Critical Mistakes Freelancers Make

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Seeing as we are all human (well, presumably whoever is reading this post anyway), we should recognize that mistakes happen. They even have that saying, “To err is human…,” which goes to show that it is not only commonplace for us to err once or twice: it is expected. But a method is behind this madness, because making mistakes is one of the major ways we learn. This is no different for freelancers.

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Finding our way over these bumps in the road often gives us valuable insight to take away. It helps us develop techniques and methods that we can incorporate into our creative process. As freelancers, we have the benefit of access to an entire online community that is willing to share its experiences so that we can learn without having to make the same mistakes.

So in this post, we look at 10 critical mistakes freelancers make. Hopefully, if you haven’t already made one of these mistakes yourself, you can learn the lesson behind it.

Also consider our previous articles:

They Don’t Use A Contract

One of the first things freelancers learn when contracting out their services to others is… to use a contract! Unfortunately, we often learn this lesson the hard way. For whatever reason, we think that a particular client of ours is someone we can work for without the aid and protection of a contract. This tends to end in one way: by biting us in the back end.

Without this safeguard in place, you open yourself up to so many potential problems, and you may inadvertently end up committing to more than you had intended or even imagined. Freelancers only make this mistake once, if at all. This lesson is not a secret in the freelance community. The advice comes up often: always use a contract. And many heed the warning once they hear it.

They Misuse Social Media (Or Don’t Use It At All)

Another common, but critical, pitfall that freelancers tumble into is misusing social media, if they even use it at all. Social media is a major tool that offers all freelancers an invaluable resource at their fingertips. An entire community of professionals connected via modems, ready and willing to offer each other whatever assistance they can. Neglecting this stream of industry insight, or not using it properly, can hinder the growth of your business.

Social media is about interacting with people and fostering relationships, which, if done with consideration and attention, can create opportunities you would have otherwise missed out on (not to mention friendships that can outlast jobs). Especially at the beginning of your freelancing career, if you make the mistake of misusing the media, you could be seen as an anti-social pariah in your corner of the Web.

They Put Quantity Over Quality In Their Portfolio

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When putting their portfolio together, some freelancers mistakenly believe that the more they add to their portfolio, the better. Then it becomes about quantity and not quality of work. They forget the value of the portfolio in opening doors and creating opportunities.

The phrase “Put your best foot forward” applies in this situation. Your portfolio speaks volumes about your skills, freeing you from having to say too much and risk coming off as more arrogant than confident. Let your portfolio do the talking, and don’t make the mistake of prioritizing quantity and sending the wrong message. Quality makes the best first impression, so make the most of it.

They Stop Learning

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This one has to be said. It can do so much harm to freelancers, no matter what their field: that is, they stop learning. But especially for freelancers who work in a field as dynamic and ever-expanding as design and development, staying ahead of the curve is absolutely crucial to meeting your clients’ needs.

This field is continually evolving with new techniques and applications. Throwing in the towel on education is virtual suicide. You, your work and your career would stagnate. Thankfully, with this online culture we have today, cultivating an environment in which we can sustain our education is easy. Not taking advantage of these learning opportunities is a mistake that could potentially cost you your business.

They Don’t Know How To Deal With Clients

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Another common mistake is that freelancers forget their people skills when dealing with clients. For whatever reason, we let slip in our minds that clients hire us because they don’t know how to do the work themselves. They are in unknown territory, and as freelancers we should always be sensitive to that and bridge as many gaps in knowledge as we can. This will only improve your future dealings with the client and earn you more respect and trust in the business.

Obviously, without clients, you are a freelancer in title alone, so make sure you know not only how to engage clients but how to entice them back. Being able to assess needs that they aren’t even able to articulate and then communicating it all back to them is an invaluable skill. Neglecting it can be costly.

They Fail To Prepare For Dry Spells

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This mistake is definitely better learned second-hand, and that is not preparing for occasions when no work is coming in. Droughts hit even the best of them, especially in these tough economic times. Freelancers often forget to account for that in their pricing structure and to save up in good times for when things go south.

There is a logic behind the rates we charge, and part of it is to sustain us after we have completed work for one client and eagerly await the next. Of course, we can always find work to do, but paying work is what sustains us as freelancers. Calling this mistake costly is too close to punning for comfort, but its impact is definitely felt and could force you to suspend freelancing and seek out supplemental employment, thus making it even harder for you to create your own opportunities.

They Overload Their Plate

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This next mistake sometimes results from a fear of the aforementioned dry spell. Of course, greed might also play a role. Whatever the reason, some freelancers don’t know when enough is enough, and they continue to take on new projects as their plate overloads. Overextending yourself and your business like this can destabilize your workflow.

Freelancers need a certain degree of self-awareness to know when they have reached their limit. Reputation—that is, a good one—is important to your business’ development. Spreading yourself too thin is never good, and the distraction could hamper your creativity. This is another of those mistakes that are difficult to recover from.

