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3 subtle but success-stifling mistakes every freelance designer makes (and how to avoid them!)

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Nobody likes making mistakes.

Sure, there’s that whole “fail faster” thing where you convince yourself that failure is a good thing because you can grow and learn and now you won’t waste your time on something that’s ultimately going to fail.

That’s not what I’m talking about, though.

What I’m talking about are the flubs. The dumb mistakes you make. The lost opportunities because you didn’t know better (or couldn’t have cared less).

Mistakes like that can be devastating for your work if they’re left unchecked. And – as awesome as freelancing is – the inherent nature of freelancing is that there’s no one checking behind you, so pretty much everything you do is left unchecked.

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When you’re consistently making mistakes without a second glance backward, you’re cutting yourself off at the knees. You’ll get a lot of rejection, deal with a lot of frustration, and possibly (probably) even go through the humiliating process of being fired.

There are common mistakes that freelance designers make all the freaking time that land them in hot water and get them nowhere good. These are the “bad” kinds of mistakes – the ones that cost you time, gigs, and money.

Recognize these mistakes that freelance designers make, learn to avoid them, and see your business start reaping the benefits. (Don’t worry – this shouldn’t hurt too much!)

1. Dropping invoice bombs

One of the things I tell prospects when they ask for my rates is that I have my pricing model set up so there are no nasty surprises. I’m all about clear expectations in terms of cost and budget, and I’ve heard a ton of horror stories of clients receiving invoices that were way higher than projected, with no warning.

Do not be the designer who goes beyond the estimated number of hours to complete the job with no warning. Do not.

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When you do this, you’ve essentially punched your client in the gut and then laughed.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you work for free. What I’m saying is, don’t drop bombs after the fact.

What should you do instead? Check in!

The very minute you realize that you’re going to need a lot more time than you expected to do the project, let the client know. Come up with a new estimate, and then suggest a plan of action.

Now, I won’t tell you that giving a heads up will save you from having uncomfortable conversations. I will tell you that it will absolutely be better than just doing the work and then sending an invoice that’s three times what the client was expecting.

When you check in the minute there’s an issue with the estimate, you communicate clearly that you respect the client’s time, budget, and trust. You’re working together, and that means you have a relationship. Not dropping financial bombs protects and strengthens the relationship, and having that trust will benefit you and your clients in the long run.

2. Searching far and wide for clients

One of the eternal debates for freelancers of any stripe, but especially web designers, is whether (and how) to niche down and pick a specific market to serve.

The fear is that by targeting only a specific type of client, you’re leaving good opportunities (and good money) on the table. It’s like FOMO, but with work instead of life.

But fear of missing out will suffocate your business before you even really have a chance to get off the ground.

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I’m a big fan of picking a niche because I’ve found in my own freelance work that having some sort of boundary around where I look for clients and what opportunities I pursue is incredibly freeing. Many web designers have experienced the same thing.

Feast Design Co. chose a niche and has had incredible success. Click here to read how they did it (and how you can, too)!

Instead of taking any and every opportunity to land a client, think about the types of clients you actually want to work with. Your best market could be clients in a particular location (e.g. your town), owners who run a specific type of business (like fitness professionals or life coaches or Etsy stores), or people who have a certain approach to their work, whatever it is (like vibrant and energetic, sophisticated and stylish, or nature-based).

“When you design for a niche, your clients will know you understand their needs. ”

Once you can zero in on who your best people are, you can focus on finding them and working with them – and leave everyone and everything else behind. Your clients will be thrilled to find a designer who really gets them and their business, and you’ll find tremendous satisfaction and business success.

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3. Downplaying your own value

I see this all the time. You’ve probably seen it too…possibly in your own self.

This whole tendency to undervalue yourself plays out in any number of ways, all of which come across as insecurity. Some common mistakes include:

  • Undercharging for your work (or even working for free because you’re “so new”)
  • Never raising your rates because you’re convinced that no one would really pay you more than you’re already making
  • Minimizing the importance of the very real skills you bring to the table, for any number of reasons (e.g. you’re certified in Google Analytics and have a deep understanding of what converts, but your clients want to negotiate for lower rates because they don’t think the analytics matter)
  • Letting your clients run the show instead of asserting your own professional opinions where they belong (you’ve seen the cartoon, right?)
  • Never saying no or putting up boundaries (e.g. responding to email always, letting the scope expand without comment, or taking on too many projects at once)

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Freelancing is a (freaking awesome) minefield

There’s no limit to the mistakes you’ll make in business, but these are the top three I see over and over again.

The best way to overcome them and avoid them in the future is to be willing to assert yourself as a knowledgeable business owner while still being a normal person who values the relationships you have with your clients.

Freelancing can be tricky (there are other people involved, after all), but it doesn’t have to be miserable. The single best thing you can do is keep asking questions, keep learning, and keep observing what others around you are doing well.

“Freelancing can be tricky but it doesn’t have to be miserable. All you need are a few strategies! ”

What’s the biggest mistake you see freelance designers make?

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