There’s a myth floating around in the world of freelancing that I want to bust right now.
Most freelancers believe that the better they get at their craft, the more they’ll get paid by clients who hire them. On its face, it seems to make sense: the better you are, the more you can charge, right?
And while that may be true for some, my 10 years of working with freelancers has taught me that it’s atypical. Just being better at your craft doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make more money as a freelancer.
In reality, there’s a huge percentage of extremely talented freelancers who simply don’t get paid what they deserve. What’s worse, many of those same top-notch freelancers are actually getting paid less than their underqualified competition.
If you feel like you’ve seen freelancers who are less experienced than you making more money than you, you’re not alone. So today, I’d like to share what a decade of coaching freelancers has taught me about which ones make good money and which ones just kind of “get by.”
Are you an expert?
In Michael Gerber’s classic self-employment book The E-Myth Revisited, he gets right to the core of why I believe so many freelancers struggle.
“The E-Myth,” he explains, “is the flawed assumption that people who are experts at a certain technical skill will therefore be successful running a business of that kind.”
If you’re a talented designer working in-house at a large corporation, you might think about quitting your day job and starting your own design business. It may be you don’t get along with your boss, your deadlines are crazy, or you’re totally uninspired by the projects you work on. So you quit your job and start your business. (Or ideally, reverse of that.)
But soon, you realize there’s a lot more to running a successful design business than churning out good work and getting paid for it. There’s marketing, business development, technology management (and no more IT guy on the 8th floor).
You also have to manage your finances, send invoices to clients (and follow up when they go unpaid!), stay on top of the latest trends, field angry client phone calls, get more clients for next month, and the list goes on.
Your new role
It’s in this moment that you can either give into the pressure of starting and running your own freelance business or you can lean into it and accept your new identity.
You see: You’re not just a designer anymore. You’re a business owner. One that also happens to work on design projects for their clients. But an entrepreneur first, designer second.
That realization—however true it might be—can be a bit disheartening at first.
But it’s the freelancers who lean into that mentality who really thrive in business—getting paid what they deserve and building a sustainable freelance business.
Yes, there are freelancers who are less experienced than you are at your craft, but make more money than you do.That’s because they think differently about their role than you do.
Change your mindset
The most successful freelancers I’ve met, the ones raking in big money while other freelancers struggle to find work, are those that understand their new role extremely well.
You must understand your job is not (only) to deliver a high-quality project on-time. That was your job when someone else sent you a paycheck every two weeks. That paycheck is gone.
Now you’re the one responsible for sending the paycheck. Yes, it’s probably just to yourself in the beginning, but this distinction makes all the difference.
Emmy-award winning designer Chris Do explains it like this:
“If you don’t learn the language of business, you may limit your growth and be relegated to the role of an ‘order taker.’”
And that’s exactly what many freelancers allow themselves to become: order takers.
“Change that font.”
“Make it responsive.”
“Fix the navigation menu.”
“Make my logo bigger.”
It’s exhausting. And it devalues your work.
So while you continue to slave away getting really good at the latest design trends or technical tasks, your “less experienced” competition is getting better at talking to clients, raising their rates, pitching new projects, building up recurring revenue, and developing a real business.
Enough theory, let’s see this in action
“Sure,” you might be saying to yourself, “this all sounds fine. But what do I actually DO now?” I’m glad you asked!
I’d like to pose a few scenarios to illustrate the difference between someone who focuses on their craft (the creative) and someone who focuses on their business (the entrepreneur).
Scenario 1: You don’t have any work lined up for next month
The creative is mildly bothered about the idea of not knowing who their clients are next month. But overall, they’re confident things will work out since they usually do. They decide they’ll work hard on current projects and then ask for referrals from existing clients when their projects are finished.
The entrepreneur is extremely concerned with the idea of not knowing where revenue is coming from next month. They decide to take swift action by dedicating time each day to search freelance job sites with relevant opportunities. They also ask their current clients for referrals immediately, even if they haven’t completed their current projects.
Scenario 2: You want to get your name “out there” in order to draw in clients.
The creative understands that it’s always good to bring in more clients. That’s why she’s constantly posting on Instagram and Dribbble. She also regularly submits her work to creative contests in hopes that winning an award will show just how talented she is—convincing clients to seek her out and hire her for their next project.
The entrepreneur understands that even the most skilled creatives often have to seek out clients on their own. She knows that posting to sites like Instagram or Dribbble may lead to new clients, but more frequently serve as a place to show off to fellow creatives. She’s not as interested in awards as she is in generating a list of local businesses who can use her services and visiting them with a friendly, well-thought-out pitch.
Scenario 3: You want to raise your rates
The creative is confident that they can explain how much work goes into each deliverable, the client will understand the need to charge more for their work. After all, a client isn’t just paying for that singular project, they’re paying for all the education, training, experience, and work that led up to that point in their career. Explaining all of this to clients will result in a natural rate increase because they’ll be happy to pay for their talent and hard work.
The entrepreneur doesn’t actually care much about the process. They care about the end result and how it benefits their own business. They track and measure the real-world business value they give their clients. They understand the metrics their clients care about and works hard to improve them regularly so when the time comes to raise their rates, it’s a no-brainer for the client because they are happy to pay for continued results.
Hopefully the examples above can help you see why changing your mindset about your new role is an absolute must when it comes to bringing in more revenue as a freelancer.
I’ve been building my own business for more than 10 years, and you know what I still hate?
That awkward moment when people start talking about their jobs at parties or family gatherings.
I hate it because the conversations usually go something like this:
“Hey, Jane. How’s work going?”
“Oh, pretty good, I guess. Same old same old. What about you?”
Then there’s this awkward pause when they realize that they’ve just asked you about “work,” which means they actually asked how my business is doing and asking an entrepreneur how their business is doing is sort of like asking a “day-jobber” how their salary is going. It can be awkward.
No matter how your business is going, you feel almost an obligation to respond enthusiastically; that everything is going great, that things couldn’t be better.
But if you can implement what I’ve shared here today, not only will your business improve, to only will you be able to charge more and get paid what you actually deserve as a very talented freelancer, but you will also be able to avoid the awkward moments at social gatherings and respond quickly and honestly:
“Business is GOOD!”