Mistakes First-Time Freelancers Make (And How to Avoid Them)

Mistakes First-Time Freelancers Make (And How to Avoid Them)

There’s a lot to love about working as a freelancer.

Whether it’s the freedom and flexibility to set your own hours and choose your clients or the ability to work remotely and exercise more control over your work, freelance life comes with a lot of advantages. There’s even the potential to earn more on an hourly basis if you play your cards right.

At 35% of the US workforce, there’s a lot more information out there about how to freelance the right way, too.

Despite all of the good stuff, most freelancers will tell you that they hit a few bumps in the road when they were first starting out. We talked to a number of freelance professionals who shared their stories about hiccups early in their careers.

From these lessons we pulled together a few of the most prominent mistakes that first-time freelancers make while offering some advice on how to avoid these pitfalls:

Failing to plan, planning to fail

While the flexible freelance lifestyle is wonderful, you still need to plan.

One major trap that freelancers fall into: They don’t set up a viable routine.

Christina, a freelance journalist, told us that “Initially, I was just working ‘when I felt like it.’ Sleeping in, staying up late, skipping meals.” But the lack of a set work schedule caught up with her.

Sure you can organize your own time, but it still needs to be organized somehow. As a freelancer, you have significant agency to build the schedule that works best for you. But not building any reasonable schedule at all is asking for disaster.

The key here is setting up a system that works for you and your freelance business. It’ll be a bit of trial and error at first, but at least work towards setting up some semblance of normality and routine, even if you are globetrotting or moving around while doing your work.

Never forget that discipline can be liberating when done right.

Poor client management

Managing clients is an art, not a science.

That said, there are some general “laws” when it comes to working with clients:

  • Take their feedback gracefully (rather than personally)
  • Don’t ignore red flags from difficult or abusive clients
  • Be prepared to fire clients when necessary
  • Make sure you are aligned on goals
  • Overcommunicate

One major faux pas that new freelancers commit with clients: Working without a contract.

Your contract with a client should spell out the basic terms of your working relationship. You should both be able to refer back to it for guidance on how to proceed when there’s a challenge. Don’t skimp on the contract and practice basic human kindness in your relationships with clients.

Lacking business development skills

Too many freelancers don’t know how to sell.

It makes good sense: So many of us are focused on our work that we think of selling it as distasteful or “not something we’re good at.”

Well, if you like eating food and paying bills, then you might need to adjust how you think about sales in the freelance context.

Every freelancer should have a measurable prospecting process that allows them to gain and qualify leads. Always be looking ahead for work opportunities—through networking and other means—even when you’ve got a full plate. You never know when the next global pandemic or economic downturn is around the corner.

One way to do this well is to always have some kind of portfolio that includes work samples and references ready to share with potential clients. That way, future clients can passively peruse the work you’ve done and consider hiring you as you focus on current work.

Not setting a strong foundation for success

As Jenna (a freelance writer) shared, it’s easy for “first-time freelancers to get in over their heads.”

There are multiple ways this happens. Many freelancers try to “stretch” by committing to work that is outside of their expertise or typical subject matter. At other times, new freelancers will take on more clients than they can successfully handle (we’ve all been there).

And even in the midst of an engagement, less experienced freelancers will fail to set clear expectations and scope for a project. Those deadlines in the contract are for both parties—the freelancer and the client.

The bottom line here is that when freelancers stick to their lanes, avoid overloading themselves, and set clear parameters for their work—they can win big.

Missing the boat when it comes to money

The cold hard truth? If you’re not bringing in enough money to sustain yourself, then you can’t enjoy all those lovely benefits of freelance life.

Paying too little attention to the dollars and cents is a major challenge for first-time freelancers. You may not enjoy the art of invoicing, but it’s vital to the survival of your business.

Many will work for too little, accepting poor pay and undercharging. New freelancers are often afraid to raise their rates over time. Even worse, many freelancers fail to organize their taxes (specifically, quarterly taxes) and pay the price with hefty late fees and big tax payments over the long run.

With the right tools and a strong money mindset, freelancers can secure well-paying projects that suit their skills and talents while also fulfilling their tax obligations.

From digging into business development and focusing on nurturing client relationships to planning for success and addressing fiscal realities head-on, there are many steps first-time freelancers can take to avoid these common mistakes.

It all starts with being aware of the challenges and addressing them with clear eyes. That same passion that drove you into striking out on your own as a freelancer can help you tackle these typical issues as well.