Having done freelance work before, every point made up there is a very, very valid point. Two of the most important points being #1 & #4, always make sure you have something in writing with your clients and never start doing work unless you’ve got some type of payment up front, otherwise you can do a lot of work and have it come back burn you.
13 Serious Mistakes No Freelancer Should Ever Make
Posted March 9, 2011 in Freelance Stories
That’s what my business coach IM’d to me, when I went wailing to her after I failed to make a Skype appointment with an important prospect.
Sure, freelancers are human too. And we all make mistakes.
But I still felt awful. I felt like a failure. I’d let my prospect down. I was a terrible freelancer.
So I turned to my freelancing community and found that, indeed, other freelancers make mistakes too. Today, I’m sharing those mistakes with you.
Thirteen Bad Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make
Here are the 13 worst mistakes a freelancer could make:
- Working without a contract–This seems to be pretty common. Sometimes, freelancers start out while they’re still in school. Or just doing it on the side. So they don’t treat it as a serious business. Or sometimes, we just trust our clients too much. We can’t believe they could stiff us… until they do.
- Working with just any client–Here’s another biggie. Often, we get a bad feeling about a client. We see lots of red flags popping up, but we ignore them. We need the money. We need this client on our portfolio. We need this! And then things fall apart. We look back and kick ourselves, because we knew all along this was a bad idea.
- Missing deadlines and appointments–This is what I hear the most from people who hire freelancers. I’ve got plenty of clients who find me after being burned by freelancers who flake out on them, miss deadline after deadline while never running out of excuses, or simply disappear.
- Starting work without getting paid first–This is another common mistake, especially by freelancers who are just starting out. Again, it stems from trusting the client too much. The solution is simple: ask for a down payment first, before starting to do ANY work.
- Charging too little–Freelancers’ insecurities are most evident in our fees. We charge too little, because we don’t really believe in what we’re worth. Or we base our fees on the salary we used to make was employees. Or we ask for what we can live with. So we end up getting paid way less than the value we actually bring to our clients.
- Taking on too much work–This is a natural consequence of charging too little. If you don’t get paid much for each project, then you need to complete more projects to reach your income goals. Big mistake! Over-extend yourself and you end up missing deadlines, delivering poor quality work, burning yourself out, and thinking “freelancing sucks!”
- Neglecting your marketing when times are good–Sometimes we get in a groove, a good one. We’ve got lots of projects lined up. We’re working in a state of flow doing things we enjoy doing. The money’s pouring in. So who cares about marketing, right? Wrong! Freelancers need to be constantly marketing, getting leads, and keeping them “warm.” Because if not, one day, we’ll wake up and there isn’t a new project waiting for us. There’s no new check to deposit and yet the bills continue to arrive in the mail.
- Not having clear deliverables–You may have a contract, but is it a good one? Does it clearly state what outputs you’re going to provide, and when? And how you’re going to get paid, and when? And what your clients’ role is in the completion of the project? I’ve heard of freelancers proceeding to do certain tasks, only to find out the client hadn’t wanted them to do it. Don’t even think about getting paid. Ouch!
- Not having a “kill fee” in the contract–Here’s another mistake I myself have made. I forgot to include my kill fee, or how much my client has to pay if he/she discontinues the project after I’ve begun work on it. Once again, sometimes a shabby contract is as bad as not having one.
- Submitting completed work and client files without getting paid first–Here’s another mistake made by overly trusting freelancers. Remember that, once you’ve turned over the finished product to the client, you don’t have a hold on them any more.
- Not following up on proposals–This is a mistake we may not even realize is causing us to lose clients. I’m guilty of this myself, because I’m quite a shy person. I don’t like pestering people. Following up feels like pestering. But it’s a big mistake to assume your clients have received the proposal you sent, much less read them. If you’re like me and feel nervous about following up, read this step-by-step guide to a smarter follow-up.
