It’s midnight, it’s raining, and I’m banging my head on my desk. I’ve been rewriting this marketing piece for three hours, and the first draft looks better than my current version. I’ve spent more than 14 hours over the last week working and reworking this document, which is a truly terrible use of my time. The problem is that time is all I have right now; time, and not money. If I had the cash, I could hire someone to do this faster, better, and more efficiently. But I’m going through a work drought, so as much as I dislike this project, doing it myself, badly, is still the best option for my bank account.
As a free agent I almost always have time or money, but rarely both. It’s part of the feast-or-famine roller coaster that plagues those of us who work for ourselves. When we are busy with client work, we rarely have time to do the business development that’s critical to maintaining a steady pipeline of new business. But when that business dries up, it can take a long time to rebuild awareness in the market and land a new client or two.
So how do you manage the flow? There are two ways to approach this challenge: The first is to create a nest egg that will cover you when things slow down. The second is to make sure you never completely stop marketing. That sounds pretty easy, but it’s harder in practice.
Here are a few ways to level out the ride:
Build up Your Reserves
Cash flow, or lack thereof, is one of the most persistent and pervasive concerns of people who work for themselves. When you do have work, run like mad to get it all done, then stash cash in the bank like a chipmunk hoarding acorns ahead of the apocalypse. In addition to the funds you use to pay your bills, create a dedicated, separate account that you commit to use for marketing only. That way you won’t feel like you’re draining your safety net when you need to spend some money on outreach and brand awareness.
Automate Your Marketing
Marketing works best when it’s consistent. If you disappear from the world for six months while you’re working on a project, getting visible again requires you to rebuild from scratch. Using tools that automate social media posts and creating a backlog of blog posts can help you stay top of mind, even when you’re focused on your work. Tools like Pocket and Scoop can help you save articles to post later, while options like Buffer and Hootsuite allow you to schedule posts in advance.
When you are busy, rather than doing 100 percent of the work, see if you can offload part of it to another freelancer. This will give you some of the income but leave you with time to keep working on your business instead of in your business. Those partnerships also help when you have a dry spell; tap those partners to see if they have any work they can offload to you.
Check in With Old Clients
When you need a gig fast, the best way to get one is by working with someone who already knows and trusts you. If you find yourself in a slump, touch base with all your previous clients, and see if there’s anything they need.
For many of us, we are the product. Consulting is usually about trading on expertise. Our clients pay good money to have us come in and solve problems, create deliverables, and manage projects. But this type of work has one big drawback: It doesn’t create a consistent flow of cash. One solution is to create an online product, like a course or a system, that people can buy directly.
Build a Support Network
One of the challenges of working for yourself is that you often end up struggling with these issues on your own. Whether you join a meet-up group or reach out to people in your network who are also freelancers, it’s important to stay connected to people who can remind you that these droughts won’t last forever, and who can also help you come up with new ideas and new opportunities.
While free agents almost universally report that they are happier working for themselves than for an employer, the biggest frustrations remain the same: The challenge of finding clients is No. 1, closely followed by the feast-or-famine nature of work. Getting stuck in a low spot, when client work is slow, can make even the most seasoned solopreneur a little nervous. Even if the ride isn’t perfectly smooth, these ideas should help you manage the ups and downs that come with the freelance life.