Rookie Mistakes: 15 Blunders New Freelancers Make and How to Avoid Them

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 1:58am by Site Administrator

Like any novice in the business world, the beginning freelancer is bound to make a few flubs along the way to professional success. After all, nobody is perfect. Most mistakes are harmless learning experiences that help you in your path to becoming a better businessperson, but there are some mistakes that can really make your life difficult, and that you might be better off having never made. Here are a few of the most common, and sometimes most painful mistakes that freelancers make, and some tips on how you can try to avoid them, or just make them less harmful on your path to freelancing success.

  1. Quitting your 9 to 5 without any preparation. While your cubicle may feel more like a prison than a workspace, you shouldn’t just run out on it without any prior preparation. However bad your current job, ending up without a steady income and wholly unprepared for managing your own business is much worse. Before you take the leap into freelancing, make sure you have enough money saved to keep you afloat, at least a rough business plan, some solid contacts and a good understanding of where you’ll fit into your particular market. This will make it much easier on both you and your finances to make the transition from the corporate world to working for yourself.
  2. Working for less than you deserve. One of the biggest mistakes that new freelancers make is not charging clients what their time is actually worth. While you don’t want to charge so much that clients balk at your rates, you also don’t want to be forced to work ridiculous hours just to make ends meet because you aren’t charging enough. You can find a happy medium by researching what the going rate is for freelancers in your field and using that figure to gauge what you should charge. If you’ve got load of experience and a killer portfolio, you might warrant more than the average, while if you’re just starting out in your field you’ll likely have to work your way up to the higher echelons of work.
  3. Choosing the wrong clients. Something freelancers will quickly learn is that not every client is a good fit for your abilities and some may even test the limits of your patience and sanity. Sometimes the money made on a project simply isn’t worth the headaches that come along with it, and can result in you working more hours for less money than you should be, and ultimately being unhappy. Before working with clients, consider their working style, how difficult they will be to work with, whether or not they’ll pay on time, their particular market and how well these things fit with your needs. When choosing clients you have just as much of a right to interview them as they do you. Ask lots of questions and see if you can do a few projects on a trial basis before committing long-term.
  4. Spending too much on equipment you don’t need yet. It can be really tempting to give yourself a sweet office setup, especially since you’re going to be spending so much time in it, but investing in brand new computers, copiers, scanners and other equipment before you’ve got the workload to absorb the cost can cast a shadow over the success of your business before it has even gotten off of the ground. You can avoid overstepping your budget by only investing in the equipment that is required to do your day to day business. Once you build up your clientele, and your need for more office equipment, you can then make an investment.
  5. Working all alone. Just because you work at home and aren’t surrounded with coworkers doesn’t mean you have to completely isolate yourself. New freelancers are prone to take the term "going it alone" a little too literally when in actuality, you don’t have to do it all by yourself at all. Avoid feeling isolated by seeking out communities and resources for freelancers in every field to learn how to get started, network, and make positive and lasting connections with clients. They can also be a great place to get feedback on your ideas and vent when clients are making your life difficult.
  6. Not researching your market. When you’re first starting out and looking for new clients, it can be a daunting task and you can often make pitches for projects that are less than stellar because you haven’t done the appropriate research on your client. Approaching someone asking for work without really knowing their needs, desires, or how the work you will do will really benefit your client isn’t going to win you much business. Avoid this common pitfall by researching your clients thoroughly before ever even attempting to work with them. Check out their website, see what their company is about, and what their long term goals are. Then you can more accurately assess what you have that will be of value to them, and increase your chances of getting hired.
  7. Failing to be realistic about business expenses. Many freelancers make the mistake of underestimating their business expenses and how much they’ll really need to stay afloat during the preliminary stages of their business venture. You’ll need equipment, computer programs, advertising, websites, domain names, business cards, and loads of other small expenses that can add up quickly. Don’t let this scare you away from freelancing, just be honest with yourself about the potential costs you’ll face when you decide to pursue it. After all, you don’t want to end up not being able to afford to put a roof over your head. Before you make the transition to freelancing, carefully lay out your current expenses, as well as any additional expenses you think you’ll encounter when going into business. It’s better to overestimate slightly rather than underestimate, as unexpected expenses always seem to come up when you’re short on cash. Once you have this estimate, you can figure out how much you’ll need in the bank before you start your business.
