Five Essentials Creatives and Communicators Should Include in Contracts
Do I really need to use contracts?
Client relationship management is one of the most important aspects of owning a small business. A well-written contract is the basis for a strong relationship with your client – and it can protect both of you as you work together.
When I started Mixto Communications, I had never written a contract before. My early efforts make that (painfully) obvious. Initially, I outlined my responsibilities and scope of work, but left out the client side of the equation. My timelines didn’t account for potential pitfalls like lengthy periods without client feedback. These are items I include now because I learned both from experience and from talking to other entrepreneurs offering similar services.
If you’re writing a contract for the first time, you can find examples online to use as a starting point, such as this one from Law Depot. AppSumo also offers free lifetime access to a library of legal documents from LawTrades. My current contracts are customized based on samples I’ve purchased from attorneys who specialize in working with creatives; I personally like and highly recommend contracts from Annette Stepanian.
Once you've built the outline of your first contract, it's time to make sure you have the essentials in place. Here are five I include in my contracts.
1) The Sunset Clause
What it is: A sunset clause establishes an expiration date for a contract or proposal, meaning the client must sign by that date for the contract to be valid.
Why I use it: I only write a proposal or contract if I have the bandwidth to manage a new client. A delay in signing means my schedule may have changed based on new projects. By including a sunset clause, usually within a week to ten days, I’m promising to hold space in my calendar for a client until then…but once that date passes, my availability and the project timeline will likely have changed.
Another reason to have a sunset clause? It ensures your pricing is current. My hourly rate has held steady over the last two years, but I bill hourly for fewer services. I’ve moved primarily to value pricing that encompasses a full project completed for a specific fee. I don’t want a client to sign a contract I sent six months ago based on my hourly rate when the project would benefit from value pricing.
2) The Pause Clause
What it is: This is an idea I implemented after reading this excellent blog post from nGen. The pause clause lets clients know that their deliverables – such as feedback, approvals, and payments – are due within a set timeframe, and if they are more than, say, five business days late, then the project will be paused. Once I receive the deliverable, I’ll reschedule the project based on my availability rather than the original timeframe.
Why I use it: Working on a project with a client is a collaboration, with work required from both parties. A client is responsible for specific items – some of which I’ll detail below – and having a timeline for those items is critical to keeping projects on track and on time. The pause clause sets expectations and minimizes delays. It also ensures that one client’s late feedback doesn’t delay another client’s project.
(I’ll add that as a business owner and a human being, I highly value kindness and family. If a client has a family or personal emergency that causes delays, I make every effort to edit our schedule to allow the time needed to take care of such matters. Deadlines are important – but people matter more.)
3) Outline of Client Responsibilities
What it is: This is exactly what it sounds like: a list of what I need from the client in order for me to complete the project.
Why I use it: Especially for clients working with a designer, marketer, or writer for the first time, the work required on their end may not be clear. By providing a list of what I need, I help clients prepare internally for what they’ll need to do and the time they’ll need to budget for a successful outcome. In addition to asking for a point of contact and timely payment of fees, items I might request to develop a marketing piece could include a vector format logo, owned or licensed high-resolution images, and draft or final content, depending on whether I'm responsible for copyediting.
4) How Contract Termination is Handled
What it is: No one likes to think about it, but sometimes a business relationship doesn’t work out. If that happens, this information covers how the contract should be terminated and how you'll manage outstanding work and payments.
Why I use it: I want to be sure both parties are covered if we need to terminate our contract for any reason. I outline how termination should be handled by either party (in writing, with 30 days notice); whether there is a cancellation fee for early termination; and how we would coordinate transfer of the project back to the client or to another consultant. In terms of payment, my contract states that I retain fees through the date of termination, with any outstanding fees due immediately – and I provide any approved deliverables when I receive payment. All of this ensures we both know from the outset how we will handle matters if we needed to end our contract.
5) Plain English Contract Language
What it is: This is just what it sounds like – a plain English overview of each section of our contract.
Why I use it: I’m not a lawyer, and neither are most of my clients. I’ve read my contract carefully and expect my clients to do the same, but I also understand that having a “translation” of legalese into plain English is very helpful in the review process. I’ve created a document that outlines each clause briefly to explain what it means. In addition, I also offer clients an opportunity to discuss contracts over the phone before signing in case they have any questions or would like to negotiate changes.
I hope you've found this information helpful! Over the past two and a half years, I’ve learned a great deal about contracts, much of it through my own experience and more recently, through the amazing men and women I've met who own their own small businesses. I listen closely when these individuals want to discuss contracts - I find there’s always something for me to learn. My contracts continue to be a work in progress. So now I'm listening to you: What do you include in your contracts?
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and nothing I've written here should be construed as legal advice. Every situation is unique — a lawyer can answer your legal questions and review your contract.