“I’m starting out on my own, it’s going to be great. Working from home, choosing the hours I want…
I can’t wait.”
Easily turns into:
“I’m working 60 hours this week and only have 5 hours booked in for next week, I can’t go on like this.”
But don’t worry freelancer, your original dream is achievable.
First, let’s get unambiguous:
You can work from home, in your pyjamas, choose the hours you want, and be successful. You don’t have to suffer through droughts and rushes. There’s better ways. It’s achievable.
You can do it.
Finding consistent freelance work can be a ball-ache
Freelancing is the biggest movement in labour since unions. More and more of us are breaking out on our own. Perhaps you’ve already started out – or you have plans to. Some early birds have been doing it for decades. This blog post is mostly for those new to Freelancing, or those old dogs that are still suffering work droughts.
Finding consistent freelance work can be a ball-ache. Work comes and goes. Solo-work can feel like an uphill struggle. In this post we’ll start by diagnosing why, then I’ll offer up some of the solutions I’ve found to temper the fails and make freelancing generally more win.
“So you’re lookin’ for work. What ya think ever’body else is lookin’ for? Di’monds? What you think I wore my ass down to a nub lookin’ for?”
John Steinbeck – Grapes of Wrath
We’re not equipped
The truth is, we aren’t all naturally set up to be freelancers. Or maybe we were, as babies – but school, college, university, and corporate (or retail) work rarely equip us for solo working. Nor does your mum making your lunches or washing your clothes.
These institutions might claim to foster independence, they might want you to do your work quietly on your own, but at their core, the majority of them program you for reliance. Separate to any judgement on that, it does mean that for most newbie freelancers, the road to solo-success will be a wild one.
It doesn’t have to be, though.
There are already a number of great resources for freelancers, and lots of useful work marketplaces. The ramp from employee or student, to freelancer is getting easier, or at least better supported. Between us we can make freelancing a safe and sustainable model, but like anything, it’ll take some learning.
I hope to make it even easier with EverClients, by simplifying the ‘finding of work’ step, and by sharing the freelancing hacks I’ve picked up, here on this blog. Freelancing isn’t easier than a 9-5, but it is better. Running the show yourself is an invaluable way to grow.
Expect feast and famine to start with, but don’t stand for it long term. Grow as a freelancer.
Now, lets take a look at the reasons why freelance work can be so inconsistent.
Reasons for Work Droughts #1: No Pipeline
Your customers can’t find you! Bummer
Our first reason for not finding consistent work is an obvious one: If you aren’t ‘out there’, how will people be able to hire you? When you first start freelancing this is your natural state. You need a way for work to find you; you need to build a pipeline.
Depending on what service you are selling, your pipeline could consist of a website, an ad in the local paper, posters, leaflets or other promotional fodder and tactics. The strongest pipelines bring work to you faster and more consistently than you can complete it, feeding you with job after job and requiring minimal attention.
To start with though, you’ll need to build a makeshift pipeline, just to get work in the door. Think: What are the pre-requisites for freelancing in my niche? Would you ever hire a web developer who doesn’t have his own website? Think of ways you can show off your skills in places where potential clients hang out. See below for how to build a better pipeline.
Less buying business cards, more finding clients.
Reasons for Work Droughts #2:
Pipeline Blockages / Holes In Your Pipeline
People want your service, but some fall through your hands like sand
So you have a pipeline, you’re getting a few jobs. Little jobs and occasionally big jobs, new clients, it all seems to be going great. Then you accept a long job, and you turn down a few small jobs in the meantime. The big one’s taking up all of your time and it’s a race to finish it. When you’ve finished the pay’s slow and there’s nothing coming through. Disaster.
Diagnosis: Your pipeline could be blocked or have holes. But don’t call a plumber, read the action points below.
Anything that stops a potential client becoming a client is a flaw in your pipeline. Here are the most typical faults I’ve seen:
- No website/broken website
- Email forms firing off to the wrong email/not tested
- Mixed/weak marketing messages
- Advertising to the wrong people
- Prices are higher than market average without justification
- Poor social signals/proof
- Out-dated portfolio/examples
Reasons for Work Droughts #3: No repeat customers
One-time services or bad customer services?