  8. Not educating yourself on the basics. Even if you’ve been in your particular line of business for a while, there may be things that are different when freelancing that you might not expect. New freelancers can be taken advantage of if they don’t take the time to learn about how to work with clients on a one on one basis. For instance, when you’re drafting or signing a contract with a client, will you know what makes a good contract and what makes one you should avoid? You can avoid getting tangled up in messy legal battles or stuck with the client from hell by taking the time to learn about contracts before you ever have the need to sign one. The same holds true for managing your business finances, taxes and marketing. If you’re at a loss, try asking others in the business or take a class online from the Small Business Administration.
  9. Not keeping set business hours. Now that you make your own hours, you can work whenever you want, right? While that might be the case, if you want to maintain your personal life you might want to lay down some ground rules with yourself and your clients. Without set hours you could end up working all hours of the night not only to get things done, but dealing with client calls and last minute changes, which is probably not what you had in mind when you decided to become a freelancer. By setting hours, you will create a time when you’ll force yourself to sit down and work, with few interruptions from friends and family, and later have time to spend with friends and family with few interruptions from work.
  10. Taking on too many projects at once. When you finally start finding work, it can be tempting to take every client and assignment that comes your way in an attempt to build a more solid portfolio and get your name out there in the freelancing world. While the money may be good, chances are pretty good that you won’t get much repeat business this way. You’ll be so busy juggling projects you won’t have time to give each one the attention it deserves and your clients may start to feel like they aren’t important to you. Avoid stretching yourself too thin by only taking on what you can actually handle, no matter how tempting those additional projects might be. You don’t want to get overwhelmed and burnt out in your first few months of freelancing.
  11. Getting too personal. Every once in awhile as a freelancer you will have a client that you simply love. They’re easy to work with, you get along great, and have a great rapport. But it’s very easy to fall into the habit of becoming a little too personal with your client and that can ultimately make working with them much more complicated. Feelings can become hurt at decisions that are simply business related, or you can start to appear unprofessional. You can avoid this by keeping your correspondence friendly, but professional, and making sure that while you’re working together, your relationship is strictly business.
  12. Having only one income stream. For new freelancers, figuring out how to make ends meet with assignments from clients can be difficult. If you find a client that’s willing to give you continued work, that’s great, but don’t stop looking for other work just because you’ve found a reliable client. After all, if your client goes out of business or suddenly no longer has a need for your services, you could be left out in the cold, quite literally. It’s better to rely on a few different clients for your income, so that even if you lose one, you have something to fall back on. When you’re starting out that might be difficult, so consider taking on a part time job to supplement your freelance work, just in case.
  13. Allowing yourself to slack off. Everyone has days when they wake up and simply don’t feel like doing a thing, and as a freelancer you are perfectly capable of taking advantage of that feeling and curling up on the couch all day to watch reruns of Full House and eat junk food until your stomach hurts. And every once in awhile, that’s totally fine. But a little slacking can turn into a lot, and soon you’re not making money and not getting work done on time. It’s fine to allow yourself the flexibility to work with your natural productivity highs and lows, but at the end of the day, you have to get your work done. Push yourself to make deadlines, please clients, and further your business. Once your hard work has paid off, reward yourself with a few days of guilt-free slacking.
  14. Not communicating effectively. This isn’t a problem just for freelancers, but for people from all areas of business, and it can have a big impact on your success at running your own business. In order to deliver a good product, you’ll need to know what questions to ask, how to conduct yourself in conversations, and how to not lose your temper or get overly emotional when your work is criticized. And in order to make sure that you’re happy, you’ll need to know how to ask for the pay you want and terms you can live with. While you won’t become a savvy, confident businessperson overnight you can give yourself a leg up on communication skills by tying to be honest, clear and professional in all of your communications with clients. Don’t leave room for interpretation and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure.
  15. Failing to create a business plan. It’s very easy to go into freelancing without any idea of where your business will end up in six months or a year. You may be the fly by the seat of your pants type, but you’re really doing yourself a disservice not to mention taking a risk when you fail to plan for the future of your business. Figure out who you are and where you want your business to go before jumping in or you could find yourself way off track when you reflect on it after a few months in the field. Having a basic outline of what expenses you expect to incur, what your target market will be, how you will find clients, how much you’ll charge, and a plethora of other issues should be addressed before you ever take the leap to avoid unhappy consequences later on.

