Question: how do I distinguish between insincere freelance job offers on the one hand, and sincere offers on the other hand that may have defects, but can lead to a beneficial longer-term working relationship if worked through? The former have the potential to waste time and good-will, while the latter may not be ideal short term, but may be lucrative and thus not a waste of time long term.

Concrete situation: I have recently decided to devote part of my time to freelance jobs. I have begun contacting various people in my personal network that I believe can potentially provide contacts for such work.

One of these people has indicated that he himself would like to get me engaged in some of the prospective projects that he has in mind.

(I know both this person and his spouse from a professional setting. Up to now I haven't had any reason to doubt his professionalism and multiple qualifications.)

I was invited to an informal chat with this person in which he gave me a very broad overview of the projects that he has in mind - and claims to have started groundwork on. I agreed that it all sounds very interesting and that I would very much like to be involved. Some preparatory work needs to be gotten in place, but I understood that I might be getting involved in a month or so. Apart from my resume (including skills) not paperwork was generated, not even an NDA (I was asked to honor his confidentiality and I am happy to be bound by my conscience).

A few days later this person contacts me, after hours, and asks for a fairly small job to be done the next day. As I already have prior commitments, I respectfully excuse myself and he agrees that it can be done some days later. He offers to e-mail some material for me to look at in the mean time so I can start on it first thing in the morning. The morning of the day I set aside for this task comes with no e-mail having arrived yet. I phone, only to get the answering service, and no returned call the whole day.

Result: A day wasted waiting and keeping myself available for this task, which could have been used gainfully otherwise. Also, I have other commitments set up for subsequent days, and if this person now decides he wants the work done after all, I'll again have to decline him.

  • On the one hand, it could be that he is just under time pressure and while the change in commitments is unfortunate, future opportunities may make up for it - if I do not go and burn bridges.

  • On the other hand, I have begun questioning if this person (and his motives) are for real. Is this perhaps some elaborate game? Does this person perhaps suffer from delusions of grandeur about his plans - or perhaps some other abnormality? If so, it would be better to cut my losses and avoid being pulled in any further. (Although I am at the same time afraid that declining this person permanently might also affect my relationship with his spouse, although ideally and professionally it should not, although we are not in an ideal world.)

  • And on the third hand, it seems that his style of communicating verbally and very generally (perhaps a result of time pressure?), without vital specifics, versus me needing details, preferably in writing, is bound to cause misunderstanding/resentment sooner or later.


As Peter's and keshlam's answers point out, an up-front contract goes a great length to help here. I agree, except that for tasks that may take max 4 hours, and perhaps are needed in a rush, this might be a bit of an overkill. I have done such small tasks for others in the past without much more than a verbal agreement. In the end I am more worried about reputation (customer stasifaction) than the money or time, as the former is largely a mental construct, that therefore scales more easily to larger projects (where the money may be better).

  • 3
    " In the end I am more worried about reputation (customer stasifaction) than the money or time" - that's fine, but don't get the reputation of being "the sucker who will agree to do anything for free". A formal contract might be over the top for a few hours work, but from your posts you never even agreed a price for doing it. That's a fatal mistake. If you want to do some of the task as a "free sample," fair enough - but not all of it!
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 17:20
  • To address your Addendum: For trivial work, a contract can be trivially simple. Even oral contracts (x work for y cash, seal with a handshake) are infinitely better than no contract at all. Of course having a written standard contract prepared also helps a lot.
    – Peter
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 17:40
  • 5
    I'd love to answer this... but really, for me, it's all about client attitude. There are subtle cues that the client sees you nothing more than grunt, unspecialized, general, labor. In those cases, I avoid those clients. Here's a link to a question on another stack where I detailed the red flags I saw in communication with a client: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/25712/…
    – Scott
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 0:43
  • Is it possible the guy was just testing the waters if he could get small jobs for free? An angolan aquitance already tried that line... 2 or 3 times until he got the message Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 22:03

8 Answers 8


Wasting a day hoping for work to arrive if you have other work lined up is on you.

Don't start any work before you have a signed contract. If they sign a contract, the likelihood that they are serious is already much higher than before.

Ask for early payment for the first piece of work. Once they start paying you, the likelihood that they are serious is already quite high.

Edit to address Addendum of question:

If you don't want to have the overhead of a written contract that was prepared by a lawyer, you can simplify, although I won't generally recommend that. You can just write down the essentials in an email: The description of the work and the amount and form of compensation. If they confirm, that is a legally binding contract. If you cannot agree on the description of the work and the amount and form of compensation, then you are not ready to start the work. Compared to this minimal contract, the primary advantage of a proper contract with multiple pages is that it also has a clause that limits your liability so you don't suddenly need to hand over everything you own to your client.

