4 Big freelancing mistakes I’ve made and what to learn from them

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Whether you’re a new freelancer, a freelancer-to-be, or a freelancer with a few (okay, a lot of) years under your belt, one of the most efficient ways to learn is from mistakes…preferably some someone else’s.

But that’s not always easy to talk about.

(How many peers do you feel comfortable asking about their biggest mistake(s)? Chances are, not very many, if at all.)

So here’s a list of my biggest mistakes I wish I had learned from someone else (hopefully, you can learn from me and avoid making the same mistakes in the future):

#1: Lack of communication about “extra” pricing

Be it rush fees, extra revisions, or tackling something outside the scope of the project (as defined in the contract), your client NEVER wants to be surprised by extra costs.

And even though pricing your design services can be hard (read: How Much Should I Charge?), here are a few “extra” pricing details you should clarify with your client upfront.

Extra Revisions

Even if your contract states 3 revisions and you send along revision filename-revision4*, it doesn’t mean that your client remembers what the contract states or reads your file names. When your client requests additional changes above and beyond your revision limit, respond immediately (before tackling the work) that these revisions will incur your hourly rate (or whatever your contract states).

*I highly recommend this file naming style to help keep your clients apprised of how many revisions they’ve used (if that’s how you handle revisions). To me, it’s better than version numbers because version #2 is actually revision #1.

Example:

Hi Kevin, Thanks for sending over your additional requests. Per our agreement, we’ve exhausted the number of revisions included in the original project costs. Further changes will incur my hourly rate of $X. Would you like me to continue? No further work will be completed until I have your okay. Thanks, and have a great day!

Rush Fees

It’s obvious to us that a day for a brochure is a very, very small window of time. But it’s not obvious to our clients – most have absolutely no idea how much work is required.

(True story: I had a potential client tell me he didn’t understand why a website should take more than 3-4 days to complete, from nothing to public-ready.)

I know you’re worried the rush price is going to scare the client away, but it’s really important to stick to your guns and be up front about it. You don’t want to be doing rush work at your regular rate continuously, and that’s exactly what you’re setting yourself up for if you don’t price the first rush project appropriately.

Example:

Maria, I’m very excited to work with you on your poster. Attached is my quote – please note that due to our abbreviated time frame, a rush fee applies. Please contact me with any questions you may have. Talk to you soon!

Scope Creep

One of the most important reasons to set specific objectives and clearly define project scope (see below) is to prevent scope creep. First they want a “basic” website, and before long they want an interactive menu that shows a picture of each meal when you click on the dish name. Oh, and you do photography, too, right?

Before you start tackling their additional requests, make sure they realize they’re increasing their project costs. Chances are they’ve totally forgotten what they’ve agreed to and that map sounds really easy (to them) to put together.

Example:

Georges, Love the idea of the interactive menu. People want to see what they’ll be eating! We didn’t cover this in the original project, so I’ll need to work up a quote for this additional request. I can send the numbers over by the end of the day. Does that sound alright?

Pro tip: I rarely work up a quote until I have the go-ahead because often my clients forego the “extra” once they realize it’ll cost them more.

Bottom line: if it’s going to cost your client more money, let them know before you start.

#2: Vague definitions in the contract scope

This one’s a biggie because it can cost you a TON of work with no extra pay. And the kicker is, you forced it on yourself.

Ouch.

Never use words like “as necessary” or “to client satisfaction.”

With these, you open yourself up to an unlimited amount of work and the possibility of never getting paid. After all, your client can keep this project open indefinitely with scope terms like these by never being satisfied or always needing another item.

Always list approximate numbers when talking about number of pages, inventory items to input, etc.

Whenever you’re basing your pricing on how much work you’ll have to do for X amount of items, list an approximate number. This way, when your client initially told you he had 20 inventory items and it turns out to be 75, you can point back to the contract when discussing increasing the cost of the project.

Bottom line: Be specific in your contract. Define the scope clearly so you don’t cheat yourself out of time and money.

For more on contracts, read Contracts for Creatives.

