Freelancing Fear: What causes it and how to overcome it

When I relaunched this brand new version of Millo earlier this year, I asked you to submit your ideas for posts you’d like to see over the next 12 months. (Haven’t had a chance to submit your request? Click here to view the original new-year-launch post.)

One reader, Carla, posted this request:


Any suggestions about … being afraid? Any suggestions on how to overcome my apprehensive behavior (which is not normal, I am an outgoing, sociable person)?!I have business cards and can hand them out or put on vehicles in a parking lot, although I am actually afraid of getting a call?!!!!! Am I normal? Any suggestions?

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Thank you,
Carla Strong



I found Carla’s question fascinating and, no Carla, you’re not alone. A lot of freelancers are afraid of getting that all important phone call when they first start out.

Today, I’d like to answer Carla’s question and concern. I hope it’s of help to more than just Carla. (Add your response to Carla’s question by leaving a comment on this post!)

Here we go:

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So what is the “freelancing fear”?

I know. It sounds weird.

But the freelancing fear is something I am very familiar with.

You finally make the decision to try freelancing on your own. You quit your full-time job (or maybe not – that’s ok.), print up business cards, and start telling everyone you can about the services that you provide.

But you’re scared…

Because you’ve never done this before. I mean, what happens if an amazing client sees your business card, checks out your portfolio, and then gives you a call – only to have you blow it once you’re on the phone?

That’s a lot of pressure!

I mean, what if you’re just not cut out to be a salesman? Or a pitchman?

Sure, you can hold your ground in the Creative Suite. Sure you can brainstorm with the best of them, but can you reel in a big client when then make that ever-important phone call?

Here’s how to win the client:

This freelancing fear can be a little overwhelming–especially for new freelance designers.

But never fear, today I have a few tips to help you overcome the fear, turn that adrenaline rush into positive energy, and learn to LOVE phone calls from new clients instead of fear them.

  • Be prepared. Ahh, the popular mantra of the Boy Scouts of America. Being prepared is the first step in losing the freelancing fear. If you’re prepared, you have nothing to be afraid of. So, before handing out a million business cards; before telling all your friends you’ve made the switch to freelance; and before you try to land your first big client, get ready.

    Here’s the joy of a phone call: they can’t see you. If you want, have a “cheat sheet” in front of you at your desk. That way, when that big client calls, you know exactly what to say.

    You may even want to prepare specific responses, questions, etc. for big clients that you are pitching to. That way, you’re as prepared as possible when they call.

  • Treat it like a job interview. Every phone call you have with a potential client is like a phone interview for a new job. So treat it like one!

    Be prepared with information about the company–do a little research before hand. Speak professionally, openly, and boldly. Don’t let some loud-mouthed, bold business owner talk you out of a smart business deal (or into a foolish one). Remember, you’re a smart business owner now too.

  • Be open and honest. There’s nothing worse that starting off a client relationship by giving in to their every request just to win over the account.

    Be open and honest about your pricing, your skill-level, your experience, and your desire to help them succeed. Try to put a positive spin on your work and experience, but never lie or tell half truths to make yourself look good. While first impressions are everything, lying will almost always come back to bite you.

  • Keep everything in perspective.
    Last but not least, remember, this call is not going to determine the rest of your life. It won’t even determine the outcome of the rest of your freelance career.

    It’s just a phone call.

    With another human being.

    Be yourself; be friendly. And don’t be afraid to turn the job down if it just doesn’t fit right. More clients will come along that are a perfect fit for you and your design business.

There’s really nothing to be afraid of…

So, Carla (and the thousands of other designers reading this that are going through–or have gone through–something like this), there’s really nothing to fear. You can do this!

In fact, lots of designers have already done it. You can too!

Have you overcome the freelancing fear?

How many of you have experienced this same fear Carla’s talking about? I know I have. And the post you just read contains tips on how I overcame it.

But I’d love to hear from you… What tips would you give Carla? What advice can you offer to designers who are a little bit afraid of the first client encounter? Leave a comment and share your experience with Carla, me, and the rest of the Millo community!


