Nela’s ultimate list of 35 freelancing tips

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Tips for creatives

I started freelancing when I was 19 years old (in 2005), and since late 2013 I’ve been a full-time freelance brand identity designer. There are many lessons I learned in that time that I wish I’d known when I got started, but at least others can benefit from this experience.

Here’s my list of 35 tips that will help you avoid the common pitfalls of freelancing.

Nela's ultimate list of freelancing tips

Your hourly rate needs to be much higher than an employee’s.

You need to account for equipment and software costs, utilities, paid time off for vacation and sick days, sales and income taxes, health insurance, retirement, marketing costs, professional services (bookkeeping, lawyer), etc.

A basic rule of thumb for a starting freelance rate is to double your former employee hourly rate, and keep increasing it as you gain more experience.

Always sign a contract.

If a client doesn’t want to sign a contract, run away. A trustworthy client will sign it because a good contract protects both parties. It needs to specify the scope of services, payment schedule, project time frame, notice period for service cancellation, authorship/usage rights, etc. The details depend on what kind of services you provide.

If a client provides their standard contract, examine it carefully to make sure you agree with all the terms. If there are any terms you don’t agree with, tell them to remove them before you sign it. Do not sign anything you don’t agree with.

Ask the client to confirm all requests and agreements in writing.

If you don’t have written proof of something that the client requested, decided, or agreed to—even if it’s just an email or a comment in your project management software—they may later try to change their mind and claim that they never said it. It may be honest forgetfulness, or it may be that they’re doing it on purpose, but in any case you won’t be having any of it.

If your client communicates their decision during a meeting or a phone call, type a summary of what they agreed to and ask that they confirm in writing that your summary is accurate. It will take you 5 minutes at most, but it will save you from frustration.

Get the client to confirm everything in writing

Your client is not your boss.

You are your own boss. Your clients cannot dictate how you do business. They can ask for what they want, and you have the final say in whether you want to do it or not. You’re not a wish-granting fairy—you are a human with your own needs, goals, and desires.

If a client starts to manage your work hours, expects you to work out of their office, or makes you use their equipment, they may be violating employment laws by effectively treating you like an employee, without providing any of the benefits.

You can walk away under the terms specified in your agreement.

You must walk away if the client is toxic and impacts your mental health and availability for other clients. If one client is sucking up all of your time and energy, you can’t do your best work for other clients so you might lose them. Do not allow this to happen.

The power to walk away is the most important power you hold as a freelancer.

Employees are more vulnerable because attempting to assert their boundaries and demanding better work conditions may cost them their job, which is their only source of income. As a freelancer who works for multiple clients (and hopefully has some savings for the rainy day), you need to be able to reject any client you don’t feel comfortable working for.

Your biggest priority as a beginner freelancer is to gather enough savings and a diverse client base so that no single client can have negotiating power over you. Once you achieve that, you need to get comfortable exercising this power. You need to get comfortable waking away from a project, even if it means you won’t get paid for work already done, the minute the client gets greedy, creepy, unethical, or starts harassing you.

Keep a list of red flags.

During your freelancing journey, you will encounter clients who will suck your blood and leave you exhausted and resentful. After this happens, carefully review all the interactions you’ve had with them and identify all the things they said or did that signaled trouble. Write those things down in a document. Review this document every time you’re talking to a prospect about a potential collaboration. If this prospect displays even one of the “red flag” behaviors, turn the project down.

I love this saying by Sean McCabe which is so very true:

Red flags are like cockroaches: for every one you see, there are hundreds you don’t see.

Business success is all about who you know.

Connection is the way humans operate in the world. If you’re not getting enough work inquiries, talk to more people. You can meet people in person or on social media.

Relationships may not necessarily lead to immediate sales. But someone you’ve met a decade ago and kept in loose contact with may one day have a project that you’d be a great fit for, and you’ll be the first to come to mind.

Do not start work on another project with a client until all past projects are paid.

The client may try switching priorities, and you need to set the rules for how you get paid. Your work is your only real leverage—if you give it away for free, they can just decide not to pay you, and then you’ll need to get lawyers involved.

Try not to rely on just one client for more than 30% of your yearly income.

It’s fine to start with one client, but start working towards getting more clients as soon as possible. (Unless this contract is your ticket to full-time employment with this company, which is fine, but that’s not freelancing.)

A freelancer does not depend on any single client. You can’t hang your own business stability on a single client’s stability. If their business tanks, they’ll drag you down too. Your long term stability comes from multiple sources of income.

There are industries where employment doesn’t exist and everyone is a contractor on a long-term project. This would be an exception to the above “rule” since working on several film productions at the same time isn’t really possible. But if you’re not in that type of industry, keep your eyes and schedule open for different clients.

