Starting out as a freelancer is an exciting and often daunting time. Perhaps you’ve quit your office job with your grouchy boss and the weird guy with the body odor in the cubicle next to yours. Or, perhaps you’ve started freelancing on the side in addition to your day job for a bit of extra cash.
Either way, it can sometimes feel like you’re flying blind. You’re not sure how much you should be charging, you’re so busy focusing on getting clients that you neglect simple productivity and accounting steps that are necessary for a small business, and you might be under-confident in your skills so you undersell yourself and limit your potential when it comes to the types of projects you take on.
Here are some tips from experienced freelancers on how to avoid common mistakes that new freelance web designers make – the things that we wish we had known when starting out!
Not Thinking Beyond The Website
A lot of freelancers are stoked when people start actually wanting to pay them money for their services. They find out about their client’s company, mock up and build a beautiful site for them based on the latest design trends and deliver the website, all while missing one crucial piece of information.
Here’s a shocking revelation: your client doesn’t want a website.
Let us explain. Yes, you are a web designer or developer, and a client has commissioned you to build a website for their business. You will be giving them said website, for which they will (hopefully) pay handsomely and tell all their friends about your amazing skills.
But as a business owner, a website is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Your client wants a website to help them reach specific goals for their business, and the website is a tool that they will use to achieve these.
To deliver an even better service, ask your client from the very beginning why they want a website – what do they want to get out of it? Do they want to promote a product or event? Advertise a new service? Refine their branding to target a specific niche?
The obvious answer is “to grow their business,” but try to dig a little deeper. Having a clear project brief from the beginning (using a service such as Gravity Forms makes is super easy for your clients to fill out a brief and makes you look professional!) will mean you have their goals in mind when creating their site, help your website hit the mark and your customers will jump at the chance to recommend you to their contacts.
Not Building A Freelance Network
It can feel really good going it alone when you first start freelancing. Your time is your own, you can make your own hours and even pack your laptop in the car and take advantage of cheap midweek rates on accommodation for a working mini-break. You’re a lone wolf on the path to freelance success.
However, this kind of mentality can be quite limiting for a freelancer, not to mention lonely! Thinking that just because you’re running your own business as a sole trader and therefore have to do everything yourself means that you might actually be turning down opportunities to work on exciting projects and make useful contacts that may lead to more ongoing work in the future.
For example, a potential client gets in touch with you wanting an online store. You’ve had some experience with Woo Commerce but the scope of their project is something better suited to Magento. You have an idea for a great design, but you’ve had no experience working with Magento and have no idea even where to start configuring everything, far less how much to charge and how you’re going to offer ongoing support. So, you turn the company away, missing out on income, an interesting project and a networking opportunity.
What if there was someone else you could team up with whose focus is more on development than design, someone with extensive Magento experience? Not building a network of fellow freelance teammates is a mistake that many new freelancers make, simply because they assume “freelance” means “alone.”
You won’t need to bring on subcontractors for every website, but It can be really rewarding and fun working with other freelancers and widens the scope of projects and clients you can take on – you can even meet for breakfast at certain milestones to discuss progress, which will help the isolation a lot of freelancers experience. If you have contacts who you’ve worked with previously in agency positions, start by getting in touch with them and finding out if they’d be keen for some work.
Another benefit of this is that you can focus on what you are good at. Being a Jack-of-all-trades means you are a master of none, so it makes business sense to find your niche and become known as an expert in your field.
Figuring out what to charge for your services is a whole different post of its own, and will depend heavily on where you live, how much experience you have and what your goals are. However, a lot of new freelancers make the same mistake in undervaluing themselves, their work and their services. This has a lot to do with confidence in your abilities. Another way to maximize what you charge for a project is to rethink the way you’re pitching to potential clients.
Say you’ve received a brief from someone who might want to work with you. You consider what they’re after, work out the project fee and email them back a figure. Once they accept, pay the deposit and you start work, at this point it can be really difficult to charge them any more money. You’ve basically hit the maximum amount of money they’re willing to give you, because in their mind the amount that you quoted is what they’re paying. People rarely want to part with more money than they have to, especially once a figure is locked in their minds.
One way to bust this trend and charge your clients more money without putting up your rates is to use a trick commonly known in the retail industry as “upselling.” Your client wants a website, and by all means offer them a quote for this, but don’t stop there.
Let them know the importance of a website that is mobile responsive and that their Google ranking may be penalized if they don’t have a site that is accessible on smartphones, and add this onto the quote as an additional service. Chance are if it’s a new website, as opposed to a redesign, they might not have arranged hosting yet. This is a great opportunity to sell them a hosting package where you host and update their site for a monthly fee (which means ongoing income!). If you’re handy at graphic design, offer to throw in a logo and business cards as well, or put that English degree to good use and offer copywriting services.
