This year, November 1 marks my third Freelanciversary.
I’m on pace to have my most successful year yet, revenue-wise. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still make mistakes along the way.
In years past, I shared some freelance tips I learned since I left my day job, like:
- The hard lessons I learned during my first year back as a freelancer
- The useful lessons I built on during my second year of freelancing
- Why you should always manage your career like you’re self-employed (even if you’re a salaried employee)
This year, I want to do something different: I want to call out some freelance mistakes that I keep making. Why? To motivate myself into working smarter.
Besides, most blog advice is really just self-help disguised as tips for others anyway. So, here are…
5 Freelance Mistakes You (by Which I Mean I) Should Stop Doing
Not clearly specializing in one particular efficiency
Look, I know that specializing can seem scary.
Nobody wants to “narrow their options,” or go down a lonely road that isn’t fruitful.
But you know what’s even scarier? Being broke.
If you’ve ever answered the question “so, what do you do” with a vast, formless answer like “I help businesses optimize their inbound marketing channels through a series of message evaluation tactics that are designed to reinforce a brand’s core values,” please, just… don’t.
At best, a too-general answer sounds like you do everything imaginable (which you don’t). At worst, it sounds like you have no idea what you’re doing. If you did, you’d know how to explain it.
Trying to be a generalist is one of the biggest freelance mistakes you can make.
So instead, just do one thing, and do it really fucking well. Then scale, if you want to.
“But wait… what happens if people don’t need the very specific service that I offer?”
Well, here’s a bigger problem: when you offer to do anything and everything, you don’t stand out. (You also sound desperate, but that’s a different issue.)
On the other hand, when you say “I design easily-updatable websites for local businesses” or “I take professional headshots for small business owners” or “I increase the email open rates for nonprofits,” two things happen: people understand what exactly you do, and they know who you tailor your services for. Being a specialist makes it infinitely easier for others to recommend you.
Speaking of which…
Not serving one specific target audience
Yes, you should specialize your services. But you should also clearly define who you want to work with.
Trying to help everyone is one of the prevalent freelance mistakes. And we all make it, because it’s hard to turn down new work. The problem is, paradoxically, it makes us seem less experienced.
“But I want to work for all kinds of customers / clients! I can help sooooooo many people.”
Don’t worry, you still can. But you need a starting point.
No one’s stopping a small business photographer from also taking professional headshots for corporate executives, or a nonprofit email specialist from also increasing email open rates for startups. Just because you vocally do something for one specific group, that doesn’t mean you can’t also apply your expertise to a different group.
In fact, it may even help.
For example, let’s say that I know you’re a nonprofit email expert. How does this help you?
First, that specialization means I’m more likely to remember you. And secondly, if I meet a small business owner who also needs help with their email marketing, I’ll probably ask you if that’s something you also do, or if you know someone else who has that specialty.
On the other hand, if all I know is that you do “marketing for business,” I have zero idea what your proficiencies. I also don’t know who you have a track record of helping.
And that means I’ll probably recommend someone else whose specializations are clear.
Not getting client testimonials
Your potential clients want to know what you’ve done for your previous clients. They want to see that you’ve helped someone like them with a problem like theirs.
But here’s a secret: anyone who’s hiring you to help their business is already insanely busy. Asking them for a testimonial is like asking them to drop everything and only think about you.
That’s asking a lot.
So what can you do instead?
Write your own testimonial and ask them to approve it.
Start by thinking like a future client. What would they want to know that you accomplished for you current client? Write that down in simple language. Then ask your client if they agree with your summary.
If your client does agree, they’ll approve it and you can use it. Simple.
If they don’t, it can still be useful, but for a different reason.
Seeing your ideal testimonial gives your client a chance to edit or reword it — or, in a best-case scenario, to add to it. And in a worst-case scenario, if they actually have some problems with your work, this gives them a chance to address it because you brought it up, not because they had to awkwardly confront you. (Look at you, being proactive!)
Also, here’s a bonus tip: if you pre-write your own testimonials, just stick to the scope of the work and the results you helped create. Don’t include “soft” compliments like how quickly you respond to feedback, how well-organized you are, or how wonderful you are to work with.
Pre-tooting your own horn is a bad look. Let your clients add those glowing embellishments on their own.
Not asking for referrals
Like testimonials, your clients would be happy to recommend you to others, if only they had the time. Or if you… you know… asked.
The key is to ask for referrals in a way that doesn’t make your clients have to think forever about who they’d suggest.
To do this, ask your client to recommend you to someone they know who also has the same problem you just solved for them.
For example, if you just redesigned a client’s website and that led to an increase in their sales, ask them to recommend you to three of their friends who also struggle with closing sales. Or, if you just delivered a promotional video that earned them a huge traffic spike, ask them who else they know who needs more traffic to their website.
Once again, being specific removes the time-consuming guesswork and helps people quickly connect the “why you should hire me” dots.
Not scheduling your business growth into your workflow
This is probably the worst of all freelance mistakes.
And man, am I ever guilty of this one.
You already know that your business won’t grow if you don’t actively invest your own time in it. But, if you’re like me, you want to clear your to-do list for others before you can feel like you’ve earned the right to focus on yourself. This means you invest your primary time and energy on client work, and then you spend whatever time and energy you have left over on yourself.
That’s like feeding everyone else first and then wondering why you’re still hungry.
So here’s an easy way to stop leaving yourself out of the workflow loop: spend the first hour of your workday building your business.
Do all your can’t-skip outreach, your self-promotion, your social media scheduling, and whatever else you need to do to sell yourself before you do the work that pays the bills.
That way, you can ensure that your pipeline is always percolating, rather than running yourself down and then hoping that a proposal you write using your end-of-day fumes will be good enough to win you that next contract.
Or, to put it another way: treat yourself like your own best client, and then you’ll be able to attract more clients who want you to treat them as well as you treat yourself.