For me, and I assume this is the same with many freelancers, being my own boss started as something of a side project. After a positive start, the commissions and regular clients began to flow, and I quickly realised that self-employment was the way forward.
As you might expect, the early stages of freelancing were incredibly informative. I made plenty of mistakes and have had to learn a bunch of lessons the hard way. Many of these are exclusive to freelancing – something there’s not exactly a manual for. Here are my top five lessons learned while freelancing:
1. Be Flexible, but Not too Flexible
More and more people are escaping the rat race and turning to freelancing. It’s not hard to see why. If you can make a decent living, working for yourself has a load of benefits compared with a permanent position somewhere. The most obvious one is flexibility. You can choose which days you work, when, and for how long. You can decide how much to charge clients for your services. You can pick and choose your projects. But here’s the thing: clients know how flexible you are as well.
If you’re just starting out with a client or are in preliminary talks, don’t be surprised if they test the water with a tight deadline or curveball of some description. They might want you to work on something over the weekend to be ready by Monday, or need to you be available for a call out of normal office hours. In many ways, they will be aware of a power dynamic different to what you would find in a standard employer/employee relationship. They know you could up and leave at any moment, but also recognise that your shoes could be filled with relative ease. For this reason, they might request things of you that you’re well within your rights to think twice about.
I can recall a time when a client in Australia asked me to join a conference call at midnight my time. I was eager to please and willing to go the extra mile, and luckily I’m a night owl anyway. But in hindsight, I was potentially a little too flexible for my own good. I also regularly receive requests over the weekend for Monday deadlines. Some I accept, and others I delay until later the next week. Working a little every day is something that I’m comfortable with, but that might not be the case for freelancers looking to kick back on weekends.
The key is to find the balance between making the effort required to secure a long-term relationship, and simply being taken advantage of. Avoid setting a precedent that you’re not comfortable with in the long run. Speaking of flexibility, one thing that clients will always expect some leeway on will be your rates.
2. Know How to Negotiate
Starting up as a freelancer is effectively opening up the Business of You. As with any business relationship, your clients are going to want to explore any flexibility in your pricing. This is difficult territory in which to make sweeping statements, but there are general lessons I have taken from my time as a writer. First, stick to your guns. Don’t give in to the first attempt from clients to undercut your valuation of a job. If you quote $40 an hour, and a client says that nothing above $30 an hour is possible, reinforce your reasons for pricing as you do.
Another handy tactic is to negotiate the job, not your fee. If the client only wants to pay $x an hour, then try suggesting a change of scope to match it.
The most common problem is knowing how much to charge in the first place, especially if you’re just starting out. I’ve tried various ways of setting my rates and have learned the hard way that some are more effective than others.
I’ve seen other freelancers write that they avoid having an hourly rate altogether. The idea is that instead you set a price for a whole project, based on how long you think it will take you. This is something I agree wholeheartedly with, but it’s not always possible if you’re working through agencies or using freelancing sites such as Upwork.
Even though you may well spend much more hours on a fixed project than if you were given an hourly contract, clients are often intimidated by the prospect of the hours racking up. I’ve lost count of the number of times I've received feedback from applications saying, “We think you’re a perfect fit for the job, BUT your hourly rate is more than we can afford…” If you value your work and the services you offer, get used to reading this from clients looking for a cheap and easy fix. Countless people out there want to pay freelancers peanuts. Don’t be the monkey.
3. Don't Be Intimidated by Clients
Starting out as a freelancer isn’t easy. Whether you’ve moved from a more traditional business environment or it’s your first role, learning the ropes is going to be a challenging, never-ending process. If you’re lucky enough to land some pretty big gigs while you’re still in the early stages, it’s important not to become overawed by either projects or the kind of clients you are suddenly dealing with.
I was once in a similar position. Allow me to set the scene: I’m sitting on a video conference with a partner at one of the world’s largest financial firms, receiving feedback to a brief I’d been working on. Apart from being halfway across the world, the man I was speaking with also happened to have an incredibly thick accent. I think English was maybe his 3rd or 4th language. While the words he used were in perfect English, the speed at which he was speaking, combined with his accent and the genuinely awful sound quality on the call meant I was understanding maybe 1 out of every 5 words he was saying.
This was a pretty awkward position to be in, especially as he was essentially taking me through all the particular details of his feedback. At least, I think he was doing that. Obviously, if I had said something at this point, it wouldn’t be much of a story. The truth is I didn’t say a word, and I’m still not entirely sure why. I was perhaps intimidated by the scenario and felt, unjustifiably as it turned out, a little out of my depth on that particular project. Despite barely understanding a word of what he was saying, I chose to go down the route of smiling and nodding instead, even throwing in the occasional “sure” for good measure.
There’s a clear lesson that I’ve taken away from this. And that’s to speak up. Speak up when something is wrong, no matter the client, no matter the professional situation. Luckily for me, that particular meeting didn’t have much bearing on what I was working on as a whole, but it really could have been a lot worse.
4. Beware of Recurring Jobs Putting You on Autopilot
In many ways, repeat work from the same clients is the Holy Grail for any freelancer. You get a welcome dose of security knowing that the work will be for the long term, but you still get enough flexibility to fit in new clients and work on different projects. It’s easy, however, to take repeat business for granted. I’ve caught myself a couple of times producing slack work for a client I have a long history with. Why? Because it’s easy to put familiar jobs to one side and focus on the new, which can lead to repeat clients receiving less attention than they should, and their work being rushed. This isn’t out of laziness, it’s out of that sense of auto-pilot that we all go into when performing a familiar task. But in the freelance world, there’s really no excuse for it. Never take your most loyal clients for granted, and always remember why they have loyalty to you to begin with.
5. Remain Professional in the Face of Bad Manners
I’m a man of irrational hatreds, and one thing which really gets to me is when people sign off emails with initials. Is it really that much more effort to write your name? Have we genuinely reached the point where every second in the workplace is so vital that typing out a full name isn’t worth the ROI? Okay, so I do realise that this doesn’t exactly constitute bad manners, but I think it’s probably indicative of a wider trend in the working world. Communication is becoming increasingly digital, and as a result, people you’ve never met before are contacting you with less of a sense of agency than ever before. As a freelancer, you’re pretty detached as it is, so don’t be surprised if you come across clients that don’t treat you as well as you deserve.
Some clients still finish their emails to me with just an initial, and I’m learning to deal with it. Yes, there are times when I want to respond with a withering collection of sarcastic references to how busy they must be, but instead I take a deep breath. Even if they aren’t reciprocated, good manners are important to maintaining professionalism. And in a world where your reputation precedes you, the little things make all the difference.