This subject is close to my heart. As anyone who works as a freelancer knows, it’s a precarious existence. Income is rarely steady and there are times when you live hand-to-mouth, not knowing if any paid work is on the horizon. In my house, I pay all the bills, put food on the table, and cover any unexpected expenses. If there isn’t any money, we are in trouble. As you might expect, it’s not much fun when work dries up!
Every work niche is different and some are steadier than others, but whether you work as a freelance writer or app developer, it pays to be prepared for the lean times. Your experience may not match mine, but here’s what I have learned over the last year or so.
In most niches, there are seasonal fluctuations. In the writing world, work ebbs and flows according to holidays. For example, things typically go quiet in August when a lot of people take their annual summer holiday, and also at Christmas, when businesses close for the holidays. January is also a quiet month, probably because nobody has any cash to spend on their internet businesses.
It can take a while to get a handle on this, but try not to panic for the first two years. Once you have a couple of years under your belt, you should be able to spot the patterns.
Eggs in One Basket
It’s never a good idea to rely on one client for work. That client may ditch you in favour of a cheaper provider, or go bust. Either way, it’s seriously bad news for you. Instead, market your services to other clients and chase new leads, even if you are happy working for one main client. The more eggs you have in your basket, the better your chances of weathering a work drought.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of having savings to tide you over. If you spend everything you earn, you are playing with fire. The moment an unexpected bill drops on your mat, you are screwed. You’re also in danger if work dries up, which as we know, can and does happen.
Ideally, have a minimum of three month’s worth of cash set aside to cover your household bills and groceries. This will tide you over until you are able to find new work, new clients, or even a different job. Ring-fence this money in a separate bank account so you are not tempted to spend it on a sunshine holiday to Spain when it’s rained for three weeks on the trot.
Networking is more important than ever in today’s online world. I am guilty of not doing enough networking. I chastise myself every day, but I am a fundamentally private person, so social media repels me. But, I’m not doing myself any favours, and I know this!
You need to make connections on social media. Online connections are leads to new clients and new work gigs. Make use of LinkedIn, Facebook, and other relevant social media sites. Spend a bit of time each day working those connections. You never know when you might need them.
Going back to the ‘eggs in one basket’ theme, it’s a good plan use multiple outlets for finding new work. Become active on forums related to your niche. Register on different freelance websites. Have a website to promote your business. The more ‘out there’ you are, the easier it will be to find new work if things go slack.
I know this is easier said than done. I had a major panic attack a couple of weeks ago when work dried up and I realised I didn’t have as much saved as I thought. I spent several days living in a state of high anxiety, worrying about running out of money and debt collectors banging on the front door. Then I thought about it and decided worrying was pointless. At the end of the day, I would be OK for a couple of months, and if necessary I could find another job in that time. Failing that, I could ask family for help.
OK, I am lucky enough to own my house so I won’t ever be homeless, but I still need money to pay the bills. But I decided it’s not worth panicking until the money runs out. There are always options to explore before that happens.
Know When to Quit
Sometimes, life doesn’t always go as planned. Freelancing is not for everyone and if you can’t make it work, you need to know when it’s time to quit. For some, this might be after a couple of lean months, especially if you have a family to support. For others, it might be when you are sick of having no life because clients expect you to be available 24/7. I can’t tell you when it is time to call it a day, but it’s important to recognise that admitting freelancing isn’t working for you is not a personal failure.