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  1. I joined Toastmasters a few years ago. I admit I’m not totally free of fear, however I can sit across the table from strangers and hold my own. I’ve learned a few tricks to stop my shaking knees and speak to the point, ask and answer questions in a professional manner. I found Toastmasters to be a supportive group and members all cheer for each other. It was a great decision and I truly support this organization for other agents.

  2. HI! My name i Kameel and I am facing the same fears as Carla but in addition to that I have the fear that my portfolio isnt as impressive enough. I am new to the interior design industry and i am not sure how to even go about creating a portfolio. I would really appreciate it if i could get some help in understanding on how to start a portfolio. Any help will be appreciated. Thanks

  3. I’ve been going through thist too. Trying to flick that switch of self-confidence. It is comforting to know I’m not alone, ‘cos it can be a lonely place. Thanks for the advice. Am currently making lists of revision and implementation, hoping this in itself will be a good start to growing stronger. Good luck everyone and thanks Preston. Thanks too Carla.

  4. Awesome article, it’s always encouraging hearing that others struggle with the exact same thing, even though I’m sure we all feel like it’s only us 🙂

    Hey Preston, any chance of writing an article about the so-called “cheat sheet?” I’d be curious how you handle prospective clients over the phone (and frankly, could use some tips myself!).

  5. Fear for me can come from two places, sometimes both at the same time — fear of failure, and fear of success. The fear of success can be more paralyzing than you’d think. It’s all well and good to decide to freelance and to think about the big projects, etc. But then you get the opportunity to get one — and completely freeze, because you don’t know how you’ll deliver it, or whatever.

    For me, the key to overcoming the fear of success was harder than dealing with any other kind of fear. But then I finally got comfortable with saying, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I don’t think this is a good fit for me at this time” and possibly referring the project to a colleague, and also with teaming up with colleagues I knew I could trust for those projects that I could see myself doing but that might be just a tiny bit over my head. Finding my own comfort level but still trying to push at the edges of it a little at a time has been what keeps me growing professionally all these years.

    Good luck!

  6. Even though the fear can seem crippling, once you experience just how to fun it is to be in control of your career, and also how fun of a field it is, the fear eventually goes away.

    Best piece of advice I was offered was “remember you came this far in your career, use that as confidence to keep going.”

  7. I believe the fear of failure is an instinct built into every one of us. It’s a survival trait. Fear allows us to step back, re-evaluate the situation then sometimes step in and take control of the wheel. Never let fear get in the way. The more new clients call in on you, the more you ought to pick up the phone and answer it, throw away the cheat sheet of template answers. Just talk as you normally would with your friends, family etc. Have confidence in yourself and you’ll find that clients will see that in you…in turn they too, will have their fullest confidence in you.

    1. Morgan & Me:

      Great response – I like to keep talking points notes rather than read responses word-for-word. This keeps every conversation fresh and natural, but I don’t forget to mention something important either.

      If you sound like you’re for real, it goes a long way! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for your advice about overcoming freelancing fear. I’m not over it yet, but I’m a few steps closer…

  9. Carla (& Millo Community):

    I hate using the phone, so I get anxious even now when I’ve set up a phone call. My brain is so much more articulate in writing, so I heavily prefer email. I’ve really had to work at it to answer the phone when it rings!

    I’ve done some of the things just as Preston said – researched the company, made a cheat sheet to answer some of the obvious questions, wrote down notes about the project at hand if I’ve seen the materials, etc. – and they help me feel more comfortable.

    I always come back to why? Why do I get nervous? I think part of it is that I want to do a great job – better than great. I want to create something they love, and I don’t have the answer yet (as of the phone call). I have a blank slate in front of me and here I am telling them that I will produce something they love. What if I can’t? What if I get creative block? The part of my brain responsible for worry kicks into high gear, spewing out nonsense.

    Even as I’m nervous, I laugh at myself because that’s what I love about my job…the pride and feeling of accomplishment when I design something perfect for the situation. I like the challenge…and so I think partly my fear comes from not wanting to fail the challenge.

    Getting projects, time, and experience under my belt surely has helped, but especially when I set out to do something I’ve never done before, I still get butterflies…but I’m ready to answer the phone!

    Good luck to you!

