Managing Client Relationships with Nathan Ingram

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How I Built It
Managing Client Relationships with Nathan Ingram

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Nathan Ingram is a fantastic freelancer, educator, and coach. I met him doing iThemes Webinars and he always manages to ask the right questions and tee up the right talking points. I’m excited to talk to him today about how to manage client relationships. Last week we heard from Erin Flynn about her process for working less and mentioned the importance for finding the right clients. Nathan is going to dive deeper into that. We’ll talk about his book on this very topic, and then we’ll talk about a new project he recently launched to help freelancers. 

Show Notes


Nathan Ingram: One of the conversations I have on a pretty regular basis with folks who are trying to sort out cash is, “I’m at this place in my business, and I just can’t seem to move forward. I’ve got all these obstacles.” One of the first decisions you have to make is, “OK. Is this a hobby, or is this a business?”


Intro: Nathan Ingram is a fantastic freelancer, educator, and coach. I met him doing iThemes webinars, and he always manages to ask the right questions and tee up just the right talking points. I’m excited to talk to him today about how to manage client relationships. Last week we heard from Erin Flynn about her process for working less, and she mentioned the importance of finding the right clients. Nathan is going to dive deeper into that this week. We’ll talk about his book on this very topic, and then we’ll talk about a new project he recently launched to help freelancers manage those relationships. Let’s jump into it.


Break: Before we get started, I want to tell you about my online membership and community, Creator Courses. I know that when you want to learn something new, the natural thing you probably do is go to Google or YouTube. I do the same thing, and that’s great for one-off projects. I used a YouTube video to learn how to change a light switch in my house, but I am not a big fan of YouTube for learning new skills. Because there are lots of videos on every topic, but “Which one is best and who do you trust? What order do you even watch the videos in, and will you get the support you need?” These are all things that YouTube or other potentially free videos can’t do for you. So, I started Creator Courses a few years ago with the idea of just putting online courses out there, and I decided to morph it into a membership last year. So stop wasting your time hunting and pecking for the right learning resources and tools, over at Creator Courses. You can become a member and take all of the courses that we have to offer included in that membership, and those courses focus on everything from just basic WordPress up to learning how to build websites without code, something you don’t necessarily need to do in this day and age. All of the courses are developed by me, and if you listen regularly that I’ve been a developer for decades at this point, and I have lots of experience building websites. I’m a teacher at heart, and I’ve created courses for LinkedIn Learning and things that. On top of the courses, we’re also a community, and members get access to forums and Slack and office hours with me, so I just wanted to let about that and encourage you to join if you haven’t already. Listeners of this show, exclusively for listeners of the show, you can save 15% on all memberships, including the lifetime membership. All you have to do is visit Thanks so much, now let’s get on with the show.


Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is my good friend Nathan Ingram. He is a growth coach for WordPress business owners. Nathan, how are you today?


Nathan: Man, I’m great. Thanks for having me on.


Joe: Thanks for coming on, I always enjoy talking to you. We’ve interacted multiple times through iThemes webinars and at various WordCamps, and today we’re going to be talking in general about clients and client relationships. This season has focused a lot on how freelancers and small business owners can grow, and people think that I need to charge more or I need more clients, but I think what we’ll probably learn today– I don’t want to lead this conversation too much already, but I’ve read your book. Instead of more clients, you want good quality clients. Is that right?


Nathan: Yeah, absolutely. Quantity is always great, but it’s much better to have the right kind of client. It’s so important. I’m a big advocate for freelancing, owning your own business, however you want to position that. Whatever word you like, “Solo-preneur,” my own agency. People describe it different ways, but the point being doing work with clients, owning your own business, owning your own time, controlling your life, building the life that you want using your skills. I’ve had hundreds of coaching conversations with people around the world over the last several years, and what I’ve learned is that most freelancers, “Solo-preneurs,” are one more bad client away from throwing in the towel. That’s a shame because most of the problems that people encounter can be handled by having great systems and processes in place to keep those clients fenced in.


Joe: Absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly that people are one bad client away from throwing in the towel. I’ve seen people just complain about every client they have, and I wonder if they like what they do or if they just like complaining. But I’ve been doing freelance work in some capacity for half of my life now, I started in high school, and I’ve made it a habit to say “No” to the people who seem like nightmares. You will definitely touch on that because you have a book called Dealing with Problem Clients, but why don’t we start off–? You mentioned that you’ve done a bunch of coaching calls. Tell the listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do.


Nathan: Sure. I wear a number of different hats, but at the core of what I do, I’ve been building websites for clients since 1995. I’ve been at this a long time, and really since the very beginnings of the web. In that time, I’ve dealt with fantastic clients, I’ve dealt with awful clients, and today even up to about half of my time is spent doing client work. Either building sites, managing sites, all of those things. I enjoy it, I keep the clients that I want, and I have a good recurring revenue stream that’s been built over the years in my business managing WordPress sites. But out of that work, I’m naturally wired to be a teacher, and I’m going to be helping people until the day I die. So really, without a whole lot of intention, I have stumbled into a teaching role. Taking all of the things that I’ve learned over the years, both technical and in business development topics, and helping people both online in webinars and in courses, speaking live, doing coaching calls one-on-one and in groups, and then speaking at WordCamp events around the world.