Treat your great clients with extra care.

Treat your good clients fairly. Treat your great clients better. They may be rare, but they exist.

Leave freelancing platforms as soon as you can.

Freelancing platforms are fine when you’re getting started, but if you want to be respected as a consultant, you need to set up your own marketing channels so that clients seek you out.

When clients seek you out, price is not their primary criteria for choosing who to work with so you can charge much more than most of your peers. Freelancing platforms encourage clients to “shop around”, and this means you’ll be spending a lot of time bidding on projects you won’t get because someone has a few more references in the exact same industry as the client, or their rates are slightly lower.

Find a way to differentiate.

If you’re just another children’s book illustrator/logo designer/WordPress developer/sales page copywriter/VA/social media manager/SEO expert, your potential clients may not understand why your fees are higher than that other freelancer who “does the same thing”. I know you know how you’re different, but clients often don’t.

There are many ways to differentiate, and they will depend on what you do, where you live, how big your market is, etc. Some ways include:

  • Developing a distinct and recognizable style.
  • Getting a prestigious diploma or certification.
  • Specializing in a niche service for a niche audience.
  • Developing your own methodology.

I wrote more about this in my articles:

RFPs tend to be a waste of time.

Request for proposals (RFP) is a standard practice in many industries, but it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. I don’t bid on projects that I know will be evaluated on price alone (this is typical for the public sector), I don’t bid on open calls (there will be too many competitors), and I don’t write proposals if I can’t meet the client first.

Instead of researching and crafting that proposal, your time is better spent on literally anything else that will move your business forward.

Contests suck.

They rely on freelancer’s desperation to get hundreds of hours of free work, and then “reward” one lucky winner. I find them gross.

If you need more experience, volunteer for worthy causes.

This is a great way to build your portfolio and reputation. I recommend that all creatives, young and experienced, dedicate a bit of their time to contribute to positive social change.

Don’t work on weekends (unless you’re working a day job as well).

Or at least don’t tell clients you’re working on a weekend.

It’s fine to work on a weekend if you’ve taken a day off during the week (yay, freelancing!) or if you’ve accepted rush projects (see below) so you’re working overtime. But your clients don’t need to know when you work.

Try not to send emails outside of your regular work hours.

Gmail has an email scheduling feature now. If I’m replying late in the evening, I schedule it to go out the next morning. You don’t want clients expecting you to be available 24/7 if you’re not providing emergency services. Communication boundaries are essential for your mental health.

Make your hard work pay off with rush fees.

Extra speed requires extra money. Since you’ll be working overtime, you need to be paid for it, just like employees get paid when a company makes them stay there for more than 8 hours, or come in on a Sunday.

Adding a rush fee of 50-100% on top of your regular hourly rate is standard. You don’t need to tell the client that you’re charging them a rush fee—just tell them what the project is going to cost.

Understand the difference between revenue, salary, and profit.

Gross revenue is all the money your business receives from any services and products you sell.

Your salary is your personal spending money that’s left after income taxes. You use it to pay for your personal expenses, and only your personal expenses.

Your business’s profit is money left over after all expenses, taxes, and salary are taken out. Use this money to invest in your business growth, like new equipment and software, marketing, advertising, research, or to cover your future salary if you decide to invest time in building a product of some kind. (For many freelancers this can mean writing a book, recording an e-course, developing an app, or designing a physical product.)

Open a separate business bank account.

Having a separate bank account helps you mentally distinguish between “business money” and “personal money”, and to see the difference between “profit” and “salary” clearly. If you keep all your money in a single bucket, you won’t really know how much you have versus how much your business has.

Pay yourself a salary.

I repeat: salary is your personal money. Do not use your salary to pay for business expenses, ever. If you don’t have enough money left in your business account to pay for a new computer, or a new office chair, or a printer, or an app you really need, this means your business is not profitable and you need to increase your prices. You can loan money to your business, but this needs to be logged in your books, and you need to pay yourself back eventually.

If you get a windfall, don’t transfer all that money to your personal account immediately. Pay yourself a normal salary each month, and keep this extra money as a buffer for the lean months. You’re allowed to give yourself raises and bonuses, but try to keep your salary stable and leave the rest in your business account so you don’t spend it all.

Get comfortable with proactively talking about money.

Most of the time, clients will ask how much our services cost, so we can follow their lead and address the issue when it comes up. But when the client doesn’t ask, or might be assuming that they can increase the scope without paying you more, you need to be able to say:

“Of course, I can do it by (date) and it will cost $X.”

