26 Common Freelancing Mistakes to Avoid

There are some freelancing mistakes and pitfalls that you can easily avoid, if you are aware of them. And no, I’m not talking about grammar or spelling mistakes here, either.

Before I get too far into this post, I need to confess that I learned about a few of these freelancing mistakes the hard way–that is to say, I made the mistakes myself. Other mistakes I learned about secondhand from freelancing comments on forums and blogs. But, just because I made some mistakes when I started out doesn’t mean you have to make them too. In fact, that’s part of what Freelance Folder is all about, freelancers helping freelancers to succeed.

In this post, I’ll list 26 common mistakes that freelancers make when they are starting out–mistakes that you can avoid because you’re reading this post. I’ll start with the mistakes that I’ve noticed and wrap the post up with mistakes that other Freelance Folder writers have blogged about. :-)


10 Freelancing Mistakes I’ve Seen Over the Years

In no particular order, here are some common freelancing mistakes that many freelancers make:

  1. Falling for a big dollar number. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at math so the first thing I do when determining whether a project is worth my time is divide the dollar amount offered by the amount of effort (in hours) that I think the job requires. Not every freelancer does this. I was recently discussing this topic with a freelancer colleague who took on a huge project (both in dollars and hours). Sadly, the project almost bankrupt him because the big dollar amount (in the thousands of dollars) was really not enough to justify the months of work that the project involved.
  2. Failing to get an agreement in writing. Of course, getting a contract is ideal–but failing that I at least try to always get some sort of agreement in writing. Sometimes email works for this, but sometimes you may need something more formal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read comments from a freelancer who is having trouble getting a client to live up to their end of the bargain, only to find out that there was no formal agreement.
  3. Not meeting deadlines. Fortunately, I don’t struggle with this one (much)–but I know that some freelancers do. When you take on a project it’s important to pencil in enough time on your calendar to get the project done. If you find that your calendar is too full for you to meet all of your commitments, you’ll have to do one of three things: outsource (if you can), turn work done, or negotiate new deadlines.
  4. Not knowing what to charge. I confess that I didn’t really know much about freelancing when I started eight years ago, and I had no idea how much to charge for my services. As a result, I often took on work for less than I was worth. Yes, I was underpaid–but, it was largely my own fault for not doing enough research to find out what an experienced freelance writer should earn.
  5. Not saving money for taxes. Luckily, I was warned about this mistake before I ever started freelancing. I had the good fortune to work with a freelance programmer who was being paid an extremely high rate for his services. Everything went well for him until his taxes came due at the end of his first year of freelancing. I’ll never forget how his lack of preparation forced him to close his freelancing business and accept a “permanent” job or how his tax liability took him very near to personal bankruptcy.
  6. Not branding yourself properly or consistently. Personally, when I started out as a freelancer I gave very little thought to my online image. I had my resume, my references, and my samples. For many clients that was enough. I don’t think I would be so lucky if I were to restart my freelancing business in today’s competitive environment. Branding is crucial to freelancing success.
  7. Picking the wrong partner. I’ve always been a solo freelancer, but I’ve heard some freelancing horror stories about traumatic partnership break-ups. There are many advantages to being in a partnership, but it’s also important to pick your freelancing partner very, very carefully. A bad partnership breakup can be devastating to both parties.
  8. Not taking advantage of free resources. There’s a lot useful free resources and information online for freelancers. In fact, the depth of what’s out there still amazes me. In future posts, we’ll be sharing some of those free resources with our readers. Sadly, when I started out as a freelancer I had no idea what was available. I could have avoided a lot of trouble and extra work by taking advantage of some of those resources.
  9. Not getting help when you need it. Eventually, every freelancer needs help. It may be that you need to outsource some of your project load so that you can put your best efforts into your work. Or, it could be that you need to hire a specialist such as an accountant or an attorney to handle some of the legal and financial aspects of your business. Not getting help when you need it is a big freelancing mistake.
  10. Making the same mistake over and over. Every freelancer makes a mistake eventually. There’s no shame in that. The most important thing to do when you make a mistake is to stop and try and analyze what went wrong so that you can avoid that mistake in the future. If you fail to do this–if you fail to learn from your mistakes–you may be doomed to making the same mistake over and over again, which is something that no freelancer wants.

