Don't Freelance for a Freeloader

Written by Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO

It's funny how certain words have certain connotations, isn't it? I mean, we give words meaning based upon certain contexts, and these meanings inform our subsequent usage and understanding of these words. For example: freelancer.

It is amazing to me that so many people still don't hold freelancers in the same regard as entrepreneurs, when, in fact, there is little discernable difference between the two. As the freelance economy continues to grow, the reality is that you, or someone you know, will take on freelance work by 2025 or hire someone for a freelance project. So, what gives?

I think the free in freelance confuses people sometimes. It's kind of like the way many Americans understood the word entrepreneur in the 80's: they thought it was a French word that meant unemployed street hustler, thanks to Eddie Murphy's (in)famous SNL sketch. Similarly, some people misunderstand freelancers as individuals who can be had on the cheap because they lack the requisite experience or qualifications to be employed at a reputable company. Therein lies the problem. Unfortunately, though, this perception is often fostered by freelancers, themselves.

A while back, a young freelancer gave me a call, seeking some career coaching. We met at a local cafe, and he proceeded to tell me his problem. He was a recent graduate from a good, not great, university and wanted to build a web design business that could eventually sustain him as a sole source of income. He had figured that the best way to get started was to do some freelance work in order to 'get his name out there' before launching a full-scale business.

By the time we met, he'd been freelancing for about three months. Unfortunately, most of his client were only willing to pay him a fraction of the going rate for web design work, and he was growing increasingly frustrated. After I listened to his whole story, I gave him a few tips that would help him push his freelancing business forward until he felt comfortable enough to launch a full-scale business.

  1. Know Your Worth. As a freelancer, you have valuable skills that intelligent and reasonable clients will pay for. Commoditize your experience and focus your potential clients' attention on the value you will deliver in exchange for your market-rate fees. If you start out giving huge discounts and charging next to nothing for your services, you have devalued your worth and run the risk of having to further compromise yourself in order to get repeat or referral business.

    Study the market. Interview other freelancers who offer the same services and find out what they charge for the value they deliver. If you need to upskill in order to be able to charge on the high end of the market range, then do so. At the end of the day, freelancer doesn't mean 'works for free.' Unless you are a circus elephant, you shouldn't be working for peanuts.
  2. Avoid Verbal Diarrhea. Sometimes, when people are still not yet comfortable demanding their worth, they fall into the trap of trying to over-explain every minute detail of the work they will do for a client. This is so unnecessary, and smacks of inexperienced unprofessionalism. The reality is that the client is hiring you to do a job, so their focus is on quality, cost, and deadline. Most business owners know nothing about what is involved in building an app for their website; they only care that it works the way they want it to. Killing them with too many details is a time-waster for everyone involved. Face it: if the client knew enough about the project to follow your spiel through all the minutiae, they could do the project themselves and wouldn't need to hire you.
  3. Don't Be a Hero. Sure, it probably makes for a nice chat over coffee with your friends when you tell them how you single handedly built an entire digital presence for a client whose business was sinking faster than a hippo on a life preserver, but the reality is that since you are being hired to do a project with a defined scope, stick to the agreement, as the client will assuredly not pay you more simply because you volunteered to give more.Further, because you will have deadline pressure for the agreed upon body of work, you run the risk of compromising quality by taking on extra tasks. At the end of the project, you will have exhausted yourself doing too much unnecessary work and your compensation will not reflect your additional efforts.

Keep in mind that while some people freelance with the idea that doing so will eventually lead to a full-time business opportunity, most freelancers do not. Freelancing as a side hustle or a way to expand the breadth of your experience while developing new skills is a great way to foster your own development. Just be sure that while you're doing that, you don't get taken advantage of.