3 ways to fuck up your service based freelance business from the start

If you are reading this you are either already in business for yourself, or you are thinking about it.

My first message is that running your own business is awesome, especially when you get into your flow and things are going well. It’s not for everyone, and regardless of what you decide to do for work, first of all, make sure you are doing what makes you happy.

However, running your own business doesn’t mean that everything will be rosy. There will be tough times, and you will have to do things you don’t like that much. If you have a clear understanding of why you are doing what you are doing, and you have a real drive and passion for it, then you will get past the hard times. In the process you will learn a shit-ton about yourself, what you enjoy, what you don’t enjoy, and what motivates you.

Let’s imagine you are just starting a service-based freelance business. Here are a few examples:

  • Copywriter
  • Consultant
  • Graphic designer
  • Videographer
  • Photographer
  • Web designer

Any type of business where you trade the skills, knowledge and expertise that you have and sell this to people who either can’t do, won’t do, or don’t want to do what you can do.

Based on how painful it is for people to do this themselves, will first of all determine how much of a need there is for what you’re offering.

In most cases, especially the examples above, there are already successful businesses doing what you do. So there is validation in the market place that you can go out there and sell your services.

However, there’s a really good chance that you can fuck it all up.

You will probably do one or all of the following things, which will potentially stop you from enjoying your business and being happy:

  1. Underselling your services
  2. Taking on too many clients
  3. Taking on the wrong clients

Let’s dig in.

1. Underselling your services

It all starts here. This is where it can all go very fucking wrong. And you don’t even realise until you are ball-deep in the work.

When you start your business you will feel the need to lower your prices to attract customers. You are a new business after all, so why should people pay you the true market value, or higher?

This is bullshit. This is an irrational assumption about the market place.

You aren’t new to this. It’s very likely that you have been doing what you do for years. You didn’t start a graphic design company with no skills. You didn’t suddenly become a copywriter or editor. You are already good at it, so don’t tell yourself that you are ‘just starting’. You’re not.

The next 2 sections of this article will highlight why you need to charge what you are worth.

Here’s a potential scenario:

You undersell your services to your first clients, which means you have to take on more business to bring in the income you need. This means more sales and marketing, which you will start to struggle with time for, because you are bringing on more clients, and marketing costs time and money. When you get those clients at this price they won’t appreciate your work as much as they should, because you are cheap. You are now taking on less than ideal clients, and the projects you are working on suck and you start to hate your business. You are working long hours, for a shitty salary. Congratulations, you now OWN a job, which you can’t take a break from.

The future potential becomes a problem too. The clients that you are charging a cheap rate will probably not go on to pay you the more expensive rate in the future. By doing this you are setting yourself up for a very tough time in business.

Lesson: do not lower your prices because you are a ‘new business’. It’s a slippery slope to destroying you and the future of your business.

2. Taking on too many clients

There are a few reasons you can find yourself in this position. Firstly for the reasons already mentioned – you undercharge, therefore you have to take on more clients, to make the money you need or want from your business. The second reason is not fully understanding your capacity for clients.

There’s no real good outcome from this unless you are considering scaling your business, employing people, and/or outsourcing your work.

Here are two questions to ask yourself:

  • How much money do you want to make this year/quarter
  • How many clients can you HONESTLY work within the same period

Some simple arithmetic will determine a starting price point for your services (not based on cost!). Based on the result, you may have to adjust your vision, or think differently about how you make your money.

Here’s a potential scenario:

You take on too many clients, you then work really hard to meet the deadlines. You put everything on hold to get the work done. You can’t afford to outsource the work because you based the pricing on ‘just you’ doing the work – your costs. So you have no choice but to do the work. You can’t do any sales and marketing because you are so fucking busy, so you don’t even know where your next customers are coming from, but you just get your head down and keep working. Deadlines slip, quality suffers, you start to hate your business, you start to hate your clients, and you have no life. You also have no money to invest in your business, and this becomes a vicious cycle. Your business goes through peak and troughs – you’re busy one period, then the next period you are quiet, and so on and so on.