  • Choosing your answer because you are right that some concrete agreement needs to be in place.
    – frIT
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 17:53

What you are dealing with is known as a "Sales Pipeline." (Step through the Slideshow) And you are getting the steps out of order. That's what's causing your frustration.

As a tech person (like myself), it frustrates you because we're used to a "Here's my problem. Fix it for money." view of the world. The reason that we think this way is that we are usually not even brought up to speed on issues until the pipeline process is complete. Or, if you're a sales support engineer (at least partially), towards the end of the sales cycle.

Two things you should remember:

  1. You should have a "conversion rate" of about 1 sale in every 15 leads. (At least this was the case for my freelance work ... 20 years ago). That is, 1 in 15 will actually end up hiring you. A lot of people have "big dreams" and think that their "vision" will draw people to work for them for free. You'll learn to spot them soon enough.

  2. A fantastic idea written on a piece of paper is worth the paper. There's a reason most startups never make it (well, lots of them). Properly assessing market scope, user demand, startup capital requirements, competition, etc., is a separate subject (probably a lecture series, actually).

If you want to be a startup founder, then start focusing on that. As a freelancer, your thought should be: "I will solve your problems for your money." That's it. Don't get caught up in their "vision." Don't worry about how good/bad their idea is. You should worry about (in order):

  1. Is this work legal / ethical?
  2. Will I get paid in a timely manner?
  3. Will doing this work help or hurt my chances of getting other work in the future?

As for this guy, it sounds like he is a flake. If he wanted you to do something the next day, but can't get you prep materials in a few days, then he has nothing together except a amorphous, pretty blob of an idea in his head. Not that his idea is good or bad, but it is certainly not researched and developed.

  • 1
    It is quite possible that he didn't get the sale to go through when he thought it would. It is also possible that he's a very optimistic person who is looking to line up people to do work with more promises than he can keep.
    – MikeP
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 16:36
  • 1
    A fantastic idea written on a piece of paper is worth the paper. Actually, it's worth less than the blank paper, because now only the other side is good for anything....
    – mattdm
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 18:57

it could be that he is just under time pressure and while the change in commitments is unfortunate, future opportunities may make up for it

This is your statement from above. This tells me that you're more concerned about how your client's business is going than you are about your OWN business.

How you run your business should NEVER be conditional to how a client runs theirs. "Future opportunities"??? Friend, go to the Computer Gigs section on Craigslist in any large city, and you'll find innumerable parties looking for technical work done. Many opportunities will read, "No pay now, but this will be great for your portfolio," or "No pay now, but as soon as we strike it rich, we'll bring you back to be our CTO!" It's bad enough that other parties will commit these games, but it's far worse if you do this to yourself.

Trust in the value of your work and don't be afraid to reach out to resources like this when you feel something's odd. It'll save you a heap of trouble and stress!


Contracts and deposits. Deposit paid before any work starts.

If the work is too short for a contract, then payment in full before work starts. And still write a contract.

Rush work? There's no such thing. When did their lack of planning become your emergency? If the client really wants the job 'yesterday', they'll have all the material you need, and they'll be prepared to pay in advance in order to reserve your undivided attention. Keep a simple one-page contract for these jobs, ready to issue at a moments notice.

There are a lot of flakes out there who have grand ideas but no clue about business. For me, that includes everyone who doesn't want to read and sign a contract. A signature solidifies the relationship in a way that a verbal agreement never can.

  • 3
    In the USA, it's not unusual for work to require a deposit of some sort. So if someone is refusing to give a deposit or contract, then I wouldn't do business with them.
    – Dan
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 16:26
  • 2
    Totally agree, Dan; but prospects (I wouldn't call them clients, as they never get to that stage) think otherwise. I was caught out a few times years ago when I started, by doing a rush job with payment at the end. Oddly enough (not really!), paying the invoice dropped in priority once the work was done for them...
    – PeteCon
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 16:28

As Peter's and keshlam's answers point out, an up-front contract goes a great length to help here. I agree, except that for tasks that may take max 4 hours, and perhaps are needed in a rush, this might be a bit of an overkill.

Even if it's just to find out what the problem is, my auto mechanic makes me sign a rough generic estimate of what it's going to cost every time I bring my car to him. This is not just for his benefit, it's for mine as well since it outlines the maximum amount I'm willing to pay (unless I specifically authorize a higher amount later on).

And if you can't ask your client to sign such a document while in a rush, or return you an electronically signed copy of such a document by email. It probably just means that you don't have one already prepared and ready to go at a moment's notice. Ideally, you should always carry blank copies of such an agreement in your office, in your bag, in your car, and in your phone over email.

