(Some of) My Mistakes as a Freelancer
This post originally appeared on my website avizuber.com in January of 2013.
For those unwilling to go under the label “employee”, there is a fine line between being an entrepreneur, self-employed or a freelancer. An entrepreneur is someone who has built an actual business; a business that functions with protocol, structure and a team. Someone who is self-employed also has a business, but they are completely independent of a partner or team. A freelancer is someone who essentially panhandles for gigs, living the adventure of an unplanned future.
When I started panhandling in 2008, I had visions of a something larger. What I should have had was an actual goal. I fooled myself into thinking I was self-employed, and later, after founding a company, in to thinking I was an entrepreneur. Here are some of the mistakes I made along the way:
- It’s a 9-5, Keep it That Way – When I first started, I was so excited about actually getting work I let the client dictate my schedule. (Note, when you give yourself up for one person, you’re neglecting someone else, be it yourself, your friends or even your spouse.) I also became a “Yes Man”, very timidly sharing my opinion with the client. After all, the customer is always right!….right?What I should have done was created set working hours and stuck to them. If a project was going to be late, communication could easily solve that issue. (You’ll notice that “communication” is actually key in all of these mistakes.) When people think of the working unemployed, they think of freedom and the ability to do what they want when they want. This is not true, at all. What it means is that if you want to take an hour, or even a day, off from work, you can, but you have to make it up a different time. People who hold 9-5’s can only do their work during working hours. Freelancers can do their work at any time, which means they have no non-working hours…unless they create a schedule and stick to it. Which is, at the end of the day, a 9-5 with just a bit more flexibility.
- Time Is Money – Don’t work for free, no matter what you read on the internet. There is nothing wrong with doing favors for people. If I see value in someone (i.e. they help society in some way) or a direct benefit in someone (i.e. they provide a service I need) and I have time, I’ll sometimes do work without charging money. But it’s not free. I’m either doing the work because I feel that by helping that person, I’m helping society, or, in the case of helping someone who provides a service, I’m essentially bartering with them. As a freelancer, you ultimately pick up a lot of people who want free work, only sometimes they disguise it as “just one additional feature”.What I mean is, when you take on a project, be strict about the project specs. If a client changes the specs, the project will take more time. If it takes more time, it needs to cost more money. If you don’t charge more money, you will be working for free. People tend to argue and say “But a project rate is a project rate, you can’t charge more!”. What I should have done when I hit the “work for free” times was set up a clause that allowed me to charge more when going over the expected time. It took me way too long to work that out.
- Man Plans, God Laughs – No matter how you plan a project, it won’t happen that way. You’ll need a sick day, your client will need three. Your client is going to invite his cousin in on the project two weeks in and this will happen. I was convinced, with just about every project I took on, that this would be the one that runs smoothly. “I’ll use better collaboration tools, a higher level of communication, build in a cushion in to the schedule, it will be great!”…until I either ended up working for free or the client had to pay more money, neither of which were comfortable situations. The ideal might be to only take on one project at a time, but then you have to worry about not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from. You can try to balance multiple clients, but then you really end up with multiple bosses, and you need to treat each one like they’re the only one.
- This Peacock was Meant to Fly -Not my line, and not even the right line, but you get the point. I don’t love web development as much as I love paying my bills, which means if I could pay my bills in a different way, I would. I love web development when it’s for a project I’m passionate about, but to be honest, how often do you get passionate about your friend’s (or my case, a client’s) project? People say “Act like you’re a partner with your client”, but let’s be honest, a freelancer is not a partner. A freelancer is a temporary employee (without the benefits) and will be treated like one.What I should have done is built in entrepreneur time in to my schedule, which kind of goes back to Mistake #1 above. If I have 8-10 hours dedicated to work every day, 80% should go to clients and 20% should go to my own projects. When 100%, or even 95% of my time went to clients, the clients became the people who were keeping me from my dreams. I think the correct way to do is view both as a 9-5. Have an allotted amount of time each day for clients and an allotted amount of time each day for projects. Don’t go overtime. Overtime means you’re neglecting something else. If you can afford it, do it, but keep in mind that health, relationships and hobbies are very important.
- Make Enough Money – Freelancers are a dime a dozen and they’re even cheaper in other countries. Do a simple calculation to determine how much you should charge. How much money do you need per month, how many hours can you work per month, how much money should you therefor charge per hour? Doing a project rate? Ok, then how many hours will that project take? My mistake was trying to offer competitive pricing and discounts to clients I liked. By doing so, I ended up needing to spend more money than I actually made at the end of every month. Blogs will tell you that it’s ok because I built brand equity and a great reputation. Sorry, brand equity does not pay the bills.
You’ll find a lot of tips on how to be a successful freelancer. My list of mistakes are more or less a list of reasons why you might want to get a job instead. All in all, running a business is tough and they call it “work” for a reason. If you are going to become a freelancer, do what I didn’t:
- Create a schedule and stick to it. Pretend you have a shop and that your clients can only walk in during your open hours.
- Charge accordingly. Don’t work overtime for free, make sure to at least cover your bills. Communication with the client is key.
- Estimate everything. You don’t know what could or will happen. Make sure to leave insurance time. Create an understanding with the client that you will get paid for every second you work and that the longer they take, they longer the project takes. When it comes to schedule, don’t make promises, don’t set anything in stone. When it comes to specs, set it in stone and charge for every chisel.
- Feed your passions. People become bitter about work when they feel it is crushing their dreams. Live your dreams, just realize you need to pay your bills on your way. Don’t become a slave to your clients, but also don’t neglect them. Give everyone and everything fair time and don’t play favorites.
Hope this information helps you! Looking for a job? Check out this graphic I made, just for you.