#3: Multi-tasking too much

Confession: I am a very patient person, but not when it comes to computers.

Confession #2: Tabbed browsing, smartphones, and constant access to “everything” has given me a bit of ADD.

So in the 3 seconds it takes to save WordPress changes or open InDesign, I’m off checking my email, looking at my Trello to-do lists, and yes, (ooh, it hurts to admit) peeking at Facebook or AlphaJax.

Before I know it, I’ve watched a TED talk, checked my stock portfolio, and also looked up how to change the headlight bulb for my car while my work has been patiently waiting for a good 25 minutes.

*sigh* Not productive.

Here’s what is:

  • When it’s work time, close or minimize everything else.
  • Focus on ONE project. Close or minimize all others.
  • Get the information you need from your email (paste it into word or print it) and close it.
  • If you “just can’t help it,” create a work log-in on your computer and disable access to your most addictive distractions.
  • Separate your work email from your personal email.
  • Get one of those free distraction-free apps.
  • Try the Pomodoro technique (thanks, Karol!).
  • Log your time. It’s surprising how focused you get when you’ve committed to a project by logging a start time.
  • Make a daily to-do list and work through the list. ONE thing at a time.
  • Make notes of all the things you don’t want to forget to do later on a scratch pad. Then do them later, even if it’s only one quick little thing.

Bottom line: Focus on one project at a time and watch your productivity (and free time) skyrocket.

#4: Working too much

Often, as was the case for me, multi-tasking leads to working too much. Or all the time.

Why?

Because when you’re constantly jumping from distraction to distraction, it takes SO much longer to accomplish anything.

And then you feel guilty. And then you go back to work after dinner. (You did remember to eat, right?) And then you promise you’ll go exercise at 6. Then 6:30. Then 8. At 11:30 you’re exhausted and ready for bed.

And when you wake up the next day, the very last thing you want to do is go sit in front of your computer.

Burnout happens. Working all the time, or at least feeling like you’re working all the time (no matter the reason), makes you less creative, less productive, and less satisfied with your life as a freelancer.

Besides, didn’t you board the freelancing ship to linger over a cup of tea instead of rushing off to a day job?

Bottom line: Take time off. Do something you want to do. Schedule your projects such that you’re making enough money but not killing yourself in the process.

Can you top my mistakes?

Now I know, unlike me, the GDB community is chock full of perfect freelancers.

BUT, on the off chance you’ve made a mistake and are willing to share your story and what you’ve learned from it, please share your experience in the comments.

After all, admitting you’ve made a mistake is the first step to correcting it!

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About April Greer

April is a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. She is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.

Comments

  1. Great article, some really good tips here to keep in mind.

    I especially like the advice about keeping contracts as concise and exact as possible, I found out the hard way what happens when you don’t.

    I quoted for a website build and the client expected a full build and design of marketing materials combined with complete marketing plan, unfortunately a lack of contract (it was for family) left things far too open for interpretation.

    • Don’t I know it, too, Chris! Often people expect branding or marketing to be a package deal with a website, so it’s important to hash that out before the project begins.

      It’s no fun when you ask for their logo and they say, “we don’t have one…won’t you be making it for the website?” You know a big discussion is about to ensue that’s going to leave your client at least a little unhappy about paying more.

      So best to air all of that information right from the get-go.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love reading your thoughts. I find I’m not alone in the frustration even though we have a business with 6 other guys.

    My additional comment is regarding the occasional free job for not-for-profits or friends. Remember, the finished job always looks easy. For these free situations which usually means the person your doing it for is a psyco who really wants to use your hands to create something in his/her head that they can’t explain, I now volunteer hours. This job should take 10 hours and I let them know how much time I’ve taken each time we meet and each time they reverse directions. It seems to help.

    • Susan,

      You’re right, and you should almost always sign a contract for pro-bono work just like a regular client…there’s just no money involved. This keeps the project from getting WAY out of hand.

      Thanks for reminding us about work for non-profits or for family!

