Whether you’re currently self-employed or looking to make the leap into the independent work life, it can be a seriously stressful time in your life. Whether you’re starting by necessity to break into an industry or being fed up of the 9-5 rat race. Graphic designer, web developer or coder – there is seriously relevant information in here for everybody.

I have been self employed for a number of years now over at Creative Wavelength. I’m still working solo but the difference in efficiency between when I started and now is incredible.

I wish someone had told me HALF of what I’m about to share with you as it would have sped up the process a lot! Which brings me to my first point..

Not enough research

This like a few others is a catch 22 or like living between a rock and a hard place. If you’re reading this you’re already doing your due diligence before jumping into the self employed life. Though if you do too much, you’ll suffer from paralysis by analysis and never take action. Like many of the points listed here, finding that sweet spot in the middle is how we succeed.

Research is vital to prevent seriously burning yourself & your potential clients. If you don’t research you can’t plan, if you can’t research and plan – you’ll almost certainly fail.

Research comes in many forms, it’s the competitor research that you do yourself to see how other freelancers are managing this crazy life. It’s the questions you ask your client to measure expectations, it’s the client competitor research, it’s the countless books, blogs and articles you read to understand the industry better. Without it, you’re flying blind.

Understanding your industry as a freelancer is vital for securing work, if you can’t talk confidently about your work and industry you’ll find it harder to secure higher end work and you can’t become an expert in your industry, without relentlessly studying and analyzing it as well as leading by example by actually doing the work.

Passion for what you do plays a huge role here as if you don’t enjoy what you do, you’re not going to put in the extra work necessary. Without research you won’t be able to formulate a plan or set realistic goals

Failure to plan – No Goals – No Process

Maybe you have listened to a few motivational podcasts or youtube videos and now are super hyped to get started. That’s good – you need motivation, but without discipline, goals & planning, you’ll burn out quick.

Unless you want to live month to month for the rest of your life you’ll need to formulate a plan for growing. Short term goals, when mixed with long term plans, will help you keep the motivation needed to stick at it.

Ultimately the key thing that seperates the quitters from the winners is discipline and a bit of forward planning – unless you get lucky.

Focus on money over work

I call this one the hustle effect. As much as I love listening to Gary V he’s inspired a new generation of get rich quick wannabes who have little passion for any craft and often result in nothing more than a lot of potential clients burnt

If you’re not passionate about what you do and money is the only motivator you generally won’t stick at your craft long enough to earn serious money at it freelance. This is a general rule and I’ve seen it happen time after time, however, there are exceptions like exceptional circumstances or a need to get income for more than just yourself.

From a mental health perspective however, if you don’t really enjoy what you do, the freelance life is not for you this I can promise you.

No contracts and bad clients

A serious client won’t mind the paperwork but it’s a quick way of putting off terrible clients.

This falls into research and planning. If you don’t treat your income with a professional attitude, don’t expect others to either.

One of the main complaints I’ve seen across all sorts of freelance communities is stories of being burnt by a client pulling out, doing a disappearing act, constantly requesting additional changes beyond the initial agreed project scope or finding a lame excuse to not pay.

This is a reality of the freelance lifestyle and it really sucks sometimes but there are ways around this. Setting easy to follow milestones like 25% x 4 or my personal favourite 50% upfront, firm contracts and clear communication will weed out the bad clients from the start and set the tone for the rest of the project.

Focus on perfection over money

This is the polar opposite of those who are only motivated by money and instead are relentlessly motivated by perfection of their craft. This is great for client testimonials and a strong portfolio but the problem freelancers like this often suffer is they don’t put enough focus and self belief in their income.

Freelancers like this often suffer from self doubt, taking peanuts for payment and in general not earning enough. The answer isn’t alway easy but that strong portfolio, a bit of emphasis on working out your hourly rate is and implementing a solid payment strategy and contract work will help you.

Poor marketing

Most freelancers live off word of mouth work also known as referral work. This can keep you afloat if you do it right but why stop there or rely on all of your eggs in the one basket. If you really want to grow your client base you need to have multiple sales funnels.

  • A well optimised website with strong SEO showcasing your portfolio
  • An active social media
  • Personal branding (if you are using a branded name instead of your own name for your freelance work)
  • Traditional advertising
  • Networking
  • Content marketing – using a blog, video marketing or writing articles for platforms like medium and LinkedIn will help you expand your network.

