Mistakes I Made as a Freelance Web Developer and How To Avoid Them

Estimated reading time: 9 mins

Hindsight is always 20/20, and this is especially true when it comes to the world of freelancing. If I had a few cents for every mistake and/or error I made during my time as a freelancer, then quite frankly, I wouldn’t be developing websites. Luckily for me, I have been able to persevere and learn from these mistakes. So, don’t be like me (I’m over rated anyway). Take a look at some of the things I did wrong and turn it into an opportunity for yourself to do things the “right” way.

1. Not Charging Enough

I take solace in the fact that so many freelancers make this mistake, especially when first starting out. Lets be honest, in our line of work its very hard to know exactly how much you and your time are worth. Times that by market forces, the current economy and people’s budget, and setting an hourly rate just might make your head spin. When I first started out, I would write down everything the client wanted done on a piece of paper, and then I would try to “guesstimate” how long each part of the project would take me and then charge that by my hourly rate. There was one huge problem, I always estimated under and ending up cheating myself out of well deserved money.

My Solution

I decided to stick with charging an hourly fee, and the first thing I did was increase my rate per hour. Next, I decided that many more factors were going to need to go into my final quote price, factors like: my cost of living and rent, spending money, money needed for my business, length of conference calls (in the case of clients that liked to talk for an hour or more) etc. I was worried I may have lost some potential customers with my rate increase and came to the conclusion that this risk was one worth taking. Theoretically, if I double my rate per hour and lose half of my customers, I still make the same amount and for half the work. In addition, start quoting your customers over how much you think it will really cost. This may sound counter- intuitive, but its not. If worst comes to worse, and it ends up costing all of what you quoted, then no worries, you quoted them that price anyway. If however, you come in under-budget (which should happen more often than not if you are over quoting slightly) then you have a happy client on your hand that is more likely to become a return and/or loyal customer. If you are looking for a resource to help you develop a rate, check out the freelance rate calculator .

  • DO increase your rate if you feel you are being cheated.
  • DO over quote slightly to allow yourself some wiggle room.
  • DO NOT only take in project specific factors, keep in mind all of your life expenses and cost of living.


2. Application Hesitation

I have given my second mistake a fancy name, which is really translates into simple confidence issues that many of us have. In fact, I still find myself struggling with what I call “application hesitation.” This is where you find yourself not applying to a job or freelance opportunity because your not sure if you can handle it. If you are a chronic narcissist you can move on to number 3. Do NOT confuse this with being under-qualified, which is a good reason for not applying. For example, recently there was a job posted for a freelance designer for a website/forum. I was very interested in the job, but noted at the bottom the forum they were designing for was a forum I had only designed for once (note that I have designed for many other forums, and they are all similar in layout). In the end, I didn’t apply, using the excuse “they probably want someone who has worked with that forum many, many times.” Looking back, I should have taken that job. I should have applied, told them about what I have worked with in the past and my credentials, and told them I was willing to learn their forum system as well. I really had nothing to lose anyway. So don’t let your moments of insecurity stop you from landing a great job. Fake the confidence if you need to until you have it.

  • DO apply to jobs you feel you are qualified for, even if you are not familiar with every single system they are using. Be sure they know you are eager to learn
  • DO NOT apply to jobs that you are not qualified for. If a company is looking for a star designer (which you are), who is great with flash (and you have never even used it), then an application probably is not necessary.

3. Making Phone Calls

E-mail is a great way to communicate with your clients. It’s fast, convenient, but very impersonal. There are just some things that you can pick up on when actually talking to that person. Meeting in person is even better if you can. Starting out as a freelance designer, I rarely, if ever, gave out my telephone number to my clients. After all, I started freelancing to get out of the corporate environment and do things on my own time. I quickly realized, though possible, it was much more difficult to get the customers “visions” and desires for their future website via email. This is because some people have a hard time putting their thoughts into written words. When I finally got over my “phone phobia”, I noticed that I had a much easier time understanding the clients goals and wants. In addition, a phone call really adds a personal touch to your services. Your client will be more inclined to think of you as a reliable and friendly person, and know if there is an emergency they can contact you. Of course, no one wants to be contacted all the time by a worried client, so make sure you layout some ground rules about how contact and customer support will work throughout the project and after the said project is finished. Be warned if you offer hosting to your clients and hand out your number to them, you might have to increase your monthly minutes on your cell phone plan.

