What You Need to Know About Freelance Failure

Freelance failure can turn into success

Within seven years of graduating from college, J.K. Rowling was an “epic failure.” Those are her words, not mine. Rowling was divorced, raising her daughter on her own, and unemployed. “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” says Rowling in her TED Talk “The fringe benefits of failure.” By failing, Rowling learned that she had the will and discipline to finish her first Harry Potter novel—which 12 publishers rejected.

Today, the Harry Potter brand—and Rowling—are worth about $15 billion. Rowling’s published seven Harry Potter books, which have been made into eight movies.

Failure is Inevitable

“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all,” says Rowling.

Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” One of the most famous inventors of all time, Edison and his associates spent 3 years trying to develop the light bulb. They worked on at least 3,000 different theories and developed about 1,000 prototypes before developing a prototype that worked.

When a reporter asked Edison how it felt to fail 1,000 times, Edison replied:

“I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Failure is a Stepping-Stone to Freelance Success

We all make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes lead to failure. But as the stories of Rowling and Edison show, failure can be a stepping-stone to success.

Failure is an opportunity to try again:

  • Rowling kept sending “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to publishers until the 13th publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing, agreed to take it on.
  • Edison and his team kept working on the light bulb until the 1,001st prototype worked.

Succeeding as a freelancer isn’t nearly as hard as writing and publishing a best-selling novel or inventing something that helped create the modern world.

The key is to be persistent, determined to succeed, and willing to work hard, as Rowling and Edison were.

My Freelance Failure  

When I was starting out as a freelancer, I made a lot of mistakes. And they were all related to marketing my business, which is really embarrassing. I’m supposed to be the expert, right? Well, I am now, but I wasn’t then.

Not Specializing Enough or Knowing My Prospects

My two biggest mistakes were not having a strong enough specialty and not knowing enough about my prospects.

I started out as a freelance medical writer, which is a very broad specialty. I thought that all freelance medical writers were like me: People with journalism degrees who wrote about health, healthcare, and medicine. And I thought they did the same type of work that I did: Marketing communications.

I was wrong! Most medical writers (freelance or employed) have medical or scientific degrees and do scientific writing for professional audiences.

Because I didn’t understand the prospects within my specialty, I was marketing to a lot of companies that would never hire me. These companies only use freelance medical writers with medical or scientific degrees for projects that I describe as “high science.”

But as I learned about my prospects and freelance opportunities in medical writing, I adjusted my marketing.

Not Networking Strategically

I was smart enough to join the American Medical Writers Association within a few months of launching my business, and to start volunteering right away. This helped me build strong relationships with a lot of people, including leaders in the association.

But I treated everyone I met the same way. It took me years to realize that I needed to be more strategic about networking, and focus more of my time on people who could be most helpful to me and me to them.

This didn’t hurt me much, because I was so active that I built a strong network quickly. But my network would have been even more effective faster if I had been strategic.

Now I spend most of my networking time and effort on my key contacts and people who are most likely to become key contacts.

Not Following Up Enough

Did you know that up to 90% of the time, clients aren’t ready to hire a freelancer when we first contact them? I didn’t.

In the beginning, I did follow up regularly with prospects who were interested in my services but hadn’t yet hired me. But as I got busier, I stopped following up.

Later in my freelancer career when the inevitable bad things happened and I needed to get more clients, I regretted not following up. It took me a lot more time and effort to find, research, and get new clients than it would have to spend a few minutes now and then following up with those interested prospects. (Read “Surviving a Freelance Disaster” for more on how I handled some of these bad things.)

How I Turned Freelance Failure Into Success

Like Edison, I kept learning from my mistakes and working hard. Like Rowling, I used willpower and discipline to achieve the goal, in my case building a successful freelance business. In 18 months, I was making 6 figures—despite my many mistakes.

Massive action is a more explicit term for the hard work freelancers need to do to succeed. “If you commit to taking serious, focused and MASSIVE action, you’re virtually guaranteed success,” says Ed Gandia in “Massive Action: The Unspoken Ingredient of Freelance Success.” Ed is a business coach and strategist for freelance writers and creative professionals who used to be a freelancer.

Good things happen when you put in the work (or as Ed says, take massive action). There’s no logical explanation for this. But Ed and I have both seen it. “Over and over again, when I’ve acted boldly, with confidence and a great sense of calm, things have happened that I just can’t explain,” he says.

These good things can include:

  • Past clients you haven’t heard from for a while who give you an assignment
  • Colleagues who refer work to you
  • A new client who finds you through LinkedIn
  • Your marketing reaches a client in that 10% window when he/she needs a freelancer right away.

I believe that taking the right actions and having the right attitude somehow makes good things happen. Taking the right actions helps you have the right attitude, because you’ll be more confident. Clients and colleagues can sense that confidence. If you wait until you’re desperate to look for work, they sense that too.

As Henry Ford said,

“Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”

Ford failed in three businesses before finally achieving success with Ford Motor Company. His revolutionary assembly line cut the time required to build a car to 2.5 hours—from more than 12 hours—and changed manufacturing forever.

Not Trying is Worse Than Failing

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team because he wasn’t good enough. He kept going, and became one of the greatest basketball players ever.

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying,” says Jordan.

Whether you make mistakes or actually fail as a freelancer, you can achieve success—if you’re persistent, determined to succeed, and willing to work hard to market your business. You can get the clients you deserve.


Learn More About How to Turn Freelance Failure into Success

6 Ways to Overcome Failure and Achieve Freelance Success

Surviving a Freelance Disaster: Here’s What Happened to Me

“The fringe benefits of failure.” TED Talk by J.K. Rowling

“Massive Action: The Unspoken Ingredient of Freelance Success,” by Ed Gandia