Coping with quiet periods in freelance life

It’s just been the summer holidays here in the UK, when a lot of small business owners and company staff are off work to be with their kids. This can cause a bit of a slowdown for freelancers over August, which can delay projects, affect morale and limit cashflow. This can also happen around Christmas or New Year with similar results. The same can apply if you’re in-between contracts or larger jobs.

Here are some tips on how to handle these quiet times as a freelancer.

Have A Holiday

If you can’t beat them, join them. If people aren’t getting back to you on projects, maybe take some time off. During the summer break is a great time to work shorter hours and make the most of the sun (especially in the UK). It doesn’t have to be the whole month, but consciously having a rest while things are quiet can mean you’re raring to go when everyone gets back off their holidays and wants to pick up on projects again.

With prices being high in school holidays, a stay home holiday can work just as well, hanging out in the park or visiting local places.

Work On Your Side Projects

I’m sure we’ve all got side projects on the go that get neglected when we’re busy with client work. A slowdown from clients is a great time to get on with these projects, sharpening skills (or learning new ones) and restoring motivation.

A side project could also become a source of income, and if it makes enough, maybe even be a way of not doing small client projects at all!

Work On Your Website & Marketing

Maintaining our own websites and doing our own marketing often slides when we’re busy with client work. Natural breaks in projects are a great time to update your website and plan your next marketing cycle, working on strategy and creating marketing materials for the coming months.

Plan Ahead For The Next One

It’s a bit late for this summer, but if you know you often have a slow period over Christmas or other times during the year, maybe plan ahead and book in work for these times so you have paid projects to be working on. You can then deliver the work and get feedback/paid as soon as your clients are back in their offices.

Summary

We’ve looked at a few ideas here to help smooth out the peaks and troughs of freelance life or make the most of times when clients might not be available to work on their projects.

Reader’s letters: How do I find clients and get paid?

I received this message via Facebook and will answer it here so everyone can read the reply.

“Hi, I need your advise and thoughts. I am a SharePoint trainer cum Consultant. I have been working since 2006 and started freelance in 2015. It was a terrible ride. In my country, many trainers are not paid by institutes who force the trainers to do hectic training. I was lucky to get paid though the payment came after 45 days. It was very difficult. Many many clients from USA used to make me work very hard and some forget to pay. I used to put police/lawyer in cc and somehow got my money from various clients. Some did not even listen to police and abused me who used to ask to me to work and never pay.

Things have not changed much in 2019 also. Many students are terrible who do not even do assignments. I have tried Udemy which is little ok, however the pricing is terribly cheap and many students are getting my content for almost free and I am struggling to get needs met. I am pained. I do like making self paced videos, blogs etc, however, slowly I want people to pay. Also, I tried consulting and again one client in USA did the same thing of not paying and making me work.

I have stopped the client search till July. I get disturbed by many though who want my help and have no sense to pay. At least Youtube students were thankful and the udemy students are very abusive. I am planning to use Thinkific. I am totally angry with majority clients and students and I just like my work and want money for my work and no clients. Good clients are/were there and one is free and other busy.

I still am positive and hope that good clients will come. I want to consult once I finish all my books and not really interested in selling/sharing all my codes. I want to do many apps and sell there again will people buy apps. I am pretty sure that there are clients who need my works and can pay. I used to get all I want in my life before. Very strange that the right clients are not able to reach me. I am expecting few or 1 long term. I am determined to make clients/students pay in full first.”

First off, I’m sorry to hear you’ve had trouble getting paid. That can be a major issue for freelancers. One of the best ways to avoid clients that do this is to use a contract where you receive a large portion of the fee up-front and the rest before delivery of the final deliverables. This will filter out the time wasters who don’t have any intention of paying you for your work. It can be scary reducing your number of clients, but you’re better off not working with people where you stand a chance of not getting paid. You can then spend your time finding better clients and doing good work for them.

It’s sadly the case that many business people will play ‘hard ball’ and will either stall payment, need to be threatened to pay up or never actually pay at all.

The second point I get from your message is that while you have some valuable you’re trying various things and none of them are paying off. It can be hard to find your market, but changing approach or platform constantly means you’re always starting from scratch. Leaving bad platforms or changing tactics isn’t a bad thing if it’s not working however. The market is out there – you’ve just got to reach it!