Avoid freelance websites that make you compete for work with those willing to do it for peanuts as the majority of these are either scammers or those living in countries with a much smaller cost of living than yours. There are some reputable sites but generally, they are few and far between and not worth the effort.

No Routine – Poor time management

Having no boss is great, your friends are all jealous that you’re out of the system and you have complete freedom. When you’re intitally starting you may either be completely focused until you hit a wall or you may procrastinate too much.

Either way if you don’t develop good habits and a good process for working you’ll not work hard enough. Working too hard will result in a burnout which will lead to even more procrastination so the solution? Work smart.

Find a method that works for you, for some this could be using a work method like the pomodoro technique of 25 minutes of distraction free work and 5 minutes of chillout time. There are multiple extensions for chrome that help you enforce this.

Personally, I use an app called Rescuetime which let’s me categorize different activities as productive or distracting. Through this I can then set goals and block distracting activities if I spend too much time ( 1 hour daily) on them. As an analytical person, I find this most suitable to my needs as I can analyze then optimise my time better.

As a general rule of thumb however, unless your marketing demands it. Avoid social media like Instagram and Facebook like the plague. These are time drains which lead to nothing productive getting done.

Failure to network

One of the most common freelance issues is the inability to network as the majority of freelancers are generally quite introverted. Networking is a vital part of the freelance lifestyle as it can keep you sane, lead to more work or collaborative projects. It can also help you establish yourself as an expert in the industry, should you do it right.

Not spending enough time Learning

One of the easiest ways to keep ahead of the competition is to never stop learning and improving your craft.

Learning can be reading articles, learning from others mistakes, taking in new ideas through books or something practical like taking a course. These new skills will help you have the confidence to further increase your hourly rate and attract new clients based on your ability.

There are a huge amount of free resources out there for learning a new craft, there are some better paid options and beyond that there’s a ton of. people trying to sell you on their webinar which will have huge varying degrees of actual usefulness.

Working for peanuts

This is one of the most common issues I see new freelancers make. Not understanding how to calculate your hourly rate, self-doubt in your ability or lack of experience usually will result in a income well beneath what you’re actually worth.

The flipside of this is charging too much though many will tell you this is perfectly ok. I recently wrote an article about this specific for WordPress web development and it gives good insight to the thought process behind pricing a website package.

Photographers and videographers have high equipment costs they need to factor into their rate

Just remember you’re earning for yourself and a business, you need to earn enough to stay afloat and save, esepcially for times of emergency – like what would you do if your computer kicked the bucket or family health forced you to take a few weeks off work.

Working for peanuts is generally only ok if you’re doing pro-bono work for a cause, community or charity that you believe in and are willing to spend time on to build your porfolio and build new connections. You should make clear in these instances your available working hours and that this isn’t full time.

Not handling your finances – Treating income like profit

It’s easy to look at the self-employed lifestyle, the practically unlimited potential for earning and get over excited about it. Whilst it’s true you can earn way more in a month than you’d earn in your regular job (not as easy as you’d think) – it’s also very probable that you might earn nothing. With no ceiling comes no floor so remember that!

One of the most important aspects of being self-employed is understanding a fair amount of the money you earn, you’ll have to reinvest into your business. Whether this is for new equipment, software or training – staying ahead of competitors and growing takes time & money. I’m sure you have heard of the old saying – you’ve got to spend money to make money – well it’s true.

Spending Poorly

Budgeting is vital as a freelancer and prioristing is one of the best skillsets you can have. There is a million different services & products claiming to be amazing for you but in reality you can probably make do with a couple.

One of the most common issues is when you’re first starting out is to splurge out on the best equipment. If you’re buying a computer and it’s expensive you should ask yourself questions like, how well does this model hold it’s value, how many years is this going to last me and perform well, how reliable is this model? If your work is all digital having a reliable and fast PC / Mac will save you time and heartache.

Spending too little or researching poorly can result in a low performing machine unsuitable for your work or unreliable. I could write in depth about specific models to pursue but as this article targets multiple freelancer careers it’s important to just be aware about your needs. IE a freelancer videographer or 3D model designer will need to spend high on software & Equipment early on. A coder or website designer can generally make do with something cheap and reliable.