- Not upselling clients–Here’s another mistake many freelancers don’t even realize they’re making. Freelancers who don’t “upsell”–offer to do more services than what their clients asked for–are leaving money on the table. Upselling may feel slimy and used-car-salesman-y to you. But in fact, it’s a sign of a remarkable freelancer. When you upsell, you have to anticipate your clients’ needs and be there to help meet them. When you offer an effective upsell, you’re showing your client that you fully understand what they’re trying to achieve, and you know how to help them get there.
- Neglecting your finances–Freelancers are usually a creative lot, which means many of us are not comfortable dealing with numbers and money. It’s too easy to sweep finances under the rug, until tax time comes. This is another big mistake. You can’t manage what you don’t see.
This is a pretty long list!
It’s not that freelancers are more human than others. It’s just that we’re navigating the freelancing waters pretty much on our own. Most of us are just winging it and learning things the hard way.
Moreover, life always gives us another chance — if not with this client or prospect, then with the next one.
Which of these mistakes have you or do you make? What other mistakes have you made that other freelancers should avoid? Share them in the comments so we won’t make the same ones.
Image by Ivan Walsh
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March 9th, 2011 at 8:53 am
March 9th, 2011 at 9:08 am
Great advices, are all true!
Another advice might be to save a few extra bucks for the hard times. No matter how hard you try, there will be a time of no projects and money. And it can save your freelance career if you have some money saved for those times…
March 9th, 2011 at 9:24 am
March 9th, 2011 at 9:38 am
Agreed! All very true. I learned #4 the hard way. As for #7, neglecting marketing when times are good, how much time per day/week would you advise spending on marketing when you have a full client load?
March 9th, 2011 at 10:29 am
I don’t have a kill fee (#9) in my contract…. Any example you can give us of what all a kill fee entails? Do you state a percentage of the project price as what you’d be owed if the client canceled the contract? Or is it a flat fee? Is it due immediately?
Money, pricing and payments are always so tricky to word and even to talk about. I’d love an example of how you do it (without you having to give out any ‘trade secrets’ of course :)).
March 9th, 2011 at 10:50 am
Yes. Lesson learned the hard way. I am currently trying to collect on a job that I did without a contract. Not going so well. I had done work for her (albeit a smaller caliber job) before and gotten paid…this time not so much.
No more working without a contract. Because I am out a lot of money. Lesson learned :)
March 9th, 2011 at 10:56 am
#9 is good one to have. Recently, I had a client “kill” a project after a month due to financial hardship and was asking for a refund on my up-front retainer fee. I have always used a standard contract that I found online but had a contract lawyer look it over and make some changes. One of her suggestions was around the cancellation policy which saved my retainer fee. It is well worth getting legal advise on your contracts.
March 9th, 2011 at 11:13 am
Depends on the field. No way as a freelance journalist are you going to get paid before delivering work, unless it is a _huge_ project. In general, many of the listed mistakes are not applicable to freelance journos.
I’ve done quite a lot of freelance work without contracts and never got burned. However, there was this client whom I knew might be all that reliable. Suddenly they stopped paying and answering my calls and emails. I warned them that I would contact a collections agency, but they still didn’t pay.
Thanks to the contract a collections agency tracked them down, they still refused to pay, but were taken to court and eventually I got all my money (and it was them who had to cover the collection costs).
March 9th, 2011 at 11:19 am
#12 is a very important point.
I offer Web Design as my primary service … However, I always upsell clients on SEO work and Content writing after the project is done and this allows me to earn additional revenue. It is easier to “sell” to existing clients than it is to find new clients.
President & Founder
Web Design Business Academy.
March 9th, 2011 at 11:49 am
I agree with most of your points. I still make the mistake of turning over the files to the client before getting paid, it hasn’t turned against me yet, but some clients can tend to delay payment because of that.
what is the value of a contract if you and your client are thousands of miles apart and in different continents?