  • DO offer your phone number to clients (if you host clients websites, you might want to rethink this), it adds a very personal touch to your services and gives the client a feeling of security.
  • DO call your clients once a job is agreed upon to get a better understanding of what they envision, this will make it more likely that your client becomes a satisfied customer.
  • DONT blame me if you have a client that wont stop calling you because they cant get “that one code thingy to work”.
  • DO voice any and all concerns/disagreements you have about the clients project. Try to be as clear and objective as possible.
  • DO be open to criticism and disagreements from clients and peers. Constructive criticism is the only way to truly improve your skills and realize where your weaknesses are.
  • DONT take it personally! Odds are the client just wants what is best for their project, and wants to see it succeed (even if you disagree with their tactics).
  • DO take note of what clients dislike about your projects, if they don’t have anything negative to say, then ask them what you could improve on. Write these down every time you have a new client and compare them to improve yourself and your skills

4. Taking too Many Breaks

Guilty as charged. Not that we would ever bill a client for time spent surfing Digg or watching daytime television, but this is really one of my worst habits. Perhaps this would be better demonstrated through a timeline:

  • 12:00pm-Start all programs needed for clients website (ftp, photoshop, textmate etc)
  • 12:01pm-While waiting for programs to load, click the stumble “just one more time”
  • 1:00pm-Realize what time it is and start work on clients project
  • 1:30pm-Snack time
  • 1:40pm-Get more snacks
  • 2:00pm-Back to work
  • 4:00pm-I think Oprah comes on, but I would have no idea. Really, I don’t….(channel 7).
  • 5:00pm-I think Oprah ends. Time for a break.
  • 8:00pm-Continue working, whoops forgot to check my email, check that. While I am at it check every possible email, forum, blog and anything else I am socially a part of, you know, just in case.
  • Midnight-Finish work for the day, check test site in IE 6, followed by string of unrepeatable obscenities.

As you can see, there is room for improvement. The point is, just because we work from home doesn’t mean that we should act like we are at home all the time. After realizing that a lot of things around my apartment were serving as a distraction from my work, I used a spare room to setup a separate office containing only my work computer, client documents, and any web design/programming books. If you don’t have a room setup only for web design or development, I highly recommend doing so.

5. Taking Things too Personally

Every freelancer has experienced the client from hell. Or the client who just refused to like or appreciate any of the work you have done. Who doesn’t feel upset or even insulted when they have worked so hard on a project only for the client to say “I don’t know, its just ok.”? Other times, the client really wants something on their website that you know just wont fit or shouldn’t be there. Take for instance, the dreaded “marquee” tags. This is one of those moments for me, when I need to just step away and relax for awhile before replying and/or communicating with the client. It allows me to put my personal feelings and ego aside and see where the client is coming from. I eventually learned to voice any concerns I had about the clients idea, in a clear and respectful manner . If the client still wont budge, swallow your pride and do as they wish. Remind yourself that they are paying you , so its your job to provide them with what they want, even if you disagree. And if its that bad, rest easy knowing you don’t have to include that project in your portfolio. Why not share a mistake and/or experience you have had with us and what happened?

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25 thoughts on “Mistakes I Made as a Freelance Web Developer and How To Avoid Them”

  1. Hi to you Drew, this is a nice article and I think you are very frank and honest about your expereinces, and I am glad to read about them. You have given some useful advice which I will use myself. Question for you Drew: have you had any payment issues from your clients and what do you do about it?

  2. @Simon-I may have seen it come on once or twice πŸ™‚

    @Joe-Thanks for your kind words, I’m really gld you enjoyed the article. I’ve been lucky when it comes to payment issues. I have had a few problems, which were mostly my fault for not being completely clear in the stated contract about the length and/or extra charges during the project.

