Be prepared for the cadence of freelance work

Work flow was good…

Four weeks ago I was feeling pretty confident about the remainder of 2017.

A client had locked in the last week of November for an international usability study and another client sounded reasonably confident that they’d want a large three-part local usability study immediately after, before their 2017 funds expired. I talked with that local client a bit, and given the timeline of the first study, thought that we could work it out such that we could push their timeline out one week to make both studies fit. I’d do their study in 2017, send a final invoice by December 31 and deliver the report about 10 days later.

…until it wasn’t.

But as is often the case with anything in consulting, things changed rapidly. The client that wanted the local usability study told me that to make it happen, it would have to be over the same period as the other project that I’d already committed to and there was no way that any part of the study could wrap into 2018. So they had chosen another vendor who had the remainder of the year completely available.

And then this past week, that international study that I was confident would happen as expected alerted me to some international permissions issues they were dealing with, which would force the study to move to January.

While I don’t fault the clients at all as it is just the nature of this business, I took a look at my workload for the next 6 weeks and discovered that I now have an extremely light work calendar through the end of this year.

So I felt uneasy …

Freelance work has been the single source of my employment since mid-2008. Rationally, I know that there are crazy-busy periods and then there are light periods. I usually only find my schedule booked about 4 – 6 weeks ahead of time, so given the reschedule of that international usability study, I was happy to have something booked already in January. Yet my vision of two exciting projects to keep me busy through the end of the year had evaporated so suddenly, the surprise itself was uncomfortable.

…but then I looked at the data

I keep rigorous data that I can refer to and analyze as needed. So I looked at my data for 2017 and reminded myself that up until mid-November it had been a non-stop year. In fact, I realized when I reviewed the numbers that if the year ended today with me receiving all the expected receivables but no new work, 2017 would become my third best year since I went freelance in 2008!

So how about…

…taking some time off

When I posted on social media that I was trying to fill some empty time, a colleague suggested that I just enjoy my time off. Maybe travel or do something interesting. While I appreciate the idea, I can’t quite bring myself to do that—if I’m traveling or taking off a chunk of time exclusively for leisure opportunities, it will be shared with my family and aligned with the kids’ school schedule.

So my top priority right now is still to focus on finding billable work in the short-term, but if there isn’t any, then to focus on interesting non-billable work that builds my visibility and personal brand. That said, I won’t be all work and no play—my greatest feel good tool is exercise, so I’m still planning on some bonus workouts!

My Suggestion: Use your time off to look through your contacts, set up some coffee meetings, blog, post on social media, attend meetups and events, and find any other opportunities to be visible. Certainly enjoy some extra time for yourself, but remember that you need to maintain your longer term workflow, so don’t do anything that takes you out of the game for too long.

…traveling

This may make sense to some readers and not others depending on your nature, but travel anywhere is like a powerful reset/refocus button for me. When I work in my home office day after day, I get antsy. Finding local-but-not-home places to be is always good. Even better, as long as travel is work-justified, traveling somewhere and just having my work context be dramatically different helps reset me, clears my head and gives me focus.

…special offers

I already had projected some known available time earlier this month, and for the first time, I tried a new “special offer,” posting it publicly and also letting clients know directly: I would travel anywhere and cover my own travel expenses for any work that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do because of a client’s lack of budget for travel. It worked, and I traveled to Boston for an existing client. I just tried it again, this time for the remainder of 2017. Sure, paying my own travel lowers profit margins, but it gives me an opportunity for additional interesting work, and includes the special bonus of the travel reset. Plus, it alerts people that I’m also available for local work, should that come up.

My suggestion: You can try a special offer whether focused on travel or anything else that you’d like. If you like traveling but want to have it business related, pick a city that seems like it has opportunity for business development and send yourself there. If I don’t end up with a full plate of billable work, I may just do this myself!

just working full time

I like to be moving in many different directions at once. At one level this simply could mean a full time consulting job, but when freelance work comes poring in, as it did earlier this year, there is a feeling of satisfaction that I very much enjoy.

My suggestion: There is certainly no shame in flowing back to being an employee, particularly if you hit a level of anxiety that you’re just not comfortable with. But simultaneously, don’t think that this is always going to be the better choice for your income. Even with a number of weeks every year that are “on the bench,” and even given my worst workflow years as a freelancer, I don’t believe that I’ve ever made less income than I would have made as an employee.

…at least working part-time somewhere for some stability

I fell into a FEMA contract that lasted nearly 6 of the 9 years that I’ve been a freelancer. The FEMA contract became so large that it took up not only half of my own time but involved additional Lebsontech staff too. I remain passionate about the mission of disaster preparedness, response and recovery and would have certainly kept doing the work if the large upstream contract hadn’t ended. When it did end, I struggled to fill the vacuum that had been created, and it took at least 6 months before I was able to fully reset from that change.

Since then, I’ve been cautious about taking on projects that are very big. Truth be told, the smaller projects are often the most exciting to me and are what I gravitate to, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take on a part-time long-term project again if the right one comes along! Meanwhile, I’ll continue to find my work basis in the smaller puzzle pieces.

My suggestion: Feel free to balance your workload by taking on one larger project and then other smaller projects to fill the remainder of your time. But keep your eyes open, and always stay focused on what you’d do if/when that larger project ends.

writing a blog post about workflow cadence

On some level I wrote this post as a way to really think through the unease I was feeling and to help me consider logically what actions I will choose to take and why. Even 9 years in, it sometimes feels hard to admit to myself that things aren’t always perfect in my freelance life. Of course they aren’t – for anyone – ever.

But writing it all out, framing my thoughts through this post, has helped. And if it also helps you, a freelancer or an aspiring freelancer, by providing insights into what goes on in this long-term freelancer’s mind, even better.

I’ll keep focusing on my exciting journey, even if it means that I’ll get a bit antsy every now and again, and you stay focused on your career journey, whatever it may be!

 

Image: bigstockphoto.com / strizh

2017-11-21T09:04:02+00:00 Nov 21, 2017|Tags: , |