I started off by doing a couple of websites for cheap and paying people to refer me. This mushroomed into a full time business within a year without having to spend a lot on marketing. If I was starting again, I’d specialise in one thing, build a portfolio, use a blog/book/YouTube channel to build credibility and then start marketing to the people I wanted to work with. More tips on how to become a freelancer

Choosing clients is very important so you do good work, get paid and get good referrals. I’m skeptical about online freelance marketplaces, but if you want to work with people in different countries that might be the fastest way to get started.

Nick

Freelancer Interview: Tom Jepson, UX Designer

This weeks interview is with UX Designer Tom Jepson from Nottingham. We met in the queue for the buffet at a recent Creative Quarter event and had a great chat about the freelance life. Tom’s podcast is worth a listen too!

Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Tom Jepson and I’m a UX designer running a ‘design company-of-one’; I’m making the effort to say that I’m not a ‘gigging freelancer or contractor’ these days. 

Broadly speaking I am a designer of ‘digital things’ and a remote-working, collaborative-facilitation fanatic. I bring experience from the world of corporate design, marketing, and communication into my work as UX designer however my client services extend beyond bread & butter wireframes and screen flows. 

My core offer is focussed on helping my clients understand their problem better, helping them through the design process, educating them on the value of user-centred thinking, what a designer could and should bring to the table when they’re engaged on a project, all the while designing appropriate solutions for the problem which we agree, together, needs to be solved. 

What led you to start freelancing? 

After a couple of brief stints of contracting in between corporate and startup jobs, I knew that there was only ever going to be an outcome for my career where I would be truly satisfied; working for myself. Having spent time in both the corporate and startup world, seen success and failure, and watched a lot of people make quite dramatic, terrible decisions it was clear-cut for me that I couldn’t work under someone else’s agenda. 

I have a young family who will always come first and are thankfully very amenable to the work that I have chosen to do. I want to maintain that balance for as long as possible and working for myself, almost on their clock rather than mine, has helped me focus on what’s really important. 

There’s a running joke between some close friends and I that we may all just be terrible employees. But, having tried to make the best of every challenge over the last decade, running my own shop and setting a pace which is comfortable for me and one which I believe will be valuable to my clients has proven to be a very healthy move. 

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out? 

  • Despite early success, continued client engagement is not assured. I ‘knew’ it but until I was faced with a day where I had no clients on book, I really wasn’t prepared for the psychological impact it has. It took a while to work through it and reach a position where it wasn’t quite so scary a thought. 
  • You have to keep yourself motivated to get out and meet with people. It becomes very easy to get stuck in the comfort of your own cave and not leave the house for days on end; it’s not a healthy choice, people! 
  • You will spend more than 50% of your time not doing actual work. After a busy three months at the start of the year, I’ve spent more than half my working weeks finding ways to engage with people, working out what my public-facing persona is and how to ‘get out there’ with people. 

What three issues have you had since starting up? 

  • Identifying what my value really is. I do ‘the standard UX stuff’ – wireframes, user journeys, scope documents etc – but I don’t really feel that’s the most important skillset I bring to any engagement. It takes time to work out and truly engage with what your real value is to people. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about my business and how I need to approach my offer strategically – the value proposition; the message; the audience and market; the competitors – and am taking steps to break down the strategy into long-term, mid-term, and short-term milestones to keep me on track and to give me the opportunity to pivot if I need. 
  • Doing your own site to give yourself a presence is a massive pain in the behind, especially when you have a limited amount of tangible work to show! Plus, there’s the whole ‘it’s never really done’ thing… Add to this the fact that the majority of people with whom you do work will likely never actually see your site until you point them to it to view a case study, it makes it a thankless task! 
  • Pricing work. I have a ‘shop rate’ (you might call it your ‘breakeven’ rate) which I know I have to make each month else my bills aren’t going to get paid. After that, attributing profit which will make the work sustainable and accessible is really hard. I’ve read book after book and had conversation on conversation about it and still there’s no cut and dry answer. Coming up with the numbers and having the aspirational figures is easy, as is – to a degree – explaining it to clients when they ask questions about the rate (clients who go for price first and quibble are not the right clients); the hard part is believing that I’m really worth the money I’m charging. One cannot work at a loss. 