March 9th, 2011 at 12:17 pm
Oops! I’m so guilty of missing client appointments.
And I’ll add one tip to your contracts….. Making the client sign-off on the project before it goes to press. I took over a project from another designer and made the changes the client requested. The client signed off on it and his phone # was wrong. So he refused to pay for the project saying that ‘I’ knew it wasn’t a working #. I explained that for all I knew he was getting the #, he had it added with the other designer before I took the project over and BTW….he signed off on it with my standard statement that says the “client is responsible for any errors after it’s been signed off so check name spellings and phone #s.”
Great article for new freelancers as well as those of us who need reminders.
March 9th, 2011 at 1:04 pm
Point 7 really applies on me..
I am really slow in marketing my skills to new clients whenever I got few projects in line…I am thinking to overcome this habit by scheduling my time for marketing but not succeeded yet…
@paul , I think contract really matters even you are thousands of miles away.. as contract specifies certain merits to meet… without a contract you can easilly end up in bad situation with your client… and remember the 3/33 rule.. if you work nice with one client he will tell 3 others but if you some how ended bad, then he will tell to 33… So, no body want a bad name in freelance business
March 9th, 2011 at 1:33 pm
I have never considered #9 Kill Fee and would also be interested to know how you come up with the fee amount.
My ears are burning a little, as I have made a lot of the mistakes on this list. Typically it just takes one bad incident for me to “get it”!
March 9th, 2011 at 2:16 pm
1) Do work in trade.
a) they don’t do what they promised
b) usually no contract
2) Volunteer to do work for free for family or friends (This is not good because a) they devalue the work in your eyes and in their eyes and respect your profession less, and b) usually means not having anything official, like a contract
c) they don’t usually take your time and advice and work seriously).
3) Not making sure a non-profit is actually an official IRS-registered non-profit (Sometimes, they think they are and they are not lying, but they sometimes aren’t). Taking the step of calling the IRS to confirm is worth it!
These are big mistakes because they devalue the work in your eyes and in their eyes, and because doing either one usually means not having anything official, like a contract, and the other side not taking your time and value seriously.
March 9th, 2011 at 3:51 pm
#4 and #5 are still big issues for me. Even though it makes perfect sense and isn’t unreasonable, some silly part of me feels bad/greedy demanding money before I do anything. And I still charge similar to what I made per hour working for companies, which doesn’t always account for business expenses. It was tough, but I raised my rates this year. And I’m going to be stricter about down payments and contracts.
March 9th, 2011 at 4:21 pm
Contracts are a must, but there is no guarantee that a client will abide by the letter of the agreement, and there is no contract that is iron clad. You will, at some point, for sure, find yourself having to decide if it’s worth pursuing legal action or collections against a deadbeat client, or simply taking the loss and moving on.
Having a good contract is not a sure thing, but it can help you tremendously in a legal situation. So, too, can having all communications in writing. Don’t rely on verbal approvals, or phone calls. Get it in writing, at least in an email. Be able to show the contract, and that you executed your part appropriately, and in good faith.
March 9th, 2011 at 10:06 pm
Am in the throes of no. 7 right now due to a very busy last six months of 2010, and needing some recovery time. One lead won’t start until June or July now. And the other has not even looked at the proposal I sent five weeks ago. Sigh. . . .
Like the questions about kill fees. I charge a 50% deposit up front, which is non-refundable. Period. Gives an incentive not to cancel.
March 10th, 2011 at 3:56 am
I’ve made every mistake on that list, but absolutely learned from them. Hopefully this list can prevent someone else from doing the things I did when I got started.
March 10th, 2011 at 3:58 am
I’d like to add: Forgetting that You Have a Life ( laughs ). Often, freelancers take too much on their plates just to make ends meet and they work like relentless machines. I’d say take time to stop and smell the roses; you may not know what opportunity or inspiration awaits. C’est la vie… so Carpe Diem!! ( and not ‘carpe per diem’ – or seize the check haha ). This article is a fun read, thanks!
