According to Upwork, 36% of the U.S. workforce performed freelance work in 2020, with more than a third of them freelancing full time. And the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce meant 12% of workers began freelancing for the first time.
In many ways, the internet and digital technology have made freelancing a lot easier than it once was. However, there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid in the digital workplace, particularly if you’re just starting out as a freelancer.
And clients aren’t entirely blameless either when it comes to managing freelance relationships online.
Michelle Garrett has worked as a freelance writer and PR consultant for two decades. Since 2018, Michelle has also hosted a weekly Twitter chat called #FreelanceChat. I spoke to Michelle about the most common digital freelancing mistakes and how to avoid them.
What’s the biggest digital mistake new freelancers might make when starting out?
Back when I started, I had a website from day one because I lived in Silicon Valley.
Today, there are people starting to freelance who don’t think they need one. It’s really important. A website is the marketing hub of any business.
You may not be able to afford to pay somebody $20,000 to build your website, but you can certainly put together a portfolio site on your own. There are solutions now that make it much easier than it used to be to do that kind of thing.
What’s the hardest digital lesson you’ve had to learn in your freelance career?
The mistake I made was I didn’t start collecting email addresses. I didn’t start building an email list.
People can debate whether or not you need an email list as a freelancer, but I send out a newsletter and I think you should have one.
It takes a long time to grow a list. If I had started building that list a million years ago, I would have a huge list. So, once you have the site, then you should be building the list and launching a newsletter.
The internet, and social media in particular, is a very noisy place. While building a digital presence is essential for a freelancer to get noticed, how easy is it to get it wrong?
Social media is a blessing and a curse. Freelancers should be on social media, just like any business needs to be on social media. But as much as I love Twitter, I can certainly waste a lot of time finding the right gif or having conversations that have nothing to do with anything.
I do use Twitter for research, and I use it to start conversations and ask questions. It really is valuable to me. But I have to make sure I’m not overdoing it. So, I have hours of the day when I try not to look at it because I can easily go down a rabbit hole.
The other thing about social media is – like with Clubhouse, now everybody has to be on Clubhouse. Pick one or two. For me, it’s Twitter and then LinkedIn and that’s what I focus on.
When starting out as a freelancer, there’s a lot of pressure to get enough work in the door. What are some of the traps when chasing those first paying jobs?
A lot of people have gone freelance because of the pandemic, because they were laid off. Maybe they’d thought about freelancing, and this was the push they needed. But with all the people jumping into freelance, if you weren’t already in the pool it’s going to be even harder.
One of the things they do is turn to those platforms like Upwork to get some traction. I’m not a huge fan. You don’t want to build your whole business around them.
When you get out there, first of all, you have to make sure you’re mentally prepared for it to take a little time. If you’re living on one income and need to support yourself, I’m not sure it’s a great plan because it does take some time to get yourself ramped up.
I think some people just don’t understand what it takes. Yes, you need a sign. Yes, you need to be on social media. Yes, you need to go to Twitter chats. Yes, you need to be on LinkedIn. Yes, you need to build your portfolio. And when we can do in-person events, you need to go out and talk to people.
You need to talk to people all the time. I think it’s a mistake to get busy with your work and then neglect the networking, neglect all the stuff you should be doing to keep the leads coming in. I’m always talking to people, even if I am fully booked. If somebody contacts me and I think it might be a fit, I’ll talk to them because even if we don’t work together now it might work out some day. Or I can refer them to somebody in my network.
Let’s switch to talking about how clients find and work with freelancers. What would be the most common frustrations or complaints people bring up in #FreelanceChat when talking about clients?
The big one is payment, whether it’s late payment or nonpayment.
I’m much more careful now and make them pay something upfront, especially with brand new clients. They have to pay the whole amount or half or a third or whatever it is but get something.
And that’s another thing that if you’re new to freelancing, you might not know. When they come to the chat, that’s the kind of stuff that people will tell them.
Some of us don’t like to talk about money. We don’t like to ask to be paid. But it’s not magic. You’ve got to engage with them without being forceful about it.
You’ve already mentioned freelancers shouldn’t rely too heavily on platforms like Upwork. Is the same true for clients and employers?
I think you’re limiting yourself if you’re only looking on there.
I always wonder about employers that exclusively use these platforms to find people. It kind of turns freelancing into a commodity and I don’t think that’s good for anybody.
I’ve seen jobs offering $3-6 an hour for a content writer or whatever. My son made more bagging groceries. This is crazy.
If those people are making a living, okay. But if you’re a company and you’re not investing in your content, it becomes pretty obvious to people. When I’m looking for things to share for clients or for myself, I’ll see articles where you can tell right away. I don’t think some clients understand this. Does this article meet your standards? It doesn’t meet my standards.
The rise of digital technology gave us the gig economy, where piece work is the norm and working relationships are far more transient. Is this the future of freelancing?
I know people who approach freelancing as a per piece type of thing – per press release, per article, per social media post, or whatever. I think we have to fight against that a little bit. But some people are perfectly fine and happy working like that.
One thing that drives me crazy is when some freelance experts or coaches say, “This is the way you freelance. This is how you do it. This is the only way.”
No. There are so many ways to go about it and be happy and successful. As long as it’s ethical, you don’t have to do it any certain way. If you’re happy and you’re successful – whatever your definition of success is – then that’s really what matters.