5 Questions to Ask Yourself to Better Estimate Your Time

by Tom Ewer 5 Minutes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACreating estimates for clients is one of the hardest things we have to do as service providers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, a graphic designer, a software developer, a dog walker, or something else entirely — figuring out exactly what to charge is hard work.

We’ve been told to “value” our time. This part is more-or-less easy. If you believe in yourself and your services, finding the willingness within yourself to demand the rates you deserve is a cakewalk. However, in a much more literal sense, it can be hard to place a monetary value on our time if we’re unsure exactly how much time we’ll be spending.

Put simply, no one wants to be the guy (or gal) who invoices for two hours of their time but ends up working five.

To more accurately estimate the time it will take you to complete a client’s project, ask yourself these five questions:

1. “Do I know all of the details?”

The first step toward preventing scope creep is to know the scope. And the best way to find out a project’s nitty-gritty details is to ask your client as many questions as you can beforehand. Questions like:

  • What is the purpose of this project? What are the client’s overall goals? Are they aiming to increase sales? Target a new audience? Find out why they think they need you and your talents on their side.
  • How you envision the finished project? This is where you’ll be able to assess if your client’s goals align with the project they’ve proposed. And, if they don’t, this is where you’ll start making suggestions to help them in the right direction.
  • How many units are needed? This could be wordcount, pages, screens, dogs walked per block, whatever.
  • Who will be my contact for this project? The more people who are involved in the process, the longer the project will take. Always take into account how many chefs are in the kitchen. If your client is coming to you as the department head of a larger company, there’s bound to be more people to report to than if you were working for a smaller, one-person owned business.
  • Have you ever worked with a [your occupation title here] before? If your client has never worked with a freelancer before, expect to do additional hand-holding throughout the project.
  • Will I have access to…? Will you have access to their website’s backend? Past press releases or media kits? Secret codes? This question will help you to determine things like how much research you’ll need to do or how much control you’ll have over the final results of the project.
  • How often do you want updates on my progress? The needier the client, the longer the overall project time. A client who wants to look over each draft will take up more of your work hours than one who just wants the final copy — charge accordingly.
  • If necessary, may I outsource parts of this project? Depending on the enormity of the project, you may want to outsource chunks to other parties. However, depending on your client’s comfort levels (is this a “top secret” project for a government branch?), they may not approve. When in doubt, ask.

Another great trick for gauging scope is to ask your client for an example of what they have in mind. Most clients don’t imagine something from nothing. Have them show you where they’re drawing their inspiration from so you can better get inside their head.

2. “Will extra support be needed during or after?”

If you’re a writer, you’ll want to think about the possibility of rewrites and revisions. Of course you’ll have a “cap” to how many your client can ask for (always include a revisions clause in your contract!), but what about the time it’ll take for the “allowed” allotment? Add it into your equations, especially if your client seems “picky” or likes to pull power plays.

Technical support should also be taken into consideration. If you’re a programmer or web developer, your client may expect you to continue to take care of their website after you’ve completed the initial project. Make sure you find out exactly what they expect of you.

And all of the “hand holding” tasks count as “extra support” as well. Does your client insist on daily hour-long phone calls? In-person meetings? Multiple e-mails in which you detail your every move? All of that takes time! Time you should be paid for.

3. “Do I need to learn anything new?”

Does your current skillset match your client’s expectations? If not, you’ll probably need to learn something new.

For instance, if you’re used to working in HTML, but your client requires you to write everything in Markdown format, you’ll either have to learn some new codes or learn where to access a good converter.

That example is a fairly easy new skill to learn or work around. However, other client’s may require you to reach much further outside of your pre-existing skillset. Depending on the job you may have to do anything from taking a CPR class to becoming an instant expert at a new software program.

Learning something new takes time and considerable effort. If it’s something you wouldn’t have done to enrich your life normally — something that you’re only doing to appease the client — then add the training time (and cost!) to your estimate. And be sure to work in enough of a buffer between “learning” and “doing.”

4. “Do I need to buy anything?”

Speaking of new software, are you going to have to purchase anything for this project? Artists, think about how many pens or tubes of paint you’re going to blow through before your piece is completed. Those two-dollar Microns add up! And dog walkers, how much will you be spending on disposable refuse baggies?

And what about those in-person meetings? It’s going to cost gas to get there. Alternatively, you could be using up precious cell phone minutes on those long conference calls between your client and the other “department heads.” (You may even need a separate phone line!).

Ask questions and anticipate additional costs as much as possible. Do your best to suss out the neediness of your clients ahead of time. For things like gas, work in a reimbursement clause into your contract. Just remember to keep careful track of your receipts!

5. “How fast did I do a project like this last time?”

Very rarely will a potential client come to you with a project you’ve never done anything remotely like. And, if they do, you’ll probably direct them to look elsewhere. (Why would you take on a gig completely outside of your chosen profession?).

So, how long did a project like this take you last time…?

This isn’t a time to self-shame yourself or try to lie to yourself. Your work speed is your work speed. Be realistic and honest. Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself. Look at past timesheets if you have them available and figure out your average speed.

If you don’t have timesheets at your fingertips, take an educated guess. Whether you know your exact work speeds or not, you should be able to tap into your memory banks and recall whether a previous project took you days versus weeks. (And you can always use this project to start keeping track of exact times for your future self to refer back to).

In the end, creating estimates is nothing to be afraid of. However, if you’re still struggling to create professional proposals, there’s always Bidsketch. But, of course, we could be biased. 😉

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by Tom Ewer
Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.