I have done such small tasks for others in the past without much more than a verbal agreement. In the end I am more worried about reputation (customer sastifaction) than the money or time, as the former is largely a mental construct, that therefore scales more easily to larger projects (where the money may be better).

Money and time are not just mental constructs. If you don't take care of getting your client to sign relatively simple contracts for a couple of hundred bucks here and there, it will probably be that much harder for you to do the same when contracts involve actual real amounts of money and real commitments of several weeks.

That's how you can scale. First master the right behavior for the small amounts. Trust me, those small amounts are actually much easier to get a client to commit to. And once you've mastered those small contracts, then that same behavior will come in handy once you go after the bigger contracts.

If you want to be a successful professional, you really do need get over this hangup. You can't pay for rent/mortgage/food with pats on the back alone. Also when first getting started, don't be above asking for small amounts of money from your clients.

Also, the quicker you can figure out that a client isn't willing to sign a small contract, the quicker you've figured out that the same client would never have been willing to pay you for a larger contract either. Some people are just born that way. It's not their fault. You don't need to change their mind. You just need to find out who they are so you can weed them out as quickly as possible.


If they pay you for your time, on time, they're sincere. If they don't, they aren't. A decent contract can help set expectations as well as protecting both parties.

  • 7
    The most sincere client is the client who's willing to pay for work that hasn't even been done yet. Contracts are good, but for some clients a contract isn't worth the paper they're printed on.
    – Xavier J
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 17:13

You discern through experience, and you've gained some valuable experience this go-around.

The reality is that you can't easily judge at the beginning whether someone is a solid lead or not, and sometimes you don't find out until too late that you've misjudged. You're going to have to accept that sometimes things don't go according to plan, and there are many ways to deal with that.

  1. Give your clients deadlines for your schedule. In this case, "I can set time aside for you on Wednesday, but I have to prepare a few things in advance so I'll need your information/contribution/design/materials/etc by Monday night. If I don't have that, then I can't give you Wednesday." This gives you time to reschedule that slot if they fail to bring you the materials.
  2. Always have backburner projects. Eventually you'll gain projects, your own or someone else's, that are just slow burn "get to it when you can" projects. Whether you offer a lower rate, or it's merely maintenance, or if you're taking time to upgrade your skills, you should always have something you can do that's productive when someone else falls through. Consulting is great, but it's implementing someone else's vision, and you only ever make as much as you work - if you develop your own product you may become your own client if it becomes successful, and you may find you have much more control over your work and income than you do relying on others to generate work for you.
  3. Accept that some people have a different work style than you. Whether you can make it work or not depends on your flexibility. For myself, I give a quote, and I make sure they understand up front what the conditions are to start the project, and the expectations. Then if they fall through I simply move on with other things. If they make contact again, I restate the terms to start. It pushes people away that can't work on these terms, without rejecting them outright. If they have to adjust because they want me, that's fine, but I am not interested in losing time, sleep, and generating stress trying to fit their work style. There are other consultants they can work with, and they'll be happier with a better fit anyway, so I don't feel bad about setting deadlines, boundaries, and choosing my working style.

Part of the difficulty you have to face is that you're going to have to let some clients go. Rather than firing them, it'll simply be a realization on their part that you aren't going to be able to meet their needs because their needs require on-demand scheduling, and you simply can't do that without losing a lot of time and other resources. The only way you could make that work is if you charged them accordingly - if they waste 4 hours of your time for every 4 hours they contract with you, then you'll need to double your rates for them, accepting that half the time you'll be left without work. Other professionals, Lawyers, doctors, etc charge clients for missed appointments, this isn't much different, it's simply a recognition that they need more time than they believe they need due to their work style.


Often, when they want an estimate, I tell them that a small user manual will need to be written so they can use the final program. I do the user manual first. I quote a fixed price to write the user manual. I give them the manual and wait to get paid. Once I get paid, I give them a quote on how much it will cost to write the program. I write the program and give it to them. After they pay me, I give them the source code. If they never pay me, I'll wait until they come back in 6 months with changes they want to the program.

Larger tasks are broken up into pieces with each piece being a separate project. Where to divide the pieces is that each piece is useful to him immediately without the other pieces being finished. Each piece is required to be paid before the next piece begins. The reason to justify doing the project in pieces is that as she uses piece one, she'll get ideas on how to improve piece 2 before piece 2 has begun being written.

You can't avoid getting scammed some times. But by acting professional and letting it go, the scammer might recommend you others for legitimate projects. Some scammers are evil, but most scammers can't pay you because their idea failed. Have pitty.

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