The ethics of ‘faking it until you make it’

Many sources encourage us to ‘fake it until we make it’ in a new career path. If they’re selling coaching/ebooks or ‘growth hacking’ their social media this kind of advice is especially common. There are some ethical issues around this attitude though – both for the freelancer and their clients.

For the freelancer…

Committing to a task or project we don’t know whether we can pull off can be stressful. We’ve all got different levels of stress tolerance. What rolls off one person can cause another sleepless nights or even a breakdown. Especially with creative work, being stressed out gets in my way and reduces the quality of my work. Why add more stress to your life when it can be avoided?

For their clients…

Clients are hiring us to get a job done for them, because they don’t have the skills, time or inclination to do it themselves. They may be looking to us for our expertise and skills. If we ‘talk a good fight’ but don’t actually have the expertise or skills to carry out that task, then in my opinion that’s unethical.

Clients may see or find out that you don’t actually know what you’re doing. This can also lead to a late task or project, or in some cases outright failure. Clients are unlikely to be happy with any of those outcomes, which can result in damage to the relationship or even the reputation of your business.

You can still learn on the job

An easy way around this situation is to be honest with potential clients and tell them we’re not very experienced at this task and seek their consent to give it a go on their project. They may well say go ahead anyway and you can learn together, but some will decline. Either way, the client is aware of what’s going on and you’ll be less stressed about things.

Another solution is to do a test piece of work before committing to the client project if you have time. This shows you the effort required (which will make your quote more accurate), and the piece can possibly go on your portfolio too.


As we’ve seen, there are some issues around ‘faking it until we make it’ for both the freelancer and their clients. I’d strongly recommend you’re honest with your clients if you’re new to the game or trying out a new skill/tool for the first time so you’ve got their full consent, don’t get stressed and don’t let people down.

This week in freelancing: Saying no, isolation and support

I had a tough week in August as a freelancer for various reasons. A local remote worker who works from home all the time called me and put me back on my feet however! Thanks, S.

Saying No

Especially when taking referrals, saying ‘no’ can be extremely difficult. It’s hard to turn paying work away at the best of times, even if we get the feeling it might be an uninspiring or challenging project. When a trusted contact refers you a lot of work, it can be even harder to say no to projects. A potentially complex three-way relationship can form, with roles and boundaries becoming unclear. It’s easy to end up feeling like everyone’s skivvy and end up doing small value, low quality pieces of work. Doing ‘favours’ for the referrer can often backfire too, when time isn’t logged and the value to each party is not apparent.

There’s definitely value in doing strategic jobs, but it’s also common for things to continue in the way they start. That means clients expecting low rate, high faff, menial tasks often stay that way.

Assorted Issues

As I’ve developed my freelance web design and development skills and my rates have risen accordingly, it’s meant letting go of clients with low budgets or who don’t appreciate what I can do for them. Whether it’s micromanaging, haggling or being a support burden, it’s been better for us to go our separate ways.

I do some work for agencies too, and had to stand firm on payment timelines for a recent project after being asked to offer way more credit than I’m comfortable with.

Internal politics on the client side can rear its head in large businesses, which is why I choose to work for small companies where this is less of an issue. Getting involved in a bun-fight between internal factions can lead to cancelled or delayed projects and endless reworking.

As much as small companies try, the kids being off over summer and their day jobs taking all their time and energy can mean projects sliding. This causes problems with calendaring and cashflow on our side.

Isolation and support

I recently broke up with someone, and one of the hardest things to deal with has been the lack of contact during the day. Working from home definitely has its benefits (no commute, no office politics) but it’s easy to spend all week alone. Co-working or even working from cafes can help this, but I often need my big screen and various computers while testing web designs out.

Isolation has hit me this week, with feelings of sadness and pointlessness to go with it. This has impacted my mental state and output. I messaged a remote worker who has been home-working for several years now saying that I wasn’t feeling too good. He called me and the quick chat with him put me back on my feet when I realised that feeling like this is natural and that others often feel the same way. We organised something for the coming weekend too, so I’ve got a social thing to look forward to. I also got out to a local accessibility meetup last night and saw a couple of folks I know which helped.


So in summary – remember you can always say ‘no’ to projects and be firm about your terms. It’s OK to ask for support from other freelancers and remote workers if you’re working on your own and not feeling so good.

Coping with quiet periods in freelance life

It’s just been the summer holidays here in the UK, when a lot of small business owners and company staff are off work to be with their kids. This can cause a bit of a slowdown for freelancers over August, which can delay projects, affect morale and limit cashflow. This can also happen around Christmas or New Year with similar results. The same can apply if you’re in-between contracts or larger jobs.

Here are some tips on how to handle these quiet times as a freelancer.

Have A Holiday

If you can’t beat them, join them. If people aren’t getting back to you on projects, maybe take some time off. During the summer break is a great time to work shorter hours and make the most of the sun (especially in the UK). It doesn’t have to be the whole month, but consciously having a rest while things are quiet can mean you’re raring to go when everyone gets back off their holidays and wants to pick up on projects again.