No matter how awkward it may feel to mention money first, failing to do it may cause issues later. For example if the client asks if you can do something extra while you’re already engaged in a project, you don’t discuss pay, and then you send them an invoice for the extra task, they might be unpleasantly surprised. I know it sounds weird that anyone would assume you’d just do something without charging, but I’ve had that happen. Clients want to approve any costs in advance. Maybe if they knew the cost, they’d give up the task because it’s not in their budget.

Say it a hundred times in front of a mirror, or practice the conversation with a family member until talking about money becomes just like any other conversation.

Get a hobby.

Many of us love our creative hobbies so much, we turn them into jobs. But doing this work every day can become dull if we don’t let ourselves just have fun with personal creative projects.

Your hobby doesn’t have to be “creative”. It can be a sports-related or community-related activity. Just make it something that will get you away from the computer and give you something other than work to talk about.

Pruning your services is just as important as adding new ones.

If you’re dedicated to your profession, you will inevitably evolve, which means that your services will need to change. I no longer offer the same services I did when I started freelancing. I learned new skills and deepened my expertise in branding, and let go of illustration and miscellaneous design services.

If you realize that certain services are no longer giving you joy and only account for a small part of your income, just cut off that branch of your business so your more fulfilling and profitable branches can flourish.

Real friends pay full price.

Some of your friends and family might think they’re entitled to a discount just because they know you. I feel that friends and family should pay the full price like everyone else in order to show support for your business.

You can give a discount or work pro bono if you feel called to do it, especially if someone has been a great source of support for you and you want to pay them back somehow, but don’t let anyone emotionally blackmail you into giving a discount.

Keep improving your creative process.

Every project is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, your clients, and your work. Hopefully as you get more experience, you’ll adapt your services and your procedures so they serve your clients better. This way, your increased fees will be justified by the increased value that the clients are getting.

I wrote a few articles that can help you with this:

Freelancing is not for everyone.

If you try it and realize you’d rather have a stable job, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Freelancing is not a superior career option. It’s just one of many options.

If you get a wonderful agency job with engaging work, great pay, lovely colleagues, and normal work hours, enjoy it! If your job sucks, you can quit and give freelancing a try, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent solution. Some people are happier in a job.

Having a part time job to tide you over hard times is not a sign of failure.

You need to take care of yourself and your family in any way that works for you, and sometimes freelancing takes a long time to work out. (For some folks it never does.) Don’t beat yourself up if things are moving slow. This “be your own boss” stuff is really, really hard, and far less glamorous than social media makes it out to be.

Personal branding is not about posting selfies, but being known for your expertise.

Your personal brand as a freelancer can include aspects of your personality, but personality and charm alone are not enough to impress potential clients (although they do help).

The way I teach branding is very adaptable to any creative and consulting business, and at the foundation of it are your core values. But core values alone are not what makes your business stand out from your peers—it’s how you bring those values into your services and your business processes. That is ultimately what your clients care about.

The main purpose of branding

Once you’ve clarified for yourself how your core values and your services are connected, start creating content (articles, videos, talks, podcast episodes, illustrations, etc.) that explains your unique perspective and the benefits of your approach. You can weave a personal story that led you to this realization, but anchor it in the work. Otherwise, your clients may wonder “Why is this person sharing all this personal stuff with me?”

If you want to learn more about branding and positioning, here are some articles to get started:

The Human Centered Brand by Nela Dunato: A Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business

I wrote a whole book about branding that I recommend to any creative freelancer and business owner who wants to take it seriously and make visible progress.

The sooner you get comfortable with negotiation, the better.

People who fear confrontation are prone to getting the short end of the stick. I’ve said it a few times already, but I’ll repeat it: you don’t have to accept every request your client makes. Sometimes the request would mean that you work more for less money, which is obviously bad for you, and you need to learn how to speak up so that your needs are fully met. Stating what you need is not disrespectful—it’s informing your clients what has to happen so you can do the thing they hired you to do.

This article on “Reason-Options-Choose” (R-O-C) framework helped me get comfortable with negotiation. It explains how to propose alternatives to what the client is asking for, and simply let them decide. This cleverly moves the focus away from the original request, onto the potential solutions that may work for both of you.

When I disagree with what the client is proposing (whether it’s an unreasonable time-frame, or a design decision I think is bad), I don’t try to “meet them halfway” because that’s still not acceptable to me. Instead I propose a different solution that addresses the client’s need, but also respects my needs. In the end, the clients usually admit that I was right and there are no hard feelings about our conversation.

If you’re struggling to find the right words, check out my list of tactful answers to awkward client questions.

Get comfortable with selling

As an employee, your boss or a dedicated sales person did all the steps to land the client, you only had to do your creative magic. As a freelancer, you need to do both.

But selling doesn’t have to be difficult! I wrote an entire article about it: How can selling services be easy?

