In one old interview, I was asked what was the biggest mistake I made as a freelancer. „I don’t think I made any,“ was my response. Being shy of cameras and the whole interview made it probably sound like I am a rude snob with 0 self-reflection. Well, the truth is, I made hundreds of mistakes, I just consider them lessons learned rather than something I should feel pity about. Here are some of the lessons.
Focus on what you do best and like most
When I started freelancing, I was doing everything around digital. SEO, social, PPC, Facebook ads, e-mailing, website audits etc. I knew the ropes of each area and thought it will increase my chance of winning clients if I do it all. Not sure if it helped at the beginning or not but the quality of work was horrible. It is impossible to be good in all those areas. If I see today what I produced as content for the client’s social media, I either laugh or cry. Start focusing on PPC was what allowed me to go deep, become expert in the field and that eventually led to success.
If you know what you are best at and what you like to do most, focus on that. It will help you provide the best service to your clients.
Diversify, diversify, diversify
As a freelancer, you’ve got 1 pair of hands only to be dedicated to your clients. And if you do your job well, 2 things will happen: new clients will inquiry for your services and existing clients will want to do more with you. It is not easy to find a balance between the two.
It might be tempting to go deeper with existing clients and provide more services to them. You already established the relationship, you know the people on the other side and they are obviously happy with you. That’s a trap.
I reached a stage where 1 client would generate 50-60% of my monthly revenue. At that moment, my warning sign went on. Because things can change quickly and as a freelancer it is very hazardously to have majority of your revenue depending on one account. People in the other company can change quickly, their business objectives or they want to take things in-house. You can’t affect it but it can cost you a majority of your revenue.
I would say 30%-40% of monthly revenue is the healthy maximum for a client you are really happy with. If they want to do more with you, you need to think about protecting yourself e.g. in the way of longer notice period in the contract.
Some people will take benefit of you
Every company you work with knows you are a freelancer and most of them know they are the one wearing the trousers. There are people who will absolutely respect you and honor everything you agreed on. And there are people who will take benefit of you being a small entrepreneur.
I worked with a client for about a year. After I helped to scale their business 3x, they decided to stop the cooperation because they thought they can get the service done cheaper. And they left without ever paying the last month invoice. They paid 11 months before and out of sudden they said: „No way we’re going to pay, you are too expensive“.
I made a mistake that I didn’t see it coming and did my work the best I can till the last moment. You need to swallow your pride and take it as a fact. It is about them, not about you.
Try to protect yourself as much as you can and always expect to be ready for someone not being fair as you are.
Always make a decision you can be proud of
Being a freelancer means your name is what represents you. It’s not some anonymous logo, it is your name. That’s why (not only that but simply you should) – more than ever – you should treat people fair. I always made sure I bend over backward for a client even if it hurts my earnings.
I had several cases I suggested I would charge less in a given month because the results were not as expected or some things didn’t work. I didn’t have to do anything wrong, I just knew that my value-added to client’s business wasn’t that big as I promised and expected. Coming forward and giving up 50% of that month’s fee showed the client how serious I am about helping them and established a long-term relationship.
On another case, I had a success fee based on a number of conversions my campaigns delivered. One month, the results sky-rocketed. I was already in the middle of issuing the highest invoice possible when I stepped back and went to Google Analytics to double-check those results. After digging really deep I found that client’s developer did some edit in GA implementation and it duplicates some transactions. Based on the contract I had all rights to invoice for all of them and the client probably wouldn’t find something is wrong. But this is not the way you want to earn money if you are serious about your business.
I didn’t have any given rule on how to solve these situations. Thinking about it after years, I found only one pattern.
I always wanted to take a decision I can be comfortable with if I look at the mirror and ask „did you do the right thing?“.
I didn’t use external help
Having my name as a brand of my business, I felt I have to do everything. I felt none can do a better job than I do. I didn’t have time, ambition or skills to teach other people what to do (funny that today, developing people in my team is probably the best part of my job). That’s why I always did everything myself. I could have done way more if I used some external help.
You don’t have to do everything yourself. As a freelancer, you don’t do just the core of your job. You are also your accountant, tax consultant, legal consultant, PA, designer and I don’t know what! With many of those things, you can get help.
If I ever go freelancing again, I would use virtual assistant or similar service from day one.
For organizing meetings, replying to inquiries, to organize my workshops, etc. This all took my time and I didn’t charge for it. I could have probably had 15%-25% more billable hours if I used external help. On top, this part of the job is not something I’d enjoy so again, I could have had my energy boosted by having someone to help.
Don’t be jealous of more successful people
When I started with freelancing, there were many successful freelancers around. They were like pop celebrities in digital marketing. Group of few who would speak at every event, they would be interviewed all the time and popular on Twitter. Good thing was that I had a role model of a successful freelancer and I wanted to be like them. I saw that freelancing makes sense and can work. Bad thing was that I was jealous of them.
I felt that things are so easy for them. They tweet something and everyone listens. They are invited to every event. Their rates are so high and still have more clients than I do. It seemed so easy. What I saw was the top of the iceberg. I didn’t see the hard work they have done for years before they became popular. Yes, they probably were at the right time in the right place and started freelancing when the whole digital industry was starting. But that was 10% of the truth. When I wrote my first article, they already had 100s of them. They already spent years on developing themselves and educating the market.
It took me a few years to realize this. And the aha-moment was when someone asked me „How come it is so easy for you to get new clients? You just have an advantage because you started freelancing a few years before I did“.
It was really sick to think someone had the success given without hard work. Instead of being jealous I should have met them in person and learn as much as I can.
Speak with people who have the same problems
Freelancing can be lonely. You feel you are on your own when it comes to everything. When things go well, it is not a problem. When things go south is when you need some like-minded people to speak with. People who have similar challenges and as well as you are feeling lonely in facing them.
When I was freelancing, most of my friends were still living with their parents, having maybe some part-time job they didn’t give a shit about. It was frustrating for me to try to speak with them about my problems in business which meant life to me. No one would understand why I take it so seriously.
I rarely reached out to other freelancers and didn’t network much during events. I am just to shy for that. But whenever I did, it boosted my spirit a thousand times.
There are people having the same issues as you do. Connect with them. Go for a coffee or have a skype call. They might not give you a solution but just the fact you are not the only one in the world facing unfair client can do a lot.
By the way, this is a mistake I might have been repeating to date. Even being a regional leader in international company is incredibly lonely. Speaking with people on a similar level from or out of your industry can boost your energy big time. This is the step out of my comfort zone I need to make more often.
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