You’re a Rookie Freelancer, and Clients Can Smell It
I made so many cringe-worthy mistakes when I ventured away from the traditional 9 to 5, but that doesn’t mean you have to.
In 2017, I’d stumbled upon the infamous Upwork platform and was quickly hired for several projects, but soon found that I was putting in 60+ hours a week with minimal results.
And when I say minimal, I mean “not able to pay all my bills” minimal.
I hadn’t learned how to position myself as an independent contractor, and it was painfully obvious to clients. They could tell I was ready to accept any project for whatever price that was thrown my way, rather than presenting specific guidelines that accurately represented my value.
To be honest, I was so stoked to be sitting at home and earning a living through an enjoyable, non-soul-sucking method, that I truly didn’t care. I was just thankful for the opportunity.
No more customer service jobs. No more spending hours away from my dogs. No more sitting in traffic. I didn’t have to answer to anyone, and I could wear whatever the hell I wanted. I could save money on gas, food, and make more time for exercise and reading.
The problem is that you aren’t saving any time or money when you’re accepting every five and ten dollar project that comes your way. I was drowning in work and bills. To make matters worse, my earnings were slashed 20% due to the service fee, and I was paying a percentage to move the money from Upwork to Paypal, to a bank account. At one point, I was actually rotating between sleeping two hours then working two hours through the night.
Eventually, I had to “eat a shit sandwich” as my Dad refers to it, and get back to a typical job environment until I could figure out how to maintain clients without killing myself in the process.
Look, you and I aren’t the first people to hit this uncomfortable rut in our freelancing expeditions and we won’t be the last. However, that doesn’t mean you should simply give up.
You’ll find plenty of stories online about people who couldn’t figure out how to make it work. They discourage others from using freelance platforms altogether and suggest that it’s just not worth it.
Personally, I think that’s total B.S. If nothing else, places like Fiverr and Upwork can help you build a portfolio and gain your footing as a professional.
I started off charging $10-$12 per hour. Now, I charge $20-$30 per hour, and I’m no longer accepting a measly $15 for 2,000 word articles. That’s insane.
If you’re hoping for a get-rich-quick scheme or overnight results though, I can definitely see where disappointment would ensue. Establishing yourself as a writer takes time and effort, it’s far from easy. However, if you’re willing to accept that mistakes and rejection are part of the process, I promise, you CAN do this.
Stop Thinking Like an Employee
If you’re anything like me, you approach every proposal, meeting, and interview as if your life depended on it. You worry that you’ll come off rude, or as a pushover, or unfriendly, or incapable. Self-doubt is something that I’ve grappled with for the past 28 years, but diving into the waters of writing has truly opened my eyes to the value that I bring to the table.
You have to start thinking of, and presenting yourself, as a business owner.
Yes, we all know what a hard worker you are and how flexible your schedule is, blah blah BLAH. Clients don’t care about you personally, they just want to know that you can give them results, how long it’s going to take, and how much it’s going to cost.
When you’re putting in proposals and sending out cold emails, remember that this is not a job application. You are a professional with a service to offer, and you determine the work you’re willing to do. You set the rates.
My rookie freelancer mistake was appearing desperate.
“Oh, you want me to write a 2,000-word article with scholarly links, headers, find my own photos, AND do my own research for $15? Sure thing!”
Please, don’t ever do this.
You’re not an employee, you don’t have to beg for a position. In a world where people are constantly telling you that you’re “replaceable” or “non-essential,” remember, you can find literally thousands, even millions of businesses to work for.
There‘s plenty of other fish in the sea, so many that it’s actually overwhelming.
Start Filtering Out Low-Quality Clients
In the same way that employers screen individuals before bringing them into a company, you’ve got to start being selective about the clientele. You want this to be your main source of income, right? You’re tired of your little $500 paycheck every two weeks, you know you deserve better. So why are you accepting the exact same circumstances in your writing that you did at your job?
It’s time to get serious about your financial goals. In order to make freelancing a main source of income, it’s essential that you target the right audience.
Realistically, money matters to everyone, but a high-quality, high-paying client is going to be far more concerned with the results than the price. I actually once had a client tip $30 every pay period, and he told me that I was charging too little!
This is the exception, not the rule. Most people are happy to continue taking advantage of your hard work, and that’s just an unfortunate truth you’ve got to come to terms with. My client knew that he was going to get a major ROI, or Return On Investment because of the quality of the service I was presenting him with.
Think of it this way… would you rather be the Dollar Store of writing or the Whole Foods?
In another instance, I had a client who was consistently happy with my work but constantly complained about my rate. He’d always tell me how great and well-thought-out the pieces were but questioned the 30 minutes of extra time it took me to research the effects of CBD on the brain and the body.
I mean…who cares about credibility or statistics?
Being naive, young, and still gaining my footing in the freelancing world, I backed down. I refunded that 30 minutes of time.
When I tried to sever the business relationship, this particular client responded by leaving a horrendous review, filled my inbox with nasty, lengthy messages, and basically said that the quality of my work was so shoddy that it wasn’t worth a dime. I believe the exact word that he used was “insulting.”
I won’t lie to you, the incident left me feeling pretty blue and wanting to put the pen up for good. That sense of self-doubt came creeping back in. I’d had a slew of these types of clients back to back, and I started feeling like maybe I was the problem.
My rookie freelancer mistake was assuming that all clients are the same. Being a writer is hard, you deal with so much rejection…so many people shitting on you in so little time. This is a totally normal experience, you’re not a terrible, hopeless writer, and your work isn’t “insulting.” We all go through it.
Be wary of red flags, and don’t allow anyone to hit you with a lowball; good clients understand basic human decency.
There’s no need to waste any time working for someone who probably doesn’t even tip their waiter.
