Here's a big ole list of mistakes that newbie freelancers make. If you know these things now, you can avoid them happening to you in the near future.
#1.) They Feast and Famine
Mistake: Many first-time freelancers experience extreme ups and downs, financially. One month they’ll make a lot….followed by months of just scraping by. This cycle makes financial planning, budgeting, and life in general really tough. Freelancers who haven’t budgeted for these ups and downs often have to resort to desperate moves like dropping their rates, taking on low-value jobs, and saying yes to anything that comes their way.
Solution: Before you set off as a full-time freelancer, build up enough savings to cover you for 6 months without work. If you can, try and transition into part-time work in addition to your day job. Map out how long you think each project will take and how many clients you can manage at once. If possible, look for recurring work opportunities.
Example: I freelanced part-time for a year before committing 100% of my time to freelance copywriting. In that time I experimented with different rates, different types of writing, and different niches. By the time I “launched”, I had a couple of steady clients and a good idea of what to do.
#2.) They don’t know what to charge
Mistake: This is probably the most asked question out there: “What should I charge??”. Charge too much and you’ll either fail to close deals or you’ll leave clients disappointed with low-ROI projects. Charge too little and you’ll be seen as a cheap commodity (and you’ll struggle to make ends meet).
Solution: Talk to more experienced freelancers in your field - you’ll quickly be able to ballpark what a fair rate looks like. It’s a good idea to think about your service from your client’s perspective - what does their ROI look like? If you’re charging $1,000 and making your client $10,000, it’s a no-brainer….but if you’re only making your client $1,100, is that fair? Try starting with a relatively low rate and keep raising it with each project - the market should tell you when you’re hitting a value ceiling!
Example: I reached out to experienced freelance writers through LinkedIn, Facebook groups, and Twitter. By asking questions about their businesses, their clients, and their day-to-day work, I also got valuable information about their pricing.
#3.) They don’t create accounting systems
Mistake: If you’re starting to freelance, you’re probably getting peppered with all sorts of overly complex advice about how to run your business, what sort of business you should register, etc. At first, though, this is totally irrelevant - instead of researching business types, you should learn the most basic version of your freelancer-client transactions. You can skip the business entity headache for later - but even first-time freelancers need to know how to manage invoices, accounting, and contracts.
Solution: Use accounting software like Freshbooks for an all-in-one service. You can also find free alternatives like Wave, and free tools like PayPal’s invoices. Whatever you choose, just make sure to keep it simple and easy. You’ll thank yourself later as your business grows.
Example: Here’s another reason why reaching out to more experienced writers is helpful. I asked around and quickly got pointed towards the tools I mentioned above. I still use PayPal for most invoices and Freshbooks for everything else.
#4.) They stop improving themselves
Mistake: When you start freelancing, you’re probably going to feel like you’re stretched really thin between just trying to find new jobs and completing the jobs you already have. This is, if you’re not making time to improve your skills….how are you going to grow?
Solution: Schedule dedicated learning time every week. Even if it’s just 30-60 minutes, you’ll be able to make it through certifications, courses, and books that will upgrade your most valuable asset - you!
Example: I’m pretty much always in a course, whether it’s a free set of Photoshop tutorials on YouTube or a Google Analytics class with CXL Institute.
#5.) They can’t tell the difference between great clients and terrible ones (until it’s too late)
Mistake: Ever notice how some freelancers seem to always have “easy” projects, while others are always complaining about difficult clients? Experienced freelancers know the positive and negative signals clients send out, but first-timers sometimes don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.
Solution: You can qualify clients from multiple angles - price, project scope, timelines, etc. As a freelancer, it’s your responsibility to set the kinds of boundaries that will create wins for both you and your client. If they don’t meet your minimum requirements, just say NO! (Pro tip: get on the phone with clients - a “real” conversation will often give you a good idea of whether or not you’ll get along).
Example: Once you decide on your minimum basic requirements, you can filter clients with a Typeform survey that you can embed on your site or send to applicants. Then, get on a video call with Zoom or Hangouts - the more you can get a feel for each other, the better the fit will be.
#6.) They don’t ask for help
Mistake: Just like any business venture, freelancing probably won’t be a totally smooth experience. You’re going to run into unexpected Mistakes. The question is, how are you going to react to them? How will you turn a mistake into a small hurdle instead of a long term handicap?
