Every Freelancer Screws Up; Make Sure to Recover Well

It’s going to happen. Every freelancer makes mistakes. Some of them are big and can impact client relationships, while others are more internal and affect your workflow and processes.

There’s one similarity though – how you recover from these mistakes will say more about your freelance career than making them. But how do you recover from the embarrassment of messing something up? Often it requires just a bit of humility.

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Missed Deadlines

Missed deadlines can ruin your reputation as a freelancer. At some point, though, something will get missed on your calendar or an emergency will pop up.

The trick to maintaining the client relationship is to be honest, apologetic and offer another solution. The trick to ensuring it won’t happen again is to create a consist planning and project scheduling system. Always add projects to your to-do list or calendar in the same manner. Include the same information.

Having a system will make adding projects second nature and the repetition of adding deadlines to your list will be somewhat easier to manage. Consider using a tool that will help you create deadlined tasks and remind you of due dates. (You can even share some of these with clients so they also know where a project is in the process.) Consider Todoist for a checklist solution or Asana if you want more of a project management-style option.

Underpricing Projects

At some point that flat rate project you estimated at five hours will explode into a 20-hour monster. You have two options: Go back to the client and explain the situation or suck it up and take the loss.

The right answer truly depends on the relationship you have with the client. If it is a new client that you want to keep, you will probably take the loss. But you should make it clear how long the project actually took and that you discounted the job only because you value them as a client, noting that a similar project in the future will cost more. This establishes good faith between you and the client.

If it happens more than once with a client, you can severely damage a relationship.

With more established relationships, you can warn the client right away that the project has expanded beyond the scope you expected and ask how they want to proceed. Some clients have fixed budgets and won’t be able to move forward while others can approve the extra funds and move on.

In either situation, this should not become a habit. If it happens more than once with a client, you can severely damage a relationship.

There’s another underpricing mistake that happens with long-term clients: You adjust prices for new clients but older clients are “grandfathered” into paying much lower rates because you never had the conversation about a price increase. Have that conversation. You are only hurting yourself in the long run.

You Had a Different ‘Vision’

freelance mistakes

Any creative freelancer has run into this at some point: You had an idea for something and when you showed it to the client, they cringe. The concept, or vision, is totally wrong. This one is tough. Do you start over?

First, talk it out. What went wrong? Did you misunderstand or did the client have a change of heart? Then come up with a plan of action to make revisions. The biggest part of the recovery process here is to think about how you interact with clients in the early phases of projects. Make sure you have enough information to move forward, check in with the client along the way to make sure everyone stays on the same page throughout the project.

Forgetting to Make Backups

You’ve seen the meme above (or version of it). We save a lot of files. But there’s always that one time when somehow the file or backup you need is missing. And a client needs it … right now.

If you can’t file the file you can recreate it or apologize and move on. (Again, this depends on the client relationship and how important it is to continue it.) The bigger lesson is to create a system for file management. What do you keep or throw away? How do you have files? How often do you backup or purge?

As with other systematic approaches, having a way to do things will make it easier to follow a process and recover information later because everything is stored and saved in the same way. And while not backing up files is a problem, saving too many files can be just as cumbersome.

Taking the Wrong Project

Have you ever gotten so excited to work with a certain client that you took on a project that was a bad fit? Maybe it was a stretch of your skills or required a style of expression that you struggle with. There are some projects that seem great, but are not right for you.

Everyone takes one of these projects at some point. And they can be overwhelming.

Get help as soon as you recognize the issue. Talk to the client or bring on someone else to help you out. Complete the project if you can, but don’t move forward with the same types of client projects. Explain the situation clearly and offer a referral to the client if you can.

You Just Got in Over Your Head

Over-commitment can be a big problem for some freelancers. Because work can ebb and flow, some freelancers feel a need to take every project, even during busy times. Do this and you will eventually get in over your head. Pulling all-nighters is not the solution. Better project management is.

Maintain a calendar and schedule of projects. If too many projects pop up at the same time, talk to clients and try to negotiate deadlines. But this requires a delicate balance so that you don’t make any one client feel less important than another.

The less moving forward is to take a realistic view of how many projects you can have going at once without feeling overwhelmed. That can vary by freelancer, type of work and time of year.


How have you recovered from these kinds of mistakes? Would you handle it a different way if faced with the same situation again? Thankfully, once you make a mistake, you learn ways to avoid doing it again in the future. So while it’s no fun at all, sometimes you can worry a little less once you’ve gotten some of these issues out of your system.

Freelancing 101 is an occasional series to help the increasing number of freelancers in the market. Whether you are a designer, writer, developer or wear multiple hats, we will share tips, resources and ideas to help you make the most of your small business. Is there something in particular you want to know? Let me know at [email protected].