Offering extras in your proposals and letting your potential clients know how they will benefit them means potentially more money for each project. Think of your services as products that can maximize your project fee.
Not Offering Ongoing Services
Okay, this might seem counterintuitive considering we just told you to offer products rather than services, but let us explain.
The thing about building websites is that often they end up being a one-time transaction. You build your client a site, they sign off and pay, you migrate it live, shake hands (digitally) and then never hear from them again. In one way this is a good thing, as it means that the website you built them hasn’t broken, causing them to call you frantically at midnight. However, it also means that there is a missed opportunity for ongoing income.
As mentioned above, a good way of generating some passive income is by offering a website hosting and support package. Trust us, a lot of business owners are not tech savvy, and would love the peace of mind knowing that someone is monitoring and backing up their site, and will do small content changes without them having to login and pull their hair trying to figure out how to use WordPress. Or, let them know that a blog can be good for SEO, and offer to upload two articles for them a month for a retainer.
Sometimes you have to think creatively on how you can offer ongoing services to your clients to generate income, but play to your strengths and let them know how your skills can benefit their business.
Not Using Productivity Tools
Everything is pretty simple when you first start out freelancing. Having more than a couple of clients on the go at any one time is the exception rather than the rule, so making up invoices, project management, following up on payments and tracking income will be manageable.
With a bit of luck and hard work, your business will start to grow, you will be juggling more clients and have multiple projects at different stages of completion at any one time. This is when a lot of new freelancers make the mistake of getting so caught up in growing their business and juggling all their clients that they neglect to implement tools that will help them keep on top of everything, and consequently become so disorganized they miss out on deadlines and lose money.
There are a lot of really useful productivity and small business tools available, many of them designed for freelancers and free to use for the basic features, which when you’re starting out is probably all you’ll need.
For example, Trello is a project management solution that digitizes and improves the project card concept of project management. All projects are listed on a board, like post-its on a corkboard. Each card represents a project and can be dragged into the next “project stage” column as it progresses. The ability to add checklists, attach files and post comments on progress will not only ensure that projects are being moved along efficiently and thoroughly, it’s also handy as a snapshot of how many projects are active and what stage they’re at.
Another area that often gets neglected by freelancers (often because it’s seen as complicated and daunting!) is bookwork and accounting, but trust us, from experience putting a system in place early can save a lot of hours and headache once you start getting more work, especially when it comes to tax time. It’s also really handy to automate everything you can which leaves you time to focus on the work you enjoy rather than trying to calculate tax and manually create invoices, and a lot of accounting platforms will send out invoices and even schedule reminders – because we all love being paid on time!
Checkout the Resources section at the bottom of this post for some handy (and free!) productivity tools that you can start using today to save time and stay organized.
Taking On Every Client And Not “Firing” Problem Clients
When you first start freelancing, it can feel like an honor when anybody is willing to give you actual money. Often we can be so stunned and grateful that we will happily take someone on as a client without considering how they fit into your business plan.
Sometimes when you’re new your business plan consists simply of “make money,” and turning work away can seem counterproductive to running a business. However, as hard experience has taught us, not all clients are created equal and problem clients can range from the slightly annoying and needy to the downright aggressive, which can hurt your business and reputation.
The truth is that some clients are simply not worth the money – they take up the largest amount of time, are never satisfied, will call you at nights and on weekends and cause anxiety levels to skyrocket. Others will give you the Cheshire Cat grin while insidiously adding little things to the project here and there in a phenomenon known as “scope creep.” These small tasks may seem insignificant on their own but they can add up to hours of work and lost income on your part, and it sets up the expectation that you will do work for free. Make sure you have a clear project proposal from the start which outlines everything that will be included. It’s also worth looking into getting a contract drawn up that stipulates that any additional work outside the original scope will be quoted for.
Learning how to let a high maintenance client go is a smart business decision, as you can focus on creating quality work for clients who appreciate you, which will lead to more referrals and job satisfaction. This can be a delicate operation, and it takes confidence to politely but firmly let a client know that their expectations are probably more in line with a different agency, no matter how much they beg.
Once you work with a few clients you will really start to notice the problem client red flags, and you can refine your on-boarding process to weed out troublesome clients as you go.
(Or you can always add the extra 20% “problem client” fee!)
Keeping these tips in mind will ensure a much smoother transition into freelancing, and will hopefully let you learn from some of the mistakes that others have made before you.
If you’re an experienced freelancer, what advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting out?
Wave: Simple, straightforward small business accounting and invoicing system
Trello: Project management software based on the post-it note system
Basecamp: Another popular project management platform
Dropbox: File sharing and cloud hosting
Google Apps: Solutions for business, including email, calendars, file sharing and cloud hosting
Bonsai: Digital contracts and e-signing
Gravity Forms: Easy-to-use form builder for proposal requests and client briefs