Tips on how to ensure you at least have a bit of a buffet and some snacks
Feast or famine is a phrase freelancers are all too familiar with and in this time of empty supermarket shelves, loo roll hoarders and loss of jobs it is particularly poignant. There is little you can do to deal with the unpredictability that has been enforced upon the world right now, but in a bit to protect our businesses there are some things we can put in place to try and come out of the other side in one piece. Even if a little battered and bruised.
As freelancers it is too often that we are feeling flush and giddy with the work flowing in one minute, thinking ‘Oh, maybe I am quite good at this self-employment, maybe I have skills’, and then BOOM! The tumbleweed blows in and panic ensues, usually accompanied by our friend Imposter Syndrome whispering in your ear that maybe you are just not good enough after all. Maybe you messed up. Maybe you should lower your rates, or do free work. Or just go back to employment.
Though I have only been working for myself for 20 months, I have so far managed to avoid the absolute extremes of feast or famine. My quietest months have still seen me make roughly the equivalent of what my monthly wage was in full-time employment, the rest have been up to 4 times more. I was recently asked how I have managed this, and I hadn’t really thought about it until this point.
Admittedly I have flown by the seat of my pants somewhat. Winged it. I have just cracked on and seen what comes my way. And I have definitely worked my butt off. But I must have been doing something right, right?
So after some Prosecco-fuelled reflection, here is my attempt to provide some guidance to those who have recently entered the world of self-employment or have found themselves on the feast or famine rollercoaster ride too often. If anyone is experiencing that stomach-lurching, adrenaline-fuelled, survival mode inducing drop right now I hope there are some pointers to help you here and to plan for the future.
Don’t put all your (Easter) eggs in a one-business-basket
Though it can be a stressful affair at times, I generally work for multiple clients at a time. This means that when pandemics strike and a project comes to a grinding halt (as one just has), or the client just goes on holiday, gets too stressed and hasn’t the time to deal with you, you are not at a loss for work and having to scrabble for more.
Having multiple clients can be a real juggling act as they understandably see themselves as your prime client, numero uno, the best of the bunch. And they will often need things yesterday. In my experience, it is usually the case that all of their deadlines will be in the same week too.
I generally have one or 2 big projects on the go (usually the e-learning projects), but also have several smaller projects running in the background which I can fit in around the bigger ones whilst waiting for feedback, etc. This gives me variety – which I need in my day – lots of contacts, and a backup income stream to keep me ticking over.
I won’t lie – it takes some serious management and organisation to juggle them all and you will be amazed at how much time you spend just emailing them all and scheduling your time, but it is worth it.
So many times I have seen people ask how to get more work, commenting that they are on platforms such as LinkedIn or Facebook groups but are getting no work from it. When I probe and ask if they are building relationships, commenting on posts, engaging in both the serious and fun conversations, blogging, writing articles, and so on – I am met with silence.
You cannot just drop your profile on places and wait for people to come. Similarly, you shouldn’t just register on the platforms and start spamming people’s inboxes with ‘hire me’ messages.
Start a conversation and get to know people first. It will inevitably come around to what you do anyway and if they have a need they are more likely to respond well or to remember you in the future when a need does arise. Those who regularly use the platforms do not respond well to the cold sales approach (and often rant about it). It takes time to build relationships, but it ultimately leads to more work. Play the long game.
I have gained a lot of work this last year just from people seeing the blog posts and articles that I am putting out there, as they have liked my humour and writing style. And it has come from people I didn’t even know were reading the posts, or that I didn’t know before having established a relationship online. I don’t even actually promote myself as a ‘writer’ (as I explained here) yet I am getting writing work, just from being visible.
Be adaptable and open to new opportunities
This is more important now more than ever (if I hear the word ‘pivot’ one more time in this pandemic I may implode), but I am always happy to try new things.
Often if a customer has already been using your services and now needs something a little out of your remit, they are still happier to go with you as they trust you (and have the relationship) than to try and source someone else. Just be upfront, let them know your level of confidence (or lack of) with what they want, explain that it may take a little longer to work some things out and see how you both feel about going ahead with it. And if not, have you any trusted contacts you could refer them to instead?
