Five mistakes freelancers make when starting out

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April 26, 2021
5 minute read

Deciding to set out on your own as a freelancer is exciting, but it can also be quite daunting. You’re the boss, which gives you the freedom to decide when and where you work. But it also means you have to make every decision, from figuring out how much to charge, to knowing when you have too much on your plate. To help you out, here are some of the most common mistakes new freelancers make, and what you can do to avoid making them yourself.

1. Thinking the work will just magically come your way

You’ve made the big decision to go freelance. The work should just come rolling in, right? Well, it can’t come in if no one knows what you’re doing!

It’s time to get the word out about your new freelance career. And don’t worry, that doesn’t mean having to develop a sophisticated and expensive marketing plan. There are many ways you can tell people about your business and let them know you are looking for clients.

Start with people you already know

Believe it or not, there are lots of potential clients around you already. Your family and friends are the best place to start when looking for freelance clients. Let them know you’ve started freelancing and tell them about your design, writing, or other type of freelance business.

You might find out your aunt’s company needs a web developer, or your best friend has a cousin who needs a logo designed. You wouldn’t know about these opportunities unless you told your immediate circle of family and friends you’re looking for clients.

And don’t forget about your former boss and co-workers. Tell them what you are up to and ask them to recommend you to anyone they know who is looking for a freelancer with your skills. Since you are already familiar with their business, they might even hire you for a project or two.

But don’t stop there. Think of all the other people you connect with in your everyday life. Your hairdresser might need some marketing materials. Your car mechanic might need a website refresh. All of these people run their own business, so tell them about yours!

And finally, don’t forget to tell the other freelancers you know. If you are in the same field they might have work to share, and if you are in a different field they might know when their clients need help in your area of expertise, and pass on your name.

Unleash the power of social media

You use it already to connect with people, so use it to tell them about your new freelance business.

If you’re not on LinkedIn, make sure you join and keep your profile up to date. Many Human Resources professionals and recruiters look here first to hire for both full-time and freelance positions. And did you know LinkedIn often shows up first in Google search results? It can help you make a good first impression and get your foot in the door.

While you’re at it, let all your Facebook friends know what you are up to, and post an intriguing photo on Instagram to let your followers know you are now self-employed. Start following clients you’d like to work with on Twitter, and start tweeting some interesting comments to show off your industry savvy and expertise.

Although social media offers many great ways to increase the circle of people who know you are freelancing, you’ll need to be careful about what you post from now on. Potential clients can find out a lot more about you through Facebook and Twitter than you may want them to know. As a freelancer you are your brand—so make sure you aren’t posting anything offensive that could turn a client off of hiring you.

Start networking

It can sound intimidating, but networking really is about building relationships. No matter where you are, introduce yourself as a freelancer and offer your services. From casually mentioning what you do for a living at a neighbourhood party, or working in your 30-second elevator pitch at an industry networking event, get the word out and start forming relationships with potential clients. They might not hire you right then and there, but you have planted a seed you can follow up on.

And don’t be shy about talking about what you do. You don’t need to bore anyone with the smallest details, just give a quick and interesting explanation of what you do, and how you are always on the lookout for great clients. The more you talk about what you do, the more confident you’ll become doing it!

2. Not charging adequately for your work

There is only one thing worse than charging too much. It’s not charging enough.

Many freelancers think they need to drastically discount their rates when they first start out to get business. First of all, a really low price sends the wrong message. It says you don’t think you are good enough to charge a decent rate. Second, it will be really hard to bring that rate up when you realize you are working hard for very little money.

Do your research and find out what the going rate is for your type of freelance work. Ask other freelancers what they are charging, Google freelancers in your field and check out their websites, and see if there is an industry organization that posts current rates. Make sure you take a close look at how your skills and experience compare to others to get a good idea of what you should charge.

Once you've checked out the market, take some time to set your freelance rates. Think about whether you'll charge hourly or by project, and consider creating a pricing template to help you scale your work. Here are some other things to consider when you think about pricing your rates.

Rush jobs

Although you will be hungry for any work when you are first starting out, don’t get into the trap of working evenings and weekends for your regular rate. If a client hires you for a rush job, they know they are asking you to provide services that are beyond your usual working conditions. Even if you really didn’t have anything else to do that night or weekend, they don’t know that. Other professionals charge extra for rush jobs and so should you.

If you feel uncomfortable charging a premium of 25% to 50% more, just charge 10%. The important thing is to let the client know there is an extra charge, or else they will get in the habit of expecting you to do these last-minute, inconvenient, and often stressful jobs for your regular rate. That is not fair to you and not fair to the other clients who actually respect your time.

It’s okay to ask for money upfront

If you are taking on a big job, it’s okay to ask for a deposit up front. It gives you protection in case something goes sideways with the project and the client doesn’t pay you for the time you have already put in. It also ensures you have money to pay your bills while you work on a large project that may take weeks to finish, and then another 60 days to get your check.

A deposit is also a bit like insurance for both you and the client. It shows the client you are committed to finishing the job, and you can be free from worry and focus on their work since you won’t have to wait months for some money to come in.

