Freelancing is full of gray areas, regardless of how experienced you are. Without corporate mandates and the traditional checks and balances system of a cubicle farm, you’re left with a lot of freedom… and a lot of room to get screwed over.
This is especially true when you first start getting freelance work. Along with the usual “How much should I charge?” questions, you’ve got other questions like, “Should I make them sign a contract?” (hint: the answer’s yes) and “Should I trade services with this person instead of taking payment?” and so on and so forth.
Since these questions all have varying answers that are situation-dependent, there’s a lot of chance to respond with the wrong answer. In fact, here’s a little secret:
You’re going to find the wrong answer, and you’re going to make mistakes.
No one can tell you, exactly, how to freelance.
While there are plenty of helpful articles out there, they’ll only take you so far. There’s no official “how to freelance” guidebook, no matter how many people say they’ve written it. So what’s the best prevention plan when it comes to getting screwed over? Arming yourself with the knowledge that you can get through it.
We’ve got a few steps to help.
Let Yourself Be Pissed
I’ve been screwed over before, right at the very beginning of my freelance career. Rather than providing a contract, I relied on a verbal trade agreement. The company I was in “agreement” with ended up dissipating and taking their clients (and, indirectly, mine) with them. Not only that, but they told the clients it was my decision to do so.
Have you ever seen an angry squirrel trapped in a hamster ball? That’s how I felt. Furious, embarrassed, and helpless. I knew I was in the right. I also knew there was nothing I could do to make it any better.
In these situations, the best way to survive is to find a safe person to vent to. Someone you can rant over a beer with who’s not in your professional circuit. Remember, your emotions are legitimate. Let ‘em out, man.
No matter what happens, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Check over your business, your finances, and — let’s face it — your feelings and ego.
They say the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Having just started out when I got screwed over, there wasn’t too much damage to my business that could be done. I still, however, had to conduct exit communications with the clients I had lost, rearrange my budget, and begin to seek out more freelance work. Completing these tasks helped me regain a semblance of control.
I also had to nurse my battered ego. I felt angry about how all the business went down. I felt scared about the loss of income. Most of all, though, I felt childish and silly for not getting a freelance contract that protected me.
Which leads me to my next point…
Don’t Talk Smack
After I got screwed over, I wanted to find a rooftop — any rooftop —- and shout from the top of it… and not in a friendly way. I thought, “How can this person think this is okay?”
Let’s be honest, the things that were going through my mind weren’t really appropriate enough to fit into this post. Somehow, though, I managed to keep them to myself… at least in public anyway. I’m not quite sure how I was able to maintain that level of maturity when it felt like my blood was boiling under my skin, but I did, and I’m grateful for that small moment of mental clarity. Why? Because:
This is the part of the story where the freelancing hero takes the high road, and trusts in karma (and the villain’s poor choices) to teach the offending party a lesson. Dwelling on the past and sending out angry tweets won’t help you become a successful freelancer, will it? It definitely won’t make the people reading them feel confident about hiring you, for fear of befalling the same fate.
Find a New Purpose
Distraction and determination can be a beautiful thing. After I finished reeling from the sheer unprofessionalism of my situation, I gave myself a new goal: Finding clients on my own. I sat down, looked at companies with a need for my services, and scheduled meetings. I may not have scored a six-figure income, but I did get a new client with an indefinite contract… and a renewed sense of confidence.
Figuring out how to freelance after getting screwed over is no easy task; tackling the administrative challenges is hard to do when you’re stuck dealing with the emotional ones. Setting new goals and finding something to occupy your mind can help you overcome them.
If you’re not in the market for new clients, you might try mastering a new technique in your field or attending a conference. Anything you can do to light a fire under your butt will suffice quite nicely.
Try to Find a Silver Lining
I know. This is super annoying. It’s like having someone try to talk to you about unicorns and butterflies when you’re dressed in black and making your way through The Cure’s greatest hits album.
Here’s the bottom line, though. You’ve got to find a positive in this situation if you’re going to move on.
Maybe you need to watch one of the five million Ted Talks about learning from failure… maybe you need to talk to your Grandma about overcoming hardships. Either way, you’ve got to do whatever gets you examining and learning from your mistakes.
For me, I learned that a contract is non-negotiable. I also learned that I was good at conducting business meetings and that making my own decisions was far better than having to ask somebody else when and how to do things. Freelance Lauren of the Past would never admit this, but Present Day Freelance Lauren realizes that she wouldn’t be where she is now, had she not gotten screwed over in the early days. I learned to trust myself, and that’s a pretty big deal.
Learning How to Freelance is Not for the Faint of Heart
Forging your way through uncharted territory is hard, whether that territory is made up of jungle vines or self-employment taxes and industry competition. The best you can do is educate yourself on your industry, focus on self-improvement, and prepare yourself for unpleasant situations… like getting screwed over.