Seven Things I Wish I Knew Before Freelancing

It takes guts to jump into the freelance world. And whether you do it part-time on the side, or you have dreams of working for yourself, it isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Compared to working a 9-5, there are unique pains that only freelancers have. They can be a tough pill to swallow for some.

Even if I knew these things before I started freelancing, I probably would have jumped in anyway. But knowing would have saved me a lot of time and headaches. Here are the seven things I wish I knew before I started freelancing:

1). You’re worth a lot more than you think.

When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to cave to the pressure of needing some sort of income. And it’s also easy to think that starting out, you shouldn’t ask for too much. When I started freelancing as a video producer and editor, I asked for less than $300 for a full-blown, let’s tell your special story, highly-edited video. I was so eager to get some sort of money coming in the house I set my price low to encourage buyers.

Ding-dong move numero 1.

Here’s are a few of the problems this created:

First off, since I didn’t value my work, neither did my clients. By setting my price so low, I unconsciously said my work was low quality. I didn’t respect my experience so my clients didn’t either. And those first clients squeezed me for every cheap penny they could get out of me.

My second problem with my price so low and the time it took to complete each video meant my rate ended up being LOWER THAN MINIMUM WAGE. Think about this for a moment. The point of freelancing is to make income. If you’re making less than what you’d make at McDonalds, there’s a serious issue! If this is you, raise your prices immediately.

2). Flat-fee based projects only work when you stick to your limits.

Clients always want to know “How much?” I initially tried to solve this problem by charging a flat-fee per video. But then I didn’t set any sort of limits on what I would do to finish the video. My flat-fee meant I worked until my client said the project was finished--even if it took six months while we did revision after revision. In an effort to be worth the peanuts I was working for, I bent over backwards trying to accomplish every desire for my clients.

Ding-dong move numero 2.

Aside from the obvious headache of never knowing when I’d be done with my project, working flat-fee meant I consistently felt taken advantage of while making work. But it was my fault. I didn’t respect my time or efforts, so why should my clients?

My solution to this was to start charging my clients by the hour. If they wanted to do revision after revision, then they were at least going to pay me for it!

3). The project will always take longer than you think.

When I worked in the professional studio before freelancing, my boss was always after me to tally up the hours I spent working on a project. While I did it, I never realized just how important it was. Projects always take longer than you think. Without a baseline for what it can take to finish a project means you can get really screwed over.

You only get this baseline if you track how many hours it takes you to complete your work.

The first question you’ll be asked by a client is “How much will it cost?” The second is, “How long will it take?” The answers are tied together and when you’re starting out, it’s very easy to underestimate these numbers so a potential client won’t freak out. The problem is they’ll now expect the best scenario and nothing ever comes together in the best scenario. Then you’re left trying to explain why the video took six more weeks and they should pay you more for it.

Ding-dong move numero 3.

I started adding more hours more into my project time estimates to help me put together a more realistic starting point for my clients. It gave me more wiggle room to get projects done--no more being under the gun--and it meant that when I delivered under budget and under time, my clients loved it.

The more I kept records about how long things took, the more accurate I could be, the better prepared I was to know what I was in for, and the more informed my clients could be.

4). Not using templates for forms, contracts or invoices.

When you’re freelancing, it’s hard to know at first how much you’ll be repeating yourself. But know this: when it comes to paperwork, you’ll be repeating yourself a LOT! In the beginning, I hand-typed these my contracts, forms and invoices. EVERY SINGLE TIME. Talk about a time suck. The reality is that when you’re making work consistently, you can’t be stuck remaking forms and contracts all the time.

Ding-dong---oh you get the picture.

To save myself the headache, I saved boilerplate templates in my word processing software. Making new contracts, invoices and forms became less of a headache as I had less to type each time. The more advanced you get freelancing, you can afford programs that produce special forms like this very easily, from invoices produced by your financial software, to contracts and permission forms through apps like Easy Release and Go Form. On a related note, in the very beginning I didn’t use contracts either. For more on how this affected me, read more about contracts in Five Mistakes Video Editors Make When Freelancing.