Solution: I can’t stress this enough - make friends with more experienced freelancers and consultants. Email them, call them, take them out for coffee, and ASK. FOR. HELP. Your challenges are not unique - so get answers from people who have been through the same issues.
Example: I have a Whatsapp group and a couple of email threads with other copywriters where we talk strategy, collaborations, and challenges. These all started by me reaching out to more experienced writers and asking pointed, specific questions about a real problem I was facing.
#7.) They’re scared to sell
Mistake: Many new freelancers struggle to sell themselves. It’s a hurdle that can turn into a brick wall - if you don’t get past it, your freelancing career will come to a quick end. Thing is, there’s no quick fix. The only cure for awkward sales pitches and crushing rejections is good ol’ practice.
Solution: It’s counterintuitive, but stop trying to sell. Instead, focus on having great conversations with potential clients. Ask them about their business and their challenges. The more you can make it about their issues, the easier and more natural your sales will be. And, of course, practice!
Example: I used to hate selling, especially over the phone. But the more I spoke to experienced copywriters (and a few clients), I started to see how integral phone calls were. If you treat them as genuine, structured research, initial calls can set the tone for a great project. The better I got at over-the-phone consulting, the better and happier my clients were, and it showed!
#8.) They wait for the perfect gig
Mistake: When you’re first starting out, you’re probably going to have to take on jobs that are less than ideal. At this point, your dream clients are probably going to choose to work with more established freelancers. By waiting around and hoping these perfect projects just fall into your lap, you’ll waste time and your career will stall.
Solution: You should have a clear idea of what a great project looks like! But that shouldn’t stop you from taking on projects that fall slightly short of that ideal version. New freelancers are in a great position to try out a few different angles as they develop their service offers.
Example: I was reluctant to take on a content job a few months into my writing career. It wasn’t directly in my niche and I’d never used the product. But, that job turned into consistent income for over a year, I added new content types to my portfolio, and I landed several shorter jobs in the same niche because of the client’s brand status.
#9.) They don’t have an outreach system
Mistake: Finding work takes time - and nobody’s paying you for that time. Many freelancers don’t have a clear plan to balance work and outreach, and as a result their pipeline is never full and they’re never really stable. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to always be worried about where your next job is coming from, and without an outreach plan that’s exactly what’ll happen.
Solution: If any of that sounds like you, you need a system. An outreach system will allow you to automate and organize a lot of your own marketing and job identification. Dedicate clear time for job board trawling, email outreach, past client reconnections, and whatever other outbound strategies you’re comfortable doing. Commit to consistency and you’ll eventually build a natural, efficient way to keep work coming your way.
Example: Most of my work has come from other writers, and that’s a result of my outreach schedule. Every week, I message new connections 2-3 times on social platforms, old connections 2-3 times, and I email at least 2 decision maker at brands I want to work with. I also set up job alerts with a bunch of jobs boards (my favorite are Angel List and WeWorkRemotely).
#10.) They don’t network broadly
Mistake: Starting a business isn’t easy, and freelancing is no different. When you first start, you’ve got to be able to drum up business consistently - and that means getting the word out everywhere. New freelancers often feel bad about marketing themselves, and they stick with looking for jobs from one or two sources. That’s usually not enough, and it’s the biggest reason why many new freelancers struggle to find work.
Solution: Make a list of all the possible job sources you can think of (LinkedIn, job board, your network, etc), then make a schedule for your outreach. Commit to taking consistent action across at least three platforms every week, and you’ll quickly grow your network and your job pipeline.
Example: I’ve moved 3 times in the last 4 years. The first thing I do when I get to a new city is to join business groups on Meetup.com and attend as many live networking events as possible. It’s much more general than my online networking, but I get to meet local business owners and establish myself as the copywriter in town. It’s led to some of my favorite projects - if you’re feeling cooped up doing the online thing only, I highly recommend trying this out.
#11.) They don’t specialize
Mistake: When you start freelancing, it can be tempting to say yes to everything that comes your way. The problem is, it’s easy to get pulled in too many directions at once. If you’re taking on different types of writing jobs, that’s understandable - but many freelancers end up juggling writing, video editing, graphic design, and other totally different disciplines. The more you specialize, the more likely you are to do great work that clients love.