      April

  3. Great article, April… you nailed it! This knowledge usually comes from lots of experience and frustration! I agree with Susan, pro bono work must be kept in check. It’s great to do work for worthwhile non-profits, family and friends, but that can get out of hand very easily.

  4. Great article! I agree keeping your client in the loop as to status of the project is important.

    That said, my mistake the stock photo search. What if you set aside x hour(s) to search for photos/graphics and after that time has elapsed haven’t found any suitable ones? Right now that’s something I seem to just absorb.

  5. Another great article – glad to see I’m doing a few things right and a few good tips on how to word quotes/estimates.

    Good tips on the time management side too, thanks for the mention of Trello. Had been looking for somewhere I could keep these sort of notes on projects.

    Does anyone have any reviews of Trello? Or alternative project management apps?

    • I really like Trello – it’s simple, free, and has a solid, intuitive interface. I’ve not used it on mobile, though. I also like that you can share or collaborate with others, as well as color code items and “tag” them as yours (or several people’s). And being able to customize your own columns and column order so you can sort things as you wish is huge.

      Anyone else?

  6. I just upgraded to Mavericks operating system and I’m getting notifications at the top right of my screen for every little thing. It’s causing so much distraction. I’m knee jerk responding to emails etc. Thank you for the reminder to turn them off!!! Take a vacation in order to be more productive!

  7. Thank you!
    It’s incredible, but it happens very often: when I am getting mad on a matter, there it comes your newsletter with a practical solution!

    I am having trouble with a client that asked for a restyling of his logo. I’ve quoted three proposals, and now we’ve come to six, at the same price. Now he asked for the seventh. But I said: no, this will be an extra cost.

    So, thank you again for your help and support!

    Elena

    • Elena,

      Glad we are solving your real-life problems! If nothing else, it’s nice to know others are having the same issues.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Yes, it seems the world’s really small and the matters are similar everywhere.
        My client didn’t answer yet, but I’m quite sure he won’t be happy at all. They tend to have the habit to blame on the graphic designer for their indecision.
        It could be interesting to show and describe the different client’s reactions and objection to these answers and how to best deal with them.

        Thank you again April.

        Elena

        • Elena,

          Great idea! I’ll add it to our blog post idea list.

          Most often it’s about HOW you say it, not WHAT you say. We all know not to be rude and point fingers (well, successful freelancers do!), but it goes further than that. If you can add just a touch of humor, it’s even better.

          Good luck with your client!

          April

  8. Samantha says:

    Great article as always! Especially communicating with the client of the various possible fees. I like your examples on how to explain this to the client without sounding like we just want to charge them extra for everything.

    • Samantha,

      Yes, it’s taken me a while to figure out how to say, “You’re going to owe me more money,” with more tact and grace! I find that it’s as much in the wording of what you’re saying as it is in the meaning.

      Thanks for your input!

  9. Great read April! Thankfully I am already implementing many of these tactics – however there is certainly some room for improvement.

    Thank-you for sharing your wisdom :)

  10. YES! This is sooo good. Great tips…and I sure can identify with work taking wayyyy longer than it should when I allow myself just a peak here and there at facebook or instagram or answering the texts piling up on my phone…and before you know it I’ve been on pinterest finding meals for dinner and realize I’m hungry and decide it’s time for a lunch…oops!

  11. Hello April — you’ve missed a couple of mistakes about running a business. My biggest mistake was “oh, I’ll learn accounting as I go.” I file that one under failing to hire a pro to do something I’m not naturally good at. As a print designer, I occasionally get asked about web sites. I tried to learn CCS (I did, in my defense, have a bit of experience in the early days of HTML) Now, I have a trusted vendor for that service.

    • Hi Alan,

      This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of freelancing mistakes — just some biggies that I’ve made that are less talked about here on GDB than others. I’ve planned another post of a few more mistakes I’ve made that I’m sure many others can relate to. Too bad I’m not running out of ideas on this topic!

      Thanks for sharing – the two you’ve listed are definitely hazardous.