Few freelancers will only ever sell once to each client. Most, if they are good, will be able to garner repeat sales. If your new customers aren’t frequently turning into established clients, you need to work out why.
Bad service, unreliability and failure to manage expectations can leave your clients pissed off. Pissed off clients don’t pay well or come back. They definitely don’t give you great quotes for your website or referrals.
Treat your customers well. Under-promise and over-deliver. Nobody likes a jackass.
Reasons for Work Droughts #4: Seasonality
Nobody buys widgets in winter
Every business is affected by seasonality. Some more than others. Freelancers can be affected. When I freelanced, building prototype apps, I noticed that typically spring is very busy. Summer likewise usually meant a full pipeline of work. Winter for me was slow. Dead slow.
My assumption is that there is something about spring that supports fresh starts and new business. For app prototyping, that was good news. For you it might not be.
Freelancers are the smallest single unit of business, we’re often solo-entrepreneurs. We sail the oceans on a small raft of our own making. Naturally this gives us a direct feedback from the waves. We see the rise and fall of work. Larger organisations do not get this clarity. Identify if seasonality truly effects your freelancing, and if it does, then tame the beast. See Act like a squirrel below for tips dealing with seasonality.
Reasons for Work Droughts #5: Market Flux
There are more app developers than apps and Apple’s discontinuing the iPhone!
Similar to seasonality, market flux can hugely affect the ebb and flow of work for freelancers.
In a corporate workplace it’s the CEO’s job to steer the company towards prosperous markets. He has to keep a long-term view and make sure the products that employees are working on will still be worth something in a year, or a decade.
Freelancers need to be their own CEO. And they are, of course. The buck stops here. That’s a great, empowering fact, but it does mean you need to invest time keeping up with market trends. If you’re merrily building iOS apps for clients and Apple decide to drop the appstore, that’s going to affect your paycheck. See Diversify your freelance pipeline for more.
Reasons Freelancers Can’t Get Consistent Work
So that’s the list: No pipeline, a weak pipeline, crappy service, seasonality and market flux. That’s why freelance work often isn’t consistent. If you’re unlucky you’re currently plagued by a few of these at once. The good news is that all are fixable or at least negotiable.
Got another? Do you have another source of freelance disruption? Let me know in the comments at the bottom.
So I should give up freelancing, right?
No, don’t worry. Like I said, there’s a cure for every one of these
The reality is there will always be peeks & troughs in your business. That’s the nature of trade. In stepping out on your own you must accept this.
The earlier you accept the problem, and attack it at its root, the earlier you’ll succeed. Using some of the methods below, combined with some hard work, you will be able to build a strong pipeline.
Whether you’re a newbie freelancer or moving from corporate, you can get consistent freelance work. There will always be fluctuations, and for that you’ll have to learn to manage your cash flow, but you’ll love it once you’re there, riding the waves of work.
Remember: Business-employee relationships work because the company earns more from your work than you do.
Once you get stable freelance work, you keep that extra money in exchange for running the show.
Clarification: Some of the return the company makes on your time goes on overheads like sales or accounting (which means you don’t have to do these tasks), but a chunk of it will be profit. (Thanks to Redditors Chr0me & noodlez)
A fictional example: For every $100 the company makes from your time:
$40 paid to you
$35 paid on overheads (accountancy, sales, offices)
$25 paid to directors as profit.
Vs Freelance fictional example: For every $100 you bill:
$20 paid on overheads (home office, accountant, marketing)
$80 paid to you as profit.
*But you will need to manage your accounting, marketing and future planning etc. This is a blessing and a curse (you can work from home (cheap, pro) but you’ll have to chase late payers or pay someone else to (con).)
Freelancers can claim the full value for the work they deliver. To do this successfully we must master the business part.
Why that’s a good thing. Self Reliance
Freelancing is a challenge. Becoming a freelancer means standing out on your own. Freelancing is you stepping out from the shelter that is the stability of a large corporation.