Solution: Learn to say no. Learn to focus on a core service. You can always add skills, but you should aim to get really good at one thing. Once you do that, your sales, projects, and marketing will become easier and a lot more predictable.
Example: Rewind to when I first started taking on part-time writing jobs, and I felt like I was drowning. At one point I was building multiple Shopify stores from scratch, writing long form content, and writing business plans. I felt undervalued, I wasn’t confident in my work, and I was incredibly stressed out. Now, I know what my work is worth, how to qualify clients, and how to balance multiple projects - and all of that comes down to saying “No”.
#12.) They overpromise
Mistake: “Underpromise, overdeliver”, right? Most new freelancers do the exact opposite of that, though. In an effort to land the project, many freelancers say “yes” to everything - just to close the deal. But when it comes time to actually do the work, they find that they’ve taken on too much. The quality of work suffers and the client ends up disappointed.
Solution: You’ve got to be really clear about what you’re offering. Your sales calls and contracts should be black and white - “I’ll do X, but I won’t do Y”. And if a client pushes you to do extra work, just learn to say “No”! It’s your responsibility to protect the project (and your sanity), and that often means cutting out the noise.
Example: My first 6 months of part-time copywriting was awful, and it was my fault. I’d agree to general terms, start working, and almost immediately get hit with scope creep (I didn’t even know the term at the time). When I got the chance to work with a friend of mine who’d been running marketing projects for 10 years, though, I saw how differently a professional project is managed. He had a clear contract, specific definitions of what was and wasn’t involved, and he managed the client - not the other way around.
#13.) They don’t know how to budget their time
Mistake: As a freelancer, you’ve got to do client work, find more work, grow your network, and run your business. Time is a very limited commodity, and many new freelancers find themselves stressed out and constantly “behind” on things. They work late into the night, don’t take weekends off, and generally set themselves up for severe burnout.
Solution: Make. A. Schedule! If you plan on taking on multiple clients and growing your business, you’re going to have to be really organized and consistent about your time. Work in planned chunks and you’ll always stay ahead.
Example: I like to break my day into chunks. I’ll do client work in the morning, admin tasks and calls right before and after lunch, then jump into a second client’s project in the afternoon. I finish the day off with outreach work and any email catching up that’s left.
#14.) They don’t know how to manage projects
Mistake: New freelancers often stumble through projects haphazardly. They’re constantly putting out fires, dealing with surprises, and inching through their work. Experienced freelancers, on the other hand, breeze through a project at every stage.
Solution: The difference between amateur and pro level work often comes down to the processes the freelancer puts in place. Each project should have a clear set of steps taking it from start to finish. The more you can scope out how you plan to research, write, and deliver the project, the better.
Example: I have a really clear structure to my copywriting work, and I lay it all out with a client in writing and on our first call. We’ll run through discovery, research, writing, editing, and testing phases, each with their own predefined steps.
#15.) They don’t know how to manage clients
Mistake: A large part of freelancing comes down to the relationship you have with your client. Many new freelancers handicap their development by taking on the wrong clients, not defining their professional space, and not knowing how to communicate effectively. Small issues suddenly snowball into disasters, value gets lost, and the chance for follow up projects disappears.
Solution: Right from the outset, you’ve got to lead the relationship with your client. Create a clear communication schedule, friendly-but-firm language, and lay out how you’d like to work together ahead of time. Your client should feel like he’s hired a reliable expert - not another employee who needs managing.
Example: See the project structure I mentioned in #14? At every stage, there’s a check-in with the client, where I can make sure we’re on the same page and address any issues before they snowball. Lay out the schedule from the beginning of the project and you’ll keep everyone happy (and organized).
#16.) They don’t know how to handle criticism
Mistake: New freelancers often aren’t ready for criticism and/or rejection. They take negativity personally and end up feeling demoralized and burned out quickly. More experienced freelancers, on the other hand, are much more likely to brush negative comments aside, proactively find solutions their clients are happy with, and generally manage their emotions more professionally.
Solution: As a freelancer, it’s your job to come up with something the client is happy with. It’s not about your ego or coming up with a better solution. Make it 100% about the client, understand what they want and why, and schedule at least one round of edits.
Example: I was pretty precious about my work when I first started out. That changed, though, as I started to see myself as a business consultant and a client partner. It’s hard to take things personally when you’re working with people you choose, with measurable goals, and with healthy structured communication.
Dan McDermott - Danmcd.me