4 Big mistakes that make you look like a rookie entrepreneur

Whether you’re a rookie or a veteran, everybody wants to look like a polished pro.

Most of us know the basics:

But we’re all human, too, and sometimes we make mistakes no matter how hard we work to avoid them. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve made a mistake until we’re up the creek without a paddle.

I’m here today to toss you a paddle before you leave shore.

Here are four big mistakes I’ve made or seen that’ll make you look like a rookie entrepreneur to your peers, friends, family, and (eep!) even clients.

Not using a contract for volunteer work

Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean you don’t need a contract. In fact, I’d argue that it’s almost MORE important to have a contract for non-paid work (volunteer, family, etc.).


Since you’re not getting paid, you need – NEED – to clearly define the scope of the project or it gets way out of hand. (Like years out of hand.)

A simple, “sure, I’ll help you update your website” turns into you being their web designer, maintenance, and updates person until you put your foot down, which is never fun.

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So practice some preventative client maintenance. Just because you’re not listing pricing in a proposal doesn’t mean you can’t include the following:

  • Establish the scope of what you’ll be handling
  • State client responsibilities regarding imagery, content, input, etc.
  • Set a time frame
  • Explain what will happen if they become unresponsive or table the project
  • Define the finished product / deliverables

Not vetting a website theme or service before recommending it

This one hurts a little to talk about because I learned this the hard way.

I recommended a WordPress theme perfect for my client’s site…but WRETCHED for me to customize. All of the graphic elements were images instead of CSS, so when we wanted to change the color scheme (thankfully they already had one picked out), I had to download, recolor, and upload at least 100 images.

A simple sneak peek at the source code would’ve prevented this headache and not shot my hourly rate down the tubes.

And since I recommended it, I had absolutely no way to steer my client in a new direction or charge them extra for the trouble of customization.

Talk about frustration and misery.

Learn from my mistake. Vet your themes and services thoroughly, even if you’re not planning on customizing them that much. Then, when your client asks for customization, you’ll know what your capabilities are.

Not having a project management system

Nobody has a system for anything when they first start out. We’re all just thrilled to be getting paid to do what we love, or even like just a little.

But sooner or later, something is going to fall through the cracks. A deadline will be missed. Or you’ll double-book yourself…again…and have to call one of your clients and reschedule (or fake sick).

Not cool.

I’m not saying you need to purchase a specific app or monthly subscription to software, although that’s certainly something to think about when you can afford it.

I am saying you need to develop a system that works for you.

So whether you make to-do lists, use a client management system, or stay organized with your own personal method, you need to have a system in place that ensures you can keep track of each project’s progress as well as its deadline.

Not learning from mistakes

As entrepreneurs, we don’t get many second chances. The world seems smaller than we ever imagined, especially if your business depends on local clientele or practices within a specific niche.

Neither our wallets nor our reputations can afford too many mistakes, but so often we see the same mistakes, whether our own or someone else’s, repeated over and over.

Case in point: despite the thousands of requests for help that go, “My client stiffed me, but I didn’t use a contract…,” I still find entrepreneurs who pooh-pooh the formality of contracts.

Or, as David pointed out in this post, we fail to solve recurring problems in our own businesses, chalking it up to bad or ignorant clients.

We have to be smart. We have to prevent the mistakes we can see coming because undoubtedly there will be hidden ones that trip us up. And we have to learn from others who have walked before us.

Share and learn

Have you graduated from the school of hard knocks? Don’t be shy! Share one experience in the comments you’d rather not repeat and let’s all learn from one another.

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About April Greer

April is the Director of Projects at Reliable PSD, a design-to-code company for designers, by designers. She’s the glue keeping everything together, organized, and right on time, and giving everyone a fantastic experience while she does it.



  1. FIrst ever client landed on my own…did $5000 worth of work, got paid $500 because the client “changed their mind”–No Contract! Lesson learned the hard way. Oh and the $500 was the deposit I owed the programmer.

    • Ooog. Been there! My first web design project was a similar mess that I would’ve made better money if I had flipped burgers at McDonald’s.

      Thanks for sharing, Jacqueline!

  2. Another great blog post. It is always nice to know the obstacles that I might come across on the way since I am a fairly new freelancer. Thanks for the helpful tips 🙂

  3. April,

    I can confirm defining the scope and parameters is key to successful volunteer work. Also, saying “no” to volunteer activities can be important as sometimes you can be too generous with your time.


    • Luke,

      TOO TRUE! “No” can sometimes turn a volunteer gig into a paid one, as they need the work but don’t want to go hunting for another volunteer designer when they know how awesome you are.

      Thanks for sharing!


  4. Thanks for the advice I will have to implement the project management tip also the contract even on volunteer work


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