How To Avoid the Feast-or-Famine Cycle

For many freelance professionals, the ebb and flow of projects is one of the most frustrating and nail-biting aspects of this line of work.

One day you have more work than you can handle. You’re grilling steaks and sipping top-notch California Cabernet.

The next day you’re questioning your worth as a freelance pro, wondering if anyone will ever award you another project. Back to grilled-cheese sandwiches and ice water.

But is this feast-or-famine cycle inevitable?

A number of books and blogs seem to treat this issue as an inevitable reality — something we must all just learn to live with. I couldn’t disagree more. Fact is, most of this volatility can be avoided. And no, you don’t have to be a seasoned pro to smooth out your revenue stream.

You just need to practice these 4 simple habits.

#1: Market Yourself Continually

Continual, smart and deliberate self-promotion activities are absolutely critical if you want a smoother revenue stream. Marketing yourself and your services (even when you have enough work) ensures that you always have potential clients knocking on your door.

The trouble is, we sometimes get too busy to market our businesses like we should. Or maybe we just hate to “sell.” So we wait until the well dries up before revving up the marketing machine again.

Big mistake. Uneven marketing efforts only serve to perpetuate the ebb and flow of business. That’s because most marketing activities take time to produce results. So if you wait until your project pipeline dries up, you’ll have to wait a few weeks more to start seeing results.

By that time, you may very well have other projects on your plate. That will force you to turn down new clients and profitable projects. And clients who have to go elsewhere may not have anything for you a few weeks later…when your well dries up again.

#2: Strive to Land 1 or 2 Big Clients

While promoting your business, make it a point to go after a handful of carefully selected large companies. The business from just 1 or 2 large clients can virtually offset all of your business volatility. That’s because larger companies tend to have more projects. And many big companies view freelancers as an essential resource. This is especially true during tough economic periods, when hiring freezes are more common.

Another benefit of having a couple of large, steady clients: The more work you do with a client, the more efficiently you will perform — and the more valuable you will become to that company.

Don’t think you have to land an IBM, Bank of America or Pfizer to make this work. The clients you land can be much smaller and less visible than those. But they need to be big enough that they’ll keep you busy for at least a few months.

#3: Keep an Accurate Project Schedule

Profitable freelancers keep accurate and detailed project schedules. Besides the obvious benefits, a good schedule can also help you fill in future dry spells.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that many of my projects were due by the first week of April. I didn’t have much scheduled after that. But I remembered that one of my clients had a couple of “back burner” projects in their pipeline — non-time-sensitive projects they wanted me to work on at some point.

So I called the client to let them know of my upcoming availability. They immediately asked me to move forward on those projects. And that took care of my potential April dry spell.

#4: Build Your Savings

I know it’s common sense, but nothing will ease your fears and doubts like money in the bank. It will allow you to sleep better at night. It will help you stay focused if and when you hit a dry period. And it will keep you from pursuing work that’s not right for you (but that you might otherwise accept if you were desperate).

How much should you stash away? Obviously, it depends on your financial situation and aversion to risk. However, 3 to 8 months of living expenses (not income, but total living expenses) may not be a bad idea. And in this unstable economic environment, I would err on the side of caution.

You don’t have to save that overnight. But why not make it a goal to get there in the next year or two?

I realize that war stories of business troughs and valleys make for great conversation. We all love a bit of drama from the battlefield. But no freelancer I know wants to continually work in a feast-or-famine environment.

So don’t buy the popular advice. You can probably avoid the constant roller-coaster ride if you consistently practice these 4 simple habits. What do you think?

Ed

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About the author: Ed Gandia is a successful freelance copywriter and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter “The Profitable Freelancer.” To get a free copy of his report “7 Steps to Landing More (and Better-Paying!) Freelance Projects”, visit www.theprofitablefreelancer.com.

Comments

  1. says

    some GREAT points you’ve made here… especially the idea of landing a couple of big clients… i need to become more intentional about following up with my big clients from the past.

    and the idea of a savings – brilliant.. i wish more people thought like this. nothing crazy like you said – 3-8 months… and not income – but what it costs to live (not eating out at your favorite restaurant… unless it’s taco bell…. ugh).

    thanks for the fresh ideas.

    rk

  2. says

    Excellent advice. I just wrote a series on creating long-term client relationships to have a few steady customers – like your suggestion of landing 1 or 2 big clients. Your other points are also valid.

