Have you lowered rates to land a client, kept rates low to keep a client, lowered an invoice to avoid making a client mad, withheld opinions to avoid an argument, or made revisions you didn't believe in to be "easy to work with?" If so, this is for you.
You chose to be a freelancer — to blaze your own path free from the shackles of a windowless cube, a commute, and maybe a less-than-stellar work environment. You made the brave leap, went into business for yourself, and now live the freelance life, working at home in your web design pants — that’s what we call yoga pants for designers who don’t do yoga — or even your pajamas and things are good.
You’re alone most of the day, and at first, it’s a nice change.
At first, you relish in the quiet solitude. But then you notice you’re alone A LOT and begin to crave interaction, validation, and connection with other people. You need to know other people care about you and you need to feel liked, appreciated, respected, trusted, and valued, as these feelings translate to how you view your own self-worth.
But what happens when unmet desires to be liked and validated collide with the freelance life?
When the need to be liked, valued, and accepted isn’t being met in your personal life, it’s far too easy to look to your business and client relationships to fill the void. Measuring your value or worth by things like the number of sales you close or testimonials you receive, however, is dangerous for your mental health and your freelance business.
Freelancers who work alone, often unknowingly, slide into this precarious situation, especially in the early years of owning and growing a business.
When you’re working night and day to get a new business off the ground, it can be all-consuming. Hobbies slowly fade away and your business becomes your hobby. Relationships start to slip and you find yourself prioritizing clients over friends and family. Soon you’re looking to your business for fulfillment and happiness… and as a result, decisions are being made that will bite you in the butt later on.
The problem is that many freelancers end up looking to their business for personal fulfillment without even realizing it.
When I found myself in this exact situation, I had no idea I was sabotaging my own success for a short-term feel-good moment. I patted myself on the back for my near 100% close rate. I was proud of easy I was to work with. I owned being affordable because my clients loved me for it. And, at the same time, I was undercharging and my income didn’t align with my efforts.
It took a neutral, unbiased third-party to wake me up. When attending a business event, a speaker asked the attendees, “Where in your business, are you looking to fulfill needs that aren’t being met in your personal life?” It was like a smack in the face.
How do you know if you’re in the same boat? It can show up a few different ways…
Four Ways Your Need For Personal Fulfillment Can Sabotage Your Freelance Business Success
1. You Undercharge New Clients To Get More Yeses And Resist Raising Rates
When I first began freelancing, I joined a local networking group and when I landed my first client, I was elated. I felt like Sally Field in her Oscar acceptance speech, shouting, “You like me! You really like me!” Then I landed another client, and another, and another. Every person I spoke to hired me and soon, almost every member of the networking group was a client.
Unfortunately, this came with dire consequences. I had no life. I was working like a dog and not earning very much in comparison. It was suggested to me on more than one occasion that I raise my rates, but I resisted because it meant some people would say no and in my head, a no really felt like a “they don’t like me.”
What I came to realize was that I was keeping my fees low so I would always get a yes and the more yeses I got, the better I felt about myself.
2. You Undercharge For Hourly Work Or Don’t Charge For All Of Your Time
Today, I understand my value, confidently charge what I am worth, and work with amazing clients who are happy to pay my full rate. But that wasn’t always the case. As a new freelancer, I undercharged existing clients or failed to charge for all of the time I spent on projects.
- I’d spend eight hours on a design project, but only charge the client for four hours of work because I felt bad charging them “that much” or worried they might get mad at the cost.
- I’d flat rate a project upfront based on what I thought they would pay and be happy with, not based on the actual hours it would take. This meant I was often working at a very low, very sad hourly rate.
At the time, I didn’t have confidence in my ability to command higher fees, I didn’t have confidence in myself as a designer, I was still learning how to price projects and communicate my value — and I was looking to my clients and my business to determine my self-worth.
The result was working 16 to 18 hour days, often seven days a week. I was exhausted, overworked, underpaid, and I had no life.
Seeing a pattern yet?
3. You Agree With All Requests Because It Makes The Client Happy
Designers and developers are problem-solvers. Clients hire us to solve problems, create solutions, and do it in a beautiful way. We evaluate the objective at hand, define the problem and constraints, do research and testing, and create solutions that deliver the results clients want.
This process is derailed, however, by designers and developers who care more about making the client happy than delivering long-term results and meeting the original objective.
I learned this lesson the hard way.
I had landed a new “big name” client and wanted to make sure they were happy. I worked extra hard on the initial design draft and knew I had nailed it. I was proud of the design and confident it would help them achieve their goals. I presented the concept to the client, and they had changes and suggestions.