March 10th, 2011 at 6:24 am
All great points. #7 rings true.
Contracts can be pretty handy as well. However, I generally don’t use them when I have good, ongoing relationship with the client.
March 10th, 2011 at 9:35 am
Thank you for reinforcing the contract requirement! I make contracts with everyone, even, no especially, friends and family. A contract that is fair to everyone can also be a great tool to start your project on the right foot. When expectations are set down in black and white it is much easier to find any disconnects.
For #13 (hey did you do that on purpose:) ?) I think a big problem is people think finance is boring and difficult. It doesn’t have to be! That’s why I’m on a mission as a profit coach to change that.
March 10th, 2011 at 3:40 pm
Take a look at what freelance translators are saying about the article:
There are plenty of comments, but I think that not all of them had freelancers in general translators in particular in mind.
I really liked the article and will avoid these mistakes in the future.
March 10th, 2011 at 8:40 pm
Great tips! Will definitely come back for reference.
March 11th, 2011 at 5:12 pm
The concept of prenuptial s seems to be forgotten here.
Expect the worst but work for the best so that when the worst happens you can go on to the next client. Also, if you end the relationship with a collection agency and the client comes back, there is nothing wrong with calculating what you didn’t get and finding a way to be reimburse for it!
Another thought, if you are going to use the courts make sure that the client has something. Just because you know the client had something when you started the relationship doesn’t mean the client has the anything at the end.
March 12th, 2011 at 10:00 am
Starting work without getting paid first and starting work without any contract is what the biggest mistakes I made when I started my career as a freelance writer. Even I trusted on freelancing sites like Odesk to handle all this but ultimately If you don’t have a contract, you can’t blame those sites. And Even more, if you have not paid first for your payment and your client just go away after taking the final payment, There is only pray left if he or she pays back. Thanks for great article and I think these points must be on the check list of any freelancer.
March 14th, 2011 at 3:53 am
That’s nice. I loved the article. Probly I am here for 1st time and going to explore the site.
April 1st, 2011 at 2:08 am
I Agreed with you! Great Post.
August 7th, 2011 at 6:31 pm
I agree with some of the other posters on here. Doing work for family and friends can sometimes be a mistake, most often because you don’t have a contract in place and that leads them to devaluing your time and work.
MSeptember 5th, 2011 at 11:51 am
I’ve been a journalist for four years, and a freelance for one, and I’m sorry but I strongly disagree with some of these points.
Anyone starying off in freelance journalism would be very, very foolish to follow points 4 and 5. If you demand payment up-front, or you demand high fees when you have not yet proven your professional ability, then the client WILL find someone else. It’s a sad fact that supply of writers will always outstrip demand.
You need to know when you’re onto a good thing, keep your options open, and be 100% reliable at all times. But don’t obsess over the money at first. Tbh if you care so much about money you need to get the hell out of this career anyway…
October 31st, 2011 at 10:52 pm
Long list, but a great one. The upselling is big. Use constant contact or send personal followups to people if you have the time.
June 1st, 2012 at 8:03 pm
Some GOOD advice here!
It is very easy to forget the basics, especially when you are busy. Things like accounts and marketing easily go out of the window when you have deadlines, and you can often find yourself without work for the next month unless you keep on top of your game.
I think I’m going to steal this list, paraphrase it, print it out and stick it on my wall as a good reminder of what needs to be done!
April 25th, 2013 at 12:32 pm
As a starting freelancer I see some of the points you are making are valid – I didn’t think of a standard contract – do you have an example of one?
May 21st, 2013 at 2:13 pm
I want to comment on your point 4, asking for down payment or upfront payment before the start of the contract.
There are few online marketplaces such as elance.com, vworker.com (now acquired by freelancer.com), there is an option of escrowing the funds. Do you think there is a need for asking for upfront payments where payments are secured by escrow?
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