Is freelancing really as awful as most freelancers seem to say it is?

Following a slew of posts from freelancers about how tough it is to be a freelancer I thought I’d write a few tips that might help improve things.

Bad clients, feast and famine, late payments, scope creep, overwhelm, fear and isolation – it really doesn’t have to be this hard.

You’re the boss of you. You started this business to have more choice so now’s the time to make good choices. It’s time to be the best boss you ever had. Everything you need to know, everything you need to do, has all been done before. You didn’t invent freelancing so I hope this helps you to stop struggling and tap into all the amazing resources that exist to help you.

Ten tips for freelancers *

*also applies to sole traders, small business owners, consultants and anyone who makes all the decisions in their business.

1. Isolation is a killer
Working for yourself is tough. Working by yourself is even tougher – and unnecessary. Find a group of people who’ll support you. There are lots available but make sure you only join the ones with people who are enjoying what they do, do it well and are happy to share their experiences with you. Joining a group of people who are all going down the toilet together or who want to sell you their ‘system for success’ isn’t going to help.

2. Check what impression you’re giving 
Being authentic means saying “I don’t know how to do that” not “I can’t get out of bed before noon”. Be careful how much you share on social media. This doesn’t mean you can’t share things you’re passionate about or campaigning for – that all adds to people understanding your values, but complaining in public about how you’re struggling with life and work is a red flag to clients and potential clients (and people like me who get asked to recommend freelancers). However much sympathy you get from your peers in public it’s best to ask for support in private.* The same applies to giving support. Do it in private and don’t be part of the “Oh yes, freelancing is tough” brigade – that really doesn’t help. Clients want reliability.

* If you or someone you know is really struggling there are people who can help, confidentially and free of charge. Check out the resources on our Exceptional Support Page

3. Get your shit together
Being a good copywriter / illustrator / designer or whatever you do is essential but it’s also essential to potential clients to look as though you know how to run a business and you can be trusted. That means you’ve got good contracts, great processes, can meet deadlines, are organised, not overcommitted and above all, you’re reliable. Getting your business processes set up and automated as much as possible leaves you free to do the work you’re being paid for. This is where a peer group can really help and save you hours of experimenting checking out different software and process solutions.

4. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot
Don’t, under any circumstances, write or join in posts about “Ten dumb things clients say”. Your peers might find that funny, clients and potential clients don’t. If people don’t understand your business and what you can do for them, write some helpful, useful posts that educate them.

5. Be referable
People buy from people. It’s a cliché for a reason. I know freelancers who never have to look for work. They get recommended by past clients, current clients and their network, not because they’re the best at what they do but because people like them and like working with them. Work on building great relationships, on being likeable, on helping others, on being useful.

6. Don’t discount – ever
Don’t compete on price. If you get a potential client who tries to haggle or get a discount it’s a big red flag that they’re never going to appreciate the value your work brings to their business. While you’re knocking yourself out for peanuts your peers are working fewer hours for more money and have great clients. Low prices will keep you on the hamster wheel for ever. Be brave, ask your support group for help and say no to hagglers. Don’t do free work and avoid timewasters by having as much information on your website as possible, including “starting from” prices.

7. Put your prices up
Pricing isn’t a science, it’s an art. People pay £80 for a Gordon Ramsey Burger, £300 for a pouch of Luxury Ice (that’s ice – just ice) and £400 for a bar of To’ak chocolate. Why? Because it makes them feel good, hedonistic, valued. What do your bargain basement prices say? It makes you disposable, replaceable and inconsequential. Putting your prices up attracts clients who recognise value. If you can’t articulate your value to a client get some help – or preferably testimonials that say it for you. I’ve never worked with anyone who has regretted putting up their prices.

8. Charge for value, not time
There is no law that says you have to charge every client the same or that you have to quote hour or day rates. Wherever possible quote per project, based on the value you bring to your client’s business. If the client gets one more customer or one more sale because of your work, what’s that worth to them? (This should be based on the lifetime value of the customer, not just the first sale.) Have a conversation to get to know their business better then use this information to quote for the work they want you to do.

9. Set firm boundaries.
If you prefer to only accept instructions by email, telephone calls by arrangement, no DMs, texts or WhatsApp messages, say so. State your payment terms and what happens if payments are late. Have a signed contract that details the scope and delivery of the project, ownership of the completed work and responsibility for deadlines. Guard your time. Apart from your health and the people you love, it’s the most precious thing you have. Work out how much you can earn when you’re being most productive and profitable and keep that number in mind when you get asked to do things for free or decide to write that shoot yourself in the foot post. Be in charge of your own business and don’t be afraid to sack clients who don’t respect your time.
(I just had some feedback from a business owner who said people who have firm boundaries, who are assertive and explain what they want and don’t want, save a lot of time and are easier to work with!) 

10. Work on your own business
Set aside time every week to find new clients. This is the only way to avoid the feast and famine rollercoaster. Its easy to avoid when you’re busy because you can justify not doing it but neglecting this essential part of your business will come back and bite you. Imagine getting an enquiry and saying, “I’d love to work with you (always WITH, never FOR) but I’m booked up for the next six months. Shall I book you in for then?” This gives the impression that you’re very, very good and worth waiting for. The clients who see that are the ones you deserve.

… Or maybe this is the time to start thinking of outsourcing, having your own band of freelancers, building a business that doesn’t rely on you doing everything … It’s been done many times, why not you?

If you have a problem with any of the things mentioned in this post, get in touch and I’ll be happy to talk you through them.

This post was written by Ann Hawkins, Founder of Drive, the Partnership Network,
Business Advisor and Mentor, author of New Business, Next Steps
and the Work Smart Not Hard Programme.  Twitter @AnnHawkins