  3. says

    Ed,
    I am just starting full time freelancing after writing on the side for several years. I think these tips will be really helpful for me, but I’m finding that it’s tough to establish a consistent workflow.

    I have work for the next several weeks and when I talk to potential clients, they often need people who are available immediately (I don’t think I would let it get to the point where I had a week with no projects lined up!). Any tips on dealing with this? Thanks again for the great post!
    Susan

  4. Ed Gandia at The Profitable Freelancer says

    Helly everyone! Glad the ideas have been helpful. This is a tricky subject — one many of us struggle with continually. I felt it needed to be addressed from a different angle.

    Susan – Regarding clients or prospects who contact you and need someone immediately, that’s an invevitable reality. I’ve carried a 2 – 3 week backlog for 2 years now. Many prospects can’t wait that long. That’s okay. You can’t take on every project and every client.

    So what I’ve done is to create a list of criteria — factors the a client and project need to meet in order for the relationship to make sense. This allows me to turn down work and clients that aren’t a good fit without feeling guilty about it. I take on what makes sense for both parties and I refer the other ones to collagues who might be a better fit.

    But it all goes back to marketing yourself continually. When you do that, you’ll always have a steady flow of potential clients knocking at your door. Even if you have to turn most of them down, you at least have steady work this way, and you’re only working with the ones that fit your criteria.

    I hope this doesn’t sound elitist. That’s not the intention. I think most of us will agree that we’d rather work only with clients (and on projects) we enjoy.

    Right?

  5. says

    good points. the ‘land 1 or 2 big clients’ has been critical to my constant work flow.

    something else to consider…look at past income (do a report in Quickbooks or whatever you use for invoicing). i noticed that my Aug/Sept invoices were MUCH smaller than the rest of the year (i believe due to summer vacations and such). So, i either plan my vacations for those times too, or plan to schedule projects (or market heavier right before those times) to fill in any gaps in my schedule.

  6. says

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Ed!

    I’m currently dealing with issues of #1 (Not) Marketing Yourself Continually. I got into the cycle of marketing when business is slow – which worked great because April was a VERY busy month for me. But, by the end of this week, I will have launched 3 web sites that I’ve been working hard on, plus a few other smaller projects.

    And then… ?

    I’ll be working hard at marketing again this month, because I’m at a point of famine, lol. If I had kept consistent marketing strategies, I’m sure I’d have a job or two getting ready to start up this month.

    You often get busy and say you don’t “have time” to market… but think about what happens “next month” – You’ll certainly wish you had MADE the time!

    Thanks for the reminder. I know it’s true, but seeing someone else “say” it is a big nudge, as well!

  7. says

    Selene – something else to think about…

    Depending on your niche, you may want to add some marketing tactics to your strategy that will allow you to keep your name in front of your target market without requiring constant effort.

    For instance, writing articles, networking and search engine optimization (SEO) are all critical components of my own marketing strategy. These don’t require the steady effort that direct mail does, and they help fill in the gaps when my well dries up.

    In other words, they take some of the pressure off.

  8. says

    Ed, you’re right on the money with all of these. Knowing how to write is one thing, knowing how to run your own business is another.

    If every freelance writer followed these four simple steps and nothing else (sometimes too many pointers can cause diffusion), they’d be successful. Thanks for sharing them!

  9. says

    You bet, Chad. We all need to spend as much time refining our craft as we do learning how to run our businesses. Skill and talent alone won’t necessarily make someone a profitable freelancer. You also have to learn how to run a *profitable* business. Thanks for the comments!

  10. says

    Good points! I’d also add, invest in some software that allows you to track those “back burner” projects. That’s my New Year’s resolution, at least. :-) Staying on top of things is hard, but vital.

  11. says

    Great points.
    I’d like to add that marketing is key.

    But it doesn’t have to be the hard sell. I’ve found that keeping yourself ‘visible’ by social media, email and simply talking to people keeps you in their frame. So when they have a job that needs doing you’ll get contacted.

    Also don’t be afraid to say that you’re too busy. A busy freelancer is a good freelancer and many clients I work with are prepared to wait because they know that they’ll get good service and good results.

  12. says

    It’s really a nice and helpful piece of info. I’m glad that you shared this useful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  13. says

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  14. says

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