Stop Setting Rookie Rates
Now that I’ve reached a point where I’m charging $25-$30 an hour, I literally cringe when I think about how much work I’ve put in for basically minimum wage. During the initial few months of using the Upwork platform, I had also been working a day job as a pastry baker. I started off at $10 and had received a dollar raise per year for two years, stopping me right at $12 an hour.
In my mind, that was my value. I truly thought I was only worth $12.
The only thing that makes me cringe more is when I see other freelancers charging $4- $9 per hour! It absolutely blows my mind how little writers think of themselves.
Line cooks get paid more. Even pastry chefs are charging $17+ for their hourly wage.
You’re not a line cook, and even if that’s what you do on the side to pay the bills, you’re a writer!
The work you do requires skill, hours and hours of time, and it’s not something that the average Joe can do. Sure, anyone can make a Medium account and write whatever, and however, they feel like writing…but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be successful.
My recommendation would be to start at $20 per hour and NEVER fold when clients try to talk you down. Stick to your guns; they’re not just paying for the blog, or the design, or whatever it is you’re doing for them. They’re paying for the expertise and the time that it took to carefully research and craft a final, professional, result.
My rookie freelancer mistake was assuming that if I supplied copy at cheaper prices, or offered freebies, that clients would give me a raise. I thought I’d get the same, one lame-ass extra dollar on top of my hourly pay as I received in the customer service industry. The reality is that no one gave me extra anything, and the more I gave the more people took. In their eyes, I was cheap, and even free labor.
Manage Scope Creep From The Beginning
What is scope creep? By definition, scope creep is continuous, or uncontrollable growth in a project’s requirements. This is where contract outlines become very, very important. If there comes a time when a client feels overwhelmed or wishes to delegate a few more tasks your way, that is absolutely wonderful. However, it also means that your contract needs to be revised.
Choosing not to take this extra step sets you up to be taken advantage of, whether that is the client’s intention or not. You’ll slowly find yourself spending a few minutes, then a few hours, then a few days trying to get those “last few details” finished. Before you know it, you’re pushing back due dates and scrambling to come up with excuses as to why you’re falling behind on other projects.
Take your time with working out the details, and don’t ever feel as though you have to bend on something you aren’t comfortable with.
A specific, clear contract will address things like…
- The exact responsibilities: If you agreed to write blogs and interact with the audience of those blogs through comments, then that is ALL that you are required to do. If the client requests work that you have not agreed upon or inquires as to whether or not you’d be interested in taking on more, it’s entirely your decision. Just make sure it’s updated in the contract.
- What the client will be billed for: Timekeeping is crucial, so start making a record of tasks the same way lawyers do. If you researched for 15 minutes, typed for 45 minutes, and edited for 30 minutes for a total of an hour and a half, that is how you need to detail it in your billing. If the client requests an hour-long meeting, that is also billable time. The idea here is to be completely transparent about your services and the fees that they come with, while setting boundaries for scope creep prevention.
- A limit on revisions: I absolutely cannot stress this enough. It’s completely normal for a client to say “hey, can you change a few things.” However, “a few things” can quickly become an entire two-day rewrite. A standard rule of thumb would be to allow a maximum of two complimentary (notice that I said complimentary, NOT free) revisions, and charge accordingly for any work performed beyond that point.
- Clear hours of operation: Clients need to be aware of when and how to reach you. This means that they can get in touch with you through email, app, or whatever method of contact you prefer, but they really only need one. The hours of operation could be 8 AM to 4 PM or 10 AM to 6 PM. It’s your schedule, so you set it up at your own convenience and discretion. Once hours are set, be firm and make it clear that you will not respond to emails, calls, or any form of contact outside of those hours.
When I was just starting out, I worked for a few different companies that were owned by the same people. Initially, I signed on with the intention of writing blogs and performing weekly price adjustments on their Amazon store. That’s it.
At this time, I was also servicing about four or five other clients.
After the first few weeks or so, they asked if I’d be comfortable with fulfilling Amazon orders as well. In my mind I thought, no big deal, it’ll only take a few minutes a day. Unfortunately, there were so many customer complaints about the packaging and quality of the products, I was sending out nearly 20 to 30 fulfillment requests and refunds daily…for each company.
Slowly, I took more and more time away from other projects to keep up with this one client. Much like the incident a few paragraphs up, he’d constantly tell me what a great job I was doing…and then complain about the time being spent to do it.
I was already overwhelmed, I really just wanted to tell him that this was too much. I couldn’t handle everything he was throwing at me on top of what I’d already agreed to do for other people.
Things rapidly worsened after I hesitantly gave the okay for him to send the product to my home, then I was expected to mail it out to customers every damn day.
You’re probably wondering, “why did you let it get to that point?”
The short answer is that I’m a bit of a pushover. I don’t like to say no to people, I hate disappointing others, and in some ways, I feel as though turning down an “opportunity for growth” is for quitters…and I’m no quitter.
My rookie freelancer mistake was falling for scope creep under the guise of an “opportunity” for more work. Generally, when someone says they’re “offering you an opportunity for…” it means they’re about to rip you off. Be reasonably accommodating for your clients, but don’t kill yourself trying to do the impossible.
Do. Not. Give. Up.
It’s taken YEARS for me to get comfortable with being assertive while adjusting to the idea that I am responsible for setting the tone in a working relationship.
Freelancing is very much a numbers game, and you may not get along with every single person that you come in contact with. There have been clients that have given me direct and professional criticism just before cutting ties, and it’s something I’ve learned to simply accept and appreciate.
Sometimes you need a little tough love so that you can see what you’re doing wrong, what you’re doing right, and how you can do better. Other times, you’ll run into people who simply have unreasonable expectations.
Learn to identify the difference and you may just find some success in freelance writing.