More people are freelancing today than ever before. Thanks to the power of the internet to connect people around the world and enable easy communication and collaboration, freelancers have become a strong and rapidly growing segment of the workforce. The traditional 9-to-5 job is increasingly obsolete as people opt for the freedom and flexibility that freelancing offers.
There’s a lot that’s great about being a freelancer, but it’s not all smooth sailing. Especially for people who are just starting out, it can be tough to figure out a routine and gain momentum. To set yourself and your freelancing career up for success, here are five common traps to avoid.
1. Waiting for work
One of the key things that distinguishes freelancing from working on staff is that finding work is up to you. At a full-time job, there’s generally a manager who divvies out assignments or at least a team consensus on what needs to be done. As a freelancer, it’s on you to find your own clients and projects. You can’t wait around for jobs to arrive at your door—you have to hustle. There are some people who leave full-time jobs with freelance clients already lined up, or who have a big enough reputation that the clients come to them, but they are the exception, not the norm. Don’t be shy about mining your personal network for work opportunities and putting it out there that you are available for freelance projects. You never know which feelers will result in a job, so think outside the box for where and how you look.
2. Amateur Hour
Just because you are your own boss as a freelancer does not mean that you shouldn’t take your freelance career seriously. It’s a business, so treat it as such. The standards of professionalism are not any different for freelancers than for anyone else; It’s just as important—maybe more—to respond promptly to messages, deliver assignments on time, and present yourself well.
Approaching your business as a professional will not only help you get and retain work, but also protect yourself. The top complaint of freelancers is that they don’t get paid on time. A contract, even a simple and straightforward one, creates accountability for both parties so you don’t get screwed. Contracts can also serve as a platform for negotiation. You don’t have to take the rate or terms that the employer gives you wholesale. Freelance pros know to ask for what they deserve.
3. Time Management
Some freelance assignments require workers to be in an office for a certain number of days or hours throughout the project, but most are remote. As a freelancer, your schedule is largely up to you. The lack of structure can be thrilling, but it can also make it hard to get motivated or stay on track. Procrastinating can be easy when you are working from home. Juggling multiple clients can also be tricky. Too few clients and you are short on cash, but too many clients, and you may find yourself completely bogged down.
Avoid time management becoming an issue by setting a schedule or routine and sticking to it. This doesn’t have to look “traditional.” If you work best at night and don’t have client meetings, why not start work at 4 pm and work until midnight? The key is understanding your own habits and what enables you to be productive, and structuring your work life accordingly. If working at home makes it too easy to get distracted, consider finding a co-working space and/or trying out a tool like RescueTime, which tracks how you spend your time on your computer and analyzes it to help you optimize.
4. Money, money, money
As I said before, not getting paid on time (or at all) is one of the most common freelance complaints. A 2015 report from the Freelancers Union revealed that 44 percent of its members reported issues getting paid. On average, its members are owed over $10,000 in unpaid invoices and spend 36 hours tracking down missing payments. If you’re used to a job that pays regularly every two weeks, this can be a tough adjustment.
Timely payment is a problem and it sucks for freelancers, but there are ways to mitigate the sting.
Contracts with payment deadline clauses are a good start. Don’t be shy about following up with your project manager if payments are late. Asking about money can be uncomfortable, but it’s important.
Another money trap for freelancers is navigating the financial highs and lows. There will be lean months and there will be flush months. Staying on top of how much you are making and how much you are spending is essential to staying afloat. It’s smart to set goals for how much you need to make each month and make sure you are hitting them. It’s also smart to use income tracking tools like Wave, Freshbooks, Quickbooks Self-Employed, and Sighted for visibility into your finances and help with how much to pay in quarterly taxes.
5. Treading water
It can take time to build momentum freelancing and in the beginning, it’s perfectly normal to take whatever work comes your way. However, if you plan on freelancing over the long term, then you have to think about your long-term goals. Freelancing is a career path, just like a full-time job, with opportunities for advancement. Ask yourself: What do I hope to get out of freelancing? What types of projects do I want to be spending my time on? Where do I want to be in 1, 2, 5 years? What do I have to do to get there? You always wants to feel like you are making progress, and avoiding these traps can help you optimize for success.