    1. April, I think a little bit of nervousness combined with a little bit of excitement as to what sort of challenges new client work can bring to the table is to be expected. And it’s a good type of feeling to have in general, I would say. Like you said it’s what you love about the work you do and I would have to say that more often than not, I feel the same way. I like to think that it’s the type of sensation that lets you know your ready to take on the new challenges and experiences as they come.

      1. Chris,

        Thanks for your input – I think if I were to get to the point where design was “old hat” and not exciting to me, I’d probably be in the market for a new avenue of design or a new career altogether. It’s good to know I’m (in some respects) “normal.” Whatever that is. 🙂

  10. What a great post – really honest and refreshing to see that other people think the same way! I think we’ve all been there and I think Chris Allen is spot on about the importance of knowing your skills and your limitations. Having faith in your own abilities is important and so is being able to say no. It’s vital for protecting your professional reputation and my experience has been that people respect you for it.

    1. Rebel Phoenix,
      I totally agree. Thanks for adding the comment! How do you muster up confidence and “faith” in what you’re doing?

  11. I don’t have a problem interacting with people, I think it is just talking business that has me scared!? I know what I am doing and how I want to approach each project, wire-frames, mock-ups and the approval contracts in between. I think more role play is definitely in order!? What do your think?
    I have been in sales most of my life, as a Travel Agent, so why has this direction in my life scaring me so? I know how to sell myself out of a tight fit, but this just scares me?!

    1. Role playing would be a great idea! Do you have anyone around who can just play “client” for you? I think that’s a great idea!

  12. This is really a very worthy article for the freelancer. Thanks for all this info n tips here. thanks for the share 🙂

  13. Hi

    My name is Rachana and am a freelance graphic designer from India. I know exactly what Carla is talking about.. have experienced it myself. First of all, I loved the tips given on the blog. Especially the one that says that at the end of the day you are talking to another human being.
    One thing that I have observed is that the fear level goes down with building experience as a freelancer. And preparing yourself in advance before the phone call always is a good idea.There are times when I am not sure about certain unexpected things that come up during the conversation. In that case I always buy some time and tell the client politely that I will need to check that for him and will get back asap. hope these help!

  14. After being in business for the past 6 years and in the field of design for 20 years, it becomes second nature interacting with people, specially when we are in a field of communication. There are those designers that prefer just designing and avoid all human interaction, and then there are ones that love socializing or talking on the phone and good at selling. To be a successful freelancer I have learned to get out of my comfort zone and put away my shyness. Running a business is more of selling than design and if you can sell your design then you will be successful.

    1. Sean,
      Thanks for sharing your experience with us. So what did you do to actually “Get out of your confort zone”?

      1. I make an effort to meet local businesses, attend trade shows, local board of trade events, etc.. Just getting your name out helps.

  15. I am so SHOCKED thank you for actually answering my question and putting it out to the public!! I am so thankful for all the information provided by all of you I really do appreciate it!

    1. Carla,
      Of course!! I told you I would answer your question if you posted it on that post, right? Thanks for such a great question. It has generated some awesome discussion here. Good luck overcoming “the fear”. 🙂

        1. You are welcome Carla. Just remember you’re not alone when it comes to having experienced fear with regards to being a freelancer/small business owner. We all get stronger as we learn from our experiences, including our mistakes, and continue to press on; refining our skills along the way.

    2. Carla– thank YOU for asking the same question I have… but was even too fearful to ask! :] How do we get *OVER* that learning curve is my trouble. I’m cool with going through the first phone call since I’ve done it a few times. But now… I’m like… okay what do other designers do in, say, a logo process. I want someone to just lay evvvverything on the table. Show me their paperwork, their strategy, their invoicing, their documenting… EVERYTHING. I want to be an intern for a freelancer I guess. :]

  16. Some great advice and a topic I can relate to most definitely. After being laid off late last year I decided to move forward with pursuing my passion instead of the daily corporate grind. And during this short amount of time I have found this to be a welcomed change for the better.