I’ve shared some of the most common freelancing mistakes that I’ve observed over the years. Now it’s time to take a look at some of the freelancing mistakes that other Freelance Folder authors have identified.

16 More Freelancing Mistakes

We’ve looked at freelancing mistakes on Freelance Folder in the past. Here I’ll identify 16 more common freelancing mistakes that other Freelance Folder authors have written about and link you to their posts.

From Chris Garrett, My Top 5 Biggest Freelancing Mistakes. Chris’s mistakes are as follows:

  1. Under-pricing
  2. Over-committing
  3. Failing to Sell
  4. Always saying ‘yes’
  5. Not following up

From Glen Allsopp, Four Freelancing Mistakes You Don’t Need To Make. Glen’s mistakes are as follows:

  1. Giving Away Too Much Information
  2. Leaving Jobs Until the Last Minute
  3. Wasting Time on Unproductive Work
  4. Acting Like Someone I Wasn’t

From Tim Wasson, Why I Failed at Freelancing. Tim’s mistakes are as follows:

  1. Too inexperienced
  2. No focus.
  3. Slippery slope of slow business
  4. No savings
  5. A part-time job
  6. Debt
  7. Client relationships

What About You?

Is your freelancing mistake on this list? Which one was it?

Did you make mistakes that we haven’t written about yet? Share your mistakes in the comments (and tell how you overcame them).

Image by hans.gerwitz

Comments

  1. says

    My mistake was (and sometimes still is) not undertaking marketing when I’m busy.

    And another mistake I made early on was falling for the ‘if you give us a good price, there’ll be lots more work down the line’. (There never is and you’ve just sold yourself short.)

  2. says

    Trial by fire can be avoiding by understanding those mistakes you outline above. My mistake was not knowing how much to charge. It has worked itself out now, but I still linger with clients that I have a great relationship with and have follow up work, but at a lower rate. I guess you win some and lose some.

  3. says

    Good list!

    Mistakes I’ve made:

    - Taking on work that didn’t make sense for me or my business.
    - Thinking that tweaking my website = marketing my business. Not. Even. Close.
    - Treating every request as needing to be completed RIGHT NOW, even if the customer isn’t requesting it.

  4. says

    You’re right on about taxes. Luckily for me, I researched about taxes when I started as a freelancer because a lot of my business was from overseas. But you DO have to write that check every quarter.

  5. says

    FreelanceFactFile–The way to deal with the ‘if you give us a good price, there’ll be lots more work down the line’ is “I always charge full price for the first project.” It is acceptable to give a discount for repeat business, I think–but only AFTER the client gives you that repeat business. Good addition! :-)
    Avonelle Lovhaug–I think every freelancer has been tempted to take on work that is wrong for them doing a slow time. Good for you for figuring it out and moving on!
    Carlon, It still surprises me how many freelancers forget about self-employment tax…
    emarian–Good additions, especially “Wasting Time on Unproductive Work.” I think it’s easy to convince yourself that you are doing something productive if you like it.

    Keep the mistakes coming! We can learn from each other.

  6. says

    @Laura Spencer, i think i’m a lazy nerd :) I start to work very hard … i like to browse the web and improving my programming skills :) I try to create a well organized schedule.

  7. says

    unfortunately I spotted some mistakes on the list like not knowing how much to charge/udercharging and there is one that was not on the list: When it comes the time of charging I have some kind of fear that when I’ll say the price there will be redemption as a result….

  8. says

    To me, the biggest mistake most freelancers make is not considering their practice a business and thus not marketing and selling their services properly. Of course, every freelancer you ask will claim that he does that but in reality I rarely meet one that would take marketing and especially sales seriously.

    Freelance practice is just like any other business and if you pay attention only to all production aspects of the job, you are missing out on the most important one – growing it beyond just earning you your salary. Unless this is what you want of course.

  9. Dan says

    Since my start-up is home based, i have to do all the duties from filing, accounting, driving, name it… this reduces the work hours on productive activities.

