Design Domination Podcast Episode #89: 11 Mistakes That Hurt Your Freelancing Business

Are you making any of these common freelancing mistakes that most freelance designers make? Find out if you’re making any of these 11 mistakes that hurt your freelancing business and what to do about them.

As always, I came up with the idea for this episode because I’ve made all of these mistakes myself. Since resolving these issues, I’ve had a much more pleasant business, a more profitable business, a better-run business and better clients. I want that for you too!

Let’s dive into mistakes that hurt your freelancing business.

11 Freelancing Mistakes

Mistake #1: Not thinking of yourself as a business

The first freelancing mistake is thinking that just because you work for yourself and it’s just you, that it’s not a business.

As a freelancer, you have so many hats to wear:

  • business owner,
  • marketer,
  • salesperson,
  • project manager and
  • designer.

You’ve got a lot to do and to consider. You’ve got to bring in business. You need to pay taxes and other expenses. You need to make a profit.

You may have certain legal obligations like registering as a business with your jurisdiction or getting a business license. You need a contract to protect yourself.

Something else that can happen when you don’t think of yourself as a business is that you let clients run it. You’re not running your business, so clients do. By that, I mean that maybe you don’t create or enforce terms such as always getting money up front for every job from new clients, following up with clients on late invoices, charging late fees, etc.

If you play designer all the time but don’t think like a business owner, you may forget about these things you need to do as a business owner, and your business will suffer.

Clients may take advantage because they don’t take you very seriously. You might waste time. You won’t be as profitable.

Mistake #2: Taking on any and all freelance work or clients

The second mistake is taking on any and all work or clients. This is a big one because it has so many repercussions.

It hurts not just you but also your clients. You get so excited someone’s come your way that everything else goes out the window.

Let’s start out with how that hurts you.

You might take on work you hate or work you’re not good at.

I used to take on email design and coding work. And I absolutely hated it! There are so many things to take into consideration with devices and browsers and email services. So I had to put an end to that. I started subcontracting it to someone who did it better and all the time, and who did it in less time.

With certain types of projects, unless you’ve done that work before, you may not realize what you don’t know. Just because a client asks for it doesn’t mean the answer is for you to take it on.

When you take on work you’re not good at or haven’t done before, it isn’t going to be profitable. You won’t want to work on it, and you’ll spend so much more time learning about it and trying to do it. You might stay up half the night or neglect your family or friends for a bit to do it.

It’s a miserable position to be in, and sometimes the only way out is to resign the project, which makes you look bad to the client, or you outsource it to someone who’s done this work before, which ends up costing you more money.

Obviously, with certain types of work, it doesn’t matter if you’ve done it before or not. But, if, say, you’re a print designer who’s never done any publication design and you think you can just take on a magazine design, you don’t know what you don’t know. You might figure it out after spending tons of time researching what’s involved, but there are so many things you wouldn’t necessarily know about unless you’ve done that type of work before.

So if you were to do a lousy job, spend an exorbitant amount of time on it or end up struggling to figure it out or get it done on time, how would that be worth it?

You may not end up getting paid, and you have just earned yourself a bad word of mouth instead.

Not only that, you’ve probably undercharged compared to what someone who understands this work would charge. So it wouldn’t be profitable. And I say this all the time:

If the work isn’t going to be profitable, what is the point of doing it?

The point of having a business is to be profitable. It’s not to take on every job or client who comes your way. Profitable doesn’t mean getting more work and staying busy. It means knowing the project not only didn’t cost you money but that you made money on it, had profit afterward to show for it.

So you need to know when to say no or when to refer it or subcontract it out.

Mistake #3: Waiting until you don’t have work to do any marketing

A big business mistake designers make is waiting until you don’t have work to do any marketing.

This is the direct cause for feast-or-famine mode. When you’re in feast mode, you don’t do any marketing.

But when you’re in famine mode, you’re more likely to take on any work or any client that comes your way. You don’t have the power of choice. It’s slim pickin’s. That puts you in a vulnerable position.

You’re less confident, and that might come across. Sharks smell blood in the water, you know?

You might lower your price, thinking that will help you get the work.

You might agree to work with an unrealistic deadline or forgo your usual process of getting a payment and signed agreement up front.

Even if you’re busy with lots of referrals coming to you, you’re not in control of when work is coming in or what work is coming in. And something else to think about with referrals is that they may expect to pay what the referring party might have told them they paid.

If they were referred a couple of years later, and you’ve since raised your rates, of course, that’s fine and to be expected. But they might have been contacting you in the first place for those previous rates. So don’t put all your hope for new business in referrals.

Mistake #4: Getting creative business advice from unqualified people

The next mistake that can hurt your creative business is getting creative business advice from unqualified people.

It’s common to want to ask family and friends for advice, but unless they’re in a service-based business and understand your situation, they don’t usually get it. They have the best intentions, but their advice will be off.

For instance, I used to complain to someone about a problem client. Their advice was to just “suck up” the verbal abuse that the client would put me through on an almost daily basis.

Why the heck would they have advised that? Because, oh they were my biggest client, who made up the biggest percentage of my revenue, and the client’s always right. Not!

So only listen to people who’ve been where you want to be—business-wise or otherwise.

Mistake #5: Pricing based on what other freelance designers charge

The next mistake is pricing based on what other designers charge.

It’s always good to assess your pricing every now and then and even get feedback from other designers.

