How to Deal with the Unique Challenges That Freelancers Face

Sure, everyone faces some challenges from time to time. But, due to the unique nature of freelancing perhaps freelancers are a bit more susceptible to some challenges than others.

If you’re properly prepared, though, you can handle most freelancing challenges that come your way while minimizing your stress.

In this post, I’ll outline some of the common challenges that freelancers face. I’ll also discuss how to handle those challenges that are most unique to freelancing.

Types of Challenges

There are basically three common types of challenges that freelancers face:

  1. Personal challenges–While they affect freelancers, these challenges aren’t unique to freelancers. Nearly everyone faces challenges related to their personal lives such as the birth of a new family, the death of a family member, serious illness, and so on.
  2. Professional challenges–Professional challenges have to do specifically with the work that you do. For a freelancer this could be changing technology, changing your niche, starting (or ending) your freelancing career, or even losing a client.
  3. Socioeconomic challenges–These challenges are also often not specific to freelancers. They have to with such broad issues as governmental change, marketplace conditions, and cultural changes. These challenges can even include dealing with natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and other weather-related changes.

While there’s no denying that all types of challenges can affect a freelancer, the professional challenges that freelancers can face are somewhat unique. That’s why this post will focus mostly on those.

Dealing with Professional Challenges as a Freelancer

As a freelancer, you may have already faced one of the challenges listed below. (If you haven’t dealt with any of these yet, you soon will.)

Here is a list of unique freelancing challenges and a few words of advice on how to deal with each one:

  1. Starting freelancing–Starting out as a freelancer can be quite a challenge. Most freelancers have preconceived notions (often idealized) about what freelancing is like, and usually the reality turns out to be quite different. So, what’s the best way for a prospective freelancer to tackle the challenge? Read everything you can about freelancing before you start, paying particular attention to materials written by actual freelancers. Make a list of recurring problems in what you read because if something is being written about over and over again, chances are that it is happening to most freelancers. Brainstorm and come up with possible fixes for the items on your list.
  2. Ending freelancing–It’s not often written about, but ending a freelancing career can be just as stressful as starting one. If you’ve decided to stop freelancing (for whatever reason), realize that you’ll need to make some adjustments. If you’ll be assuming a traditional job, remember that there will be certain restrictions on your activities. As a freelancer, you enjoyed an immense amount of freedom that may not be yours as an employee. Just some of the challenges that you may face include adherence to a dress code, set working hours, a commute, and dealing with office politics. To prepare yourself, try easing into your new schedule. Even before your job starts, begin getting up at what will become your regular time and dressing up. You may want to practice driving the route to work.
  3. The feast or famine cycle–A popular topic among freelancers is the feast or famine cycle. This is a reference to the fact that one week you may be very busy with project work and the next you may have practically nothing to do. Nearly every freelancer has experienced this challenge at one time or another. If the famine part of the cycle persists, the freelancer may even find themselves facing financial difficulties. Prepare for this challenge by keeping in touch with prospective clients (even when you are busy), saving money for your slow periods, and negotiating better deadlines when you are overbooked.
  4. Losing a long-term client–Long-term clients often become friends, but even without that relationship there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that you have work to keep you busy for the foreseeable future. So, when a long-term client leaves you may be tempted to torture yourself by wondering what went wrong. While a little bit of introspection can be healthy, make sure that you don’t wallow in it. Sometimes clients just leave through no fault of yours. To prepare yourself for the loss of a long-term client, avoid relying too heavily (emotionally or financially) on a single client. Continue to communicate with prospective clients even if you feel that your long-term client is giving you enough work. Finally, if they move on, be ready to move on as well.
  5. Changing a niche–Freelancers often change niches. Sometimes they discover an area where they excel or that interests them more than their original direction. Sometimes they become bored with they are doing and decide to make a change. Whatever the reason, this challenge can be almost as stressful as starting a new freelancing business. Do minimize the stress, do your homework. Learn everything that you can about your new niche before you make the change. Make sure that there’s a market for what you plan on doing. Decide whether you will continue to offer your current specialty to existing clients only, or whether you will refer them to another freelance professional.
  6. Client criticism–If you’ve ever had to deal with the public, you know that people can be mean and clients can be worse. Many freelancers are wrapped up in what they do, so if a client offers criticism it can seem personal (even if it isn’t). This is especially true if the client uses a harsh tone of voice or otherwise seems angry. This is a difficult challenge for freelancers to face. To prepare yourself for it, establish a policy of not responding immediately if you are angry. It’s better to let the client wait while your emotions die down than to fire off an angry email or make an angry phone call. If a client phone conversation unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse, try to stay calm until you can get off the phone. Try saying something like, “let me research that and get back to you.” This has the dual purpose of allowing your emotions to settle while you investigate the client’s complaint.
  7. Technology changes–Freelancers must stay current to stay marketable. This means constantly learning and updating your skills. While some freelancers enjoy learning new things, others may find it a stressful addition to an already busy schedule. In addition, getting training can cost money and freelancers are often on a tight budget. To overcome this challenge, learn to expect it. Set aside a portion of your budget and part of your time for training every month. Make a list of skills that you need or would like to learn. Update it often. (What you’re doing is developing your own professional training plan.)

Your Turn

Did I miss any common freelancing challenges? If I did, be sure to share them in the comments.

Have you faced any of these freelancing challenges? If so, how did you solve them?

Image by andy_c

Comments

  1. Richard Bishop says

    Great article!

    I feel the challenge, good or bad, is important in order to grow as a freelancer.

    I’m a web developer and technology change is one that all developers need to deal with (especially in the days of mobile devices). It seems a daunting stressful task to try and tackle them all at once.

    If there’s a project that suits, then I try to incorporate the new idea/technology. This stretches the comfort zone slightly and is manageable. If I tried this with twenty ideas at once it becomes too much of a stressful stretch.

    Taking a step at a time will allow freelancers to grow themselves and their business at a natural rate!

  2. says

    Hi Laura – good post.

    I think the points around feast or famine and losing a long-term client can be connected. If losing any one client threatens your whole financial stability then you know you have to be aiming for a wider spread of clients so as not to have all your eggs in one basket.

    The famine cycle can be as a result of the over reliance on that one client. You can get into a waiting for the work to come mode as opposed to going out there and getting it.

    Any time considered ‘famine’ is the time to get some important marketing done and look for potential new clients.

  3. says

    The best start you can have to going freelance is good old fashioned life experience! If you are thinking of going free lance but have never worked for a big and small company first my advice would be to do that first there is lots to learn and plenty of time to go freelance.

  4. Adam says

    Hi Laura, this is a great list, but one of the greatest challenges for me was managing the financial side of things. Not just keeping a record of everything (which I’ve always been terrible at), but also knowing what I could claim on expenses and where I can get tax relief.

    After some very scary near misses with the ir35 in the UK, I reluctantly got myself an accountant. While I was put off by the cost, they’ve actually been able to save me more money by claiming all sorts of things back from the tax man on my behalf.

  5. says

    Over a year ago a couple colleagues and I started an online business directory in a small to medium sized town. We had big hopes since we were addressing the need for a high quality designed directory that combined search engine optimization and social media know-how. It didn’t quite work out like we expected. I firmly believe that all failures are actually lessons though and this was no different. I learned three key truths about working in a small or medium sized town.

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