  10. says

    I know for sure that I am under paid but I still can’t wrap my head around raising my price since I’m new in business (but has great experience in the corporate world). I’m also located in Hong Kong, which people generally substitute as Asia equals cheap labour. I have tried raising my price twice but was unsuccessful, which really makes me doubt my ability. The one thing I have done right is I continuously market myself and learning online to provide a better variety of service to my clients.

    Dan, having a home based business doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself, there are tons of virtual assistants out there that can assist you on all the bits and pieces of your workload.

  11. says

    Great posts, Laura. I would add to items 3 and 10 that it really helps to establish and refine a workflow. Developing a method for getting work done helps you work more efficiently. It even helps to document your workflow to see where gaps and problems occur. Using a time management program or log, such as Slife.com, is also useful. And finally, learn how to automate tasks. If you find yourself do something over and over, see if there’s a way automate that task task, using Apple’s Automator or QuicKeys.

  12. says

    Pawel @ Self Employed Cafe–That’s a great addition. It’s important to remember that if you are freelancing you are essentially running a small business.
    Availlive Virtual Assistant–That’s a good point to. :-) I think that goes under not getting help when you need it.
    Bakari, Good addition. The more organized you are the easier things become. (At least, that’s been my experience.)

  13. says

    Great post Laura! Some of the freelancing mistakes I’ve done is not finding time to market, not being open-minded to outsourcing some of my work load, and finding it very difficult to say “no” to new projects.

    Another big mistake that I made when I was still a noob at freelancing and that cost me a good client was not standing firm with my desired rate and being dishonest because of the dissatisfaction I felt towards the work. I should have been vocal about what I wanted or I would’ve still kept that client under my freelance list. Ever since then, I make sure to be very transparent about everything and anything to do with client work.

  14. says

    My biggest mistake has been taking care of my biggest client and not continuing to market myself and seek new business. I was absolutely SWAMPED this time last year for about 6 months with nonstop work from my biggest client. I was so tired I wasn’t out there lining up new projects. Around Christmas time I realized I had nothing in the pipeline and they’d just hired a new full-time employee. I expected things to slow down with them, but they came to a complete STOP in April. I had a slow, scary spring. Now the person they just hired has quit, so I’m busy again working for them and others. But no matter how busy I get, I’m still going to get out there and meet people and bid on projects. I don’t want to get caught again!

  15. says

    My biggest mistake was under-pricing my biggest customer for maintaining their website. I feel I was fairly paid for the initial setup per my proposal, but my maintenance charge fell woefully short. Even my best friend, also a freelancer, was upset with me for charging so little. But I was somewhat misled by the customer to thinking there would be expansion and opportunity for more chargeable work down the road. I figured if I charge less now, I’d have a greater chance to get that extra work, as well as referrals from the customer to new customers.
    As it turned out, the extra work never materialized, and I didn’t get 1 referral!
    So my friend was right to be upset with me. Charging a lower rate in hopes of getting more down the road cheapens your whole profession. Whether you’re a freelance designer or writer, you deserve a professional rate for your services. Even more so for freelancers because you have to pay the self-employment tax, and on top of that, you get none of the benefits you’d automatically get if you were working for some corporation.
    Besides, think about it, would you go to the discount doctor, dentist, or lawyer and think you’d be getting the same quality service you’d get if you paid full price? Maybe your customers are thinking the same way!
    Also, it’s extremely important to get it in writing! I haven’t made that mistake, but I sympathize with those who have. Though you’re a freelancer, you must act in a professional manner. A proposal/contract does that for you. Just look at all those cases on Judge Judy who lose for failure to draw up a contract, and it’s always the business/service provider that loses for you are judged to be the professional :-) Just think of it as another opportunity for you to show off your design/writing skills!

  16. says

    We’ve definitely fallen into the trap of several of these mistakes, however good planning has always saved us from any major problems, and any issues with the client have always ended amicably with an honest and frank conversation.

    Regards

    Rob

  17. pixakt says

    Not knowing what to charge. OOOOHH yes, that is really a problem to me. Because alot of clients cannot see that we really need time to create.
    Love that post!!!