But when you ask other designers what they would charge for a particular project, you’ve got to also keep in mind that your level of expertise, your business expenses, the client’s industry, the size of the client, the scope of the project, the deadline and even geographic location may be different from theirs. Those factors can greatly affect what to charge for design work.

So you might think another designer is charging crazy money for something—that seems like a dream or so out of reach for you. But maybe it’s because they have much more expertise in that area, or it was for a huge client or their business expenses are much higher than yours. So it doesn’t necessarily mean you should charge the same.

Mistake #6: Not thinking you can charge enough until ___

Another mistake is not thinking you can charge enough until… Fill in the blank: until:

  • you’re a better designer;
  • you have more years in freelancing;
  • you have more years of experience (years of experience do not equal more knowledge. If someone’s been doing something not so well for 10 years and someone’s been doing it well for 2, which matters more?);
  • whatever other excuse you’re telling yourself.

Mindset issues are a huge issue with designers. We all have them at some point. But they will hold your business back. Again, I know from experience. I didn’t even know I had these issues until a coach asked me some questions that led me to realize that personal issues that had nothing to do with business were causing a lot of my business issues.

So get help in an online group, read a book or get coaching to get past self-limiting beliefs. Also, check out episode 82, Break Away From These “But’s” and Stop Wondering Your Worth.

Mistake #7: Assuming all clients are looking for cheap

Another mistake that hurts your freelancing business is assuming that all clients are looking for cheap!

Many designers assume this. I used to too.

But, I’ll tell you, in my experience, I was turned down many more times for pricing too low than too high.

Not all clients are looking for cheap. When you price too low, the good clients run the other way.

“But they could go to Fiverr,” you protest. Yes, they could! Who cares? What do you care about what designers on Fiverr charge? Let those who want cheap get cheap.

Think of it this way… How many fast food restaurants are out there? Are there still five-star restaurants or private chefs in business? Heck yes! Fast food restaurants haven’t led five-star restaurants or private chefs to their demise.

Not everyone wants fast food. Personally, I won’t touch it, so there. Not everyone wants cheap.

There are just as many clients out there who are looking for convenience (of not doing it themselves even if they could), plus value and expertise. And they are willing to pay for it.

Also, another related thought about this is assuming that clients can’t afford your services. Why are you trying to make up their mind for them about what they can afford or are willing to pay?

Mistake #8: Making it hard for clients to work with you

One mistake you might be making is making it hard for clients to work with you, to say yes to working with you.

If you’re making them sign paper contracts still, that’s a pain. I can tell you that after I went from paper contracts years ago to electronic proposal software (specifically, Better Proposals [affiliate link]), my yes rate went up quite a bit.

Something else to consider is your contract language. Clients probably don’t understand a lot of the language in your contracts because, like Matt the Lawyer says, is it’s written for other lawyers.

If clients can’t understand your contracts, that might be a deal-breaker. Or maybe they will have to talk to their lawyer and have them review it, at a cost to them. That just delays you getting the work if you get it at all.

Mistake #9: Trying to convince clients

Another mistake is thinking you need to convince clients to work with you. That’s when sales feels sleazy—to both parties.

People want to feel they made a decision on their own, not pushed into one.

If you have to convince someone to work with you, that means they don’t see the value yet—and they may not ever. It means they are not ready to buy.

Would you rather spend your time getting your positioning and marketing right and having clients come to you, or would you rather spend time convincing clients that your work is worth such and such?

Mistake #10: Not protecting your time as a freelancer

Another mistake is not protecting your time.

This can be in several forms:

  • Spending lots of time in consultations with prospects you haven’t screened,
  • Not setting boundaries around your work hours and when you will reply to clients,
  • Agreeing to unrealistic turnaround times.

When you spend lots of time in consultations with prospects you haven’t screened, you may waste time on tire kickers or those who aren’t a good fit for other reasons. It also might leave the impression you don’t have anything else going on.

But a lot of times, people don’t value what they don’t pay for. So if you’re giving away so much time—and even your expertise free—it may be perceived to be low value.

When you don’t set work hours and communicate them to clients—and stick to those boundaries by replying outside of business hours—they may come to expect you to reply any time. Then they might get upset when you don’t reply right away, or they might barrage you with emails or voice mail messages asking if you got their email. Fewer things are more annoying. It’s very hard to untrain this behavior.

If you agree to unrealistic turnaround times instead of educating the client on why that won’t work, you’re potentially setting yourself up to fail with not only that project but also other client projects if those end up falling by the wayside as a result.

Mistake #11: Putting up with bad clients

Putting up with bad clients is another mistake.

Bad clients suck the life out of you. They also suck up your time in collecting late payments, resending invoices, making excessive changes, making you defend your every design decision… whatever the case may be. That’s a whole other episode on its own.

Problem clients keep you from spending your time on business-building activities or serving good clients. They keep you away from what you should be doing.


I hope this was helpful. If you want to find out other business mistakes, I cover a bunch of others that pertain to pricing in episode 30, Avoid These 12 Mistakes When Pricing Your Design Work.

If you’d like help resolving any of these issues, go to and select Mentoring and send me an inquiry. I’ll respond promptly.

One comment

  • A highly informative and enlightening article on “11 Mistakes That Hurt Your Freelancing Business”! This resourceful piece is a must-read for freelancers like me, as it highlights common pitfalls to avoid and provides practical solutions to thrive in the freelancing world.

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