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3 Freelancing Mistakes That Keep You Stuck at Rookie Level

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businessman trapped in box

Getting a steady stream of work is hard, especially when you’re just starting out. So you take every client you can and work day and night to keep the lights on.

But there’s a problem.

This behavior that pays the bills in the short-term won’t get you to the next level. If you want to grow your client base and make money as a freelancer, then you need to start doing things differently.

To get on the right track, avoid these three mistakes:

Mistake #1: Relying on job boards for all of your work

Job boards are one of the best ways to get clients in the early days when you’re just scraping by. But you shouldn’t depend on them forever. Here’s why:

  • You become a commodity. There’s simply too much competition responding to job boards. So instead of shining for your creative work, you become a number in a large crowd. To sift through all of those people, the hiring person or organization has to focus on objective criteria like price and your qualifications.
  • If your background and experience don’t match up properly, or your price is out of an employer’s league, they’ll just discard your submission and move on to the next person. The marketing ROI of this activity becomes so low that your time is probably better spent doing other things to bring in business.
  • You have no control or leverage. When all of the contract terms are dictated to you, you have no other choice but to accept. So all of the important aspects of the project like pricing, scope and timing are set in stone before you even get to the bargaining table.
  • The scope may be outlandish or the timing absurd, but you can’t change any of those elements. You can either agree and be held accountable, or they’ll find someone else.
  • You’re dealing with price-sensitive people. Like it or not, companies using job boards are inherently price-sensitive. Which is perfectly fine; everyone has a budget. But the problem is that price-sensitive people aren’t loyal to you; they’re loyal to the lowest price.
  • If another solution comes along that’s a better fit for their budget, then your services will no longer be needed. So you need to find a new way to succeed, rather than trying to undercut your competition.

Job boards are a great way to find clients when you’re starting out. But you need to move beyond them if you want to grow your business and make more money.

Here’s what you should do instead:

Mistake #2: Not marketing yourself or building your brand

You’re busy dealing with clients, and you spend every waking moment on billable work that will actually get you paid. But that’s also the problem.

To grow, get more clients and charge higher rates, you need to market yourself and build your brand.

How are you supposed to find the time?

Pay yourself first. Spend two hours each morning on brand building and business development activities to create demand for your services and raise your visibility within your niche. Then do client work when you’re done.

For example, you should make a name for yourself by doing what you do best: writing, designing, creating or whatever else. Submit your work to the best, most relevant publications you can think of, both on the Web and in traditional print.

That will build your brand and give you social proof, but you’ll also start discovering new, more effective online marketing channels to reach your target audience.

You’ll also want to start crafting your own unique selling proposition (what you do, how you do it and who you do it for) and what makes you different from everyone else in the marketplace.

These activities will create inbound demand and attention for your services, which means you can charge higher rates, control the scope of each assignment and deliver your services within a realistic time frame.

And then it will give you the freedom to take the final step:

Mistake #3: Never turning down work

You do not have to take on every client.

And you shouldn’t. So you have to start turning the bad ones away, even if it means less money initially.

In Book Yourself Solid, Michael Port describes having a “Velvet Rope Policy.” You have to screen clients carefully so you’re only letting the best ones in.

The biggest problem with bad clients or projects is that you won’t do your best work, which means both you and the client will end up unhappy. And nobody needs the stress or hassle of dealing with difficult clients, anyway.

Your lost time on bad projects also has an opportunity cost—hours that could have been spent servicing good clients or marketing yourself to create more inbound demand.

As a freelancer, there are only two ways to make more money:

  1. Take on more clients.
  2. Charge higher rates.

If you limit the number of clients you take and force yourself to only accept great ones, then you can also afford to charge higher rates.

When you transition from being a new freelancer to becoming the best in your industry, the profitability of your work and each new client’s needs move you closer to your professional goals.

You can’t just accept work for work’s sake.

And if you want to reach these goals sooner (rather than later), you need to start generating more inbound demand instead of only relying on job boards.

Brad Smith is the founder of FixCourse, which shows people how to fix their marketing and get more customers. He’s also the co-creator of 500 Business Books, a free newsletter that profiles one business book each week in an easy-to-digest format.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=172339646152677 Spark Hire

    These are all great tips if you’re looking to start up a freelance career and avoid the most common mistakes. Relying entirely on job boards is fine in the beginning, but soon you should have made enough contacts to network your way into some great opportunities. If you haven’t yet though, you might want to consider submitting a video resume along with your traditional resume and work portfolio. On video you can show off your communication skills (always important in a freelancer) and better explain just what skills you have to bring to the table.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003402939794 Atanu Rover

    Its really a nice post. well paying job.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000034136310 Jackie Boards

    Great points. I think they all have merit. Freelancing is not for the faint at heart. You have to have confidence in what you do. Suggested Mistake #4 – Believing that they will come because you have a good product or service in the community. I suggest that you become an expert in what you do. Know your product or service better than your competition.As you say above, become supremely focused on your product or service. People will always respect an expert. They may not always use your service or product because of other factors, but they will acknowledge that what you do is good. They will always pay you more money because of your knowledge and expertise.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004498928521 Radhakrishnan Venkataraman

    Great article. I was a freelancer between 1988 to 1993 and am now again freelancing for the last 8 years, after a few Corporate Jobs. Would like to add a few more “mistakes” that I made the first time, which may help others NOT to make the same mistakes.
    1. Don’t rely on 1 or 2 large customers only. A steady stream from 1 large customer can get you so hooked that when they ditch you suddenly for no fault of yours, you suddenly find yourself out of a job.
    2. Understand and manage cash flows. Create a ring buffer for your inflows and pay yourself from this ring buffer, so that you have a steady income regardless of the billing stream’s ups and downs.
    3. You are worth what YOU THINK YOU ARE. Keep increasing your rates steadily over time so that only the best can afford to hire you and you don’t become a commodity.
    4. Productize your services ( if possible), so that you do not reinvent the wheel every time.

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