  18. says

    Urrgh… been there, done that.. and I have learned my lesson well. I’d like to add working without written contracts. It’s just that a lot of freelancing sites these days don’t reinforce this stuff and many nasty clients get away with free work on their hands. Yes, it can be time consuming and yet, having a safety net is better than having none at all. Still, we learn many things every day as the freelancing world is an ever-evolving plane.

  19. says

    Yes. most of the mistakes you described are need to be avoided. One mistake which i do is the wrong project cost calculation. but after reading your post i will definitely avoid it in my next projects

  20. says

    Now I’m more matured freelancer after like you said making all of those mistakes you mentioned (but still need to grow!). I started off taking everything that comes to me thinking they would give me more work and best rates later. But, it was a very costly mistake. Now I’m no more in mood to believe “more will come down the line…. and refer you to many clients”. I learned to back off from these people. Learned to stand my ground in terms of upfront payment. But still lacking to collect a written contract.
    I appreciate all the points in the post, and the wonderful comments here!

  21. says

    I’m a freelancer myself. Sure I had made some of the mistakes posted above :) as everyone does in the begining. I begun as freelancer 3 years ago and I still regret I didnt started earlier (in a time with more jobs which are paid better then now and sure a lot less competition than nowdays :)

  22. says

    Great summary!

    Among my worst offenses: Not following up (because I’m worried about “being a bug”) and on one occasion, over-committing. I once took on a job designing a Flash site from a template. I knew absolutely nothing about Flash, and I had severely under-charged. In the end I had to confess to the customer that I had no idea how to do the site. That, so far, is my worst horror story. But I’ve also been down the road of doing work for companies that put off paying me… And then they shut down and I never saw a dime.

    One thing I will pat myself on the back for (now) is charging what I’m worth. No one is ever going to pay you more that what you ask for and my Rule of Thumb is that if you’re getting every job that you put in a quote for, you’re probably charging too little. Also, I’ve realized that when you charged bargain basement prices, you end up finding clients who want more than bargain basement service!

  23. says

    This is a great article and great things to follow! Thanks for the advice and will definitely beef up on some of the topics that were covered! Especially the tax portion. Thanks for everything!

  24. says

    Many freelancers commit themselves to far too many projects. Over scheduling can be a result of not charging what you are worth (see below) or simply underestimating the amount of time that it takes to get a particular project done. However, packing your schedule too full of projects can lead to missed deadlines (and lost clients). It can also contribute to freelancer burnout.

  25. says

    Hi,

    Great article and comments!

    I especially like the comment about ‘marketing’ does not = tweaking your site

    I have made several mistakes,my most costly would have to be…not taking a payment upfront…still going through the courts almost a year later!!

    - I now won’t start a project unless i have at at least 50%, a costly mistake but I have definatley learnt from it.

    One other area I feel people don’t pay enough attention to ishaving the ability to sell your design services. Theres a lot of ‘budget designs’ for sale out there, and there are also alot of ‘expensive’ designers…..I feel as a freelance designer you have to be able to justify your costs – and sell your self to the client.

    Basically I feel the biggest differences between a freelancer and a full time design job….is the fact you have to keep your cashflow high and keep the jobs coming in…. therefore becoming a salesman as well as a designer!

  26. says

    Thanks Laura. I think I also have made all of these mistakes. I also agree with Joe’s comment above about being promised by a customer that a low quote on one job would lead to a larger and more profitable jobs. I won’t fall into that trap again!

    Also when starting out you don’t tie a customer up with a proper contract. This is essential as you are always the one to lose out. Take control, make them sign a proper contact. Its worth every penny spent getting it professionally drawn up by a lawyer.

  27. says

    I would also add to the list not researching client projects and what the projects entails well before commencing on a project. Very useful information here. Thank you.

  28. says

    Great writeup, i share Rhys comments and pitfalls. Our biggest mistakes have probably been under charging for our services. We were so focussed on trying to get work that we let people say so and so has said they will do it for £500, will you do it for £400 and we would take on the work with the client having completely unrealistic expectations about what £400 actually gets you! I cant build you a website like play.com for £400!!! with all the functionality! Lesson learned!

    We now go for the middle market and get clients to sign a contract which ensures that they get value for money but we do not get the beans taken out of us.

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