Joe: That’s fantastic. I like what you said about how you’re naturally wired to be a teacher. Something that I had a hard time with, especially in the beginning, was I wanted to help people. People needed a website, I viewed it mostly– Especially in high school, mostly as a hobby. I didn’t think I could possibly charge for my hobby, and I was susceptible to doing free or cheap work because I wanted to help people. Is that a trap that you fell into? Or if you haven’t, how did you reconcile that sort of thing?


Nathan: Absolutely. That’s something I think a lot of folks struggle with, and one of the things that– One of the conversations I have on a pretty regular basis with folks who are trying to sort out cash is, “I’m at this place in my business, and I just can’t seem to move forward. I’ve got all these obstacles.” One of the first decisions you have to make is, “OK. Is this a hobby, or is this a business?” Because if it’s a hobby, then you can pretty much do what you want to do and not worry about making a lot of money. But if this is what you are depending on to put food on the table and pay your bills, then you’ve got to get serious and put some great structures in place in your business, especially if you are a person who is a nice person like you are Joe. You enjoy helping people, so if you don’t have great fences, systems, and processes in your business to protect you from the friendly monsters which clients can become, you’re going to end up burning yourself out. Because you’re going to try to help people, and if you’re not protected from your own helpful nature by good systems and processes, people will take advantage of you and suck the life out of you.


Joe: I think that’s a great point. It’s like you said, they’re friendly monsters. People aren’t necessarily doing this on purpose, but some totally are.


Nathan: Sure, absolutely.


Joe: Those are maybe the easier ones to screen if they’re being totally obvious. Actually, as we record this, I have prepped another episode, the advice episode which I will link to in the show notes for this episode, which you can find over at Where I talk about the story of how I had a client who would– I didn’t charge for communication. I thought I should only charge for the actual work I was doing, not considering communication work. He would call me every day and keep me on the phone for an hour. The dude loved the sound of his own voice. One day I was just like, “I’m going to start charging for these calls.” It’s so funny how he stopped calling and started e-mailing me pithy emails that went right to the point.


Nathan: Absolutely. You put your finger on one of those things, and I actually had this conversation yesterday in a coaching group that I’m doing, a client that is just emailing all the time and “What do you do about that?” You have to realize that these questions that they’re asking oftentimes are consulting in nature, and you’ve billed them– Or you’re currently in a billed project where you’re building a website, that does not equal marketing consulting. Building a website is not marketing consulting, and if you have the ability to do that, that’s awesome. You should totally do it, but you have to frame the client relationship differently. One of the phrases that I’ll typically use is, “That’s a wonderful question. I would love to sit down and talk to you about that. Let’s schedule some time underneath a marketing consulting agreement where we can really unpack that issue and get to a resolution for you.”


Joe: Yeah, that’s great. As we’re wading now into this conversation, I do want to mention your book Dealing with Problem Clients. I will link to that in the show notes as well, but you talk about this stuff. Part 1 of the book– I’m looking at the contents right now, I don’t have this memorized. It’s Friendly Monsters, and part 2 is Building Fences Around Those Friendly Monsters. Can you give us maybe a quick synopsis of the book, and then we can dig deeper into some of that stuff?


Nathan: Absolutely. This book actually came out of one of my more popular WordCamp talks that I’ve done around the country, and it’s a lot of fun because everybody has a problem client story. So when I was giving this talk, all the heads were nodding, people were like, “Yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve done that.” It’s a softball to hit. It’s an easy topic to connect with people about, so when I thought about “Let’s just put this into a book and see what happens.” I positioned the book in a couple of different ways that the first half of the book is fiction, where I’m introducing what I call “Friendly monsters.” There’s four different friendly monsters that are introduced, and I do that in the form of a story where there’s this web developer, and they have this client issue, and the story is told on how they work with their business coach to solve the issues that this particular problem client is presenting. Then the second half of the book is nonfiction, and it unpacks how to build these four fences that I suggest around these friendly monsters. Each monster is really– It tends to be controlled by one of those fences, and the book explains how all those things work.


Joe: That’s great. I read this a while back, and I read it, I think, in a day. I was nodding in agreement. Again, I have 15+ years’ experience in this space. Oh gosh, it’s 2020 now as we record this, so I’ve got like 20 years’ experience in this space. But I still got a lot of really good advice. I hadn’t put names to some of these monsters, but these are all things that a lot of us have probably experienced. Like you said, it’s a softball. What I like is that even if you’re not necessarily a freelancer, this is some stuff that can apply to your full-time job as well, especially the boundary buster. I’ve had bosses call me on Christmas Day because I had to get something done, I skipped going to a concert because I had to get something done. Guess what? The thing didn’t need to get done that night, so I think that there’s a lot of good advice for anybody in general but especially for freelancers, of course. I don’t want to give too much of the book away, and it’s again a really easy read. I would strongly recommend it. Nathan’s not on a book tour or anything, and I just asked him to come on after I read the book because I really loved it. But there are a few– I have dog eared a few pages in here that maybe we can kind of touch on.