And because you’ve just started you didn’t appreciate just how much time you have to spend NOT doing the thing you are good at, which includes accounts, admin, bookkeeping, networking, marketing, sales, etc.

Lessons:

  • take an honest look at your year/period
  • figure out how many projects can you work on
  • figure out how much money you want to make
  • determine how much you have to charge
  • don’t settle for less
  • plan in time for marketing, sales and business administration

3. Taking on the wrong clients

Firstly, appreciate that you are in a powerful position. You have a set of skills that people are willing to pay for because they can’t/won’t/don’t want to do it themselves.

You don’t need EVERY client, and you can’t serve EVERY client. So make sure you are working with the RIGHT clients.

As with the other discussions, you don’t know you’ve made this mistake until it’s too late. Hindsight is real kick in the teeth! But you learn, and you get better.

Here a few warning signs of bad customer behaviour:

  • Picking your proposal to pieces
  • Spending hours of your time on the phone or in meetings negotiating terms
  • Asking for discounts and cheaper rates
  • Checking your work like that high school teacher you used to hate
  • Asking you to do work ‘on spec’ to see your work before paying you any money
  • Asking you to ‘jump through hoops’ for the work
  • Unrealistic deadlines – not fully appreciating how the work is done
  • They’ve worked with people like you before and they bad mouth them to you
  • Communication is very difficult from the start – can’t get meetings or calls booked in, don’t turn up

Here’s a potential scenario:

You take on the wrong client(s), and you spend most of time going back and forth with them checking your work, and telling you what to do. The project suffers from scope creep – i.e. time creeps or the scope creeps, either way it results in you spending less time doing what you are good at and more time dealing with your shitty client. This drains you emotionally and motivationally – you lose sleep, you get stressed, and you lose focus. The projects you enjoy working on get less of your time, deadlines slip, quality suffers, and you start to hate your business.

Lesson: Get a good understanding of what good customer behaviour looks like and the kind of people you want to work with. Don’t forget that as much as they are selecting you, you are also selecting them. Don’t take on every client just because you feel like you should.

Improve how you pre-qualify and select customers and don’t let them completely dictate the relationship.

How to fuck up less

Everyone I’ve spoken to have made these mistakes. Including me. It’s going to happen. The purpose here is to try and help you minimise the negative impact it makes on you and your business, and move on fast.

The biggest risk of all is the impact this can make on your mental state and mindset. When you are working for yourself it’s important to stay positive and motivated, and these scenarios can seriously drain you and your creative energy.

At a high level, it all comes down to self-confidence and self-belief. You have to believe in yourself, believe that your work is valuable and important

Build in processes for pre-qualifying your potential clients. It doesn’t have to be formal for them, and they don’t have to know you are doing it. Ask some key questions in your first meetings to establish trust and understanding.

  • Budget
  • Timescales
  • Previous experience with your industry
  • Why they want to do this project

Understand the best source of clients for you. It could be that you get your best customers from word of mouth recommendations. So when someone contacts you for the first time, get an understanding of what they know about you and your business. It might be that you have to build the foundations of a relationship before you even discuss a client relationship.

Trust is everything…

Essentially it comes down to trust, and if there’s a lack of trust in the relationship from the start the warning signs mentioned earlier will show up. You can either take time to build the relationship, or just accept that this potential client is not for you.

It doesn’t have to end badly, but you do want to do everything you can to start on a good footing. If this potential client is not for you, put yourself in a position to refer them on to someone you think they would fit better. Or if they are just a complete fucking dickhead (they do exist BTW), just end the conversation and move on.

In all cases put yourself first, and make sure you put money first too. It might not feel right, but if you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to serve your clients to the best of your ability.

At all times, trust your gut. If you are going to be working with someone for a 3/6/12 months, you want to make damn sure you are going to enjoy it.

Your Turn

  • What challenges are you having right now with your business?
  • What have you done to overcome these challenges?
  • What can I help you with?

Jump into the comments section and join in the conversation.

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About Chris Marr

Chris is the leading voice of the growing Content Marketing movement in the UK. His pioneering work has helped countless organisations grow through content marketing. His drive comes from a desire to help people break free from the world of interruption marketing.