The joys of being a freelancer are, in no particular order: the freedom of being your own boss; choosing the jobs you want; constant variety; soaring like an eagle through the clouds of life. But, it’s really, really possible to be bad at freelancing. Here are some ways to suck at freelancing (without solutions for the most part):
1. Accepting underpaid / no-paid work on the promise of ‘it will lead to more paid work’.
This is a common one by conniving / struggling producers and start-ups: “We are poor and have no budget, so work for us for £50 a day and then when we hit a market capitalisation of one billion dollars you will be our go-to freelancer and we’ll carry you with us on our journey to Zuckerberg-hood. I just ask you to be flexible with your rates first.”
You, as a freelancer, will invariably be tempted to take a punt on these plucky underdogs. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, right? You just gotta back the right horse. And maybe you will. Alternatively, maybe this client will quaff up all your earnest generosity/tolerance for being exploited, and then just find another freelancer/sucker once you twig what their game is. And then, if they do ever make it, they’ll immediately go and hire a freelancer charging the rate you quoted initially. That could happen.
2. Being extremely bad at knowing your own worth and negotiating a rate accordingly.
We all know what rate we’d like to charge. We all google what the standard freelancing rate is for our field. And then we find that there is a devilish combination of us not quite having the balls to ask for that number and clients completely hoping to pay significantly less than that number.
Alternatively, the client asks you your rate. Well, why don’t you tell me your budget? MISTAKE. Get in their first with your rate because the first number in the negotiation will be the base rate from which negotiations will proceed. Sometimes, the client will just helpfully tell you their budget from the outset, to which you will agree, and then later, out of nowhere, after you’ve had a nice friendly chat and got to know each other and you’re completely disarmed, they’ll repeat the budget and say if “that’s okay”. And you say “yeah it’s fine” and then immediately think “wait I could’ve negotiated?”
3. Not getting your invoices paid.
When you finally deliver that precious mana-from-heaven invoice via the magic bullet of email, you now have the thrill of not knowing if that invoice will get paid in three days or three months. Or never. As the standard 20-30 day time frame elapses, you’ll be wracked with wondering if they hated your work, if they lost business because of your work, if they had to wind up their business as a going concern because of your work. Why don’t they pay? And you’ll send polite and wimpy emails chasing up the invoice, wondering at what point and how to crack the whip. And you’ll never figure it out.
4. Getting upset when you do bad work.
A happy client fulsomely praising the work you did for them rocks. It’s a really great feeling of validation and vindication and serves to banish the long-term deep-deep-seated doubts you have about taking the freelance path less trodden.
But sometimes they won’t be happy with your work. They’ll be disappointed. This could be for a number of reasons. Maybe they’ll just be douches with ridiculous expectations relative to the budget and you did as good as you could. Maybe you really did a bad job. Either way, the worst thing you can do is to become engulfed in guilt and self-doubt about your worth as a human being. Don’t beat yourself up. The important thing is to figure out what went wrong, learn from it, and forget about it (the bad job, not the lesson).
5. Being crap at marketing and self-promotion.
This one is tricky in the same way that it’s tricky to give yourself good advice. It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and see how they’re boning it up and tell them to stop it. Not so easy to apply this ability to yourself.
You spend years learning your craft, honing it, getting good at it, and then you find that it isn’t much good if no one knows about it. You’ve got to tell people how great you are.
So now you have to learn an entirely new and equally large discipline called ‘marketing’. It involves telling people about yourself and what you can offer and how good you are at doing it. The kind of bragging and blow-harding that most likeable people don’t do; you now have to do it and do it to as large an audience as possible. No more being modest and self-effacing, kiddo. That won’t pay your council tax. Not only do you have to master social media, online marketing and manage your own elegant and professional website, but you’ve also got to overcome your natural aversion to blowing your own trumpet and fear that everyone’s going to see your self-promotion and think ‘look at this douchebag’. But you’ve got to do it.
Being a freelancer is legitimately great. But it ain’t easy. There are lots of lessons you need to learn, and the best teacher is the school of getting f***ed over. Reading advice articles or other people’s experiences can give you an idea of what to expect, but in the end, it’s hard to learn from others’ mistakes. There’s nothing quite like the sense of outrage at being exploited that teaches you to never let it happen again. There’s nothing like smiling producers screwing you over to give you the backbone to negotiate aggressively, and with a very hard ball. Now, go get ‘em!
About the Author
After a nomadic early life wandering across the face of the world, Walter is now settled in London working as a freelance photographer and video producer.