5). Your best new customers are your old customers.

When you’re freelancing, it’s easy to be constantly beating the bushes looking for work. But did you know that it’s much easier to get new business from a client that has already done business with you?

I’ll admit, this took me forever to figure out.

The reality is that the first person who’s going to buy from you is one who already trusts you. And the buyer who trusts you the most is the one who already has made a purchase and loves it. Don’t expect to find a client who needs a video every week (they’re kind of rare). But it is possible to find and cultivate clients who need work on a quarterly or even monthly basis. And they’ll keep coming back because they like your work and the level of experience you bring to the table.

Another alternative to looking for a sale is to look for a connection. Ask your previous clients if they know anybody else asking for similar work. Because the connection knows your previous client, the element of trust is there, making your next sale easier.

6). Crummy clients can be fired.

Truth-telling here. I started freelancing because I lost my job. My department was restructured and my position was cut, so thankfully I wasn’t fired for bad work or for not doing my job. But I knew what it felt like to get let go. I knew the feeling of helplessness, feeling beholden to the boss.

Thing is, I applied it to my first clients. They were the boss. I was the peon. The reality is that when you’re freelancing, this is not how the relationship works. You are contracting with the other person to bring their vision to reality. Yes, they’re in charge, but you’re not a slave. If you’re being treated unfairly, or the person you’re working with is a pain to work with (for whatever reason), you don’t have to put up with it!

I had no idea freelancers could fire problem clients.

Because I didn’t know this, I had a few working relationships that went on far longer than they should have--and it left some pretty bad feelings all around. It also meant I felt I had no choice but to keep working with these same lousy people over and over again, even though they insulted my professionalism and my expertise and took advantage of me.

The moment I learned that I didn’t have to put up with it anymore and that I could say “No!” was empowering. I could be free.

You can too.

7). You can do one thing well, or everything just good enough.

When I started freelancing, I did it all. I helped you plan your video, I helped you brainstorm it’s implementation strategy, I shot the video, I edited it, I animated your logos and titles, and I exported it to whatever format you wanted. All for less than minimum wage. Yeah, I was a sucker.

Moving on.

I call people who work like that “One-Man-Band” video producers. Like a one-man-band making music, this video producer does everything all by himself. Or herself. Aside from the potential of overwork and little pay, there’s another serious cost to this kind of work:

It’s impossible to be stellar at every stage of production needed to create a video.

You’ll be great at one thing and so-so at the other things. How many of you love the shots you take, but hate your editing work? How many of you wish your music choices were better? How many of you curse your footage because your exposure levels always suck?

For example, I can shoot footage decently. And I’m known to art-direct shoots from time to time. But I hate actual camera operation. I hate the process, I hate the effort, I hate the tech. But the edit afterwards? That’s pure heaven for me. I will sit for hours niggling over three frames, polishing and polishing to create the perfect cut.

After a year and a half of being an exhausted, one-man-band I gave up. I wasn’t having any fun, and I still wasn’t making work that I liked. I also wasn’t making much money. Instead, I hung out my shingle only as a video editor. I don’t shoot, but I’ll take your footage and edit it as beautifully as it was shot.

The result? I’m a happier video-editor! I get to work with the shots I always wanted to get myself and never could. And my editing skills are now matched with equally powerful footage. I do what I’m good at, and the shooters I work with do what they’re good at. We both win. And so do our clients.

Conclusion:

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, many of my issues stemmed from the naive belief that my client would value me, even if I didn’t. I expected them to know the value of the work and happily exchange dollars for my time.

Sucker.

The only person who values you enough is YOU. And there are ways you communicate your self-worth to your clients that can either make or break your success as a freelancer. The road to working for yourself is a challenging one, but it makes you a stronger person for doing it. Good luck freelancing!