In my 15 years as a freelancer, I’ve made my share of mistakes. And, no doubt, you will, too. That’s just a part of playing the game. But, some mistakes are more harmful than others. And, while I know I can’t (and shouldn’t) keep you from making any mistakes.
These ones, in particular, are ones you can skip learning “the hard way”.
So, let my stumbles and setbacks be your lesson.
These are, in my opinion, the top 5 mistakes freelancers should avoid.
1. Undervaluing and Undercharging for Your Work
I did this a lot when I started.
It was two things. First, I was just desperate for work (and still getting my head around the idea that people would pay me to do this). So, I took almost anything anyone was willing to pay me. And, was constantly “under the thumb” of my clients.
Second, I had no idea what to charge.
I just made up a fee: $25/hour.
Which was still more money per hour than I’d ever made in my life. But, it didn’t take me long to figure out that 1) I was worth a lot more and 2) I’d never make the kind of money I wanted to make charging that fee.
The truth of it is…
Whatever you’re charging right now, you’re probably not charging enough. But, more than that, you don’t want to guess. You don’t have to guess. There’s plenty of real-world data out there to help you figure out what you should charge.
The simplest and easiest method is just to Google other freelancers who do what you do.
Look at their websites, see what they offer and how much they charge. Don’t just look at one. Look at a dozen or more. Make sure they’re closely related to what you do. And, use them to get a range of what a client would expect to pay for those services.
Upwork and Fiverr are also good places to look.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to charge that, at first. One effective strategy for getting work early on, as a freelancers, is to undercharge. But, you always want to know how much you’re undercharging and make sure you tell the client you’re undercharging:
“I’m new in the freelance world, so I’m doing these at 50% off now, but my price will go up.”
Something like that.
It sets expectations. But, it also gives clients a compelling reason to work with you now over someone who might be more experience. And, it does it without devaluing your work. But, knowing what you’re worth and what you can charge…
That’s how you have confidence in your fees and keep from undervaluing what you do.
2. Not Knowing How to Say “No”
A few years back, I went through a rough patch that nearly lead to a nervous breakdown. The crazy thing is, it should have been a happy time. I was coming off some of the big projects I’d worked on for Inc. Magazine and Michael Hyatt.
I was becoming more and more well-known in my little niche.
And, I had more work coming in that I could’ve imagined a few years earlier.
My problem was I couldn’t say “No”. Growing up in a poor household like I did, it seemed insane to say no to $3,000 or $5,000 projects. Plus, I felt bad because I knew there weren’t a ton of quality freelancers in my niche.
So, I just kept saying yes to everyone.
And, by the end of that year, I was so stressed out and overwhelmed, I broke.
I wrote an email to all my existing clients and told them I was stepping away. I stopped responding to all the quote requests I was getting on my website. And, I took two months off of freelancing in December and January of that next year.
It killed my momentum.
I’d have been a lot better off being more selective with who I worked with. Telling certain clients “no” and continuing to run my business in a way that was sustainable.
Of course, it’s not just that.
It’s also all the little moments when clients try to push the scope of a project. If you keep saying yes, they’ll recognize it and they’ll keep asking for more. When it comes to scope, clients will continue pushing if you let them.
I learned a little response that worked wonders for me:
“Well, that’s outside the scope of the project. I can do it, but we’ll need to adjust the contract and the fee to account for it.”
Something along those lines.
You’re not necessarily saying “no”, but you are putting hurdles in front of them. And, they’ll recognize that you’re paying attention to scope and, most of the time, they’ll back off and won’t try to push the scope again.
Or, if they do, you’re getting paid for it.
If there’s something you really just don’t want to do, then just say:
“That’s something that I’m not really an expert at. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it for you. You’d be better off finding someone who specializes in that. Let me do some looking and recommend somebody.”
All these subtle ways of saying “no” will make a tremendous difference in your sanity.
3. Not Saving Your Money
I must be a glutton for punishment, because this is another one I learned the hard way. For me, it was taxes. I just went a year where I didn’t set anything aside for taxes and figured, “It’ll work itself out.”
And, I ended up owing a bunch of back taxes.
Took me over a year to pay off.
These days, I set aside a minimum of 20% of what I make. Truthfully, though, I put as much as I can aside. Usually, a lot more than 20%, because you never know what might happen. I have an official savings account that I put it into.
And, I forget about it until it’s time to pay taxes.
Or, something comes.
Or, I have a large purchase I want to make.
Having that peace of mind makes everything you do much less stressful, gives you the confidence to turn down and/or fire clients, if necessary. And, lets you actually enjoy all the perks that come along with being a freelancer.
4. Caring Too Much About Your Clients
I know this one is gonna be controversial, because we live in this “kumbaya” time period where this kind of thing is blasphemy. But, the truth is, caring too much about your clients can drive you insane AND be bad for them.
My favorite example is the time I hung up on a client over a line break.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t just hang up. I refused to answer when they tried to get ahold of me for the rest of that day and all through the weekend. By the time I’d calmed down Monday morning, they were ready to let me go.
A client I’d been with for years.
Been to their house.
Met his wife and kids.
They were family to me. And, I almost threw it away because they wanted to put a line break in a headline that I didn’t think should go there. And, I was so invested in them that I didn’t have the space to just say, “Okay, it’s what they want.”
Since then, I’ve ratcheted back on my emotional investment with them…
And, the more I have, the better the relationship has become.
The more productive I’ve been.
And, the more sane I am.
So, care about your clients. But, don’t care so much that you lose sight of the fact that it’s a professional relationship. And, they’ll make decisions you think are wrong. If it’s not something major, sometimes, you’ve got to just let them figure it out on their own.
5. Mistaking What’s Important When Starting
This, frankly, is a pet peeve of mine with business, in general. I’ve watched family member after family member of mine do this — me imploring them not to — and watched as their businesses failed because they failed to recognize what matters MOST when starting:
Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how easily people get caught up in the “glamour” of running their own business. Business cards, letterheads, offices, cars, clothes — we fool ourselves into thinking these things matter.
That they’ll “lead to” us getting clients.
“We have to put on a good show.”
Or, whatever convoluted rationalization we make. The truth is, most people are afraid to sell. To do the one thing that actually moves the needle. But, if you’re going to be in business for yourself, the most important skill you can learn is how to sell your services.
Everything else is secondary.
Still important, but secondary.
In any case, this is what my free tutorial, The Beginner’s Guide to Freelance, is all about. The skill of selling your freelance services. Like I said, it’s a completely free tutorial and you can learn more about it at https://johnsfreetuts.com/freelance.