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Critical Mistakes Freelancers Make

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.


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 Link

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) Link

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 Link


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 Link


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 Link


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 Link


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 Link


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) Link


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 Link


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 Link


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 Link

Have a look at these related articles and resources:


Footnotes Link

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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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    Paul Sanduleac

    November 28, 2009 1:23 pm

    Wow! Thanks a lot! Important mistakes that are not so obvious at times…

  3. 3

    Wow right to the point so true…

  4. 4

    There seems to be a fundamental struggle between creativity and meeting deadlines.

  5. 5

    I especially agree with the misusing social media point. I think the power of implementing it properly is often underestimated. Great read!

  6. 6

    What does mean “Go to work for someone else”. As far as I know, freelancers usually work at home and that they don’t go to work? Am I mistaking

  7. 7

    Great roundup! I liked all of your points but don’t really agree with the last one. I work for a big company and freelance part-time. I always make this clear to clients and take on projects that fit into this kind of schedule. Of course this does not allow me to take on every interesting project that comes along, it’s been a successful template for me. But then again I don’t think of myself as a full-time freelancer, either.

  8. 8

    Jordan Koschei

    November 28, 2009 2:30 pm

    “They Stop Learning”

    This is a big one, I think — the web never stops developing, and neither can a freelancer.

    • 9

      I completely agree on this one! I see a lot of “experienced” designers around me in the corporate world not as willing to learn new technologies and take the plunge into social media and even the web in general. Again, life changes and priorities change when you have a family, but if your going to get into a career where technology is ever changing it is important to take the time to stay up on what is happening around you too!

  9. 10

    As someone who regularly hires freelances (several times per month) I can’t tell you how consistently deadlines are blown. Probably 80% of the ones I hire blow deadlines and are consequently deleted from my msn/contacts once the work arrive.

    Another huge problem I have that isn’t mentioned in the list above is that freelancers so often fail to follow instructions.

    For example, I just had a project done (uncoded web design) where I gave extremely specific instructions regarding the overall layout. I even gave the guy 5 examples of what I meant in addition to the recent instructions. I just got it back and it’s a nice design but completely disregards what I said. And I have to pay this douche bag!

    I can’t remember the last time a freelancer actually fully followed my instructions, and they’re normally very basic, such as “make the background transparent, make it a height of 200”. Inexcusable and incredibly frustrating to have to work with someone to fix mistakes that should never have been made.

    After a year of hiring freelancers I still don’t have one that I regularly turn to – the three things I look for are contactability, dependability for deadlines, and following instructions.

    • 11

      I noticed some interesting and sad thing: if your instructions were written there is no almost a hope somebody will read them. I can not understand this phenomena but people, even interested, even being got paid for the job, do not read the instructions. I was explained that being a woman and following woman’s psychology while appealing to men, I write toooo long and toooo detailed instructions and rules and men psychologically abandon the entire part of written material if at all they read it. Don’t know whether it is correct or not but my sad conclusion is that written instructions stay unread…

      • 12

        If your comment is a sample of your writing, I can see why.

      • 13

        oh, i can definitely agree with you. it is like in real life. man never listen what we have to say – we just talk to much and we also write to much.

    • 14

      Jonk, you can’t find anyone that can follow your instructions after a year? Frankly, I think you need to look in the mirror to find the problem.

      After your comments about the designer you just finished working with, I would add that one of the critical mistakes freelancers make is working for people that call them douche bags.

    • 15


      December 2, 2009 6:37 am

      Sounds like you hire based on the lowest bid, not the capability of completing the work.

      I highly doubt that anyone you are paying fairly cannot accomplish something as simple as making a 200px box.

      You reap what you sow.

    • 16


      December 4, 2009 8:00 am

      Gotta agree with the others. The problem may not be the freelancers, but maybe a little more closer to home than you think.

    • 17

      So you are saying that so many of the freelancers you have hired don’t follow your instructions.
      So many different people who have never met each other all producing the same results.
      if i were you I would start looking at the way i communicated with them rather then blaming freelancers in a general sense.

    • 18

      Could be you instead of the designers you are hiring? Sounds like you need a non thinking production tool. A designer will think beyond your “transparent background”, “200 pixel width” instructions. I am a professional designer on the occasions that folks sounding like you have come to my studio I politely turn the job down. You do not have respect or appreciate the vital asset I and my fellow creatives bring to your business. I noticed over my long career the smaller the client the more control they exert and they lose for it.

      I am willing to bet (I am not a gambler) the blown deadlines are because the designer is choking on bile stuck in his or her throat as they take hard earned skills dump them in the trash whist forcing themselves to follow your instructions wondering how they sunk so very low. It takes time to reconciles ones integrity for money.

      Why I think it is you is I have a three time rule: When something happens three times in a row look in the mirror for there may well be the cause.

    • 19

      “I have to pay this douche bag!”

      I hope any freelancer reading this works out who you are and never attempts to work for you. You’re the douche bag, ‘sir’.