Even armed with the knowledge of what to avoid, you’re bound to make a few mistakes in your freelancing career. Don’t let it get you down-everyone has been there at one time or another. So long as you learn from what you’ve done, and improve for the future, there are few mistakes that you can’t recover and come back even more successful from.

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  1. Great list. Many of these could apply to any new business. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Coryan — January 22, 2008 @ 3:52 am

  2. Great list of what NOT to do – and I did fall into a few pitfalls. My business is five years old and I remember the working all alone and doing it all, I also did the ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’ – and if I may add one I blogged about – do not hire friends, although it is tempting. The relationship changes when money is involved and when someone is in charge.

    Comment by Jamie R Lentzner — January 22, 2008 @ 3:56 am

  3. Thanks for this list, i think it will be quite useful in my future ;-)

    Comment by Copes Flavio — January 27, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  4. Those are very good basic tips for the new freelancer. Many of us learn that through personal experience but I hope many read this.

    Comment by Rowell — January 28, 2008 @ 2:10 am

  5. Absolutely amazing – this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the subject of freelancing. Having gone freelance about 8 months ago, it is a shame that this article came out just now, some of these would have been really handy in the begining.
    I work in the Telecom’s sectory, which is highly competative and problematic, providing development services for Asterisk based telecom companies, so if any of you are in the same field, i’ll be happy to colaborate.

    Nir S

    Comment by Nir Simionovich — January 31, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  6. this is a very good tips for newbie like me.. hanks!

    Comment by Rizale — February 2, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  7. That’s a pretty comprehensive list you’ve got there. I’d add “never having any down time” to it, though. This is one of my biggest temptations.

    Comment by Joshua Clanton - Design for the WEB — February 14, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

  8. Awesome tips and great way to understand it completely. I’m going on the freelance designer route but still have a full time job (as an artistic director), and cant’ wait to take off on my own. I’m taking it easy and learning allot of things about blogging.

    Thanks for the wisdom!
    Much success to everyone

    Comment by Oscar Valdes — February 20, 2008 @ 6:11 am

  9. Cheated by Client Story

    The work done for this project may be seen at
    I was hired for a straightforward case of web design; this person approved of
    the work; she discussed ongoing maintenance and requested that I
    upload the site and supplied the account info in order for me to do
    so. The agreement to maintain the site was made on my part only in
    exchange for the unused disk space on the server, and free of charge;
    basically an act of good will and the best intentions on my part; she
    also requested to pay half at that point, half after upload; here is
    when things got interesting. Although my policy is work first, pay
    later, upload last; on the assumption that I would be maintaining the
    site I foolishly thought I could trust the her.

    This person never paid half first but I went ahead and uploaded the
    site. Agh. A few days later she informed me that the site was “funky”
    and had reverted seemingly by itself to its previous state, which was
    a generic template that she had made using the template builder
    provided with the web host. Hmm. This time she made a $50 payment,
    which was 1/2 of the ‘half first’ or 1/4 of the total payment;
    requesting me to again upload the site, and informing of the new
    password to the account, which had inexplicably been changed. Ok-? In
    an effort to be helpful I stated the obvious in asking this person
    whether she had used the template builder, which still had the old
    copy of the template stored, which the client denied as if being
    accused of something.