With prices being high in school holidays, a stay home holiday can work just as well, hanging out in the park or visiting local places.

Work On Your Side Projects

I’m sure we’ve all got side projects on the go that get neglected when we’re busy with client work. A slowdown from clients is a great time to get on with these projects, sharpening skills (or learning new ones) and restoring motivation.

A side project could also become a source of income, and if it makes enough, maybe even be a way of not doing small client projects at all!

Work On Your Website & Marketing

Maintaining our own websites and doing our own marketing often slides when we’re busy with client work. Natural breaks in projects are a great time to update your website and plan your next marketing cycle, working on strategy and creating marketing materials for the coming months.

Plan Ahead For The Next One

It’s a bit late for this summer, but if you know you often have a slow period over Christmas or other times during the year, maybe plan ahead and book in work for these times so you have paid projects to be working on. You can then deliver the work and get feedback/paid as soon as your clients are back in their offices.


We’ve looked at a few ideas here to help smooth out the peaks and troughs of freelance life or make the most of times when clients might not be available to work on their projects.

Reader’s letters: How do I find clients and get paid?

I received this message via Facebook and will answer it here so everyone can read the reply.

“Hi, I need your advise and thoughts. I am a SharePoint trainer cum Consultant. I have been working since 2006 and started freelance in 2015. It was a terrible ride. In my country, many trainers are not paid by institutes who force the trainers to do hectic training. I was lucky to get paid though the payment came after 45 days. It was very difficult. Many many clients from USA used to make me work very hard and some forget to pay. I used to put police/lawyer in cc and somehow got my money from various clients. Some did not even listen to police and abused me who used to ask to me to work and never pay.

Things have not changed much in 2019 also. Many students are terrible who do not even do assignments. I have tried Udemy which is little ok, however the pricing is terribly cheap and many students are getting my content for almost free and I am struggling to get needs met. I am pained. I do like making self paced videos, blogs etc, however, slowly I want people to pay. Also, I tried consulting and again one client in USA did the same thing of not paying and making me work.

I have stopped the client search till July. I get disturbed by many though who want my help and have no sense to pay. At least Youtube students were thankful and the udemy students are very abusive. I am planning to use Thinkific. I am totally angry with majority clients and students and I just like my work and want money for my work and no clients. Good clients are/were there and one is free and other busy.

I still am positive and hope that good clients will come. I want to consult once I finish all my books and not really interested in selling/sharing all my codes. I want to do many apps and sell there again will people buy apps. I am pretty sure that there are clients who need my works and can pay. I used to get all I want in my life before. Very strange that the right clients are not able to reach me. I am expecting few or 1 long term. I am determined to make clients/students pay in full first.”

First off, I’m sorry to hear you’ve had trouble getting paid. That can be a major issue for freelancers. One of the best ways to avoid clients that do this is to use a contract where you receive a large portion of the fee up-front and the rest before delivery of the final deliverables. This will filter out the time wasters who don’t have any intention of paying you for your work. It can be scary reducing your number of clients, but you’re better off not working with people where you stand a chance of not getting paid. You can then spend your time finding better clients and doing good work for them.

It’s sadly the case that many business people will play ‘hard ball’ and will either stall payment, need to be threatened to pay up or never actually pay at all.

The second point I get from your message is that while you have some valuable you’re trying various things and none of them are paying off. It can be hard to find your market, but changing approach or platform constantly means you’re always starting from scratch. Leaving bad platforms or changing tactics isn’t a bad thing if it’s not working however. The market is out there – you’ve just got to reach it!

I started off by doing a couple of websites for cheap and paying people to refer me. This mushroomed into a full time business within a year without having to spend a lot on marketing. If I was starting again, I’d specialise in one thing, build a portfolio, use a blog/book/YouTube channel to build credibility and then start marketing to the people I wanted to work with. More tips on how to become a freelancer

Choosing clients is very important so you do good work, get paid and get good referrals. I’m skeptical about online freelance marketplaces, but if you want to work with people in different countries that might be the fastest way to get started.


Freelancer Interview: Tom Jepson, UX Designer

This weeks interview is with UX Designer Tom Jepson from Nottingham. We met in the queue for the buffet at a recent Creative Quarter event and had a great chat about the freelance life. Tom’s podcast is worth a listen too!

Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Tom Jepson and I’m a UX designer running a ‘design company-of-one’; I’m making the effort to say that I’m not a ‘gigging freelancer or contractor’ these days. 

Broadly speaking I am a designer of ‘digital things’ and a remote-working, collaborative-facilitation fanatic. I bring experience from the world of corporate design, marketing, and communication into my work as UX designer however my client services extend beyond bread & butter wireframes and screen flows. 

My core offer is focussed on helping my clients understand their problem better, helping them through the design process, educating them on the value of user-centred thinking, what a designer could and should bring to the table when they’re engaged on a project, all the while designing appropriate solutions for the problem which we agree, together, needs to be solved. 

What led you to start freelancing? 