- They wanted to add some elements (because a friend said they needed them)
- They wanted to move some things around (because they read an article that recommended it)
- They wanted to change a couple of the colors (because they heard a speaker at an event discuss a higher converting color)
And I said yes. I said, “Sure. No problem. I can do that,” and I did. I made the changes and the client was ecstatic. They raved about how easy I was to work with. They loved that I was willing to be flexible. They were happy, and at that moment, I felt great! Then the piece was printed, it went out into the wild, and it failed. The client circled back to me and wasn’t happy.
I didn’t stand up for my design. I didn’t educate the client, explain my design thinking, push back, or dig deeper about why the revisions requests were important. I said yes to all of their requests and comprised the design — the solution they were paying me to deliver. I didn’t do what was best for the design. Instead, I put making the client happy ahead of making the project a success.
Clients want and need a solution.
When clients make a request that will affect the target business objective, they rely on you to present any potential pitfalls or challenges and steer them in the right direction. They need you to provide an expert opinion, or if applicable, an alternate option. They want you to stay focused on the objective and deliver results, not do whatever they ask you to do.
4. You Allow Your Boundaries To Be Trampled To Avoid Making A Client Mad
Setting clear expectations and boundaries is critical to building healthy, respectful, long-lasting relationships. The key to doing this successfully is actually enforcing your expectations and boundaries, which is where many freelancers fall off the wagon:
- You say you don’t work on weekends, but you do because a client saw you on Twitter, sent you a DM, and you just couldn’t say no.
- Your workday ends at 5:00 pm, but a client emails at 4:59 pm with a crazy request that must be done ASAP (without rush fees) and you say yes because you don’t want to make them mad.
- You say you value family time, but you give your clients your cell phone number and answer the phone at all hours of the day and night.
- You let your clients know you’ll be on vacation or at a conference, but you continue to check email, you skip sessions or time at the pool to do quick projects for them in your room, and you miss out on new experiences because you are afraid they might hire someone else.
By failing to enforce the expectations and boundaries you set with clients, you sacrifice your own time and sanity and show clients that you undervalue yourself.
Fear of making clients mad, fear of losing clients, fear of not having enough clients— it makes us do crazy things. The reality though, is that enforcing boundaries and adhering to the expectations set, teaches clients to value you, your time, and your relationship.
Freelancing And Personal Fulfillment
When my freelance business was my life, my sense of personal fulfillment was tied to how successful my business was, how many clients I had, and how much praise they heaped on me. While I was happy, moments of true fulfillment were fleeting and I always craved more — more clients, more testimonials, more praise — and I sabotaged my sanity, time, and profits to make it happen.
I was living to work and I needed to be working to live.
Over time, I restructured my business, built systems and processes to carry the load, automated administrative tasks, established better boundaries, increased rates, and invested in greater client communication and education. I also worked to separate my business and personal life and find more balance.
As systems, higher fees, and better clients reduced the time I was spending in my business, I prioritized and invested more heavily in relationships with friends and family, memorable experiences and travel, hobbies that bring me joy, and my own mental and physical health.
Here’s what I discovered: The more fulfilled you are in your personal life, the easier it is to show up as the leader your business and clients need.
Clients Hire You To Be The Expert.
Your clients already have friends and if they want more friends, they can get them without spending a dime. They don’t hire you so you will be their friend, tell them what they want to hear, and make them feel smart.
Clients hire you to be a leader.
Clients hire you to solve their problems because they don’t have the skills or time to do it themselves. Great clients understand that they don’t know what they don’t know and they need you to fill in the gaps and guide them to their objective. They need you to hold the flashlight up in the dark tunnel and lead them to daylight.
When you work on your business, one byproduct is that you also work on yourself. So as your business grows, evolves, and elevates, you too grow, evolve, and elevate. In July, Bourn Creative will officially be 16 years old. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, learned a lot of hard lessons, and used each one as an opportunity to improve my craft both as a designer and a business owner. Today, things look a lot different than they did in those tough early years…
- I say no more than I say yes, only taking on projects that are a perfect fit.
- I welcome nos more often, as I’d rather not work than work on projects that drain my energy and make me dread my day.
- I am confident in my rates, my work, the value I deliver, and the difference I can make in a business. As a result, I charge what I am worth and I get it.
- I have built a lifestyle business that supports a joyous, inspiring, fulfilling life and now I don’t work nights or weekends and I take nine weeks of vacation each year.
- I stand up for the solutions I deliver and show up as the leader and guide, keeping clients on track and objectives in focus.
Freelance Life Reflection Time
If you’re making any of the mistakes I mentioned, like overworking and undercharging, not valuing your time, not enforcing boundaries, and not championing your work, I urge you to take some time alone and ask yourself…
Are you sabotaging your success so clients will like you or looking to your business to meet the needs that your personal life should be meeting?