    I was working in an unrelated field for the last 10 years before recently transitioning and dedicating my efforts full-time to running my web & graphic design business; which had been more of a very part-time hobby for the last few years. It was time to start focusing on what I really wanted to do with my life and in a way my previous employment had provided me the skills to move past a lot of the freelancing fear mentioned in this article.

    During my previous employment I was taking and responding to client’s phone calls daily, answering questions, giving guidance, and providing general client services as part of my work responsibilities. There was really no fear, no hesitation, just the knowing that I had the knowledge to do my job and do it well. And this is how I choose to approach new client work; with the knowledge that I know my abilities and the quality of work I can provide.

    I always try to focus on the fact that I’m the expert at what I do and that potential clients are calling because they need someone with my knowledge and skillset. And as Chuck mentioned above, I have never been afraid to say no. Because I know my abilities and the kind of work that I’m good at. And in my opinion, knowing what type of work you excel at, as well as your limitations, is all part of being an effective freelancer/business owner. I think once you find that you are comfortable in this knowledge of your abilities it should help alleviate some of the fears related to taking calls from prospective clients as well as other fears of relevance to being in business for yourself.

    1. Also some great advice here, Chris! It’s important to remember that they may be as unsure as you during the phone call. Keep in mind, they probably know nothing about design (at least not as much as you do) so just speak confidently and honestly and you’ll be fine. Thanks for commenting!

  17. As a free-lance designer you have struck out on your own because you know you can do the job but just prefer working for yourself. With that said as a free-lance designer you are also considered a professional in the field. You have the knowledge, skills and creativity to be a good designer. That is why a company will call you. They have need of your skill set.

    Discussing a design job on the telephone is OK, however, I have found that when you meet the perspective client face-to-face you are better able to get inside their head and “see” what the design looks like from their perspective. Formulate a lot of questions that you can ask a client concerning the job they want you to do. The more information you have about the job, the less time you will spend on “redesigns”. Meeting face to face also gives you the opportunity to feel out the client to see if they are someone you are willing to work for. There is nothing worse than working with the “client from hell.”

    It is also a good idea once you have completed the sale of your services to generate a contract that outlines the project. The contract should cover dates for completing certain items as well as an agreed upon final completion date, how many free “redos” of their design job you will do before you start charging them and the all important agreed upon price. You also might want to have in the contract that the client is to give you a deposit before you start the process. In my previous work I usually asked for 1/3 deposit to start, then another 1/3 when they reviewed and approved the design and the balance due upon completion of the project.

    A final piece of advice concerning your pricing. Never, never negotiate your price. If you do the client will think they can negotiate every aspect of the design job. Think of it this way – when you go to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread, you don’t walk up to the check out counter and try to negotiate the price of the bread. The price is established. If you want that bread you will pay that price. The same goes with your design price. You’ve worked to learn the skills and those skills come at a price. If the client likes you and your work they will hire you.

    Good luck as your start out. Remember, if you are not sure of something ask someone for help. It’s better to ask for help than damage your professional reputation beyond repair.

    1. Russ,
      Some solid advice for any designer hoping to make it on their own as a freelancer. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Ah, I remember those days. Don’t worry, the fear will dissolve with practice. During the initial call, be sure not to sound desperate – even if you’re in need of a project. Definitely have a list of questions prepared: business overview, project details, special features/requests, timeline, budget, and how they found you. A list will keep the conversation focused and brief. Always be attentive, flexible, and transparent while listening for hints of your client’s overall needs. The goal is to establish trust while making a connection with the prospective client, so bring it! And don’t be afraid to say no.

    1. Chuck,
      That’s some excellent advice: Don’t sound desperate! And very well said: The goal is to establish trust for sure! And to find out if you can trust them as a client because ultimately, they’ll be paying (or not paying) you.

  19. My partner and I have had a business for almost two years now and we both go through this! Whenever the phone rings at our home office, we both try to push the responsibility of answering it onto the other person.

    I’m going to try to keep these tips in mind for next time though. Hopefully we can BOTH get over it.

    1. Jen,
      Ha! That’s pretty funny! Hopefully these tips help you and your business partner overcome the freelancing fear soon! 🙂 I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

    2. Ha ha! I am the same way…I don’t like answering the phone. I always keep some notes and a glass of water near me for the call.

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