How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Freelancing

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How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Freelancing

Freelancing is a great way to earn a living if you have the right attitude, the skills, and a lot of self discipline. The challenges of freelancing, however, can undermine a successful freelance career unless you're aware of them and are prepared to avoid them well in advance. While it isn't a good idea to listen to the long list of doom and gloom often thrown your way when you strike out on your own, it is important to be realistic about the potential for certain pitfalls to trip you up.


  1. Stay current in your field of expertise. Despite the fact that you might have 20 years of experience in your field, and have spent a great deal of time working on a particular project in a government department or a big corporation, this doesn't mean that those skills will carry you on forever. Things change and ideas move on. New discoveries mean that students in university now are learning things that you should be aware of but might not be if you assume that you already know it all. The means by which you can stay current and well informed include:

    • Subscribe to relevant publications online or in print; the journalists and editors will do all the work for you so that all you have to do is read.
    • Attend seminars, guest talks, workshops, etc., in your field.
    • Join a professional society or networking group in your field; attend their meetings regularly for updates and exchanges of information.
    • Go back to school. Not intensely, just find short refresher courses targeted at professionals or tradespeople in your field.
    • Listening to clients when they tell you that they have heard about this "new such and such". If you don't know what it is that they're referring to, go and find out! And always assure them that you'll get back to them on that point.
  2. Balance your freelancing with the realities of administration. Freelancing is an opportunity to pursue the work that you love doing and are good at. However, it is not an excuse to avoid the mundane administration activities accompanying freelance work. Always keep up-to-date with the administrative side of things by setting aside regular times to prepare and pay invoices, do filing, contact late payers, follow up missing items, tidy your space, etc. Even networking can be viewed as a chore but it is essential when you are freelancing, so set aside time for this as well. Once you are into a routine, it will become easier and you'll be more accepting of the need to be methodical.

  3. Make payments on time. You expect your clients to pay you on time. It is also important for you to pay those you owe on time. Paperwork doesn't just disappear; it has a nasty habit of piling up when you ignore it and then the complaints begin flowing in. The way to stay on top of paperwork is to not treat it like a mountain but to break it down:

    • Open all invoices upon receipt (using the time you've set aside for administration each day).
    • Write the check or make the internet payment as soon as you can during the allotted administration time.
    • Keep all receipts for payments in a safe place, in order if possible. This is important for billing clients for expenses, for taxation purposes, and for record-keeping generally.
  4. Be self disciplined. It can be too easy to allow the days to flow into one another, promising yourself there is plenty of time to get around to the job later. When something becomes monotonous and less interesting, remind yourself that it is an essential part of task completion. Try to vary the monotonous things with the more interesting things that you're working on. Give yourself many short breaks rather than one long, never-ending break. The small refreshers will revive you and the reward of persevering is the completion of the tasks at hand.

  5. Move out of your comfort zone. A big trap of freelancing is to stay with the work you know inside out and not move into new areas related to what you're doing. Be open to new opportunities as they come up and rise to the challenge. If you're concerned that your skills aren't good enough, learn about the ways to improve them and go about doing so. It's often all right to explain to a client that you're new to a certain aspect of the work and that it might take longer for you get it right; in that case, you might even consider offering them a discounted rate to serve as your "guinea pig". Whatever it is, don't let the opportunities to grow pass you by.

  6. Don't sit around waiting for work. Work doesn't grow on trees and work doesn't find us. We get out there and find the work. That's the way of the world. Until you are so much in demand that you're turning away clients, you are going to have to do the footwork yourself. Get out there and find the clients – network, attend trade fairs, attend professional events, attend business get-togethers and schmooze in the way that befits you. Listen carefully when networking and pick up on the things people need done. And don't be too shy to offer your services to a firm out of the blue by writing to them and suggesting that you have noticed their website/brochures/décor/dirty floors, etc. and offer your services as being new/less expensive/more cutting edge/more understanding than whoever is currently providing those services. You won't know unless you try.