    It was only a few days later when no further payment or instructions
    appeared from the client that I realized what was happening. Ms.
    Menage had waited for me to upload the site, then promptly changed the
    password to shut me out. The client then stupidly attempted to use the
    template builder to modify the new website, inadvertently reinstating
    the old one by mistake. I sent a two-page email, which went
    unanswered, patiently explaining the differences between the template
    editor and alternative means to edit the site, something I had
    contacted her about two weeks earlier, requesting to set a time when
    we could put our heads together to implement a customized solution; a
    request that also had gone unanswered. I then wrote another two emails
    over the course of two days patiently explaining my position in our
    agreement, all the things I had done and were willing to do for the
    benefit of her website, and explaining that the agreed upon fee for
    the site was more than $50.

    After a few days this person responded. This time I had apparently
    crossed the line and been irrevocably disrespectful in some way with
    my ‘smart comments’; and no further pay would be forthcoming. Two
    separate conversations are presented below.

    Sadly, it is apparent that THIS CLIENT NEVER INTENDED TO PAY ME. It is
    unfortunate that so many take advantage of Craigslist’s open market
    system to cheat and connive their way through the system. Thank you
    for taking the time to listen.

    On 2/17/08, I wrote: (this is a small part of a 2-page letter)
    Okay. Please don’t confuse content management with that Globuild
    template builder they have got up on there. Templates are very limited
    in that they can only allow you to change pictures and stuff around
    within the look and style of a premade layout.
    ——————————— (etc.) ————————-
    Because this is kind of starting to drag on and it seems we haven’t
    been communicating very well and time has been getting wasted. I have
    been trying to do everything you wanted me to do but when I asked you
    a couple of weeks ago if we could set up a time to hook you up with
    the content management you never got back to me; then last week you

    On 2/17/08, Tanisha Clayton wrote: (apparently replying to a
    completely different conversation)
    > no. Any what else is new with this?

    On 2/17/08, I wrote:
    What part of what I said are you saying no to? I don’t know what else
    is new with this because I don’t know what you are expecting me to do.

    On 2/19/08, Tanisha Clayton wrote:
    I dont even remember what this email was about. What’s with the bad
    attitude? I spoke with Danielle and she says that you are very rude.

    On 2/18/08, I wrote:
    > Please complete payment for the site this week. You have my ongoing full support for minor issues such as technical problems with Globat, in addition to the number of pages in the Cover section, ad placement, and anything else relating to content management; in exchange for the extra space on the server I will be here to continuously support and update the site. But this is dragging on for too long and I really don’t know what more you expect from me. Please don’t dole out payments at me $50 at a time like that. This is a business and I am worth more than that.

    On 2/19/08, Tanisha Clayton wrote:
    I know that and I really don’t need all the smart comments. For all
    that you can keep the $50 and take down the site. you and I both know
    why I asked to only pay $50 and further you saw for your self that
    something was funky with the site. Now that it’s up I have no problem
    paying the remainder balance. The problem that I have is the smart
    attitude further irritating me is the fact that I just got my email up
    and running only to see emails like the one below.

    And my “rude” email to her referral, Danielle:
    What changes will you be wanting to make on a monthly basis? I assume
    you said something about having monthly specials on there so we can do
    that. I can start by suggesting that we put your slideshow from your
    myspace page on to your brands page, instead of having “To view
    current collections click here” link to your myspace page – that seems
    kinda unprofessional. Also having “for map and directions click here”
    link to Msn Live Maps is pretty sad especially since it is only
    showing a map of the entire western half of the U.S. on my computer
    when I click on it. I really hope you didn’t have to pay your previous
    webmaster to create this for you.

    Comment by Nicky Mares — February 25, 2008 @ 1:42 am

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