The top 5 missteps most new freelancers commit and how to avoid them, according to the head of Upwork's talent success team

Courtesy of Nancy von BruntNancy Van Brunt.
  • Nancy Van Brunt leads Upwork’s talent success team. Prior to Upwork, Nancy held corporate strategy, business development, and management consulting roles at eBay, Sesame Workshop, and Oliver Wyman, respectively.
  • For freelancers getting started, she sees five common mistakes. Many start out undercharging, or trying to be generalists.
  • They don’t know to approach their work like a business, and don’t view new projects as long-term opportunities. And they don’t keep growing their skills.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to leave the corporate world to enjoy the flexibility and earnings potential of freelancing, you’re not alone. The “Freelancing in America: 2019” (FIA) study co-commissioned by Upwork and Freelancers Union found that, for the first time, half of the freelancer respondents said they view this way of working as a long-term career choice. The share of those who freelance full time increased from 17% in 2014 to 28% in 2019.

As the head of freelancer and agency success for Upwork, I see new independent professionals struggling with mistakes that limit their potential for finding satisfying, well-paying work. The good news is that you don’t have to fall prey to these missteps. Here’s how to start your freelance career on the right track.

Newbie mistake #1: Undercharging

Crystal Cox/Business InsiderResearch and see how much others are charging.

Top earners aren’t afraid to focus exclusively on clients who understand their worth. The majority of clients are looking for quality and understand that they get what they pay for. Furthermore, many clients are unsure how to price projects and are looking to you to guide them on an appropriate budget (and scope). After all, you’re the expert – so don’t shy away from consulting and negotiating.

Before you set your rates, research the market to benchmark what others with similar skill sets are charging and then adjust based on your experience level. You might be pleasantly surprised:The data shows that some independent professionals are earning more than $US250 an hour for work in categories that span nearly every industry, including tech, marketing, legal, and finance.

Newbie mistake #2: Not thinking like a business

Hero Images/Getty ImagesCreate a professional portfolio.

Freelancing comes with many ancillary tasks. That means you have to remember all the tasks that businesses routinely handle, from budgeting and contracts to invoicing and client communication. It also includes marketing, business development, and sales. When you decide to freelance, you are launching a business!

The most important thing you can do to establish credibility and gain more business is creating a professional, polished portfolio. Clients want to see what you’ve accomplished – and what you can do for them. Anyone can showcase their professional experience with a little creativity. Point to a mobile app you designed on iTunes, or your reputation on GitHub; write up a case study of a project success or show a screenshot of a successful program with the details blurred out.

Newbie mistake #3: Promoting yourself as a generalist

ShutterstockClients want someone who excels at one thing.

While it’s easy to assume that you’ll get more jobs if you profess to be adept at everything, successful freelancers usually find the opposite is true – focused and targeted marketing does best. That’s because most clients want someone who excels at one thing – whether that’s understanding the ins and outs of a niche industry such as blockchain, or focusing on a specific skill, like developing investor presentations. In reality, you probably do well at several things within a specific domain; focus on demonstrating your specialisation within that domain, and market each specific service you offer to a targeted group of clients.

Newbie mistake #4: Playing the short game

fizkes/ShutterstockEvery opportunity could become an ongoing relationship.

The most successful independent providers view each opportunity as a chance to create an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship. Look for signals of a client’s level of intent and long-term potential, and trust your instincts. When an enterprise client offers a small job, knock your delivery out of the park to get your foot in the door – ideally, it will lead to repeat work. It’s often the clients with the biggest long-term needs that start with a “test” project to find the right fit.

Always focus on how you can expand your value; maybe they’re asking for a deliverable, but you can also help them hone their strategy. Talk to clients about their next project, or who else in their company could use your services. As a freelancer, you’re not just providing your service, you’re also acting as head of business development. Be proactive. If you don’t pitch yourself, who will?

Newbie mistake #5: Becoming complacent with your skills

lechatnoir/Getty ImagesKeep updating your skills.

Continuing education is crucial to staying on top of changes in your industry and keeping your skills sharp. For skilled freelancers providing services like computer programming, writing, design, IT, and business consulting, FIA found that four in five recognise the value of ongoing training to their work and future opportunities. To keep up with the evolving job market, 71% of these skilled freelancers said they are updating their skills to ensure they stay marketable. Remember that not all sought-after skills are technical; consider focusing on your soft skills, which will help boost your “EQ” and allow you to better service clients.

This is your year— you’ve got this

Roberto Westbrook/Getty ImagesIt will take time to get acclimated.

While it may feel like a lot of moving parts to get started as a freelancer, just like any new role or business endeavour, it simply takes time to get acclimated and into a rhythm. But it won’t take long for you to realise the incredible benefits: From flexibility and the freedom to spend time with family and friends to the ability to choose projects that excite you.

Remember that it’s a long game, and setting your sights on goals – and then taking the steps to achieve them – will set you up for success.

The time is now. Make 2020 your most rewarding year yet.

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