Nathan: Great.


Joe: The first is, how do you identify a problem client? To provide some context, I talk about this a little bit with Jason Resnick in episode 150 of the show. He kicked off the season, and he talked about the importance of that. Shannon Schaffer of Purple Finch. Gosh, I hope I’m getting that right, I’m really sorry Shannon. She came on, and she talked about how she has automated her screening process through a few forms and things like that. How do you recommend somebody screen a client, and what should they look for?


Nathan: That’s such a great question. I’m all for automation when automation makes sense, but when you’re small or maybe you’re just starting out, or you only have a handful of clients you’re not doing four or five projects a month, you’re doing one or two. A typical freelancer is doing that level of work. Automation is more, in my view, at least, is more difficult than just sitting down and having a conversation with the client face-to-face, either local and literally face-to-face or by video call at least, and just ask a bunch of questions. In my process course, one of the lessons is Mastering the Client Consultation. There’s a strategy that I’ve developed, and it’s based on the acronym of SCOPE that guides that conversation. I have a checklist of questions that I ask in every client intake meeting, and it needs to be written down in a list because inevitably if you don’t have the questions written down in the list, the question that you should most ask is the one that you will definitely forget. I’ve left the conversation having forgotten to mention, “Part of this pricing is going to be WordPress management after the product is launched.” And, “What about this feature of the project?” I would forget to ask those things, so getting good questions down and a checklist is imperative, and as you meet with clients– Very few people do this automatically, this is more caught just by experience, you begin to develop a radar for these problem clients. What I tell people is, “When you’re meeting with clients, and something just doesn’t seem right, it’s the tip of the iceberg. Meeting with a client for the first time is like being on a first date. You’re getting the best possible version of that client that you’re ever going to get. They are putting their best foot forward. Any issues that pop up that just don’t seem right or if they are rude or they’re not listening to you, or they’re already starting to nickel and dime you on the price, all those sorts of things. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and that doesn’t get better, so listen to your gut and decide, ‘Is this a person that you really want to work with?'” Even if you need money, what I’ve learned over the years is problem clients are never, ever worth the money. They’re always going to cost you more in mental and emotional capital than they ever bring in real dollars.


Joe: I know what I’m going to put at the top of this show now. Even if you need money, problem clients aren’t worth the money. I love that. I lived that from experience, I know for sure. Any time I think, “Something’s not going to be that hard,” it is. Or, “How bad could it be?” It’s as bad as you probably think it is, so trust your gut. I should say I might have misrepresented Shannon’s comments a little bit, and she has a screening form. She also always meets, but she saves her time with that screening form because, again, you can’t know somebody really without them filling a form out. My first screener is always via email, and if they say they need something, I say, “All right. This is the minimum that I charge for projects. It could be more.” If someone’s like, “Can you go lower than that?” I’m like, “Nope. You need somebody else.”


Nathan: Exactly.


Joe: That’s really important. So, I love that. What are some things–? Let’s see, we both talk about trusting our gut here. What is some advice that you can give to somebody if they don’t necessarily have that gut instinct developed?


Nathan: If they don’t have the gut–?


Joe: Yeah, right. I’m trying to make mine a little smaller.


Nathan: Again, this is something where some people are just born with great emotional intelligence, and they have the radar for people right off. If that’s not you, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can develop this, but unfortunately, it often comes from the school of hard knocks. You will get better at recognizing bad clients after you’ve dealt with those. Now what I try to do in this book is give you some classic symptoms for very common what I would call “Friendly monsters.” To recognize those folks on the front end, and those characteristics once you start to see them, you think, “That’s a boundary buster. I’m dealing with a boundary buster there.” Or, “This is an invisible man. He’s going to disappear on me again.” Those sorts of things and you begin to develop a radar. But again, a lot of this comes from experience.


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Joe: Something that I’ve always said for a long time is that you can’t– You can go to business school, but you can’t teach business. It’s all stuff that you learn from experience, so you mentioned a couple like the invisible man and the boundary buster. I would say if you are just starting out, be vigilant about looking for the boundary buster because I feel like they’re the biggest sink on your time. I had a client call me at midnight one time, and I just went off on her. I was like, “You don’t call me past–” I said past seven, which is pretty generous. But I was a college kid, so I was staying up until 2:00 in the morning anyway. But I’ve also found that those boundary busters are also going to try to nickel and dime you. They want a lot for a little.