In short:

  • If you’re leveraging marketing and referrals, you won’t need to work so hard at selling. Clients that are enthusiastic to work with you don’t need convincing!
  • Figure out your own authentic approach to selling that doesn’t feel pushy and gross. That still doesn’t mean it won’t be uncomfortable in the beginning! But you can improve and grow your confidence with practice, just like I did.

You don’t have to work for 8 hours each day.

8-hour work days are an arbitrary product of industrialization and labor laws, but no one says you have to work those hours.

At a certain income point, time becomes more important than money. Maybe there’s a personal project or an exercise goal you want to dedicate your time to, or be with your family more. I know it feels weird to clock out after having only worked for 3–4 hours. We’re raised with the pressure to feel productive all the time, and this goes against the grain. Just because it may feel weird, it’s very much allowed, and I actually encourage you to create a more sustainable schedule for yourself.

Some ideas on how you can organize your time to work less:

  • Work 4 days a week. (You can make your weekend longer, or have a mid-week breather on Wednesday.)
  • Set a limit of maximum 6 hours per day, and apply overtime pay (i.e. rush fees) to any overtime hours.
  • Start every day with a creative activity you enjoy, before switching to client work. Finish at the same time you usually would.
  • Take longer lunch breaks in the middle of your workday.

Ironically, working fewer hours may make you more productive because you’ll have to focus on what’s really important, and cut back on activities that don’t bring value to your business.

If you’re worried about what your clients will think, I remind you that your clients don’t have to know what your work hours are—only what your meeting availability is. If someone wants to schedule a meeting during what you’ve marked as you time off, just say you’re not available then and offer a different time slot.

Burnout has serious consequences.

You may have laughed at the notion of working less than 40 hours a week because you typically work way more. I know people like that :)

Having to work 12-hour days for a few weeks once or twice a year because you couldn’t have passed up the opportunity, and the pay is great—that’s fine. But if 10–12 hour days are the norm, that’s not good. It’s detrimental to your physical and mental health, as well as your social life. You can’t let work eat up your whole life, even if you love what you do.

Even if you work “normal hours” or less like I do, another kind of burnout can originate from excessive emotional labor creatives perform when working with clients. All of our empathy and thoughtfulness comes with a price, and if we’re not aware of it, we can overextend ourselves without even realizing it.

Dealing with creative burnout is pretty common for freelancers, and while it may sound harmless at first, it can impact your well-being in ways you’re not thinking about. Fatigue, lack of focus, body aches, and the lack of drive are not just uncomfortable—they interfere with your ability to do great work. If you really love your work as much as you say you do, try to always bring your best self to it, and you’ll only be able to do that if you rest.

Carefully choose whose advice you take.

I know friends and family members want the best for us, but sometimes they don’t have enough information to provide useful advice. Many of us are compulsive advice-givers even when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I now have a blanket no career advice policy—unless I explicitly ask a colleague or a mentor for suggestions regarding a specific issue that they have experience with.

Be careful with “influencers” and “thought leaders”—most of them have never been in your exact situation. Research carefully who they were and what they did before they started “crushing it”. Many business coaches never did any other work besides business coaching, and don’t know how to sell creative services.

Some entrepreneurs inherited profitable businesses and didn’t have to start from scratch like you did, which is the most difficult stage of any business. It’s fine to be inspired, but when it comes to solving real problems, you’re better off talking to colleagues who have been in the trenches and can offer real experience, not inspirational platitudes.

You can stay a solo freelancer forever!

Entrepreneurs love talking about “scaling”—growing your small business to earn higher revenues by employing other people. The benefit of this approach is that you get others to do the hands-on work, so you as the CEO can focus on the big vision, and take time off from work, knowing your customers are taken care of.

Expanding your business may be the right path for some freelancers, but I don’t think it’s the right path for every freelancer. Here’s why:

  1. When you hire people, your revenue may increase (as you serve more clients on larger projects), but so do your expenses. Your profit may grow, or it may stay the same as it was when your business was leaner, or it may actually decrease.
  2. Finding the right employees that you can rely on, and that are committed to upholding the high standards you’ve set is very difficult.
  3. You’re now responsible for the livelihood of your team members, and their families.
  4. CEOs and creative agency principals do very little hands-on work, if any. If you enjoy your creative work, you may not want to give it up in order to be a boss to other creatives.

Freelancing is a respectable career choice, not just a stepping-stone to becoming a CEO. I know several experienced creatives who stepped away from the agency model because it wasn’t worth all the stress.

I wrote in more detail on this topic in my article: Why I don’t want to grow my freelance design studio into an agency.

Do you have any tips of your own to add?

Feel free to share them in the comments!

And if any of the tips I mentioned was especially useful to you, let me know and I may expand more on that topic in the future.

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