It may appear safer to work for someone else, but that safety can be an illusion, and in the end you are still trading your time as a resource without getting the full value.
It’s a trade off.
Company size may make your work seem safer (the bumps in their road aren’t so obvious to you) but big companies still collapse. Freelancing (and entrepreneurship) are fantastic mediums of trading because you see the bumps, and because you determine the success.
In freelancing you are directly connected to the value of your work. You can see whether your work is in demand or not, you can see how much it’s worth to people. Work droughts are a blessing in disguise, they tell you that either 1.) Your pipeline’s bust or 2.) You need to innovate in order to survive.
How to get regular work freelancing
Yes here are the action points!
We’ve hammered out the reasons that we consistently suffer droughts while freelancing. So now to the fixes and workarounds.
Based on my experience, you get out what you put in to freelancing. The better work you do the more you can charge, the more you tweak your pipeline the more regular your workflows. These two points are key to good freelancing.
Therefore, to insure we get steady work we must focus our attention on these two aspects.
We must build a process of bringing work in (pipeline), and we must optimise and maintain it. Once the work comes in we must do a fantastic job, wow our clients. From this good work comes referrals and references, which closes the loop back into the pipeline.
Building a (better) pipeline
The process that starts with someone seeking work and ends with him or her becoming a client
How does your potential client find you? Ads, a website, leaflets in a shop? Do you approach customers? Do you bid on work or sell to them? Perhaps you reply to an email enquiry or go visit them?
Whatever you do here is called your pipeline. Your pipeline takes potential clients from wherever they are and funnels them into your service/offering.
All businesses need a pipeline. Here I’ll focus on the Freelancing pipeline specifically.
Starting a pipeline from scratch
Day One freelancing. Got Clients? Skip to Diversify Your Pipeline
At first words like pipeline can seem confusing, overly industrial. But really it just means finding a way to get customers, regularly. It’s the analogy I always use because a working pipeline supplies a steady, constant supply of whatever comes through it. It’s regularised. That’s what we want to achieve with freelancing, regular work.
If you’re just getting started as a freelancer the first thing you should do is spend some time (read ~3 hours) familiarising yourself with your industry. Find someone else doing what you intend to do and study them. Work out your price, and profile whom you’d like to work for. Don’t worry too much about specifics beyond these simple facts. Keep it real simple, in fact:
Write a one sentence business plan:
“I want to provide service X for at least $Y p/h to customers that have the attributes Z.”
In that sentence is your value proposition. The good thing about keeping it simple is that it can be tested fast. To begin with, that’s what you’ll need to do.
Kick off your pipeline on a work marketplace. Find work that matches your one sentence business plan. Sign up and bid on it. Get the work, get paid, and learn from the process. Steep yourself in your customers and these early jobs and learn as much useful information as you can. From these facts you can later build your pipeline.
Pay attention to all aspects of your this first work:
- What are the typical problems you are solving for clients?
- Where did your client look before they found you?
- Do they have any experience of other freelancers?
- Might they refer you? Connect you? Give you a nice quote for your website?
Your first few jobs are a scouting mission.
Learn the land you want to build your pipeline on.
There are many job marketplaces, some of which are huge. I’ll include a few popular freelance marketplaces below, but first a few cautionary notes (these networks can be great to start with, but they have their issues):
- It’s possible to become reliant on marketplaces
- They can attract more useless clients than other sources
- You can become ‘addicted’ to a particular marketplace – building up a strong portfolio in one place
- They can be slanted to favour the service buyer, not the service seller
- They sometimes take HUGE cuts of your money
That being said, the start of all pipelines is to get clients. Freelance marketplaces offer a low barrier-to-entry for getting those first few paying Joes. You can (and should) learn quickly from them and diversify your pipeline.
Pipeline beginnings: Job Marketplaces
There are probably hundreds of job marketplaces online, but here are the big 5:
Improving your pipeline: Diversify
No! It’s not enough to have a profile on Freelancer.com
Now you’re freelancing it’s your job to do some of the stuff big business does for its employees. One important task is diversifying risk. Risk is the central element to all business and freelancing is a fantastic excuse to learn how to manage it properly.