Nathan: They absolutely do. I was just having a conversation with somebody in a coaching context a couple weeks ago, and they were like, “This client just keeps texting me.” And I’m like, “The client has your cell phone number? Really? OK, so let’s back up to that. Giving a client your cell phone number is giving the client access to everywhere you carry your cell phone, which is everywhere probably.” So what I typically suggest for people is, “You’ve got this cell number. It’s out there for business, just port it over to a Google Voice number or something like that and get a new cell phone number that you don’t give out to everybody. Because you have given people in your business access to your world, and you can say, “I just won’t answer the call. I just won’t answer the text.” But if you’re like me and there’s that little red number bubble on the text app, you’ve got to pick it up. We’re just conditioned by our phones like Pavlov’s dogs to clear those notifications.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to link Google Voice in the show notes. If you haven’t heard of it or if you want to check it out, because I– Actually this year, in September of 2019 I should say, I’ve had my cell phone number for 20 years. I don’t want to change that, and I don’t want to give people direct access to me. I’m very cognizant about shutting down at 5:30 every day, not answering e-mail on the weekends, so I have a Google Voice number that I can check when I want to check it. I make it very clear that email for professional stuff is the best way to get ahold of me. I think that’s probably part of it as well, is that– To say “This is my preferred medium, this is where you’ll get the best chance of getting an answer from me, via email?.”


Nathan: Absolutely. That’s one of the things, that if you’re dealing with a boundary buster, in particular, you’ve got to be very clear on how and when you work, because a boundary buster is typically– They’re the person that sends you an e-mail at 3:00AM and sends you another e-mail at 7:00 saying, “Have you got this done yet?” You know, come on. But it happens a lot, or they’re calling you or texting you in worst-case scenario. So clearly communicating how and when you work is critical, and guess what? It’s your business, so you get to decide those things. Those are some of the things you talk about in that first conversation with the client. If the client pushes back on that, it’s a big red flag that this is maybe not a person I can work with. Just about every time I’ve had a client push back on my regular business hours, which are very reasonable, and I’ve taken the client anyway because I was stupid, I “Needed the money,” I always live to regret that decision.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is part of it too, in that initial meeting, you have a list of questions that you should ask. There’s probably also a list of, I don’t want to call them “Ground rules,” but– Ground rules that I state, like “This is generally how much I charge.” That’s always a good screener. The hours that I work, “I’m a one-man band. So if you need something on the weekend, I’m not the right person for the job” sort of thing, stuff like that. Because like you said, it’s a first date, and you both should be feeling each other out.


Nathan: Absolutely. I talk about how– I unpack my whole system in the book in an abbreviated way, but I just talk about the flow of the way a client project goes for me. Just like you said, at that first contact, you’re going to immediately segregate by price. There’s a minimum price to work with me, and I’m not even going to meet with a person face-to-face until they understand that. Otherwise, you’re just going to waste an hour or more with a person, and then if they’re going to meet with me face-to-face, then we go through some of those ground rules. Like, “This is how a project works. This is an idea of what this project you’re talking about is going to cost,” and not go any further until the client is on board with all of those things. One of the things that is important to realize about clients is it’s a relationship like any other relationship. As a relationship, it’s based on healthy commitments back and forth. You commit some things to the client, and the client has to commit some things to you. For years I made the mistake of thinking that the only commitment the client had to make to me was signing the check because “I’m getting to do what I love to do and it’s awesome, I’m getting paid for it. This is great. The client signs the check, and then I just come in with the cape, and I’m Superman. I’m going to make it happen.” And it just doesn’t work that way. The client has to commit to the project just as much as I do, and if we don’t do that, then it’s not a good relationship.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll say– This is going to sound way more condescending than I intend it to be. But I mean, I have an almost three-year-old. If I break one of, “You can’t do this right now,” “But I want to. But I want to,” “Fine. You can.” That’s going to teach her that if she just asks me five times, I’m going to break down and do it, and she’ll keep pushing that boundary. The same goes with, and I’m going to say anybody who’s paying money for something. I’ve been in that situation. I have a quick sidebar– I cut my Philips Hue strip lights on the wrong end two hours after I bought them because I thought the end came off. So I called them, and I said, “Is there anything you can do for me?” They were like “No. Unfortunately, this is misuse.” And I’m like, “But I just bought them.” I don’t know what I was expecting. Their instructions are kind of bad, but I acted– There are no words in the instructions, just pictures. But I acted too quickly because I was distracted, and I was excited, and I didn’t follow the instructions clearly. I shouldn’t expect them to reimburse me for my dumb mistake. It cost them money too, probably. We all do it, but they drew a very clear boundary, and now I know that if I break one of my Philips Hue things, they’re probably not going to replace it, so be careful.


Nathan: Exactly. Boundaries like that are what I call “Fences.” The book is Dealing with Problem Clients: Building Fences Around Friendly Monsters. To keep the “Friendly monsters,” the potentially problem clients in the fence and not running all over the rest of your world, you need to have these fences in place. Then the key is, especially if you’re a nice person, don’t tear down your own fences.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Again, just a perfect reinforcement of that is if you say something and then stick to your guns.


Nathan: Absolutely.


Joe: So, this initial meeting, how long should it be? Fifteen minutes, 60 minutes, two hours?


