10 Common Mistakes Freelancers Make and How to Avoid Them
To help beginner freelancers navigate the challenges of starting their careers, we asked experienced professionals from various industries to share their insights on common mistakes and how to avoid them. From focusing on a specific skill set to mastering clear communication and expectations, here are the top 10 tips shared by directors, founders, and other experts on how to succeed as a freelancer.
- Focus on a Specific Skill Set
- Specialize in Your Expertise
- Provide Realistic Quotes and Set Boundaries
- Maintain and Update Your Portfolio
- Preserve Money and Avoid Unnecessary Expenses
- Prioritize Networking and Client Acquisition
- Use Content Marketing as a Strategic Activity
- Utilize Agencies for Steady Work
- Build a Team
- Master Clear Communication and Expectations
Focus on a Specific Skill Set
As an employer of freelancers on Upwork and similar online services, the first thing I look for is a specific skill set. If I’m advertising for a content writer, and the applicant lists four or five loosely related skills like a writer, Excel specialist, data scraping, and web programmer, I will generally keep looking. I’m after someone who just writes good content, or who just does web development for WooCommerce.
If you have many skills that can apply to lots of niches and platforms, pick one that you can deliver best on. The skill that you can deliver the most value to the client with. You will charge more money for that specific skill and will have better success with landing jobs.
Balance passion-driven work and flexibility
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Freelancing is the best way to balance passion-driven work and flexibility – giving people the opportunity to have full autonomy over their career and how they want to work on a day-to-day basis. Whether you’re working at home or on-the-go, freelancers can choose the projects they want to pursue, then craft their work experience around it. As a freelancer, you have the freedom to travel the world, spend time with your family, and manage your own schedule.
As we continue to navigate a volatile economy plagued by layoffs and firings, independent work is a great vehicle for financial security. By not being tied down by a singular employer, you can take on more projects, be your own boss, and further develop your own service offerings with new skills – such as AI. With businesses relying on freelancers more than ever before, freelancers today can expand their horizons and work on projects of all shapes and sizes.
Specialize in Your Expertise
While it’s tempting to offer a variety of services (because people will ask), specializing in your expertise will lead to greater success and efficiency.
For example, as an email marketing and mobile marketing freelancer and consultant, providing other digital marketing services such as web updates or social media marketing would take me more time and I would not feel comfortable charging my email marketing rates for these services. In other words, I’ll make more money and spend less time focusing on my strengths.
Exceptions to this rule may include personal skill growth or expanding your freelance business from one person into a marketing agency, but more often than not, your time will be better spent focusing on your strengths and core offerings.
Provide Realistic Quotes and Set Boundaries
Beginner freelancers often fall into the trap of underquoting and over-promising.
Starting out as a freelancer brings pressure to secure clients, build a portfolio, and generate income. You may be tempted to offer a lower-than-appropriate price or agree to any demands your potential client makes, regardless of whether you can deliver them within the agreed budget.
These initial clients can be time-consuming, high-maintenance, and contribute to early burnout. Failing to set boundaries and manage client expectations from the beginning can cause unmanageable scope-creep.
Instead, provide a realistic quote in line with your experience that outlines specific deliverables. Be honest about your capabilities and consider offering a lower price for basic services, with additional services priced separately. While you may not win every client, the ones you do will be easier to manage, leading to higher-quality work, client satisfaction, and better referrals.
Maintain and Update Your Portfolio
One thing that I often see freelancers do—they get a few long-term clients and forget about maintaining their portfolio. Continuously marketing yourself as a freelancer is important, even if you already have long-standing clients.
There are always more people looking for the services you can offer—so make sure you keep that portfolio up to date. It should also be professional, easy to navigate and understand, and it needs to effectively represent you and what you can offer.
Preserve Money and Avoid Unnecessary Expenses
Starting any type of business takes money. For freelancers, the big purchases are usually a laptop, business software, and supplies (and maybe office space if you can’t work from home).
But when you’re just getting started, it’s best to preserve as much money as possible. You don’t need expensive software, a brand-new MacBook, or an office outside the house before you get a client.
Put off making purchases until you have no other choice. Use your clients’ deposits to fund those purchases to avoid impacting your cash flow. This can help you worry a little less about money while you’re trying to grow.
Prioritize Networking and Client Acquisition
The most common mistake freelancers make is following conventional wisdom for landing their first few clients. If you listen to the freelance community, they’ll tell you to set up your website, create a portfolio, and design your brand.
These activities have merit, but you do not need them to get clients. In fact, in the early days, doing this was actually a distraction from getting clients.
Because your primary goal is to get your first few clients on the board, the best thing to do is courageously reach out to your network and start conversations about how you can help people. Don’t spam, simply reach out to people and say, “Hey, I’m starting a design/writing/video business. I’d love to know if you need help in this area or if you know anyone who might?” That last part is essential—asking for referrals can be powerful.
In short, beginner freelancers need to focus on starting conversations and not do anything that will take away from this.
Use Content Marketing as a Strategic Activity
Beginner freelance writers rarely understand that content marketing is a strategic business activity, not a creative writing activity. Companies don’t hire writers to craft pretty sentences; they hire them to drive organic traffic, build thought leadership, and drive conversions.
Over time, we’ve come to see content marketing to mean “blogging to educate.” But content marketing literally means “idea” marketing; it’s the strategic act of identifying the best way to communicate and deliver ideas to a target audience. Analyzing multiple factors and deciding the best formats and channels to market ideas is strategic. Writing nice articles is not.
Utilize Agencies for Steady Work
A common mistake freelancers make is not utilizing agencies. You can have a contract with various agencies where they send you regular work from their clients that they need support with (or themselves).
It means you have:
- guaranteed work
- fewer contracts in place
- fewer clients to focus on
- fewer communication obligations
- less requirement to outreach, pitch, and secure clients
It’s so much simpler. I have got some of my best work from other agencies. Most agencies love having dependable freelancers to work with. It saves them time and money.
Build a Team
One common mistake that freelancers make is not building a team. Many freelancers believe that working alone is the best way to maintain their independence and to maximize their profits.
However, this can lead to a number of problems, such as burnout, limited scalability, and a lack of diverse perspectives and skill sets. So, with emerging profiles, freelancers should focus on building a team.
Master Clear Communication and Expectations
One huge blunder newbie freelancers often make is fumbling with clear communication and client expectations. Avoid this epic fail by mastering effective communication and upfront expectation-setting.
Take a deep dive into understanding your client’s needs and set deadlines that are actually doable. Don’t forget to put everything down on paper, ideally in a contract to dodge any potential misunderstanding grenades. Keep your clients in the loop with regular progress updates and actively seek their feedback to prevent any hilarious miscommunications.
As a performance marketer, this is extra vital because I’m all about hitting those metrics, goals, and performance indicators to create campaigns that actually work toward the desired objective. Trust me, I’ve been there!
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