What’s the best thing about freelancing? 

Meeting amazing people. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some killer clients on amazing projects and do work that has proven to be very valuable to them and of which I am intensely proud. I get the time to have meaningful conversations and give a lot; even having one eye on ‘the next goal’, I’m able to contribute without always having a need for some kind of return because I know it’ll come along at some point further down the line. 

I’ve been able to experiment every single day. In the face of horrible imposter syndrome I’ve been able to approach new projects as a clean slate and find out new ways of working, ways to keep each client satisfied, and ways to distill things down into repeatable, saleable services. Having this ‘luxury’ of experimentation (and subsequent success with projects) has proven to me that I can do the job and that I still get a real kick out of it. 

Being able to take time for myself is possibly the most important thing. I work to a pretty rigid routine during the week and have found that taking some time out to read, go to the gym, or even step out for an hour to meet a friend for a coffee keeps me balanced and ready to get down to business when I really need to. 

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future? 

Going forward, as I said at the top, I am not positioning myself as ‘a gigging freelancer’. I’m looking to create a number of repeatable, easy-to-access products based around the services I want to offer to people and am finding ways to partner with other creative pros and businesses to enhance both of our offers. I’m also persisting with my podcast – The Sideman Designer – and exploring ways to up-the-ante on knowledge sharing and passive income streams. 

Someone said to me that ‘it takes a village’ to really make something happen and I am inclined to agree. It’s great working for myself and being engaged as a consultant company-of-one to work on a project (honestly, I find that very validating!), but there is so much value in finding like minds who want to work on creating something new. 

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing? 

The money you make is not the defining factor for your success. If you’re stepping out of a full-time job it’s almost a dead cert that your take-home cash at the end of your first year is not going to be anything like that which you got from your job. There’s so much more to working for yourself and doing things in your way that will bring greater rewards (and probably a load more cash when the time’s right!) 

You have to be prepared to work and really have to stick at it, too. If your client base has dried up after three months that’s no reason to quit; just refocus and find a means to talk to new people. Having an eye on a bigger goal (and then the even bigger goal after that) is more likely to steer you to success than focussing on where the next can of beans is coming from (although I’m not saying that being able to buy food week on week isn’t important!). 

Surround yourself with good friends and people who will challenge your thinking. If you’re working on your own there’s going to be times when you start to go off piste a little; having a solid network of people to bounce ideas off (even if that’s just a group of Instagram friends) and get some objective feedback is going to help keep you on track. 

Daily routine and how it can help your freelance career

Read on to find out the benefits of having a daily routine, rather than winging it.

I’m not a morning person. Every day I have to coax, persuade or downright trick myself out of bed to start the day. Whether it’s good coffee, bacon or an hour of gaming before I start work I sometimes have to get creative to escape the duvet. Once I’m out of bed, it takes a couple of hours to warm up enough that I can work effectively. Trying to start too quickly results in mistakes and frustration.

A good routine is vital to my productivity, as is setting a focus for the day and working towards medium term goals like the website redesign projects I often do. We get tired and distracted as the day goes on, so working on important things first makes it more likely they get done. Getting my thoughts in order is vital before I start work so I can focus.

After some experimenting and some mentoring, I settled on the following for my freelance life:

8am – Alarm, quick walk, breakfast, shower, get dressed in proper clothes
9am – Meditate and journal, set priorities for the day
10am – Begin focused, scheduled work
11.15 – Short break, move around
1pm – Lunch
2pm – Check emails and phone messages, admin, meetings, smaller tasks
4pm – Short break, move around
5-6pm – Finish work, log time and go to gym/run/socialise
10pm – Stop using screens
11pm – Sleep

Weekends off

This routine ensures enough sleep, gets everything done and has space for exercise and socialising. Sitting down all day means I need to make sure I move around during the day and get runs or workouts in regularly to keep some kind of fitness. Working from home a lot of the time can be lonely, so planning social things in is vital. It also focuses me on paid, priority work instead of opening my emails first thing and getting waylaid with bitty tasks (more on email management here).

Some of us might tend towards being night owls. I’m curious if that could work – it’s tempting but there are definite benefits to sleeping when it’s dark and being awake when everyone else is too.

