Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash

5 Common Mistakes That Destroy New Freelancers

Don’t let your freelancing dream become a nightmare

Declan Wilson
Mar 12, 2020 · 9 min read

Freelancing is a delicate balancing act. It’s a dance between keeping a client happy and you happy without spiraling into fits of anxiety and despair.

All it takes is one bad client experience to ruin everything you’ve worked so hard to build. The last thing you want as a freelancer is a client who drains are the excitement and love out of your work.

Instead of diving headfirst into freelancing work and hoping for the best — as I did back in 2017 — simply avoiding common freelancing mistakes may lead to better client experiences in the long run.

Today, I want to share with you five mistakes I’ve made and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1 — Always saying “yes” to clients

Project creep is like a crack in the windshield of your car — the more it spreads, the sooner you’re going have a disaster on your hands.

You don’t need to give your clients everything they ask for. Even if you are desperate for their business, saying “no” or “not yet” shows you have the experience and know-how to gauge realistic expectations.

I build e-commerce websites for clients. One of my early gigs was for a business that wanted a website to sell tickets to shows (I said “yes”), merchandise (“yes”), tickets to classes (“yes”), as well as a plethora of other requests (“yes”, “yes”, and “yes”). I bundled everything into one project (which I priced way too low, see mistake #3) and as you can expect, the project lasted forever.

Not only did I pack too much into one project, by saying “yes” during the project negotiation stage, I conditioned my client to think it was okay to keep asking for more and more throughout the project. And because my work fell under one project agreement, my net hourly rate plummeted.

Saying “no” is vital when working with project-based or retainer-based clients. If you mainly work with hourly-based clients, it’s tempting to take whatever they throw your way (“It’s their money”) but you have to look at the bigger picture. Every hour you spend on one client is one less hour you could spend:

  • Finding newer clients at higher rates
  • Working on other side revenue streams
  • Reading, learning, or recharging (you are human after all)

The main lesson here is to manage your client’s expectation of what you can deliver at the same time valuing your time and effort properly.

Saying “yes” to too many things doesn’t always lead to better client relations, nor does always it translate to more revenue.

Mistake #2 — Assuming you don’t need it in writing

When I first started with client work, things like “Project Agreements” and “Invoices” sounded too scary. I wanted to come off as the laid back and honest guy who was too good for business jargon. Not anymore.

If you are chill and informal in real life, working with clients is your business. And unless you work for free, clients are touchy about their money. In other words, cover your ass, get everything in writing.

At the very least, make sure you have a documented agreement that covers the following:

  • Description of services
  • Cost and payments
  • Timeline
  • Intellectual property
  • Confidentiality
  • Termination
  • Limitation of liability
  • Dispute resolution

As I recently mentioned, I try not to come across as a stuffy businessman so I found this project agreement template without legalese jargon. But please don’t take this as legal advice. Make sure you have a real lawyer look it over.

To make the signing process hassle-free I use DocuSign. They don’t promote it, but they do offer a free version that’s perfect if you only take on a few clients from time to time. I write up my project agreements in Google Docs, hook them up to DocuSign, and send them over to my clients to sign. Boom, done.

I also use Invoice2Go to track my hours and send invoices. I don’t like sending automated invoices since it makes my work feel too transactional. Therefore, Invoice2Go allows me to send a custom message with each invoice where I can outline the progress we’ve made or highlight any major project milestones.

Get everything in writing, but feel free to add a personal touch to make the experience less cold and transactional.

Mistake #3 — Undervaluing your time

Seth Godin recently wrote about freelance market places like Upwork and how they hurt both freelancers and clients:

“They make it worse by pushing people to be bottom-fishing cheap commodity providers. If someone searches for ‘logo designer’, there is a huge amount of pressure to be the freelancer who checks all the boxes, has decent reviews and is also the cheapest.”

Even outside these marketplaces, it’s tempting to undercut your worth when you start out in freelancing. When competing freelancers have more experience than you, what other trigger do you have to pull?

“I don’t undervalue my time” you might be thinking right now. But here are some subtle ways we sabotage our worth:

  • Saying “yes” to things not originally covered in a project agreement (see mistake #1)
  • Bumping off a few bucks from your hourly rate because you want the business
  • Not tracking your time and documenting your work
  • Answering client calls and emails at all times during the day

When you eventually build up a repertoire of clients and gain enough experience it becomes easier to know what your time is worth and to stick to that number.

In my opinion, the only way to truly protect your time’s worth is to bill your clients hourly or agree to a monthly retainer with a set amount of hours.

I’ve done project work where I am paid at the beginning and the end of a project. But like I mentioned in the first mistake, extra work inadvertently seeps into projects.

If you have to, get your foot in the door with a small project that has clear deliverables. Once you are finished, make it clear to your client you are busy with other work, and if they want to continue to work with you, they can pay you hourly or on a monthly retainer at a slightly lower rate (no more than 20% off).

Protect your time, it’s your most valuable asset.

Mistake #4 — Not setting clear communication expectations

This mistake easily falls under the “undervaluing your time” mistake, however, it’s worth highlighting on its own.