After a couple of brief stints of contracting in between corporate and startup jobs, I knew that there was only ever going to be an outcome for my career where I would be truly satisfied; working for myself. Having spent time in both the corporate and startup world, seen success and failure, and watched a lot of people make quite dramatic, terrible decisions it was clear-cut for me that I couldn’t work under someone else’s agenda. 

I have a young family who will always come first and are thankfully very amenable to the work that I have chosen to do. I want to maintain that balance for as long as possible and working for myself, almost on their clock rather than mine, has helped me focus on what’s really important. 

There’s a running joke between some close friends and I that we may all just be terrible employees. But, having tried to make the best of every challenge over the last decade, running my own shop and setting a pace which is comfortable for me and one which I believe will be valuable to my clients has proven to be a very healthy move. 

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out? 

  • Despite early success, continued client engagement is not assured. I ‘knew’ it but until I was faced with a day where I had no clients on book, I really wasn’t prepared for the psychological impact it has. It took a while to work through it and reach a position where it wasn’t quite so scary a thought. 
  • You have to keep yourself motivated to get out and meet with people. It becomes very easy to get stuck in the comfort of your own cave and not leave the house for days on end; it’s not a healthy choice, people! 
  • You will spend more than 50% of your time not doing actual work. After a busy three months at the start of the year, I’ve spent more than half my working weeks finding ways to engage with people, working out what my public-facing persona is and how to ‘get out there’ with people. 

What three issues have you had since starting up? 

  • Identifying what my value really is. I do ‘the standard UX stuff’ – wireframes, user journeys, scope documents etc – but I don’t really feel that’s the most important skillset I bring to any engagement. It takes time to work out and truly engage with what your real value is to people. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about my business and how I need to approach my offer strategically – the value proposition; the message; the audience and market; the competitors – and am taking steps to break down the strategy into long-term, mid-term, and short-term milestones to keep me on track and to give me the opportunity to pivot if I need. 
  • Doing your own site to give yourself a presence is a massive pain in the behind, especially when you have a limited amount of tangible work to show! Plus, there’s the whole ‘it’s never really done’ thing… Add to this the fact that the majority of people with whom you do work will likely never actually see your site until you point them to it to view a case study, it makes it a thankless task! 
  • Pricing work. I have a ‘shop rate’ (you might call it your ‘breakeven’ rate) which I know I have to make each month else my bills aren’t going to get paid. After that, attributing profit which will make the work sustainable and accessible is really hard. I’ve read book after book and had conversation on conversation about it and still there’s no cut and dry answer. Coming up with the numbers and having the aspirational figures is easy, as is – to a degree – explaining it to clients when they ask questions about the rate (clients who go for price first and quibble are not the right clients); the hard part is believing that I’m really worth the money I’m charging. One cannot work at a loss. 

What’s the best thing about freelancing? 

Meeting amazing people. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some killer clients on amazing projects and do work that has proven to be very valuable to them and of which I am intensely proud. I get the time to have meaningful conversations and give a lot; even having one eye on ‘the next goal’, I’m able to contribute without always having a need for some kind of return because I know it’ll come along at some point further down the line. 

I’ve been able to experiment every single day. In the face of horrible imposter syndrome I’ve been able to approach new projects as a clean slate and find out new ways of working, ways to keep each client satisfied, and ways to distill things down into repeatable, saleable services. Having this ‘luxury’ of experimentation (and subsequent success with projects) has proven to me that I can do the job and that I still get a real kick out of it. 

Being able to take time for myself is possibly the most important thing. I work to a pretty rigid routine during the week and have found that taking some time out to read, go to the gym, or even step out for an hour to meet a friend for a coffee keeps me balanced and ready to get down to business when I really need to. 

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future? 

Going forward, as I said at the top, I am not positioning myself as ‘a gigging freelancer’. I’m looking to create a number of repeatable, easy-to-access products based around the services I want to offer to people and am finding ways to partner with other creative pros and businesses to enhance both of our offers. I’m also persisting with my podcast – The Sideman Designer – and exploring ways to up-the-ante on knowledge sharing and passive income streams. 

Someone said to me that ‘it takes a village’ to really make something happen and I am inclined to agree. It’s great working for myself and being engaged as a consultant company-of-one to work on a project (honestly, I find that very validating!), but there is so much value in finding like minds who want to work on creating something new. 

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing? 

The money you make is not the defining factor for your success. If you’re stepping out of a full-time job it’s almost a dead cert that your take-home cash at the end of your first year is not going to be anything like that which you got from your job. There’s so much more to working for yourself and doing things in your way that will bring greater rewards (and probably a load more cash when the time’s right!) 

You have to be prepared to work and really have to stick at it, too. If your client base has dried up after three months that’s no reason to quit; just refocus and find a means to talk to new people. Having an eye on a bigger goal (and then the even bigger goal after that) is more likely to steer you to success than focussing on where the next can of beans is coming from (although I’m not saying that being able to buy food week on week isn’t important!). 

Surround yourself with good friends and people who will challenge your thinking. If you’re working on your own there’s going to be times when you start to go off piste a little; having a solid network of people to bounce ideas off (even if that’s just a group of Instagram friends) and get some objective feedback is going to help keep you on track.