In Part 1 of our Ultimate Guide to Freelance Digital Project Management, we covered getting started as a freelance digital project manager by figuring out what needs to be prepped before quitting a full-time job, finding your freelance project management niche and finding clients. But that’s only just the start. Whether you’re just getting started as a contract digital project manager or if you’re a freelance project management pro, there’s still lots more to cover!
When I started freelance project management, I realized I needed more specific advice as a freelance project manager than most of my internet searches would give me. Lots of people work for themselves as freelance designers or developers, consultants, or strategists. But there really aren’t any DPM resources out there for this. That all changes now. This next part of our series covers how to cope once you’ve gotten your freelance project management feet wet.
How To Juggle Agencies, Clients, And Maintain A Work/Life Balance As A Freelance Project Manager
Agency work, multiple clients, and attempting to have a life in between it all can start to be overwhelming. It’s better to anticipate your limits than to learn the hard way—here’s how:
1. Set boundaries around your work and your clients:
As a contractor, you are in the unique position of protecting your time, your skills, and limiting anything you won’t or can’t commit to. Even though you need to earn enough money with each job you do to cover your expenses (and hopefully make a profit!), you also are in charge of delivering your terms to your clients via contract language, project scope, or setting and reinforcing expectations during project interactions.
Understanding your skills and services as a freelance project manager should drive how you set boundaries around your work and time as a project manager. You can use this idea of scope as a freelancer to help you say no to projects that won’t appropriately consume your time and skills—or to help you justify a rate raise or new freelance project management contract when it’s something you want to work on but beyond your current contract or available time limits. Remember that even though clients are our livelihood, we also need to set our own rules—we’re our own experts.
2. Always be clear about your intentions and setting expectations:
Communicate your intentions and set expectations as to your role on a project, your team’s role, what you expect from the team, and any client interactions. Communication is one of the most important parts of freelance project management, and as a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure you’re constantly communicating your status if it’ll impact a project, as well as properly setting expectations for your role as a contractor.You have a bit more freedom as a contractor to state your intentions as you’re hired onto a project. Take advantage of that by being the most communicative you can be regarding your schedule (for the project and for any time off that might impact a project), your availability, project roles, goals, and expectations regarding team members and stakeholders on projects.
3. Plan for vacations, life changes, and (unexpected) time off accordingly:
Document, document, document. Leave a trail for all of the work that you’re doing in an accessible way to your project team, stakeholders, or client contacts. Live your freelancing life by the “hit by a bus” principle: if anything were to happen to your availability, it should be clear where you’ve left off with work and how this can be picked back up by someone else involved in the project. While this may seem counterintuitive to the idea that you are a unique freelancer and that’s why you’ve been hired, it’s important as a freelance project manager to work transparently with your team.
Project management is all about facilitation and communication, and this can’t be done in a vacuum. With all of the documentation you’re doing, you’ll thank yourself when that crunch time comes just before a vacation, or sudden long-distance travel comes up: most of your prep work will already be done and documented, and all you’ll need to do is arrange (and communicate!) your time off.
4. Apply project management principles to your freelance life:
In the end, be realistic in your expectations for what you can get done within certain constraints (whether those are time, skills, or something else). Figure out the value of your time, the cost of what you’re doing for each client, and if these numbers work out for your own profitability. Understand that if you take on more than you can handle, you won’t be providing quality work—and will likely damage your reputation as a freelancer.
Limit “scope creep” in your own contracts and positions by setting boundaries for yourself and your clients, and knowing when to ask for a new project contract or more clarification as to your role on a project. Be a project manager in your own freelance life and reap the benefits for yourself, as well as for your clients.
Leveling Up As A Freelance Project Manager
Once it’s all working as a freelance project manager, what’s the next step? How do you ensure your career progresses and helps you continue to grow?
1. Seek out new or additional freelance project management work:
Reconsider your job description and skills/project list that you created in Part 1 of our series. Can you add anything new to this list? Are there any additional types of projects you’d like to try? Can you expand your potential market for clients and projects? Run through the initial start-up phases of freelance project management again, and see if you need to revamp any of your client marketing approaches or focuses.
If you’re feeling more senior in your freelance role, perhaps it’s time to try consulting, training, running a workshop, speaking at conferences, or partnering with freelance colleagues. Consider what you feel comfortable doing to use your advanced knowledge of your craft to further your own career. How can others benefit from your knowledge? Is it something you can charge for?
2. Raise your rates:
The time comes for all of us to consider raising our rates with clients—let’s be real: most of the time this happens because we suddenly realize we’ve been vastly undercharging for our time and skill. The bad news is, you (usually) can’t spring a huge rate change on your clients out of nowhere. The good news is that a regularly scheduled annual or semi-annual rate increase by a small percentage is normal, as long as you’re continually expanding your knowledge and skillset as well.
Give your clients at least a few months’ notice and send out correspondence regarding your rate change: let them know that you’ve expanded your skills and are thus more valuable in specific-to-them ways, and end the message with an opening to discuss further if needed. If this is not an option, go into each new client contract knowing you can charge just a bit more than last time—and get yourself where you need to be!
3. Market yourself in new ways:
Look at what you’ve been doing to gain new clients. What has or hasn’t worked for you? Do you currently have a website, or write content? Do you network locally, or in online communities, or at professional events?
Think about what you’ve been doing and compare that to other options available to you. Perhaps starting a blog, podcast, or email marketing course might appeal to your potential client audience to help gain more awareness of your work. Or, maybe getting more involved in the local community in your town or city would be beneficial to your business. Think about what you can start doing to expand your marketing efforts if you’ve already got the basics working for you.
4. Continue your professional development as a project manager:
You’ll need to be a bit more proactive in professional development than as a full-time employee since you don’t have a full company backing you financially or educationally. But the exciting thing is that you have a lot of access to continuing education as a freelancer. Conferences and meetups specific to project management, the industry you work in, or specific to freelancing are all great places to meet people and learn more about your craft. There are conferences for virtually any industry/topic, and many come with online communities that you can continue to be a part of after the event.
Additionally, you have access to all sort of business owners with the clients and other freelancers you might work with regularly. A former client and business owner I worked with has given me some of the best business advice I’ve ever received over the years. One of my freelancing colleagues is a business partner of mine now, and countless other contacts I’ve had through the years have been willing to give me advice at one time or another when I had a business-specific question. This sort of network is gained only through freelance experience and outreach, and something you’ll be constantly exposed to as you work as a freelance project manager.
Ultimately, freelance digital project management resources are still new and few and far between—but we want to keep the conversation going.
What do you think?
Do you have more questions, thoughts, or anything to add to the conversation? Share with us in the comments or over email and let us know—we’d love to address it!