While being a freelance designer can be an incredibly fun and fulfilling career, it’s not without its downsides. Chief among them is that it can place those of us who aren’t experienced businesspeople into a position of having to make critical decisions. Worse yet, it’s very possible to make the exact wrong choice in any given situation.

Making the wrong choice could be as harmless as ordering the wrong paper stock on your new business cards. Or, it could be serious enough to cost you a small fortune in money, reputation or both.

Truth be told, I have made costly mistakes over my time in business (their depths go far beyond this list). I can tell you from experience that it’s not very fun. But thankfully each mistake has provided me with a learning experience. So now I’m going to pass those lessons on to you. Hopefully, they save you from having to learn the hard way.

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Unauthorized Use of a Copyrighted Image

There was a time when the use of images on the web was just a matter of saving one and then doing whatever you wanted with it. It probably wasn’t smart then, but it’s really not a good idea now. With copyright trolls looking for literally the slightest excuse to send you a hefty bill for unauthorized use of an image – you’d better make sure that you have clear rights to use it (including ones that clients provide).

It’s bad enough if this happens with your own website. But it’s a whole other kind of terrible when it happens to a client’s site – and it was you who posted the image. It puts you on the hook financially and makes you look the fool (I won’t comment on any personal involvement on this one).

The Solution
Scrutinize any image you download from the web. If it’s from a stock photo site (free or premium) ensure that the license allows you to use the image for your intended purpose (commercial, for example). Some license agreements even include limits as to the image’s size when used on a website. With free images, look for the CC0 type of license. That allows you the freedom to use the image in both personal and commercial projects.

Failure to Put Agreements in Writing

Knowing that you are running a business, working without at least some form of a contract is an invitation to get stiffed on payment. For your consideration, a personal anecdote:

For a long time, I relied on the goodness of people when starting new projects. Amazingly, it worked out quite well for a number of years. Then I got burned. I started a project without getting the standard deposit – even though I knew better. And when the relationship soured, I lost out on that check. While I could have gone through the legal process to get it straightened out, in this case it was good enough just to be able to walk away from a bad situation.

The Solution
When a new client wants you to work on a project – get the terms agreed to in writing. If you usually require that a client provide a deposit, you’ll want to make sure that they know you won’t start work until you have it in your hands. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never have an issue with payment or other related troubles, but at least you’ll have it down on paper.

Taking Responsibility for Things You Shouldn’t

This one will come back to bite you over and over. And it’s especially difficult because we so often say yes to things (out loud or in our heads) in the early part of our freelancing career. But usually, the pain really starts later – well after you’ve decided that you no longer want to do a specific task.

I can share an example of this from my own experience. Over a decade ago, I had agreed to administer a promotional app on a client’s website. Essentially, it was there to send a birthday coupon out to folks who signed up to their mailing list. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not the way I did it.

Since I didn’t have anything to tie directly into their email list that would trigger the sending of a message, I instead rigged up this ridiculous system for manually adding users to an app that would send out those coupons. Because of my foolishness, I manually checked the mailing list for new subscribers and added them to a separate coupon app – for years.

This, along with a sprinkling of other short-sighted decisions took up a great deal of time that really could have been better spent. The frustration was compounded by the less-than-ideal setup.

The Solution
Think long and hard about taking on things you really don’t want to do before saying yes. You could be living with the consequences long after. Oh, and automate everything you can!

Failure to do Your Homework

The last costly mistake in our roundup can really cost you – as in tons of time and lost revenue. It’s the failure to do enough research to provide an accurate cost estimate for a project. And the real kicker is that this sin is just as easy to commit when quoting a from-scratch website or a redesign.

So often, we see cases of “scope creep” work their way into our projects. It’s those seemingly little things that turn into a huge mess. But part of that might be because we didn’t ask enough probing questions at the beginning of the process. If we’re not on the same page with our client, we might be in for a surprise.

When it comes to redesigns, we might do a cursory scan of an old site thinking that there’s nothing major lurking underneath (especially so if a prospective client hasn’t mentioned it). So, instead of clicking through a bunch of content – we assume it’s all the same. Only when we begin working on the project do we find that key element we missed. At this point, it’s probably too late (or at least too awkward) to go back to the client and ask for more money.

The Solution
The key here is to be as thorough as possible when reviewing an existing website or going over project requirements with your client. Reviewing a website should be simple enough. It’s a matter of clicking through each and every link to see what’s there. If there’s something you don’t quite understand – ask questions. And, when going over project requirements, it’s not enough to just know what functionality the client needs. It’s also important to find out how they expect the whole process to work and any data portability needs they may have. The more information you collect, the more accurate your estimate will be.

Learning as You Go

If you’ve never been in business before and all-of-the-sudden find yourself running one, you’re bound to have some missteps. That’s a natural part of the process. As a designer or developer, we’re often focused on what we do best. Sometimes the other job requirements aren’t as apparent until something goes wrong.

The good news is that most mistakes are correctable – if not outright preventable. The best way to avoid these situations is to really think things through. Take time and review the pros and cons. Think about how a decision may impact you a year or two down the road. Over time, you may find that doing things this way will become easier. And both your bank account and sanity will be the better for it.

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