Nathan: In my experience, after doing this for a long time, I can usually do that first client meeting in an hour or slightly longer. Maybe an hour and fifteen minutes, but I’ve got a pretty good process and a good checklist of questions. At the beginning of that meeting, I always ask the client for permission to run the meeting because one of the problem clients is what I call “The question mark.” The question mark has no idea what they want, and they just want to be there to ask questions and dream. So I ask for permission right out of the gate, “Look. I’ve developed a process for meeting with clients for the first time so that we get the most value out of the time, both of us do, to make sure this is going to be a good fit.” So I ask them for permission to run the meeting so that we can make the most efficient use of our time, and I run the meeting. Letting a client sit there and ask you a million questions before they’ve committed anything to you is a huge mistake. You’ll sit there all afternoon, and they’ll be nowhere close to signing a proposal.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I think in the book you make the distinction between answering what questions, and answering how– I hope I’m not giving away the gold, here.


Nathan: No, this is a really important rule of thumb. Whenever I’m giving this talk, it’s one of the things I always emphasize, and it’s just a rule of thumb for me is that “What” questions are free, but “How” questions that’s going to cost money. That’s intellectual property. So, “What are we going to do? What does the site need to be?” Those are questions that I’ll cover in the initial client meeting, but “How we’re going to do it?” You don’t get that until you have paid me money.


Joe: Yeah, and that can be really hard. I had a client, and they wanted a proposal, essentially. They wanted me to look at their site and like, “What are you going to do? How can you do these things? We need performance.” So I wrote up all of the things I could do to boost performance, and then they said “How are you going to do it?” And I said, “I will tell you how once we have a contract in place, or I’ll do them for you.” Because again, if they just want to know how they can do it themselves, that could be a discovery project or something like that. Where you give them a write up of exactly what they need to do to do it, and then once they try to do it and fail, that’s when they hire you. Or they’ll successfully do it, and now they’ve saved money, and you’ve saved time, and you can move on to other clients.


Nathan: For sure. This is really an issue where a lot of folks make a critical mistake in their business, is again, they want to be helpful. Or they want to prove to the client that they really know what the heck they’re talking about, so we end up giving way too much information. What we forget is there’s a gap between what we know and what the client knows, and that gap has value. Don’t be afraid to charge for that. It’s taken you years maybe to learn all the things you know, or even if you’re just starting out and maybe you’ve only been in this for a few months. You still know more than the client knows, you may not know more than somebody else does, but there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re not sitting in front of the client, you are. The gap between what you know and what your client knows has value. Don’t be afraid to charge for it.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I know I keep saying, “Yeah, absolutely.” But I don’t know what else I can add to that. It’s so important. I had a computer science teacher talk about this. You’re not paying a lawyer to learn the law right there, and you’re paying the lawyer for their knowledge. That’s why you’re paying them $300 dollars or whatever an hour because they know this stuff, and they’re going to save you eight years of school to do it for you.


Nathan: Exactly.


Joe: The same thing goes with you, freelancer, or small business owner. You have spent time learning your craft, and you are solving a problem for the client. That’s what they should be paying for.


Nathan: Yeah, for sure. By the way, the client should be paying you for your value. It’s going to save them time, you’re going to do it better than them anyway, and the illustration I always like to give is “I could walk into Home Depot and buy tile for my bathroom and watch a YouTube video and try to put that in, and it may or may not turn out OK. Or I could hire a tile professional to come in and do the work, and I know it’s going to be done right.” It’s a good analogy, and I use that with clients sometimes. “Can anybody build a website?” “They can build a website, but whether or not it works for you or is effective to reach your target market, that’s way out there. I’ve learned things over 20 years that are going to help me build a website better than most people can.”


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. As a freelancer, you have a direct value proposition for stuff like that, right? I charge $100 dollars an hour, so if I’m going to do something and it’s going to save me less than that, then I’m wasting my money. A shingle– Not a shingle, but a piece of siding fell off my house, and I have a group of people saying, “You could do that. Just get a really tall ladder and do it.” Then my dad is like, “Hire somebody to do it.” And I’m like, “Yeah. It’s going to take me forever to get over the fear of climbing up that ladder and then doing it and hope I do it right. Or I could just pay my friend who’s a roofer $100 bucks to do it for me. He’ll do it in five minutes, and it’s going to save me an afternoon.”


Nathan: Exactly.


Joe: It’s really good to think about things that way. So we’ve talked about that initial meeting and screening, I know that’s something that I used to have a lot of trouble doing or figuring out when to do it is presenting a contract to the client. Do you do it in that first meeting? Do you work up a proposal and include the contract? What’s your process? First of all, are there times when I shouldn’t have a contract? And then if not, when do I give them a contract?


Nathan: The only time when you shouldn’t have a contract is when you’re working with a perfect person, and those people don’t exist. You don’t need a contract for the good clients, you need a contract for the bad clients, and you can never know who you’re dealing with. You may meet with a person who just seems like the perfect fit, and they’re going to be great. They’re fun to be around, and then all of a sudden, two weeks into the project, they transform, and you’re like, “Where did this other person go? I like them a lot, but there’s this other person here now, and they’re horrible to deal with. They’re wanting all these things that we didn’t promise,” and it’s complicated. So, never ever work without a contract. The “Fences” that I talk about in the book, you have to have a contract that you both agree to that establishes these boundaries that the project is going to live in. Otherwise, you are at significant risk.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I have worked without contracts, and I have regretted it.


