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The Freelancer Files: Taking Over

by Dana Winslow

Handoff of the project

This Happens to Every Freelancer...

... at least once or twice in his or her career. For me, it seems to happen at least once or twice a week.

A client has a project that has already been started by another freelance professional. For some reason, the client needs you to complete the project. The client has been scammed, or taken advantage of, or some other sad story – or maybe the original freelancer is just no longer available to complete the work.

Whatever the exact circumstances are, you now have a dilemma: do you accept the new contract and complete the project, or do you turn the client down?

As with every other decision in life, there are pros and cons either way. So we're going to take a look at some of them to help you with this decision.

Reasons to Take the Work

1. Taking over someone else's project is usually a much shorter project than starting from scratch.

Whether it is a writing assignment or web design, if half of the work has already been completed, then you're potentially looking at a very short project that can be completed quickly without straining your schedule too much. This means a fast paycheck on top of the pay from your ongoing clients – and that's almost always a good thing.

2. You can gain credibility and build your reputation.

Think about this. . . . If that client has been having a hard time getting this project done and you are able to swoop in and save the day, you just grabbed a fleet of brownie points with that client. He will never forget how great you were and will tell his friends and colleagues about you – probably even more often than the already-happy clients that you're juggling now. And being able to fix someone else's work will build your reputation quickly as a problem-solver and an expert, both of which will continue to bring clients to your doorstep.

3. Change the clients' opinion about freelancers forever.

If the client feels as though the original freelancer took advantage of him or her – especially if this was the first time that the client had ever hired a freelancer – then he or she is going to be much more leary of hiring any freelancer ever again. In fact, chances are that he or she fears that all freelancers are scam artists. This will be your chance to change his or her mind for the better.

4. The possibility of gaining more work.

Editing that whitepaper that someone else wrote or finishing that web design project might seem small; but if the client is happy with your solutions, then chances are good any future work from the client will be rolling your way. It's pretty rare that a client will only have one need. If they had a bad experience with someone else, they will be coming with a problem the first time. But once you fix that, the list of other needs and issues they have often comes out, and you'll be offered first dibs on that list almost every time.

Reasons to Turn Away

1. Are you taking over a project or taking over a headache?

Has this ever happened to you?

A client calls telling you about how this other freelancer quit on her project, leaving her high and dry with an unfinished project and can you please, please help?

After some hemming and hawing, you finally decide to go ahead and accept the project. The contract starts and you get to work. And everything seems to be going well until you realize just how hard that client is to work with.

Maybe she's the client who "knows" how to do it and you're doing it wrong. Or maybe she only gave you half the story and what you thought was a quick two or three hour project is actually turning into a forty hour epic odyssey. Or maybe the client is just not satisfied with anything at all. Or maybe they are chronically late at paying their invoices. Whatever the issue, there's always a chance that the last freelancer was not so much a lazy louse who left before the project was finished, as he was trying to escape a monster client. Always do some research to see if either the runaway freelancer or the client has an established bad reputation.

2. What state is the project in?

I never accept a contract to take over someone else's work until I am able to see exactly what I will be taking over, and I'll tell you why. There is little in this world that is more annoying than going in for what should be a relatively simple or quick project, only to discover that the last freelancer left everything such a mess that it takes a whole day or two just to translate what they've done.

You web developers out there, I'm sure, know exactly what I'm talking about. Have you ever opened up someone else's CSS and find such a mess that it takes you several minutes – or hours – to find exactly where to make your changes?

Or did you find that the site's files are so filled with errors that it would almost be easier to scratch the whole thing and just start over?

Well, clients seeking out a new freelancer to pick up where their last freelancer left off are rarely pleased to hear things like, "We should start over," or, "I need to scratch this whole thing." Some are willing to do whatever you want as long as it means that their project finally gets completed – but most won't be happy about this at all, and will resist "losing" all that work just to give you some added convenience.

3. Freelance hopping clients?

Thankfully, I haven't fallen victim to this yet, but I know plenty of other freelancers who fell into this trap. A client starts a contract with one freelancer, creates an excuse to end the contract so that he or she doesn't have to pay anything, then takes the work over to a new freelancer crying that they've been scammed. Some even go through four or five freelancers before their project is finally done – and at that point they've only paid that last freelancer, having gotten combined hundreds of hours of work done for free by the others.

Not every client is like this. Actually, the clients who are scam artists like this are rare compared to clients who are truly looking for a qualified freelancer who can help them. These freelancer hoppers are a rare breed, indeed – but they are still out there and you should be diligent in taking steps to protect yourself from them.

4. What about adding the project to your portfolio or list of credits?

I hate taking a project if I can't also add that project to my portfolio or to my list of credits. And sadly, taking over a project that someone else has started sometimes means you can't take credit for it. Finishing setting up a site that someone else started the design for? Finishing an article that someone else wrote the first draft of? The legal line gets blurry after a while as to whether you can take credit for the project or not. And if you take credit for something that you weren't supposed to, then you can find yourself in a whole new bucket of trouble.

In Conclusion

The bottom line is that accepting a project that has already been started by another freelancer should be approached with the same care and thought as you would use when deciding whether or not to accept any other contract. Is it a project that you can do? Is it a client with whom you can work? Will you get paid?

Remember, as a freelancer, you have a responsibility to your business first. Your clients come second. Keep that thought in mind every time you look at a new potential client.

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