They Miss A Deadline (And Think It’s No Big Deal)

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This, too, is often a consequence of the previous mistake in our list. Falling behind when you are overloaded is all too easy, but missing a deadline can have a debilitating effect on your business. And if you think missing a deadline is no big deal, your career may be over before it begins. Deadlines keep you on track and help you multitask, as well as keep your client on track with the development of their project.

Once again, reputation is critical to building your brand and making your mark in the freelancing market. And a great way to ruin that reputation is by proving yourself unreliable. Stay productive and ahead of your tasks to avoid disrupting your client’s timetable. If you end up making this mistake, own up to it. Don’t offer excuses, simply propose a new timetable and continue working hard to meet it. But clearly acknowledge the problem you have created for your client. If you make this mistake once, you may not have an opportunity to make it again.

They Lack Confidence

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Lacking confidence in themselves or in their work is another mistake that can plague freelancers, even beyond their business. Being your own worst critic and holding your work to a higher standard than that of others is natural (right?). But at a certain point, you are no longer critiquing so much as tearing down your work. Dismissing the talent and abilities that have carried you this far is misguided and will do nothing for your productivity.

Without confidence, making it as a freelancer will be extremely difficult. You’ll start taking useful and well-intended criticism bitterly, missing the person’s point and spiraling further into a pool of doubt and self-pity. Lack of confidence hinders your skills and the growth of your business. Clients will pick up on it quickly, because the freelancer is supposed to have a commanding role. Our responsibility is to guide the client to make effective decisions and win them over to our point of view; without confidence, this becomes unlikely. You’ll undervalue both yourself and your work. So have faith in your abilities, and know that your unique voice is needed in the ranks of the freelancing arena.

They Go To Work For Someone Else

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Another blunder freelancers make is to work tirelessly to build their business, only to accept the first offer for a cushy job that comes along. No longer being your own boss would seem easy to adjust to, but it can be like moving back under your parents’ roof after you’ve tasted the freedom of living on your own. It simply doesn’t fit as comfortably as it once did. Simply readjusting is not so easy because freelancing is more than a job: it is a way of life.

Some people tell themselves that freelancing was all along a stopgap to some greater dream, but true freelancers find that pill hard to swallow. For some, that might be true, but then those people were not freelancers so much as temporary independent contractors. Freelancers crave the freedom that comes with the ’lancing. Still others believe they can work for someone else and maintain their freelancing on the side. In theory, this might appear viable. The reality is harsher: freelancing is full-time. It is a way of life, and turning it into a part-time job spells trouble.

Further Resources

Have a look at these related articles and resources:

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/11/09/getting-clients-approaching-the-company/
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/11/05/invoice-like-a-pro/
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/10/15/identifying-and-dealing-with-different-types-of-clients/
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/10/06/freelance-contracts-dos-and-donts/
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/08/24/marketing-rules-and-principles-for-freelancers/
  6. 6 http://www.fuelyourinterface.com/three-big-mistakes-that-can-make-or-break-your-design-career/
  7. 7 http://freelancefolder.com/learn-from-freelance-mistakes/
  8. 8 http://freelancesprout.com/2009/03/21/to-err-is-human-%E2%80%93-how-to-handle-freelance-mistakes/
  9. 9 http://www.paulburwell.com/blog/2009/04/top-ten-mistakes-that-aspiring-professional-freelance-photographers-make/
  10. 10 http://www.freelanceadvisor.co.uk/starting-out/freelancing-fubars-8-common-mistakes/

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Rob Bowen is a staff writer for Web Hosting Geeks and Top Web Hosting, a longtime freelance designer, and burgeoning videographer and filmmaker whose creative voice and works can be heard and found around the web.

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  1. 1

    The “They Stop Learning” point is a problem I have seen with many designers I have worked with over the years. Definitely a huge mistake. Thanks for the great read Robert.

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  2. 52

    Great article! One of the first things I learned freelancing (the hard way) was not working with contracts! Use contracts, first and foremost!

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  3. 103

    Very, very good article. I, sadly, have to admit that I am a constant violator of rule #1…and most of the time to my own detriment.

    However, I do not agree with rule #10, and I think it is very bad advice. While there may be many individuals that can support themselves and their families on their free-lance work alone, I think you will find that the vast majority of us carry full time jobs (with health insurance, retirement, paid time off, etc. benefits) while earning a supplemental income by free-lancing on the side. If it makes you feel better, think of your salaried job as free-lancing for 8 hours a day for the same client, day after day after day after day :-)

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  4. 154

    For those of you looking for a sample contract, Andy Clarke wrote one that I think is a really good starting point: http://24ways.org/2008/contract-killer

    I’ve made many of these mistakes as a relatively new freelancer. I would add a couple more:
    * Not learning from mistakes– Mistakes will be made, don’t expect to be perfect. Do learn from them and move on.
    * Not being gentle with yourself– Learning to be an entrepreneur at the same time you are learning pro-level web design can be daunting. Cut yourself some slack and accept where you are at. Realize it can take awhile to build up a successful business.

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  5. 205

    If freelancing takes up so much of your time that you can’t also work a full-time job then you’re doing something wrong. I assume the author doesn’t know much about diversity, hedging, and business in general.

