5 Biggest Freelancing Mistakes – and How to Avoid Them

Playing with Paint Handprint. Image courtesy of Gabriella Fabbri via stock.xchng®When my days were confined to cubicle walls and an 8-5-plus-evenings culture, it was easy to imagine the glory of life as a freelancer. I longed to be my own boss, pick my own projects and base my work on value, not face time.

Being my own boss has surpassed my expectations—and been much harder than I expected. And, based on conversations I’ve had with other people (from the newbie to the seasoned), I’m not alone. Whether you consider yourself a writer, designer, website developer, business owner or all of the above, there is one thing we all have in common: we are all responsible for our own mistakes.

Here are the five biggest freelancing blunders and tips on how you can avoid them.

1. Failing to follow up.

Especially when you’re first starting out, every prospect, every person who encourages you to contact them is crystal clear to you. But it’s not the same for them. You need to keep in touch with prospective and/or former clients so that you stay top of mind. Use a variety of touches, such as e-mail, phone and snail mail (such as a thank you card or postcard) to stay in front of them, without feeling like a pest. Following up is also essential when you’re trying to get published; you can find more on that here.

This advice also goes for current clients. A client once paid me a deposit and hosted several conference calls for a project. I would submit work, he’d call me and then disappear for months. At first, I was diligent about following up, always making a note on my calendar, even though I never knew if I’d hear back. However, at the end of an overwhelmingly busy streak, I realized it had been more than two months since I’d contacted the client. I sent him several e-mails and left several voicemails for him over the next six weeks. He never returned my messages. A few months later, I checked his website to see if he’d at least moved forward with the new design he’d shown me. He had—and he had moved ahead with copy, too. Just without me.

I’d done more than enough work to earn the deposit funds, but I was so upset at losing the client. Based on how we were working together, I’m confident he wrote the copy himself. He may have made that decision even if I had stuck with regular follow-ups, but I’ll never know for sure because I let contact with him slip.

2. Putting all your financial eggs in one basket.

Sometimes I miss knowing that a paycheck will be automatically deposited into my bank account every two weeks. Now I’m always doing worst-case scenario calculations with my checks, figuring out how long the funds will last me should something happen (e.g., a proposal being rejected, a client not paying on time). A client who offers an on-going project, such as a monthly newsletter, can help bridge that gap. However, you should be careful about how much time you give that gig. For example, if it’s going to take up 50% of your time every month, that could mean it’s also going to make up 50% or more of your income. What happens if that client suddenly goes out of business? How will you make up that lost income?

Here’s where you can learn from the big companies. Many large corporations with their own procurement departments actually include parameters that limit how much business a vendor can do with the corporation. For example, a company I worked for stated that a vendor could make no more than 30% of its gross annual revenue from that company. It’s meant to protect the big company should they terminate the contract. But it can protect us freelancers, too, from relying on too few clients.I try to keep a client at a max of 25% to 30% of income. That way, if I lose a client, I won’t be financially devastated. I’ve seen such a thing take down a business with 10 employees—it can take down entrepreneurs even faster.

Don’t rely on my word alone. Also check out the Urban Muse on why that steady freelance gig could be holding you back.

3. Relying on the handshake.

When you have a great rapport with a new client or you’re especially eager to take on a creative venture, it can be tempting to deal with the paperwork later. Stop immediately!

On several occasions, I’ve received e-mails from frustrated freelancers, asking how I would handle a non-payment situation. The writer has turned in a first draft and can’t get the client to return his call. Or the designer has submitted design concepts and now the client is refusing to pay. There are steps you can take to get paid, but you can also avoid this situation in the first place.

Get everything in writing. Preferably, you are using a contract with every client. If you’re not willing to go that route, at the very least make sure you are documenting a statement of work via e-mail with the client. A contract protects you and can help you spell out deliverables and payment schedules (such as deposits, monthly or milestone payments). I always ask for a deposit before I start working. It can be hard to wait, but you must. Otherwise, you risk doing work and not getting paid. Nolo has great contract templates that you can purchase for a small, very worthwhile, fee. In addition, Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, offers examples of letters used to document work and deposits required.
4. Undervaluing your services.