      April

  12. You should definitely work time for stock photo searches into your budget. I’ve seen clients drive art directors crazy looking for stock. Freelance art directors at ad agencies get paid for all that time. It sometimes winds up costing more than a custom shoot would have.

  13. Great article! I would add my mistakes of 1) charging too little when starting out and 2) not establishing night/weekend boundaries with new clients. I spent so much time always being available to one client who couldn’t handle it when I went away for one weekend… And he ended up paying me the least of all my clients last year. So not worth it!

    • Good ones, Ellen!

      I always think of it like this: my clients have access to me during normal business hours. I’d say 9am – 6pm roughly on any given weekday. For a non-rush project, they can also expect me to work normal business hours to complete it.

      However, when I choose to work is up to me. I might take Tuesday off and work Saturday. I might work most of the weekend to get myself caught up, or I might take the entire weekend off.

      So if I client forces me to work on the weekend, I consider it a rush project (i.e. calls Friday and expects something Monday). But if I choose to work on their project over the weekend for whatever reason, I charge normal rates.

      PS – I don’t accept calls over the weekend except in rare cases for my very best clients or for a rush fee based on the length of the call.

      Well, I guess I had a lot to say on the matter! *steps down off soapbox*

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  14. Great post, and great responses too. Thanks for the sample responses. I find it very difficult to say “uhhh, that’s gonna cost more.” It always feels like I’m nickel and dimming them to death. I had one client get up to 13 revisions (!!!) before I finally pulled the breaks and said we only contracted for 3 concepts and 3 revisions. I eventually charged for revs 5-13, and magically, it was PERFECT.

    • Shocking how that happens, isn’t it, Tamian? All of a sudden we don’t need to see 12 different color schemes or try adding a kitten. :D

      Thanks for sharing!

  15. Keeping this article firmly in mind, I just responded to my client:

    “Round 2 changes complete. See attached… There is one more round of changes included in the contract, but I think we are there. I’m very pleased with the outcome…

    Thereby letting them know they have one more round, (and also driving home that I think it looks GREAT!) before we get to the crying part.

    Must keep this in mind for future. Gonna save a whole lotta cryin’

    • Perfectly executed, Tamian! Especially letting them know that they’re nearing “the end” now, they’ll start to wrap up instead of diving into more “let’s see” changes.

  16. #3 and #4 hit home for me as a freelancer. I felt like I was reading a profile about myself. There are days where the focus is unwavering, the project is finished by 5PM and I can enjoy the evening with my family or move on to other things. Other times, the productivity is minimized because of the usual distractions (all related to the internet – e-mail, reading bookmarked articles, catching up on the news, social media, research). Some of these distractions are inevitable, like research, or as someone mentioned, searching stock photography – and are time consuming. It’s also amazing how much happier you can be (less stress), when you have a productive day and can turn of the laptop by 5PM, then reset and recharge for the next day.

    • Michael,

      Hey, the first step to correcting the problem is admitting you have one! :)

      I hate those “research” days, too, where it feels like you’re wasting valuable time tinkering, poring over websites, or picking out stock photography that they’ll probably use 3 out of 10 photos you carefully selected. *sigh* BUT, if I’ve actually learned something and can now add it to my bag of tricks, AFTER it’s all said and done I’m pretty thrilled. It’s just not instant gratification, sorry to say.

      In any case, I totally agree that it’s nice to feel like you’ve accomplished enough that you deserve the night off!

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  17. Very useful tips. I am planning to start freelancing from September and all these tips will surely come in handy.

    Thanks for putting them together and sharing it with everybody.

  18. Great article, I like the part of the “Scope Creep”, that’s actually a piggy-backing on the normal project scope, made me laugh ’cause I had two or more experiences like that, hahaha.

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  1. […] 4 Big freelancing mistakes I’ve made and what to learn from them – Whether you’re a new freelancer, a freelancer-to-be, or a freelancer with a few (okay, a lot of) years under your belt, one of the most efficient ways to learn is from mistakes…preferably some someone else’s. […]

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