Once you have one or two customers (or a pipeline full of them) it’s easy to rest on that fact and throw yourself into the work. Beware: this very relaxation can cause a future work drought.
When work is good take the time to diversify your pipeline. If you have one major way of initiating people into customers, work out another. Perhaps you have plenty of work from a job marketplace, well then build a website. Perhaps you are getting new customers from your website, well then work on making it super easy for existing customers to refer you.
Shameless plug: Try EverClients. We send you quality, regular leads, daily.
Supplement your pipeline!
The trick here is to find/build/foster multiple reliable sources of work, so that when one source runs dry, you can work from the others.
Here are some other healthy sources of freelance work:
- Referrals (existing customers, industry bodies)
- Online Forums
- Online Advertisements
- Real Life (meet-ups, conferences, telemarketing, door-to-door)
- Freelance Marketplaces
There are also side benefits of having a diverse pipeline:
- Different customer types come from different places
- Being in several places can reinforce your professionalism
- Market trends are more visible across sources
Once a freelancer has a well-ranked marketplace profile, a website, they’re getting referrals, and perhaps have experimented with another source, they are probably diversified enough. Let’s move on.
Improving your pipeline: Optimise
Tweak your pipeline for happiness
You have customers coming from a few sources, sometimes too many. You have requests for work, and you’re working flat out. Your pipeline means you’re getting fewer droughts. Now’s the time to rest, right?
Congratulations, but no, you’ve run most of the race, but you’re not finished yet.
To finish your pipeline and to insure against work droughts I recommend you optimise. This is the reinforcing of the thing. It’s common for us to feel assured when we should be finishing the job. Optimising our business is part of maintenance, you won’t realise you should of done it until the whole thing falls over.
It’s the last 5%, but it’s worth the effort. Trust me.
Optimising: Fire Your Customers
Seriously, tell them where to go
Remember why you got started freelancing? I bet it wasn’t to deal with that jerk of a customer that wants free changes and wants them yesterday!
The truth is all customers are not equal, not even by half. You get good customers and bad customers, and the sad fact is that the majority will fall in between.
Freelancers have to deal with a disparate bunch of clients (hands up if you’ve had comments like ‘it needs more… zing.’)
The difference is, as a freelancer you can say no to customers.
This seems counter-intuitive, but it boils down to happiness. Happiness means good stress not bad stress. It means Eustress. It means work you are proud of, and customers who respect your capacities. Once you have a portfolio that highlights your value, and you yourself realise your value, then you can cut the crap.
A diverse pipeline should bring you quality clients. If it doesn’t, then go back and find new ways to get clients. You will need to filter out the bad ones either way, so read on.
Crappy clients take up time that could be spent working for good clients or on better work.
Firing Customers: Pipeline Trapdoors
Ways to filter out bad customers.
As you get better at freelancing you should build trapdoors into your pipeline. Trapdoors are parameters you set to identify bad customers before you agree to work.
Let’s imagine a scenario; you get an email from a potential client:
“I need this [design | app | script] with these specifics by the 14th
Can you do it?
This could be a good guy in a rush, or a time-wasting jerk. It’s difficult to tell from the first contact. I wonder, how would you respond to this email?
To start out with you might jump right in and say you can do it, ask for more details. What I suggest though, is that you build a process for dealing with enquiries. You script it. And into your script you place trapdoors.
By pre-forming typical responses and then tailoring them to each case you can’t forget to check the basics. Because if you forget to check the basics, it’s your fault you’re stuck with the painful client. No sympathy. The buck stops with you! So, trapdoors:
Here’s an example response:
Thanks for getting in touch. I’d be glad to quote for your [design | app | script], I do have some availability over the next few weeks.
Just a heads up, my rate is $50 per hour and I don’t take on work that is less than four hours. I require a 30% deposit and your signature on a service agreement before I get started. These to make sure all the business I do is win-win.