A lot of freelancers for the first few months don’t even earn a wage and a few years of experience has taught me to enjoy the highs but save for the lows and of course… taxes

Comparing yourself to others

I call this one the Instagram effect as it’s as about as a good a use of your time as staring at someone else’s profile, either way you won’t get the full story and both ways you are wasting your time.

Comparing yourself to other freelancer usually occurs when frustrtion sets in. Why am I not earning as much as x or b when my work is much better etc. The only time you should be comparing is when formulating a strategy for an SEO plan or business plan. Pricing if necessary but remember everyone is at different stages in life and freelancing is no different. Ego can often blind you or self doubt can cripple you.

Forgetting about taxes

In the UK at least, we don’t normally have to do our own taxes the government forces our employers to do it for you. The pay-check you get is after taxes so you’ve nothing to worry about.

For the self employed – taxes are a burden and a relief, whilst it’s true we can technically pay less taxes than our full time counterparts thanks to reinvesting money into the business – it’s still money spent and not earned for personal income.

Whilst there are some really useful software like quickbooks for taxes that mean you can avoid the extra expense of an accountant, you still need to devote some time every month / few months to keeping on track of it all.

The best advice is to learn what counts as business expenses and what doesn’t so you can spend your money most efficiently and save on tax costs expenditure.

That’s not even getting into the complications of VAT should you earn that amount or the numerous types of self employment like whether you should opt for sole trader, partnership or limited company which all have different pro’s and con’s.

Self doubt

If you don’t seriously believe in your work or your own ability, you may suffer some serious anxiety or depression over the self employed life. Ordinary job roles allow people to focus on one role (mostly) at a time. As a freelancer, you need to be able to do multiple job roles to an acceptable standard. Here’s jobs you’ll need to borrow skills from

  • Salesperson
  • Graphic Designer
  • Website developer
  • Marketer
  • Social Media
  • Accountant

If you can’t do all of these you may need to learn to focus on the parts you do really well and either work with someone else or hire someone else to help you. Spreading yourself too thin is a real problem with being a freelancer but the main skill you’ll learn is how to focus your time.

Spreading yourself too thin

As the above point alludes to, you have a fair amount more work to do than the average person and a lot of it may be out of your experience level so extra time is often spent trying to figure out how to do all this properly. The problem with this is, is the same any other business owner soon learns trying to do everything by yourself is you lose out on a lot of time that could have been spent earning.

It’s easy to get lost in neat spreadsheets or organising client results, staring at analytics or whatever is relevant but not relevant enough to your work. A good rule of thumb is to spend 80% of your time on the 20% of clients or work that earns the real money and find software to automate or outsource the rest.

Failing to back it all up

This one is relevant to every freelancers. Keep copies of everything on external devices and in the cloud.

Nothing breaks your heart quite like losing a huge amount of work or past porfolio work because you didn’t have a good backup system in place. Gsuite is excellent for freelancers because of the ability to have your own business email and online storage for keeping backups.

Not creating real value

What is real value? Well it’s real worth to your clients and this can be subjective. A great graphic designer will create art that is relevant and eye catching for their clients and not rely on templates. A great website designer will understand user experience, optimisation and SEO and incorporate them all flawlessly wheras a bad developer will use a template or design a basic website and leave it like that.

Pricing high and working tirelessly will result in good clients, churning out multiple cheap copies will result in more cheap clients. Work for the client you want in 5 years.

Not getting testimonials

Referral work is one of the best way of getting new clients so failing to take advantage of this is a flawed strategy. The right time to ask for a client testimonial can be tricky.

Asking for a referral before or after launch when they’re extremely excited about their new project launching is usually the best time.

Not having a niche

If I had a time machine this is would be the first thing and the most important point of emphasis I would have given myself. Those who try to sell to everyone often get no one in return.

If you do work for one or two niche sectors you will gain respect and a reputation in there. You’ll also develop extensive knowledge of it. It’s also a lot easier to gain word of mouth referrals as you will tend to find business owners in these niches talk.

In Summary

The Freelance lifestyle offers you many benefits including uncapped income, flexible working hours and the ability to expand and create your own business but it can be brutally hard on your income and mental health.

If you’ve read all this and aren’t put off in the slightest it’s definitely for you. Feel free to share this article with anyone else you know who is struggling