I am happy to research how something could be done differently from what I offer. For example, the e-learning I produce has always been in the Articulate suite and generally been bespoke training. But due to the pandemic I have had a few people I have worked for previously (on branding and content work) approach me about how to take face-to-face training online and do it to a very tight budget, which bespoke does not allow. So we have researched different platforms, I have taken a look and assessed the best solution for them, and we are putting plans in place to develop the e-learning in platforms that are new to both of us. But together we will manage it. Yes, I have spent a lot of time on the phone and researching potential options and may not be particularly getting paid for this time, but I am learning new things and expanding my offering whilst helping the clients, so it is a win-win situation.
If I had just restricted myself to only producing bespoke content and never expanding my horizons and skills, I would be limiting the opportunities available to me. These clients may well have taken all their work (and the onward referrals that have come from them) elsewhere, not just the e-learning.
Continually expand your skills
For me, learning never stops. In fact, I constantly try to learn too many new things and need to rein myself in a bit to focus on one or two at a time (take a look at my previous blog about being an eternal student here).
As I mentioned above, picking up new skills means that you can continually offer more to your clients and go above and beyond. Some of the extra things I have been asked to do by my clients in the last 20 months, despite not being in my offering, are:
- Guest blogging
- Reviewing CVs and online profiles
- Setting up Canva templates
- Sock and scarf designs(!)
These things are not in my offering as such, and I haven’t taken all of them on, but where I felt confident enough I could work it out, I have said so and completed the task. And for those I didn’t take on, they are on my list to continue learning about and developing my skills. (I know you are intrigued – yes, I did the socks and scarves).
Continual learning also shows your commitment to your business, your industry and keeping up-to-date. It gives the customers a sense of value for money and makes life easier for them, not having to source a bank of staff to each do different parts of the job.
When a project is complete, don’t slip into radio silence. Stay visible. Don’t be afraid to pop up and say hello.
Keep up communication with the client (if you want to work for them again, of course). Check-in now and again, connect to them on LinkedIn, send them a Christmas card, if you are in the area in which they are based see if they want a brew and a catch-up… whatever little things you can do just to show you are still about and keep your face lodged in their brain.
Don’t bombard them weekly or go into stalker mode, but if you know you are coming up to a quiet period, drop them an email to say you know you have some free time coming up if they need anything else. And a few weeks after the project has ended and they have seen the results, check in with them to ask for a reference or recommendation.
And if you have learned new skills in the meantime since you last worked for them – let them know. Tell them about your extra services and see if they want their SEO improved, any animations for their site, some socks designed (okay, this may be a bit niche), blogs writing, etc and remind them that you are the person for the job as you are already familiar with them and their work.
Be yourself, be human
You’d be surprised how many people check in with me, not to see how I’m doing, but to see how my bunnies are. Or to comment on my random posts about llamas, #potatoface, or some other nonsense I have got giddy about. I have actually been remembered as that bunny woman who did great work’ by a customer, and I’m happy with that. Everyone knew who she meant 😂
Your visibility doesn’t have to be all serious business stuff, and in particular, during this lockdown, I am appreciating humour more than ever, as many are. And contact is appreciated more than ever. I have had so many messages to thank me for just being me over the last 18 months, for being honest, authentic and making people realise they are not alone in some of their thoughts, and it is so lovely for people to take time so say so.
If I wasn’t being myself, these extra communications wouldn’t be happening, and I wouldn’t have gained so much work, made some lovely connections and been passed work from fellow freelancers. People like authenticity, humour, and honesty. It makes you human, and it makes stronger connections.
On a serious note, if anyone is struggling right now and wants to throw some ideas around, I am more than happy to have my brain picked or be a sounding board. You do not have to go it alone! Send me a DM and we can have a virtual brew (or gin/prosecco/wine/beer – I am not fussy).
Write 52: Week 42
Write 52 is an accountability initiative started by Ed Callow, to encourage the team to create original content every week, and to commit to it. You can find more information here.
Come join us and get writing!