This is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Don’t be an Idiot: Run a Viable Business”. Join the email list to get updated on the project, get advanced access and some extra snippets of free content.

When I started freelancing a ‘huge’ project was $5k. When I say huge I mean that I dreamed of getting projects of that size and would throw myself a private dance party. Private mainly because my dancing would make people cry.

I knew that a $5k project was really pretty small. At my in house web development jobs I had a hand in awarding $20k projects. I just dreamed of being able to get projects that large. My typical project was in the $2k range (which may seem large if you’re just starting out) and I figured that I’d be able to do a few of them a month.

So my math was 3 $2k projects a month equals $6k a month. That would put me at $72k a year which was more than three times my wage working in house.

My reality starting out was far from my dreams though.

This project will only take 3 weeks

One of the first things I learned was that most projects take longer than anticipated. After 5 years and learning to add padding – many projects still take longer than anticipated.

Maybe it’s only a day of extra time but maybe it’s a week. If you’re extra ‘lucky’ maybe it’s a year or two.

The most common issue I’ve had with projects is that the client will get you the content for their project late. You’ll be waiting for images or text for weeks past when you expected them. You can’t finish and bill the project if you don’t have that content so it just takes longer.

Typically your project is not the only thing that the client has on their plate. If you’re working for a larger business you may find that the person you talk to about getting content has to track down 10 other people to get that content.

Maybe it’s not the client maybe you didn’t anticipate some of the technical challenges that came up during the project. Maybe something happened at home and you had to not work for a few days. Maybe you just got sick and couldn’t work.

The reason doesn’t really matter. Most projects take longer than you anticipate and you need to learn to combat that. We’ll go in to more depth in chapter 8 on reviewing and identifying issues with projects so you can avoid them from now on.

One of the best things I’ve done to kill scope creep and waiting on clients is to change how I bill. We’ll cover it in more detail later, but I bill weekly. So if a client doesn’t get me content on time they still pay for my time and I still finish the project on the anticipated date. Clients have a responsibility to get you the content on time if they aren’t invested in the project like you are then you’re just in for a world of delays.

After any 2 week block I book a ‘free’ week so that we can have time to deal with any technical challenges that arise. Yes that means that you might have a week of down time, but it’s nice to have time off and if you have a technical challenge you don’t get concerned about running way to many projects at once.

8 hours eh?

Another fallacy that got busted pretty quick is that I could bill 8 hours a day to clients.

When you work in an office you are there from 9 − 5 which is an 8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch. That means you’re getting paid to go get a coffee or use the bathroom. That 10 minutes you talked to your co-worker is billed to the company even if it was about last night’s sporting event. In that 8 hour paid day you probably only did 4 maybe 6 hours of actual productive work.

When you’re freelancing you can really only charge clients for time you’re putting in on their project. If you need another cup of coffee you’re not going to be billing your client for that. You better not be billing them when your neighbour comes over to talk about that sporting event. All that time you killed on Twitter or Facebook can’t be billed to your clients.

Those things are probably obvious but what about marketing? Did you think that you had a sales and marketing team at your job whose sole purpose was to sell clients so you could do the work? Who is going to do that for you now? Who is going to pay you to do that sales call or that follow up email?
That’s right no one is going to pay you to do that.

By the time you pull out all those extra little items that 90% of beginning freelancers don’t think about you’ll be lucky to get in 4 hours billable to clients. If you really bust your butt you’re going to get 6 hours and at the end you’re going to feel pretty spent.

If you expect to be billing 8 hour days to clients as a beginning web developer or designer then you better be prepared to work 14 hours a day. That’s certainly doable in the short term as you really get going, or during a multi-project crunch time but you’re setting yourself up for burnout if you think that’s going to be everyday.

You need to make sure that as you plan your business you plan for marketing time. Start by planning a 4 hour billable day and if you can get up to 6 hours awesome. If you’re business isn’t viable long term on 4 billable hours a day then you’re not planning to run a viable business.


My first 6 months of freelancing went something like this:

  • 8am – get out of bed
  • 9am – sit down at my computer and check Twitter
  • 10am – finally start to open email
  • 11am – walk the dog since it’s nice out
  • 12pm – hey it’s lunch already
  • 1pm – back at work, hey what’s happening on Twitter
  • 1:30pm – crap I need to write some code
  • 2pm – CRAP I need to write some code
  • 3pm – whew got some work done, wait that was only an hour?
  • 4pm – is the day over yet I want to do something fun
  • 5pm – sweet I’m done and how many hours of work did I bill? 1.5 hours WTF happened

Yes then I’d rinse and repeat.

I was lucky since I had a 3 month runway of funds. I know of 4 people that started a freelance business that never got past the lack of discipline and went back to working for companies they disliked doing work that they felt was uninspiring.

That new found freedom when you start your own business is awesome. You are your own boss and you can decide how you’re going to work. You can decide who you are going to work with. No one can really stop you from taking your dog for a walk in the sunshine.

All those perks are awesome parts of the job of being a freelancer and you should enjoy them from time to time. This issue is enjoying them every day.
The reality is that if you take those perks every day of the week you are never going to be doing any paid work. No paid work means you can’t pay bills. Your landlord doesn’t care about your awesome career and all it’s freedom. They care that the rent is paid on time.

The first thing you need to do is to establish a routine. Get up at 7am. Get to the office by 8 or 9am. Don’t load Twitter on your work computer and figure out how to block Facebook during working hours. Don’t check your email right away, do the most important thing of the day for an hour or two then move on to the rest of the tasks of the day.

Starting my day with the most important task that I had decided the night before made a huge difference in my productivity. Literally adding hours of awesome work time to my day.

Setting that routine early is how you’re going to help ensure your business success. Don’t wait months like I did, start by doing the most important thing to your day each day.

photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

5 responses to “You need to anticipate your time realistically”

  1. Mike Sewell Avatar

    Thanks Curtis for sharing this, I’ve been freelancing for 3 years and my first 6 months sound exactly like yours. Thanks for driving home the point about being realistic about the amount of billable hours. I’m burning myself out with multiple projects and looking for a way to change things and you’re weekly billing idea sounds great.

    How did you go about transitioning to that?

    1. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      The short version is that I stopped offering a choice I bill weekly and that’s just how I bill and work. If you want to work with me that’s how it goes.

      Another great thing to help avoid burnout is to really define your WHY’s. I wrote a bit about that in my post last week called Who do you Choose?. Knowing why you run your business is crucial in helping you decide what you will and will not take.

    2. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      Mike I just came across this article today and while it doesn’t explain the transition to weekly pricing it talks a bunch about pricing models and the pros/cons of each.

      1. Mike Sewell Avatar

        Really interested breakdown there, thanks for pointing it out – Planscope is a really interesting product as well. Your posts are all really hitting home with me right now, the WHY factor has definitely gotten blurred for me, time to step back and refocus a bit. I’m looking forward to your freelance book as well!

        1. Curtis McHale Avatar
          Curtis McHale

          Thanks! It’s awesome to hear that I’m helping people (that was the goal).

          Brennan Dunn’s stuff is great. I’ve got his pricing book and I highly recommend it.