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  6. 256

    “Stop Learning” – I’ve experienced this more from working for companies. You get stuck at a company, become comfortable, respected and secure with meeting their design needs and get no chance whatsoever to work on projects using new technology. For instance, I’m a web and print designer but I’ve been in a nice paying comfortable position here for two years and doing mostly print. I have no one to learn from since I am the entire design dept. and I haven’t even opened Flash in a year. I feel like my skills are being depleted but its my own fault for not learning on my own time. When freelancing, at least youre in you’re own office and you’re own desk and can spend time learning at your will. When I work 10-12 hours at work, the last thing on earth I want to do is go home and open Adobe.

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  7. 307

    This is a very general article, and while helpful, more needs to be said about the first phase of every project; collecting the information and instruction needed to begin. Making mistakes in this phase goes right along with what @Jonk said. Flushing out as many potential project complications at this time is for me, a make-it-or-break-it point in building trust in the working relationship between the freelancer and the client.

    Not asking the right questions and misinterpreting the answers given without any confirmation can severely damage that relationship. This is the real issue with missing deadlines and not dealing with clients correctly, in my eyes. Working on this has helped me immensely in obtaining clients who are satisfied and come back for more.

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  8. 358

    Excellent post. These mistakes are definitely ones to be avoided.

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  9. 409

    Damn! I make all those mistakes (without “they stop learning”).
    Overall I make a good job, in my opinion :)

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  10. 460

    Good article. Quality over qty. seems to be the big issue now with clients. I see a lot of sites going up today that lack quality in the work but since the client can get it at a cheap price they go with. Once you have enough clients going that way quality goes out the door and garbage enters.

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  11. 511

    very informative article, big thanks

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  12. 562

    Great article Robert :)

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  13. 613

    Great read. I think I’ve made nearly all of these mistakes at some point, and continue to make some of them. Thanks for the reminder, Robert. :)

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  14. 664

    Vincent, honestly, you need to take a chill pill. Instead of throwing a fit, *you* should have cited some real-life situations of your own and how/why *you* don’t fit the “stereotypical” description. Drop the holier-than-thou ‘tude and join the party. We’re here to help each other, and I think Robert is doing a hell of a job.

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  15. 715

    I know that along with my contract, I also use a client brief to narrow the scope of the project and to “get the picture” of the project that exists in my client’s head. A tight brief can help get down on paper expectations about fonts, colors, sizes, etc. and both parties have a copy of the brief to refer to as the project goes along. I think that spending time briefing the project with a client is just as important as the design work that follows the brief.

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  16. 766

    Been there, done that. But don’t underestimate the power of working in a team environment.

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  17. 817

    Somthimes i guess as a designer the hardest think to do is to try and find the balance with the quality and the price, becouse somethimes we want the artwork to be so perfect, that we end taking too much time on the project are loosing money.

    I think at first u need to do some sacrifices when u start to be as a freelancer, and have to give a little more to the client becouse it helps you get noticed, no one started without doing any scarifice i guess, but buy time you will start getting noticed and u will be able to charge more for work and thats were the fun start were u are doing somthing that you love and earn money from….

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  18. 868

    Great things to learn… you still can practice these points even if you’re not a freelancer.

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  19. 919

    Haha…i must say i too commit a lot of these mistakes :)

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  20. 970

    “Never stop learning” my former teacher said over and over and over. I once made the mistake of letting myself slip on that and it caused me no end of trouble. College will end, but learning does not.

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  21. 1021

    Great post, will need this one day so you might be saving me some time to figure those things out myself :p

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  22. 1072

    Thanks you for this good post.
    Continuous improvement will operate !
    best regards

    merci pour cet excellent rappel, L’amélioration continue fonctionnera! (formation, échanges, structuration des offres et projets)
    Cordialement

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  23. 1123

    I made all the mistakes, almost go to work for a company but thanks to this article i will be my boss for much longer

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  24. 1174

    Great article. I have made some of these mistakes in my working life. Not now, however.

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  25. 1225

    Hmm, not necessarily about this article, but I didn’t feel like making an account on the forum just for this – valuable feedback? ;) – .

    This article is the last one showing up on my iGoogle, even though on Google reader it is fine and I can see the xml…. strange, anyone else with this problem, or better yet a solution? All my other feeds are updating fine.

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  26. 1276

    Great post to get your gears moving in order to better your situation as a freelancer. Thanks!

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  27. 1327

    Great blog! I think it’s easy to get so wrapped up that you can’t find time for personal development. But it’s so important to do to keep in the game. Paul – http://1daylater – ‘activity tracking for freelancers’

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  28. 1378

    nice article…

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  29. 1429

    What that means is that they stop freelancing, and go to work for a firm/business run by someone else. they become an employee of another company, and no longer work for themselves, on their own.

    In short, they stop being freelancers just because they found a job that pays more. This pertains more to people who have been freelancing for a while, though, and have really gotten used to working on their own, and for themselves. It’s tough to go back/go into a more structured, office type scenario if you’ve been on you own for a long time.

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