Freelancing mistakes to avoid

Over the course of the past few years as a freelancer I’ve made, and learned from, a number of mistakes. I cover these in my Life as a coin-operated monkey talk, but for anyone who hasn’t seen that, or prefers a written format to audio/video, I’ve gone into more detail about them here. Some of these mistakes may only apply to my line of work, so feel free to leave a comment if you’ve found that they actually work for you.

Fixed price jobs

This is probably controversial, but I think fixed price jobs are generally a bad idea. Most of my work involves modifying bespoke web applications, and it’s incredibly difficult to know in advance how long that will take, especially for a codebase which I’ve never worked on before. Unlike plumbers, who know that fitting a new boiler costs £X in parts and takes Y hours in labour, with bespoke software development there is no frame of reference. I’ve completed similar work which has taken twice as long for client A as for client B, simply because the existing code was more difficult to work with.

This isn’t to say that I never do fixed price jobs – I’m happy to do so when it’s something that is well-defined and a few days work. Also, if I was doing the same task over and over again, such as designing WordPress themes, then fixed prices would probably work and be expected. However, I have been asked in the past to quote a fixed price for building a custom CRM, which is definitely a no-no!

Underselling yourself

One downside to being a freelancer is that every time a potential client calls, you effectively have to go through the equivalent of an annual appraisal, justifying your past work and the amount you want to be paid. It can be tempting to undersell yourself, either in terms of the level to which you work – perhaps describing yourself as a mid-level developer when in reality you work at senior or team lead level – or offering a rate reduction because you don’t think you’re worth what you would like to charge.

The key thing to remember is that everyone has skills that are in demand, and the reason potential clients call is because they have a problem that they think you can solve. I’ve found that charging a market rate makes people value my services, as they can see a clear relation between the amount they’ve spent and the benefit they receive. Fellow freelancer Katy Carlisle has also written about overcoming imposter syndrome if you’re struggling to sell yourself.

Taking every job offered

Especially when you start out, it can be tempting to take on every job you are offered, because who knows when the phone will stop ringing? However, there are some clients and jobs which simply aren’t worth the hassle, and I have turned down work which has failed some basic screening questions (budget and credit terms being the main ones).

Going to every meeting

Most weeks I will get a phone call from someone who wants to meet up for a coffee/chat, with the possibility of some work at some unspecified point in the future. It’s a judgement call as to whether you go to such meetings – sometimes you may win a big piece of work later – but I’ve found that people who want work now are more likely to buy my services than someone with a potential need sometime in the future. I also prefer to have an initial conversation over the phone instead of meeting up, as that’s easier to arrange and involves less time for both parties.

Not standing your ground

Sometimes a potential client will ask you for something that you’re not comfortable with. For example, I was asked to offer 30 day payment terms, even though I had provided my terms of business which made it clear that payment was due within 14 days of invoicing. On top of this, I was asked for a significant (30-50%!) discount on my hourly/daily rate. This was early on in my freelance career, so I was tempted to take the work anyway, but I stood my ground and said that in an age of electronic invoices and faster payments it should be possible to settle accounts in 14 days. The potential client refused, so I brought the meeting to a close politely, shook their hand and walked out. I think it was the right decision, although it was tough at the time.

Do you have any freelancing mistakes which you think should be avoided? Please feel free to discuss them in the comments.


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