    One thing I will advise, is to work out a basic contract that covers you in every way you can think of. Then, when you have a client, sit down and think of everything that could go wrong and figure out a way to put that into writing. Nothing substitutes and dismisses arguments and misunderstandings like a well defined contract.

    That said, I have had a few people just run off and never pay. In situations like that I have to decide if it is worth my time and energy to pursue the cash owed to me.

    Have you had some bad experiences with clients and payments? If so, please do share so I may try and learn from them πŸ™‚



  3. @Brian – I guess this depends on what friends and family, but I do know where you are coming from. When business goes well, it goes very well, but when business has issues it becomes very, very tricky and can damage much more than a bit of revenue. I have experience here with a good friend – a project started to go south and I was letting him down, and it did damage our friendship irrecoverably πŸ™ What is your experience Brian?

  4. Good advice that everyone who freelances should read. I agree with your comment about contracts. They are critical and should include client responsibilities.

    I tried to get 25% payment upfront and had scheduled milestone payments through out any project. This way if the client did not pay timely, I stopped working on their project. This was clearly spelled out in the contract.

    When I was first starting out in my IT career, I took too many deals in the shorts and got very aggressive about billing and collecting for services I performed.

  5. Drew, great info, thank you for your honesty concerning your mistakes. It helps to have first hand information from someone who has walked the talk. Your sage advice will be of much help concerning fees from clients.


  6. @Michael-Thanks a lot for your input. Your 25% payment term is a smart one, I use a similar setup myself for billing.

    @Sam-Im really glad the article was helpful to you, thanks for your comment.



  7. Drew I liked this article because you have said it how it is. Being independent is tough I expect, I have not been independent myself but I do want to start my own business one day. So your advice is good for the future.

  8. @Asif-
    Thanks very much for your comment and kind words, I found it was really helpful for me to write this as it helped me notice a lot of my flaws. Best of luck to you with your future business.



  9. Hello. Thanks to Drew for the insightful and helpful article. Even though I disagree with the “Don’t do sites for family/friends” thing, the article here has given me a lot of good advice.


  10. @Simon:

    I’m a high school student that makes a bit of money on the side by making websites. I don’t have the resources (or the talent) to advertise my skills at large, so my clients are typically parents of my good friends (which counts as friends). I’ve done at least 3 websites for parents and have yet to have a problem with them. It may take a bit more work to balance between the client and friend mode, but I’ve found that it’s quite doable.


  11. @Tom-

    Glad to hear it works out well for you, thats awesome πŸ™‚

    I guess I just find that I end up doing so much work when I do family projects that I actually end up losing a lot of what would have been good income and big clients. I dont mind helping, but I usually get stuck helping much more than I wanted to and it can get in the way of my “Real Work”.

    But hey, if it works for you, then more power to you.

    Best of luck,


  12. #4 I think is something anyone working from home should think about. I sometimes do some work from home due to various reasons and when I do I’ve noticed the same habits you do.
    Another thing is that when working from home, try to get parents/friends etc to understand that you are actually working. Just because your at home you can’t go for a walk, or go shopping etc. That has proven to be the most difficult thing to do.

    1. @Mats – I experience this problem too! It was difficult, at first, for my family (particularly my young son) to understand that I was working when in my office at home. All my son knows is that I ‘press buttons’ all day. In a technical role/writing role, concentration is very important, at least for me, as my brain is normally several steps of my fingers so losing my train of thought is very costly.
      I have resorted to locking my office door now. It’s tough, but I had to do it!
      Great comment Mats – thanks!

  13. Definitely good advice. I find that time management is possibly one of my biggest issues. Especially when you work from home, it gets hard to separate work from life.

  14. Well, every human being makes mistakes. I am also a developer and have been in the situation of charging too less, but managed to get rid of that stuff. I still have the problem with taking breaks too often, though. πŸ™

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