Like the fee for a rush job, you need to feel comfortable about the percentage you decide to ask for up front, which could be anywhere from 15% to 50%.

3. Not knowing when to say no

It’s natural to be anxious about making money when you first launch your freelance business. You might worry about finding jobs as a new freelancer, so it’s understandable to want to say ‘yes’ to every job that comes your way. Try not to let your fear of not having enough business make you say ‘yes’ to projects or clients you shouldn’t take on.

If a client wants you to drastically lower your price, don’t don it. Of course there are times you might lower your fee willingly, such as when you are doing work for a not-for-profit organization, or want to thank a client for a huge amount of work they sent your way. Or maybe this project will lead to a lucrative longer-term contract. But if it’s not in your best interests, you need to have a minimum fee you draw the line at.

It truly won’t be worth it if you take a low fee. You’ll be miserable and feel taken advantage of, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that clients will never pay you your regular rate again. Word can also get around that you will work for bargain basement rates, and it can lower the value of your work in the eyes of the clients you’ve been trying to attract.

Beware of overload

Like everything in life, it’s never good to take on more than you can chew. You might have had a few slow weeks and then all of a sudden three jobs come in at once. Of course you want to do them all. You have bills to pay! You don’t need to sleep! You can do it!

Stop right there and give yourself a break. First of all, there is no law that says you have to take on everything that comes your way when you are a freelancer. You can work hard, and put in long hours, but if you are severely overloaded you will not be able to concentrate and do a good job. And good jobs lead to repeat business and recommendations to other clients. You’ll gain a few bucks by taking on work you know will be hard to handle, but you will risk sacrificing some solid future income.

Also, it never hurts to tell your client you would love to help them out, but you are booked this week and could start on the project the following week. It might just work out fine with their schedule.

Listen to your gut

If you’ve had a bad experience with a client, or heard some horror stories about them from others, listen to your gut. Everyone deserves a second chance, even problem clients, but make sure you are prepared to stomach a potential nightmare scenario.

The same goes for being asked to do something that is beyond your bailiwick. It’s nice that a client thinks you are such a good writer that you can put together a detailed financial article when you have no financial industry background or expertise. Only you know what your limitations actually are. Better to come clean and say you could edit or wordsmith the work of a financial specialist, but you are not one yourself.

4. Ignoring the need to manage your money properly

One critical thing to realize now about your freelancing business is that your income won’t come in equal amounts each month like it did when you worked in a permanent position. You’re going to have good months and not-so-good months. Busy times of year, and not-so-busy times of year.

Ideally, you should have money for at least a few months of living expenses in your bank account, and that includes rent or mortgage payments. That’s not only sound financial advice, it will give you peace of mind during a slow month knowing you can pay your bills.

Likewise, don’t go on a spending spree when you hit a steady flow of work. Buy that equipment you need and treat yourself for sure, but make sure you keep some of that income in reserve for the next dry spell.

Don’t forget to save for taxes

You no longer have an employer deducting income tax from your paychecks, so make sure you put away money for paying taxes.

Your accountant will know approximately how much money you should expect to pay in income tax. If you don’t have an accountant, get one—and in the meantime ask any freelance colleagues in your particular field what they pay in income tax. If you don’t have anyone to ask, it’s probably safe to expect to pay about 25% of your earnings after subtracting business expenses.

What are your business expenses? That’s another good reason to get an accountant. They can tell you what you can claim, which may even include some household expenses if you have a home office, like part of your utility bills and house maintenance costs.

5. Not finding the best use of your time

Besides managing your money, you also need to manage your time efficiently when you are a freelancer.

That means more than just making sure you don’t sleep in every day until noon and leave all your work to the last moment. It means making sure you are spending your valuable time on the things that are the most important to your business, and to you.

Streamline your work

Are there ways to streamline the way you work so you don’t have to constantly repeat processes or interrupt your work?

If you are a designer, it could mean compiling a variety of design templates to use as a starting point for new jobs. For a travel writer, it could be as simple as keeping a list of reliable reference websites on hand instead of having to search for them each time.

You can go even further by finding ways to spend less time on the administrative tasks you need to do to run a freelance business, like invoicing and bookkeeping. Look for tools and software that can help you, like Wave Invoicing. It’s a fast, easy, and free way to create professional invoices to organize your billings.

Then there is Wave Money, which helps you manage your freelance business income and expenditures in one central place, freeing up your time to spend on work you can actually bill your clients for.

There are also a variety of popular project management software programs out there like Asana,, and Trello that help you schedule and plan your work so you make your deadlines, keep track of all you need to do, and see where you are wasting time.

Find time for yourself

Along with turning yourself into a well-oiled freelance machine, don’t forget about making sure you set some time apart for yourself.

Most freelancers like the freedom that a self-employed lifestyle gives them. But while they tell themselves they are in control of their own time, many forget to schedule holidays, or listen when their body and mind tells them to take a break.

It’s hard to take time for yourself when you are first starting out and are anxious to make your freelance business a success, but it’s important. As time goes on you’ll get better at knowing when to give yourself a well-deserved break, but until then, force yourself to take a bit of time for yourself every week, even if it is just going for a walk or meeting a friend for coffee.