My biggest headache with clients has always been communication. I’ve had clients disrespect my time, expect me to drop everything at the moment to deal with their “emergency”, and at one time tell me to “put down my baby and get my head in the game.” That last one didn’t end well.

To avoid these headaches, be clear on three communication expectations when bringing on a new client:

  • Hours of the day you respond to messages
  • Expected response time
  • Preferred means of communication

Let’s start with the first. My clients know I communicate mainly in the afternoon (12–4 PM EST). I don’t take meetings in the mornings or late evenings as those are reserved for family time. They are more than welcome to send me a message outside of this communication window as long as they are aware I won’t respond right away.

Speaking of response time, I usually give my clients a 48-hour window (not including weekends) to expect my reply. In other words, I always respond within two business days. Typically I respond within 24 hours but I like to give myself a buffer in case something comes up.

Finally, and this is the big one, make sure you are clear on how you prefer to communicate. For me, my order of preference is email, text, video call, phone call. I hate phone calls, hate them. I only use them if I need something right away. Instead, I prefer my clients to send me emails. If something is urgent, I tell them to send me an email and follow up with a text message. That way I can communicate outside of the email thread letting them know I’m aware of the urgent message and I’ll get to it soon. This puts the client at ease.

Be upfront about how and when you communicate, it’ll save you from needless communications.

Mistake #5 — Treating everything as an emergency

Unless you volunteer at your local fire station, you are not a firefighter. Your existence on this earth is not predicated on putting out other people’s fires. However, if you aren’t careful, working with clients may feel exactly like this (without all the smoke inhalation).

Your main objective as a freelancer is to understand your clients’ goals and get them closer to that goal every day/week/month. However, we live in the real world and clients are people just like us with their own fears, anxieties, and false expectations.

When a client comes to you with an “urgent emergency” that’s directly related to your work, don’t jump into firefighting mode. Instead, calmly assess the situation and give your client three things:

  1. Clear objectives — what are you going to accomplish
  2. Clear timeline — how long will you take
  3. Clear perspective — what is the bigger picture

Since I deal with clients who launch digital products, a typical launch day comes with some hiccups. For example, a checkout cart not working for international customers was one hiccup I recently faced. I told my client I’d have the situation under control by the end of the day (objective and timeline) and gently reminded them that this is a good problem to have since it showed people cared enough about their product to reach out (perspective).

When you treat everything as an emergency, everything becomes an emergency. If that makes sense. Another way to put it: when everything is an emergency, you lose the ability to prioritize and focus on what’s important. It’s a difficult cycle to break out of and drains you faster than you realize.

At the moment, a client emergency may feel like your emergency, but it isn’t. Tomorrow is a new day, life and business move forward. And if a bad emergency means losing a customer, so be it.

As someone who’s dealt with his fair share of emergencies, you’ll be surprised how little you remember after a year’s time.

Bonus mistake: Not asking for testimonials or referrals

I left my full-time cubicle career 3 years ago and am never going back thanks to the little freelancing business I’ve built. However, at times it has been a tough journey. I’ve encountered many personal and business difficulties.

If I were to sum up my experiences with one piece of freelancing advice, it would be this:

Don’t be afraid to ask for things.

This especially applies to grow your business. Finding new clients is a pain, but you can make the process less painful simply by asking your current clients for a testimonial and referrals. Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth.

Here’s a template I use:

Hey there [Client Name] -Now that our project is wrapping up, I was wondering if you could do me two quick favors.1. Would you be willing to provide a testimonial for my website? I can send you questions you can answer to make it easy.2. If I gave you an outline of the kind of person I am looking to meet who [fits a specific criteria similar to your client], would you be willing to do two introductions for me?Thanks.
[Your Name]

If they answer yes to giving a testimonial, I make it easy for them by sending the following list of questions:

1) What was the obstacle or hesitation that would have prevented you from buying [my service]?2) What did you find as a result of buying [my service]?3) What specific feature did you like most about [my service]?4) What three other benefits did [my service] provide?5) Would you recommend [my service]? If so, why?6) Is there anything you’d like to add?

I take their responses and compile them into a neat testimonial which I send back for their approval. I then prominently display their testimonials on my business’s website for visitors to read.

If they answer yes to making an introduction, I send them back a description of my ideal client (typically a reflection of my current client) along with a simple blurb they can use in an email. Here’s an example of the blurb I use:

"Declan helps personal and professional coaches grow their business with custom made online courses and membership sites. I know you are currently looking for ways to grow your coaching business without trading more time for money. After working with Declan, I think his services would be beneficial to you."With this said, I mentioned your name to Declan as someone he should meet and explore ways he can help you achieve your business goals. Would you like me to make the introduction?"

I’ve used services like Upwork to match with clients. However, my favorite clients have always been referred to me. If you want to grow, just start asking.

I’m Declan and I write for creatives and cubicle captives. If you’re struggling to tackle an insurmountable goal, download my Goal-Getter’s Self-Audit Workbook to help you uncover why.

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Declan Wilson

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado. Me in a nutshell→ declanwilson.co/start-here

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