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Advice for freelancers thinking about taking on multiple projects, clients

Tribune Content Agency logo Tribune Content Agency 8/12/2021 Kathleen Furore, Tribune Content Agency
a woman using a laptop computer sitting on top of a grass covered field: Forge ahead and make sure you don’ t jeopardize existing relationships. © Dreamstime/TNS Forge ahead and make sure you don’ t jeopardize existing relationships.

DEAR READERS: I interact with freelancers/gig workers/consultants on a pretty regular basis. And there’s one question that has come up several times over the past year or so: If a freelancer is working on a project for one client and, during the course of that project, interacts with a company they also would like to freelance for, is it OK to reach out to explore opportunities? Would they have to clear any communication with their existing client?

a woman smiling for the camera: Kathleen Furore. © Provided by Tribune Content Agency Kathleen Furore.

The consensus among the industry pros and freelancers I reached out to is this: In most cases it’s fine to explore any opportunities that arise — with one important caveat all of the experts mentioned.

“It is one of the many perks of being a freelancer and working independently,” says Cidnye Work, career coach and resume writer at FlexJobs and Remote.co. “[But] this definitely depends on the agreements already in place with current clients.”

“It’s generally a healthy business practice for anyone working in the gig economy to keep making connections that can develop into new projects,” says Terra Gross, founder of Illinois law firm Attuned Legal, LLC, who has advised microbusinesses that are working through those issues. “The key is to read existing contracts carefully to see what’s already been agreed to.”

“As long as you are not breaching any terms in a signed contract there should be no problem,” Liz Miller, communication manager at the interactive learning platform GetSetUp, who has worked as a content freelancer for over 15 years.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should forge ahead without taking a few steps to make sure you don’t jeopardize existing relationships.

“Think about the optics before leaping into a new client relationship, especially if the introduction occurs through work for an existing client,” Gross says.

What are some steps you can take?

Review all contracts. “There may be a non-compete or non-poach clause, so be thorough in reviewing what your legal obligations are as business development may be a complete nonstarter from a legal perspective,” says Kathleen Smith, a full-time freelancer and freelancer coach at The Fulfilled Freelancer.

Be conscious of your existing relationship. Smith says to ask yourself this question: “If I were in my client’s shoes, would having a contractor pursue a relationship with this particular contact be detrimental to my own business?”

Smith also notes: “It does make a difference whether you are pursuing the opportunity or whether the contact approaches you first. Your client is much less likely to feel like you’ve opportunistically leveraged their relationship if the new contact broaches the subject of hiring you first rather than you engaging them on the subject first.”

Consider potential conflicts of interest. “That always requires careful consideration, and tacit approval from a client,” says Nick Vivion, founder of Ghost Works Communications. “You don’t want to jeopardize your client relationships if they feel there is some sort of conflict.”

Ask yourself if taking on the new project might involve usurping any corporate opportunities from the first client, and if there’s any real risk of revealing the first client’s trade secrets through working for the new client, Gross recommends.

“For example, a freelance search engine optimization (SEO) provider probably will cause some friction if they try to make every pizza place in town No. 1 in search results,” she says. “Building a relationship with a nearby Pilates studio while working on the pizza gig, on the other hand, is almost certainly a great idea.”

Be clear and be courteous. “Being clear on expectations and communicating from the beginning is very important,” Work stresses.

“The ideal situation is that your work for a given project speaks for itself and leads to new business,” says Vivion, who suggests having “a courtesy communication” with your existing client no matter the situation — when the prospective client reaches out to you first or when you want to take the lead. “It can’t hurt to ask first.”

Ask your current client for a referral. This will only work if you have built up trust and rapport, Smith says. “Ask them if they would let that contact know that you are available for freelance or consulting opportunities,” she says. “If your client proactively addresses the elephant in the room, it not only absolves all parties of potential awkwardness, but also creates instant credibility with the potential new client.”

The bottom line?

“Prioritize the relationships that matter most and go from there,” Vivion says. “Sometimes that might mean cycling off one client for a different opportunity, other times your client loyalty and history will keep you on track and focused on your best clients.”

(Kathleen Furore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has covered personal finance and other business-related topics for a variety of trade and consumer publications. You can email her your career questions at kfurore@yahoo.com.)

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