Top 5 Mistakes Most Freelancers Make… and How to Avoid Them

Let’s face it, freelancing can be a tough gig, so why do we as freelancers, seem to make it harder than it needs to be? From messy desks, to running late for meetings, to fiddling with other
developers code and working til 4am — at times it would seem easier to just pack up and go back to a regular nine to five.

After having freelanced myself since 2007, I can honestly say that I’ve made all of these mistakes and more. In fact, I’ve made more mistakes than I care to remember. Most noticeably was sitting through an hour long meeting calling my client by the wrong name. But I won’t get into that, lets take a quick look at the top 5 most common mistakes that freelance web designers make, and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1 – Taking any job that comes your way

This is definitely one of the most common problems that almost every freelancer makes, and typically its due to the fact that they are dead broke and desperate for cash. In just about every case, it results in the developer working ridiculous hours for peanuts, all because they smiled, nodded and shook hands at the first mention of payment (for any amount) and accepted the job.

In my experience, having made this very regrettable mistake when I first started out, it was just a case of not wanting to argue the point over costs, in case I may have offended the client in any way. That, added to the fact that I was eating dry toast for dinner most nights, meant that I had to take virtually anything that came my way.

It became obvious pretty much right away, that if my business had any chance of surviving, and me not ending up in the nut house, that I needed to be much more vigilant about what jobs I agreed to and was a lot firmer about my pricing

Solution — Learn when to say “No”

Even if you’re down to your last dollar, don’t agree to a custom built, database driven website with video, audio, and a 45,000 member base that needs to integrate with PayPal for $600 — it’s just not worth it. Instead, learn when to decline a job.

Better still, price the job at what it should be, and if the client rejects your quote, then consider it no loss and a headache avoided. In any case, you should always have sufficient money (somewhere) to prevent desperation. Because when you’re desperate, you tend to say ‘yes’ to anything — and that can be dangerous.

Mistake #2 — Not using proper contracts and agreements

I remember how happy I was when I landed my first client. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my partner about it. Everything seemed peachy. That was until I hadn’t been paid a month after having finished the job. Needless to say, I was devastated, and I had visions of my old workmates gathered around me back at work saying, “We told you it wouldn’t work. We knew you’d be back”. Well I certainly didn’t want that to happen, so I chased them down and eventually got paid.

It turned out that the client decided to take a holiday to Bali for a month towards the end of the project, which left me hanging big time. I had quit my job and desperately needed the money — just in order to pay the rent and buy food. I knew when I shook his hand and accepted to take the project, that I should’ve used a contract, but stupidly, thought “It will be right, he’s a nice guy”. It’s funny, clients always seem nice and reassuring about paying on time during the initial meeting, but always seem to find excuses afterwards.

SOLUTION — Always use signed contracts

It doesn’t matter who the client is, even if it’s your mother – always use proper documentation and signed contracts when starting a new project. Regardless of the project size, whether you’re building a comprehensive e-commerce store, or a small 5 page brochure website, at the very least, use work orders, and have everything double checked, and signed off upon before proceeding. Its just not worth it otherwise. By using formal contracts, you’re protecting yourself legally in case any disputes or non payment issues arise.

Mistake #3 — Not being firm enough

As most freelancers know, its easy to get sucked into adding a “few little things” here and there, that clients assure you “won’t take too long”, or “aren’t too hard”.

As we all know, nothing in this industry ever takes 5 minutes — as most clients suggest. Most definitely, one of the biggest mistakes I made was not being firm enough, and telling clients “no”. In the beginning, I did whatever I could to keep clients happy, because I figured that was the right thing to do.

Well I achieved that, clients were happy, but I was miserable. I found myself working countless hours, setting email accounts, troubleshooting servers, working on desktop computers and providing training that was never agreed to. The worst part was in most cases, clients just expected it — without offering any form of payment, and stupidly, I let it happen.

SOLUTION — Be firm, learn to say “No”

In my opinion, you’re better off offending or upsetting a client momentarily, rather than sitting at your desk for days wishing you had of said something earlier. For myself now, when a client even hints at something that is outside the scope of the agreement, I kindly remind them of what they agreed and signed off upon. In addition to this, I always include “exclusions” within my contracts, covering what’s not covered. This way, I can easily say, “I’m sorry, but it states clearly in my contract that that wasn’t included in our agreement”.

Mistake #4 — Trying to do everything yourself

Its easy to get caught up in the action. Finding clients, meeting with clients, organizing meetings, preparing documentation, answering emails, answering phone calls, developing websites, doing graphic design, troubleshooting issues, and so on. If you’re a one man band, chances are, you’re doing all of these things, and at the end of each day crawling into bed feeling completely exhausted.

Don’t worry, I made this mistake too. At times I wondered why I left my cushy government job and took on the extra stress. Besides, being your own boss was meant to be easy, right?

SOLUTION — Start hiring

Now I know most freelancers will read this and think “What? I can barely afford to make enough money on my own, let alone hire someone!” Hear me out, because I’m going to share with you what I did. Instead of trying to do all of the coding and design myself, I outsourced.

This freed up so much of my time it was incredible!

I would follow the same principles as before, but instead of sitting at my desk for days, or even weeks as I had done previously, I would simply pass over the job details to my virtual assistants and they took care of everything.

To make this profitable, I set a profit margin of at least 50% on my hourly rate. This way, I had more time, and less stress. In fact,once I started doing this, I had much more time to meet with existing clients, and find new ones.

Mistake #5 — Struggling to find clients

Without a doubt, one of the biggest frustrations for most freelancers is finding clients. I know this first hand from experience. Calling prospects, banging on doors, handing out cards, passing out leaflets and promoting your website everywhere. Its enough to do your head in.

Thankfully for me, I never really had too much trouble finding clients, however I have spoken with numerous freelancers that are at their wit’s end trying to find work. The mistake that most of them make, is that they’re constantly chasing new clients, which leads to them being in this position.

SOLUTION — Offer complementary services to clients you already have

In almost every case, when designing a website for a new client, they would ask me, “John, can you help us get rankings in Google as well?”, or “John, do you do logo design?”, or “Can you help us with our online marketing?”.

Whenever you hear questions like these as a web designer, jump on them as a huge opportunity!

By offering complimentary services like this, you’re increasing your income, and you’re not having to be constantly chasing new clients. Even if you outsource the work, it doesn’t matter. Having these extra services will help “fill the gaps”.


John Romaine is a freelance web designer, SEO consultant and full time internet marketer based in Sydney, Australia. John operates which provides freelance web designers with a fast start business kit, and ready made contract templates. All included within the Web Design Business Startup Kit.

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