Nathan: For sure. Now in the same vein, I’m not going to give them that contract right out of the gate in that first meeting, because that can be incredibly intimidating. That’s like asking somebody to marry you after the first date. Let’s talk a little bit, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. When I leave that first meeting with a client– By the way, I don’t even write a proposal for the client, which can take a long time, until they’ve agreed on at least a ballpark price for what this project is going to be. I’ll either give them that ballpark price in that first meeting or in a short follow up email later, but how much time have I wasted over the years writing proposals for clients who thought “I thought this was going to be a $500 dollar project, and you’re saying it’s going to be $4,500.” And I’ve agonized over that proposal, and tweaked the wording here and there and spent hours, and I’m way off the client’s price point. Again, it’s a balance back and forth of commitments. I’m not going to commit to even spending the time of writing the proposal until the client agrees to a ballpark price. Usually, around $1,000 dollars is my rule of thumb, and then I deliver to them the proposal and the contract at the same time.


Joe: Nice. I think that’s fantastic, and I’ve done the same exact thing, and I’ve thought, “I’ll give them three prices so that maybe it’ll be better.” But I’ve gotten away from all of that. I basically give them my price, once they understand what my minimum is, I always say, “This is the minimum that I charge. It could be more based on this, and then I’ll have a couple of add-ons, but I’ll never go lower than my minimum.”


Nathan: Right.


Joe: In the beginning wrote my own contract, at like 20 years old and not a lawyer, that wasn’t a great idea. Luckily my college roommate’s dad was a lawyer, so I did his website, and he wrote my contract for me. But you often run into these issues where you get a generic contract that maybe isn’t specific to exactly what you do. I’ve changed my contract because now I do more video and podcasting work than web design work, and there are a few differences there. But as we record this, by the time this episode comes out– It should be out, but you’re working on something to help freelancers with that. Right?


Nathan: Absolutely. Thanks for mentioning that, Joe. One of the critical things that I usually deal with in a coaching situation or in some of the online teaching via webinar that I’ve done is dealing with a contract. This was my issue years ago, and I’ve got this hastily written thing that I did, which was really not great at all. Then you find that– Here’s the extremes. Most people either have something they threw together themselves, which is full of holes and problems and so forth, or they have this gigantic, weighty legalese thing that they don’t even understand that they pulled off the web somewhere or is based off of something they pulled on the web, and it’s just not great either because it’s just legalese and it doesn’t really deal with real-world web development. In my business, I’ve developed a contract that– It’s been battle-tested over 20 years of building websites for clients. I’d made that available through my courses in the past, and I thought, “Let’s do this a little differently because I know that this is extremely helpful to people.” So I’ve released a product called, built around the friendly monster idea out of the book, and the monster contract is about– It’s based on my contract that I use in my business. You will be able to quickly customize it for your business, and as I’ve used this beta testing with people around the country– I’ve not heard from people overseas using this because the laws can be very different, but around the United States, in particular, people have used it in different states and have been able to use it pretty much right out of the box. Now my recommendation is always to get it vetted by a local attorney because sometimes local state laws can be a little different here or a little different there. Maybe the boilerplate language needs a couple tweaks here and there, but every single bit of feedback I’ve gotten has been, “I gave it to my lawyer. They said this was great. They made minimal changes, just with some of that state-specific language, and it was ready to go.” So, maybe an hour of the lawyer’s time at most, and you’ve got a great contract that deals with the specific issues of web development. That’s really the key. What happens if the client delays forever on a project? How many people listening to this today are right now waiting on a client to deliver content for the website? Probably everybody if you’re working with clients, so how do you deal with that? How do you get paid? What happens if, “Oh, my gosh. All of a sudden, the e-mails from WordPress aren’t being delivered to my client’s inbox. Now they say they’re going to sue you for a million dollars because of supposed lost revenue because they missed out on some contract. How do you deal with that?” “Is that kind of thing covered in your contract? Because if it’s not, you might find yourself in a whole lot of trouble.”


Break: This episode is brought to you by FreshBooks. Do you remember when you started your small business? It was no small feat. It took lots of late nights, early mornings, and the occasional all-nighter. Bottom line, you’ve been insanely busy ever since. So, why not make things easier? My friends at FreshBooks have the solution. FreshBooks invoicing and accounting software is designed specifically for small business owners. It’s simple, intuitive, and keeps you way more organized than a dusty shoe box filled with crumbled receipts. As a side note, I actually told my accountant the first time that I used the shoe box method, and his face turned white. But in actuality, FreshBooks was one of the first things I bought when I started my business. I’ve been a FreshBooks user since 2009. It’s easily the best accounting, and invoice software for small business owners Create and send professional looking invoices in 30 seconds, and then get them paid 2 times faster with automated online payments. Nothing is better than sending out an invoice and getting it paid in the same day, and that’s happened for me with FreshBooks. You can also file expenses even quicker and keep them perfectly organized for tax time, and the best part is that FreshBooks grows alongside your business so you’ll always have the tools you need when you need them without ever having to learn the ins and outs of accounting. Now there are a lot of features on this list I have here to talk about, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites. The first is late payment reminders, and they are clutch. It’s one less thing that I need to worry about when making sure I get paid. I don’t have to keep track of exactly when I sent the invoice, and if I already sent a follow-up email or whether or not they viewed the email, all of that is taken care of inside FreshBooks. The other feature I really like is the automated expenses. I connect my business credit card to FreshBooks, and my expenses automatically get imported. They are all there, ready for me and my accountant to review. It makes tax time easier for both of us, and it’s no secret that I love automation. These two features make my life a lot easier. After doing things by hand, FreshBooks is worth the price of admission just for those two things. Join the 24 million people who have used FreshBooks, and you can try it for 30 days for free. No catch, no credit card required. Go to and enter “How I Built It” in the “How did you hear about us?” section to get started. Thanks so much to FreshBooks for supporting the show, and now let’s get back to it.


