Freelancing can be flexible, fun and rewarding, both financially and personally. But it can also be nerve-wracking, exhausting and bad for your health, and drive you below the poverty line.
So here are our dos and don’ts for a happier, healthier and more successful freelancing career.
Do: Offer to expand on the work you’re doing and offer ideas and improvements
If you can see how something could be expanded or improved, or if there’s other work involved that you know you could do, don’t be shy.
Make the suggestion. Price up the offer. Freelancers can’t afford to hide their light under a bushel.
Don’t: Do it for free
If it involves more work for you, your suggestion should come with a price tag. While it’s good to impress a client, keeping them coming back for more and hopefully becoming indispensable, it’s not good to become their unpaid expert consultant!
Do: Beware scope-creep
Make sure what’s expected of you is crystal clear right from the start, and ensure you make it clear that any widening or extending of the project, together with any extra time, responsibility, travel or cost-incurring activities not agreed up front, will need to be paid for (and possibly require a deadline extension). Hint: the answer to the question “Can you just…?” should always involve a number and a pound sign.
Don’t: Say no to side-projects (providing they’re paid!)
If a client wants to change or widen the scope of the project or your responsibilities, don’t be scared off; listen to what they have to say. If it’s not for you, say so—you haven’t got time; it’s not your area of expertise. But if it’s within your abilities and fits it into your schedule, then negotiate a fair price.
Do: Quote and charge realistically
Always consider how long the job will take you (generously. Work rarely takes less time than you expect), what expenses you may incur that aren’t covered by the client and the expertise level required. Then remind yourself that you pay for your own workspace, equipment, utilities, services, insurance and memberships. Don’t do that quote yet: read on!
Don’t: Forget that freelancers have no financial back up
Bear in mind that you get no paid sick leave, parental leave or holiday, so your earnings have to cover the times you’re not earning. Then remind yourself that you get no salary protection, bonuses or automatic pay rises, and that what you’re paid is more than your earnings; the taxman wants his chunk.
Done all that? Now do your quote. Chances are it’s half as much again as the initial figure that sprang to mind…
Do: Focus on your work
Not everyone is suited to the freelance life. If you don’t have the discipline to focus on your work, avoid procrastination and ignore distractions, you either have to gain it fast (with the help of tools, timers and software to limit your internet access) or accept that self-employment isn’t for you.
When you’re employed in a big organisation, the odd day when you really don’t do very much can often go unnoticed and you’ll still get paid. Freelancing is remorseless in comparison. No work, no pay. Simple.
Don’t: Become a hermit
Your mind needs stimulation and breaks to work at its best. You also need the company of others to thrive. Your body needs exercise and fresh air. Your career needs you to make connections, be seen (digitally if not physically), stay abreast of the world and be exposed to fresh ideas. Shutting yourself away won’t do you, your work or your chances of attracting more of it any favours.
Make the effort to replace or recreate the positives from employment, such as social interaction and a proper lunch time, and keep networks alive so that people remember who you are and what you can offer.
Do: Get insurance
Depending on the kind of work you do, you may need professional indemnity insurance, public liability insurance or both. You may need product liability insurance too, if you make things that the public use and customers’ product use isn’t covered in your public liability insurance.
Don’t: Go for the first suitable policy you see
Shop around. There may be special offers connected to memberships of professional associations or local business networks, and some insurers offer combined policies.
Do: Consider that not all payment is money
A client may be able to offer perks, pay expenses, or pay for equipment, resources, access fees or memberships that you’d otherwise have to pay for, some of which you may be able to use for other work. This means you may be inclined to adjust your fee—but don’t waive it entirely.
Don’t: Work for free
Exposure is all well and good, but there’s no guarantee it will have any impact on your career prospects or earnings whatsoever. You can’t offer exposure to your energy provider as payment for your electricity bill. Exposure is a perk, not a payment, and often happens automatically with no effort from the client. Don’t work for free (unless you’re willingly donating your time and skills to a charity).
Do: Be reliable
Produce quality work to the deadline agreed. If something comes up that has the potential to delay or impair your work, let your client know as soon as possible. This builds up the trust and respect a client needs to keep coming back to you.
Don’t: Allow clients to take advantage
Regular clients (or new ones chancing their arm, presuming you’re desperate for work) might beg you to do an urgent task or take on extra work you have no time for, piling on the flattery until you feel you’re the only person in the world that can do this for them. Be obliging as far as you can, but don’t be taken for a mug and do charge a higher rate for urgent work, as it can often mean rearranging your schedule or working extra and/or unsociable hours.
Reply swiftly, and professionally to clients and keep them apprised of your progress.
Don’t: Ramble or include personal, irrelevant details in your work emails!
Some clients may become friends over a long period of working together. But they have work to do, just like you. It’s fine to add a relevant personal note or reply to a friendly “Hope you’re well” if it’s kept short (“Apologies for my late reply, my car broke down this morning/I had to rush my cat to the vet”; “Fine, thanks, although it’s chilly here today!”), but it’s not fine to bombard clients with your holiday plans, your cat’s ailments or a blow-by-blow account of how you finally made it off the M6.
Do: Ask for a deposit upfront or payment in stages
If you’ve put a lot of work into something and then the client changes their mind or goes bankrupt, you could be left without pay. Equally, working on a large project that consumes most or all of your time can leave you waiting a long time for payment—something the supermarket or your mobile network won’t do. Get a deposit before you start and/or agree that you’ll be paid in stages decreed by time or progress.
Don’t: Ever agree full payment on completion with a new client
If you’re doing small projects or ongoing work for a regular client who’s a prompt and reliable payer, you may agree to payment on completion or invoicing once a month etc. That’s fine. But never agree to take on a project of any size for a new client if the terms are payment on completion. You risk putting in a lot of time and effort for no return.
Do: market yourself
Work rarely lands on your doorstep unless you’ve made the effort to direct it there. How and where you market yourself will depend on the industry you work in and what media potential clients are likely to encounter (newspapers, directories, local shop windows, trade publications, specialist websites, social media, radio?). However, every freelancer should have an attractive, easily negotiable website with details of the services they provide and client testimonials.
If work is still not landing on your doorstep, go get it. Look at job boards and freelance marketplaces. Research, target and contact potential clients.
Don’t: Be falsely modest—or over-promise
If you’re not confident in your ability to do something, why should a client be? There’s no room for false modesty in freelancing, but on the other hand beware claiming you can do something you can’t, or that you can deliver an unfeasible amount of work in a stupidly short time. You’ll be stressed and exhausted, your work will be sub-par and if you fail to deliver, you risk ruining your reputation.
Do: Enjoy the flexibility freedom brings
Freelancing can give you the chance to pursue the work you love, diversify your career and set your own working hours. It can give you the flexibility to work around caring and family commitments, and even around illness if you have a condition that makes traditional employment difficult.
You can make the most of sunny days by working outside or even by taking time off—if you know you can make up the time and complete your work on schedule, which leads us to our final don’t:
Don’t: Lose all self-discipline
Don’t let the freedom and flexibility go to your head. Seek out regular work so that you’re not constantly dividing your time between your current projects and searching for the next ones. Use technology and enjoy the connectivity, convenience and work-anywhere ability it brings, but don’t let it become a tool for procrastination and distraction.
Take time off and fit domestic chores and errands into your day if you want to. But always bear in mind how many hours you need to work each week to maintain your standard of living, and remember that work can disappear. While it’s there, get it done—and create a financial safety net for those times when work is scarce.
What are your freelancing dos and don’ts?