You signed up for the flexible life. You signed up for the ultimate work-from-home paradise. You signed up for self-employment, better pay, and an excuse to work from coffee shops instead of cubicles. You signed up to be a freelancer.
You didn’t sign up to crash and burn.
Yet, here we are, talking in a shadowy back-alley about the dire mistakes you’ve already made as a freelancer. How did it all come to this?!
(Geez — lighten up a little.)
Maybe a Facebook ad lured you into freelancing with promises of beaches, global travel, and a life of fun clients and fulfilling work.
Maybe you planned to freelance for years and finally had the nerve to tell your boss, “Peace, MF-er!”
Or maybe you’re like me. You quit one job and stumbled your way into freelancing before another employer could snatch you up.
No matter how you wound up in the wonderful world of freelance, there are common beginner mistakes many of us make, but all of us should try to avoid. In this article, we’ll tackle some of those mistakes — and maybe tell a funny story or two — to give you some best practices for your professional journey.
Mistake #1: Neglecting marketing when business is good
When business is poppin’, marketing better not be droppin’.
If you wait until all your leads have dried up to begin marketing again, you’ll make panicked decisions. You know what panicked decisions look like?
- Bad clients
- Bad pay
- Poor work
- Constant irritation and self-doubt
- The disappointment of a thousand generations of entrepreneurs
- General disapproval from the pantheon of freelancing gods
Solution: Create a marketing plan you can stick to
You’re a one-person business. Making time to market your services isn’t easy. That’s why it’s crucial to double-down on marketing that works, while avoiding marketing that’s boring and doesn’t have good ROI. Coming up with those marketing practices requires some trial and error.
If you spend too much time on the internet, you’ll hear a lot of advice about how you need to be marketing on every platform. For most freelancers, that advice is terrible.
Instead, you should select one or two primary marketing channels. Dive deep into these and invest in them every day, even if it’s just a half-hour.
Fortunately, there are some tools that help you stay consistent with marketing. If you’re trying to build a following on social media, Buffer and Hootsuite can help you automate and schedule social media postings across multiple channels.
Here are some tried-and-true freelancer marketing activities that only take a small amount of time each day:
- Meet up for coffee with “power partners” or other freelancers in complementary businesses. Help service the same clients and pass referrals to each other – it’s a win-win.
- Share your success stories on social media. Don’t worry – bragging can only get you more work ;).
- Join in on industry conversations on social media or in comments – don’t only post to social media.
- Tell your friends and family what you do or what you’re up to in detail. This simple tip can lead to years of referrals.
- Don’t forget sales. Reach out to prospects you’ve haven’t communicated with in a while (Psst..keep some sort of CRM going. If you want help figuring out where to start, check out G2.).
Mistake #2: Assuming clients know how to work with freelancers
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been nervous before stepping into a job interview.
Everyone who’s ever worked anywhere had better have their hand in the air. Talk about nerves.
You know who else might be nervous? The interviewer, especially when they’re hiring freelancers. Huh? Why? We aren’t that scary.
The truth is, many business owners and project managers are pretty clueless about what they’re hiring for when they interview freelancers. That cluelessness makes interviewing pretty anxiety-inducing.
I think the nerves comes down to how little most people understand about freelancing. Many people still don’t know what it’s like to work with freelancers, let alone how to onboard them onto an important project.
This can be a HUGE opportunity for you.
Solution: Take initiative
You know what makes people feel more comfortable? When they know the person they’re hiring has their shit together. That’s why you should have two things: (1) a process and (2) confidence in said process.
When you’re on the interview for the job — or after you’ve been hired — help nudge things along by communicating with your clients. Set clear expectations.
All clients should be onboarded to your process. Make it easy for them.
Tell the client how you work. Explain:
- What information you need from the client (access to marketing collateral, introductions to specific team members, invitations to meetings, etc.)
- How long it will take for you to complete the project
- Options you think would make the most sense for hitting the client’s goals
- Who the point person will be (Ask questions like: “who will I be reporting to?)