  10. 20


    November 28, 2009 3:09 pm

    – Establishing the right hourly
    – and under quoting jobs

    Could do with being mentioned.

    Good article!

  11. 21

    good roundup. Although, as a freelancer I am overly concerned about deadlines and never, ever blow them. I am surprised to see it on the list. Also, I thought it was the full-timers that stopped learning. As a freelancer I feel constantly pressured to stay ahead of the curve.


  12. 22

    Really good article..
    All things are right.. but as usual… you learn from your own mistakes.. :)

  13. 23

    Seems there’s everything said, but not by everyone. By publishing articles like this one, Smashing Magazine starts boring me.

    Ok, you might have had lots of trouble with some freelancers in the past but that’s no reason to cast a damning light on all freelancers. You would’ve done better by writing an article like “10 Useful Tips To Distinguish Good From Bad Freelancers”.

    The most mistakes you mentioned are no-brainers. People who haven’t learned this by themself are either very very fresh freelancers or complete fools. In the last case, all hope is lost already, I don’t think that complete fools care of reading blogs like this one. In the case of greenhorn freelancers you missed the chance of education by putting your advices in such a dismissive voice.

  14. 25

    The biggest problem i have had with freelancer designers is that they try to run my business by deciding what happens and when. I understand the business and know what the customers need. I have done plenty of tests and have learned what works.

    I always supply wire frames and description of usability and functionality. I even code the websites myself. The only think I am not good at is designing something that looks good.

    I have not being able to find the designer who will actually just do the design, and leave the business logic to me.

    Lately i have being doing the visual design myself, and even though it does not look as good as it could, the whole process is much easier to manage and meet deadlines.

  15. 26

    I’ve been freelancing since my junior year in high school (I’m now a couple years out of college). I have to say, I’ve been guilty of most of these at some point. Especially not using contracts (they often scare away clients, they feel like a hassle, and I’m scared I’ll write them up such that they’ll be easily used against me somehow – a common contract paranoia), the confidence issue, and more so what people in the comments complain about, that is…the whole taking control and kinda doing things my way. The latter-most I think is an issue with a lot of designers simply because clients and people hiring, sorry to say it, really don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a huge clash between the person having to do it and the person who just gets to sit behind a desk and think stuff up. I’m a very mixed bag when it comes to continued learning. It can be stressful sometimes to have to rebuy books and relearn languages, platforms, software and what not over and over.

  16. 27

    May the force be whit you! An incredible good and helpfull article.

  17. 28

    Design Informer

    November 28, 2009 5:28 pm

    I completely agree with your statements in this article except for a few. Though I hate to admit it, I have been guilty of most of these mistakes.

    They Don’t Use A Contract

    I have been in messy situations before due to the lack of a contract, so I can definitely testify to this point.

    They Put Quantity Over Quality In Their Portfolio

    I would have to say that I don’t completely agree with this point. I personally try to put everything, or mostly everything that I make in my portfolio. If you’re asking why, I wrote an entire article about it. Here are just some reasons: Variety, credibility, returning clients see their work in the portfolio, prevents jealousy and problems, freshness, they can see that you get better in time.

    They Overload Their Plate

    Oh man, I am so guilty of this! I can’t remember how many times I took on even the smallest jobs when I already had plenty. I definitely am guilty of this, and am trying my best to not do it anymore.

    Anyway, that was a long enough comment already. Thanks again for this post. It serves as a reminder to me of some of the things that I should avoid as a freelancer!

    – Jad Limcaco
    Design Informer / Jad Graphics

  18. 29

    Considering the first mistake you define – a contract only has value to the party with the resources to enforce the contract. In other words – if you don’t have extra time and money available to enforce (file a lawsuit, hire an attorney, take time away from work for court appearances) a contract that contract has zero value. Also – trying to enforce a contract through the American judicial system is a complete crapshoot – you NEVER know how a judge will rule. That, too, makes a contract of little value to a freelancer.

    Now – a clearly defined “statement of work” is terrific and probably much more relevant to a freelancer than a contract. That “statement of work” should define exactly what will be created and when payments are due. Keep it simple and ALWAYS avoid anything that might require legal action.

  19. 31

    Why did this post show up in the “CSS” feed?

  20. 32

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    @larstas – Some freelancers actually take a job with a company and still freelance ‘on the side’.

    @Ted – I think when you say that you have had to turn down work because of your other job, you really help drive home the point I was trying to make there. Thanks for your take.

    @Greg – Actually, I have not had a single bad experience with freelancers. I am a freelancer. Try again. ;)

    @Jonk – Sorry to hear that. I don’t know why some think that these deadlines don’t matter. Or why they would refuse to follow your instructions. Good luck finding your dream freelancer!

    @Eddie – A statement of work is good also. Though I think a contract does a lot to help you seem professional, as well as outline the expectations for both parties. Though, as you said, a statement of work should suffice and still achieve these ends.

    And again, thanks everyone.


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