Joe: First of all, excellent disclaimer. Neither Nathan nor I are lawyers, but this contract has been reviewed by lawyers. You should have it reviewed by your own lawyer. I’m going to link to an episode I did with Rian Kinney, she is a lawyer in the WordPress space, and she is a fantastic human being who has helped me with not only business stuff, but I had a little personal issue with a former landlord who tried to charge me because they wanted to put in new carpets. I handled everything, but she had my back. She’s like, “This is well within your rights. They are wrong.” So I ended up saving a couple grand on that too, so Rian’s wonderful.


Nathan: Absolutely.


Joe: I’m just going to tease a little bit, I brought this up for a specific reason because I love some of the stuff you have in your contract. In the book, you mention that if a client delays the project more than 30 days or if it’s suspended more than 60 days, then it’s considered abandoned, and they forfeit the deposit. I’ve always thought about doing something like that, but I wasn’t sure if I could or if it’s right. But I’m sure we’ve all had projects that have gone on much longer than we expected, so I love that your contract due to your experience covers stuff like that.


Nathan: It absolutely does, because like I said, everybody who works with clients is going to deal with a delayed project. So, what do you do about that? The “Suspended” and “Abandoned” language is one of those options. In the monster contract, there’s actually a couple of different ways to deal with that. One is actually, it’s something I’ve been implementing in my business for the last year now, and I don’t even deal with suspended and abandoned projects much anymore because of a payment structure. These various options are there in the contract. They’re plug and play, and you can choose which one you want or maybe use the language to create your own way to handle this. But the way that I’m dealing with a lot of that now, Joe, is the client pays half upfront. A 50% deposit as usual, and in the past, that was like “50% up front, 50% on completion.” Then you’re waiting on getting paid for the client to deliver content, and that’s terrible. It can be– My personal record is 16 months. There have been people who have– Sometimes I ask that question when speaking to groups and some people have been waiting two or three years, so I don’t feel quite as bad. But 16 months is a long time to get paid, so I’ve started moving to the 50% deposit, the next 25% is due 30 days after the project is initiated, and then the remaining 25% is due 30 days after that or at project launch, whichever comes first. There’s those pieces of language that are in the contract, the monster contracts, as options, and you can decide what best fits your business.


Joe: That’s great. That makes sense because now you are paid on a predictable schedule, something that could be killer for a freelancer if they can’t predict when they’re getting paid. But also, the client’s going to pay in full no matter what, essentially. If they don’t, the project’s done. And if they do, they’re more likely to deliver everything they need to make sure the project gets done.


Nathan: Exactly. The point being it’s tough not to be paid when the thing that’s going to get you paid is out of your control. So the client’s waiting on the photographer to show up and take pictures, or they’re just dragging their feet on writing their content, or whatever. When that’s out of your control, and you’re sitting here like, “I’ve got to pay this bill.” That puts the stress on you, like “I’ve got to twist the arm of the client.” Most of us who are doing web development aren’t really good at that anyway, confrontation with clients. It’s just a miserable place. What we have to realize is, “I designed this system that’s making me miserable. Let me design a system that won’t make me miserable, and that’s what I’m going to enforce in my contract.”


Joe: That’s fantastic. I would encourage you to check out I’ll link to that in the show notes for this episode. We are coming up on time, and I have two very important questions to ask you. One is my favorite question that I ask at the end of every episode, but one is we talked about getting clients and vetting clients. How do you fire a client?


Nathan: Boy, OK. Firing a client is complicated. There is language in the monster contract to deal with that, but this is why it’s so important to work with a contract. Because if you are not working with a contract and the situation gets so bad that you have got to terminate this relationship with the client, and there’s already problems there, and you have no designated process that you’ve both agreed upon as to how this relationship can dissolve, you’re going to lose sleep over that. It’s awful. So the way to fire a client, first of all, is to have a good contract in place where you’ve been very clear about how that process works. The way I handle it basically is if more of the project has been done than the client has paid for, the client has to pay that balance, and they get all the assets, and we dissolve it. Or if we owe the client money and we elect to dissolve it, then, in that case, we’ll give the client a little bit back, and we’ll call it a day. It’s worth it. But you’ve got to make sure the process is crystal clear, otherwise, you’re going to end up in court, and that is not fun.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Two quick personal stories here is I did a project within the last few years without a contract, and I was doing what I thought was an easy thing. The client was unhappy with an aspect of it, and they initiated a chargeback. Since I didn’t have a contract, I had no grounds to get that money back.


