Freelance In 40 Days [Day 26]: Common Freelancing Mistakes To Avoid

Posted: November 10th, 2009

Photo by Jasmeet (Flickr)

Photo by Jasmeet (Flickr)

This is Day 26 of the Freelance in 40 Days series where you’ll learn to freelance just by taking it one day and one task at a time. Today you’ll learn to avoid common mistakes made in freelancing.

In the last tutorial I mentioned how mistakes are inevitable and are a normal part of freelancing. There are some mistakes freelancers make that can be very damaging, though, that can cost you time, money and even a client or two.

Rather than repeat the history of many a freelancer, I’ll introduce you to some common freelancing mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. The Feast or Famine Cycle

Every freelancer will have their periods with a heavy workload along with a slow period every once in a while which is normal. If you have periods where you are working (the feast) followed up by periods where you aren’t working and scrambling like hell to find work (the famine) then this isn’t healthy for your business.

You never want to put yourself in a situation where you are desperate for work. Not only does this cause unneeded stress but there is also the tendency to take “whatever work comes your way” that may not pay what you like nor be what you really want to do.

Avoiding the feast or famine cycle:

  • Never stop looking for clients. When we have work to do, we tend to take comfort in that instead of planning for more work in the future. One technique I found useful is spending a few minutes a day to look for one client.
  • Start saving for that rainy day. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard for freelancers is to have a backup savings to help you out of a rough patch. It is more than likely that you will have to rely on it at some point in your career since a famine cycle can happen that is beyond your control.
  • Learn a new skill. If your particular field is having a slow period, it helps to have another skill you can fall back on to keep the work flowing.

2. Not Using Project Agreements

A project agreement tells your client, “This is exactly what I’ll do, this is what you’ll pay me and these are some conditions I have for you.” Skip this and guess what? You open yourself up to being walked all over by the client and possible disputes with her.

Remember, in the client’s eyes, you appear expensive and a prudent one will try and get her money’s worth. The project agreement will keep her in check.

How to start using project agreements:

3. Sticking to Only One Client

There’s no better feeling to the freelancer than finding a client who gives us a lot of work. There is a danger to this, though. What happens if, say, a client decides to cut costs due to an unforeseen circumstance? Don’t think it won’t happen either. If a freelancer is taking up a chunk of a budget, they are usually the first to go.

Then you are left in a famine cycle. Uh oh.

Avoiding this scenario:

  • Never rely on just one client for work and seek out many so, in case one drops out, you have others to fall back on.
  • Reduce your workload with the main client so you can accommodate other clients. You may have to turn down some work, which is difficult, but its better than being left with no work at all should that client decided to leave you.

4. Not Planning Enough

I’m probably not the only freelancer that has started a project only to find that grew to twice the workload by the end of it. What really hurts is that, while the workload increases, the compensation doesn’t increase much, if at all, since a budget is often determined in the beginning of it.

Any underestimation of work is the fault of the freelancer (usually) and can be eliminated just by planning from the start.

Avoiding poor planning:

  • Spend the time to do the research on a project, especially larger ones. Sometimes this can even take days. Remember, there is no wasted time in planning.
  • Know exactly what you are getting into. If a project requires any skills you aren’t familiar with, then get familiar with them before starting.
  • Break a project down to it’s smallest parts. Usually the hard or questionable parts expose themselves. Do more research, if necessary, until all parts are understood.

5. Missing Deadlines

It shouldn’t have to be said but consistently missing deadlines makes you unreliable and hurts your reputation. A client may think twice about referring new business to you or may even decide not to work with you again.

Avoiding missed deadlines:

  • Do careful planning (see above).
  • Be realistic and give yourself ample time to complete any project. Come up with a careful time estimate to complete any project and then add overhead time on top of that. You’ll find yourself having to dip into that overhead once in a while.
  • Treat each project like a term paper in college and do what you have to do to meet a deadline. If that means working weekends and pulling all-nighters, do it.

Your Homework For Today

Understand and avoid the common freelancing mistakes above. It could mean the difference between a successful career or not.

Freelance In 40 Days [Day 16]: A Document That Will Save Your Ass

Posted: September 23rd, 2009

Photo by Jk5854 (Flickr)

Photo by Jk5854 (Flickr)

This is Day 16 of the Freelance in 40 Days series where you’ll learn to freelance just by taking it one day and one task at a time. Today you’ll be introduced to project agreements and using them with your clients.

The Project Agreement

New freelancers often believe that working in freelance is finding projects, doing them and collecting a payment shortly after. One critical step is often missed, however, that is important before even starting any project: drafting a project agreement and have your client sign and return it.

Why is it important? Here are a few reasons:

  • It outlines in detail exactly what you will do on a project so the project scope is well defined.
  • It sets a deadline (or milestones) for completion on your part and payment on the client’s part.
  • It keeps you and your client on the same page as far as expectations are concerned
  • You will have a case if a client demands additional work without compensation.

A project agreement does not have to be a perfectly legal document drafted by a lawyer either (we’ll get to why later). It’s main purpose is to align you and your client on the scope of a project so you know exactly what you are to do and the client knows exactly what he will receive.

To create your own project agreement for your freelance business, here are a few resources to get started:

The best method is to look at multiple sample contracts and adapt them into one that suits your business the best. Remeber that not all project agreements will be the same for all freelancers.

The Legality of Project Agreements

Since much of the freelance work done is over the internet, an issue arises when freelancers are working with clients from other states or countries. In the event a dispute arises across borders, does a project agreement document hold a client legally accountable to any funds owed to you? How do you enforce it?

The truth is,  unless you know a collector who lives locally to that client, you’re shit out of luck. There may be some legal avenues you can take but any legal fees, plus the time it takes away from your work, are not likely to make it worth pursuing. Does this mean working over the internet becomes a risky business?

It may surprise you but, no, it doesn’t have to be. There are ways you can protect yourself and even prevent disputes from happening in the first place.

The first is always require an up-front deposit before starting any project. It is common to ask for between 30% and 50% of the project fee before starting and, if your client is serious about the project, it will be paid unconditionally.

Those that decide not to pay an up-front fee or would rather pay upon completion should be a red flag to you. This is a sign that they could stiff you in the end (though not in all cases). Still, you never want to put yourself in a position where a rogue client can take your work and run, not paying a cent.

A second option to protect yourself is to utilize an escrow service. An escrow service is a third party company that holds the project fee paid by the client then releases those funds to you when the project is completed. This could be offered as a second option for clients not wishing to pay the up-front deposit.

The third option is to utilize a major paid job board to search for projects. Within their systems, they provide project agreements you can give to clients on projects you win. Plus, they have measures to virtually guarantee payment upon completed work including escrow services.

Some of the most reliable major job boards are Elance, Guru and Odesk.


In the event a dispute does happen, the most important thing you can do is try everything you can to diffuse it. Disputes most commonly happen due to misunderstandings in your agreement with the client, where they wanted X and received Y.

Unfortunately misunderstandings do happen on occasion. Sometimes they are your fault and sometimes the fault of the client.  If the client is at fault, it will tend to smooth out matters if you give in a little and sacrifice a little extra time on a project. Taking a hard stance is more likely to result in a hard stance by the client (i.e. no payment).

Of course, if you are at fault for a dispute, do whatever is necessary to make the client happy again.

Your Homework For Today

Using the resources above, draft a project agreement you can use with your freelance business. Then remember to give it to each client and have him return it signed before starting any project.