By spearheading these steps, you’ll show the client that you’re on top of things. If you can make their job a lot easier, you’ll be the freelancer they hire every time.
Mistake #3: Not managing for a fluctuating income
One of the biggest challenges of freelancing is unpredictable income. In the beginning, the problem may be simply not having enough income. But as time goes on and checks become more regular, a different problem arises.
One month you make $2,500.
The next, that big project ends and you collect for $8,700.
The average isn’t bad. But it’s bad if your expenses rise and fall in equal measure with your paychecks.
Many freelancers will increase their expenses in the second month without even noticing. They’ll go out to eat more often, buy a few new clothes, rack up a little more on the credit card, you name it. Before they know it, another slow month hits and they’re strapped for cash, eating ramen noodles, canceling their Netflix, and wondering where all the good days have gone.
Solution: Pay yourself the same amount every month
When earnings are inconsistent, you have to force a little consistency. Start by creating a savings account with multiple-months worth of expenses.
Every month, on the same day, pay yourself a specific amount that’s the same month over month.
This is one reason it can be wise to incorporate your freelance business. Beyond the added legal protection of forming an LLC or a corporation, you and your business become separate entities. You’ll have to pay your business first.
Then you’ll just cut yourself a paycheck as if you’re an employee of the company.
Important: If you have incorporated your business, be sure that you’re doing payroll tax correctly. Seek out a trusted local accountant if you have any questions.
Mistake #4: Pricing your services like an employee
Speaking of $$$, you’re a business now. Stop thinking about pricing your expertise as if you’re still someone else’s employee.
Choosing how much to charge isn’t a matter of giving yourself a small raise based on your prior salary. Many freelancers try to set their rates based on the context of a prior salary. “I got paid $15 per hour at my last job, so I guess I’ll charge $25 now. I’m such a badass!”
Slow down there, freelancer. That’s not the raise you think it is.
An employee gets paid for the hours they’re on the job. They are a small extension of a much larger entity.
As an extension of a business, there’s a lot going on that you have zero responsibility for. You put in your 40 hours per week and you’re done. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot more going on to keep the business moving: Someone is making sure your taxes are filed. Someone is marketing the business to ensure your role stays relevant. Another person sets your calendar and structures your day. You get the picture…
In other words, your hourly earnings are very small compared to all the expenses necessary to keep you busy and employed.
As a freelancer, all those responsibilities and expenses fall on you. Does $25 still sound like a raise?
Solution: Charge like a business
The best way to know how much you should charge per project (or hour) is to work backward.
- How much do you want to earn this year?
- What expenses do you need to cover each month? Don’t forget, saving for the future / retirement is an expense (more on that in point #6).
- How many clients can you work with at once?
- What is the typical project turnaround time?
- What is the value of my service to my ideal client?
- Vacation time, software, office rent, business insurance, etc.
How you answer these questions will help you know how much to charge per project.
(Want to go next-level with freelancer pricing? Check out Freshbooks’ short book Breaking the Time Barrier. I swear on my flexible, sweet-as freelance life this isn’t an ad.)
Mistake #5: Neglecting your physical (and mental) health
If freelancing came with a warning label, it’d say something like this:
WARNING: Freelancing may cause unusual social reclusiveness. Some freelancers may slowly become averse to sunlight, exercise, and the outdoors. If screen time lasts more than 9 hours, consult a parent or close friend.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t let working from home kill off everything you love about the world outside of work. It’s important to maintain friendships, get exercise, and give yourself a break from screens.
Solution: Prioritize human connection, daily movement, and digital disconnection
If you want a quick, one-purchase solution to this problem: adopt a puppy. You’ll be forced outdoors for exercise. That’s literally what my wife and I did.
[This is Oliver (the author’s dog) as he is every day: sitting in the living room, begging the author to go outside, play a little, and get a life.]
