5 Ways to Avoid the Wrong Freelance Gigs

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Tom N. Tumbusch 2014One of the stock interview questions smart employers ask job candidates is “what are your greatest weaknesses?”

As a freelancer you’re less likely to get this question from potential clients, but it’s still worthwhile for you to know the answer. Regardless of whether you started freelancing by choice or from economic necessity, one of the perks is your ability to choose the work you do. And few things will hold you back more than taking on the wrong freelance gigs.


photo from Shutterstock

This isn’t just a luxury enjoyed by “established” freelancers — yes, we all take on a few freelance gigs we hate because the rent has to get paid this month. But trying to be anything to anyone is a well-known recipe for failure among solo creative professionals.

Even when you’re new and struggling you get to make a few choices about who you work with and the type of jobs you take on. And no matter how desperate you are for work, there are some jobs you just shouldn’t do. Below are five signs that you should consider referring a colleague who’s a better fit for the job (or just run away fast):

1. You can’t get excited about the work

Doing work you enjoy isn’t just a benefit; it’s a route to success that gives you natural inspiration to deliver your best stuff. Landing freelance gigs you’re really passionate about is the obvious way to achieve this, but even if you can’t do your dream work all the time you can still put this principle to work by approaching unfamiliar types of work with an open mind.

When I’m asked to write about something new, I often find the “interest factor” by looking through the eyes of the intended audience. Figuring out how my readers will benefit from what clients want to encourage — whether it’s buying a product, attending an event, or showing support some other way — is often the key to unlocking the excitement. I’ve even used this method to get clients excited about jobs they originally found boring.

While it’s important for your interest to be sincere, your level of excitement can vary depending on your situation. If you really need work, you can probably muster interest in a few things that wouldn’t seem as compelling if you had regular prospects hammering on your door.

Looking to diversify your creative skillset? Here are some resources that can help you out and inspire you:

2. The gig would compromise your principles

There’s nothing more miserable than doing creative work that conflicts with your values. It’s bad enough to feel like a hypocrite, but there’s also a business case for walking away.

Quite frankly, your work will suck.

No matter how well you think you’re hiding your true feelings, a gig that violates any strong beliefs you hold about ethics, morality, politics, human decency or common sense will sabotage your creativity. You may not even notice that it’s happening, but the results will underperform every time. That’s bad for your business any way you slice it.

3. You don’t understand what the client needs

Many philosophers have been quoted saying pithy things about the wisdom of knowing what you don’t know. There’s a fair amount of job satisfaction in it too.

If you’re smiling and nodding while feeling clueless during briefing sessions, think twice about taking the job. You might fool a client for a while, but if your cover is blown it can do serious damage your reputation.

This doesn’t mean you can’t take on work you don’t understand right away. If a client is happy to train you, or you’re willing (and able) to get yourself up to speed quickly on your own, feel free to take on the work. Either way, the best practice is to be up front with the client about what you don’t know. If they’re comfortable with your expertise being a work in progress, go for it.

4. The client makes you uncomfortable — for any reason

There are more clients out there than you can ever possibly serve, so there’s no reason for you to put up with the bad ones. If a prospect or client is abusive or disrespectful, doesn’t pay on time, makes you cry, gives you guilt trips, intrudes into your personal space or time, or does anything else that makes you uneasy, look for work somewhere else. Period.

5. The job prevents you from getting work you really want

Every job has what economists call “opportunity cost”, or the value of the alternatives you turn down. In a perfect world you minimize this cost by choosing the gigs that are most beneficial, whether they’re the highest-paying, the most satisfying, the most convenient for your lifestyle or the best step toward your long-term goals (bonus: you get to decide which “value” is most important).

It’s not always obvious which “no” choices will lead to bigger “yes” opportunities, but there are a few proven ways to improve your odds. Gigs that encourage you to be the lowest bidder will always come easier than those that pay well, but chasing them is rarely the best use of your time. A long-term non-compete agreement with Company B might not be a good choice if you aspire to work with Company A in the same industry. One of the things you have the most control over is where you focus your networking and self-marketing efforts — look for the online groups, in-person events, and other places where your best potential buyers hang out, which may not be the local Chamber of Commerce or “business networking” or “leads” group.

One of the toughest challenges in this category can be a regular client that wants a significant chunk of your time for work that doesn’t align with your mid- to long-term goals. Those steady paychecks can be alluring, but make sure they’re worth what you might be giving up. If they are, there’s no shame in redefining what you’re looking for. If not, making the tough decision to turn the work down may be a risk worth taking.

Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for designers, creative agencies and green businesses. He is the author of the free eBook The Writer/Designer Dream Team and periodically shares more casual wisdom on the WordStream of Consciousness Blog. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at www.wordstreamcopy.com.

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