10 Avoidable Mistakes New Freelancers Make

New to freelancing? I could tell — you’re making beginner mistakes that I can smell from a mile away. But that’s okay: everyone has trouble adjusting to the realities of freelance life at first and you’ll get there eventually if you stick with it. Here are some pointers that might help you avoid some of the more serious mistakes.
The four capital mistakes of open source

You don’t charge enough.

You’re timid about stating the rate you feel you really deserve — which is normal. When your parents raised you to be a polite, upstanding member of society, they probably stripped you of your ability to negotiate as well.

But don’t undersell yourself! As a freelancer you’ve got more to take care of yourself that you might not have considered if you’re just jumping into this now. You need to take into account the tax you’ll need to pay — that’s not your employer’s job anymore — and if you haven’t factored in your own 401k or superannuation contributions, you’re going to end up in trouble in a few decades.

Work out how much you really need and don’t take a job that you can’t afford to take.

You work too much.

It’s easy to fill your plate up with too much work, particularly if you ignored rule one and didn’t charge enough. But you’ll just exhaust your creative reserves, as well as the energy that’s required to run a business.

Set your rate so that you earn enough that you don’t need to take on make-up jobs and set your limits so you can clock off at the end of the day and relax.

You don’t hit scope creep on the head as it happens.

Scope creep will happen in nearly every freelance role you ever take on. Hell, it happens in the office too — ask any employee if their boss has given them more than 40 hours of work a week and they’ll probably say yes.

Scope creep is bad. It interferes with the quality of work you do for the client who wants to cram more work into the same amount of time, and it impacts on the work you do for other clients. Hitting it on the head by reminding your client that this falls outside of the brief you based your estimate on or the hours you have available is important — do it sooner, never later.

You don’t market yourself.

It’s crazy how many freelancers you’ll meet who don’t market themselves — even those who provide marketing or public relations services! You need to put yourself out there and get your name in front of people every working day. You might have too much work now, but the nature of the freelance life is that you won’t have enough soon, so don’t let your promotional efforts slips.

The feast-and-famine rollercoaster that most freelancers fall prey to is no fun, but it is avoidable.

You don’t look into clients before working with them.

Every time a prospect expresses interest in your services, do you research before agreeing to anything. You can be sure they looked into you, so don’t feel bad about asking other freelancers who have worked for them if they’re good to work with and look at their history in business. If they seem like ethical, responsible and stable clients, go for it!

You don’t diversify your income streams enough.

Did you hit the jackpot and come across a client who satisfies almost all of your income requirements? It’s not really a jackpot — it’s dangerous. Never let a client take up more than a third of your roster, and that’s an absolute maximum. It’s better to play it safer and limit each client to a sixth of your monthly bills-and-debts income requirement so as not to put yourself at undue risk. Since you’re not an employee, not all clients will do you the courtesy of notice.

You don’t get a contract in play before starting work.

Without a contract, you’re putting yourself at immense risk — depending on the circumstances you could miss out on payment for a whole lot of work. You know you should have one, and today it’s not hard to get one in play at all, but how often do you bother to sort it out?

There are plenty of contract templates available that provide you with decent starting grounds. Getting your lawyer to draft one or edit a template is preferable, but if you’re just starting out as a freelancer I know you probably can’t afford one. Just make sure the template is reputable before you use it.

When the money flows, you don’t save the excess.

We have good months and bad months. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that freelancers tend to have incredible months and disastrous months.

But what did you do last time you had an incredible month with a few grand in extra cash coming in? You thought it’d be the new norm and spent the excess as a treat, didn’t you?

Here’s the thing: you’ll pay for that later — like next month, when the payments come in totalling less than expected and you can barely make rent, let alone feed yourself. When you have a great month, save the money, at least until you have at least three months of living costs saved away.

Then you can buy your toys.

You forget your goals as a freelancer.

You spend most of your time thinking with a day-to-day operations perspective, and that’s fine — that’s necessary to get the job done. But without taking a step back to think about the big picture, it’s easy to forget why you went freelance to begin with.

And when you forget why you did this in the first place, you’ll start to take on jobs you don’t really want to do, work hours you don’t want to work, and generally become as unhappy as you were as an employee… but without the ability to leave work behind at 5PM or take leave when you’re burnt out.

Here’s the secret: these are rookie mistakes, but they’re not limited to the rookies. We all make some of these mistakes, even years into the freelancing game. Some of us are better about it than others. One thing we all know for sure is that the sooner you start working on good habits, the less you’ll have to worry about in the future.

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Daniel Thornton is a freelance writer for DesignCrowd, where you can find Freelance Designer that suits your needs, or win new clients via DesignCrowd’s freelance design contests service.


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5 Responses

  1. great list, i would include something about finding the right motivation to keep yourself productive and sharp.

  2. Very nice article. I’m just starting in freelancing and I believe it would be the best option for me to do some free work (not designing competitions) to get some recognition and experience. Btw I am doing only logo design.

  3. Kao Moua says:

    Great article! I need to post this on my wall somewhere I can see everyday. Offering your service free of charge to local businesses- from my experience as a freelancer- is a great way to gain exposure and build mutually beneficial relationships with potential clients. Just make sure that it ultimately benefits you one way or another so choose wisely. Even if they don’t seek you for future work, chances are they know at least five others who might. Word of mouth is an extremely powerful tool and it has gotten me several projects.

  4. Ravi says:

    Really good list and it’s given me some good ideas so I posted a few of my own at http://www.studiorav.co.uk/2011/08/mistakes-freelancers-make/

  5. Kenn says:


    … if you’re freelancing a while is not getting away from your work.

    You need down time, play time, to recharge the batteries.

    I’m guilty of this often, but when I take the time to recharge. Energy levels come back up.

    Nice list above, thanks.

    Kenn Schroder

    Web Designers: 8 Mistakes that Stop You from Getting Clients

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