Since I left the W-2 world in 2008, my work flow has been pretty much non-stop with an average of perhaps 35 hours a week of billable time and another 10 hours per week of non-billable time. The non-billable time was spent largely on things related to exposure in the larger UX and tech community: networking, speaking, writing, and “getting out there.” I documented these activities in a number of articles: UX adventure, networking, value of UX orgs, and whether one should go independent.
After all of these years, I became confident in the continual success of this approach, although I still routinely assessed upcoming known projects in the following months to assure myself that I would have a good workflow. In December 2013, it looked like this was continuing to be the case. Work-in-hand accounted for at least 60% of my time, and I knew from experience that small spontaneous projects were likely to pop up and fill in any gaps.
However, I was caught off guard when each of the projects that I had thought were starting in late-January/early-February 2014 let me know that things were running very behind schedule and would be delayed. In addition, a big effort that was supposed to involve a lot of time helping to revamp internal UX processes at a local company was taken off the table before it even started.
While one Lebsontech employee was still fully engaged on a project, and I still did have a trickle of another 20% billable work from smaller projects, I was now lacking the large meaty level of work that I’d come to expect, for both myself and my other staff member.
In order to fill the time, I did continue, and even ramp up on, the exposure-related activities, with five talks, each to a different type of audience, plus one webinar. I continued with a regular schedule of one-on-one networking conversations in person and by phone. I also contacted a few people that I knew well, and in several cases had worked with before, to let them know that I was available for work. In addition, I connected with a select few people that I did not previously know.
I also took on some additional business development activities, including writing some articles that I’d had on my to-do list for some time, migrating my own website to WordPress and getting a one-month subscription to ShutterStock, so that I could refresh some of my presentation slides with some new, more vibrant images.
Lesson learned: Even if you do everything “right,” you’ll still have time on the bench.
I’ve been quite actively networking with my peers for many years, and I enjoy this aspect of work greatly. In no way do I feel that I was negligent in my business development efforts. Yet, I ended up with this block of minimal work. It was hard to admit that no matter what, this just happens, and while I’d been quite lucky for the past six years that I didn’t have any lag time of this length, I needed to acknowledge that sooner or later, every consultant will have some down time.
Lesson learned: It’s hard to admit when you don’t have much work.
My self-image and the reputation that I’ve gained over the years is of someone who is always busy and is always working on multiple efforts – many of which are paid efforts. Yet all of a sudden, this wasn’t the case. Posting that information on social media and telling my colleagues that I was very available was surprisingly difficult. I did admit it, and let them know that I was available for work, but only after feeling some trepidation in making this admission.
Lesson learned (or perhaps a reminder): Benefits gained from exposure, networking and business development are for the long term.
Even though I ramped up my efforts the moment I realized that I would have some down time, the turn-around time was not quick enough to fill the void. While I got a number of positive responses that potential and prior clients were pleased to know I was available, the work that they described was still a month or two down the road.
Lesson learned: Be prepared to worry at least a little bit.
I should have been fully confident that if there was work before, there would be work again, but it was still hard to get the nagging feeling out of my mind about whether this could go on for a long time. Now that I see the work rolling in, it’s almost hard to remember why I was so concerned.
Lesson learned: Find comfort by talking with people.
While I absolutely want my peers to be successful in their work, when I asked around among my UX peers, I learned that some of my colleagues who functioned as independents or who had very small businesses were light on work as well. Admittedly, knowing that others were in the same boat, and seeing that collectively, perhaps, we could all blame bad winter or just that time of the year, made things feel a little better.
Food for thought: Deep expertise vs. wide breadth of skills
While I do have some basic design skills, my expertise (and my UX passion) is in research, evaluation, strategy and training. Yet, when I didn’t have work, I considered whether I should attempt to take a more generalized approach or should hold out for the work I most enjoy specializing in. I decided that long term, while I still am most passionate about working in particular aspects of UX, greatly enjoy projects in this space, and don’t aspire to be that elusive “UX unicorn,” I should start to acknowledge the interaction design skills that I do have, and look for at least some opportunities here and there that bridge more into UX design to allow me to grow these skills.
Comfortable level of work restored
With a reasonable level of work for the near-term, and a pipeline that is looking much better in the long-term, I don’t expect to have quite this big a gap in my billable workflow. But next time, I hope to be a bit more prepared for what it will feel like without at least a minimum comfortable flow of billable hours.
Image Courtesy of Pete Broyles/Shutterstock