How do you avoid the infamous cycle of feast and famine in your freelancing business?
That famine is one of the biggest fears in consulting. Every one of us faces it eventually.
I decided to put the task to my newsletter readers and asked how they avoid the inevitable period of slow or little work. I received so many replies with quality advice. (If you’re one of the people who replied, thank you sincerely.)
Here’s the advice I received from experienced consultants about how to prevent the famine.
A common issue is being so booked up with projects that a consultant can’t find time for marketing or coordinating future work.
Several readers replied and advised scheduling time to work on your own business the same way you schedule client work.
What I do now is simply schedule time for this like I schedule time for my clients. There [is] no ‘but I didn’t have the time to update my webpage’ anymore. I HAVE to take the time. I treat it like a client’s project and I don’t want to fail myself.
One method I’ve found useful is to carve out time at the beginning of the day before e-mail or other work and spend 30 mins to 1 hour on those specific topics.
Easier said than done […] but at least with that framework there and the calendar reminders in place, it nudges you in the right direction.
Always be selling. You can’t book your billable time 100%, you have to discipline yourself to take some amount of time, let’s say 20% (1-day) and use that to market yourself, follow-up with leads and plan for the next X-months.
If you don’t spread out projects and make time for your own business, or if you tend to book work whenever the client wants, you are almost guaranteed to run into a feast and famine cycle.
Reserving time to work on your own business requires discipline and some willingness to negotiate deadlines with clients.
You might worry if you ask a client for a delayed start date, that they will bail. However, once you have convinced the client to hire you, you’ve already overcome a huge barrier. Timing is often less important once they’ve decided to work with you. (And if the client is demanding you start tomorrow, you might want to walk away from that work anyway, for other obvious reasons.)
You’d be surprised how many people just work and work without a long-term plan.
Even just writing down a single goal forces you to think about more than the urgent short term.
Another benefit is that goals give you a way to track the health of your business in addition to income.
We set monthly themes to keep something to focus on. Each month is then broken up into weekly themes/goals so that we always have something actionable and specific to work towards. Each week’s goal builds on the previous week to work towards the goal for the month.
This way, when we are busy with client work, we have these overarching weekly and monthly themes to keep us from just putting our heads down and ignoring our business.
The issue with goals is that you can easily make them impossible or too numerous to achieve. So instead of placing a ton of pressure upon yourself to achieve a monumental task, start with a small goal.
Further, it’s too difficult to track multiple goals at once. If you’re like me, you’ve made a huge list of to-do items or goals, and only ever address one or two. However, a single objective is easy to keep in mind while you work.
Something like this: book one new client for next month.
Or even smaller: make a list of the types of clients I want to work with.
Goals can build upon one another. Work on a single, small goal at a time, and in a few months, you’ll be shocked at how much you achieved.
As designers, coders, and people who build stuff, we like to focus on the thing we are making. But, to build a healthier and more predictable consulting business, focus on long-term relationships with clients instead of single projects.
When I do present the client proposal (in my business, we call it a long term health plan), I frame the initial project in the context of a long range plan. And I apply the unique factors I discovered about them in the beginning.
While the initial project is the main thing for most people, presenting things in this way helps people know that it is more than just a transaction for me. They realize I am actually dedicated to helping them get what they truly want over time.
After the initial work is done, I check in regularly with people on how things are going. I let them know that I am here for them when the time is right for the next step.
As a result, I’m rarely at a loss for work.
Josh is actually a client of mine. He wrote me with this advice, and I decided to share it because the parallel is interesting. (Even if you think I’m sucking up to my client!)
As a web designer, I tend to structure my consulting business like other designers. But there are many different types of consultants, and it’s worth borrowing practices from other industries.
Josh, a dentist, works to establish a long term plan with patients instead of simply performing a single exam and saying “Hope to see you again soon.”
Consultants like us should be doing the same thing. Instead of focusing on a single project, work to set up a long term partnership. Sure, you have to book a project. But make sure to communicate that you won’t disappear once the project is over, and that you are committed to solving the clients needs over the long term.
This is good for everyone, but it can be challenging to establish.
Forming long term partnerships requires a more careful approach. Instead of jumping into details about a project, try to learn more about the client’s needs and challenges.
I haven’t met a client yet who needs a new web design every month. But, web design work, just like programming, marketing, and other consulting services, is rarely complete on launch day. Sure, the requirements are met and the project is done, but websites can require ongoing maintenance and updates.
Explore ways to offer additional value to clients by solving ongoing pain points for them. The only way to find these pain points is to ask. Instead of brainstorming possible projects, ask your clients about how their businesses operate, and what concerns they have about the period after the first project.
In addition, you could explore productized consulting, like I wrote about previously, which could be an elegant way to structure ongoing work. Or explore a retainer, at a rate that fits the clients’ needs and budget.
Another common cause of the dreaded famine is not marketing your services.
Let’s face it: no one wants to do marketing. You’d rather be coding or designing. But, the agency or web shop you used to work for did it, and that’s how they could afford to pay you a regular salary.
That’s the goal for your business, right? Reliable income. That’s the first goal of every consultant.
When you run your own consulting business, you have to do marketing. But, you don’t have to resort to cheesy, tasteless methods, either.
Many consultants rely upon referrals to find more work. This sums it up best:
I think part of the problem is that I’ve been referral-based since day 1. Literally, I’ve never done any “traditional” marketing or sought out projects. So, honestly, I have no idea where my clients come from or how I get them. [I’m] completely at the mercy of “receiving the email”. And because I don’t know those things (where my clients come from or why), I’ve always felt like I have no control over my business. Sometimes I’m flooded with more work than I can handle. Other times it’s completely dry.
This is something most consultants experience: somehow, you finally manage a steady stream of leads through referrals and don’t have to crawl those horrible job boards anymore. You don’t have to worry about marketing—the work is finding you!
Then the lull hits.
One subscriber, Visnja Zeljeznjak, sent a link to an article she wrote about her own feast and famine cycle. She advises not relying upon referrals, but taking a proactive approach and marketing your services, just like you would a product.
Of course working to earn referrals is an important part of your business, and if you do a good job, clients will naturally pass along your name.
However, referrals just aren’t a steady stream of new work. They aren’t reliable enough to serve as the only lead generation in your business.
So, you’ll have to do some marketing. Here are a few approaches to consider:
Meetups & Networking
For me, the one thing that kind of works is to show up at meetups. There are several in the area that have fed me work for years (about a decade or so).
Focus on a niche to find specific types of clients
If I were starting all over again now, I think I would pick a very specific niche, like authors, or churches, or local businesses, etc. and put in place a lot of marketing strategies I’ve learned over the years. If you have a very specific audience you’re trying to serve, I think it’s a lot easier to get out of the feast or famine cycle.
Email Newsletters & Guest Posts
I’ve experienced this about 6 months ago. After several projects finished, we had a famine period.
What we realised is that we had to do marketing constantly to fill out the consulting pipeline. What also helped us was being visible:
—sending out email newsletters
—speaking & attending events (networking)
—guests blog posts
The best way to avoid the famine is to never give in to the feast. Don’t let a period of intense work distract you from the long-term.
To recap, 4 key ways to avoid the famine:
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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