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How to scope a freelance project

What is project scope?

As a freelancer, you're acutely aware that time is money. So when it comes to determining how to scope a freelance project and determining how much you need to charge the client, it's critical that you accurately estimate how much of your time (or a subcontractor's time, if you plan to outsource or bring in other freelancers) that the project will require. This is called scoping.


Scoping is the process of digging into the client's requirements and building out the "scope" of the project, which is essentially a plan of all of the work that needs to be done and how long each of those tasks will take. From there, you can get an idea of the total number of hours (and a timeline) for the project. Depending on the pricing structure you use to bill clients (hourly or flat rate), you need to know how much work is going to go into the project in order to provide a reasonable estimate to the client as your quote or offered pricing.


Scope is a tricky beast because you're trying to figure out how much time (and energy) you will need to devote to the strategy, planning, client communication, project management, revisions, – and of course – the amount of time spent heads down, working on the project. That's a LOT to figure out without a crystal ball!


The dangers of not scoping freelance projects correctly are two-fold.

One danger of not scoping correctly is that you overscope the project, meaning you overestimate the amount of time it'll take to do the work.


When you overscope, you may be providing pricing to your potential client that's way out of the ballpark of anyone else you're competing against.


Losing a project because of pricing is inevitable, so don't beat yourself up if that happens. Either the client's budget wasn't realistic or you were undercut by someone who could do that project for a lot less than you could... and there will always be someone out there who will do the work cheaper.


However, if you lose the project because you overscoped the project, that's a mistake that you can learn from. Maybe you didn't understand the client's requirements for the project so you overestimated how much time it would take to do it (and priced accordingly) or you aren't as efficient as you could be so your projects require more hours of work than they need to.

A quick word of advice when it comes to overscoping – you should pad your scope just a little bit because it'll ensure you're compensated for all of the little unpredictable client requests, extra phone calls, questions, etc. Just to recap: overscoping becomes a problem when your scope is significantly out-of-whack and you're wayyyyy overestimating what needs to be done so you price yourself out of the project completely.

The second danger of not scoping accurately is that you could underscope the project. That means you've underestimated how much time the project will take and you charge less than you should have so you are working more hours than you estimated... but you're still getting paid the same. Ouch. That's a tough pill to swallow because your business is built on earning a certain rate.

Underscoping can also cause resentment toward the client when they are asking for things like another meeting or some final tweaks to the work. Those totally fair and normal client requests suddenly become teeth-grittingly painful as you're watching the amount of time spent on the project go speeding by the estimates and it can be hard to not let that frustration spill over into your work and client relationship.


Underscoping, which is FAR more common for freelancers – especially new ones who are just learning how to scope a freelance project, happens because you either didn't estimate correctly and/or the project goes off the rails and spirals out of control and eats up a lot more of your time than you had thought... then you're going to be working more hours


Freelance Project Scoping Tip #1: Pay attention to your scoping missteps and continuously fine-tune your scoping process


Learning how to scope a freelance project accurately is a skill that you will get better at over time if you are aware of it and constantly work at it. Keep paying attention to those moments where you realize you've over or underscoped a project and take notes.

No, I mean, like literally take notes.


Keep a running list of what you can do to improve your discovery process to prevent misscoping. Add notes to that list whenever you have a moment where you realize you could have done something better to scope more accurately. Did you miss an important aspect of the client's expectations? Did you not dig into what tech the client uses and now you're running into problems accommodating their tech stack? Did you not delve deeply enough into the stylistic likes/dislikes and now you need to backtrack and redesign work?

There are millions of things that can cause a project to go over the scope you set and MOST of them can be traced back to what happens very early in the process during the discovery phase or your estimating phase. When you keep track of where you can improve, your knowledge of how to scope a freelance project and ability to do so quickly and accurately will grow exponentially.


Freelance Project Scoping Tip #2: Get really good at asking questions in the discovery phase to get to the heart of what the client wants


The number one way to stick to your scope and avoid "scope creep" is to make sure that the project scope that you provide to the client actually speaks to what the client wants to achieve.

The way that you ensure your scope is closely-aligned with your client's expectations is to become a super sharp investigator and use those investigation skills during the discovery phase before you even write the scope and prepare your proposal or quote.


In your initial call with your prospective client, you need to get to the heart of what they are looking for and verify that you are on the same page about all aspects of the project – how long it will take, what the process is going to look like, and the most important: what the deliverable(s) will look like – in DETAIL.


Don't forget to dig into the client's business goals because they may not even understand what it is they want from you and (not to scare you) but sometimes they completely misunderstand what it is they need, which obviously spells serious trouble for your scope once the project kicks off and they start to realize that what they're getting is not what they thought they'd get.


All of this (and so many other problems) can be avoided by asking really good questions early in your dialogue with the prospective client so that you can uncover all of their goals, needs, and wants, technical requirements or specs, and likes/dislikes in terms of the deliverables.

Getting SUPER clear on those things will help you learn how to scope a freelance project in a way that avoids issues down the road, no matter what type of freelancer you are – social media manager, graphic designer, web designer, etc.


Freelance Project Scoping Tip #3: Create standard processes for your freelance projects and use them as starting points for scoping


When you have very specific, very well-defined processes (such as how you go about building a website or what your approach to working with a social media management client looks like) you make it SO. MUCH. EASIER. on yourself when it comes to how to scope a freelance project.


Those processes give you a starting point for what you know a 'standard sized' [fill in the blank with your type of freelance project] looks like. That doesn't mean you can't or won't customize it for clients – or even for MOST clients – it just means you know that your standard xyz project has a set number of phases and each phase includes a certain number of steps and (usually!) takes a set number of hours.

Freelance Project Scoping Tip #4: Be explicitly clear in your contract about what is included in the provided scope.


There are a number of ways that you can explain the scope in your contract. You can show milestones in your project with a certain number of hours allocated to each or you can show exactly what is included in the project.

For example, a blog post project might include a 700-900 word blog post on the topic of the client's choice, targeting a specific keyword of their choice, with one round of revisions based on provided client feedback. If the client wanted a second round of revisions, resulting in a third version, that would be out of scope and you would be able to reference the contract as evidence that it would take the project out of scope at the provided pricing.


So, what happens when going out of scope can't be avoided?

Going out of scope means that you and the client both know and understand that a certain request is outside the bounds of what was initially estimated in terms of scope and pricing. But you are both okay with charging more to accommodate that extra work since it was unforeseen but important to the outcome of the project and its overall success.


So in this situation, my own contract for my marketing studio stipulates that if there are requests that are outside the bounds of the scope as provided and we have the availability/bandwidth, we can provide an estimate for that extra work at our hourly rate.

I hope this was helpful! As always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

Kathleen Smith

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