonies by past contractors or a list of past projects. Each has a story to tell. For larger companies, Glassdoor could be sufficient; for smaller startups, you should take a more creative approach. Sometimes the only place duped past contractors could leave a comment would be in Google Maps.

After a brief while on Upwork, I didn’t need interviews to figure out what kind of employer a potential client would be. Being able to do solid research before engaging in communication with them saved a lot of time and money. I would be able to assess if their projects are realistic or if I would be paid fairly without getting in touch with clients.

Study Job Descriptions

I became an expert in deciphering job descriptions. From the very wording, I was able to infer what kind of work/conditions they would offer. I would read all descriptions carefully, paying attention to the technology they were using, how the project was structured, if they were using competent vocabulary, etc. That alone will be enough for me to understand if they were serious or not and if I will work with experts or third-party outsourcers.

Another thing that I found to be alarming was that roles and responsibilities would surpass a single-person role. For example, often, it would be an ad for a product manager but will include project management, QA, and everything other than writing code. Be aware that this means unrealistic expectations from the start.

Manage Expectations

I would try to establish clear expectations from the start before I would begin working on a project. I would inquire to learn what a client is looking for and if I can deliver on that. That is not always easy. Many times, you will get ambiguous answers, and many employers would be rather untransparent.

Before I would make any commitment, I would ask for full transparency on the project, timeline, and pay. I worked for clients who never paid me; they would ghost me, and I would never be compensated for my work. Or an employer would abruptly end our cooperation, three or four months into a project, without any warning. That experience made me manage expectations early on, and over time, I got to appreciate alignment on details much more.

Lessons learned

  • Always be cautious and read job descriptions with the greatest care. Check out companies meticulously. You will be surprised at what you can find by merely googling. People would sometimes leave comments on Google Maps because that would be the only uncensored place to publish their experience.
  • Unlike being an employee, as a freelancer, you will not have much say. If you notice that the solution is flat wrong, data distorted, or else, don’t bother explaining. Do as told; no one will be interested in your feedback. For some people, this doesn’t feel right, and they would typically move into consultancy roles.
  • Transparency is the most critical aspect of freelance work. You will not have the full context and will have to work with bits and pieces. Employers can cease the cooperation on a whim -- they can disappear without making payment, and you will have a hard time tracking them. Some of those problems are difficult to tackle, but managing expectations from the start is usually a good first step forward.

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