If puppies are too cool for you, there are other practices you can try:
- Use time-blocking and give yourself strict deadlines for finishing work every day
- Make and stick to weekly social commitments (go hang out with Sam, he misses you)
- Create an accountability network for exercise, healthy eating, and getting out of the house
As a one-person business, your daily productivity is based on how you feel and perform every day. The way to consistently feel on top of your game: exercise, eat healthy food, and spend time with friends and family.
Mistake #6: Only planning for the short term
Many freelancers absolutely love what they do. I know I do.
But just because you love something doesn’t mean you should plan to do that thing until you’re in the grave. No one else is planning for your retirement. That’s on you.
Sure, you’re covering all your bills, but are you investing for retirement, saving for your kid’s wedding, or planning for that big vacation you want to take in 2 years?
Solution: Automate the heck out of your long-term planning
Here’s the truth: we all want to be well-behaved, long-term planners with our shit together. We all want to make grandma proud.
But the reality is, life in freelancing can be chaotic. It’s easy to neglect things that don’t immediately impact our business.
Entrepreneurs like Ramit Sethi have a solution: automate your finances. If you want to plan for retirement, save for that wedding, or buy a house, don’t trust your daily or weekly willpower.
Instead, implement some financial systems that invest in your future while you sleep. (And freelancers know a thing or two about sleeping, amirite?)
Mistake #7: Ignoring scalable business practices
You carry a lot of responsibility as a freelancer. One of the most common mistakes freelancers make is pouring a lot of energy into marketing and business practices that don’t scale.
This means you spend a lot of time in busywork rather than deep work (more on this distinction in point #10). The good news is, with a little intention, you can implement much simpler and more scalable business practices.
Solution: Create systems that keep on giving
Here are some scalable business practices:
- Grow an email list: It takes as much effort to send a newsletter to 2 people as it takes to send a newsletter to 100,000 people. It doesn’t get much more scalable than that. But the funny thing about email marketing is that it’s not about the numbers. It’s about sending value-packed emails to people who actually care to hear from you. If you choose to go the email route, just start with sending your email to 5 people you know want to hear from you. Once that works and you hear good feedback, then bump it to 10 people, and so on.
- Outsource repetitive or ongoing administrative tasks: Accounting, personal assistant work, graphic design, PPC ads, SEO, etc. (Did I mention accounting?) You want your business to be centered around the magic you work for clients. If most of your day is spent checking off miscellaneous administrative tasks, your clients are missing out, and so are you. Outsourcing this type of work may be the hardest thing for many freelancers to do. But it’s worth it. Don’t let yourself get in your own way.
- Get the right automation tools: This point is a BIG deal. How many processes do you repeat every day or week? How many of those processes could be automated with pretty minimal effort? Probably many of them, and you don’t even realize it. Go check out tools like IFTTT and Zapier. These automation tools help you organize your life by taking care of many of the menial tasks you don’t even realize you waste time doing.
- Repurpose existing content: If you’re regularly filming videos or writing blogs, find ways to repurpose that content for new channels. You don’t always have to create new marketing material from scratch. Borrow from some of your previous hard work. You can learn more about that in our previous post about content marketing.
- Time-block around busywork: Tim Ferriss famously suggested in the 4 Hour Work Week that business owners should only check their email at certain times of the day or even days of the week. Email is busywork. Try to get it out of the way all at once.
SUPER TIP: Real entrepreneurial ninjas will carefully dissect and analyze their daily work processes, and outsource all tasks, processes, busywork that doesn’t need to be done by them. Once this analysis has been done, it becomes clear as day as to how to scale their business. ;).
Mistake #8: Avoiding specialization
The fight between the generalist and the specialist will probably never stop. But here’s the deal: the world is more connected than ever. People have more choices than ever. The difference between you and your competitors had better be compelling or you’ll never stand out.
When you avoid specialization, you miss out on an easy opportunity to cut out almost all of your competitors. If you’re constantly bidding on projects against 15+ other people with similar credentials, you’re inevitably going to have to bid on projects based on price instead of value.