Could I ask, where did you find out about my services?“
This is one way you could place a trap door in your pipeline. By making sure that your “parameters” for work are clear-cut from the beginning you can easily weed out the soul-suckers. Their acceptance or the feeling their reply gives you will guide you. If they skip over it abruptly you can even ask them to directly acknowledge them. Remember, you’re trying to lose clients here, the crappy ones.
Another Tip: Raising your hourly rate can be a great trap door!
There’s enough for everyone
In the end, there’s enough good business out there to avoid doing bad business. Build traps in your process to identify your specific “bad clients” and mercilessly deny them your time. Forward them on to a competitor if that’s your style. Just don’t accept it, life’s too short!
Operate from a belief in abundance. Trust that there’s enough good work out there to validly ignore the bad. Filter relentlessly.
Filtering out some clients gives you more time to work on the others, more time to improve your marketing or explore more work sources. You’re a freelancer now; you need to learn to manage your time. Trapdoors in your pipeline are an essential tool.
Pro Tip: Every business owner should read The Four Hour Work Week; it’s a phenomenal book and has a superb story on firing customers.
Optimising Extra: Act like a squirrel
Manage your nuts
Squirrels don’t go hungry over winter; they store their nuts safely. As a freelancer you may be subject to seasonality. Some industries see huge slow-downs in sales in the summer months as everyone is away for their holidays, others see drop offs in the winter.
The first year or so of freelancing might surprise you with a few season-based dry spells, but hopefully a diverse pipeline will keep at least a trickle of work coming in.
If the seasons do seem to affect your freelancing you will have to adopt a squirrelly strategy to avoid gaps in work.
Don’t always do the work straight away
Clients might be in a rush, but you’re a freelancer, you need to manage your schedule too. No one else is going to do it for you. If you are expecting a slow period, see if you can schedule in some work for a client then, ahead of time. Delay a job that’s not particularly time sensitive so that you have an assured piece of work.
Obviously you need to do a good, punctual job, but some clients will be happy to wait. Especially if you offered a reduction in price (pricing in itself can be a great way to get through seasonal droughts, for example consider announcing a “25% off hourly rate this month” or similar promotion to your existing clients.)
Save some cash
Don’t bury it like the squirrels (even if today’s awful savings interest rates make you want to.) Do save some cash for rainy days. As a freelancer it’s your job to manage cash flow and part of this is preparing for unforeseen dry spells.
Okay, I’m aware I’ve taken this squirrel analogy far enough, but stick with me; we managed to survive the pipeline one!
Knowing ahead of time that you’ll have a quiet month can be a blessing. Provided you’ve paid the rent, it means you can take full advantage of your freelancer status. This is where the lazy mornings and long holidays come in. Freelancer’s dry spells can be the ultimate perk.
Go to Mexico, invest in a hobby, learn new skills. See the positive freedom in the dry spell and embrace the hell out of it. You run the show now, and you choose when you take time off. Maybe you can even business expense it!
Tip: Consider setting aside 10% of all revenues into a “rainy day fund.” If you haven’t hit a dry period by the year-end then invest it or take a good holiday!
Do Better Work
Ultimately, once we’re committed to being freelancers it becomes a battle of the soul to do better work. We must fight to be professionals in the wild-west market which technology has created. One skilled person can do more today than hundreds could a decade ago, and what’s more we are empowered to see the value in our work.
We can freelance for our own good, and the good of others, but only if we learn the business of the thing. Good freelancers who have steady work are those who have managed to absorb enough business knowledge to support their talents. They don’t take crap from bad customers.
Growing from no work to some work, to too much work is the exact course of a good freelancer. That same path can lead to starting an agency, releasing your own product and eventually becoming a business owner. But only if you want it too, because it really is your choice as a freelancer, it’s all literally your path.
If you’re in drought (or doubt), then you’re on the right path. Persevere and adapt.
In the end, you’ll never have 100% fill rate, because you need holidays too!
About The Author
This is the first in a series of blog posts about the art of freelancing. If you like what you’ve read you can follow me @woodyhayday or sign up for blog updates below.