7 Painful Lessons I Learnt as a Freelancer

I’ve been a freelance social media manager, graphic designer and web designer for 2 years now ever since covid hit and I couldn’t continue running my tea kiosk. I’m grateful for being able to make use of the skills I picked up along the way for my own business, to help other small businesses. I’m grateful I still have work during the pandemic.

The decision to start freelancing wasn’t planned. I had no idea that I could do something like that until the idea presented itself and I dived right into it knowing that I could make money too. I had no idea what I was doing, what I was going into and yet, I just did it.

Everything worked itself out (kinda). But there are some things I learned the hard way along my journey.

You need to set expectations and boundaries early

If you don’t set your client’s expectations straight and your boundaries early, chances are that, you will find yourself wanting to pull out all your hair because clients expect A LOT. It’s just normal human behaviour because when you pay, you expect.

Similarly, if you don’t set your boundaries early, you will realise that your client won’t have any boundaries at all. They’ll expect you to be available for them at all times.

This is one of the biggest lessons learnt in my freelancing career. For the $500 per client I got, it seemed I was supposed to be at their beck and call all the time. I had to be ready for the last-minute demands all the time. Each time I went out of my house, one of the clients would call and I felt like I needed to go back home to my computer right away to work.

Then I felt resentful and angry with my clients, I started to hate my work. And I realised that it’s really not their fault at all. It was mine. I allowed this to happen. I was responsible for planning my day and letting them know that I had other responsibilities for other clients too. For $500 a month, I didn’t set their expectations as to what kind of service they will be getting and everything else would be subjected to charges too. This nicely brings me to another lesson learnt.

You need to see your own value

When you can’t even see your own value, how can you expect others to see yours?

I did everything I could to keep all my $500 per month clients. And I really mean, whatever it took. Just to give you an idea, for $500 per month, clients would get 15 social media posts and captions written for them. However, I ended up being their customer service manager (responding to all inquiries), their salesperson (I took orders and reservations), I was their marketing executive (I liaised with all other media outlets for them), I was their concierge (I gave my contact number to their customers to contact me orders or reservations), I was their graphic designer (I designed their menu, stickers). Basically, I did all of these for $500. Mind you, that’s only for 1 client. Can you imagine how chaotic my life was?

I failed to see that everything took up time. And my time is as valuable as theirs, if not more. I thought that because I wasn’t professional trained in doing these, I didn’t dare to charge my clients and even if I did, I didn’t dare to charge much. What I couldn’t see was that, whatever I was doing, was bringing in revenue for their business.

This might be difficult, so for a start, you might want to use the time taken for a particular task to gauge how much extra you want to charge your client. For example, for an additional menu design, you took 5 hours and you can charge $15 per hour (if you’re scared to charge like me). And so that would be $75 for that time taken to do the menu.

You need to think for yourself first

If you don’t think for yourself, nobody would think for you. Your clients would think about themselves, their pockets and their business. They want to get the most while paying the least. This is normal.

You need to understand that if you cannot survive, you cannot be doing this work for them. You need to be able to feed yourself first.

Because I was a small business owner who was bootstrapping my business, I fully understood from my clients’ perspectives that they wanted to keep their costs low. This was what I kept doing for them. I kept giving until I had nothing left for myself.

This was when I realised that if I don’t take care of myself first, I wasn’t in a place where I was ready to give and help others 100%.

You can only pour from your glass when your glass is full.

You need to understand that time management and discipline is very important

Nobody will know your schedule better than you. Only you know how many clients you are really handling and you need to be damn good at managing your time so you can take on more clients.

If not, you will set the limit as to how much you can earn because your hands are already full and will not be able to take on more work.

You need to guard your schedule (set your boundaries right). Because we all have limited hours and every client deserves the time that you have set for them and it shouldn’t be disturbed by another client’s “urgent request”. You need to have the discipline to follow through with your own schedule. Again, you are on my own. If you’re not disciplined enough to do the work you’re supposed to, your life will be chaotic because it will be dictated by clients’ demands all the time.

As a freelancer, you also need to set aside time to hone your skills (which I again, failed to do). Apart from doing all the work, you need to take time to improve on your current skill set so that in future, you will be able to charge for the better quality work that you can do.

You need to be damn good with money and payments

I have always struggled with money. I’ve always felt it’s a sensitive issue. I didn’t dare to collect payments when it’s due, I didn’t dare to charge extra when extra work was done, I didn’t know how to quote clients when they asked how much I charged.

You need to understand that, most people will delay payments as much as they can and pay as little as they can (even you love a good bargain right?).

If you’re not good at asking for the money when it’s due, you will have to leave it to your clients who will pay you when they remember you.

Have a good invoicing system that will remind you to send out invoices and reminders if the payments are way past due dates. Set expectations early so that it wouldn’t seem abrupt if you were to choose to stop doing work for them just because they didn’t pay you. (I have never done that and I hope not to resort to this)

You’re not your own boss

As a freelancer, you’re not really your own boss because you need to answer to your clients. You need to do what your clients expect of you. If you don’t, you still risk being fired.

You need to understand that you’re still “employed” just with a little more freedom and without benefits from the company. You’re selling your services and you’re delivering your services.

When I started freelancing, I thought that I could escape working for people because I have always hated the idea of working for people. And so, in freelancing, there’s still the elements of people-pleasing and everything undesirable in being employed.

Choose the right bosses that you want to work for. You still have a right to choose the people you want to work with and work for.

Ironically, you’re also your own boss

You can choose the expectations to set, the boundaries to set, you can choose how to manage your time. You cannot control how your clients act and react, but you can choose how you manage them. You can control what kind of clients you want to allow into your life. You can choose the kind of “bosses” you want to have. You can choose how you want to spend your time and how much time you need to give to your clients.

You can decide which clients to keep and which clients to drop. If you were to lose one, it’s okay. You just have to believe in yourself that you can find another one.

You’re in charge of yourself getting better. With every client, you become better. Use what worked and what didn’t work for each client and make the experience of the next new client even better.

You decide if it’s worth it to keep a client. What is it costing you? With every opportunity comes an opportunity cost. What are you losing to keep this client? Without this 1 client, how many more clients can you take on?

Just remember that if you don’t take control of your time, your life, your schedule, your clients will. And you will go crazy.

I hope you won’t go as crazy as I did so here’re some of the expectations and boundaries that I wished I set before I started freelancing.

Some expectations/boundaries to set:

1. What kinds of services/work they will get for the amount of money that they are paying
2. When they will pay and how they will pay
3. What happens when payment is not received by the set date
4. What is the turnaround time for a piece of additional work
5. What are the charges for additional work
6. Your working hours (so they won’t expect you to respond to your texts 24-7)
7. How much notice do they need to give if they decide not to engage you anymore
8. Who owns the work you’ve done for them
9. Who you will take instructions from

It took me 2 painful long years to learn and to realise what works and doesn’t work for me. I hope it’ll help you. Happy freelancing!

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