Pricing is one of the hardest pieces of business to master. Price yourself too high and your prospective clients may move on to the next designer. Price yourself too low and your client will think you don’t have experience. By overpriced, I mean charging $180 an hour for something most people charge $75 to $100. You can make a simple adjustment there. It’s pretty easy to tell if you’re overpriced. Connect with fellow freelancers (as well as online forums) to get an idea for the rates they charge. Or, if you don’t want to ask specifics, ask about market rates. Of course, if you truly believe your services are worth more than most freelancers, stick with it. Just be sure you can clearly articulate the extra value you’ll provide with the higher fee.The harder issue to address is undervaluing your services. While this can be a simple issue of simply bumping up your prices, it can also be a sign of something much bigger: you are worried about the amount of experience you have (or lack), you haven’t taken time to educate yourself about market rates or, worst of all, it can be a sign that you don’t believe in yourself.

The solution: spend time figuring out what makes you special. Is it your customer service? Your edgy ideas that get client results? Is it your eye for interpreting design trends into a gorgeous website? Know how you bring extra value to your client—and don’t be shy about telling them.

In addition to fellow freelancers, there are great resources available to help you determine rates for your services. For straightforward advice, I highly recommend Michelle Goodman’s book My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire. Another helpful book is What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants by Laurie Lewis. You can also find your rate with these resources.

On the flip side, if the client belittles you and uses inappropriate, unprofessional language, you do not have to accept that. In such a case, suggest that you reconvene the conversation when you’ve both had time to step away and re-evaluate the situation. Or, if it’s e-mail, be sure to respond with a professional, calm tone. If the client refuses to calm down or uses abusive language, you have the right to walk away. Did you ask for a deposit upfront? Here’s a good reason for why you may wish you had.

5. Not managing your mistakes.

Despite your best efforts, it’s possible you’ll make a mistake while working on a project. While we’d all prefer this never happen, it’s better that you’re equipped to deal with the mistake than believe this won’t happen to you. Errors can range from hitting the wrong tone with copy to accidentally excluding a design element the client wanted. The key is how you approach making it right. Like many people with experience in the retail industry, I approach an upset customer with the attitude that the customer is giving me a chance to make it right and strengthen the relationship.

The first step: apologize. Even if you disagree with a client, offering an apology is a way to show that you are listening to them and that you care about correcting the mistake. As I’ve written before, you’ll be surprised at how an apology can open the door to a constructive conversation with a client, helping you gather the right feedback for an on-target re-do.
The worst thing you can do is assume the client is going to walk away. If you act as though you’ve already lost the client and avoid his or her calls, you could lose the project, the client and future clients. Own up to your mistake and explore what can be done to make things right.

Your turn. Are there mistakes you think are bigger than these? If so, what are they? If we were going to create a list of the biggest mistakes #6-10, what would be on your list? Please share your expertise, opinions and experiences in the comment below.

Image courtesy of Gabriella Fabbri via stock.xchng®

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3 thoughts on “5 Biggest Freelancing Mistakes – and How to Avoid Them

  1. @Susan ~ Thanks for the support. You’re right about the client – I think I just needed to “hear” that! As for being rude, that is a big one! Thanks for adding that.

    @Marthaandme ~ You have an excellent addition! Thanks for adding that spending too much time on low paying work is a mistake. I want writers to know they do not have to settle for $30 (or less!) for an article.

  2. I think a very common mistake is spending too much time on low paying work. There are lots of writers who are writing articles for $30 a pop or less. You’re not going to be able to stay afloat if you spend too much time on low paying work. That being said, there can be reasons to do a low paying job but you just shouldn’t spend all your time on this kind of thing.

  3. Jesaka, from what you’ve described, it sounds like you did everything you could have to retain that client. If someone doesn’t return my calls for weeks, I move on. He may have lost a great copywriter because his budget got slashed or he lacked organizational skills.

    For biggest mistakes, I’d add being rude to someone because you think they’re not in a position to help you. Today’s editorial assistant could be tomorrow’s managing editor, and they will remember your rudeness.

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