Solution: Decide an expertise and own it
But here’s the catch: specialization — niching down — comes in many shapes and sizes.
It’s not just about choosing an industry. You can specialize in the types of projects you take on, the angle you take on projects, and a lot more. By specializing, you give prospects a clear reason to hire you: Their niche problem is your expertise.
Specialization also helps you create your ICP (Ideal Customer Profile). When you get clear about who you’re selling to, all your marketing gets a whole lot easier to create. Not to mention, it works better, too.
Creating an ICP helps you speak the customer’s language, talk to them about their specific pain points, and tell them exactly how you will add value to them. This is much more challenging for generalists, who have to appeal to everyone.
Along a similar note, niching down will also help clients self-select, which means less pointless vetting for you.
Mistake #9: Thinking solo-preneurship is a one-person game
My first two clients as a freelancer came from my own network. At the time, I thought, “Someday I’ll be a good enough freelancer that I can get clients all by myself.”
The funny thing is, I had it all backward. If you’re good at what you do, most of your freelancing clients should come from your network. After all, if you’re doing good work, shouldn’t people be talking about it?
Solution: Build a powerful network
This is another nod to specializing. The deeper you niche, the more powerful your network becomes because people know you as the expert in something ultra-super specific.
Building a relevant, powerful network is the best long-term investment you can make in your freelancing career.
Ideally, two types of people should be in your network:
- The obvious type: potential clients.
- The less obvious type: other freelancers.
If you’re a copywriter, spending time with other copywriters may sound like giving your secrets away to the enemy. The reality is, you’re setting yourself up for potential referrals and awesome learning opportunities.
Mistake #10: Trading deep work for busywork
“Boss makes a dollar, I make a dime, that’s why I poop on company time,” doesn’t work for freelancers. No one pays you to check email every 30 minutes, piddle on Twitter, or — since I brought it up anyway — spend time on the john.
You get paid for one thing, and one thing only: client-facing work. Or, as some call it, deep work.
Solution: Double down on deep work
If you don’t know what deep work is, ask Cal Newport. Essentially, it’s the focused work that produces the actual thing you’re paid to deliver (or that grows your business in a meaningful way). It’s getting the important things done. The opposite of deep work is busywork, which means getting distracted by every ping and notification that comes your way.
If you can’t get that deep work flow on your own, it helps to have the right tools in place.
We recently wrote an article about tools for remote workers. If you’re too lazy to click over to that one (firstly, I understand) then too bad. Guess you’ll never use good tools.
Mistake #11: Relying on inspiration for productivity
Oh yes, enemy #1 for all work-from-homers. There’s nothing more sad than imagining yourself, with deadlines approaching, arguing on Facebook for four hours instead of putting time into client projects.
It’s only sad because we’ve all done it.
Solution: Establish systems that keep you productive
The alternative to relying on inspiration is to implement systems. Many freelancers and entrepreneurs, for example, suggest putting absolutely everything on your calendar. That includes social media, spending time with friends, taking client calls, and — of course — performing deep work.
If you bill by the hour, turn on a literal timer that you see on your screen. By starting the clock, you will guilt yourself into doing the work you’re supposed to.
Bonus: AppSumo Just Made You 10% Richer
We want you to raise your prices 10% right now. At the very least.
Because chances are you’re not charging enough. You’ve probably realized this after reading this post.
Once you do the math on how much you should be charging (like including to bring in the extra revenue to cover business insurance), you’ll understand that your clients realize that you also run a business and that you have expenses. And when it comes down to it: the price is the price.
The price you charge your clients covers your expenses and the income you need to live and retire on.
Your clients will understand this.
If they don’t, then they are crazy and you don’t want them as clients anyway.
So give your company a raise. You and your company deserve it.
Did I miss anything?
What are some of the biggest freelancing mistakes you’ve made? Tell me in the comments (so I can make fun of you). Cheers!