Nathan: Exactly.


Joe: I lost sleep over that. It ate me up inside. I guess I’m lucky the first time in 19 years that I had a chargeback. But man, it was rough. Now I have a contract for the new aspect of my business, and I feel like I relearned a lot of lessons I learned switching industries. But in my web design, when I was doing web design full time, I had a contract. I had a client who was probably all four of these nightmare monsters all rolled into one. They were not friendly, but they were unhappy with the way the project was going, and they asked what the deadline was because they thought I was in breach of the contract. My contract doesn’t have specific dates on it, so that saved me there. The project just dissolved after that. So, be crystal clear with the process. I like that a lot. There’s not a specific way, but you need to think about the way that works best for you to protect you and your client. You’re making commitments to each other, protect those commitments. But when you’re firing a client, you should be thinking about yourself mostly.


Nathan: Absolutely.


Joe: Cool. So, Nathan, you have already given us tons of advice. I have lots of notes here, but I do need to ask my favorite question. Which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?


Nathan: Trade secrets? What I always tell people who are trying to up their game in their freelancing, in their solar printer business and their small agency, however you want to put the label, what I tell people is two things. First of all, you want to standardize your tool set as quickly as possible. Don’t go by it, and you’re getting a new theme for every project. Don’t try new plugins for every project. Get a set that works for you and then build everything using that. The more that you can streamline and be efficient, the better. The second thing is, and this is really a two-part piece of advice, is build recurring revenue as quickly as possible. If you’re in the WordPress space and you are dealing with– Or you’re in the web space at all, website management is that the first place you should start. Build recurring revenue as quickly as possible, but then at the same time eliminate recurring expenses as quickly as possible, which means get out of debt. A lot of people that I deal with in a coaching context, they’re freelancing, and they’re shackled with consumer debt credit cards. Things like that, cars that are really more of a payment than they can truly afford. It’s like freelancing is a marathon. It’s like running a marathon with a boat anchor behind you if you’ve got debt because debt– If you’ve got a regular job where you know how much money you’re bringing in every month, you can manage some debt. But freelancing never goes that way. I’ve been doing this over 20 years, and I have months that are awesome and months that are not as great. It’s up and down, up and down. It’s like peaks and valleys, and recurring revenue helps to stabilize some of that, but it’s still up and down. It’s hard to bring on recurring expenses when you don’t have a regular recurring income, so get out of debt as quickly as possible and get out of stupid debt like credit cards and very expensive vehicles that you can’t truly pay for, and those sorts of things. Get rid of that stuff, build your recurring revenue. What that creates when there becomes a gap, especially when your recurring revenue is more than your recurring expenses and you can pay yourself from your recurring revenue– That’s, by the way, one of the chief goals I try to help people reach in a coaching situation. Because what that does is it creates peace, and most freelancers do not have peace of mind when it comes to their finances. When you’ve got that, when you’ve got a good recurring revenue coming in, whether you’re paying yourself with that or not when you’ve got that peace of knowing, “I’ve got some money coming in.” You can say “No” a lot easier to the problem clients, and you’re not forced into taking clients and projects that you really shouldn’t take that are going to end up making your life stressful on lots of different levels. So, that’s my advice. Standardize your toolset and build recurring revenue as quickly as possible.


Joe: I love that. Like you said, recurring revenue doesn’t need to be a product or subscription. It could be maintenance stuff.


Nathan: Absolutely.


Joe: Hosting is something that– I use a host that allows me to resell their hosting, so I don’t pay for that hosting essentially, and I have some predictable money coming in.


Nathan: Sure.


Joe: Nathan, thank you so much for your time and advice. I really appreciate you coming on the show.


Nathan: Man, I’ve enjoyed it. I love helping folks, and I appreciate the opportunity, Joe.


Joe: For sure. Before we go, I need to ask, where can people find you? People have learned so much about you, but where can they find you?


Nathan: They can find me at That website has information about some of the courses I offer, as well as individual and group coaching opportunities that we can engage with.


Joe: All right. I will link to that, and everything we talked about in the show notes over at Nathan, thanks again.


Nathan: Thanks, Joe.


Outro: Thanks so much to Nathan for joining me this week. Right off the bat, he got started with some fantastic advice about building the life you want, about realizing if your business or the way that you’re making money is a hobby or if it is a business, and how to treat it that way. There’s just tons of great information. Be sure to check out his contract over at, and there will be a link in the show notes over at Thanks so much to this week’s sponsors, they are Yith, Text Expander, and FreshBooks. They are some of my favorite tools to help me run my business, and I would recommend them for any freelancer. If you liked this episode, be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review over at Apple podcasts. If you want to learn more about the things that I’m doing over at with my courses and my membership, you can get a free PDF over at that shows you 5 tools to help you build websites faster. Who does not want to do that? So, thanks so much for listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.


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