In the past year, my company has vetted more than 2,500 freelance writers. And before building out a team, I was a six figure-plus freelancer for sites like Kissmetrics, WordStream, AdEspresso and more. Point is: I know how to make money freelancing.
I lived the three mistakes below, intimately understanding the problems and issues they cause when you’re trying to make money freelancing. And now I continue to see them played out in front of me by hard-working — yet misguided — freelancers.
They’re completely avoidable, once you acknowledge them and plan accordingly. Here’s what to avoid.
1. Living and dying off job boards
Job boards are destination No. 1 for most freelancers. And it makes perfect sense: People are ready to hire someone, yesterday, with a cash in hand. This makes job boards the lowest of low-hanging, new-client fruit.
The first problem, though, is this:
A lousy $10 to $20 per post. That pay wouldn’t even break out to minimum wage.
Job boards are often spun up by hiring managers or business owners who know very little about the intricacies of the job they’re actually hiring for. That often translates into embarrassingly low rates and unrealistically fast turnarounds.
So you’re like a needle in a haystack, with very little way to stand out or build up your value (and justify your higher rates). Instead, they’re just ranking everyone in the cattle call from least to most expensive and picking from there.
Having some success with job boards also causes you to get stuck on them. You’re content, and “too busy” picking up low-paying work that you don’t do anything else to bring in bigger, higher-paying clients (see No. 2 below for more on this).
What to look for in a job board
That’s not to say that all job boards are bad, or that you should avoid them completely. Here’s what to look for when scanning them:
- A reputable brand in the space. They don’t need to be the biggest, but usually, something recognizable is a decent start.
- Anything that indicates they want and understand the complexity of their project. “Technical,” “data-driven,” etc. imply that the client knows they’re looking for higher quality, and willing to put a realistic budget behind it.
- Recurring: “x posts per month.” You want to lockdown ongoing work to really make money freelancing, because then you can be picky with taking on new work.
Here’s a random example I just pulled off the Problogger Job Board that includes these points:
The final underlying issue with job boards is that you’re almost always doing work under someone else’s brand. That means ghostwriting to make money freelancing.
It might pay the bills in the short term, but without the ability to add it to your portfolio or build your own personal brand, you’re sabotaging future sales. You’ll get stuck fending for more job board work, rather than attract high-paying clients who want to specifically work with you personally.
2. Being too busy
You hear the same refrain from almost all freelancers. Heck, all self-employed people: “I’m so busy.”
Contrary to popular belief, freelancers should NOT be “too busy.” Working too much on too many things opens up a whole slew of problems.
- It’s the surest sign that you’re undercharging.
- Burnout is real and predictable when you’re “too busy.” (Here are three ways for solopreneurs to avoid burnout.)
- Being “too busy” forces you to sacrifice quality for quantity. In an effort to keep up, you start taking shortcuts or making mistake as you rush to make money freelancing.
Case in point: We recently bought articles, and found that three out of the five content-writing services showed signs of plagiarism. Some were obvious. You could upload an article to Grammarly and spot the problems within seconds.
But there are other more subtle forms of plagiarism. For example, one article we got back basically just took the top two benefits from the No. 1 ranked article. Obviously, this places the company who’s buying this content at a huge risk. They’re now potentially liable.
When we find any instances of plagiarism from freelancers, they’re immediately gone. No warnings, no questions and no second chances.
Why do people do this? Because they’re cutting corners. They’re “too busy” to keep up, so they’re taking extreme measures to try and pump out more work than humanly possible to make up for the tiny rates they’re charging.
And it all ultimately undermines the only thing a freelancer can’t recover: their reputation.
3. Being top heavy
Recurring work is your lifeblood as you make money freelancing. You can’t do your best work if you’re worried about keeping the lights on next week.
Unfortunately, project work is more common and often easier to close.
Design and development projects are a perfect example. Client’s don’t usually need (or want to pay for) ongoing work. Instead, they have a specific project to revamp and push live within a few weeks.
That means freelance designers and developers don’t often have the luxury of spreading a few hours across different clients each week. Rather, you’re heads down, on a single project, for a few weeks at a time. And when you do finally come up for air? There’s no other work on the horizon.
The prospecting activities you do today won’t turn into paying clients for 30, 60, 90 days from now. This means if you wait until you need the work to actually start trying to get it, you’re screwed.
In an ideal world, no client should take up more than 25 percent of your income. That’s not always realistic, though. So make sure that you’re building out a pipeline of work in the background for when (not “if”) that big client or project wraps up.
I recommend a simple spreadsheet to keep track of:
- Your capacity: The workload you (and any other contractors) can comfortably commit to during the week/month.
- Current workload: The work you’re doing this week/month.
- Future workload: The work you’re doing next week/month.
- Cash inflows: Depending on your payment terms, these don’t always match when projects start or finish .
Editor’s note: If you need an easy way to track your schedule and send out invoices, check out Microsoft Office 365 from GoDaddy. It comes equipped with Excel and Microsoft Invoicing, to help your freelancing business run smoothly.
Once you have this information plotted out, all it takes is a simple two-second glance to notice that you need to make money freelancing in February and March — ASAP.
Otherwise, you can re-evaluate your rates to see if you’re charging enough for each project. You should have a base number of hours estimated, with some padding for stuff that will inevitably take longer than you think, along with time for project management and profit.
Raising rates today will instantly make tomorrow look brighter.
Or, you can come out with a new maintenance plan to help the client after the project goes live, and slowly start building up your predictable, recurring work (e.g. updating landing pages once they start driving traffic). You could also offer a new service to cross-sell your client on another project (e.g. advertising after the website goes live).
The point is, you now have options. You know exactly when work will be falling off, and when cash flow will look tight, so you can plan accordingly.
Go forth, and make money freelancing
In a perfect world, your skill or ability or talent would dictate your earnings. If you’re good, the money should follow.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in reality when you set out to make money freelancing. And too often, you’ll make one of these well-intentioned but dangerous mistakes that only further hampers your ability to surpass six-figures.
The key is to first be aware of them and then plan ahead to combat them, to finally start earning what you’re worth.