The 10 Biggest Mistakes Freelancers Make, and How to Avoid Them

Written by Leo Babauta

No freelancer is perfect – not me, not you, not even the best of us. We all make mistakes, all the time, and if we’re smart, we learn from them.

Some mistakes, however, are more crucial than others, and if we can correct or avoid those mistakes, we’ll survive. We’ll still make other mistakes, but they won’t hurt as much.

Let’s take a look at some of the most essential mistakes that freelancers, new and old, often make, and how to avoid them.

Missing deadlines. I wrote more on this topic in this post, but basically, your ability to put out quality work and meet deadlines is what makes your reputation. And as a freelancer, your reputation is all you have. If you miss deadlines too often, you will soon see your clients going elsewhere. How to avoid: Make deadlines one of your top two priorities (along with putting out great work), overestimate how long it will take you, break the project into smaller steps, and be accountable every step of the way.

Charging too little. New freelancers, especially, undervalue themselves and charge less than they’re worth. That’s OK if you’re just breaking into the business, and don’t have any previous work or reputation to point to. But once you’ve got some stellar work under your belt, don’t be afraid to ask what you’re worth, otherwise you are selling yourself short. And you’ll be working too much just to pay the bills. (See this article for more.) How to avoid: It’s good to find out what the market avergage is, and charge a little more. This tells clients that you’re good. A good way to do the math is to figure out how much you want to make, and how many hours you realistically plan to work. Then charge based on those numbers.

Lack of preliminary research. This is research before making your pitch, not before completing the assignment. Often a freelancer will contact a potential client and make a pitch, without really understanding the client or his needs, and without knowing how this project will add value to the client. This approach will get you very little business. How to avoid: Research the client thoroughly before making contact. The Internet is a great way to do that, of course. Know what the client does, the client’s market, what the client’s goals are (in general), and figure out how you can help the client meet those goals. How will you add value? Direct your pitch at those issues.

Choosing the wrong clients. The client-freelancer relationship is an important one, and there are many issues that can make a client the wrong client, or the right client, for you. Those include the market they’re in, they’re working style, how difficult they are, how likely they are to pay your rate, how much work they require, their ability to pay on time without hassle, and more. If you choose the wrong client, you will make less money, be unhappy, and work more. How to avoid: Select clients carefully. Again, research them, talk to other freelancers who’ve worked for them. When contacting a client, think of it as a two-way interview – they are trying to decide if you’re right for them, but you should also be trying to decide if they are right for you. Do your first assignment or three on a trial basis, to see how things work out. Every now and then, evaluate your clients to see if they’re worth the trouble.

Getting too personal. It’s good to be friendly with a client, but keep it professional. You don’t want to be best friends. You shouldn’t be too formal, either, but if you become personal, two things could happen: 1) one of you could get hurt or angry at the other based on a business decision; or 2) the client might think you’re unprofessional. Either one is bad for business. How to avoid: Start any correspondence on a formal basis, and then get friendlier depending on how the client handles communication. Don’t be afraid to be friendly, but at the same time, don’t go beyond business, and don’t cross the line into unprofessionalism.

Letting off steam. If there is a problem with a client, some freelancers have a tendency to vent their frustration – at the client. For example, if an editor decides not to run my article, I might show my frustration and displeasure in a very angry way. This is bad. It will harm your professional reputation, both with this client and with future clients. And it will lead to decreased business over time, if you continue this mistake. How to avoid: If there is a problem with a client, and you are angry or frustrated, do not communicate right away. Let your steam off some other way, through talking to a friend, through exercise, through eating a carton of ice cream. But don’t do it at your client, or anyone else in your professional world. Bite your tongue. Then, when you’ve calmed down, communicate with your client in a non-emotional, professional manner – preferably in a positive way, but clearly, so that future problems can be avoided.

Not proposing a follow-up idea. Often a freelancer will complete an assignment, and then move on to an assignment with another client. Perhaps the freelancer hopes that the assignment that he completed was so amazing, the client will be knocking down his door the next day. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t happen. If you don’t provide the basis of future business, you might not see it. How to avoid: when you complete an assignment, propose a follow-up idea for future work. If you don’t hear back, follow up.

Not having multiple income streams. Relying on one or two clients is always a bad idea. If your main client drops you, or reduces his freelancer budget, or goes out of business, you’re out of luck. And now you can’t pay your bills. How to avoid: Always have multiple income streams. You might start with one freelance client (we all do in the beginning), but don’t rely on that as your primary source of income until you’ve added more clients. And if you can get other sources of income streams (a full- or part-time job, another business, your spouse’s income, advertising on a blog, selling a product, Amway), you should work hard to do so. It will make your income much more stable and reliable.

Allowing yourself to slack. Let’s face it: some days, we don’t feel like working. And that’s fine, if we plan for that flexibility, and make up for it on other days. But too many days of slacking, and soon you aren’t getting any income. And you’re missing deadlines. Not good. How to avoid: It’s fine to give yourself flexibility, so that you can work when you feel productive, but if you have deadlines to meet, don’t let yourself slack off. Push yourself to meet the deadline, and work in bursts to motivate yourself.

Failing to be yourself. Often we take work because we need the income, but it doesn’t align with who we are. And we feel awful about it, and slowly we begin to hate ourselves. Until we no longer want to do the work. How to avoid: Seek, from the beginning, to find work that aligns with your values, that allows you to be who you are. Being fake and dishonest, to others and to yourself, gets you nowhere. Be sincere in your interactions with others, and don’t be afraid to say no to stuff that doesn’t fit who you are. Always strive to find work you love.

16 thoughts on “The 10 Biggest Mistakes Freelancers Make, and How to Avoid Them

  1. Nicky Mares

    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.

    definitely a case of ‘getting too personal’. Thanks for the excellent article. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a headache…

  2. devian

    charging to little, yeah that’s true. well, there are site developers now that dives project cost for as low as 2k per website design. man, not everybody knows how to design, so, we better price up coz what we do is not easy and not scams.

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