We all have fluctuating energy and focus levels during the day, so being freelance can be a great chance to work at our best times rather than when our boss says so. Being able to enjoy the sun/daylight in the UK (especially during winter) could result in a different routine that allow you to be outside during the short day and get your work done around that. If you’re an early riser, you could have a few hours racked up before us night people are even out of bed!

What does your daily routine look like? Let me know in the comments below…

Nick

Freelancer interview: Rachael van Oudheusden, Big Old House

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Rachael van Oudheusden, from Big Old House [www.bigoldhouse.com]. I’m a freelance Marketing and PR Consultant and Copywriter. I help businesses talk to existing and potential customers through B2B marketing, PR and copywriting.

It’s pretty varied. It can involve creating marketing plans, coordinating advertising, writing brochures, websites, editorials, planning and creating social media campaigns or connecting clients with their target media to raise brand awareness.

What led you to start freelancing?

Having spent almost 20 years in marketing communications roles, covering PR, project management, campaign planning and messaging for mainly B2B clients and owner managed businesses, I realised I wanted a bit more freedom and flexibility.

I had a senior role in an agency, which was becoming more operational than creative. My days were more HR than PR. I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I had written something, or even had the headspace to think about writing something.

I felt that I wasn’t delivering for my team or my existing clients well enough. It was time to redress the balance. It was time to look after myself, enjoy work again and choose the types of work I wanted to do and be proud of.

What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?

  • Accountancy is more complicated than anyone tells you, especially when you become limited or VAT registered. Pay for help if this is not your strength. 
  • It is very lonely, unless you make sure it isn’t. Spending too much time on your own is bad for you. Turns out I quite like being around people. Find a co-working space that is right for you, such as Works Social [https://www.workssocial.co]
  • You will waste your time and money going to soul destroying networking events until you figure what is right for you. And you will. Then it will be worthwhile. 

What three issues have you had since starting up?

Not really issues, more things I didn’t factor in or found harder than expected. 

  • Saying no to business that is not true my original core focus (ideally building, construction property and industrial sectors). When you first start, you daren’t say no to any work in case nothing ever comes along again…it will. 
  • Taking on too much at once and not allowing for ‘thinking time’. Having too many projects and deadlines on at once means that everyone loses – you get stressed, your clients don’t get the best of you and your business suffers longer term (not to mention your sleep). 
  • Business developing faster than expected and not knowing how to manage it all. Delegating to just yourself is a tough prospect when your to do list is longer than a roll of wallpaper. Finding a network of other suppliers and co-freelancers has helped take the pressure off at times. Being freelance means I can give clients the flexibility they need and if I can’t help them, I have built a network of super talented people who can.

What’s the best thing about freelancing?

So many good things – variety, opportunities, fun, creativity, sense of achievement. Definitely being your own boss has to top the lot. 

Being freelance means I can give people the flexibility they need and if I can’t help them, I have built a network of super talented people who can.

How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?

Three years in I am at a fork in the road. Do I want to remain ‘just a freelancer’ or do I want to be ‘Managing Director of Big Old House’? I don’t know yet. I’ve given myself five years to decide and I’m in no rush. I’ve proved what I needed to to myself and the rest is down to the opportunities that might present themselves and if they feel like the right thing to do at the time. 

Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing? 

  • Decide what is most important to you – family, money, time, ethics, work-life balance, flexibility, growth, industry sector, personal development and let that lead your decisions.
  • Reassess where you are every six months and make sure you the things you are doing are either what you set out to do, or even better than that. If not, readjust. 
  • Grow your networks and be generous with your contacts. Be helpful, connect people. It’s nice to be nice. 
  • Track your time. (Harvest [https://www.getharvest.com] is great) What are you doing all day? Helps with assessing profitability, understanding how to manage your time and with quoting new projects. 
  • Have a plan and some key goals, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant. One of mine was to visit Japan for a month when I had enough steady work, good enough cash flow and could still pay my mortgage without working for a few weeks. I’m going soon (and not taking my lap top). #proudofmyself
  • Your gut instinct is more important than anything in coming to the right decisions. Ignore it at your peril.
  • Work hard (but smart) and be kind.