At the beginning of my freelance career, I made a few easily avoidable mistakes. Here are some of the worst errors, along with some important lessons that set me up for success.
Overextending myself: When you first begin freelancing, you tend to have a dearth of clients. In turn, it makes sense that you would work as hard as possible to find as many as you can. As you start to accumulate work, however, it's easy to take on too much without realizing it in time. Under the pressure of multiple deadlines, you may end up working late into the night and on weekends. You may also end up having to work while sick, during holidays or when you should be spending time with your family. This is why it's important to carefully manage your workload. You should also feel ok about saying no to opportunities if they will negatively impact your work-life balance.
Putting all my eggs in one basket: After struggling for years to accumulate enough consistent work, I finally landed a major client who kept me busy with regular projects. Blessed with so much work, I went ahead and cut ties with smaller clients, who could only offer me the occasional project. Unfortunately, after a year of this, the major client decided to in-source my work, hiring a full-time staffer instead. This left me high and dry without any work to fall back on. The lessen? Diversify your client list as much as possible, so you can land on your feet if one relationship ends. Limit the amount of work you accept from each client, and spread your eggs across multiple baskets.
Underestimating project demands: In the freelance world, clients want to know exactly when they can expect a project to be delivered. This means hard deadlines that offer little wiggle room. Unfortunately, unexpected issues can make a project take longer than you expect. Sometimes, it's because the project was just more complicated than you thought it would be. Other times, it's an illness, computer failure or an unexpected family emergency. Whatever the case, you really need to plan for complications by scheduling extra time for every project. This may mean asking for more reasonable deadlines. It could also mean turning down new work, so you can live up to pre-existing commitments.
Resting on my laurels: Most freelancers have a system: They desperately seek work when they have none and stop seeking work when they do. While this may sound reasonable, it's really a bad way to plan for the future. Even if you don't have room in your schedule for more work, you should still be reaching out to potential clients. Let them know who you are and what you do. Maybe they don't need your services right now, and maybe you are too busy to provide them anyway. Despite this, it's still a good idea to network and introduce yourself, so you will be top of mind, when your services are needed at some point in the future.
Not planning ahead: The freelance world is one of unpredictability and upheaval. You may be spoiled with work one day, only to find yourself desperate for work the next. It's important to plan for inevitable problems by squirreling away money for a rainy day. Ideally, you should have enough savings to support yourself for a few months, should your work dry up. By having some money saved, you can calmly and confidently seek new work, without feeling anxious or compelled to accept jobs for unreasonably low rates. When times are good, don't expect them to last forever. By saving your money, you can insure against having to return to your old nine-to-five career, just because of one or two unexpected disasters.